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The Bird Tribunal – Agnes Ravatn

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This book appeared on my radar as a tweet breezed past one day and I went off to investigate some more. You know how the synopses of some books just grab you more than others – within half an hour it was on my Kindle. I had never heard of the Norwegian author, Agnes Ravatn, before.

The Bird Tribunal is a book that burrows deep under your skin. You are pitched straight into the action – there’s no preamble, no backstory. It begins with thirty two year old Allis Hagtorn arriving at the remote house on an isolated Norwegian fjord, where she is to become a housekeeper and gardener for a man called Sigurd Bagge, after answering an advert. She sees him before he sees her – standing outside the house in the garden in a dark blue woollen jumper. She had thought he would be elderly but he is actually in his mid forties.

How he wants things to be run are very clear; she is to prepare his meals at regimented times, and he likes everything just so. He would like ‘as few interruptions as possible.’ He retires after he has eaten to his living quarters and barely speaks to her. She is strictly forbidden to go into his workroom. She becomes more intent on getting some reaction, some praise from him as none of her usual charms seem to work on him. She racks her brains for new recipes to cook to please him. We learn that he has a wife who is away but is expected back – when, we’re not sure – and we also gradually learn that Allis is also there to escape something – a very public shaming – but we’re not exactly sure what happened.

The pace of the book is a masterclass in rising tension – I simply had to find out why she was there in the first place and what had happened to make him like this. There are echoes of Rebecca and also Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester.  The power balance between them shifts backwards and forwards and I found I was actually physically on edge myself during some of the most highly charged scenes. Apart from a shopkeeper, it is just played out between the two of them and the sense of claustrophobia and sexual tension between them is palpable.  Themes of guilt and sin and atonement run throughout.

The writing throughout is beautiful – I loved all the descriptions of the fjord, the garden and the surroundings.  It has been translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger.

For once, I had absolutely no idea how it would resolve itself. And the end, when it comes, is shatteringly brilliant.

The Bird Tribunal is published by Orenda Books.

Today Will Be Different – Maria Semple

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If you enjoyed ‘Where’d You Go Bernadette’ Maria Semple’s bestseller smash (with a film adaptation directed by Richard Linklater reportedly in the works) you will love her new one ‘Today Will Be Different.’

It has all the hallmarks of what I loved about Bernadette – a feisty, somewhat neurotic but human heroine, with quickfire and whipsmart dialogue, plus a good helping of social satire.

Set over one day, middle aged Seattle dwelling Eleanor Flood sets out to negotiate just one day – vowing that ‘today will be different.’ Haven’t we all said that?

She’s not aiming for much – just little things like remembering her yoga clothes for class, instigating sex with her hand surgeon husband, Joe. She’s trying to juggle writing a memoir which is extremely overdue (Semple is very funny on the aftermath of fame -Semple herself spent 15 years as a writer and producer in LA working on massive shows such as Saturday Night Live, Arrested Development and Ellen. In her character’s case it’s an animated series called Looper Wash). Then she has to deal with her third grade son Timby whose penchant for wearing eyeshadow is causing some ructions at school, and her seemingly depressed dog Yo-Yo.

Starting out with good intentions, gradually the day unravels – she gets the dreaded call from school that her son is sick and needs picking up (or does he really just want to spend some time with her?) and her husband’s office tells her he’s on vacation – which is news to her. The over-arching mystery is where has her husband disappeared to? Is he having an affair?

But amongst all the increasingly ridiculous things that happen in a domino-effect to Eleanor, (could all those things really happen to one person in one day – it doesn’t matter, you just have to go with the flow) Semple manages to capture the conflicting pulls of motherhood, guilt and ambition, how to maintain a marriage, long held sibling hurts, as well as how to deal with that non-stop narration in one’s head of things that you think you suck at and want to change.

 

As part of a Q & A blog tour, Maria agreed to answer some questions and different blogs and tweeters have been showcasing her answers. Search for the #todaywillbedifferent hashtag to see them all.

Q. What inspired her to write Today Will Be Different?

A:

I’ve always found that tapping into a vein of deep shame or unhappiness was a sure way to strike gold. But when I began thinking about this book, I had nothing to complain about! I’d written a best-selling novel.  I was young enough, in good health.  I was in a loving, long-term relationship.  We had a delightful child.

What legitimate unhappiness could I have to work from?

So the first day, I decided to sit down with a pencil and yellow pad, and just see what flowed.  What came out was essentially the first page of the novel.  I looked at it and felt nauseous.   Why, when I have everything required for happiness, am I always failing myself and those I love?

I know comedy when I see it!

 

Today Will Be Different is published on 6th Oct) by Weidenfeld & Nicholson. Thanks to them for the advance copy.

 

What to do when you know it’s not working

So about a month ago I got some very welcome news that I’ve been shortlisted for the Richard & Judy Search for a Bestseller competition with my psychological thriller Rip Her To Shreds.

I’d been working away on another novel called ‘A Pale Imitation’ – the story of an affair (well, more than one over the different timelines) and its repercussions told in increments of seven years. It jumped around all over the place from depression-era New York to 1980s suburbia. I had three narrators, one of whom was a real life person, one of whom was a child, and had got myself into a complete mess with it. I worried at night about what the descendants of this person might make of it (although none of it was derogatory). I couldn’t make the timeline work. I spent hours looking at the most obscure archive footage of Central Park in 1920 to see what animals they had in the zoo. But I couldn’t get the story right.

I was getting some encouragement. The opening chapter was shortlisted for Best Opening Chapter at York Festival of Writing, an agent said they wanted to see it when it was finished, and then my pitch was favourited by an agent at Curtis Brown on their monthly Pitch CB and I submitted the first three chapters accordingly and the synopsis. They said they liked it but it didn’t go in the direction they were expecting and so rejected it. I could not see what else I could do with it – it had got into an intractable knot. I knew deep down it had some good elements but overall it had no clear direction – no real impetus to keep a reader reading.

But I couldn’t get this one voice out of my head.

Back at the end of May, I saw the deadline was almost up for the Richard and Judy competition but it was against the rules to submit anything you had previously sent to an agent. So I started writing – using this one clear (slightly disturbing!) voice. A whole different story, a whole new setting, whole new characters (although the theatre background still features). It was extremely hard, queasy-making, to junk those previous 60,000 ish words – all that research, all those hours. But this one came quickly – I could see the story stretching out before me. I got in a day before the deadline and a month later was told I had been shortlisted.

Not all that previous work has gone to waste – I see bits of it creeping in. Maybe I will suddenly get a blinding flash of inspiration as to how A Pale Imitation should tie together later. I know a lot about Chagall now anyway.

Now I have a fixed deadline of early December to completely finish the 80,000 manuscript of Rip Her To Shreds and then we’ll see.

Have you ever completely started again on a project? A novel or something else? Junked a lot of words? What do you do when you know something’s not working?

The Museum of You – Carys Bray

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I fell for Carys Bray’s writing when I read her debut novel A Song for Issy Bradley, which did brilliantly, garnering much deserved praise. I wondered how she would follow it up with her second The Museum of You.

Twelve year old Clover has been brought up by her Dad, Darren, a bus driver, after her Mum died when she was just six weeks old. Her Mum, Becky, met her Dad when she left her handbag on his route.

Over the summer which ‘curls around her like a yellow cat’ Clover is left to her own devices whilst Darren has to work to support them. He worries about whether he is doing a good enough job, as well as worrying about his own Dad, who is on his own, and his brother, Jim who is ‘not himself.’

At an end of term visit to the local Merseyside Maritime museum, Clover is fascinated by the main exhibit telling the ‘untold story’ of The Titanic, through retrieved objects.One of the museum curators about how they chose which objects to display who tells her, “It’s all about which objects fit the narratives we’re telling.” Her idea is born. She will do the same with her mother’s things and will display it all for her Dad as a surprise, like, she says, one of those TV makeover shows.

Her dead mother’s things, are still all piled up untouched in a room. Her Dad, who keeps everything anyway in case it comes in handy, has been unable to deal emotionally with any of it. There’s baby teeth, holiday brochures, a book on the painter Rubens, a Winnie the Pooh book with an inscription in blue biro that reads ‘Love from Mummy xxx’ and she indexes and catalogues it all.

Clover imbues each object with meaning, fantasising and guessing, trying to find out more about her mother and in turn, the missing half of herself. It is only gradually, through Darren’s narration, that we see the true meaning of those objects and it doesn’t match at all. Some of the stories behind them are achingly sad. On another level, it could be read as how we all try to make sense of things, look for a pattern, a meaning in the randomness of life.

Bray captures so well that strange time between childhood and adolescence and the relationship between Clover and her Dad is beautifully portrayed. I loved all the little rituals they had – thinking of three things that made her happy before bedtime, Clover making a biscuit Stonehenge held together by Biscoff spread after watching Bake Off on TV and her Dad judging her efforts on whether it was a ‘good bake’. She makes friends with Dagmar, the immigrant girl at school who no one will talk to or sit next to, and there is added comedy provided by the neighbour, a modern day Mrs Malaprop, Edna Mackerel, who talks mainly in CAPS.

I found The Museum of You with the determined, imaginative, nurturing, resilient Clover at its heart, to be a fundamentally optimistic book about love and hope and community told with warmth and compassion. At times like these, we all need these qualities in our lives.

I’m part of the blog tour for The Museum of You. Do go and check out the past and future entries. There’s lots of great stuff and this book deserves every success.

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The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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From the opening scene, where married Leo Plumb shamelessly flirts with a nineteen year old Spanish waitress at a beach party in Long Island, and entices her into his Porsche, you know it’s not going to end well. And sure enough, high on cocaine, martini cocktails and distracted by Matilda attending to him in more ways than one, an SUV ploughs into them. The luckless waitress ends up having to have her foot amputated, Leo has to spends months in rehab. It’s a great inciting incident that starts the novel off with a literal bang.

The Nest of the title refers to a trust fund set up by the Plumb family’s late father, which was only ever intended to be a modest sum, to just ease the pressure off his four children. It will only pay out when the youngest, Melody, turns 40. But, thanks to the stock market, its value has rocketed and now each of the four siblings is relying on it: it has become the crutch, the fall back, the be all and end all to all their many problems.

Melody, living in upstate New York,  is overstretched on her mortgage, maxed out on her credit cards, and needs money for future tuition fees for her twin teenage daughters, Nora and Louisa. Obsessed with knowing where they are at all times, she keeps virtual tabs on them by tracking their phones. When she sees the blue blinking light moving around The American Museum of Natural History, she thinks all is well when in fact they are getting up to all sorts. Then there’s Jack married to husband Walker (he invited none of his family) who, after the crash of 2008, has had to secretly borrow against the value of their shared beach front property which may in turn jeopardise Walker’s business. Then there’s Bea – who has gained some success as a writer of short stories (although mostly off the back of Leo) waiting to hit the big rime with a novel that constantly eludes her.

The car accident means that the nest is severely depleted as Leo has had to pay out compensation to hush it up, and for a newly adapted apartment for the waitress. The remaining three siblings have seen the nest dwindle before their eyes and now want Leo to pay back what he owes them. Tensions and long held resentments. already barely disguised, break out and erupt.

Although none of them are particularly likeable, especially the reckless Leo, the others do rally and forge alliances in unexpected ways. I like the promotional video that is being used to market the book here where siblings talk about their relationships and what impact your place or birth order in your family can have.

The author, who lived in New York for over two decades, has a very clever, blackly comic touch – I’m sure I didn’t get many of the references and in jokes about particular parts of New York and colleges etc. The Plumbs are a certain rare set of people, although you can find their equivalent here of course. It’s fun to gawp at them through the windows of The Oyster Bar at Grand Central – whether you’d want to be one of them, is a whole different matter.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney is out today in the UK published by Borough Press, an imprint of Harper Collins. Thanks to them via NetGalley for my review copy. Photos from my last trip including some of the places that feature in the book.

 

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Maggie in May

When I was little, my sister and I had one of those bedside lights in the shape of a globe. It had a vast expanse of pale blue sea, the countries marked in pink, yellow and green, and we’d spin it and spin it on its stand, see where it stopped and look at all the places we might go one day. Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, This Must Be The Place, is a little like that – dizzying but exhilarating. Even the beautiful artwork and endpapers remind me of that old globe.

This Must Be The Place, which is O’Farrell’s seventh novel, has all the hallmarks of her earlier ones (you can open any page of any of her books and instantly know it’s by her, I think) but also marks a departure in terms of style and structure.When I saw her speak at the Rooftop Book Club recently (@rooftopbookclub) to a packed audience who hung on her every word and hilarious anecdote (she can tell a really good anecdote) she said she had wanted to do something a bit more experimental, to ‘rip up the rule book’. After the confines of Instructions for a Heatwave where the events took place over 4 days with 4 narrators, she let loose. If the globe is spinning, she is in total control.

The novel starts with the story of Irish American Daniel O’Sullivan, a linguist, setting off from his remote farmhouse in Donegal. It’s so remote when a stranger comes, his wife, Claudette, comes out brandishing a shot gun, to see them off. Why is she so reclusive? On the radio in the car, he hears a voice from the past that will catapult him back twenty years and sets off a whole chain of events. From there on in, we zip around in time, crossing continents, time zones, going from San Francisco to China to New York and back, zooming into the heads of multifarious narrators young and old, male and female.

O’Farrell plays with every convention, telling us what is going to happen to characters before it does, using first person, third person narration, past, present, future. Some of this literary pyrotechnics can be at risk of removing the reader – but here, the emotional power is still very much there. I remember a reader’s review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (still my favourite one of hers ever) where the person complained they couldn’t follow it because she didn’t use speechmarks and was confused by the timeshifts but that was easy compared to this. It’s true you do need to concentrate, but what you get is layers upon layers; I found if I stopped worrying about who was who and what impact, if any, they were going to have on the story, and just listen to them, I could sit back and enjoy the journey. I could read a whole book on some of the periphery characters who come, say their piece, and vanish again.

The only reservation I had with the novel as a whole was the section of photographs – a vintage scarf, a hospital ID band, an ashtray in the shape of a star. Whilst fascinating in themselves I’m not sure they served the story but rather interrupted it. I loved Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts… where the entire book is done like this to illustrate the breakdown of a relationship, but here I can’t see what they add – but O’Farrell reportedly fought to keep them in. I don’t know – I’m open to persuasion.

When Maggie O’Farrell’s first book, After You’d Gone, came out 16 years ago, I remember being a bit sniffy about it to my eternal shame. I picked it up a few times in the book shop but there was something about those icy blue covers or something that put me off. And then on a Greek holiday someone had kindly left behind her next one My Lover’s Lover, a sort of modern Gothic psychological thriller with shades of Rebecca, and I devoured it. Then went back and read the first and I was hooked. And have been a fan ever since.

Her similes are always unusual, visually arresting, but spot on. There is a scene in My Lover’s Lover where a character cleans a floor with a mop and then watches the floor dry – and it is so beautifully described. She can write really good sex scenes, which is a rare skill. She can create characters that live and breathe so you go on to think about them long after the book has finished. The stories she creates always wield real emotional power, with endlessly fascinating sibling and family dynamics. At the heart of This Must Be The Place there is a marriage in freefall – will it survive? Where do we call home and what choices have led us there?

The news of a new Maggie O’Farrell novel starts with a whisper; the hint of a title, the tantalising glimpse of a cover, the release of a chapter, an extract. Through it all, the writer herself remains elusive – she famously doesn’t do social media and there is just the occasional sporadic update on her author Facebook page. It’s a strange dichotomy – I actually like the fact she remains elusive, fiercely guarding her family’s privacy and appearing to do a flurry of interviews and appearances on nationwide book tours then back to her real life. And at the same time I want to read everything, want to know everything, want to hear more and more and then have to wait. Until the next one.

This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell is out now published by Tinder Press. Thanks to them for my coveted review copy.

 

Here’s to the ladies who lunch – The Bridge Ladies by Betsy Lerner

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There was a moment in The Bridge Ladies, a memoir by author Betsy Lerner, when I actually laughed out loud in recognition. This woman is in my mind. It’s the most astute, perceptive book about that notoriously tricksy mother-daughter relationship that I’ve read in a long time. I will lap up all fiction with a mother daughter relationship at its heart, but this is different.

The eponymous Bridge Ladies are a group of Jewish women who came over to the author’s house to play cards every Monday at noon for over fifty years. They were a source of endless fascination to the young Betsy with their matching accessories, perfectly groomed in hose and heels, their ‘hair frosted, patent leather pocketbooks with clasps as round as marbles.’ Young Betsy loves the ritual, helping to put away their coats, trying to sneak the candy from little glass dishes. She really captures the childlike wonder of looking into the adult world, the mystery of the score pad being like a riddle out of Alice in Wonderland. But as a teenager, feeling trapped in American suburbia, she grows scornful of them and their attitudes.

Grown up Betsy’s relationship with her now widowed mother, Roz, is complicated. It is fractious, Betsy thinking her mother is being constantly critical, knowing what buttons to press, never feeling good enough. The thought of moving to be nearer to her sends her into a frenzy.

may 011Once when Betsy was giving a dinner party, knowing her dinner service was tarnished, her mother shows up with a tub of silver polish and offers to clean it for her. She explodes, terrifying her daughter, and has to retire to bed in sobbing frustration. It wasn’t about the polish. When she later recounts it to her friend, expecting her to side with her, she says,’ God, I wish my mother would polish my silver.’

After Roz has surgery, Betsy helps care for her and the Bridge Ladies all turn up. Now all in their eighties, they visit her in rotation, never missing a slot, bringing brownies and cookies and meals. Betsy is taken aback by their loyalty; would her friends, far flung and connected sometimes by only the threads of social media, do the same for her? What makes these bonds so strong?

In a bid to understand, she endeavours to find more about them all – Bette, Bea, Jackie and Rhoda, these women she doesn’t really know. She joins them for lunch, eventually goes to their houses, has to take Bridge lessons to keep up, and ends up doing it for three years.

What follows is a portrait of each of the women, both individually and in a wider social context; what makes people who they are and how they end up where they are, what choices they make, the difference between generations’ expectations. It’s also a fascinating insight into a particular time of American history and within a particular group. She’s very funny at her attempts to play cards with these pros(once, cooped up on a rainy Scottish holiday with two other couples, one couple attempted to teach us all how to play. It was beyond me. My husband said I bid on too many suits I’d never make good.)

These women didn’t meet to talk and catch up on each other’s lives. They didn’t even talk as they played – just the sound of the slapping down of cards and the strange ‘Morse code’ of their talking about suits and tricks. Lerner contrasts their silence with her own friends constant chatter and sharing (on subjects as diverse as Lena Dunham, mammograms, what constitutes cheating). It was the culture to not share secrets, to not talk about things – the death of a sibling, a terrible scarring childhood. ‘Pain,’ she says,’ was a private matter.’

It doesn’t really matter if the particular relationship between Betsy and Roz chimes with you or not; some of my friends get it when we talk about what things our mothers have done to reduce us to tears of rage, others think I’m lucky to have one. Others miss theirs terribly. You choose what you share accordingly. And that is sort of the point. It is about trying to understand, a meeting in the middle, not apportioning blame. It is about trying not to repeat patterns with your own child. What she eventually gains is an insight and is closer to her mother as a result. It is a tender portrait, for anyone that has or has ever had a mother.

It is told with humour – that dry, wry self deprecating humour which I love – and beautiful detail. Most of all it is told with love.

The Bridge Ladies by Betsy Lerner is out now, published in the UK by Pan Macmillan. Many thanks to them for my review copy.