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Leap In – Alexandra Heminsley

 

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Sometimes walking along Brighton sea front, I see them out there, the swimmers. In between the piers, or coming out, skin pink from the cold, scrambling up the shingle. I want to join them but I’m scared. One of the main reasons I moved here was that I wanted to live by the sea – I love seeing it at the end of the road, how different it looks each day, how inviting. And yet I’ve never swum in it once.

This is me talking but it was also Alexandra Heminsley’s feelings as she ran (rather than walked like me) along Brighton seafront, looking longingly at the groups of swimmers out there beyond the waves. Alexandra has already made running seem far do-able with her book Running Like a Girl which expounded her sunny mantra – if I can do it, so can you – and her new book, Leap In, looks set to do the same for swimming.

After two ominous events – her new husband looses his wedding ring in the sea, and she wakes up to find her flat flooded after a severe storm – she takes this as a sign that the sea is actually against her – and decides to overcome it. She challenges herself to take up open water swimming and enrols on a course that will teach her to do just that.

Her account begins with lots of hilarity; getting stuck half in and half out of her wetsuit, sticking her head in a washing up bowl full of water to learn how to exhale, but as the actuality of what she has taken on hits,  things get more serious. It is far, far harder than she realised and she is paralysed with fear, suffers panic attacks, really struggles with her breathing. But she keeps on, and keeps on.

As well as all the mental and physical hurdles, she is also having to face up to the fact her body is not doing what she wants it to – she and her husband are trying for a baby without success. She undergoes gruelling IVF treatment. She feels the body she has learnt to accept and the strength it has given her, is now betraying her.

The word ‘inspirational’ gets bandied about a lot but this is one book where I think it’s justified: it’s not so much a story about conquering fear, although it is about that, but about learning to adapt. No one knows what’s coming for them, no one knows what shape their life will take. It’s about how to change your plans when things turn out differently from what you expected, how to trust yourself. It’s about trying to find that thing – call it inner strength or resourcefulness or whatever you like- that will propel you through. And finding joy in something that will stay with you forever.

Part Two is more about the history of swimming and her own recommendations as to the best goggles, the best wetsuits etc and some practical things about events and societies to join – all really useful stuff.

Leap In is published by Hutchinson and thanks to them for my review copy.

 

 

 

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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.

 

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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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.

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer – book review

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Earlier this year I stayed in a high-rise hotel in a district of Manhattan, quite far off the tourist track. My window looked out onto a vast residential block. At dusk, a thousand lights came on. I wondered about them all in their little boxes stacked in lines.

This is the premise for Fishbowl, set in a 27 storey apartment block called the Seville on Roxy. It’s not specified where it is but it’s an archetypal block. The fishbowl of the title is also a literal fishbowl – Ian, a goldfish belonging to one of the residents, has taken a leap for freedom, plunging from his bowl, and as he falls towards the concrete sidewalk, he catches moments, freezeframed, in the lives of the various inhabitants. The reader needs to take a similar leap of faith and go with the fact that a goldfish is the novel’s main protagonist.

There is a grad student, and the owner of Ian, who is going to have to decide between his girlfriend and mistress, an agoraphobic phone sex worker, a pregnant woman on enforced bed rest who just wants the baby out so she can have an ice cream sandwich from her freezer and her construction worker boyfriend Danny, Jimenez the building’s stoical caretaker, Herman the homeschooled boy and Garth who is awaiting an important parcel. Each one of them is at a momentous point in their lives. Gradually we see all the little unexpected connections and interplays between them.

Whilst the narrative construction was very easy to follow, with very short chapters only advancing each characters story in tiny increments, as a device it is risky – if the reader is less invested in one particular story, you find yourself eager to get back to the one you are more interested in. And all the time Ian is falling (I liked the little picture of him on the margin of the text descending down the page like one of those flip books I had as a child).

Bradley’s Somer’s writing style is arch and mannered but it is suited to the tale ; he plays around with the authorial voice, telling you what’s going to happen and that Ian will hit the ground in Chapter 54. There are ruminations on time and space, philosophy and physics, risk and adventure. Overall, I was not really emotionally invested in any of the characters, but I’m not sure that matters. The whole literary device of the goldfish is distancing in itself but enables Somer to make some humorous but pertinent observations about life and death and everything in between.

Fishbowl is out now from Ebury Press. Thanks to them for my review copy. Follow Ian the goldfish on Twitter @goldfish_Ian

A Q&A with Laura Barnett – Author of The Versions of Us

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Laura Barnett is a journalist and theatre critic. Perhaps you read her touching piece in last weekend’s The Guardian about people finding love in their later years. You may not have noticed the byline. But now her debut novel –The Versions of Us – is garnering rave reviews. The book is one of those novels with universal appeal because it taps into your feelings about your life no matter at what stage you are. Everyone at some point wonders what might have been, if they had done things differently, taken another path. said yes instead of no or vice versa. It might not necessarily relate to a love affair, it might have been a quirk of fate that made you miss something or put you somewhere at a certain point in time.

In this novel, it is a random thing that sets everything off: Eva, a student in Cambridge, is cycling on her way to a tutorial, when a rusty nail in the road causes her to swerve. The story splits off into three different versions – does she meet Jim who stops to help or not, does she leave her actor boyfriend David for Jim or not? We travel from 1950s Cambridge up to almost the present day, taking in New York, Greece, Suffolk, Cornwall, and London along the way. None of the three stories pan out in the way you would have expected or maybe they do, because your view of how things work out for them is coloured by your own views of love, happiness, marriage, compromise, ambition, adultery to name a few.

I am delighted that Laura answered some of my questions

I understand that you wrote the book chronologically – plaiting the three parts together rather than attempting to ‘lift’ each timeline out. I think this very much shows as no narrative strand is dominant and I was equally invested in all three versions. Did you ever try it another way or did you always know this was the way to go?

You’re absolutely right – I did write the book chronologically, plaiting the three parts together as I went. This approach just seemed natural to me from the start. It never even occurred to me to, say, write the whole of version one before tackling versions two and three. I was aware from the beginning of the need to pace the novel carefully – of, to borrow a filmic term, the need to jump-cut from one version to the next, while at the same time holding the whole narrative in view. Throughout, I was trying to conceive of the novel as an organic whole, rather as the sum of three disparate parts.

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I love the fact it is a completely random quirk of fate that – a rusty nail in the road that punctures a bicycle tyre forcing Eva to swerve to avoid the dog and meet Jim. Do you have your own ‘what if’ moment that you can share?

I’m so glad you related to that. It was important to me from the start that we got the sense of how the course of our lives can turn on a dime; of how easily, even randomly, we find ourselves choosing one path over another. As for my own “what if” moment – well, my mum often jokes about the fact that, aged 21, she very nearly married a biochemist and moved to New Mexico, so I could very easily never have been born…

I really enjoyed reading some of your short stories (read them here) particularly ‘You’. What were the specific challenges you found when moving away from the short story format to the novel?

Thank you – I’m so happy to hear that. I do love writing short stories – it’s a chance to conjure a whole world in miniature – but I was actually drawn to the novel first. As a child, I’d get my mum to sew pieces of paper into little books, and I’d write the title of my next magnum opus on the cover – usually, as I recall, a highly derivative sequel to Narnia or the Famous Five. I rarely got past the first few chapters, but I seem to have always had the novel in mind as a format. Later, as an adult, I began writing novels as well as short stories, so my interest in both really evolved in tandem.

My favourite kind of fiction is also the kind that, as you say, “takes the world we know, and our own familiar, everyday lives and renders them rich and strange.’ citing Anne Tyler and Tessa Hadley as great examples. Is there one novel that you constantly go back to or wish you’d written?

Ah, there are many! I do adore both Anne Tyler and Tessa Hadley, among others, but a book that had a particular impact on me at a young age, and which is often in my thoughts, is Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I studied it for GCSE English. It was my first encounter with Atwood’s luminous prose, and it opened my mind to the wonderful imaginative possibilities contained within lives that, on the surface, could seem humdrum, even dull. I remember a particularly wonderful image about memory being not linear, but a deep and multi-layered thing, like a pool of water into which we can dive to retrieve the elements of our past. That has stayed with me ever since.

Thanks very much to Laura. The Versions of Us is out now, published by Orion. The clever marketing campaign is asking readers to share their ‘what if’ moment.. Tweet or Instagram your moment using the hashtag #what if.