I am mad about Lionel Shriver’s new novel Big Brother, out May 9. I’ve given it a very short review (because that’s all there was space for) in June issue of Red (coming soon) but was actually relieved not to review it at length elsewhere as there is a massive “spoiler” situation. It’s the sort of plot twist it would be very hard to review without mentioning. But it’s also something that if you mention it… you’ve totally ruined the reading experience for anyone else. Instead I have written this profile for The Observer which is all about the phenomenon of “Lionel Shriver”. I do think Shriver is judged in a certain way simply because she is a woman. Although people did love to tease Martin Amis about his teeth. So it’s hard to say. Either way, she’s a great honorary British eccentric and a truly great writer.
Reviews for Red May Books. Book of the Month is Harriet Evans’ Not Without You, about the fate of two actresses from different generations whose fates are intertwined. “Elegant, fun page-turner.” The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson is “a dramatic historical novel which takes you right to the heart of early 20th century Paris.” From Daisy Waugh comes Melting the Snow on Hester Street, “a wonderful jazz-era take on high society and Hollywood.” Saira Shah’s The Mouseproof Kitchen is “a moving, poignant autobiographical novel” about a chef whose relationship is tested when she gives birth to a baby with profound disabilities. (Kleenex warning.) I first met Saira Shah in 2001 when she was a film-maker and I interviewed her for the Telegraph magazine. And, finally, fresh from her inspiring talk at Editorial Intelligence’s Names Not Numbers in Aldeburgh last month where she talked about a novelist’s job being to “take a thought for a walk”, is Aminatta Forna and her already-acclaimed story of the fall-out from the war in Croatia, The Hired Man. Great line-up!
Emma Brockes’ She Left Me The Gun reviewed in the Sunday Telegraph. I really loved this book. It’s incredibly raw and emotional and a real jaw-dropper of a story. After the death of her mother, Brockes traces the family story from before she was born, back to South Africa, the country her mother fled in her twenties. What she discovers is shocking.
As Brockes said at the launch last week, there was a real danger that it would come across as a misery memoir and when she was writing it, she jokingly thought of its title as “Boo-F***ing-Hoo”. She knows exactly what she’s doing, though, and the writing is so strong that there is no way it could have been anything other than a fantastic example of intimate non-fiction. Along with Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life, this is the best thing I’ve read this year.
Very excited to have reviewed two of the best novels out in the first half of 2013, both for the Observer. First up, Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, an excellent family saga which continues her tradition of tightly-written, emotional stories spanning several decades. (Only complaint: what happened to the heatwave? It sort of disappears.) And also Elizabeth Day’s Home Fires, a novel about a couple coping with the death of their beloved 21-year-old son – and the doddery mother-in-law who has just moved in with them. Hauntingly simple.
Two wonderful page-turners reviewed this month: Francesca Segal’s The Innocents for The Observer, which is the story of a newly-engaged couple where the man is having serious doubts about the relationship. I like his bold strategy: if in doubt about the person you are marrying, just bring the wedding forward and everything will be fine. This is an entertaining, elegant read, nicely pitched in the territory between literary and commercial. I’d happily recommend it to anyone as a light read. But for something a bit more quirky and inventive with similar themes? Nell Freudenberg’s The Newlyweds.
Lucy Ellmann’s Mimi, reviewed for the Sunday Telegraph, meanwhile, is so unusual and so crazy (but good crazy) that it’s really in a territory all of its own. Mimi is an eccentric speech-writer who saves Harrison, an equally eccentric plastic surgeon, when he falls over in the street and sprains his ankle. We know they’re going to cross paths again and fall in love and sure enough they do. This feels like a Woody Allen film encapsulated in a novel. It’s madcap, funny, wild, romantic, experimental, demented and I loved everything about it.
Reviewed in today’s Times: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, an entertaining, beautifully-crafted novel with rave reviews in the US, dubbed “the Jewish Corrections.” Jonathan Franzen is a fan, of course.
Essentially it’s the story of a family where the mother’s weight issue has spun out of control and is dominating everything. Over-indulged in childhood, Edie was huge as a five-year-old: “Fifty years on and Edie still can’t stop eating. She now weighs over 300 pounds. Her law firm, embarrassed, has pensioned her off and she is about to undergo a second surgical intervention, years after she had promised that she would do everything she could to avoid the first one.”
In reality, though, obesity is just one sign of family dysfunction. Edie may have very obvious, physical flaws but everyone else around her is suffering in their own neurotic and often equally damaging way. Sure, she’s unhealthy. But so is the attitude of her husband, who walks out of her after thirty years of marriage. A very funny, poignant and insightful read. Loved it.
It’s Red March issue! The last one edited by Sam Baker. New editor Sarah Bailey starts next week. Book of the Month is The Engagement by Chloe Hooper which has already been compared to Jane Eyre. I’m not sure it’s quite as classic as that but the themes are there: domineering man, complicated woman, all is not what it seems… Enjoyably creepy.
Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday is a change of direction from the author of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. This is a taut, contemporary story about a man faced with two missing children. For chick lit fans The First Last Kiss by Ali Harris is a When-Harry-Met-Sally weepy about one couple’s romance’s told through their kisses. Awww! Motherland by William Nicholson is an epic WWII love story from the screenwriter of Gladiator and Shadowlands. Love his writing. And Ann Cleeves’ thriller Dead Water is the first in a quartet about detectives Reeves and Perez, coming to BBC1 soon as crime series Shetland.
Not on the books page but also worth mentioning: cover star Nicole Kidman says she loves Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a memoir of one woman’s lost-myself-found-myself 1100-mile hiking odyssey across the Pacific Crest Trail. I’m also a fan. I share no other characteristics with Nicole Kidman. Although I would like my hair to be like Mrs Coulter in The Golden Compass.
Review of Anne H. Putnam’s memoir about teen weight loss and gastric bypass surgery Navel Gazing in the Observer. Not your average New Year’s resolution diet book, this is a painful exploration of what it’s like to grow up fat in a family where pretty much everyone else is thin. Except for your dad who also signs up for the surgery alongside you. A difficult read but brave of her to write it and leaves plenty to think about.
Cover pic: Huge, ABC Family series about teen weight loss camp based on the Sasha Paley novel.
Reviewed in Red’s February issue: Book of the Month Erin Kelly’s The Burning Air, a tense psychological thriller from the author of ITV drama The Poison Tree. The hugely hyped How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman, a complex, not-what-it-seems novel reminiscent of Zoe Heller. Something unusual for Marina Lewycka fans: Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop, about the friendship between two older women diagnosed with cancer. (But don’t be put off by that. This book is subtle and witty.) The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth is a fantastic British take on life inside a fundamentalist religion. And, finally, Nancy Huston’s controversial Infrared, which won the Bad Sex Prize for lines like “my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water”. This strange, challenging novel is beautifully written. I liked it but not as much as I loved her last book, Fault Lines.