Eithne Shortall – Love In Row 27

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I’ve followed Eithne Shortall’s journalism for quite a long time and I’m pleased to see she’s moved into writing her own books. Love In Row 27 is the first of these and makes for very entertaining reading.

It follows the story of Cora Hendricks as she works at the check-in desk at an airport. She passes the time by acting as a matchmaker for some of the singles on the flights. She absolutely loves matching people up, researching the backgrounds online to see who would maybe fit together. She’s got the assistance of her friend Nancy on the plane pushing things along get people engaged with each other.

The book is filled with humour as we enjoy the mismatches and the scrapes people get into along the way. However, what lifts the book is how well Eithne has drawn the character of Cora. There’s some very moving moments with her mum having early onset Alzheimer’s. Cora’s matchmaking really becomes an obsession with colour coded charts and somewhat takes over her life, leading to tense encounters with her friends. Alongside this Cora dwells a lot on her ex and her time in Berlin. With all this going on, it’s hard not to feel a connection with Cora and wish for her to perhaps find a loved one herself.

This is a warm, and moving debut that exhibits a certain sharpness of wit. It’s a book I wanted to fly through to see what happened next with Cora and her gang. I’m now looking forward to reading Grace After Henry, Eithne’s second book which was recently published.

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Sara Baume – A Line Made By Walking

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Frankie decides to move into her deceased grandmother’s old house after having a breakdown in the city. A Line Made by Walking features a different creature in each chapter and we get to see Frankie’s observations of them as she allows us into her world. Frankie feels her small world is coming apart in stages and feels it is fitting that the creatures are also dying.

She picks out different artworks throughout the book relating to various subject matters, with the idea being to test herself now that she is not a student anymore. She wants to have things in common with artists so she feels she can be like them. The descriptions of the artworks are Frankie’s memories and interpretations of them. She is 25 and knows she is still young but ‘already so improper, so disordered’.

She is alone in her grandmother’s bungalow on ‘turbine hill’, described as this as it is close to a wind turbine, something said to be offputting for potential buyers. She believes being alone can heal her but has realised other people are afraid of being alone. Her sense of despair really comes across throughout the book, with everyday tasks proving to be a struggle and attempts to read a book see her unable to remember characters and get the story straight in her head afterwards.

Frankie gets herself into several scrapes, including an awful situation on a bus and a scene in a hairdressers where her tone would not have been generally been deemed to be socially acceptable. Your heart really goes out to her as we are given a real sense of who she is and why she is behaving the way she does.

The descriptions in the book are outstanding, with beautiful images and ideas about nature. Memory features throughout, with Frankie going right back to her troubled childhood. We learn of the ‘I want to go home’ that she has chanted in her head since as far as she can remember, chanted during bad days at school but also at times when she should’ve been content or enjoying herself. She recalls her pets and tries to remember the voice of her grandmother.
Her mother is clearly a solid figure throughout her life and there is clearly a great understanding between them. Her mother comments about Frankie’s bones and Frankie wonders where so much has gone so effortlessly. She has tried so hard to be thin in the past but now mourns the loss of time that could’ve been spent taking in knowledge and ideas rather than a body she never liked to begin with. This is the sort of interior insight we could throughout the book and Baume handles this extremely well.

A Line Made By Walking is a strikingly real book that examines life, death, nature and art. There is a strong air of sadness throughout and a real sense of the beauty and fragility of the world and its inhabitants.

Gwendoline Riley – First Love

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First Love tells the story of a young woman married to an older man. The story is told from Neve’s perspective and we’re given rounded accounts of her time with Edwyn and her relationships with her family and her former relationships.

The book is excellent at picking out the seemingly minor details of life, like the way that noises in your house can alert you to the presence of your partner and how much can be conveyed from the eyes and expressions of her mother. Neve describes Edwyn’s movement when they’re rowing, the things he says and the assumptions he makes about her. We’re given full descriptions of the movements, right down to the fingers. Riley delivers this in precise, deceptively simple prose that gives a striking portrayal of relationships.

There are moments of tenderness between Neve and Edwyn, such as the pet names they call each other, their declarations of love and some hugs, but the bad times are what really resonate throughout. At times Edwyn’s behaviour is nothing less that monstrous. He kicks off at minor things, causing Neve’s voice to go timid as she withdraws into herself. At these times the life is draining out of her while Edwyn is powering up. There’s a particularly sickening scene that tells us about how he treated her after she got drunk. We find out more about Edwyn’s illness throughout the book and how Neve handles this and the way she work around things.

Her mother is quite an unusual character. There’s scenes of them going to the cinema together, with her mother not allowing Neve to sit beside her as she usually goes alone. We’re told of how she keeps herself busy but doesn’t really make friends. She certainly appears to be a bit of a motormouth as she has a series of long monologues, with her conversations with her daughter probably representing good chances to get a lot of chat out of her system.

Her mother thinks she knows how to relate to people better than Neve does. Neve certainly says to Edwyn on numerous occasions that she can survive on her own and the idea of freedom is something that recurs throughout the book. Neve questions whether there is something about her that horrifies people but she appears to have been dealt a rough hand in life in terms of the men that have played a key role in her life. This includes her father, a man that quickly flew into rages, made her brother ill and shamed her at points.

First Love brilliantly assesses the nature of love. It looks at the way this can represent different things and how it can sometimes just be an idea of love that’s present. There’s sense of loneliness throughout with people having to plod their own course and find ways to distract themselves from their daily situation. It highlights the way one incident can take over everything, constantly being brought up over the course of a relationship. This short book can easily be read in a single sitting, managing to pack serious power into its pages but its ideas and characters will continue to resonate.

Karl Geary – Montpelier Parade

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Montpelier Parade opens with a scene in a butcher’s shop, with Sonny working alongside Joe and Mick, two men with quick wit and banter with the customers. There’s an observation that the shop is a forgotten place, something used only by the people that can’t drive. Mr Cosgrove is run over shortly after, and Sonny steals the cigarettes from the pocket of the man.

His mother and father row a lot, with her seeing her husband as a somewhat feckless individual, unable to provide for his family. Sonny gives the cigarettes to his father and questions whether he should’ve given them to his mother instead. I felt sorry for his mother throughout the book as we see her struggle through life, let down constantly by her son but regularly showing faith in him and giving him her help and support. He works with his father but thinks he is unable to mimic the work of his father and seems embarassed of his father’s ‘culchie’ way of speaking in front of Vera, a woman from the richer end of society.

From early in the book we see that young Sonny has a very keen interest in the female form. He manages to get hold of a bottle of wine and meets up with Sharon and there then follows several other meetings where something could well have happened between them. There’s a nice development to the story of Sonny and Sharon, with a real sweetness between them for most of their time together. They’re known each other for years and have an easy way with each other.

Most of the novel revolves around Sonny’s relationship with Vera. They appear an unlikely pairing but his visits with her become more frequent throughout the book. Knowing Vera opens up new worlds for him, with her house providing sanctuary and he discovers a world of books and visits the National Gallery. They are each gaining something different in the company of each other. I was constantly wondering about Vera’s background and how she came to be in the position she is. There’s a real air of loneliness and yearning with these characters throughout as they seek to move away from their current position in life.

Social class is something that comes up throughout Montpelier Parade, with Vera seen as being posh and Sonny being advised to stay away with her as this mix wouldn’t ordinarily happen. There’s a feeling that people that stay should stay in their place in life and real suspicion of people from higher classes. In Sonny’s school there’s a sense that he’s taking wasting space and his parents also seem to hold this view, feeling he should start looking for work instead.

Montpelier Parade is a really startling book. The writing is incredibly vivid and I really felt Sonny’s emotions and pain throughout. Vera is a brilliantly drawn character, someone who has a real air of mystery around her. This is a book that really pulls you in and I had to read it in just a few sittings. It maintains its power right up to the heartbreaking ending, which is executed with great power and sensitivity.

Steph Broadribb – Deep Down Dead

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Steph Broadribb’s debut is the first instalment of the adventures of bounty hunter Lori Anderson. She’s a tough cookie and Deep Down Dead sees her on the hunt for a fugitive by the name of JT, who turns out to be none other than her former mentor. She takes her young child Dakota along for the ride when attempting to find him, bring him in and find out how and why this whole situation has arisedn.

The book gradually reveals Lori’s back story and we see how badly treated she had been in the past, with her husband disappearing on her and treating her horrifically badly. We find out how she came to be taught the skills needed to become a bounty hunter and the tragic tale of her daughter’s illness.

Her decision to take her daughter on the road is a troublesome one as we find Lori getting into some deadly scrapes, encountering dodgy characters at every juncture as the story twists and turns. Her daughter bonds well with JT but Lori doesn’t seem keen on allowing her daughter to bond too closely with him.

Deep Down Dead is absolutely pulsating from the start. We’re dropped into an action filled read right from the beginning and presented with a cast of formidable characters. It’s a supremely confident debut from Broadribb that dishes out large amounts of action throughout and represents a sparky opening salvo in the story of Lori Anderson.

William Skidelsky – Federer and Me

Federer and Me starts with Skidelsky forking out big money to see Roger Federer play in a grand slam final at Centre Court at Wimbledon. He buys a ticket from a tout and his wife is not keen on the source of ticket or the high cost of the purchase. Federer and Me tells the story of his obsession with the legendary tennis player and some of the reasoning behind it all.

He had loved tennis when he was younger, playing it a bit and studying the stats behind the big matches. He fell out of love with the sport when he felt it was dominated by big serves and becoming somewhat bland. This all changes when Roger Federer comes on the scene and makes the sport beautiful again. He gets a Sky subscription purely to watch Federer play on a regular basis and this gives a certain amount of continuity to his life.

The book draws on David Foster Wallace’s writing on the sheer breadth of skill and ability Federer brought to the sport, with him able to do all the new things and employ the basic power as well. Skidelsky admires him for being both a modern and a classic player. Federer and Me is excellent on the concept of beauty but also gets into more technical aspects like changes in the rackets and the overall game over the years.

He wonders why we attach ourselves to particular stars and delves into the qualities we see in certain people that draw us to them and not others. When he gets close to him he sees him in a different way, allowing him to appreciate that Federer is human and he’s also able to really admire what goes into each shot and what a magnificent skill it is to pull off some of the things he does. He is beside himself when he gets to ask Federer a question at a press conference.

The book is very moving as Skidelsky describes the pain of losing a child. He says that watching tennis helped in some way with the healing after this. He also writes of how his tennis obsession helped him in the period where he is was coming out of depression.

Federer and Me is a hugely enjoyable read that will really strike a chord with anyone that’s been obsessed by starts of sport or otherwise. He’s great at putting across the idea of different kinds of Federer, with people projecting different things onto him meaning different things to different people. It’s a searching book that puts across some of the importance characters like Federer have for people.

Helen FitzGerald – Viral

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Viral begins with an extraordinary opener, a description of Su Oliphant-Brotheridge performing a sexual act in a nightclub in Magaluf, something that’s totally out of character. A video has been posted online and the views are going up rapidly. This is very similar to an incident that happened in recent years and I was keen to find out where FitzGerald would go with this story.

Su had always been the sensible one on a night out and she’s not going to tell anyone where she is now. She says her sister Leah has always been the rebellious one and it should really be her on the screen. The video is extremely creepy, with a club PR guy also filming, people cheering and the incident is being watched by people Su knows.

Su was adopted and the book delves into her background and highlights some of the bullying she’s experienced at the hands of Leah, with her calling her ‘Chinky’ even thought she’s Korean. The book goes into the family politics, outlining the relationships with her adopted parents, Ruth and Bernard.

After watching the video for the first time Ruth establishes that her daughter has actually been gang-raped in public and sets about taking action. Viral shows the struggle a parent faces, with Ruth and Bernie talking about pushing things forward to help in some way but realising this will keep the story and their lives in the public domain. Their love for Su really shines through and their determination to find her is abundantly clear.

The book tells the story from a number or perspectives, building up a picture of how Su came to be in this situation. It shows the guilt that can be faced by some of people involved and some of the horrific things people can do to each other. It shows the ghastly way that people look at these videos as entertainment and a chance to judge the lives of others. It highlights that an incident like this is not isolated but a common occurrence.

Viral is an excellent thriller that flows at a mighty paces. The themes of revenge and identity are prominent throughout but it also is strong on the background of events and the notion that we shouldn’t be defined by single events in our lives.

Dimitri Verhulst – The Latecomer

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Désiré Cordier is 74 and has pretty much had it with life it seems. He reflects on his fondness for alcohol and the effect it has had on his marriage. This has become a real chore and he seems fed up with the nagging from his wife and the quality of life he has now. He plots a scheme to make people think he is losing his mind so he can bury himself away from the world by tucking himself into a home.

The book starts with him talking about having to regularly soil his nappies at night so he can keep up the act and not be found out. He’s been playing the role for months at this stage and it’s hard not to think of the people that are really going through this experience when reading The Latecomer. Here, in Winterlight Home for the Elderly, Désiré worries about his sleeping pills knocking him out so much he’ll be exposed but he awakes in his own excrement. He says that people here mean well but they all tend to shout or talk very loud when speaking to him.

The life with his wife certainly seems to have been an unhappy one. She comes across quite petty to say the least, with Désiré highlighting that she once abandoned him as he farted in bed. They were downsizing their house, which would save his back from all the repair work that needed to be done but it meant they would be living in a more confined space. Their sex life was rather ropey and they had taken to sleeping in separate rooms.

The book is excellent in showing how people deal with this situation. Désiré reckons from an early stage that people will blame his condition on all kinds of things, such as not eating enough fish or not reading newspapers. He’s ripped off by people he’s known for years and young people laugh at him in the street during a particularly extravagant set piece when he’s trying to convince the world of a particular personal state of mind. The cruelty of the world is on display here and we can have some empathy with the reasons why Désiré ultimately wants to withdraw from it.

The Latecomer is full of humour, with witty commentary on everyday things like alarms and more dramatically moments like his treatment of the religious objects his wife has surrounded him with. There’s joy when the memory choiris discussed and the book is full of wit and heart. This is contrasted beautifully with sadness about what some people are suffering through and the neglect they experience. The book is full of light and shade and things take a dark turn when we see the impact this charade has on his daughter. The Latecomer is a mighty little book that says a lot about society and our place in it.

Harry Parker – Anatomy of a Soldier

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There’s very few novels that I’ve read recently that have stood out in terms of the originality of the storytelling but this is certainly one that really took me aback. It tells the story of Tom Barnes leading British troops in a desperate war situation from the perspective of a 45 inanimate objects and it works very effectively.

We’re presented with the character of Tom as a number at first,  his name only being revealed later. Telling the story from the perspective of the footwear shows us Tom going out running and all the preparation involved in going out. Later we see the story from the other side of the war, with Latif getting a pair of fancy new trainers that are frowned upon. The story here allows us to see the nerves of the man as the trainer feels his toes curling in and shows how unsettled he must be by the situation he’s found himself in.

The objects give us a window into the world of the characters, with one showing us a mother’s torture after hearing her son has been injured. Sometimes this can get into the sheer brutal impact of war, with an oscillating saw giving us the graphic detail of the surgery that takes place. A machine and blood tell us the story of the character’s confusion in hospital and the need for people to stay with him in the initial stages of his treatment.

The book is very fast paced as we move through the story told by the various objects. It’s extremely moving at times, especially when we see the pain that he’s going through and the feeling that he eventually doesn’t want people to see what he is suffering. There’s a brilliant, methodical description of receiving new legs and a feeling that what he has gone through was neither brave nor dignified. The impact of war on both sides of  conflict is fully confronted and the book featured a harrowing scene of a father wheeling his son’s dead body away in a wheelchair.

Anatomy of a Soldier is an expertly paced, moving book that gives us an insight into the challenges and suffering of war. It pulls no punches in giving us a straight account of the impact on the individuals and their families and a large part of this is achieved through the wide scope given to us by telling it from the perspective of the 45 objects.

Elizabeth Strout – My Name is Lucy Barton

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My Name is Lucy Barton is set in a hospital where Lucy is recovering from an operation. This is a short book, but one in which we learn so much about all the characters involved and their relationship to one another.

Lucy is feeling lonely in the hospital when her mother arrives. They haven’t seen each other in a very long time and Strout really delves into the background of this to show the trials of family life. She stays for five nights in a chair and the conversation flows more freely between them than Lucy would’ve expected from previous experience.

She goes to sleep at night thinking that this is all she wants, her mother telling her stories from home. She loves the sound of her mother’s voice and what is actually being said isn’t really that important. She later wishes that her mother will ask her about her own life but this is just not forthcoming. When Lucy tries to fill her in on the details of her life her mother just stares out the window.

Lucy reminisces about her family, how they were put down by people and seen as smelly. Strout really shows the loneliness that was felt and Lucy wonders what it is in us that makes us look for others to put down in life. The poverty and upbringing has clearly taken a toll on Lucy and brother and we get an insight into this with the stories of them living in a garage, being kept in a truck and her brother sleeping with pigs. There’s a distressing description of the public shaming of her brother by her father but also a reflection on the blurring of memories, the notion of whether things actually really did happen in the way we remember them.

There’s a real sense of wonder in the book too. Lucy is in awe of the city and the way people behave. There’s thanks for the kindness of strangers as Lucy will never forget the way a doctor behaved towards her and the help he gave. Lucy goes to a writing class and the book is very big on the nature of writing.

The book is brilliant on the things that go unsaid in a family relationship and the desire to establish connections that may have been lost. The writing is sparse and perfectly formed, with very short sentences and My Name is Lucy Barton is very easy to read in one sitting but it has a warmth and depth that will certainly resonate with the reader for a very long time.