Due to my lack of activity on the blog lately – you know there’s too much going on when you’re posting your February content in March – I decided to throw together a quick round-up of recent reading while on a trip to Paris. Voilà the intro. Voici the books!
A Very Nice Girl – Imogen Crimp
Anna is struggling to afford life in London as she trains to be a singer. During the day, she vies to succeed against her course mates with their discreet but inexhaustible streams of cultural capital and money, and in the evening she sings jazz at a bar in the City to make ends meet. It’s there that she meets Max, a financier fourteen years older than her. Over the course of one winter, Anna’s intoxication oscillates between her hard-won moments on stage, where she can zip herself into the skin of her characters, and nights spent with Max in his glass-walled flat overlooking the city. But Anna’s fledgling career demands her undivided attention, and increasingly – whether he necessarily wills it or not – so does Max…
Why I chose it: The trend for novels about women in their twenties grappling with the harsh realities of life – often with an older man in tow – shows no sign of abating. I pick one up now and then because I sometimes write younger characters and although the current generation face big and different challenges, the phenomenon itself is nothing new. This debut stood out for its clever interplay between spikiness and tenderness, and for characterisation more nuanced than it might first appear. Some of the insights really took me (a)back. Some well-developed tension could have contributed more to the dénouement but that’s a minor gripe. Despite the inevitable comparisons with Sally Rooney, this reminded me more of Naoise Dolan’s writing.
7½ – Christos Tsiolkas
A man arrives at a house on the coast to write a book. Separated from his lover and family and friends, he finds the solitude he craves in the pyrotechnic beauty of nature, just as the world he has shut out is experiencing a cataclysmic shift. The preoccupations that have galvanised him and his work fall away and he becomes lost in memory and beauty. He begins to tell us a story …
A retired porn star who is made an offer he can’t refuse for the sake of his family and future. So he returns to the world he fled years before, all too aware of the danger of opening the door to past temptations and long-buried desires. Can he resist the oblivion and bliss they promise?
Why I chose it: This unusual novel may surprise anyone familiar with Tsolkias’ previous work. It’s very meta, like an autofiction due to the writer protagonist’s strong overlap with Tsiolkas, and containing part of a novel within a novel which I would happily read in its own right. I found it emotionally open, searching and reflective, full of insight on the writing life but also on family, sexuality and the state of the world. I loved the transporting sense of natural beauty and the stunning Australian coastal location which seemed to rise up around me as I read. Recommended to anyone jaded by the negativity, despair and violence of our times; a reminder that joy and beauty do still exist if you make the effort to notice them.
Anonymous Sex – various contributors, edited by Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Twenty-seven acclaimed writers (including Louise Erdrich, Edmund White, Helen Oyeyemi and Paul Theroux) were invited to contribute to this anthology, their names listed alphabetically but the individual stories left unattributed. They range from teenage experimentation to sex in the afterlife, from married couples pushing their boundaries to illicit encounters between strangers. A married woman has a BDSM-tinged encounter at a work conference; Two young boys on a sleepover feel the first stirrings of desire; In an artificially generated afterlife, anything can be sexual if you want it to be; a young widow on a sleeper train shelters a criminal in her carriage; a bisexual woman cheats on her wife with a baker
Why I chose it: Personally I’m all for breaking down taboos and shame about talking/writing about sex and sexuality and happy to put my name on my work, but the reticence is common so I was interested to see if anonymity helped these big authors deliver some really uncensored ‘erotic literature’. Some did so admirably but overall the quality was surprisingly uneven and in some cases wide of the mark. Despite that, the six or eight standouts – mentioned over and over in reviews – make this worth picking up. (I wish I knew who’d written them.) They are all kinds of original, moving and yes, very hot, but crucially they display the skills that make a short story work as well as having a feeling of confidence and absence of inhibition. I always think writing sex is a lot like actual sex: if you relax and enjoy it, it rubs off.
Crossing the Lines – Amanda Huggins
When Sherman Rook walks into the Jupiter diner, Mollie’s mama is instantly smitten. Despite her daughter’s reluctance, they leave the New Jersey shore behind and move to his isolated farmstead over a thousand miles west. Fifteen-year-old Mollie distracts herself from Rook’s cruelty and abuse by befriending a stray dog she names Hal, but when Rook crosses a final line Mollie realises that sometimes we must leave behind those we love in order to save ourselves. With only $20 to her name, she sets out from Oakridge Farm, relying on luck and the kindness of strangers as she makes her way back home across five state lines.
Why I chose it: Poet Amanda Huggins consistently writes prose with the same combination of tenderness, lyricism and acute observation, whether of the natural world or the human heart. As in her debut novella All Our Squandered Beauty, this book revolves around the journey from adolescence towards adulthood and independence over a short timeframe and relatively few pages. Mollie is an endearing protagonist and the use of different character perspectives in a work of such brevity is both unusual and effective.
On 17 March I am thrilled to be hosting Sophie Haydock, author of The Flames, with a Writers on Location post on Vienna, main setting of her absolutely stunning historical debut about the four women in the life of artist Egon Schiele.
I’m also delighted that my second novel Scent has been picked for The Bookseller‘s May Paperback Preview. It’s out on 19 May with an updated cover (still based on the beautiful original) which I will share here as soon as it’s ready.