New Books from Old Favourites

Twenty twenty-one is turning out to be a wonderful year for me as a reader as several authors I really enjoy return with new books after a bit of a hiatus. It’s interesting seeing what they come up with after an interval and compare the new books with old ones. And it also offers the chance to reread some old favourites and think about why you liked the earlier books in the first place.

Marika Cobbold‘s Guppies for Tea was a heart-warming, family story about Amelia and her struggle to care for her much-loved grandmother, now showing signs of dementia. She’s also battling a mother with an obsession with germs and a defecting boyfriend, but Amelia finds help in unexpected ways. I really enjoyed this novel, and would also recommend Shooting Butterflies as well as Cobbold’s previous book Drowning Rose, both of which have characters revisiting the past in a way that changes their view of their lives. It’s been a quiet ten years from Cobbold since then, but just published is On Hamstead Heath. Here’s what the blurb says:

“Sharp, poignant, and infused with dark humour, On Hampstead Heath is an homage to storytelling and to truth; to the tales we tell ourselves, and the stories that save us”.

Sarah Winman‘s latest book, Still Life, is only her fourth in ten years and therefore something to be excited about. When God Was a Rabbit was one of those love it or hate it books, if GoodReads is anything to go by. I found it brilliant and original, so that puts me definitely in the ‘loved it’ camp. Now I have a reader’s copy of Still Life and the first page has me hooked already, even though I’ve three other books already on the go. What to do?

Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

Esther Freud‘s debut novel, Hideous Kinky, is a story from Freud’s own childhood and concerns a woman living the hippie dream in Morroco with her two young daughters. They live a hand-to-mouth existence and the reader feels for the girls who really need more stability and well, safety. It was made into a film starring Kate Winslet (also worth a watch). There followed a string of very readable novels, her last outing, Mr Mac and Me (2014), set during WWI and has a basis in the true story of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Macintosh, a mysterious visitor to the south of England as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Coming soon in July is I Couldn’t Love You More, which according to the blurb is:

A sweeping story of three generations of women, crossing from London to Ireland and back again, and the enduring effort to retrieve the secrets of the past.

Out of interest, Freud’s lineage includes the painter Lucian Freud (father) and Sigmund Freud (great-grandfather).

Andrew Martin has been busy. He’s always got some new project on the go, it seems, fiction and non-fiction, but it’s been a while since he abandoned, or so I thought, his wonderful Jim Stringer railway detective series. The series has taken us from the early 1900s with Jim as a mere teenager, through marriage and war service, to France, the Middle East (The Bahgdad Railway Club is a particular favourite) and to India. The mysteries are full of wonderful north of England wit, odd-bod characters on either side of the law, enough action to keep things humming along and, well, trains. Jim is always battling the establishment, various railway bosses, while attempting to keep ‘the wife’ happy. Eight years after Night Train to Jamalpur was published, here we suddenly have a new Jim Stringer mystery to look forward to. Powder Smoke comes out in November.

Clare Chambers has been one of my favourite authors in the field of contemporary fiction, particularly for her warmth and wit and quirky characters. I’ve already reviewed her new book, Small Pleasures, which wove a story around a couple of historical events from the late 1950s – an interesting departure for this author but still showcasing her gift with characters and humour, but with a darker theme this time and a powerful emotional punch. It sent me off to her previous works and I enjoyed myself hugely rereading In a Good Light as well as The Editor’s Wife. I seriously hope she doesn’t abandon her writing desk for another decade before releasing a new novel, as she’s just so talented.

Book Review: Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

One of the things I’ve always liked about Anne Tyler is her knack for unlikely characters. There’s never going to be a stereotypical character in a Tyler novel – they’re often a bit quirky, but oddly ordinary as well. Certainly they’re not the kind of people you meet a lot in fiction. Take Micah Mortimer for instance, the main character in Redhead by the Side of the Road.

You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.

Micah’s one of those quiet, fanatically tidy, routine driven men of a certain age, whose life could go on the same way for decades. He looks after his apartment building for a reduction in rent (sending out emails about the importance of flattening milk cartons before they go in the recycling), while running his Tech Hermit business, solving people’s home computer problems.

Not only is Micah pernickerty about his cleaning routine (kitchen floors every Monday), he likes to think of himself as a model driver, sticking to the rules, taking care when parking, while an imagined Driving God smiles benignly. All the same his inclination to do the right thing also extends towards people, like his neighbours, but sometimes he misses important signals.

Two things happen that upset his routine. The teenage son of a former girlfriend turns up on his doorstep, wondering if Micah might be his father. Brink Adams (Wouldn’t you know he’d have a name like “Brink”, surmises Micah – something about the blazer and the haircut) ends up staying the night, upsetting the order of Micah’s day, leaving him to wonder why Brink isn’t at college and how to get in touch with his mother.

And when his girlfriend, Cass, phones him with her own problem, fearing eviction because of her cat, Micah doesn’t offer much consolation and Cass dumps him. Suddenly his head is filled with what might have been, not only with Cass, but with Lorna, Brink’s mother, all those years ago.

This is a quiet little story – just nudging 180 pages – and as such seems perhaps less substantial than novels like A Spool of Blue Thread, or Searching for Caleb, with their look at families through the generations and the interactions of characters over time, their secrets and motivations. And yet, Tyler really nails the character of Micah and creates a beautiful little drama about him. It really is the perfect little book and sometimes a small story is just right. An easy four out of five from me.