Spring Into Fiction

30th January 2015

New year, new bookshelf. The last few years have been golden ones for fiction, and 2015 looks set to be just as dazzling, with Kate Atkinson following up 'Life After Life' with a ‘companion volume’ out in May, while old favourite Judy Blume is publishing her first adult novel in 16 years in early summer. But before then, says Jennifer Lipman, there are plenty of gems to consider, whether you prefer family dramas, Edwardian mysteries or psychological thrillers…

What to read if you want a book about an extraordinary yet ordinary family…

There’s a scene in Anne Tyler’s latest novel that’s both touching and heart-achingly sad, when a widower reflects on how he should have switched sides of the bed, so that he wouldn’t reach over for his departed wife in the night. It’s a simple, authentic moment, characteristic of Tyler’s understated style.

With 'A Spool of Blue Thread', the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist is on typically fine form, delving into the lives of three generations of the Whitshank family. In this commonplace – but remarkable to themselves – suburban American family, there’s troubled, tearaway son Denny, a constant mystery to his parents and siblings, creative, passionate wife and mother Abby; and Junior, the patriarch who literally built the house the family still inhabits. Ordinary people, ordinary experiences, and yet as narrated by Tyler, their exploits become utterly mesmerising. The fact that Tyler has confirmed this will be her final novel makes the story all the more worth savouring.

'A Spool of Blue Thread', Anne Tyler,
Chatto & Windus, £18.99, 10 February

What to read if you've ever dreamed of living off the land…

How much do you know about frontier life in Edwardian-era Canada? Not much, I’d hazard. I certainly didn’t, which made Patrick Gale’s latest novel all the more fascinating. Spanning from the turn of the twentieth century to after the First World War, it’s an unforgettable tale: one that I struggled to put down.

Harry Cane, a sympathetic lost soul, is married and living a gentlemanly existence in Twickenham, when a series of events conspire to turn his life upside down, culminating in his boarding a ship bound for Toronto. Without giving away the reason, what sends him off to sea is heartbreakingly tragic. But as the book progresses, this urban squire is inducted into the challenges of farming in a hostile environment, slowly adjusting to life in a vast, empty, and often freezing land and ultimately finding friendship and even love. Yet even then, the contented life he carves out for himself is fragile, threatened at every turn.

A sweet and poignant story, vividly described. Don’t let the title put you off, it’s a must-read for spring.

'A Place Called Winter', Patrick Gale,
Tinder Press, 26 March

What to read on a long train journey… or perhaps not…

This year’s 'Gone Girl'? That comparison is overused, but while Paula Hawkins’ thriller is perhaps not as slick as Gillian Flynn’s bestseller, it’s equally disturbing. Our narrator is Rachel, a divorcee in a dead-end life with a suitcase-full of personal problems and an unhealthy obsession with her ex-husband. Bitter about the way her life has turned out, she spends her daily commute dreaming of the happy existence of a random couple she spots from the train. Then one of them goes missing, and she decides to get involved, with horrifying consequences.

Rachel is an unreliable narrator and often unlikable, while all the characters, from the missing woman, Megan, to Rachel’s romantic rival, Anna, have something to hide – not to mention someone to hide from. The denouement is absolutely ludicrous, but piecing everything together is tremendous fun…

You’ll miss your stop because you won’t be able to look up from the page.

'The Girl on the Train', Paula Hawkins,
Transworld, out now

What to read if you love a good historical mystery…

A crumbling old mansion in the depths of the Somerset countryside, in a village seemingly untouched by time…

A young unmarried woman with a sorry tale, sent away from home in the early 1930s…

A series of secrets about the property’s former inhabitants, and a tragedy that no one has quite recovered from and nobody is willing to discuss…

These are the ingredients of Kate Riordan’s second novel, a historical mystery that really keeps you guessing. While it treads familiar territory, this is a well-crafted novel that avoids cliché; the characters are colourful and multi-dimensional and the era-specific detail is highly convincing. Riordan gets into the minds of her characters with skill and sensitivity, and does not shy away from difficult subjects.

It’s a light read, but with far more substance than others like it. Perfect for fans of Kate Atkinson.

'The Girl in the Photograph', Kate Riordan,
Penguin, out now

What to read if you’ve ever wanted to run away…

Perhaps the most confusing novel I’ve read in the last year, British writer Emma Hooper’s story is a quirky meditation on love, loss and memory. Etta, who is in her twilight years and has never yet seen the sea, decides that now’s the time, and heads out from her home in west Canada to walk to the coast on the other side. Left behind is her husband Otto, who busies himself trying (and occasionally failing) to replicate his absent wife’s cooking (resulting in some of the novel’s most affecting scenes) and Russell, an old friend who has never had any opportunity to escape, but has always wanted to.

As Etta walks, ‘joined’ by the dreamlike creature James, and celebrated across the country for her exploits, her recollections of eight decades come to the fore. Through a series of touching letters sent during the Second World War, we learn how Etta and Otto became 'Etta and Otto', and at what cost to those around them. Straddling decades, from the trio’s youth in rural Canada during the war to the modern day, this is a peculiar but moving tale of lifelong camaraderie, devotion and hope.

'Etta and Otto and Russell and James', Emma Hooper,
Penguin, out now

What to read if you’ve ever been told you have an overactive imagination…

It comes endorsed by Hilary Mantel, which is no small praise to live up to. But 'The Offering' is a very impressive novel – hardly enjoyable, given its dark subject matter – but compelling and original. Madeline is a patient at an institution; she has been housed in an old stately home with no freedom to leave for several decades, cared for by nurses and with little stimulation. Why she was admitted is unclear, though we learn early on that she grew up shunning society in a cult-like environment on a desolate and hostile island, with a domineering father who believed himself guided by God.

When a new doctor arrives at the institution, he sets himself the task of unlocking Madeline’s memory of what she did on the island all those years ago, and why she was sent away. But this is no fairytale; there are certainly no happily-ever-afters. Imbued with religious symbolism and imagery, McCleen gets inside the mania and mind of her protagonist and brings to life what unadulterated faith – and the loss of this – can feel like. Disturbing, but fascinating.

'The Offering', Grace McCleen,
Sceptre, out now

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