Tag Archives: David Park

Us – David Nicholls

David Nicholls’ One Day is one of the biggest selling books of recent years, it was one of those books that you saw people reading absolutely everywhere. Interestingly it is my second most viewed review on this blog ever, with well over ten thousand views only a few thousand behind Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog so there is some additional trivia for you. It is a book I really, really enjoyed (even if it left me a wreck) and so, like many readers, I was very excited about Us when it came out last year, especially after a five year wait.

Hodder Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 416 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One night Douglas Petersen is woken by his wife Connie, automatically he thinks that either their house is being burgled or something awful is happening to her or their son Albie. As it happens there isn’t something wrong with Connie, though she decides to tell him that she feels that their marriage of over twenty years is finished and that once Albie is safely off to University after the summer she is going to leave Douglas and get a divorce. This is devastating news to Douglas who is still completely in love with Connie and also, though admittedly it hasn’t been all fireworks in the last few years, he thought they were happy enough, settled and happy.

On a slightly smaller scale, though not insignificant Douglas, he remembers that they have booked a huge summer holiday as a family, thinking it would be the last with Albie not the last with all of them, on a grand tour of Europe. As this dawns on Douglas so does the idea that maybe this holiday could be what cements them once again as a family and win back Connie’s heart and her love for him. What follows is both what comes after Connie’s sudden revelation and the holiday in questions, which we know is going to be a rollercoaster before we even start on it with them, and also the story of how Douglas and Connie met, fell in love, married and then ended up in the situation they are in.

The device of going back and forth in time from the opening of a novel is, admittedly, hardly anything new or earth shattering in the world of literature. Sometimes these well used tropes in writing can, when done well and by the right writer, can be what makes a novel work so well and I personally really, really liked Nicholls’ use of it in Us. I don’t know about all of you but I am someone who always wants to know the ins and outs of a relationship; how people met, the funny stories of years of a relationship, the highs and the lows etc. With Us, Nicholls’ gives us theses in abundance from the moments a couple will tell you on any night out like how they met (see below) but also and often more fascinatingly the ones they keep just between each other.

I hadn’t spoken this much for years. I hoped, from Connie’s silence, that she was finding me fantastically interesting, but when I looked her eyes were rolled far back into her head.
‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m sorry. I’m just rushing my tits off.’
‘Oh. Okay. Should I stop talking?’
‘No, I love it. You’re bringing me down, but in a good way. Wow. Your eyes look massive, Douglas. They’re taking up your whole face.’
‘Okay. So… should I keep talking then?’
‘Yes, please. I like listening to your voice. It’s like listening to the Shipping Forecast.’

Nicholls is brilliant at characters and their relationships. He can build a character in a sentence using the oddest yet most realistic and human of quirks, like them being described as the shipping forecast by others etc. He is particularly good at relationships, be they platonic friendships (which we see less in this novel), those between a couple and those between a parent and a child, which is really the second biggest theme in the book alongside middle age. Us is very much about the relationship between a father and their son, something which was particularly close to Nicholls when he wrote the book. This comes up particularly on the trip away, which reminded me quite a lot of one of the strands in David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam which if you loved this you should most definitely read.

Douglas himself makes for an interesting narrator. He is a quirky ‘nice guy’, someone safe, someone inoffensive and someone who sometimes doesn’t quite get or click with the world around him. That isn’t to make him a victim, though sometimes I did think he was the cruel butt of some of Nicholls jokes, he is just someone that you initially find a bit odd and then warm to him. Like many of us with our unusual quirks. His distance to the world, which is how I saw it, did occasionally make me feel a little distanced from him and therefore occasionally less sympathetic or empathetic to his plight. I also wondered sometimes if Nicholls was using this device to hold back a little and I wasn’t sure why. That said even in holding back, and indeed with distance, Nicholls is still very funny and as always human.

Other people’s sex lives are a little like other people’s holidays: you’re glad that they had fun but you weren’t there and you don’t necessarily want to see the photos. At our age too much detail leads to a certain amount of mental whistling and staring at shoes, and there’s also the problem of vocabulary. Scientific terms, though clinically accurate, don’t really convey the heady dark intensity, etc., etc. and I’d like to avid a simile or a metaphor – valley, orchid, garden, that kind of thing. Certainly I have no intention of using a whole load of swear words. So I won’t go into detail, except to say that it worked out pretty well for all concerned, with a pleasant sense of self-satisfaction, as if we’d discovered that we were still capable of performing a forward roll. Afterwards we lay in a tangle of limbs.

I have to admit I had a few niggles with the book. Occasionally the father/son stuff and Douglas being so try hard got a little bit much for me, having thought about it I think this might be that as I had no relationship with my dad, then a very difficult one before going back to no relationship, I wonder if this is just something I don’t connect with. Nicholls won me back over with family dynamics and mishaps with them as a whole on the holiday though, again because we have all been in those situations. I was reminded by my mother not long ago of the time she accidentally booked us into a brothel in Greece thinking it was a hotel, the ladies were lovely to us though – I was about eleven before that gets misconstrued, and isn’t far off what happens to the Petersen’s.

My biggest quibble was the lack of Connie’s voice in the story which occasionally I would have really liked to counteract Douglas’. Nicholls makes much of how they are polar opposites, he is a scientist and she is an art curator, so it would have been interesting to hear that voice as well as seeing what made her fall for Douglas, something Douglas himself doesn’t get, filling in a couple of the blanks I felt were occasionally left. Maybe Nicholls thought that would be too like One Day though, I wish I had asked him now, anyway… Again this was countered by the fact that Nicholls does, albeit through Douglas, look at the huge question of the sciences vs the arts (Douglas isn’t bookish, Connie devours them) which gives the book additional layers and depth. So all my niggles were flattened by the positives.

All in all, Us is another very good Nicholls novel indeed. It is a story of falling in and out and in and out of love, it is a coming of middle age novel and also a family drama, with an emphasis on comical drama, all rolled into one. I think it is also a novel that looks at marriage in modern times and how once upon a time we would fall in love with people we might grow apart from and have to put up with them, now we don’t but what does it mean for us all? I expected a novel that would leave me broken again; instead I got one that had hope.

If you would like to David talking about Us further, you can hear him chatting to me on You Wrote The Book here. I should also add that both my mother and step father have read it and were raving about it this very weekend just gone and they are much tougher critics than me (my mother even said I was being tough on it, I think this may have been that a) it was described as a divorce comedy which when you’re going through a divorce is anything but comical b) I loved One Day so much anything that followed it would have to super impress c) I did like this book a lot so get off my case mum, ha) so there is some extra impetus to read it! What about any of you, have you read it and what did you think?

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Filed under David Nicholls, Hodder & Stoughton, Review

The Light of Amsterdam – David Park

I have decided that this week we are going Dutch. Either the authors will be Dutch or the books will set in Dutch places. What is the inspiration behind this? Well, since you asked so nicely and weren’t forced into this way of thinking by me at all, I had the joy of going to Amsterdam back in July for work and whilst I was there I did my usual trick of reading a few books set there or by authors who lived there. The first of these was ‘The Light of Amsterdam’ by David Park which seemed perfect choice because of its plot (more shortly) and also because it was also one of the Fiction Uncovered 2012 selection, and I haven’t read one of their choices that I haven’t liked yet.

Bloomsbury Books, trade paperback, 2012, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘The Light of Amsterdam’ is a novel that weaves the stories of three pairs of tourists coming to the city for a long weekend (at one point as they were flying to Amsterdam in the book as I was doing the same thing at the actual time) and how their lives change over that weekend. As I typed that I, for the first time, suddenly saw how clichéd that sounds, but honestly ditch that opinion because David Parks does do something quite marvellous with that plot device.

Alan, whose career as an art lecturer seems to be going down the pan as fast as his marriage recently did, decides to take his teenage son Jack on a father son bonding weekend whilst making a pilgrimage of his youth. Jack takes his wife Marion, who thinks Jack is desperate to have an affair no longer seeing her as a sexual being, for a birthday treat and to get them away from their garden centre before the pre-Christmas madness. Karen, the cleaner in both an office and old people’s home, is there on a hen weekend which would be her ideal of hell anyway but is made worse by the fact that the bride to be is her own daughter. We then follow all three pairs as they pass each other in the street, or randomly bump into each other, as the weekend unfolds.

At first I have to admit that I didn’t think I was going to enjoy ‘The Light of Amsterdam’ at all. As the book opens we are in Alan’s head as he watches the final journey of George Best after his funeral and I was slightly worried we were about to endure the narrative of some middle aged football fan. As Alan went on to discuss his affair, the end of his marriage, how bored he was in his job, how difficult his teenage son was, etc and I was thinking ‘bugger, have I got to unpack my luggage in public to find another book’ yet there was something in the writing and the characterisation Parks had that kept me going and I am really, really glad I did because his characters are superb.

Call it the ‘nosey parker’ in me but I love books about people, regular ordinary people. People who you could pass in the street, fictional people you have met the characteristics of in people you have spent time with. They aren’t remarkable, they just get on and David Park has these characters spot on and develops them fully before the plane has left the runway and we get their back stories. Alan is simply a disappointed middle aged man, who feels like (partly through his own actions which is always worse) that his life has taken a wrong turn. Karen is a woman who got pregnant very young but has built a life for her daughter and herself no matter how tough it has been or how much she has had to sacrifice nor how menial the jobs she has to do in order to make ends meet. Marion is a woman who has a successful marriage, business and yet somewhere inside her feels all this is too good to be true, something has to give and will it be her husband, tipped over the edge when he buys her membership to a gym. It was Marion who I have to say I found the most intriguing, especially when you discover what she has planned on their weekend away.

“When the girls had finished their coffee he told them he’d drive them home. She was glad that he didn’t offer them any more wine and that he hadn’t drunk any more. When he went off to fetch the smoke alarms and his toolbox she looked at the bottle and was momentarily tempted to finish it off after everyone had gone but tried to strengthen her resolution to dedicate herself, if not to abstinence, then at least moderation. The girls left by the kitchen door to go and fetch their coats. She heard them chatting in Polish as they walked out into the floodlit corridor. Standing at the glass she looked at how harsh the light bleached Anka’s hair almost white. For some reason she thought they looked like prisoners making their way back to their cells for the night. She felt sorry for them in their struggle to make a better life. She didn’t think she could be as brave, told herself that she had never been brave, so this thing that she was planning to do seemed like it belonged to someone else and she wondered if she could find the strength to see it through.”

Even though I found Marion the most intriguing, I loved all of the characters the more I got to know them and as the stories developed. When I alternated between them as I read on I didn’t find myself mourning the last narrator or rushing onto the next one. I also admired Park for his sense of giving them some personal mini drama’s once in Amsterdam without every pushing the story lines too far and turning it into some farce or melodrama. The characters have issues, they address the issues, some overcome the issues, some don’t, the world goes on as it does in real life and I really liked that quality with the book. My only slight niggle was that I felt it ended a teeny bit too neatly overall, yet because I liked the characters so much I was almost glad of it and to be fair Park doesn’t make the most obvious thing that could happen end up happening. You will know what I mean if you have read the book or once you do, which I recommend.

‘The Light of Amsterdam’ is one of those great novels about the stories real people tell, the ones that you overhear snippets of on the bus/train/cafe and want to know more. It is three tales of people who you could quite easily pass in the street, and it celebrates the little understated drama’s that we have ourselves every so often. Those life events that aren’t huge and all encompassing, but that change us slightly or make us see our lives differently. If the characters are doing that you can’t help but do that yourself a little bit, whilst also looking around you and thinking ‘I wonder what that person sat over there’s life is like?’

Who else has read ‘The Light of Amsterdam’ and what did you make of it? Have any of you read any of David Park’s other novels? I have heard this one was something a bit different for him so I am pondering if I would like his previous books or not so would love your thoughts, as always. Tomorrow we are off for a little wander round Amsterdam…

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, David Park, Fiction Uncovered, Review

Fiction Uncovered 2012

I have been waiting for this list of books to be announced for weeks, finally it is here, the Fiction Uncovered list of titles for 2012. If you are currently thinking ‘well what on earth is that’ let me explain, this is not a longlist of books of which one will eventually win a prize, it is list of eight titles that may just have gone under the radar and have been deemed, by a team of judges, as being books we all should have read because they are excellent yet didn’t get the buzz that they deserved. These selected titles are then promoted in book shops (including the lovely Book Barge) around the UK and in libraries, lovely. Well now it is back for 2012. I even voted for a book I wanted to see on the list if I were a judge, I must go to that list again to get even more recommendations. Anyway…

So why am I so excited? Well in part it’s the fact that it is another list of books that I might want to read (I have to admit I think I actually want to real ALL the books on this years list) and because its pushing books which might not have been pushed. The other reason is more personal as last year this is where I first heard about, and then tried, ‘The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall and we all know how that read went don’t we? I was also introduced to Ray Robinson’s fantastic novel ‘Forgetting Zoe’. I have both their previous novel/s to read in the future. I also started both Tim Pears ‘Disputed Land’, which I loved but was a little too close to home at a specific time so I had to stop, and Sarah Moss’ ‘Night Waking’ which I was loving but had to crack on with reading the Green Carnation Prize submissions, which is what could stop me from reading this years eight which, with my brief thoughts below each ones blurb, are…

Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke by Peter Benson (Alma Books)

When young Elliot gets a labourer’s job at Mr Evans’s after being sacked from a pig farm for liberating six of its sows, he thinks he’ll have even more opportunities to lean on gates or stare at fields. But his best mate Spike keeps getting him into trouble, first by showing him what is being grown in a tucked-away polytunnel, and then turning up at his caravan’s door with a van full of weed. As Elliot tries to help his friend get rid of the hot merchandise, they find themselves at the receiving end of a cruel cat-and-mouse game.

Simon says: The fact this has polytunnel (my mother has just got some she is obsessed about) in the blurb makes me think of The Archers and we all know how much I love that show. It also sounds like an English countryside book, which I also love. I must read it.

My Former Heart by Cressida Connolly (Fourth Estate)

When she grew up, Ruth would say that she could place the day that her mother had decided to go away. She didn’t know the actual date, but she recalled the occasion: it was on the afternoon of a wet day, early in 1942, during a visit to the cinema. She thought she could even pinpoint the exact moment at which Iris had made up her mind to go, leaving her only child behind. Neither of them could have guessed then that they would never live together again. Spanning the second half of the last century, “My Former Heart”, Cressida Connolly’s mesmerising first novel, charts the lives of three generations of Iris’s family, the mother who walked away from her child. Ruth will be deserted again, many years later, by a husband she loves, but not before she has had two children by him. She leaves London to live with her uncle, where she creates a new life for herself with another woman. And we follow the lives of her two children, trying to make a place for themselves in the world in the shadow of the family that precedes them. With its large cast of fascinating characters, this is an outstanding novel about families and their ability to adapt. It surely marks the beginning of long career as a novelist for Cressida Connolly.

Simon says: The LGBT twist in the blurb interests me and would make it stand out in its type of fiction if you know what I mean. I was slightly worried when I saw this was compared to Alan Hollinghursts latest novel, only this is only 240 pages. I am intrigued.

Lucky Bunny by Jill Dawson (Sceptre)

Crime is a man’s business, so they say, though not according to Queenie Dove. A self-proclaimed genius when it comes to thieving and escape, she reckons she’s done pretty well. Yes, she had a tough childhood in London’s East End during the Depression, with a father in and out of prison. But she survived the Blitz, learned how to get by on her wits, and soon graduated from shoplifting to more glamorous crimes. Daring, clever and sexy, she thrived in the Soho of the Krays and the clubs of Mayfair, fell wildly in love, and got away with it all. Or did she? For beneath Queenie’s vivacious, unrepentant account lies another story – of punishment and loss, and a passionate relationship that turns sour. To the end, she believes she was lucky, but did she simply play the hand that fate dealt her? Vividly portraying the times and circles she moved in, Lucky Bunny captures an intriguing, engaging woman as it questions how far we are in control of our own lives.

Simon says: This has been on my radar for ages, so reading it is a no brainer, in fact it will be a done deal.

Crushed Mexican Spiders by Tibor Fischer (Unbound)

‘Crushed Mexican Spiders’ is classic Fischer. Don’t be fooled by the title: the poet laureate of London grime is on home ground as a women returns home to discover the key to her Brixton flat no longer works – Haunting images and crisp one-liners are about all that link it with the second tale, ‘Possibly Forty Ships’, the true story of the Trojan War. In a scene straight out of a Tarantino movie, an old man is being tortured, pressed to reveal how the greatest legend of all really happened. Let’s just say it bears scant resemblance to Homer: ‘If you see war as a few ships sinking in the middle of the waves, a few dozen warriors in armour, frankly not as gleaming as it could be, being welcomed whole-heartedly by the water, far, far away from Troy, if you see that as war, then it was a war – ‘ The stories are being illustrated by the work of the acclaimed Czech photographer Hana Vojakova .

Simon says: At a mere 64 pages and with illustrations I want to read this just to see how it is so powerful in so few words, I also like the Unbound project so if I read it I will kill two bords of intrigue with one stone.

Hit and Run by Doug Johnstone (Faber and Faber)

Driving home from a party with his girlfriend and brother, all of them drunk and high on stolen pills, Billy Blackmore accidentally hits someone in the night. In a panic, they all decide to drive off. But the next day Billy wakes to find he has to cover the story for the local paper. It turns out the dead man was Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord and, as Billy struggles with what he’s done, he is sucked into a nightmare of guilt, retribution and violence. From the author of the acclaimed “Smokeheads”, “Hit & Run” is another pitch-black psychological thriller.

Simon says: I heard about this thanks to a review of Kim’s on Reading Matters and was intrigued. I like the fact a thriller has made the list too, I like a good thriller, only concern is it might be a bit ‘blokey’ for me though that could be a good test.

When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones (Mantle)

In turn of the century London, Grace Farringdon dreams of polar explorations and of escape from her stifling home with her protective parents and eccentric, agoraphobic sister. But while Grace longs to cross glaciers and survive sub-zero conditions with her hero Ernest Shackleton, she seems destined for nothing more than marriage, or a life shackled to the family home. But when Grace secretly applies to Candlin, a women’s college filled with intelligent, like-minded women, she finally feels her ambitions beginning to be take shape. There she forms an Antarctic Exploration Society with the gregarious suffragette Locke, the reserved and studious Hooper and the strange, enigmatic Parr, and before long the group are defying their times and their families by climbing the peaks of Snowdonia and planning an ambitious trip to the perilous Alps. Fifteen years later, trapped in her Dulwich home, Grace is haunted by the terrible events that took place out on the mountains. She is the society’s only survivor and for years people have demanded the truth of what happened, the group’s horrible legacy a millstone around her neck. Now, as the eve of the Second World War approaches, Grace is finally ready to remember and to confess…

Simon says: The phrases ‘turn of the century’, ‘agoraphobic sister’ and ‘polar explorations’ have me officially sold. I am going to beg, steal or borrow a copy of this.

The Light of Amsterdam by David Park (Bloomsbury)

It is December in Belfast, Christmas is approaching and three sets of people are about to make their way to Amsterdam. Alan, a university art teacher stands watching the grey sky blacken waiting for George Best’s funeral cortege to pass. He will go to Amsterdam to see Bob Dylan in concert but also in the aftermath of his divorce, in the hope that the city which once welcomed him as a young man and seemed to promise a better future, will reignite those sustaining memories. He doesn’t yet know that his troubled teenage son Jack will accompany his pilgrimage. Karen is a single mother struggling to make ends meet by working in a care home and cleaning city centre offices. She is determined to give her daughter the best wedding that she can. But as she boards the plane with her daughter’s hen party she will soon be shocked into questioning where her life of sacrifices has brought her. Meanwhile middle-aged couple, Marion and Richard are taking a break from running their garden centre to celebrate Marion’s birthday. In Amsterdam, Marion’s anxieties and insecurities about age, desire and motherhood come to the surface and lead her to make a decision that threatens to change the course of her marriage. As these people brush against each other in the squares, museums and parks of Amsterdam, their lives are transfigured as they encounter the complexities of love in a city that challenges what has gone before. Tender and humane, and elevating the ordinary to something timeless and important, The Light of Amsterdam is a novel of compassion and rare dignity.

Simon says: I was a little nonchalant about this one with Alan’s ‘situation’ but I then read about the other two and now rather fancy reading this.

This is Life by Dan Rhodes (Canongate)

This is Life is a missing baby mystery and an enchanted Parisian adventure. Hand in hand with lovable heroine Aurelie Renard, you will see life as you’ve never seen it before, discover the key to great art, witness the true cost of love, and learn how all these things may be controlled by the in-breath of a cormorant. Chock-full of charming characters and hilarious set-pieces this is a hugely enjoyable novel that will make you see life anew.

Simon says: The only book on the list by an author I have read before (and love, seriously he is brilliant) and I am thrilled that Dan is on the list, so as its one of the few of his I haven’t read already I will DEFINITELY be reading this one and probably within the next week or two. If you haven’t read him you must, ‘Gold’ has been my favourite (funny and heartbreaking) so far, I have high hopes for this.

So that is the list. What do you make of it and indeed the venture of Fiction Uncovered itself (the website is here)? Have you read any of these or anything else by the authors? I would love some further insight.

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Filed under Fiction Uncovered