John: Set in a Scottish town not greatly different to any other small town, Stonemouth by Iain Banks is a book about Stewart, a mid-twenties Stonemouth lad who had escaped to London. He has returned to the town for a funeral but first has to garner permission from the head of one of Stonemouth’s crime families. Stewart was to be the crime lord’s son-in-law but a moment’s madness resulted in his having to leave town in a hurry—with his brothers-in-law to be in hot pursuit. So his return to Stonemouth promises to be difficult. Iain Banks is in great form with this, his latest novel—the heavily politicised preachyness of some of his recent work has gone. Fans of Espidair Street, Crow Road and Whit are sure to enjoy Stonemouth.
Louise—Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout: Written before her Pulitzer winning novel Olive Kitteridge, this novel is also set in rural Maine, in 1959. Tyler Caskey is an Episcopalian minister whose wife has just died. Their baby is taken to live with her grandmother, and Tyler is left caring for his five year old daughter, Katherine. Tyler is loved by his congregation, and he has their sympathy, that is, until Katherine starts manifesting her grief in uncomfortable ways. Slowly, but surely the small town turns against their preacher and his child, like a horrible chain reaction. This is a small, quiet novel, intensely perceptive and disturbing. The extraordinary monoculture of a small town in the 1950s is a reminder of the bad old days—we can’t really blame Facebook and Twitter for all society’s ills. The flaws inherent in human nature exist beyond time, but happily the innate good in humans will prevail, and Abide with Me does not end sourly, as Strout could easily have chosen to do. It’s also very interesting to see the germ of Olive Kitteridge in this book. The Pulitzer winner is a series of 13 linked stories, set in the same town, with Olive Kitteridge, the high school maths teacher, appearing in each story. Abide with Me is written in a more traditional form, but the same themes of love and loss, and triumph over tribulation, are written about with the same calm clarity as the later book.
Viki—I’ve just read The Woman Who Wasn’t There—a story that should be included The New Literary History of America if they ever update. Tania Head, the ‘Face of the 9/11 Survivors’, infamously claimed to have escaped the South tower of the World Trade Centre on the day of the 9/11 attacks, while her fiancé was killed in the North tower. The book opens with the tale of her escape—replete with partially severed arm, burned bodies surrounding her, a blind stumble down endless smoke filled stairways, rescue by ‘the man with the red bandana’ and an heroic fireman or two. Even though you know when you start reading that Tania’s story is a well-researched lie, the writers take you right into that terrifying, claustrophobic scene—and you start questioning your own grip on humanity for doubting. Something Tania obviously benefited from for the six years she managed to maintain her fiction. This, and a PTSD therapy-obsessed revenge-bent America where Tania’s perfect tale of survival and loss, complete with fairy-tale love story, was the holy grail of media stories. I read it in one sitting.