Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us still sits on my TBR pile but I was interested in the idea of her second novel, especially when it was announced that Kathryn Williams would be providing an accompanying soundtrack.
Greatest Hits is the story of Cass Wheeler, a retired folk-pop singer-songwriter from the 1970s who takes a day to listen to her back catalogue and choose 16 songs to represent her life and work. As she does so, the story of her life emerges and we find out more about why each was written and what Cass has gone through to get to where she is, isolated and alone, but about to emerge with an album of new material.
Each chapter starts with a song and charts a part of Cass’s life, from her entrance into the world as the daughter of a vicar who christens her Maria because he feels she should, leaving Cassandra as her middle name. Cass’s mother has depression and leaves her husband and daughter to run away to Canada when Cass is a young girl. This act changes Cass’s life – emotionally in ways she takes years to recover from, and physically as she moves from her devastated father to live with her aunt and uncle. It is there that she takes her first real steps to a musical career.
Told purely from Cass’s point of view, the book is nevertheless a clear-eyed account of the mistakes we make as we get through life, and is unskimping on the details – the drug taking, drinking, domestic abuse. This is a novel about consequences, how we live with them, and about the elusive second chance.
Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett is published on 15 June 2017 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us still sits on my TBR pile but I jumped at the chance of reading this because I LOVE the idea of a book with an accompanying soundtrack. There aren’t many books that do this; there are variations, obviously, such as playlists featuring songs mentioned in all the Rebus books, for example, and Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music has an accompanying CD. Greatest Hits, however, has an accompanying soundtrack that was written especially for the book – performed by the lovely Kathryn Williams – and I’m looking forward to hearing the songs when my pre-order arrives.
Greatest Hits is the story of Cass Wheeler, a retired folk-pop singer from the 1970s who sits one day and evaluates her life while choosing her favourite songs from her back catalogue. Each chapter starts with the lyrics to the song and tells of a period in Cass’s life starting with her childhood as the daughter of a vicar whose mother suffered from depression and PND and then ran away to Canada with another man. The fallout from this changed Cass’s life, emotionally and practically, as she moved to live with her uncle and aunt.
We know from the present-day parts of the book that Cass has undergone some kind of tragedy that has meant she retreated from the world and that she is about to re-emerge with some new material. The details of this are made clear as the book progresses, in heartbreaking fashion.
Told purely from Cass’s point of view, Greatest Hits is nevertheless a clear-eyed account of mistakes made – and is unskimping on details, including drugs and domestic abuse -and about consequences and how to live with them. If this sounds pretty depressing, don’t depair – it’s a really enjoyable read.
Thanks to NetGalley for their advance copy. Greatest Hits is published on 15 June 2017 and the accompanying CD by Kathryn Williams is also available on that date.
Novellas still seem rare but are often intriguing. There is much in the 170 pages of The End We Start From that could have been fleshed out and given more detail but I’m not sure the end result would have been as powerful.
All you need to know is that an enormous flood has wiped out London and much of England. No why, when or how. While some preparations were in place, the devastation was still hard to manage. The narrator and heroine of this book, unnamed, flees with her husband and newborn son (also unnamed, in fact characters are only referred to by their first initial in this book) to Scotland to his parents’ home. When a further family tragedy takes place the three of them up and leave again, to a refugee camp but the husband runs away, unable to cope.
Unnamed and baby leave the camp and sail to an island commune where they are safe for a while but reports of the mainland leave her feeling she must return and try to find her husband.
So far, so post-apocalyptic, but what grounds the story and makes it both powerful and relevant is the part of the narrative about the new baby. Interspersed with the devastation and fear are her experiences of new motherhood, so normal and down to earth and relatable. These serve to make us realise how and why life goes on, that for every tragedy, every natural disaster or war or attack, humans endure through devastation, panic and heartbreak.
In a world that seems every day to turn its back ever harder on those fleeing war zones and all kinds of horror, it is perhaps more important than ever that books like The End We Start From are published, and to provide a searing glimpse of “there but for the grace…” that we seem to so badly need. An excellent debut.
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter is published on 18 May 2017 by Macmillan
I was walking to work through a university campus the other morning, wearing a tatty pair of sandals I can’t be bothered/ can’t afford to replace and listening to my ipod on shuffle. On came Britpop favourite Nice Guy Eddie by Sleeper and I sang to myself as I made my way down the road. It then occurred to me that I was doing exactly the same thing 20 years ago. Does nothing change?
It’s this kind of thing that I admire in other writers. It’s all very well writing tutors and those who post up writing tips on Twitter talking about giving your character seismic shifts in understanding as they progress through the book but in real life most of us are the same bewildered pi-eyed lunatics we were years ago.
Luckily we have Maggie O’Farrell to show us how it’s done. If you’re at all interested in the dynamics of family life, sibling relationships, and making the same mistakes over and over again, then this may be the book for you.
It’s 1976 and it’s bloody hot. There is legislation in place to help people through the water shortages. One morning one man sets off from home and doesn’t come back. His three children each make their way home to help their mother discover what has happened to him and each bring their own problems with them.
What I liked most about this was that, despite recreating the family unit, each of the problems were solved in some way by the characters on their own. They all need each other, to annoy and rub up against each other, but they don’t share their issues. They go off and do something about them. And in doing so, they remained at heart the same bewildered pi-eyed lunatics they were when they all lived under the same roof.
Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell is available to buy in paperback