Not as spoilt for choice as I’d expected for August paperbacks but there are some excellent treats to look forward to including Xiaolu Guo’s ambitious, Baileys Prize longlisted I Am China, a jigsaw puzzle of a love story, chock-full of well-aimed barbs fired at Chinese politics past and present. Iona Kirkpatrick has been sent a package of jumbled documents, some scrawled almost illegibly on scrappy bits of paper. She’s a translator and the package is from a publisher with very little explanation of what the documents are about or what they plan to do with her translation. She begins to realise that the papers form a love story between Chinese punk musician Kublai Jian and Mu, his poet lover. Gulou’s novel takes some getting into but don’t let that put you off – it’s well worth the effort, a book that leaves you with much to think about.
As does Michel Faber’s compelling and unusual The Book of Strange New Things set on a different planet from our own. It opens with a journey to the airport, obviously not any old airport. Both evangelical Christians, Bea and Peter Leigh are about to face their first real separation, one that neither of them can quite comprehend: Peter is to be propelled into space to become a missionary on Oasis, a settlement set up and run by a shadowy multinational corporation. They bid each other a passionate farewell. The knowledge that Faber had written this novel while his wife was dying put the whole thing into a different perspective for me.
Sue Miller writes the kind of quietly insightful novel, often set in small-town America, of which I’m very fond. At the core of her writing are relationships between men and women – their passions, joys, and tensions – the ways in which they manage the constant round of compromise and negotiation, or not. When a new Miller appears on the horizon it’s like a date in the diary with an old friend, something to look forward to and savour. There’s usually a hook on which she hangs her subtle explorations and in the case of The Arsonist it’s the burning down of summer houses in the small New Hampshire town of Pomeroy. A thoroughly enjoyable novel from a writer of reliably good emotionally intelligent fiction.
I’ve not read or reviewed the following three novels but I like the sound of all of them particularly Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad in which a widow moves from her rural home to her daughter’s in Budapest. Iza can’t get the hang of how things are done in the metropolis nor find a way to fit into the life of the daughter she’s never really known. The publisher’s blurb tells us it’s about ‘the meeting of the old-fashioned and the modern worlds and the beliefs we construct over a lifetime’ which sounds interesting territory to explore to me.
As does that of Kim Zupan’s The Ploughmen which sees a seventy-one-year old serial killer finally awaiting trial interrogated by a low-ranking officer in the sheriff’s department who is trying to extract details of Gload’s many murders. Valentine Millimaki has drawn the short straw – the overnight shift – putting yet more strain on his troubled marriage. An oddly intimate connection springs up between this disparate pair. According to the publisher’s blurb things take ‘a startling turn with a brazen act of violence, a manhunt, and a stunning revelation that leave Gload’s past and Millimaki’s future forever entwined’. Not the kind of billing that’s usually up my alley but this sounds quite riveting.
My last choice, Jamie Kornegay’s Soil, is also set in small-town USA with an environmental scientist turning to farming in the Mississippi hills. Within a year it all goes to pot when a corpse appears on his family’s property. With his marriage in tatters and convinced he’s been framed, the farmer finds himself caught up in maelstrom of deception and obsession. The blurb describes it as ‘The Coen Brothers meet Crime and Punishment – with a Mississippi twist’ which is enough to get anybody’s attention. We’ll see.
That’s it for August. I’ve reviewed the first three but a click on any of the last three titles will take you to Waterstone’s website if you want a more detailed synopsis. And if you fancy catching up with my August hardback choices here they are. This is my last post for a couple of weeks – H and I are off to explore the Baltic states. No doubt a few books will be read along the way.