Books to Look Out for in February 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThe second part of February’s preview wanders around all over the place rather as I’d like to be doing at this dank, drear time of the year here in the UK. I’m beginning the tour in Paris in 1929 with Whitney Scharer’s gorgeously jacketed The Age of Light which tells the story of renowned photographer Lee Miller and her stormy relationship with the Surrealist, Man Ray. ‘The Age of Light is a powerfully sensuous tale of ambition, love, and the personal price of making art. In this immersive debut novel, Whitney Scharer has brought a brilliant and pioneering artist out of the shadow of a man’s story and into the light’ according to the publishers.

We’re moving on to Thailand with Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s debut, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, which tells the story of a disparate set of the city’s inhabitants through the history of one building, A nineteenth century missionary longs for New England; a 1970s jazz pianist attempts to subdue the building’s ghosts and a young woman gives swimming lessons in a near-future submerged Bangkok, apparently. I’ve always had a soft spot for this kind of structure but I’m slightly deterred by the dystopian thread.

Off to Sydney’s working-class suburbs for Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats which tells the story of an Italian immigrant family whose misfortune coincides with the Tampa Affair which saw over four hundred refugees stranded off the Australian coast. Antonio is forced into early retirement after an accident at work, his dreams of a better future for his family shattered. ‘Manipulated by the media and made vulnerable by his feeling of irrelevance, Antonio commits an act that makes him a lightning rod for the factions that are bitterly at odds over the Tampa Affair and the “immigrant question”’ according to the publishers. The Tampa Affair took place in 2001 but this novel sounds sadly relevant today.

Former US Army medic Nico Walker’s Cherry is set in Cleveland Ohio where two students meet and fall in love in 2003. When Emily is called home, her lover joins the army leaving for Iraq after they hurriedly marry. He returns stricken with PTSD and a drug habit which turns into heroin addiction. When Emily becomes addicted, too, the couple’s attempts at a normal life collapse and he turns to bank robbery. ‘Hammered out on a prison typewriter, Cherry marks the arrival of a raw, bleakly hilarious, and surprisingly poignant voice straight from the dark heart of America’ say the publishers.

I’m ending February’s preview with a novel that I suspect will be bittersweet for me, on the eve of the dreaded Brexit. Robert Menasse’s The Capital is a satire on the European Commission as Cover imageit nears its fiftieth anniversary. The plan is to put Auschwitz at the celebration’s centre but while some members welcome the idea others most emphatically do not. Meanwhile, a murder investigation has been suppressed at the highest level in Brussels. ‘The Capital is a sharp satire, a philosophical essay, a crime story, a comedy of manners, a wild pig chase, but at its heart it has the most powerful pro-European message: no-one should forget the circumstances that gave rise to the European project in the first place’ according to the publishers. I couldn’t agree more with that last sentiment. Still hoping for a miracle…

That’s it for February’s preview of new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye, and if you’d like to catch up with part one it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Katalin Street by Madga Szabó (transl. Len Rix): The past is another country

Cover imageI’ve yet to read The Door, Madga Szabó’s best known novel, and I made the mistake of reading Iza’s Ballad on holiday, failing to give it the quiet attention it needed. Nothing to distract me from Katalin Street, enjoyable or otherwise. First published in 1969, it explores the aftermath of the Second World War through three families, neighbours on the eponymous street with its lovely views of the Danube.

Henriette Held arrives on Katalin Street in 1934 when she’s six years old. There are two strange girls in what’s to be her bedroom and a slovenly woman standing in the hall with her mother. Later she joins the girls and a boy in the garden. This is Henriette’s introduction to Irén, Blanka and Bálint, her new neighbours. The beautifully behaved Irén couldn’t be more different from her sister Blanka, always in trouble yet much-loved, while Bálint is the quiet centre of their small group. Henriette’s father is Jewish, the holder of a gold medal for bravery won in the Great War which protects him until the German occupation in 1944 when he and her mother disappear on what should have been a day of joy, the day of Irén and Bálint’s engagement. Bálint’s father does all he can to protect Henriette but a horrible coincidence of circumstances results in her murder. When the war is over, the city finds itself under a different occupation. Irén becomes a teacher, following in her father’s footsteps; Bálint becomes a doctor working in the same hospital where Blanka finds work as an administrator but he’s returned from the war a changed man and is later imprisoned. By 1968, Katalin Street has long since been converted into social housing but still maintains its lure.

Szabó’s novel begins with a section anchoring it in Katalin Street before briefly visiting an unnamed island where Blanka lives with her husband and his family. From there, she arranges her narrative around a succession of significant dates, telling her characters’ stories from different perspectives. I found it a little difficult to get into at first but once the more linear narrative took off the story flows easily. Henriette continues to appear after her death, regularly visiting Katalin Street and its scattered denizens, dismayed at the changes time and events have wrought in them. It’s a technique that could easily have backfired but Szabó handles it beautifully, even injecting a little humour as Henriette’s parents regress horribly when they encounter their own parents in the afterlife. A quiet aching melancholy runs through this beautiful expressed novel, a yearning for a lost world, and its ending is heart-wrenching. Given that it was published in 1969 when Hungary was still a communist country, I wondered how that had effected Szabó’s writing of it: how much of what she wanted to say was explicit, how much was left to the reader to infer.

Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan (transl. George Miller): Silence is not always golden

Cover imageI read Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story around this time last year and knew it would be one of my books of the year. I was delighted, then, when I spotted Loyalties on the publishing horizon. It tells the story of a young boy, caught up in the fallout from a bitter divorce, and explores the ties of silence that bind society together in a sometimes mistaken loyalty.

Hélène is a teacher with her eye on Théo. He’s too quiet for a twelve-year-old boy, seems exhausted much of the time and has only one friend. She’s convinced he’s being abused, just as she was as a child when she was subjected to systematic beatings by her sadistic father. She begins an investigation, first through official channels then stepping over the line. Théo spends alternate weeks with his mother and father. His mother is consumed with an entrenched hatred while his father slides into a deep depression. Théo has found an escape, drinking with his friend Mathis in the hope of obliterating his pain and anxiety. Meanwhile Mathis’ mother, Cécile, has discovered that her husband has an online identity that fills her with horror. In this brief novella, de Vigan examines how children can lose their way when the adults around them have lost theirs.

De Vigan tells her story from the perspectives of her four main characters giving a first-person immediacy to both Hélène and Cécile, one caught up in her own history the other reeling back from the discovery of her husband’s vile opinions. Silence and compromise are the themes here: Cécile has allowed herself to be remodeled into the person her husband wants her to be; Mathis can’t reveal Théo’s father’s condition because it will humiliate his friend and Hélène’s mother failed to step in to prevent her beatings. Théo’s situation is heart-wrenching, caught between two adults, more parent than child to one of them. De Vigan’s writing is as pinpoint sharp as ever but my expectations were sky-high after Based on a True Story which was breathtakingly good, not a description I use very often smacking as it does of hyperbole. Unfair to make that comparison given how very different in style and subject the two novels are, but inevitable, I’m afraid.

Books to Look Out for in February 2019: Part One

Cover imageFebruary’s surely the dullest month of the year in my part of the world although, thankfully, not in the publishing schedules, as I hope you’ll agree. Lots of promising titles to look forward to beginning with Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day which is about two couples who meet in their twenties. Thirty years later Alex and Christine’s evening is interrupted by a phone call: Zach has died and Lydia is distraught. Instead of uniting them in grief, Zach’s loss opens up a well of anger and bitterness between the remaining three, apparently. Hadley’s narrative moves back and forth between past and present, always an attractive structure for me.

In Steve Sem-Sanberg’s The Tempest, the past is also revisited thanks to a bereavement. Andreas returns to the house in which he grew up on an island just off the Norwegian coast. Memories surface and secrets are uncovered as he sorts through his late foster father’s belongings. ‘Rich in shimmering echoes from Shakespeare’s play, Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Tempest is a hypnotic portrayal of the inherited guilt that seeps through generations, haunting an island overgrown with myths’ say the publishers which sounds ambitious but intriguing.

I’ve managed to get ahead of myself and have already read Frances Liardet’s We Must Be Brave which carries on the pleasing theme of flitting between past and present revealing secrets. It opens in 1940 with the discovery of a child fast asleep at the back of a coach full of Cover imagefrightened women fleeing the bombing of Southampton. Ellen, the childless wife of a first world war veteran, takes Pamela home, surprised at the love awakened by this five-year-old girl whose loss reminds her of her own past. It would have been easy to descend into schmaltziness with this kind of story but Liardet steers well clear of that while still conveying its poignancy. I’ll be posting my review next month.

As you can guess from its title, Yara Rodrigues-Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist also has one foot in the past. A young woman whose mother has left her homeland struggles to find a way to feel comfortable with herself by exploring her family history. ‘Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity’ says the publisher, promisingly. I’m often drawn to the theme of immigration, inventively explored here by the sound of it.

There’s a promise of twists in Joan Silber’s Improvement which sees Kiki, settled in New York after travelling the world, worried about her niece’s relationship with her partner. When Reyna decides to put her four-year-old first, the repercussions are more profound that she might have expected.’ A novel that examines conviction, connection and the possibility of generosity in the face of loss, Improvement is as intricately woven together as Kiki’s beloved Turkish rugs and as colourful as the tattoos decorating Reyna’s body, with narrative twists and turns as surprising Cover imageand unexpected as the lives all around us’ say the publishers.

I’m winding up this preview with a book that was first published in 2015: Janice Galloway’s short story collection, Jellyfish, comprising sixteen stories which explore sex, parenthood, death, ambition and loss. Stuff of life, then. After reading Galloway’s memoirs and her novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, I’m eager to get my hands on this one.

That’s it for the first part of February’s preview. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Part two soon…

Six Degrees of Separation – from The French Lieutenant’s Woman to The Tax Inspector #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month we’re starting with John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I’m sorry to say that I remember the film, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, rather than the book which is set in Lyme Regis, one of my favourite seaside towns, and explores the position of women in nineteenth century society.

Taking my lead from Fowles’ title, Patrick deWitt’s French Exit is a caustic caricature of the wealthy upper classes, which takes its readers from New York City to Paris in the company of Frances Price, her son Malcolm and Small Frank, their ancient cat

Small Frank is one of the most memorable literary cats I’ve come across, only rivalled by the hairless therapy cat all done up in its ‘festive jumper’ in Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You in which a mother leaves her family when he’s a little boy.

Another son wrestles with his resentment at the mother who he believes deserted him when he was a child in Nathan Hill’s The Nix, a panoramic view of American politics from the ‘60s onwards, in which Samuel is forced to come to Faye’s aid when she is accused of being a terrorist.

Russell Banks’ The Darling also explores the fallout from the radical politics of the ’60s and ‘70s together with the machinations of American foreign policy through Hannah Musgrave who has been in hiding after taking part in acts of terror many years ago.

The Larkins in H. E. Bates’ The Darling Buds of May couldn’t be further from such goings on although they do manage to seduce a tax inspector away from his official duties with the joys of rustic life.

Which brings me neatly to Peter Carey’s The Tax Inspector which I have to confess I haven’t read but I gather it’s about a dodgy family business facing an audit.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an early postmodern novel set in Dorset to a second-hand car dealers’ just outside Sydney. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: Doing the dirty work

Cover imageI couldn’t resist the blurb for Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut. A woman is about to sit down to supper when her sister calls. She’s killed another man and needs Korede’s peerless cleaning skills. Set in Lagos where Korede is a nurse and Ayoola charms men,  My Sister, the Serial Killer is a short, sharp blackly funny novel.

It’s not the first time Korede’s dealt with her sister’s victims. She meticulously cleans Femi’s flat, wraps his body and puts it in the boot of her car before disposing of him in the river, just like the other two. Ayoola looks on while Korede labours away, only helping to carry Femi when cajoled into action. She’s shocked, claiming self-defence, but within days she’s slipped back into her usual routine. Korede and Ayoola are the antithesis of each other: Korede is plain, practical and responsible, in line for promotion to head nurse; Ayoola spends her time loafing around, posting on social media and beguiling men with her gorgeousness. When she visits the hospital for the first time, curious to meet the man with whom her sister is clearly smitten the inevitable happens. Will Tade be Ayoola’s fourth victim? How can Korede protect them both?

Braithwaite’s debut is a caper with a sharp edge. Told in Korede’s wry voice, it’s punctuated with snapshots of the bullying, corrupt father prepared to let a colleague get his hands on his fourteen-year-old daughter in order to seal a deal. Korede’s apparently unbreakable bond with her sister is based on protectiveness and love. If men don’t come out of this very well, too easily led by beauty and quick to resort to violence, neither do women who gossip, judge each other and trade looks for money and status. Braithwaite delivers all this with a mix of almost slapstick comedy and sharp wit coupled with a page-turning pace. A smartly inventive debut, already bound for 2019’s books of the year list for me. I wonder what Braithwaite will come up with next.

Blasts from the Past: Brightness Falls by Jay McInerney (1992)

Cover imageA very happy 2019 to you! I’m starting my posting year with the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I fell in love with this book to such an extent that I remember sending H off for a walk into the lovely Corsican maquis on his own so that I could finish it. Tom Wolfe’s potboiler The Bonfire of the Vanities is seen as the quintessential yuppie novel but for me Brightness Falls summed up the folly of the ’80s very much better and with a great deal more humanity. It was the first in a trilogy which continued with The Good Life, a grave disappointment after Brightness Falls, and finished with Bright, Precious, Days which fell somewhere in the middle of the two in literary terms. All three follow Corinne and Russell Calloway.

Corrine and Russell are a glittering New York couple, in love with each other and pursuing successful careers in a world where anything seems possible if you are young, bright and fearless. To their friends, they epitomize the perfect marriage but when Russell becomes caught up in an audacious plan to take over the publishing company in which he is the rising editorial star, things begin to fall apart. The adrenaline-fuelled atmosphere of the deal take its toll on both Russell and Corrine, just as the excesses of the ’80s have taken their toll on many others in New York City, from their close friend Jeff, now in detox, to the homeless crack addicts on every street corner. With the knowledge gained from her job as a stockbroker, Corrine begins to realize that the heady days of the rising Dow must surely come to an end. The reckoning finally comes on 19 October 1987 when the bubble bursts with the Wall Street crash.

I reviewed Bright, Precious, Days in the midst of the 2016 election campaign which seems a world away now. McInerney has said that he has no intention of extending his trilogy into a quartet but I can’t help wondering how Corinne and Russell would be faring under the current regime.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Reading Bingo 2018

I’m finishing this year’s posts with a round of reading bingo, yet another chance to mention some of my 2018 favourites plus work in a few more that didn’t appear in my books of the year for one reason or another.  So, after a good deal of flicking back through this year’s reading, here’s my 2018 bingo card with links to the books I’ve reviewed.

Cover imageA Book with More Than 500 Pages – Seth Garland’s twenty-first century Bonfire of the Vanities, only better, The Hazards of Good Fortune, which weighs in at a hefty 624 pages

A Forgotten Classic – William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer, first published in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights movement, which explores race relations in the US. All too relevant today.

A Book That Became a Movie – I’m going to do what I did last year and stretch the rules a little here. It’s been announced that there’s a TV series in the works based on Thomas Mullen’s Darktown, set in Atlanta when the first black American police force was set up.

A Book Published This Year – That would be most of them  given my predilection for the shiny and new but I’m going for Anne Youngson’s touching Costa Book Award shortlisted novel, Meet Me at the Museum, about a recently bereaved woman and a Danish museum curator, also coming to terms with loss.

A Book with a Number in the Title – Allan Jenkins’ Plot 29 which recounts his investigation of his chequered birth family history and his coming to terms with it through allotmenteering. A brave and cheering memoir.Cover image

A Book Written by Someone Under Thirty – Fiona Mozley’s distinctly Gothic, Elmet, about a family living on the fringes of society, which I read for the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel

A Book with Non-Human Characters – Michael Andreassenwacky, darkly comic short story collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover which features several saints and a leviathan.

A Funny Book – Jen Beagin’s acerbic, whip smart debut Pretend I’m Dead about a young woman who loves to clean while hiding the reason why from herself.

A Book by a Female Author – There are so many but I’m plumping for Louise Levene’s enjoyable romp, Happy Little Bluebirds, about Evelyn, sent to Hollywood to assist a British agent in persuading the Americans to join the Second World War.

A Book with a Mystery – Emily Maguire’s Stella Prize shortlisted An Isolated Incident begins with the discovery of a body but it’s about very much more than that.

A Book with a One-word title – Ruth Figgest’s Magnetism is about a mother and daughter seemingly locked into a dysfunctional relationship. A very clever, satisfying piece of storytelling.

A Book of Short Stories – Helen Dunmore’s posthumous collection, Girl, Balancing, an unexpected treat put together by her son, Patrick Charnley

Free Square – This one goes to Imogen Hermes Gowar’s wonderful The Mermaid and Mrs Cover imageHancock, our shadow jury winner for the Young Writer of the Year award.

A Book Set on a Different Continent – Fiona Kidman’s engrossing All Day at the Movies follows four siblings in New Zealand down disparate roads over six decades.

A Non-fiction Book – Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure, a memoir about how reading set its author on the path to recovery from anorexia which I read for my Young Writer of the Year shadow judging stint.

The First Book by a Favourite Author – I’m going to have to pass on this one

A Book You Heard About Online – Katherena Vermitte’s riveting, multi-layered portrait of an indigenous family faced with an appalling sexual assault on one of their daughters, The Break, which I first spotted on Naomi’s Consumed by Ink blog.

A Bestselling Book – Kate Atkinson’s Transcription follows Juliet who finds herself caught up in the machinations of MI5, far beyond the mundane transcriptions she’s recruited to produce in 1940. Superb, as ever.

A Book Based on a True Story – Edward Carey’s highly inventive, engaging Little is based on the life of Madame Tussaud

A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile – Emma Flint’s page-turning Little Deaths about a child murder in ‘60s New York

A Book your Friend Loves – I passed C. K. Stead’s The Necessary Angel on to a friend who liked it so much she’s busy seeking out his backlist

A Book that Scares You – Sarah Perry’s Gothic novel Melmoth. Now avoiding all jackdaws…

A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old – Reissued by the brilliant Pushkin Press, Lisa Zeidner’sCover image Layover explores mental illness and grief through a middle-aged woman who’s lost her son and, briefly, her bearings

The Second Book in a Series – I’m boxing clever here (or bending the rules again) and going for Lissa Evans’ hugely enjoyable celebration of women’s suffrage, Old Baggage, the prequel to Crooked Heart but published after it.

A Book with a Blue Cover – Adam Weymouth’s Kings of the Yukon, a travelogue which follows the longest salmon run in the world. The fourth book I read for the Young Writer of the Year Award and the official winner.

There, just one box empty although it has to be admitted I’ve taken a liberty or two with the rules. If you want to see what a full card looks like you might like to pop over to FictionFan’s Book Reviews. Happy New Year to you all!

Five Irish Books I’ve Read

Cover imageThe heading for this post could just as easily be 10, 15 or even 50 Irish books I’ve read. So much of the quietly elegant, understated writing I admire turns out to be by Irish authors. Their work is often tinged with more than a little melancholy, perhaps only to be expected given their country’s history. Below are five of the best Irish books I’ve read, just one with a link to a full review on this blog.

William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault begins in the troubled year of 1921. Three men appear in the grounds of Lahardane to burn the house down. Springing to the defence of his English wife and their daughter, Lahardane’s Protestant owner Everard Gault fires his shotgun meaning only to frighten the trespassers but wounding one of them. The young man’s family will have nothing of Everard’s pleas for forgiveness. For their own safety, the Gaults must leave Ireland, an idea that eight-year-old Lucy finds unbearable. She runs away, determined to make her mother and father stay. Believing Lucy to be dead, her heartbroken parents turn their backs on their beloved home. When Lucy is found alive, they can’t be traced and her life becomes one of atonement for the wrong she feels she’s done them. Infused with an aching sadness, The Story of Lucy Gault typifies Trevor’s novels: slim, elegant, often spare, each word carefully chosen.

John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun is a little cheerier, unlike much of his fiction. Leaving their bustling London life behind, Joe and Kate Ruttledge have settled in a small Irish lakeside community on a farm subsidised by Joe’s writing. The small dramas and quiet satisfactions of everyday life fill their world: visits from their neighbour and dear friend the incorrigibly inquisitive Jamesie; lambing and selling their calves at the cattle mart; trips to town to pick up supplies and local news. This gentle, almost wistful, novel traces a year in the Ruttledges’ lives, capturing both place and time beautifully. The quiet restraint that characterises much of McGahern’s writing is a delicate counterpoint to the sometimes lyrical sentences that bejewel his work.

I was going to pick a different Colm Tóibin novel from Brooklyn which has received so Cover imagemuch exposure thanks to the excellent film adaptation but it’s my favourite of his and I kept coming back to it. Unable to find work in 1950s Ireland, Eilas Lacey emigrates having heard of the many employment opportunities on offer in New York. She gets a job in a department store, takes up evening classes and tries to keep her desperate homesickness at bay. Shortly after she becomes involved with Tony Fiorello, she’s summoned back to Ireland by news of a family tragedy, hastily agreeing to a secret marriage before she leaves. At home, egged on by her mother, she finds herself falling in love with Jim Farrell, ignoring Tony’s letters and telling no one about him. The Irish American world is a small one, however, and it’s soon clear that Eilas must make a choice. Written in Tóibin’s spare yet eloquent prose, Brooklyn is a triumph, one which I didn’t expect to be matched by the film until I saw Saoirse Ronan as Eilas. She seemed born for the part.

Deirdre Madden’s Molly Fox’s Birthday takes place during the space of one day, as you might expect from its title, but it encapsulates decades of memories as a successful Northern Irish playwright thinks of her friend Molly whose Dublin house she has borrowed while Molly is in New York. Molly is a celebrated actress, feted for her stage performances. As our unnamed narrator struggles with writer’s block she remembers shared times with Molly, her thoughts often returning to their mutual friend Andrew. We know it’s Molly’s birthday from the book’s title but the full significance of the date slowly becomes apparent as our narrator muses on writing, friendship and identity, while wondering why Molly never celebrates her birthday. Madden’s writing is beautifully honed, as elegantly understated as all three of the previous writers.

Cover imageBelinda McKeon’s Tender begins in 1997 and ends in 2012, three years before the resounding referendum vote in favour of equal marriage in Ireland. Catherine and James instantly click when James returns from Berlin to reclaim the room Catherine has been renting for her first year at Trinity. He’s tactile and outgoing, loudly pontificating on everything and everybody yet tender-hearted, while she’s self-conscious, buttoned-up and naïve. Before too long everyone is convinced they’re a couple but eventually James tells Catherine he’s gay. Soon she begins to bask in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told with unhappy results. Tender is a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate, and extraordinarily intense at times. Another Irish triumph.

Any books by Irish authors you’d like to recommend?

Paperbacks to Look Out for in January 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThis second instalment of January’s paperbacks is something of a mixed bag. I’ll begin with Swansong by Kerry Andrew, described by Robert Macfarlane as a writer of ‘frankly alarming talent’. Make of that what you will. Polly Vaughan heads for the Scottish Highlands, fleeing the guilt of a ‘disturbing incident’ in London. She finds escapism in the form of drink, drugs and sex in the local pub but is haunted by visions then fascinated by a man she comes upon in the forest seemingly ripping apart a bird. Andrew ‘comes from a deep understanding of the folk songs, mythologies and oral traditions of these islands. Her powerful metaphoric language gives Swansong a charged, hallucinatory quality that is unique, uncanny and deeply disquieting’ say the publishers, promisingly.

Many of the characters in Mothers, Chris Powers’ short story collection, also find themselves at a crossroads according to the publisher’s blurb. ‘From remote and wild Exmoor to ancient Swedish burial sites and hedonistic Mexican weddings, these stories lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life and love in a stunning debut collection’ apparently. This one has been popping up in my Twitter timeline intermittently for some time, not always a good thing, but I like the sound of stories which range so far and wide.Cover image

The loss of her mother triggers a crisis in Lucia’s mental health in Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here is Beautiful. Miranda drops everything and comes to her younger sister’s aid but it appears that Lucia may not want to be helped. ‘Told in alternating points of view, Everything Here Is Beautiful is the story of a young woman’s quest to find fulfilment and a life unconstrained by illness’ say the publishers. This sounds like an attractive structure to me, contrasting two very different perspectives.

Stefan Merrill Block’s Oliver Loving explores the aftermath of a high school shooting through the plight of the eponymous Oliver and his family. Ten years after he fell victim to a troubled young man at a high school dance, Oliver remains in a coma while his family try to cope and his teenage crush attempts to put it behind her. ‘Oliver Loving is a brilliant and beautifully told story of family, as heart-breaking as it is profound. It is a novel of the myths we make; the ties that bind us and the forces that keep us apart’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown but I enjoyed Block’s The Storm at the Door and it’s an interesting premise.

Cover imageI’m rounding off this preview with Tyler Keevil’s No Good Brother which sounds like a nice slice of adventure. Two brothers – one honest, the other not – set off on a journey to settle a debt with a notorious gang which will take them across land and sea dogged by customs officials, freak storms and a distinct sense of luck running out. ‘Quick-witted and beautifully observed, No Good Brother is an exquisite portrait of brotherly love and loyalty, examining the loss of innocence and the ties that bind us’ say the publishers. An uncharacteristic choice for me but the blurb’s put me in mind of Patrick deWitt’s wonderful The Sisters Brothers.

That’s it for January. A click on any title that takes your fancy will take you to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the rest of January previews they’re here, here and here.

To those of you looking forward to Christmas, I hope you have a lovely time. If, as it is for many, it’s a more complicated time of the year for you, I hope it passes as painlessly as possible. And for those of you in retail or catering who’ve been working your socks off – I hope you get some rest before you start all over again. I’ll be back at the end of the week.