Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2016

Cover image Some particularly delectable paperback treats in store for September, all but one of which I’ve already read and reviewed, beginning with Francesca Kay’s The Long Room set in the last few weeks of 1981 when terrorism was in full swing in Northern Ireland. In an MI5 back office, Stephen listens to tapes of tapped phone calls attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery. When he’s called to a meeting by an operative concerned about the loyalty of a colleague, he finds himself listening to the comings and goings at the Greenwood household. Soon he’s obsessed with Helen Greenwood, convinced he’s in love with her. Judgement is clouded, risks are taken and before too long Stephen has found his way down a very dangerous path. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession.

Music is the obsession that brings Mahsa and Katherine together in Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life an engrossing tale of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference. Mahsa finds escape in music after she becomes the ward of her uncle in Karachi, winning a scholarship to Montreal where she finds liberation, fulfilment and adventure, eventually meeting Katherine. The child of a Chinese father and a white mother, jailed in 1940 when her baby daughter was a mere three months old for ‘incorrigible’ behaviour, Katherine has carved out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with passionate determination.  There’s so much to admire about this absorbing novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing. I hope it gets more attention in paperback than it did when it was first published here in the UK.

Rachel B. Glaser’s Paulina & Fran is about a very different friendship, no less enduring in its way. Cover image Paulina rampages around her New England college campus in a fury of contempt towards her fellow aspiring artists, sleeping with all and sundry whenever an opportunity presents itself. She and Fran become bosom buddies on a study trip to Norway, curling their lips at the world together. All goes swimmingly until Fran steps over a line and Paulina flounces off in high dudgeon. After graduation, when adult life begins and disappointment sets in, the lives of these two remain entangled despite their estrangement, each still obsessed with the other. Glaser’s book is a raucous, roller-coaster of a novel, both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant.

There’s much more of the latter in Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family which unfolds the aftermath of a tragedy in a beautifully nuanced, multi-layered narrative, skilfully interweaving the many stories of those affected by it. The night before her daughter’s wedding June’s house burns to the ground with her daughter and her fiancé, her ex-husband and her boyfriend inside. In a state of shock and grief, unable to bear the endless stream of condolence, she flees the small Connecticut town where she’s been living for three years and heads west across the country, holing up in the Moonstone motel for months. The bare bones of what happens in Clegg’s elegantly crafted novel hardly do it justice: at its heart is the human condition and what that means to us all.

Cover image My final paperback choice seems appropriate after that – Max Porter’s much-lauded, award-winning Grief is the Thing with Feathers. As a father faces the awfulness of their mother’s sudden death with his two young sons, they’re visited by Crow a smelly ‘self-described sentimental bird’ who is determined to stay until they no longer need him. It sounds a little outlandish but the book’s beauty of expression and honesty of sentiment has been much praised. ‘Full of unexpected humour and profound emotional truth, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers marks the arrival of a thrilling new talent’ say the publishers and reviewers seem to agree..

That’s it for September paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for the first four novels, should you want to know more, and to a fuller synopsis for the Porter. If you’d like to catch up with the rest of September’s preview it’s here.

14 thoughts on “Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2016”

    1. I’d love to see piles of the Echlin on booksellers’ front of house tables next month. I’m a loss to understand why such a fine books appears to have received so little attention.

    1. It’s an absolute treat, Kate. Real warts and all friendship, delivered with panache. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

  1. Grief is the Thing with Feathers is the only one from your selection that I’ve read. I found it very powerful and the writing is beautiful. The other books you mention sound great – I’m definitely interested in Echlin;s novel 🙂

    1. That’s great to hear, Gemma. I don’t think it reached nearly the audience it deserved. It was on both my Baileys and Man Booker wishlists. One of the best books I’ve read this year. Looking forward to reading Grief is the Thing with Feathers.

    1. I can personally vouch for Grief but so many people whose opinion I trust have raved about it that I’m sure it will be good. Paulina and Fran is a treat – an unvarnished, funny and poignant view of friendship.

  2. I remember hearing good things about The Long Room when it came out, so that’s the one of greatest interest to me. Just my imagination or is the lead time from hardback to paperback getting shorter these days? It doesn’t seem very long since some of these books hit the h/b shelves.

    1. I’m a great fan of Francesca Kay and I’d say she’s outdone herself with The Long Room, Jacqui. Not just your imagination re the time between hardback and paperback publication. When I went into bookselling in the late ’80s the rule of thumb was a year between the two. That was being nibbled away by the time I left it a decade later with the introduction of trade paperbacks – the large, hardback style format for more popular titles – and seems to have been gradually eroded since then. I’d prefer to see first novels published straight into paperback – it would give debutante, unknown writers more of a fighting chance.

  3. The Long Room has been one of my favourite reads this year. Kay’s prose is so sharp and the story has such a aching sense of melancholy. Very keen to read Grief is the Thing With the Feathers.

    1. I’m with you there. She caught Stephen’s dreadful chasm of loneliness and the claustrophobia of his obsession beautifully – aching, indeed.

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