Books to Look Out for in May 2017

Cover imageFewer treats than usual in May for me but three of them are from some of my favourite authors. It was a toss-up as to which one of them should lead this preview but in the end it had to be Elizabeth Strout. Anything is Possible is a novel told in stories linked to Lucy Barton, familiar to readers of last year’s very fine My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is now a successful writer living in New York but these stories explore the lives of those she left behind in the small town of Amgash, Illinois. ‘Writing these stories, Lucy imagines the lives of the people that she especially remembers. And the people she has imagined that, in small ways, have remembered her too. For isn’t it true that we all hope to be remembered? Or to think in some way – even fleetingly – that we have been important to someone?’ say the publishers. Such an interesting device to have a character playing the role of the author of a book.

Colm Tóibín’s House of Names comes a very close second to Anything is Possible but I’m slightly put off by its premise. It’s a retelling of the story of Agamemnon whose shocking sacrifice of his daughter in an effort to secure the gods’ approval for his battle plans plunges his family into a terrible and violent chaos. ‘They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams’ quotes the publisher assuring us that it’s ‘a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers’. I won’t argue with the last point.

Even before my short story conversion I would have read Haruki Murakami’s Men without Women. These seven stories bear many of the hallmarks no doubt familiar to fellow fans – ’vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles’ promises the publisher who also quotes the author on writing short stories in the Cover imagebook’s blurb: ’I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.’ I’d still prefer a novel.

I’m particularly fond of the idea of an apartment block portrayed as a microcosm of a city – Alaa Al Aswany did it beautifully in The Yacoubian Building as did Manil Suri in The Death of Vishnu but my favourite has to be Georges Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual. Fran Cooper’s debut, These Dividing Walls, is set in a Parisian building whose inhabitants live their separate lives, barely aware of their neighbours’ existence. Enter Edward who seems to be about to change all that. ‘As the feverish metropolis is brought to boiling point, secrets will rise and walls will crumble both within and without Number 37…’ say the publishers somewhat melodramatically. Maybe I’ve set the bar too high having Perec in mind but it sounds worth investigating.

I tend to shy away from dystopian fiction, particularly at the moment. My optimistic world view has taken such a bashing over the past year that I’m looking for a little comfort. Megan Hunter’s first novel, The End We Start From, is set against a backdrop of an environmental crisis which sees London under water. It follows a couple desperately seeking sanctuary for themselves and their new-born baby. This all sounds a little familiar, a well-worn dystopian trope, but what’s caught my attention is the promise of beautiful writing and this quote from the blurb: ‘though the country is falling apart around them, this family’s world – of new life and new hope – sings with love’. Let’s hope so.

I’m finishing this preview with a novel which, unusually for a new title, I’ve already read – Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell. TwoCover image people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Marc has been kidnapped while on business in Pakistan and finds himself caught up in the web of stories the woman he comes to know as Josephine weaves around his murdered daughter. These are the bare bones of Lowe’s cleverly structured, subtle debut which I found utterly engrossing. Breathes new life into that hoary old cliché ‘unputdownable’. Review to follow next month.

That’s it for May’s new books. A click on any of the titles that takes your fancy will give you a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks to follow soon…

22 thoughts on “Books to Look Out for in May 2017”

  1. That Elizabeth Strout does sound a clever idea – it also build s on the popularity of the character in the earlier novel. I’m not sure about the Toibin either but I have to hand it to the man, he is adventurous with his tales

    1. Very clever! My favourite Toibins are the Irish ones – Brooklyn, The Backwater Lightship and The Heather Blazing – but you are right: can’t fault him on ploughing the same furrow endlessly.

        1. Ah, that’s interesting. I read Nora after seeing a documentary in which he talks about his mother and the effect of her death on him. It was clear that Nora was based on his mother. There was something about the novel which felt a little constrained to me, whether because my reading of it was colored by that knowledge or not – it’s hard to say.

  2. Looking forward to Anything is Possible and I also have These Dividing Walls (like you, I like the idea of stories set in one apartment building, although I think the last one I read was Candice Bushnell’s One Fifth Avenue – hardly ‘literature’ but a bit of fun).

    1. I think the apartment building structure is such a clever device. Lots of room for diverse characters and unlikely relationships.

  3. I have to agree that the premise of ‘House of Names’ doesn’t exactly sound beautiful… but I’ll be interested to hear more about it.
    I love stories of neighbours/neighbourhoods with multiple characters. The last one I read that was similar is The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel – loved it.
    I have yet to read My Name is Lucy Barton – how can there be a new one out already?!
    And that last one sounds intriguing…

    1. The neighbour structure’s a favourite of mine – I’ll look the Samuel up. I was so surprised to see that there was a new Strout but I imagine that it was a byproduct of Lucy Barton. A lovely treat for us fans!

  4. Great preview as always, Susan. I didn’t think I was that bothered about the Strout but you’ve sold me on it.

    I see what you mean about the content of the Tóibin but I remember not wanting to read The Testament of Mary and then being won over by it. He’s such a wonderful writer, he could probably write the phone book out and I’d love it. (There’s an idiom soon to be obsolete!)

    I have to encourage you to give The End We Start From a go. It’s only short, if that helps. But also, the whole thing’s a metaphor for the first year of motherhood – it’s understated in how clever it is; it’s beautifully written, I highlighted so many sentences, and it’s one of a very select group of books which I re-read immediately after finishing it. I think it’s extraordinary.

    1. Thanks, Naomi. I don’t think I’ve come across the kind of device which Strout is using in Anything is Possible before.

      Thanks for the encouragement with The End We Start From. I’m sure I will read it – I have a weakness for novels by poets and the few pages I’ve skimmed are very striking.

  5. Interesting selection of books as always Susan. I’m yet to get around to Strout though she sounds an interesting writer. I’ve completely gone off Murakami, I’m not sure why but I have ‘Colourless’ sitting on the shelf and I’m not sure I can bring myself to ever pick it up though that might change eventually. I love stories set in confined locations (though every location is confined, if you really think about it) so Dividing Walls sound like a winner, though it’s the Perec you recommend in passing that will likely make it to my list 😀

    1. Thanks, Belinda. Strout’s such a humane, compassionate writer – I’m sure you’d like her. I have to admit to being disappointed by Colourless which is a rare thing with Murakami for me. It felt as if his heart wasn’t in it. The Perec is the best novel I’ve read using that apartment device. A brilliant book!

  6. I really loved My Name Is Lucy Barton and I’m delighted to hear from you that a follow-up is imminent. I’ll definitely be all over that. And I’m also a big fan of apartment block fiction, so will look out for These Dividing Walls, too!

    1. Strout’s writing is wonderful, isn’t it. So elegantly spare, yet so compassionate. Hopes are high for These Dividing Walls.

    1. They’re great, aren’t they? So much better than the wishy-washy pastels that her books used to be jacketed with here in the UK. I’m sure that didn’t help her reach the audience she deserved.

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