Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2017: Part Two

Cover image This second batch of May paperbacks kicks of with Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival which tells the story of Julia Pastrana. Born in 1834, Julia is a heavily hirsute Mexican woman, eager to see the world and willing to pay the price even if that means allowing herself to be exhibited in a freak show. Her travels take her to Prague, Vienna and Saint Petersburg where she’s feted by royalty, taken to a glittering ball and welcomed as the guest of honour at grand dinner parties. Money, however, is always exchanged. Woven through Julia’s tale is that of Rose, who in 1983 finds a dilapidated wooden doll in a London skip. It’s an absorbing novel – the knowledge that Julia existed makes it particularly poignant – with some gorgeously descriptive passages but what didn’t work for me was the twentieth-century thread which was something of a distraction from Julia’s extraordinary story. Still well worth reading, but no match for Jamrach’s Menagerie, one of my Blasts From the Past.

Emma Cline’s debut The Girls is also loosely based in fact – the infamous exploits of the cult which became known as the Manson Family, several of whose members committed the shocking murder of Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant with Roman Polanski’s son. One day in 1969, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd catches sight of a group of girls flaunting their tatty splendour and laughing in the faces of the staring locals in a Californian park. Now middle-aged, living on the fringes of other people’s lives, Evie looks back at the dramatic events that shaped the course of her lonely life. Cline’s novel succeeds in engaging her readers’ sympathy steering well clear of the prurient. It’s both absorbing and thought-provoking, a little overwritten in places for me but that’s a small criticism. Cover image

Dominc Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos has a very appealing premise. It draws together a landscape painting by a woman admitted to a Dutch Guild as a master painter in 1631, the person who inherited it in the 1950s and a celebrated Australian art historian, about to curate an exhibition fifty years after forging the work, who finds herself faced with the arrival of both versions of it. ‘As the three threads intersect with increasing and exquisite suspense, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerises while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present’ says the publisher. Very much like the sound of this one.

Entirely different but also appealing, A. L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet sees a fifty-nine-year-old senior civil servant struggling with his conscience over his government’s shenanigans and on the brink of spilling the beans. Meanwhile, Meg Williams is a forty-five-year-old bankrupt accountant just about managing to keep sober. Set over twenty-four hours in 2014, it’s about ‘two decent, damaged people trying to make moral choices in an immoral world: ready to sacrifice what’s left of themselves for honesty, and for a chance at tenderness’ says the publisher. I have a very on-again off-again relationship with Kennedy’s writing but find state-of-the-nation novels well-nigh impossible to resist, even though the nation’s in a very different state these days.

Cover image Last but very far from least, is Paul Beatty’s Man Booker-winning The Sellout, another coup for the excellent Oneworld. Billed as a ‘biting satire’, it’s about a young man who’s been the subject of his sociologist father’s controversial studies, under the impression that the resultant book will make the family’s fortune. After his father’s murder it becomes clear that there is no book. What’s more the small town of Dickens is no longer on the map, thanks to the embarrassing nature of his father’s work. The young man sets about righting what he sees as this wrong, taking outrageous measures that land him before the Supreme Court. ‘The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game’ promises the publisher and clearly the Man Booker judges agreed.

That’s it for May’s paperback preview. A click on the first two titles will take you to my review and to a detailed synopsis for the last three. If you’d like to catch up with the first part, it’s here while May hardbacks are here.

27 thoughts on “Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2017: Part Two”

  1. Another one where half of these are still on my shelf… The Birch is high on my list as it fits with my research interests and I’ll probably use it in one of my thesis chapters.

    Keen to read the Beatty, it’s been on my shelf for a year!

    I thought the Cline was overrated although that seems to be an unpopular opinion. The sections in the past were very good but I thought the present day chapters tampered the effect.

    1. I’ll be interested to know what you think of the Birch, Naomi. I had the same problem with the contemporary thread as you did with the Cline.

  2. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is wonderful. I think you’ll love it.

    I would agree with you about The Girls being overwritten.

    Orphans of the Carnival is one I’ve been meaning to read for a while.

    1. That’s encouraging, Rebecca. I do have mixed feelings about Orphans but quite honestly, you could skip the twentieth century thread If, like me, you don’t like it. It has little bearing on Julia’s story.

  3. I like the sound of Serious Sweet – as you say, state of the nation is pretty hard to resist, even though truth is stranger than fiction at the moment.
    I was slightly disappointed with The Girls, found it over-written in parts and was hoping it would take things a little further than it did.

    1. Isn’t it just – I’m looking forward to seeing how Anthony Cartwright’s Brexit novel shapes up. There seems to be a general consensus on over-writing in The Girls. I thought she was at her best when writing about the awkwardness, self-absorption and craving for recognition that comes with adolescence.

  4. Sara de Vos is interesting reading – I didn’t think it was the perfect art novel (I seem to have read lots of novels about art and artists over the last year) but it was a decent light, compelling read.

  5. I’m looking forward to the Dominic Smith too – it’s high in my review pile. I find I’m not really bothered by the Beatty though. The Girls was definitely a curate’s egg of a novel – very good in parts.

    1. The Beatty was very heartily recommended by a friend, pre-Booker, which has swayed me in its favour, and it’s a Oneworld title. But it’s the Smith that I’m really looking forward to.

  6. Funnily enough, I’m about to start The Sellout as it’s my book group’s choice for May. It’s quite different from the types of books I tend to read for pleasure, so it will be interesting to see how I fare. The guy who chose it has been singing its praises for several months now!

    1. It’s the recommendation of a friend that’s drawn me to it, Jacqui. I’m not a huge fan of the Man Booker as a prize. Do you think you’ll review it or keep it to a book club discussion?

      1. To be honest, I doubt I’ll review it. Time is tight right now, and my book group reads are usually the first to go – especially as I’m probably not the *right* reader for some of them. Very happy to exchange views on Twitter, though. 🙂

  7. Interesting selection. I have The Sellout sitting on my shelf along with the gazillions of other books that are waiting to be got around to. The Smith sounds very interesting. These blogs are always such a temptation!

    1. I always feel a little guilty about you when posting these, Belinda! The Smith’s top of my list for reading.

      1. Never feel guilty, it is so wonderful to know what is coming even if I know I can’t read them. I’m learning to read reviews and not touch in the flesh!

  8. I really like the sound of the A L Kennedy (sharing your fascination for state-of-the-nation novels!) and the Dominic Smith sounds intriguing too. I’m reading all the novels about art I can find at the moment, and would welcome further suggestions if any occur to you! Love these trailer posts, Susan.

    1. They’re such fun to do, Victoria. Have you read Michael Frayn’s Headlong? A very enjoyable art novel.

  9. Ive heard so many good things about The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. I have a copy of The Sellout already (signed by the author even) thought not yet got around to reading it.,…..

    1. Sara de Vos seems to be the most eagerly anticipated if the comments here are anything to go by. I’m sure I’ll read The Sellout but I think Sara will come first!

  10. I haven’t heard of any of these books except for The Girls. I do hope it reaches a wider audiences on its paperback release. It’s just the perfect summer read!

    1. Susan Osborne

      You’re right, Elena, and I suspect that’s how the publishers will be marketing it.

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