This June is bursting at the seams with tempting paperbacks – enough to fill two long posts – of which I’ve already read and reviewed several beginning with one of my books of last year, Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall. Longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, Moss’ novel is a powerful exploration of controlling violence and its consequences, all wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric piece of storytelling. Together with three students and their professor, seventeen-year-old Sylvie and her parents, Bill and Alison, spend the summer living as Ancient Britons in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall. Bill’s menacing control of both Sylvie and Alison pervades the book offset with a degree of waspish humour and gloriously evocative descriptions of the summer landscape. The climax is horrifying: hard to read yet impossible to tear yourself away from it. Still mystified as to why this superb novel didn’t make it on to the Women’s Prize shortlist.
Ghost Wall was one of a succession of novellas that so impressed me in 2019 including Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers which came as no surprise given the excellence of A Meal in Winter. A company of Red Army soldiers is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of them form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, stumbling upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days with the advent of spring. As the weather improves the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace. Written in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly captures the comradeship of soldiers with humanity and compassion
Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows Captain John Lacroix who has been invalided out of the disastrous Peninsular War, exploring themes of war and culpability in a story taut with a thread of suspense. Finding himself unable to return to war, Lacroix travels to Scotland where he is embraced by a utopian community but two men are on his tail, one with a sinister motive. I loved Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain so much that I included it in my One-Hundred-Book Library and Pure came a close second but I’ve found some of his contemporary-set novels disappointing. Having read this new one, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s is at his best when writing historical fiction.
I reviewed Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House back in 2014, finding it a little disappointing after very much enjoying her first novel, The Borrower. That said, The Great Believers sounds very appealing. It spans thirty years, beginning in 1985 with Yale Tishman acquiring an extraordinary collection of 1920s artwork for a Chicago gallery. AIDs cuts a swathe through Yale’s life leaving just one person dear to him – his friend’s sister Fiona who, thirty years later, is searching for her estranged daughter in Paris. ‘Yale and Fiona’s stories unfold in incredibly moving and sometimes surprising ways, as both struggle to find goodness in the face of disaster’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely.
I’m not so sure about Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success having begun Super Sad True Love Story with high hopes only to give it up but I do like the sound of a road trip through modern America, particularly one that sees a ‘master of the universe’ reduced to travelling on a Greyhound. Barry Cohen is on his way to Texas to meet his old college girlfriend hoping for a second chance having fallen foul of an insider investigation. According to Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go Bernadette, it’s ‘the funniest book you’ll read all year. A rollicking and zinger-filled road trip [that] sneakily deepens into a poignant tale of a man trying to outrace his problems’. We’ll see.
Humour’s also on the agenda in Good Trouble, by the sound of it, a collection of short stories by Joseph O’Neill, author of the much-lauded Neverland. Good Trouble’s characters are brought face to face with both who they are and who they will never be, apparently. ‘Packed with O’Neill’s trademark acerbic humour, Good Trouble explores the maddening and secretly political space between thoughts and deeds’ say the publishers promisingly.
A. M. Homes’ Days of Awe is another collection I’m eager to sample. These thirteen pieces explore ‘our attachments to each other through characters who aren’t quite who they hoped to become, though there is no one else they can be. Her first book since the Women’s Prize-winning May We Be Forgiven, Days of Awe is another visionary, fearless and outrageously funny work from a master storyteller’ say the publishers. Looking forward to this one very much.
I’m saving what I suspect will be the very best until last with this month’s third short story collection. William Trevor’s Last Stories comprises ten pieces described by the publishers as ‘exquisite, perceptive and profound’ and for once I won’t be arguing with their superlatives. This will undoubtedly be a treat to savour for all who treasure quietly understated, elegantly lyrical prose, and that jacket is lovely.
That’s it for the first part of June’s paperback preview; pretty tempting I hope you’ll agree. Should you want to know more, A click on the first three titles will take you to my review, and to a more detailed synopsis for the other five. If you’d like to catch up with June’s new novels they’re here and here. More paperbacks soon…