I’m beginning the first all-American instalment of August’s two-parter paperback preview with a book that was a standout for me in 2019. Bryan Washington’s Lot comes billed as a collection of short stories – some snapshots, others much longer – but for me it read like a fragmentary novella. Through it runs the story of the son of a black mother and a Latino father growing up in a rundown Houston neighbourhood and coming to realise that he’s gay. These are stories which explore, sex, love, identity and the meaning of home with empathy and wit. They’re not always an easy read but the writing is so powerful sometimes it makes you stop to catch your breath.
Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes moves us north from Texas taking us to a small upstate New York town where everything looks neat and tidy. The Gleesons and the Stanhopes live next door to each other, both new to Gilliam, but while the adults remain frostily separate their children form a friendship which will be threatened by a tragedy whose origins will remain hidden for many years. ‘A story of love and redemption, faith and forgiveness, Ask Again, Yes reveals the way childhood memories change when viewed from the distance of adulthood – villains lose their menace, and those who appeared innocent seem less so. A story of how, if we’re lucky, the violence lurking beneath everyday life can be vanquished by the power of love’ say the publishers which sounds a little run of the mill but it’s much loved by Meg Wolitzer which has swung it for me.
Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book leaves small town life behind with the story of a family who come from old money, sure of their entitlement. The Miltons are the epitome of privilege in 1935 but even they’re not immune from tragedy, consoling themselves by buying a small island off the coast of Maine. By the beginning of the twenty-first century the island is up for sale causing their granddaughter to uncover some disturbing evidence about the source of the family wealth. Dark secret territory, then, and spread across New York and Maine, too. Irresistible for me.
Set not so very far away from Maine, Richard Russo’s Chances Are sees three men, friends since their student days back in the ‘60s, get together one September day. Each is very different from the other but each has his own secret and they all remain intrigued by the disappearance of the fourth friend back in 1971. ‘Shot through with Russo’s trademark comedy and humanity, Chances Are also introduces a new level of suspense and menace that will quicken the reader’s heartbeat throughout this absorbing saga of how friendship’s bonds are every bit as constricting and rewarding as those of family’ says the blurb promisingly. I’ve enjoyed several of Russo’s novels in the past. At his best, his writing is reminiscent of early John Irving.
We’re heading west for Andrew Ridker’s The Altruists which sees a professor in a Midwestern college who seems to have a good deal on his plate, from money problems to children who refuse to speak to him. When he invites them home for a reconciliation a whole can of worms opens up. ‘The Altruists is a darkly funny (and ultimately tender) family saga in the tradition of Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith. It’s a novel about money, privilege, politics, campus culture, dating, talk therapy, rural sanitation, infidelity, kink, the American beer industry, and what it means to be a ‘good person’’ say the publishers. I’ll take the Zadie Smith bits but leave the Franzen, thanks.
Further west again, Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses is set in 1950s San Diego where newlywed, Muriel, works as a waitress picking up tips from the denizens of the Del Mar racetrack but unwilling to split her winnings with her husband. It’s Lee’s brother who Muriel wants to share her good luck with but he’s patrolling the Las Vegas casinos where he meets and falls in love with Henry. ‘Through the parks and plazas of Tijuana and the bars and beaches of San Diego, On Swift Horses mesmerisingly charts the journeys of Muriel and Julius on their separate quests for freedom, new horizons and love’ say the publishers. Very much like the sound of this one.
That’s it for August’s first batch of paperbacks. As ever, a click on a title will either take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for any that take your fancy. If you’d like to catch up with new titles, they’re here and here. Second instalment soon…