A few of my 2022 favourites are published in paperback in January the first of which is Lee Cole’s quietly accomplished Groundskeeping which follows Owen who’s working as a groundskeeper in order to pay for his writing course. At a college party he meets Alma, the writer in residence, younger than him but with a short story collection already published. Owen’s days are spent pruning trees, his evenings writing or watching westerns with his grandfather until his colleague invites him to a bar where he sees Alma again and slips into a relationship with her that grows into love despite the many obstacles in their way. A thoroughly enjoyable outsider’s view of university life. Shame it’s lost its gorgeous hardback cover, though.
The same could be set of Sara Freeman’s Tides whose lovely subtle cover has been replaced with something a bit too bright. It’s about Mara who has stuffed a few belongings into a backpack and fled after suffering a devastating bereavement. She settles on a small, affluent town, taking a job in a wine shop and is drawn into a relationship with the owner who is suffering his own loss. That synopsis may sound rather prosaic but it’s the telling of Mara’s story and the complexity of her character that makes this debut stand out, delivered in a series of short paragraphs, most of which barely fill half a page, details of her past emerging often obliquely with little spelled out. I found it extraordinary. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly mine.
Michelle Hart’s What We Do in the Dark is also about seeking solace or perhaps escape as Mallory, grief-stricken after the death of her mother, becomes involved in a complicated love affair with the older woman she spots training in her college gym. After the affair, Mallory is faced with the changes this enigmatic woman has made to her life. ‘In this enthralling debut novel, the complexities of influence, obsession, and admiration reveal how desire and its consequences can alter the trajectory of a life’ say the publishers of a novel much praised by both Tayari Jones and Torrey Peters
The trans narrator of Lauren John Joseph’s debut, At Certain Points We Touch, is walking home from a club when they realise it’s February 29th, the birthday of their first love, sending them off into a reverie remembering their passionate, destructive affair which began the summer of their graduation. ‘At Certain Points We Touch is a story of first love and last rites, conjured against a vivid backdrop of London, San Francisco and New York – a riotous, razor-sharp coming-of-age story that marks the arrival of an extraordinary new talent’ says the blurb mentioning three settings I’m always keen on.
Unusually for me, I much prefer Andrew Miller’s historical fiction to his more contemporary novels so am a little wary about The Slowworm’s Song in which an ex-soldier’s past comes back to haunt him. Recovering alcoholic Stephen Rose is just getting to know his daughter when he’s summoned to an inquiry into an incident in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and fears that his testimony may destroy their relationship before it’s established. Instead, he decides to write a confessional addressed to her. I’m sure I’ll read this but I’m wondering whether it will match my enjoyment of Ingenious Pain, Pure or Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.
January’s first short story collection is Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King whose Writers & Lovers I loved a couple of years ago. Made up of ten stories exploring love, relationships and parenthood, some with a darker edge than I remember from her novels, it ranges from the gently humorous titular piece which sees a socially awkward bookseller harbouring a quiet passion for his only member of staff cheered on by his much more emotionally intelligent twelve-year-old to Man at the Door about a writer, interrupted by a man insistently banging on the door, brandishing a copy of her work-in-progress. A couple of the shorter pieces are a little unsatisfying but it’s an enjoyable collection, written with a characteristic insight and perception.
That’s it for January’s first instalment of paperbacks. A click on a title will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with new fiction it’s here and here. Part two soon…