We’d come back from Glasgow ready for summer which never quite materialised, or not the long warm days I’d been envisaging so, once again, reading was done on the sofa rather than in the garden, and more of it than I’d originally planned.
The first of July’s two books was one of those novels you couldn’t get away from, at least in my neck of the social media woods, plus it’s a thriller which would usually put me off but Colin Walsh is a Stinging Fly contributor which swung it for me. Set in an Irish seaside town, Kala sees a reunion of schoolfriends just before the remains of one of their group are found, unearthed at a building site fifteen years after her disappearance. The discovery of Kala’s body sets in train a series of events that reveals who has been controlling the web of corruption and brutality well established in this picturesque small town. I’m a sucker for the friends reunited structure handled with such skill here. I found Walsh’s novel riveting, a proper literary page-turner with a little bit of The Secret History about it.
July’s second favourite was a rip-roaring modern western, a little sub-genre from which I’ve read several entertaining novels including Patrick deWitt’s wonderful The Sisters Brothers. Set in a Dodge City brothel, Claudia Cravens’ Lucky Red offers another spin on the genre as the orphaned Bridget falls hard for Spartan Lee, a female bounty hunter who brings a big prize to town. Bridget is a wonderfully engaging narrator, spinning out her life as a ‘sporting woman’ in a sassy, witty voice while revealing her dangerous naivete. There’s lots of dramatic, vividly descriptive storytelling to enjoy spiced with a hefty helping of humour. If you’re in the market for a funny feminist, lesbian, subversive western, or even if you’re not, I highly recommend this one.
August’s reading began with a surefire winner for me. I’m not one to squeak when opening proof packages but a new Ann Patchett is an exception. Tom Lake is set on a Michigan fruit farm where Lara is entertaining her daughters with the story of her youth as they help to bring in the cherry harvest during the first summer of the pandemic. All three daughters are entranced by the idea of their mother having a life before them despite knowing bits and pieces about her brief acting career and her relationship with the man who became an Oscar-winning movie star. For Lara, that summer is a small part of the happy life she’s led but for her daughters her story is a revelation. As ever, Patchett is the consummate storyteller, her novel immersive and involving.
August’s other favourite is much more sober than the joyful Tom Lake. Noel O’Regan’s powerful debut Though the Bodies Fall is set on a stretch of Kerry headland, a suicide black spot for years, unbeknownst to his grandparents who bought the bungalow which has been Micheál Burns’ family home since he was six years old. Now forty-two, he lives alone, constantly on alert for signs that a ‘visitor’ has arrived who needs talking down, a burden his family has been carrying for decades. As is so often the case with Irish authors, it was the quality of O’Regan’s writing that struck me most. The sense of place is extraordinarily strong, anchored with vivid word pictures that summon up the bungalow’s bleakly beautiful surroundings and the many storms that batter them.
Just one book for September which turned out to be the darkest I’ve read for some time. I’d been so impressed by Paul Lynch’s novella, Beyond the Sea, that I’d included it on my 2019 books of the year list so was eager to read Prophet Song, delighted when it popped through my letterbox. Set in a near future Ireland in the grips of an increasingly authoritarian regime with civil society breaking down, it follows scientist Eilish Stack whose trade unionist husband never returns from his appointment with the security services, leaving her to look after their four children and her demented father. Her plight and that of her family is all too believable, uncomfortably familiar from the news with its reports of conflict zones, political oppression and tragic stories of refugees drowning. I included Prophet Song on my Booker wishlist not really expecting it to be longlisted let alone win the prize which, of course, it did.
Fear not, things brighten up on the reading front come October after H and I returned from our first railway jaunt since covid shut the world down. More about that next week. Meanwhile, if you missed the first two parts and would like to catch up, they’re here and here.