I’ve read all but one of the novels in the first part February’s paperback preview, not all of them typical of my usual taste in fiction but that’s not such a bad thing. I’m kicking off with one which should have been the perfect read for me but about which I had mixed feelings.
I very much enjoyed both Fiona McFarlane’s debut, The Night Guest, and her short story collection, The High Places, so was keen to read The Sun Walks Down. Set in 1883, it spans a week in which a small white boy is lost in the desert as the skies over Southern Australia and much of the rest of the world, are stained a lurid red in the wake of the Krakatoa eruption. McFarlane uses the disappearance to explore themes of colonialism and white supremacy, switching perspectives across a wide range of characters each of whose backstory is vividly told. A slow read, sprawling at times, kept afloat by the quality of McFarlane’s writing but too long for me.
Entirely different, Annie MacManus’s second novel The Mess We’re In follows Orla who’s headed to London, eyes fixed on a starry future, landing in a Kilburn flat with her best friend and a band called Shiva. While Orla struggles to get anywhere, Shiva appear about to make it with all the brouhaha that entails. ‘This is the story of a young woman thrashing through life, trying to find home in a strange new place. It’s also a story about music: how it can break you down and build you back up again, and how to find your rhythm when all you hear is noise’ says the blurb which doesn’t sound too promising but I enjoyed Mother Mother, MacManus’ debut, and this one’s set in a world she knows well.
Laura Warrell’s debut Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm tells the story of the women in fading jazz trumpeter Circus Palmer’s life: Maggie, pregnant with his child which may be her last shot at being a mother; Pia his ex-wife who still loves the idea of him and his teenage daughter Koko who barely knows him. I wasn’t sure about Warrell’s novel when I began it – a tad overwritten for my taste – but around thirty pages in it clicked for me. I liked the idea that while Circus thinks himself the centre of the universe it’s the women who tell us their stories, and they’re all strong, not least Koko who sees herself through the awkwardness of adolescence. Not perhaps my usual literary territory but I’m glad I stuck with what turned out to be an absorbing, thoroughly enjoyable piece of fiction.
Jenny Jackson’s Pineapple Street is also a little outside my usual literary beat. It’s about two generations of the Stocktons, old money and proud of it. Chip and Tilda have passed the baton on, giving their Brooklyn family home to their son and daughter-in-law, from a background very different to their own, thought to be a gold digger by her sisters-in-law who come round to a different point of view. By the end of this entertaining novel, the older generation will be left staring in wonder and puzzlement at their children’s decisions before shrugging their shoulders and carrying on as usual. The paperback edition sports a truly awful cover but at least it doesn’t have the hardback’s mystifying half-peeled orange on it.
I read Dani Shapiro’s Signal Fires having enjoyed Inheritance, her memoir of finding her father was not her biological parent. Her new novel follows the Shenkmans and the Wilfs who live opposite each other on Division Street, a family neighbourhood in which the Wilfs have spent forty years of married life, moving in when Mimi was pregnant with their second child. One day when she’s seventeen and he’s fifteen, Sarah tosses the car keys to Theo so that he can impress a girl he has in his sights triggering a catastrophe made much worse by the family’s tacit decision never to discuss it. Shapiro’s an expert storyteller, neatly interweaving the threads of her story and giving each of her characters a clear voice of their own. Signal Fires begins with tragedy but ends with hope and redemption, always a plus for me.
That’s it for February’s first batch of paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to 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…