Category Archives: Random thoughts

Paperbacks to Look Out for in July 2019

Cover imageJust a handful of paperbacks snagging my attention for July, one of which I’ve already read. Rebecca Kauffman’s The Gunners is built around a structure that rarely fails to attract me: a group of people, once friends as children or young adults, are brought together by an event which affects them all. Kauffman reunites her characters at the funeral of one of them just as they enter their thirties. The five remaining members of the Gunners are in shock after the suicide of the sixth who none of them had heard from since she left the group aged sixteen with no explanation. A satisfying, often poignant read which reminded me of The Big Chill.

Christopher Priest’s An American Story seems to examine the emotional fallout of one of this century’s early defining moments – the 9/11 attacks. Ben Matson lost his fiancée that day but with no body recovered he still has doubts about what happened to her. When the wreckage of an unidentified plane is recovered Ben is led to question everything he thought he knew. That synopsis might make this novel seem like an uncharacteristic choice for me but I’ve enjoyed several of Priest’s previous books.

Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State sees a woman whose Turkish husband has been unable to return to the States, leaving San Francisco for the desert town of Altavista. On the brink of a breakdown, Daphne takes refuge with her toddler in the mobile home her grandparents have left her. The blurb describes it as ‘about class and cultural breakdowns, and desperate attempts to bridge old and new worlds’ which piqued my interest but it’s the publisher that’s sealed the deal with this one. I’ve enjoyed several novels from Text Publishing’s list including the wonderful Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down and Romy Ash’s Floundering.Cover image

I’m not sure how I missed R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries when it was first published. Several people whose opinions I trust have since told me it’s right up my street. Phoebe and Will fall in love at university, both with burdens to bear of one sort or another. Phoebe finds herself drawn into an extremist group with links to North Korea, disappearing after a bomb attack in which five people are killed leaving Will determined to find her and a little obsessed.

That’s it for July’s smattering of paperbacks. A click on The Gunners will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other four. If you’d like to catch up with July’s new titles, they’re here.

Books to Look Out for in July 2019

Cover imageInevitably, July means summer reading which means fewer books for me, not being of the reading by the pool persuasion or doing anything by the pool for that matter. That said, I’m starting off with what will be a surefire summer bestseller: David Nicolls’ Sweet Sorrow. I loved One Day which was commercial fiction perfection as far as I’m concerned. This new one explores young love over a summer in which sixteen-year-old Charlie meets Fran. It’s described by the publishers as ‘a hymn to the tragicomedy of ordinary lives, a celebration of the reviving power of friendship and that brief, blinding explosion of first love that perhaps can only be looked at directly once it has burned out’. I suspect I’ll probably be reading this one happily ensconced on a sofa.

Nicola Barker is the other end of the literary spectrum from David Nicholls, often wacky and innovative. I still haven’t got around to reading H(a)ppy but have fond memories of The Cauliflower®. I Am Sovereign follows a forty-year-old teddy bear maker trying to sell his Llandudno house. A viewing by prospective buyers sets in train a series of events that cause all concerned to question reality. ‘As religious epiphanies bump up against declarations of love, examinations of subjectivity hurtle into meditations on the history of culture, our entire understanding of the book – and of the boundaries between fiction and real life – is radically upended. A tour de force in miniature form that twists the novel into new shapes as the characters sabotage the fictional world they inhabit, I Am Sovereign sees Nicola Barker at her most joyful, provocative and riotous’ say the publishers promisingly.

We’re back in much more straightforward territory with Anna Hope’s new novel, I suspect. I enjoyed both Wake and The Ballroom very much so hopes are high for Expectation which sees three friends living in East London, their lives full of art, love and delight. A decade later, Hannah, Cate and Lissa are trying to cope with the inevitable disillusionments and difficulties of adult life, each thinking the others’ lives are better than theirs, and each wondering how to make their life more meaningful. ‘Expectation is a novel of the highs and lows of friendship – how it can dip, dive and rise again. It is also about finding your way: as a mother, a daughter, a wife, a rebel. Most of all, it explores that liminal space between expectation and reality, the place – full of dreams, desires and pain – in which we all live our lives’ say the publishers whetting my appetite nicely.

Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game is about the Bauhaus movement, a school of art and design whose ethos and style I find very appealing. Wood’s novel follows Paul Beckermann who arrives at the school in 1922 and becomes entranced by both the teaching and his fellow students, falling in love with one of them. Political tensions and its own internal rivalries result in the group’s disintegration leaving Paul with a secret he’s forced to face when an old Bauhaus friend contacts him, many years later. ‘Beautifully written, powerful and suspenseful, Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game is a novel about the dangerously fine line between love and obsession, set against the most turbulent era of our recent past’ say the publishers. I very much enjoyed Mrs Hemingway, Wood’s take on Ernest Hemingway’s marriage so I’m looking forward to this one.

Cover imageTwo American novels published in July sound like catnip to me. The first, Regina Porter’s The Travelers, follows two families – one Irish-American, the other African-American – beginning in 1942 as America recovers from the Second World War. ‘Illuminating more than six decades of sweeping change – from the struggle for civil rights and the chaos of Vietnam to Obama’s first year as President – James and Agnes’s families will come together in unexpected, intimate and profoundly human ways. Romantic and defiant, humorous and intellectually daring, Regina Porter brilliantly explores how race, gender and class collide in modern-day America – and charts the mishaps and adventures we often take to get closer to ourselves and to home’ say the publishers which sounds right up my literary alley.

As does Salvatore Scribona’s The Volunteer which spans four generations of fathers and sons, beginning in 1966 when Vollie Frade enlists in the US Marine Corps to fight in Vietnam. ‘From the Cambodian jungle, to a flophouse in Queens, to a commune in New Mexico, Vollie’s path traces a secret history of life on the margins of America, culminating with an inevitable and terrible reckoning. Scibona’s story of a restless soldier pressed into service for a clandestine branch of the US government unfolds against the backdrop of the seismic shifts in global politics of the second half of the twentieth century’ say the publishers promisingly.Cover image

I’m ending July’s new titles as I began with a novel I’d be amazed if I didn’t love – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days. Oscar and Mina move to London after a patrol car picks her up on the George Washington Bridge, apparently about to jump off. Oscar hopes that getting away from New York will help Mina recover but finds their love tested when another woman offers Mina both friendship and attraction. I loved Buchannan’s debut, Harmless Like You, which was both poignant and wryly humorous. I’m hoping for more of the same with Starling Days.

That’s it for July’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of June paperbacks is as jam-packed with potential goodies as the first, a few of which I’ve already sampled including Sonia Zinovieff’s Putney which explores the fallout of childhood abuse through Ralph who’s aroused by Daphne’s boyish beauty when she is nine and he is twenty-seven. Daphne is the child of bohemian parents caught up in their own affairs, looking anywhere but at what’s happening under their noses. Forty years later, Ralph is oblivious to Daphne’s chaotic, rackety life while she works on a collage commemorating her time with him in a flat a stone’s throw away from her childhood home. This subject could so easily have been mishandled but Zinovieff explores it with consummate skill in a thoroughly accomplished novel.

I reviewed Finnish writer Philip Teir’s debut, A Winter War, back in 2015 when I described it as the perfect winter read. It may seem a bit lazy but it’s hard to resist describing The Summer House as the perfect summer read. Julia, Erik, ten-year-old Anton and twelve-year-old Alice are off to Mjölkviken for the summer where Erik plans to put his work troubles behind him and Julia wants to finish her novel but finds herself pulled back into her past. Teir’s second book explores the dynamics of modern family life with the same empathy and deftness as he did in his first. Well worth packing if you’re after an intelligent holiday read.

As is Patrick deWitt’s French Exit, a pleasingly caustic caricature of the wealthy upper classesCover image which takes its readers from New York City to Paris in the company of Frances Price, her son Malcolm and Small Frank, their cat. After years of jaw-dropping extravagance Frances is running out of money so why does she spend much of her time trying to divest herself of the 185,000 euros she has stashed in her handbag, and why is such an ancient cat so important to her. I’ve been a keen fan of deWitt’s fiction since reading his darkly comic ripping yarn, The Sisters Brothers and although the latter remains my favourite, French Exit is a welcome treat.

Cherise Wolas’ The Family Tabor sounds rather more conventional. Harry Tabor is about to be honoured as Man of the Decade in recognition of his work with the many Jewish refugees he’s helped to settle in America. Years ago, Harry uprooted his own family taking them across the States from Connecticut to the South West. ‘Wolas examines the five members of the Tabor family as they prepare to celebrate Harry. Through each of their points of view, we see family members whose lives are built on lies, both to themselves and to others, and how these all come crashing down during a seventy-two-hour period’ according to the blurb which sounds highly entertaining.

Rick Gekoski’s A Long Island Story is set in the summer of 1953 when the Grossmans and their two children relocate from Washington DC to Long Island. The move unsettles the couple who Cover imagebegin to wonder if their lives might have been different, and if their marriage is worth fighting for. It’s described by the publishers as ‘a portrait of a couple in crisis, of a unique and fascinating period in US history and of a seemingly perfect family fighting their demons behind closed doors’ which sounds quite promising to me.

I’ve always been surprised at how few novels are set in offices given how many of us have worked in them and what political hothouses they can be. Halle Butler’s The New Me looks at the life of a thirty-year-old temp as she watches her permanently employed peers and wonders if she will ever join their ranks. Then a vacancy arises and Millie contemplates the possibility of a life of stability and perks. ‘Will it bring the new life Millie is envisioning – one involving a gym membership, a book club, and a lot less beer and TV – finally within reach? Or will it reveal just how hollow that vision has become?’ ask the publishers.

Colleagues of a very different sort feature in Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble. Jana, Brit. Daniel and Henry are musicians, ill-suited as friends but drawn together by their art. Their chequered careers encompass ‘devastating failure and wild success, heartbreak and marriage, triumph and loss, betrayal and enduring loyalty. They are always tied to each other – by career, by the intensity of their art, by the secrets they carry, by choosing each other over and over again’ apparently. This one could go either way but I like the idea of a disparate group of characters locked together by their work.

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I’m finishing off June’s paperbacks with J M Holmes’ How Are You Going to Save Yourself about four young men who’ve grown up together but have drifted apart in adulthood as they try to cope with society’s expectations, family pressures and their own self-images. Described as ‘both humorous and heart-breaking’ it’s ‘a timely debut about sex, race, family and friendship’, apparently which sounds good to me.

That’s it for June’s paperbacks. 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 the first instalment it’s here. New novels are here and here.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2019: Part One

Cover imageThis 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.Cover images

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… 

Books to Look Out for in June 2019: Part Two

Cover imageHard to match part one of June’s preview, having led with a new Kate Atkinson but Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favorite authors so I’ll start with The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino. Mr Nishino makes his advances to all manner of women: young, old, independent, grieving, cat-loving or interested in making their own conquests – all are considered fair game. ‘For each of them, an encounter with elusive womaniser Mr Nishino will bring torments, desires and delights’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for some of the understated prose infused with a gentle humour that characterised both The Nakano Thrift Shop and Strange Weather in Tokyo the covers of which are nicely referenced by this one.

I’m jumping from a favourite writer to one I know nothing about with Helon Habila’s Travellers which tackles the theme of migration through a diverse set of characters, from a Nigerian American couple who have been awarded an arts fellowship to a Somalian trying to save his daughter from a forced marriage. ‘Moving from a Berlin nightclub to a Sicilian refugee camp to the London apartment of a Malawian poet, Helon Habila evokes a rich mosaic of migrant experiences. And through his characters’ interconnecting fates, he traces the extraordinary pilgrimages we all might make in pursuit of home’ say the publishers. It sounds both ambitious and fascinating.

Carrying on the theme of migration, award-winning poet, Ocean Vuong’s lyrically named On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous takes the form of a letter from a son to his mother who cannot read, telling her the story of his life and exploring the family’s history in Vietnam before he was born. ‘At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity… … With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years’ say the publishers in the somewhat overwrought blurb. It does sound extraordinary, and Cover imageI’ve a weakness for novels by poets.

Carolina Setterwall’s Let’s Hope for the Best is apparently based on events in her own life, knowledge of which is likely to make her novel all the more wrenching. Written in the form of a dual narrative which flits back and forth between past and present, it tells the story of thirty-six-year-old Carolina whose partner dies in the night leaving her to bring up their infant son alone. Setterwall takes the story to the point where new love appears on Carolina’s horizon but will she be able to accept it. Reading the synopsis for Let’s Hope for the Best, I can’t help being reminded of Tom Malmquist’s powerful, moving piece of auto-fiction, In Every Moment We Are Alive.

The next two novels are reissues rather than brand spanking new ones but I’ve read neither of them. The first comes garlanded with praise from the likes of Alan Hollinghurst, who has written an introduction, and Rupert Everett who laments the passing of the New York City portrayed in Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance. Set in the 1970s, it follows Anthony Malone who turns his back on small town America to throw himself into the dance parties, discos, saunas and orgies of the New York gay scene. ‘First published in 1978, Dancer from the Dance is widely considered the greatest, most exciting novel of the post-Stonewall generation. Told with wit, eroticism and unashamed lyricism, it remains a heart-breaking love letter to New York’s hedonistic past, and a testament to the brilliance of our passions as they burn brightest’ say the publishers. I like the sound of that even if it won’t be possible to read it without the sadness of knowing what comes next.

Cover imageThe second reissue is a feminist classic which I’ve heard of but never read. Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen follows Sasha Davis who drops out of college to marry but finds herself rebelling against her conservative 1950s upbringing as her thirtieth birthday draws near. ‘Alix Kates Shulman’s landmark novel follows Sasha’s coming of age through the sexual double standards, discrimination and harassment of the 1950s and 60s. Originally published in 1972, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was the first great novel of second-wave feminism. Five decades later, it remains a funny, honest and heartbreakingly perceptive story of a young woman in a man’s world’ says the blurb. According to the New York Times ‘women will like it and men should read it for the good of their immortal souls’. Amen to that.

That’s it for June’s new novels. As ever, a click on any title that’s snagged your attention will take you to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Books to Look Out for in June 2019: Part One

Cover imageNo prizes for guessing which book tops June’s list of new titles if you’ve had your eye on Transworld’s tweets. Big Sky is Kate Atkinson’s first Jackson Brodie novel in nine years. For those not yet familiar with Jackson, he’s a private investigator with a military background and a career in the Cambridge Constabulary behind him. This new instalment sees him returned from Edinburgh to his native Yorkshire. His current case, an apparently straightforward one of infidelity, draws him into a sinister network and back into his past. ‘Old secrets and new lies intersect in this breathtaking new novel, both sharply funny and achingly sad, by one of the most dazzling and surprising writers at work today’ say the publishers. Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear I’ve already devoured this one. Such a treat, particularly as it’s not even a year since Transcription was published.

Jo Baker’s The Body Lies is also a novel of suspense according to the blurb. A young writer accepts a job at a university deep in the countryside hoping to turn her back on the assault she endured in the city but finds herself involved in a vitriolic debate about violence against women. Tension is ratcheted up when a student sends her sample chapters of his novel whose main protagonist resembles herself. ‘At once a breathless battle-of-wits and a disarming exploration of sexual politics, The Body Lies is an essential book for our times’ according to the publishers.

I’m not entirely sure about Tim Lott’s When We Were Rich but its premise is an appealing one. Six people gather on a London rooftop on Millennium Eve to watch the fireworks on the Thames. All seems rosy as the economy booms but mass immigration from Eastern Europe is causing rumbles of discontent and religious fundamentalism is making itself known. How will these six weather the challenges ahead? ‘Sad, shocking and often hilarious, it is an acutely observed novel of all our lives, set during what was for some a golden time – and for others a nightmare,Cover image from which we are yet to wake up’ say the publishers. Apparently, this new novel sees the return of characters who first appeared in White City Blue, a novel I read but about which I can remember nothing.

My reservations about Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers are based largely on the idea that I don’t much enjoy historical novels but I’m beginning to question that having after reading several excellent ones last year. Cliff’s story sees a recently widowed window dresser hatch a plan to scupper a rival whose mannequins are uncannily lifelike. ‘What follows is a gothic tale of art and deception, strength and folly, love and transgression, which ranges from small-town New Zealand to the graving docks of the River Clyde in Scotland. Along the way we meet a Prussian strongman, a family of ship’s carvers with a mysterious affliction, a septuagenarian surf lifesaver and a talking figurehead named Vengeance’ apparently. I’m a little concerned about that talking figurehead but it does sound original

Claire McGlasson’s The Rapture is about The Panacea Society, a religious community made up almost entirely of single ladies who patiently awaited the return of the Lord. A devoted member of the Society, Dilys makes friends with Grace, a new recruit, but becomes wary of their leader’s zealotry. ‘As her feelings for Grace bud and bloom, the Society around her begins to crumble. Faith is supplanted by doubt as both women come to question what is true and fear what is real’ according to the publishers. The Panacea Society was based in a Victoria villa in Bedford, a town I lived in for a couple of years without the slightest knowledge of the cult’s existence. The last member died in 2012, apparently.

Claire Lombardo’s The Most Fun We Ever Had sounds rather more down to earth. Much loved by their parents, the four Sorenson sisters have their lives turned upside down by the reappearance of a teenage boy given up for adoption years earlier. ‘Weaving between past and present, The Most Fun We Ever Had portrays the delights and difficulties of family life and the endlessly complex mixture of affection and abhorrence we feel for those closest to us’ say the publishers which suggests family secrets and a novel to escape into to me, perhaps heralding the beginning of the summer reading season.

That’s it for the first batch of June’s new titles. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Second instalment soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2019: Part Two

Cover imageBack from Genoa – of which more on Wednesday –  with the second batch of May paperbacks starting with the only one I’ve read. Lena Andersson’s Acts of Infidelity features the same sharply observed protagonist as her witty novella, Wilful Disregard, which I reviewed here a couple of years ago. Once again Ester is in the grips of monomania, this time for Olof who is performing in her play, Threesome, about a man trapped in an unhappy marriage who becomes involved with another woman. Given the novel’s title, it doesn’t take much to work out how things play between Ester and Olof. Andersson shows no mercy in skewering Ester’s deluded conviction that Olof is as besotted with her as she is with him despite his obvious indifference which may sound like a rerun of Wilful Disregard but its more sombre tone makes Act of Infidelity sadly credible.

I suspect Sara Stridsberg’s The Gravity of Love will share that tone. Jimmie Darling’s daughter visits her father in the psychiatric institution just outside Stockholm where he is in the charge of Edvard Winterson, happy to take his patients for the odd night out. When her mother disappears on holiday, the hospital becomes Jackie’s world and she makes the acquaintance of what sounds like a vivid cast of characters. ‘In Sara Stridsberg’s breathtakingly beautiful novel, the psychiatric hospital, set in a lovely park close to a lake, takes on near-mythic dimensions, both as an avenging angel and as a redeemer of lost souls’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown but Stridsberg’s book has been much praised in Stridsberg’s native Sweden.

Sally Rooney’s quietly addictive Conversations with Friends won both prizes and accolades when it was published in 2017. Her second, Normal People, has met with a similar response. It follows Connell and Marianne, both from the same small town but from very different backgrounds, who win places at Trinity College Dublin. ‘This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel’ say the publishers promisingly. That synopsis remindsCover image me a little of Belinda McKeon’s wonderful Tender setting the bar very high for me.

In Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion a young student is taken up by a prominent feminist and finds herself treading a very different path from the one she’d expected to travel. ‘Expansive and wise, compassionate and witty, The Female Persuasion is about the spark we all believe is flickering inside us, waiting to be seen and fanned by the right person at the right time, and the desire within all of us to be pulled into the light’ according to the publishers. I’ve long been a fan of Wolitzer’s novels, reviewing The Interestings here way back in 2013.

I could have said the same about William Boyd’s work had it not been for a string of thrillers which failed to hit the mark for me. His last novel, Sweet Caress, saw a return to form that I hope will continue in Love is Blind. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, it follows Brodie Mancour from Edinburgh to Paris where he conceives an obsessive passion for a Russian soprano with dangerous consequences. ‘At once an intimate portrait of one man’s life and an expansive exploration of the beginning of the twentieth century, Love is Blind is a masterly new novel from one of Britain’s best-loved storytellers’ say the publishers which makes me hopeful.

I’m finishing May’s paperback preview with two short story collections the first of which, Lauren Groff’s Florida, I’ve picked not because, as the publishers trumpet, it was one of Barack Obama’s books of 2018, although it has to be said that the man has excellent literary taste, but because Rebecca over at Bookish Beck rated it her favourite fiction of the same year. ‘In these vigorous stories, Lauren Groff brings her electric storytelling to a world in which storms, snakes and sinkholes lurk at the edge of everyday life, but the greater threats are of a human, emotional and psychological nature’ according to the blurb. Sounds great.

Cover imageCatherine Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, came with Margaret Atwood’s seal of approval which must be both a blessing and a curse for an author, raising stratospheric expectations. She’s followed it with Certain American States, a collection of twelve short stories which explore loss and longing, apparently. The Answers was stuffed full of smart writing so I’m hoping for the same with this collection although perhaps not the caustic humour given those themes.

That’s it for May. A click on Acts of Infidelity will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other six titles. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of paperbacks, it’s here. The month’s new titles are here and here.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2019: Part One

Cover imageRather like April, May’s paperback publishing schedules are chock full of potential delights, some of which I’ve read but most not. I’ll begin with one I haven’t: Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman which constantly popped up in my neck of the Twitter woods in the latter part of last year, lauded by all manner of people many of them readers whose opinions I trust. It’s about thirty-six-year-old Keiko who’s never had a boyfriend and who’s been working in the same store for half her life. Others may wonder why she doesn’t find someone to settle down with but Keiko’s happy with what she has.

Given Keiko’s apparent contentment with her single, childless lot she may not have troubled herself with the question of whether to have children or not, the subject of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. Heti’s narrator struggles to make a decision while everyone else has something to say on the matter. ‘Motherhood raises radical and essential questions about womanhood, parenthood, and how – and for whom – to live’ says the publisher in a blurb that gets straight to the point and is all the better for it. I’ve seen mixed reviews of this one but I’m keen to read it.

Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage sounds most unusual. It’s based on the life of Len Howard who was forty years old when she decided to turn her back on her life in London and move to a cottage in Sussex to pursue her passion for birds. The result was two bestselling books based on her observations of the birds that lived nearby, some of which became so used to her they would perch on her shoulder as she typed, apparently. ‘This moving novel imagines the story of this remarkable woman’s decision to defy society’s expectations, and the joy she drew from her extraordinary relationship with the natural world’ say the publishers which sounds lovely.

Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, Edward Carey’s Little takes its readers from eighteenth-century Switzerland to Revolutionary France before arriving at its destination in Baker Street. When six-year-old Anne Marie Grosholtz is orphaned, she attaches herself to the otherworldly Dr Curtius who make his living from modelling wax busts. Fleeing the bailiffs, these two take themselves off to France where they become embroiled in the French Revolution. Grudges are borne, scores settled in the worst of ways and when it’s all over Marie Cover imageis alone. Sharp and resourceful as ever, she finds her own pragmatic way. Marie is an engaging narrator whose story is made all the more enjoyable by Carey’s line drawings. One of my 2018 books of the year.

It’s the gorgeously written Moonstone that’s whetting my appetite for the multi-talented Sjón’s Codex 1962 in which a character is fashioned out of clay carried in a hatbox by his Jewish fugitive father in WW2 Germany. The woman his father meets in a smalltown guesthouse nurses him back to health and together they mould the clay into the shape of a baby. It’s not until 1962 that Joseph enters the world, growing up with a rare disease which will attract the attention of an Icelandic geneticist fifty-three years later. ‘At once playful and profoundly serious, this remarkable novel melds multiple genres into a unique whole: a mind-bending read and a biting, timely attack on nationalism’ say the publishers promisingly.

I enjoyed Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, so much so that we visited the eponymous building in Brno on out first central European railway jaunt a few years back. I’m hoping for something similar from Prague Spring which sees two English students, Elli and James, hitching across Europe and into Czechoslovakia in 1968 when the world’s eyes are on Alexander Dubcek’s ‘socialism with a human face’. A British diplomat in Prague is engaging in his own explorations of this new idealism but the Kremlin has other ideas. ‘How will the looming disaster affect those fragile lives caught up in the invasion?’ asks the publisher although I think we know the answer.

Quite some time ago, having spent several holidays in the Four Corners area of the US, I went through a phase of reading Native American fiction which is what attracts me to Tommy Orange’s There There. It revolves around the Big Oakland Powwow, following several celebrants not all of whose intentions are good. Described as ‘a propulsive, groundbreaking novel, polyphonic and multigenerational, weaving together an array of contemporary Native American voices into a singularly dynamic and original meta-narrative about violence and recovery, about family and loss, about identity and power’ it sounds both ambitious and enticing. Rebecca over at Bookish Beck counts it among the three best books she’s read this year.

Cover imageOver five years since I reviewed it on this blog, Cristina Henríquez’s brilliantly named The Book of Unknown Americans is being published in paperback. It explores the immigrant experience through one family who have left their beloved Mexico for the US in the hope of helping their young daughter Maribel, brain-damaged in an accident. Narrated by Maribel’s parents, the novel is punctuated by the testimonies of their fellow tenants in the Delaware apartment block where they live, some of whom have fled unrest and persecution while others are hoping to escape poverty, seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Filled with warmth as well as sorrow, it’s a sad story humanely told.

That’s it for the first batch of May’s paperbacks. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis or to my review for Little and The Book of Unknown Americans. If you’d like to catch up with May’s new titles they’re here and here. More soon but not until next week when I’m back from a short break in Genoa about which no doubt I will be posting.

Books to Look Out for in May 2019: Part Two

Cover imageMay’s second batch of new titles begins with Linda Grant’s A Stranger City which seems to use the discovery of a body in the Thames to explore the nature of community in London, or the lack of it, through a policeman, a nurse and a documentary-maker. ‘The wonderful Linda Grant weaves a tale around ideas of home; how London can be a place of exile or expulsion, how home can be a physical place or an idea. How all our lives intersect and how coincidence or the randomness of birth place can decide how we live and with whom’ according to the publishers which sounds promising. I’ve not always got on with Grant’s fiction but enjoyed her last two novels: Upstairs at the Party and The Dark Circle.

I’m not entirely sure about Mary Loudon’s My House is Falling Down which sees a marriage under strain when Lucy falls in love with Angus. Lucy is determined not to deceive her husband but is shocked by his reaction to her affair. ‘Infused with her trademark precision, clarity and dark humour, Mary Loudon’s searing, highly-charged novel My House is Falling Down is a fearless exploration of what infidelity means when no one is lying, and how brutal honesty may yet prove the biggest taboo in our relationships’ say the publishers which suggests an original take on the somewhat hackneyed theme of middle-aged infidelity.

Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted could also go either way which seems to be becoming a theme for this post. A physics professor is determined to get to the bottom of why she’s received a phone call from a friend when she knows he died two days ago. ‘Helen is drawn into the orbit of Charlie’s world, slotting in the missing pieces of her friend’s past. And, as she delvesCover image into the web of their shared history, Helen finds herself entangled in the forgotten threads of her own life’ according to the blurb which leaves me a little mystified but I enjoyed Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds enough to give it a try.

At first glance, Joanne Ramos’ The Farm is some way outside my usual literary territory but it comes garlanded with praise from all and sundry including Sophie Mackintosh and Gary Shteyngart. A young Filipina immigrant hopes to improve her life and her child’s, taking a job at Golden Oaks a luxury fertility clinic run by an ambitious business woman who’s spotted a gap in the market. Described by the publishers as ‘a brilliant, darkly funny novel that explores the role of luck and merit, class, ambition and sacrifice, The Farm is an unforgettable story about how we live and who truly holds power’ which reminds me a little of David Bergen’s Stranger. It’s the dark humour and class theme that attracts me to this one.

I suspect there’ll be some dark humour in Paulo Maurensig’s A Devil Comes to Town set in a Swiss village where everyone’s a writer so absorbed in their work they’ve failed to notice the inauspicious signs, all but the new parish priest that is. When the devil turns up in a flash car claiming to be a publisher, the village’s harmony is shattered as literary rivalries are let loose. ‘Maurensig gives us a refined and engaging literary parable on narcissism, vainglory, and our inextinguishable thirst for stories’ say the publishers of a novel which could well be a great deal of fun.

Cover imageI’m rounding off this second instalment of new titles with Being Various: New Irish Short Stories put together by guest editor Lucy Caldwell. It’s the sixth volume in a series from Faber, apparently – I’ve clearly got a lot of catching up to do. Following In the footsteps of Kevin Barry, Deirdre Madden and Joseph O’Connor, Caldwell has assembled a stellar list of contributors which includes Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, Stuart Neville, Sally Rooney, Kit de Waal and Belinda McKeon. I’m sure there will be more than a few gems with writers of their calibre involved, and that’s a fabulous jacket.

That’s it for May. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’d like to know more, and if you want to catch up with the first part of May’s preview it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Books to Look Out for in May 2019: Part One

Cover imageApril was a wee bit light on new titles for me, making up for it with a plethora of paperbacks to keep an eye on. In contrast May sees me spoilt for choice with a very attempting array of new novels on offer beginning with Jessica Andrews’ debut, Saltwater, which follows a young woman from her Sunderland working-class home to the seductive delights of London where she’s won a university place. Lucy finds the transition from one life to another overwhelming, never quite losing her feelings of being an outsider and eventually fleeing to her late grandfather’s cottage in Ireland. ‘Lyrical and boundary-breaking, Saltwater explores the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, the challenges of shifting class identity and the way that the strongest feelings of love can be the hardest to define’ according to the publishers. I do like the sound of this one which puts me in mind a little of Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking.

Rosie Price’s debut, What Red Is, seems to explore similar themes, albeit more dramatically, following the inseparable Kate and Max through their four years at university. Max’s wealthy, socially assured family are very different from Kate’s whose life is shattered by an incident in a bedroom during a party at Max’s parents’ London house just after graduation. ‘What Red Is explores the effects of trauma on mind and body, the tyrannies of memory, the sacrifices involved in staying silent, the courage of a young woman in speaking out’ say the publishers. Price’s novel has drawn comparisons with all manner of authors, from David Nicholls to Meg Wolitzer, but I’m taking my cue from a couple of people whose opinions I trust in my Twitter feed where it’s been popping up for months.

Students and their relationships, both with each other and their teachers, are the subject of Cover imageSusan Choi’s Trust Exercise which sees Sarah and David fall obsessively in love in their first term at a performing arts school where teachers and students become dangerously close. Twenty years later, the students’ lives remain marked by what happened in the secret, enclosed world of their school. ‘Captivating and brilliant, Trust Exercise is a novel about the treacherous terrain of adolescence, how we define consent, and what we lose, gain, and never get over as we navigate our way into adulthood’s mysterious structures of sex and power’ say the publishers promisingly. I enjoyed Choi’s My Education very much and like the sound of this one.

Set in one of England’s new towns Andrew Cowan’s Your Fault takes us from the ‘60s into the ‘70s, following Peter from his first memory to his first love. Each chapter marks one year in Peter’s life, as his future self tells Peter’s story back to him. ‘It’s an untold story of British working-class experience, written with extraordinary precision and tenderness’ according to the publishers which sounds more unusual then it should. I do like the sound of that structure

Rather than telling the story of one life, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other tells the story of twelve very different characters’ lives, most of them black British women.Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible’ promise the publishers. That structure certainly makes it irresistible to me. Evaristo’s Mr Loverman was an absolute joy raising hopes for this one.

Cover imageI’m rounding off this first instalment of May’s new titles with a collection of short stories by Julia Armfield, salt slow, which sounds a little surreal. It focusses on women and their experiences in society, apparently, exploring themes of isolation, obsession and love. ‘Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants’ according to the publishers, bringing to mind Michael Andreasen’s The Sea Beast Takes a Lover. Like Nicole Flattery, whose Show Them a Good Time I enjoyed very much, Armfield is the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize. An award to keep an eye on, clearly.

As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should any take your fancy. More soon…