Edel Coffey selects ten books to read from this month’s new releases …
January can be a thin month for new books but this month sees an unusual bounty of literary riches to ease us into the new year.
First up, the rapturously anticipated DAY (Fourth Estate, €22.99) by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham. Day is his first novel in almost a decade and it is nothing short of beautiful. Isabel and Dan are married and living in Brooklyn with their children, while Isabel’s gay brother Robbie, struggling to make his way, is living in their attic. Despite his apparent failure, Robbie represents a world that feels lost to Isabel and Dan, namely, youth and possibility. The story takes place on one day, April 5, over three years – 2019, 2020 and 2021 – but this is not so much a pandemic book as an elegy for the world, and for a way of life. As per all Cunningham novels, this is perfectly written and feels both devastating and essential. If you’re a fan of audiobooks, Julianne Moore, who starred in the film adaptation of Cunningham’s The Hours, reads this one.
Three excellent Irish writers make their novel debuts this month. Greystones author Cathy Sweeney drew much attention for her 2020 debut collection of short stories, Modern Times, which offered an absurd and often humorous look at how we live now. BREAKDOWN (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, €21), is a fascinating study of a woman who has sacrificed her dreams in exchange for being a good wife, a good mother, a so-called good woman, and has had enough. Literary in style, but as propulsive as a thriller, the story begins with Sweeney’s middle-aged protagonist waking up and realising she cannot go on with her perfectly middle-class life. She calls in sick to her teaching job, ignores the appalling demands of her grown children (more almond milk; lifts), and sets off on a literal and metaphorical journey to find herself. You won’t be able to put this down.
There has been an unholy amount of buzz around Ferdia Lennon’s debut GLORIOUS EXPLOITS (Penguin Fig Tree, €17.50) and from the very first page it’s easy to see why. Lennon’s debut is set in 412BC, after Athens’ failed invasion of Sicily. Athenian prisoners of war have been thrown into the quarries to die. Lampo and Gelon are local potters who go visiting the quarries for want of something better to do. Gelon is a fan of Euripides and when he discovers some of the prisoners can recite Medea, he comes up with a plan to stage the play. All of the conversation is in Dublin vernacular (Lennon was born in Dublin but now lives in Norwich), which adds unexpected layers of humour and pathos. Don’t be put off by the setting or subject matter. All of humanity is captured in this really enjoyable and highly entertaining story from a brilliant new voice.
Colin Barrett fans have waited a long time for a novel from this Mayo maestro of the short story who has won The Rooney Prize, The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and whose stories have appeared in The New Yorker. WILD HOUSES (Vintage, €14.99) tells the story of 17-year-old Nicky and her boyfriend Doll who get caught up in a feud between a smalltime dealer (Doll’s brother Cillian) and two local heavies, Gabe and Sketch, who drag their reclusive cousin Dev into their mess. Barrett’s characters are full of heart and individuality and you’re in love with them all from the get-go. A must for fans of Lisa McInerney and Kevin Barry.
Hisham Matar was born in New York City to Libyan parents, spent his childhood in Tripoli and Cairo and has lived most of his adult life in London. His 2016 memoir The Return, about his return to Libya in search of his father, won the Pulitzer Prize. His new novel, MY FRIENDS (Penguin Viking, €18.75), is set between Edinburgh, London and Libya and deals with many of the themes explored in his memoir. It tells the story of three friends, Hosam, Khaled and Mustafa, whose lives are changed when they attend a protest at the Libyan embassy in London and the government officials there open fire on the protestors. This is a moving study of friendship and the effects on a person of living in exile.
THREE LITTLE BIRDS by Sam Blake (Corvus, €13.99) follows the story of Dr Carla Steele, a facial reconstruction expert. When Garda DS Jack Maguire brings a skull retrieved from a lake to Carla’s office, she thinks she is working on a 14-year-old cold case. But when a woman is found murdered by the lake, the case is no longer cold. Blake is an expert storyteller and her forensically researched plot offers lots of fascinating crime scene detail that vividly brings this story to life. But it is the chemistry between characters Carla, her partner the criminal psychologist Grace Franicosi, and the serious gentleman DS Maguire that keeps you turning the pages. A gripping and dark thriller perfect for the January fireside.
Another excellent thriller is FIRST LIE WINS (Headline, €14.99) by US author and producer Ashley Elston. The book is already being adapted into a TV series by Octavia Spencer and it’s easy to see why. This high-concept thriller is former YA writer Ashley Elston’s debut adult novel and it is a mind-twisting conundrum. The protagonist is working for a mysterious boss who gives her a new name and identity with every mission. Her original identity is a secret she guards closely, just in case she ever needs to use it. But during the course of her latest mission, where she has moved way too close to her mark – she’s now his girlfriend – she meets a woman who looks unnervingly like her, and also happens to have her real name, the one nobody is supposed to know about. Is she being double-crossed by her boss? The race is on to find out. A deeply satisfying page-turner.
Martha Baillie is a Canadian author of several novels but THERE IS NO BLUE (Granta, €21.25) is a memoir in which she writes about her mother, father and sister – all of whom are dead – and in doing so she reflects on her family’s story. Written in three parts, one essay for each member of her family, this is a beautiful, insightful and moving meditation on grief and family.
Crystal Hefner first arrived at the infamous Playboy mansion in 2008 at the age of 21. Within months she was, in the unusual hierarchy of the Playboy Mansion, promoted to Hugh Hefner’s top girlfriend and eventually, four years later, his wife. By that time, she was living her life according to the weird misogynistic rules of the Playboy world and her home had become a prison. In her memoir, ONLY SAY GOOD THINGS (Ebury, €27.50) she writes about how she reclaimed her identity and happiness from the damaging culture of the Playboy mansion. As well as the bizarre life she led, the book also gives a rare insight into Hugh Hefner. As for the title? It comes from what Hefner told Crystal when he was dying – “only say good things”. She might have broken that deathbed diktat with this book.
JOURNEY OF THE HEART Cynthia Zarin is best known for her poetry but in this beautiful pocket-sized book, In Italy (Daunt Books, €6.99), essays guide us through Zarin’s travels in some of Italy’s most iconic cities, and her own emotional journeys. Through her personal experiences we see wellworn places with a fresh perspective, as she describes her heartbreak, love affairs and work assignments in places in and around Venice and Rome. Zarin’s attention to detail pulls you into the pages and her articulation of the emotional landscape dazzles you. A perfect escape from January.