Recommended March Releases: Magnusson, May, Moor and More

March has been a huge month for new releases. With so many authors feeling let down about book tours and events being cancelled, it’s a great time for bloggers to step in and help. I attended two virtual book launches on Twitter on the 19th and have another one coming up on the 31st. I also have three more March releases on order from my local indie bookstore: Greenery by Tim Dee, tracking the arrival of spring; Footprints by David Farrier, about the fossil traces modern humans will leave behind; and The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, a novel about violence against women set on the Scottish coast in three different time periods.

Today I have short reviews of five March releases I recommend (plus a bonus one now out in paperback): a Victorian pastiche infused with Scottish folklore, an essay collection about disparate experiences of motherhood, a thriller about victims of domestic violence, poems in graphic novel form, a novel about natural and personal disasters in Australia, and a lovely story of friendship and literature changing a young man’s life forever. All:

 

The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

(Published by Two Roads on the 19th)

Like Hannah Kent’s The Good People and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, this is an intense, convincing work of fiction that balances historical realism with magical elements. In mid-1850s Britain, in the wake of a cholera epidemic, there is a drive to ensure clean water. Alexander Aird, hired as the on-site physician for the Glasgow waterworks, moves to the Loch Katrine environs with his wife, Isabel, who has had eight miscarriages or stillbirths. With no living babies requiring her care, Isabel spends her days wandering the hills and meets a strange scarecrow of a man, Reverend Robert Kirke … who died in 1692.

A real-life Episcopalian minister, Kirke wrote a book about fairies and other Celtic supernatural beings and, legend has it (as recounted by Sir Walter Scott and others), was taken into the faery realm after his death and continued to walk the earth looking for rest. It takes a while for Isabel to learn the truth about Kirke – though her servant, Kirsty McEchern, immediately intuits that something isn’t right about the man – and longer still to understand that he wants something from her. “Whatever else, Robert Kirke could be relied on to ruffle this mind of hers that was slowly opening to experience again, and to thinking, and to life.”

This was a rollicking read that drew me in for its medical elements (premature birth, a visit to Joseph Lister, interest in Florence Nightingale’s nursing methods) as well as the plot. It often breaks from the omniscient third-person voice to give testimonies from Kirsty and from Kirke himself. There are also amusing glimpses into the Royal household when Victoria and Albert stay at Balmoral and return to open the waterworks during the “heaviest, windiest, most umbrella-savaging, face-slashing deluge that Scotland had experienced in twenty years.” Best of all, it gives a very different picture of women’s lives in the Victorian period.

My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

 

The Best Most Awful Job: Twenty Writers Talk Honestly about Motherhood, edited by Katherine May

(Published by Elliott & Thompson on the 19th)

These are essays for everyone who has had a mother – not just everyone who has been a mother. I enjoyed every piece separately, but together they form a vibrant collage of women’s experiences. Care has been taken to represent a wide range of situations and attitudes. The reflections are honest about physical as well as emotional changes, with midwife Leah Hazard (author of Hard Pushed) kicking off with an eye-opening rundown of the intimate scarring some mothers will have for the rest of their lives. We hear from a mother of six who’s “addicted” to pregnancy (Jodi Bartle), but also from a woman who, after an ectopic pregnancy, realized “there are lots of ways to mother, even if your body won’t let you” (Peggy Riley, in one of my two favorite pieces in the book).

Women from BAME communities recount some special challenges related to cultural and family expectations, but others that are universal. An autistic mother (Joanne Limburg) has to work out how to parent a neurotypical child; queer parents (including author Michelle Tea) wonder how to raise a son at a time of toxic masculinity. There are also several single mothers, one of them disabled (Josie George – hers was my other favorite essay; do follow her on Twitter via @porridgebrain if you don’t already).

What I most appreciated is that these authors aren’t saying what they think they should say about motherhood; they’re willing to admit to boredom, disappointment and rage: “motherhood is an infinite, relentless slog from which there is no rest or recuperation … a ceaseless labour, often devoid of acknowledgment, recognition and appreciation” (Javaria Akbar); “I step barefoot on a rogue piece of Lego and it’s game over. I scream” (Saima Mir). These are punchy, distinctive slices of life writing perfectly timed for Mother’s Day. I plan to pass the book around my book club; mothers or not, I know everyone will appreciate it.

My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

 

Keeper by Jessica Moor

(Published by Viking/Penguin on the 19th)

Val McDermid and Jeanette Winterson are among the fans of this, Penguin’s lead debut title of 2020. When a young woman is found drowned at a popular suicide site in the Manchester area, the police plan to dismiss the case as an open-and-shut suicide. But the others at the women’s shelter where Katie Straw worked aren’t convinced, and for nearly the whole span of this taut psychological thriller readers are left to wonder if it was suicide or murder.

The novel alternates between chapters marked “Then” and “Now”: in the latter story line, we follow the police investigation and meet the women of the refuge; in the former, we dive into Katie’s own experience of an abusive relationship back in London. While her mother was dying of cancer she found it comforting to have a boyfriend who was so attentive to her needs, but eventually Jamie’s obsessive love became confining.

I almost never pick up a mystery, but this one was well worth making an exception for. I started suspecting the twist at maybe the two-thirds point, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Based on Moor’s year working in the violence against women sector, it’s a gripping and grimly fascinating story of why women stay with their abusers and what finally drives them to leave.

I picked up a proof copy at a Penguin Influencers event.

 

Poems to See by: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry by Julian Peters

(To be published by Plough Publishing House on the 31st)

Peters is a comics artist based in Montreal. Here he has chosen 24 reasonably well-known poems by the likes of e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe, Christina Rossetti and W.B. Yeats and illustrated each one in a markedly different fashion. From black-and-white manga to a riot of color and music, from minimalist calligraphy-like Japanese watercolor to imitations of Brueghel, there is such a diversity of style here that at first I presumed there were multiple artists involved (as in one of my favorite graphic novels of last year, ABC of Typography, where the text was written by one author but each chapter had a different illustrator). But no, this is all Peters’ work; I was impressed by his versatility.

The illustrations range from realistic to abstract, with some more obviously cartoon-like. A couple of sequences reminded me of the style of Raymond Briggs. For “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, lines are inlaid on the squares of a painted patchwork quilt. Other sets look to have been done via wood engraving, or with old-fashioned crayons. You could quibble with the more obvious poetry selections, but I encountered a few that were new to me, including “Buffalo Dusk” by Carl Sandburg and “Conscientious Objector” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Peters has grouped them into six thematic categories: self, others, art, nature, time and death. Teenagers, especially, will enjoy the introduction to a variety of poets and comics styles.

I read an e-copy via NetGalley.

  

The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts

(Published by ONE/Pushkin on the 5th)

“Emergency police fire, or ambulance?” The young female narrator of this debut novel lives in Sydney and works for Australia’s emergency call service. Over her phone headset she gets appalling glimpses into people’s worst moments: a woman cowers from her abusive partner; a teen watches his body-boarding friend being attacked by a shark. Although she strives for detachment, her job can’t fail to add to her anxiety – already soaring due to the country’s flooding and bush fires.

Against that backdrop of natural disasters, a series of minor personal catastrophes play out. The narrator is obsessed with a rape/murder case that’s dominating the television news, and narrowly escapes sexual assault herself. She drinks to excess, keeps hooking up with her ex-boyfriend, Lachlan, even after he gets a new girlfriend, and seems to think abortion and the morning after pill are suitable methods of birth control. Irresponsible to the point of self-sabotage, she’s planning a move to London but in the meantime is drifting through life, resigned to the fact that there is no unassailable shelter and no surefire way to avoid risk.

The title comes from the quest of John Oxley (presented here as the narrator’s ancestor), who in 1817 searched for a water body in the Australian interior. Quotations from his journals and discussions of the work of Patrick White, the subject of Lachlan’s PhD thesis, speak to the search for an Australian identity. But the inland sea is also the individual psyche, contradictory and ultimately unknowable. Like a more melancholy version of Jenny Offill’s Weather or a more cosmic autofiction than Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist, this is a timely, quietly forceful story of how women cope with concrete and existential threats.

My thanks to the publisher for the PDF copy for review.

 

And a bonus…

 

The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)

(Paperback published by Bloomsbury on the 5th)

With the Second World War only recently ended and nothing awaiting him apart from the coal mine where his father works, sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard sets out on a journey. From his home in County Durham, he walks southeast, doing odd jobs along the way in exchange for food and lodgings. One day he wanders down a lane near Robin Hood’s Bay and gets a surprisingly warm welcome from a cottage owner, middle-aged Dulcie Piper, who invites him in for tea and elicits his story. Almost accidentally, he ends up staying for the rest of the summer, clearing scrub and renovating her garden studio.

Dulcie is tall, outspoken and unconventional – I pictured her as (Meryl Streep as) Julia Child in the movie Julie & Julia. She introduces Robert to whole new ways of thinking: that not everyone believes in God, that Germans might not be all bad, that life can be about adventure and pleasure instead of duty. “The offing” is a term for the horizon, as well as the title of a set of poems Robert finds in the dilapidated studio, and both literature and ambition change his life forever. Bright, languid and unpredictable, the novel delights in everyday sensual pleasures like long walks with a dog, dips in the ocean and an abundance of good food. I can’t think of another book I’ve read that’s quite like it – how refreshing is that?

I pre-ordered the paperback using a Waterstones voucher I got for Christmas.

  

What recent releases can you recommend?

25 responses

  1. Reading your review, I think I should have included The Offing in my comfort read post. Perhaps I’ll do another in a few weeks. I’d love to think we’d no longer need such things by then but I’m sure we will.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree it’s a lovely and hopeful read despite some darker elements. Quite different in tone from the rest of Myers’s fiction, as I understand it? (I’ve not read The Gallows Pole or any others yet, just his nonfiction book Under the Rock.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve heard that, too.

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  2. Hooray, I’m so glad you enjoyed the Magnusson! I thought the royals were hilarious. I also like the sound of The Best Most Awful Job.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I DNFed Sealwoman’s last year, but I’m going to go back and try it again once my library reopens. I doubt this one is going to get the attention it deserves.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know, it’s frustrating – it deserves to be as big a hit as Doll Factory or The Essex Serpent.

        I managed to win a Mother’s Day competition Two Roads ran on Twitter, so my mum has received free copies of both this one and The Sealwoman’s Gift 🙂 I hope you get on better with Sealwoman’s second time around!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Keeper sounds great Rebecca! I hear The Offing dramatised on Radio 4 and really enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you go for a thriller more often than I do. Keeper was a good one!

      Like

  4. 1. I love the cover of The Ninth Child!
    2. The Best Most Awful Job sounds like something I would devour. It makes me wonder what I would write about motherhood…
    3. What a good idea to write a book about a 911 operator. The stories they could tell!
    4. The Offing sounds lovely.
    5. The Difference by Marina Endicott is the new release I recommend. I’ve read a few good ones, but haven’t done a very good job writing about them lately. Anyway, The Difference is a book I hugged when I was finished.
    6. I have scrolled quickly through all your recent posts, and there are so many good ones… I’m going to try to catch up!
    7. Your new blog design looks nice!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am still in love with botanical covers, too. I’ve been noticing them for several years now, but they don’t really get old.

      I wish you were in my book club so I could go put The Best Most Awful Job through your letterbox!

      I love the idea of giving a book a hug 🙂 The Offing was a book to hug, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yay! Love your review! Made me want to read it myself!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Which one in particular?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Keeper! Seems so intriguing!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Off to find the Offing-giggle, Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great! It’s coming out in the States in September.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The Offing sounds just my thing, especially as I know Robin Hoods Bay very well. Providing the writer is accurate (and that’s actually quite a big proviso) I love novels that are set somewhere I know. My next read however it’s going to be The Bass Rock, which I see is on your forthcoming list as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve not been to Robin Hood’s Bay so couldn’t tell you. Apart from Robert taking swims and going into a shop, I don’t recall that you see that much of the area that could be described in/accurately.

      I have The Bass Rock on pre-order from The Hungerford Bookshop. I’ve heard great things and am looking forward to it very much!

      Like

  8. I’d definitely read The Offing (Robin Hood’s Bay is in one word – steep!) and The Keeper (which as you know is on my shelf!). March releases still to read for me are Hamnet and the new Natasha Pulley The Lost Future of Pepperharrow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m halfway through Hamnet. I’m going to try the first Pulley book when my library reopens.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The Footsteps one could be great or awful and/or terribly depressing so I will look to your review in time for guidance! I’ve just read David Hockney and Martin Gayford’s A History of Pictures (new ed) and it was marvellous. Also David Crystal’s Let’s Talk, due out in May, was pretty good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I heard yesterday that my order was ready at the shop, so I hope it will be shipped out today (free postage!). The author read out a few passages as part of his online launch event and it sounded good — ties in with other deep time books from the last year or so, like Underland, Surfacing, Time Song, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Jessica Moor popped into the shop a few weeks ago and was lovely, so it’s really good to see that Keeper is, um, a keeper. (Sorry.) I wasn’t as enamored of The Offing as everyone else seems to be (I thought it was rather obvious, thematically, and it never really goes anywhere), but agree that it’s a really solid read for a time of stress!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d enjoy Keeper (and race through it in a day, probably). Naomi F. is not about online anymore; if she were, I’d recommend it to her, not least for its Manchester-area setting.

      The Offing is certainly not a plotty novel — more of a lazy, meandering one — but I only read about 10 pages of it per day throughout March, so that pattern suited the pace.

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  11. […] Another book called Keeper, this one by Jessica Moor, provides my cheaty half-step. I found this debut novel to be a gripping […]

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