Recommended July Releases: Donoghue, Maizes, Miller, Parikian, Trethewey

My five new releases for July include historical pandemic fiction, a fun contemporary story about a father-and-daughter burglar team, a new poetry collection from Carcanet Press, a lighthearted nature/travel book, and a poetic bereavement memoir about a violent death.

 

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Donoghue’s last two novels, The Wonder and Akin, were big hits with me. Less than a year after the contemporary-set Akin, she’s back to a historical setting – and an uncannily pertinent pandemic theme – with her latest. In 1918, Julia Power is a nurse on a Dublin maternity ward. It’s Halloween and she is about to turn 30, making her a spinster for her day; she lives with her mute, shell-shocked veteran brother, Tim, and his pet magpie.

Because she’s already had “the grip” (influenza), she is considered immune and is one of a few staff members dealing with the flu-ridden expectant mothers in quarantine in her overcrowded hospital. Each patient serves as a type, and Donoghue whirls through all the possible complications of historical childbirth: stillbirth, obstructed labor, catheterization, forceps, blood loss, transfusion, maternal death, and so on.

It’s not for the squeamish, and despite my usual love of medical reads, I felt it was something of a box-ticking exercise, with too much telling about medical procedures and recent Irish history. Because of the limited time frame – just three days – the book is far too rushed. We simply don’t have enough time to get to know Julia through and through, despite her first-person narration; the final 20 pages, in particular, are so far-fetched and melodramatic it’s hard to believe in a romance you’d miss if you blinked. And the omission of speech marks just doesn’t work – it’s downright confusing with so many dialogue-driven scenes.

Donoghue must have been writing this well before Covid-19, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the publication was hurried forward to take advantage of the story’s newfound relevance. It shows: what I read in May and June felt like an unpolished draft, with threads prematurely tied up to meet a deadline. This was an extremely promising project that, for me, was let down by the execution, but it’s still a gripping read that I wouldn’t steer you away from if you find the synopsis appealing. (Some more spoiler-y thoughts here.)


Prescient words about pandemics:

“All over the globe … some flu patients are dropping like flies while others recover, and we can’t solve the puzzle, nor do a blasted thing about it. … There’s no rhyme or reason to who’s struck down.”

“Doctor Lynn went on, As for the authorities, I believe the epidemic will have run its course before they’ve agreed to any but the most feeble action. Recommending onions and eucalyptus oil! Like sending beetles to stop a steamroller.”

Why the title?

Flu comes from the phrase “influenza delle stelle” – medieval Italians thought that illness was fated by the stars. There’s also one baby born a “stargazer” (facing up) and some literal looking up at the stars in the book.


My rating:

My thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

 

Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes

This is Maizes’ debut novel, after her 2019 short story collection We Love Anderson Cooper. Louise “La La” Fine and her father, Zev, share an unusual profession: While outwardly they are a veterinary student and a locksmith, respectively, for many years they broke into homes and sold the stolen goods. Despite close shaves, they’ve always gotten away with it – until now. When Zev is arrested, La La decides to return to her criminal ways just long enough to raise the money to post bail for him. But she doesn’t reckon on a few complications, like her father getting fed up with house arrest, her fiancé finding out about her side hustle, and her animal empathy becoming so strong that when she goes into a house she not only pilfers valuables but also cares for the needs of ailing pets inside.

Flashbacks to La La’s growing-up years, especially her hurt over her mother leaving, take this deeper than your average humorous crime caper. The way the plot branches means that for quite a while Zev and La La are separated, and I grew a bit weary of extended time in Zev’s company, but this was a great summer read – especially for animal lovers – that never lost my attention. The magic realism of the human‒pet connection is believable and mild enough not to turn off readers who avoid fantasy. Think The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley meets Hollow Kingdom.

My rating:

My thanks to the author and Celadon Books for the free e-copy for review.

 

The Long Beds by Kate Miller

Here and there; now and then: the poems in Miller’s second collection enlarge such dichotomies by showcasing the interplay of the familiar and the foreign. A scientist struggles to transcribe birdsong, and a poppy opens in slow motion. “Flag” evokes the electric blue air and water of a Greek island, while “The Quarters” is set in the middle of the night in a French village. A few commissions, including “Waterloo Sunrise,” stick close to home in London or other southern England locales.

Various poems, including the multi-part “Album Without Photographs,” are about ancestor Muriel Miller’s experiences in India and Britain in the 1910s-20s. “Keepers of the States of Sleep and Wakefulness, fragment from A Masque,” patterned after “The Second Masque” by Ben Jonson, is an up-to-the-minute one written in April that names eight nurses from the night staff at King’s College Hospital (and the short YouTube film based on it is dedicated to all NHS nurses).

My two favorites were “Outside the Mind Shop,” in which urban foxes tear into bags of donations outside a charity shop one night while the speaker lies awake, and “Knapsack of Parting Gifts” a lovely elegy to a lost loved one. I spotted a lot of alliteration and assonance in the former, especially. Thematically, the collection is a bit scattered, but there are a lot of individual high points.

 My rating:

 My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.

 

Into the Tangled Bank: In Which Our Author Ventures Outdoors to Consider the British in Nature by Lev Parikian

In the same way that kids sometimes write their address by going from the specific to the cosmic (street, city, country, continent, hemisphere, planet, galaxy), this book, a delightfully Bryson-esque tour, moves ever outwards, starting with the author’s own home and garden and proceeding to take in his South London patch and his journeys around the British Isles before closing with the wonders of the night sky. By slowing down to appreciate what is all around us, he proposes, we might enthuse others to engage with nature.

With the zeal of a recent convert, he guides readers through momentous sightings and everyday moments of connection. As they were his gateway, many of these memories involve birds: looking for the year’s first swifts, trying to sketch a heron and realizing he’s never looked at one properly before, avoiding angry terns on the Farne Islands, ringing a storm petrel on Skokholm, and seeing white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Skye. He brings unique places to life, and pays tribute to British naturalists who paved the way for today’s nature-lovers by visiting the homes of Charles Darwin, Gilbert White, Peter Scott, and more.

I was on the blog tour for Parikian’s previous book, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?, in 2018. While the books are alike in levity (pun intended!), being full of self-deprecation and witty asides along with the astute observations, I think I enjoyed this one that little bit more for its all-encompassing approach to the experience of nature. I fully expect to see it on next year’s Wainwright Prize longlist (speaking of the Wainwright Prize, in yesterday’s post I correctly predicted four on the UK nature shortlist and two on the global conservation list!).

Readalikes (that happen to be from the same publisher): Under the Stars by Matt Gaw and The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt

My rating:

My thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.

  

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

Trethewey grew up in 1960s Mississippi with a Black mother and a white Canadian father, at a time when interracial marriage remained illegal in parts of the South. After her parents’ divorce, she and her mother, Gwen, moved to Georgia to start a new life, but her stepfather Joel was physically and psychologically abusive. Gwen’s murder opens and closes the book. Trethewey only returned to that Atlanta apartment on Memorial Drive after 30 years had passed. The blend of the objective (official testimonies and transcripts) and the subjective (interpreting photographs, and rendering dream sequences in poetic language) makes this a striking memoir, as delicate as it is painful. I recommend it highly to readers of Elizabeth Alexander and Dani Shapiro. (Full review forthcoming at Shiny New Books.)

My rating:

My thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.

 

I’m reading two more July releases, Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett (Corsair, 2 July; for Shiny New Books review), about a family taxidermy business in Florida, and The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams (William Heinemann, 2 July), about an unusual dictionary being compiled in the Victorian period and digitized in the present day.

 

What July releases can you recommend?

21 responses

  1. I recommend Into the Tangled Bank, too. I have Lily Cole’s Who Cares Wins on my NetGalley list, about kindness, but haven’t read it yet, and that’s my only one published in July, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll pop over and read your SNB review.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I love your little birdwatching story: sit back and read and let the interesting bird come to you sounds like a great strategy 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Shame about the Donoghue; I loved Akin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do appreciate that all of her books feel completely different (although this one is closest to The Wonder in setting and some other particulars). Lots of people have loved this, so although it didn’t completely work for me I wanted to feature it anyway.

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  3. Interesting to hear what you thought of the new Donoghue, I have a proof but the premise doesn’t really appeal to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmm, if you don’t already enjoy medical reads I’m not sure if this one will be worth your time. I thought her research (childbirth interventions, children’s homes, Sinn Fein, etc.) was inserted rather clumsily.

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      1. It does sound like it was rushed to get the benefit of being about a pandemic! Wasn’t Akin just released last year? I haven’t read it yet either!

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    2. Akin came out last OCTOBER, so that’s barely 9 months between books — part of what made me feel this had been rushed into print. I liked Akin a lot more.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I might try and get to Akin first then!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. On her website she says “I began this novel in October 2018, inspired by the centenary of the Great Flu of 1918-19, and I delivered the final draft to my publishers two days before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.”

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  4. I still haven’t got around to reading Akin! But I like the sound of her new one, shame it was rushed out. I’ve got the Tangled Bank, Liar’s Dictionary and Dead Things in my piles now too. All sounds wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Liar’s Dictionary is delightful. I’m nearing halfway in Mostly Dead Things and still a bit unsure about it; I’ll let you know how I get on and if I want to proceed with the Shiny review.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m behind with Donoghue’s books; I’m a bigger fan of her earlier work, more character-driven and a slightly more melancholic (more realistic?) tone that suited me better. (Kissing the Witch – fairy tale retellings, Hood, Stir-Fry, Slammerkin). The qualities that niggled you about this one were some of the same elements that niggled me about the Wonder, so for me, I feel like maybe she’s just interested in telling different kinds of stories at this point than I’m interested in reading. But that could be just me.

    Hmmm, as for July releases, I’ve recently reread a strange québéecois novel by Jean-Michel Fortier (translated by Katherine Hastings) which is set in the county of ***, where there are a lot of widows and strange occurrences and deaths. It’s surprisingly bloody, and, for all that, it made me giggle a lot. Such a strange book that I had to read it twice! New this month from QC Fiction, which was responsible for the stunning Songs for the Cold of Heart by Eric Dupont (which may be better known in some parts as The American Fiancée, translated by Peter McCambridge).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know her early work at all; the oldest one I’ve read (a re-release, or one that came late to the UK, I think?) was The Sealed Letter, which I found subpar. I loved The Wonder, which superficially, at least, is closest to this in the historical setting and medical theme, but this felt underbaked in comparison. However, I would say that both endings were similarly problematic.

      I remember being drawn to Songs for the Cold of Heart during the Giller race a couple of years ago. It still hasn’t made it to the UK as far as I know, alas, but it’s one I’d splurge on secondhand in the future. How I wish all of these interesting Canadian books were more readily available!

      Like

  6. Argh, I read your spoiler for the Donoghue ending. Having already read the Sarah Moss review in the Guardian which hints at a disappointingly conventional ending, I just knew this was what she was referring to, and now my suspicions are confirmed! I hate hate hate this trope. I’m still going to read the book though because I like Donoghue’s writing so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I knew you’d find that irritating! Anyway, I’ve earmarked my proof for you if you want it. Despite my qualms, it would be a good fiction choice for the Wellcome longlist.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, I’d love the proof!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. If the ending of Donoghue’s new book is like the ending in The Wonder then I’m not likely to be happy with it. However, I’ll probably read it anyway, because I’m always interested in pandemics and plagues.

    The Maizes sounds like fun! And the memoir is very tempting despite how heartbreaking it sounds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s magical/unrealistic in a slightly different way, but comparable, yes. It certainly was a timely read. I saw someone comment that it must be the only novel to have been brought forward rather than pushed back due to Covid! I wonder if it will get anywhere in this year’s Giller race.

      I think you’d like Maizes’ book, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rushing it through could have hurt its chances for the Giller, but I’m sure it’ll be very successful with or without the Giller nomination!

        Liked by 1 person

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