June through August is a highlight in terms of the sheer variety of books on shelf. Jennifer McShane has earmarked four particular titles worth adding to your must-read lists before the summer is out.
Pulitzer prize winner Colin Whitehead follows his superb The Underground Railroad with The Nickel Boys (Fleet, approx €14.99, out August 1) a tale of which construction workers have dug up a secret graveyard on the grounds of the juvenile reform school the Nickel Academy in Jackson County in Florida. Years earlier, we meet our protagonist Elwood Curtis, a deeply principled, straight-A high senior school student who has just arrived at Nickel. He has made a simple mistake – one which sees his future change in the blink of an eye.
Nickelwood is a school with an upstanding reputation but on the inside, Curtis finds the opposite: Corruption, near-constant physical, verbal, and sexual abuse of the boys – especially black boys – is the norm. A slight mishap can see them brought “out back.” Curtis, an idealist at heart, befriends the cynical Turner, who feels the only way to justify his violent experiences is to be as cruel as those who oppress him. Both struggle to survive and must deal with the consequences of a life-altering decision. Whitehead, inspired by horrific events that transpired at the real-life Dozier School for Boys, writes with startling and vivid insight.
In Looker by Laura Sims (Headline, approx €9.99, out July 25), the story centres on an unamed narrater; a female voyeur, who is in mourning. She has lost her husband Nathan – he’s left behind nothing but his cat – and mourns her infertility. She is a sad figure, and at first, the reader can’t help but sympathise. Slowly, underneath her loneliness, a deranged sense of self gradually comes to the surface. She is unhappy.
Teetering on the edge, she finds a new distraction: watching ‘the actress,’ a glamorous film star who lives across the street with her handsome screenwriter husband and young children. It is the life she longs for: to been seen, to be admired, to be a mother. So, at first it’s a jealous admiration, but gradually, the fantasies, the spying, constant watching, grows into a compulsion. As she becomes obsessive, her behaviour takes a darker turn. A compelling debut, with echoes of Hitchcock throughout.
In Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Wildfire, approx, €16.99, out now) we meet hapless 41-year-old New York hepatologist Toby Fleishman, recently separated from his driven wife, Rachel. She makes a lot more money than he does, something that still clearly doesn’t sit too well with him. Their 14-year marriage was always rocky but he now wants a divorce because he feels she has changed – she’s always angry and somewhat neglectful of their two children.
Through the awkwardness of separation and Tinder dating, Toby’s already frayed life doesn’t go to plan though, not when Rachel suddenly disappears. And, just like that, he realises he knew very little about her. The third-party narrative device was a surprise – the novel is primarily narrated by Toby’s old college friend Libby, a bored, housewife in NYC – but it offers a fresh take on this funny, keenly observed and tender debut.
Author Angela Meyer quite skillfully manages to weave historical drama and dystopian fiction together and make it work in A Superior Spectre (Saraband, approx €12.99, out August 15). It’s a work of ambition; in the distant future of 2024, Jeff is dying. He decides to run to a remote part of Scotland as a distraction from his ailing body and tortured memories. With him is a piece of beta technology which allows him to time travel back to the 1860s and inhabits the mind of a person. He is told he must only use the device three times.
Ignoring this, he frequently mind-visits Leonora, a young woman in the Scottish Highlands sent to stay with her aunt. And so we have a story of two narrators, Leonora and Jeff. She is in the past and he longs to be somewhere – someone – else. It is ultimately her story, always acutely aware something is affecting her mind, she struggles to come to terms with voices, visions – even a sexual awakening that isn’t entirely her own. Clever, intelligent and engrossing.