Obviously, there is nothing good about January. It’s cold, it’s still dark when you leave for work and dark when you get home, and it’s positively ages until the next set of bank holidays. Perhaps the only silver lining is that new seasons bring with them a whole host of new books – and since you’re quite possibly not drinking and almost certainly hibernating, that’s exactly what you need.
First up is a thriller about a girl who drinks a lot and starts investigating an almost-murder…. it sounds like The Girl on the Train, doesn’t it? But stay with me, because Holly Seddon’s debut Try Not to Breathe is a classic of the genre, full of delicious plot twists. Out next month, our heroine is Alex Dale, once a celebrated journalist and now a booze-reliant loner scraping together a living as a freelancer.
Working on a story about a doctor who treats comatose patients, she finds herself drawn into the mystery surrounding a woman of her age, from the same area, who was left for dead as a teenager. Naturally, Alex sets out to solve it, seeing doing so as a key step along her path to redemption. Interspersing the victim’s story – it turns out she is suffering from a form of locked-in syndrome – and that of her teenage ex Jake, the plot rushes along to a juicy, if not entirely unpredictable denouement. It’s pulpy fun, elevated by Seddon’s skill as a storyteller and her talent for character observation.
Also out in time for early spring is Alberto’s Lost Birthday, by Diana Rosie. The story of an old man and his grandson going on a hunt for long-lost details about his childhood, it starts off slowly but builds to a sweetly satisfying conclusion. Set in Spain now and in the 1930s when the country was in the midst of the brutal civil war, it’s full of historical tidbits and vivid descriptions of village life. The child, Tino, is a fairly forgettable character, but the old man is endearing and easy to root for as he digs deep into his subconscious and comes to terms with what he has lost. It’s a light read, but charming throughout.
From Spain, it’s on to America’ deep south for a story of hypocrisy and teenage cruelty. Sarah Bannan’s Weightless, out in March, is loosely based on a real criminal case, and her retellling is simultaneously disturbing and addictive. Adamsville, Alabama is a town where life is structured around a few staples; football, the church, and a general distrust of outsiders. When East Coast beauty Carolyn Lessing joins the high school, it’s only a matter of time before she becomes a target for the school’s Mean Girls. But what starts as typical teen sniping soon becomes a severe case of bullying – made worse by easy access to social media and camera-phones – with tragic consequences. Written from the perspective of an unnamed outsider, Bannan’s writing and her ability to get into the minds of her young protagonists is remarkable, and brought to mind Curtis Sittenfeld’s wonderful novel Prep. Being a teenage girl has never seemed so terrifying.
Not that higher education is any better, if Rachel B. Glaser’s wonderfully eccentric novel Paulina & Fran is anything to go by. The former is a tempestuous art school student with an amusing collection of airs and graces and a wonderful sense of self-belief; the latter is the ingénue she takes under her wing. The friendship is rooted in several things; both are creative, inquisitive, more interesting than their peers and sexually open. Mostly, though, what unites them is that they have great hair (seriously – it’s a crucial component of the story). But when the tables turn, and Fran starts to gain in confidence, can this passionate friendship sustain? Sharp and witty with some exceptional one-liners, it’s like little else I’ve read and continually entertaining.
And from America, on to India and Sandip Roy’s Don’t Let Him Know. Spanning several generations of the same family as they move between Calcutta and California, it’s a book about the corrosive effects of keeping secrets from our loved ones. Although each chapter connects, it reads more as a collection of short stories about the Indian and Indian-American experience. While some are naturally more engaging than others, each one is compelling. Whether it’s a young boy’s fascination with his hairdresser, domestic warfare over mango chutney, or an elderly lady reflecting on her long-ago romance with a Bollywood hero, Roy offers complex and colourful characters struggling with expectations and familial responsibilities. It’s out on 29th January and, like all the others, well worth a read.