BOOK CLUB: The Top Literary Releases of January

If the first month of January is anything to go by, 2018 is going to be the year our bookcases collapse with the weight of incredible new releases. Non-fiction is having a renaissance, so our reading horizons are broadened beyond the usual popular success of fictional novels. Cue the not-so-gradual decrease in our bank balances.

Heather Morris, The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Bonnier Publishing)

Following the story on BBC News which caught the public’s attention, it was obvious this book would be on my to-read list this month. The novel follows the true story of two Slovakian Jews, Lale and Gina Sokolov, who met at Auschwitz. Lale was the camp’s tattooist, using his position of albeit minimal privilege to help whoever he could, and Gina was a young girl he tattooed and fell in love with.

It is an unbelievable tale of finding love in remote places, and it seems the perfect time to release such a novel – it is long enough after the period of over-saturation of books about the Second World War to still be hard-hitting, and follows a narrative trail we have never heard before. The author Heather Morris met Lale before he died and originally wrote his story as a screenplay, which was received with critical acclaim, and has now reconfigured its content into her debut novel. A stunning portrayal of a period of history which never ceases to appall.

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James Rhodes, Fire on all Sides (Quercus Books)

Concert pianist James Rhodes’ debut novel and Sunday Times bestseller Instrumental shocked readers and came up against a major lawsuit from Rhodes’ ex-wife, because of its graphic description of Rhodes’ experience of sexual abuse as a child and the mental illness he has experienced throughout his life as a result. Fire on all Sides is no less confronting; it is Rhodes’ personal journey, written whilst he undertook a gruelling five-month tour on the road, and explores the mental hurdles he came across along the way.

Rhodes refers to it as an “anti self-help book” – he offers no solutions, only coping mechanisms, with classical music his primary source of comfort. He explores the stigma around classical music, and seeks to reconfigure and reclaim the language used around it – something that has long been discussed by those in the industry that don’t adhere the stuffy, outdated classical music conventions. Rhodes’ new release is not for the faint of heart, but it is a fascinating and inspiring read, full of dark humour and sarcastic comments on popular culture’s views on mindfulness and self-help. He establishes that in mental illness, we are at the mercy of our intrusive negative thoughts, and we must merely find ways of surviving. I imagine it will go some way to helping change the face of both mental illness classical music in mainstream culture.

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Afua Hirsch, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging (Jonathan Cape)

The search for racial identity in a multicultural world is by no means a new concept in literature, but Afua Hirsch brings the argument closer to home in her debut work, turning the lens away from the individual and onto British culture as a whole. She examines how our liberal attempts to be colour-blind have caused more problem than they’ve solved, insinuating that there are negative connotations to being black and merely getting white people “off the hook”. She refers to Britain as a country of “racism without racists”.

Hirsch is born of Jewish and Ghanaian parents, but grew up in leafy, suburban Wimbledon. She never felt at home in either place – Africa or England – and realises that she squashes her black identity to seem non-threatening and make white people here feel more comfortable. London is a city where the rich live in such close proximity to poor, and blacks live next to whites – it’s a real melting pot, unlike cities like Paris were the suburbs separate different classes of people. What’s refreshing is Hirsch’s attitude as a first-time writer; she is not trying to speak for all ethnic minorities in Britain, and acknowledges that all black lived experiences are different, and her situation is unique and she recognises her privileges. It’s a refreshing examination into British multiculturalism and I think will make white people in Britain examine their communication with people of colour.

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Leila Slimani, Lullaby (Faber & Faber)

This is, without a doubt, my top choice for January. In its most simplistic and crass form, it follows the story of a killer nanny. In reality though, it explores so much more than just this, with themes of racial prejudice, gender bias and mental illness all under the microscope. To give context, this novel was is written in French and was awarded the Prix Goncourt, a prize generally reserved for white males. The author of “Lullaby”, however, is Leila Slimani, a French-Moroccan female author.

Page 1 flings us headlong into the climax of the plot; two children are dead as is the nanny, who has taken her own life. We then are sent back in time, to examine how the nanny became a part of this family’s lives. The novel articulates perfectly the ambiguous role of the nanny within the home – she lives in a house that isn’t hers and looks after children that aren’t hers. She is a motherly figure, without the title, yet still yielding great influence within the sphere of the home.

The story is loosely based on the story of Louise Woodward, the British au pair convicted of involuntary manslaughter of a baby she looked after in Massachusetts in 1997. The onus on the mother was present in this case as in the novel – in the case, Woodward’s lawyer attacked the mother as part of the defence; “If you didn’t want something to happen to your child, you should have stayed home. You wanted to be a doctor, you wanted to have an ambition, so it’s your fault if your child is dead”. Men are deemed blameless, with women taking the brunt of the blame – in the novel, there is never a question that Paul, the father, will sacrifice his career, and in court, Myriam is continually blamed for being an unethical employer, with Paul’s name left out of it. A fascinating study of the inequalities of domestic life.

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Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Little, Brown)

I’m sure there’ll be no surprise that this latest Trumpian exposé features in the list. The highly talked-about new release by journalist and columnist Michael Wolff is jam-packed full of revelations, as the first major inside account into life within the Trump White House. There’s no doubt it’s well researched. Wolff held over 200 interviews, and in the introduction to the book he outlines clearly the validity of these conversations, and how he has drawn conclusions. We are walked through the process of how Wolff gained access to the White House and became part of its furniture as a literal “fly on the wall” – it seems as though the lack of procedure and experience of those involved offered him far greater access than we could imagine.

This book comes at an interesting moment, and Wolff explains his reasonings for publishing at this time, not wanting to write “history” with the benefit of hindsight, but instead informing the public now at this critical point, whilst Trump is still in power and we can question his actions. Opening up these issues now allows a degree of transparency not possible in other presidencies, and there is no doubt that this is immensely exciting and it will be interesting to see how it unfurls.

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Morgan Jenkins, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America (Harper Perennial)

The debut essay collection from 25-year-old Morgan Jenkins is a powerful entry into the canon of black feminist writing: a genre fast becoming a feature of mainstream literature. Jenkins meditates on pop culture, feminism, black history, misogyny and racism. She uses her personal narrative to bounce off into analysing broader social constructs in a very honest way.

Inevitably, as a young writer, she has a shorter span of memories than other writers in this field, but her stories as a child prove that all experiences are valuable and telling. At school, she says “the whiteness was blinding”, and she feared being categorised alongside the disruptive black girls at school, wanting to be distanced from them, but in the process becomes whitewashed by the popular cheerleaders she longs to be friends with. My only hope is that this collection doesn’t get lost in the flurry of similarly themed essay collections hitting our shelves this year.

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