Pandora Sykes on her Favourite New Debuts
With her blistering debut collection of essays, How Do We Know We're Doing It Right?, being published in July, Pandora Sykes knows first-hand how challenging a time it is for new authors to make a big impact. In this exclusive piece, she recommends four books released this summer that deserve your full attention.
It's a strange time to be facing publication as a debut author - and I say that with personal experience. In a climate where physical shops have been shuttered and book tours, cancelled, the need to support newbies is, quite frankly, more important than ever. The lovely thing, of course, is that people are dying to read - online books sales at Waterstones went up by 400% the week before lockdown. So if this debut author here can beg anything of you, it would be to buy books (if you can afford to) and that when you do, to take a chance on a first-time author. Oh and the fact that these are all women? That's just a lovely coincidence.
It feels trite to say that young, female Irish fiction-writers are having a moment, but between Caroline O'Donoghue (her second book, Scenes of a Graphic Nature, is out in June) Sally Rooney (possibly no intro necessary) and now Naoise Dolan, there's a certain tone emerging: sharp, dark, sometimes revolting, often funny. In short, we're bored of polite fiction. Dolan's Exciting Times is a breathtakingly accomplished debut. Her dialogue is tight enough to work on stage and her prose is wry and economical - it manages in 10 words, what would take other authors 100. The story of two expats in Hong Kong - a British banker named Julian, and an Irish language teacher named Ava, who are sort of together and when Edith, a lawyer enters Ava's life, sort of not - it explores the idea of love, success, identity and what makes a home, with aplomb. I am greedy for Dolan's second, already.
Fiction about fashion is rarely written by someone ensconced in the hub of it and can therefore read wincingly. But Walker is currently a fashion editor at The Times (impressively, she wrote The New Girl on her maternity leave) and so her debut reads convincingly and is a delight: a pacey thriller for fashion-lovers. It tells the story of Margot, a willowy blonde with a good gig on a magazine, who appoints Maggie, a freelancer, as her maternity cover. Is Maggie better than Margot at her job? worries Margot. And as she begins to ape her haircut and befriend and date her friends, could Maggie, wonders Margot, be dangerous? A Devil Wears Prada-meets-Gone Girl mash-up, this is a deliciously heady concoction of fashion and fear, best gobbled down whole, over one lockdown weekend.
Expanded from a brilliant and funny Guardian article that the radio DJ wrote in 2018, Charles' non-fiction book about our current Outrage Era is a dense combination of fact and opinion. Once upon a time, you were outraged about something, she writes. Now the outrage is the something. Such fury is misplaced, says Charles. It is no longer reserved for social and civic issues; instead, it has morphed into woke-scolding celebrities online. Where did we all go wrong? A deconstruction of our cultural M.O., Charles' manifesto is as pertinent and potent as Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed? was (and still is) in 2015.
Who gets to tell a story? That's a hot debate, at the moment. Further to that, who gets to tell a tragedy? Goldberg inverts the standard crime novel, by 'solving' her murder right at the beginning - and spending the rest of her book focusing on the ripple effect of university student Sara's murder. Each of her 12 characters are allocated their own chapter, set in different time frames, to narrate their part in and experience of the murder. Consumed as a whole, it's a narrative tool which gives an impression more vivid than any linear trajectory could. I don't often like whodunnits, which is probably why I like this book so much. There's no explosive 'gotcha' moment, but instead, there's something better: a story that sparks from start to finish.
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