Need a holiday read? Something to settle down with outside when the sun actually shines? Or an excuse to stay in and protect yourself from the rays? Here are some of my favourite books being published in July (click on the titles for full reviews). Expect tense friendships, exposure of class differences, and eccentric tales of unusual characters.
How To Stop Time by Matt Haig – Highly anticipated new book by Matt Haig about the perils of immortality when you’re an anxious overthinker.
Watling Streetby John Higgs – History, anecdotes, politics, and society are all covered in this book about the famous Roman road running across England and Wales. Endearing popular history.
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory – Like a Wes Anderson film in book form, this is the story of a family of psychics and con artists who want to restore their good name. An enchanting summer read.
The Party by Elizabeth Day – A gripping novel about the dark sides of privilege, exposing career politicians and the licences of the rich whilst telling a story of a lifelong yet unequal friendship and its secrets.
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley – A historical novel about a journey into Peru in the nineteenth-century with an unlikely friendship at its core and a look at understanding others’ beliefs.
The Destroyers by Christopher Bollen – When old and privileged childhood friends end up together on a Greek island, their lives and relationships start to unravel. A tense and ominous literary thriller.
Hings by Chris McQueer – Provocative, hilarious, and darkly surreal short stories focused on working class Scotland, everyday life, and the mundane mixed with the downright weird. Far too enjoyable.
A journey into Bedlam: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
The Bedlam Stacks is a strangely enticing novel set in the nineteenth century about a dangerous expedition and the lengths one man ends up going to not only succeed in his venture, but also to sustain a newfound bond. Injured expeditionary Merrick Tremayne is convinced by the India Office into one last adventure, a trip to New Bethlehem—a holy town known as Bedlam deep in Peru in areas uncharted by the British—to bring back cuttings of cinchona trees, whose bark contains quinine which will treat the malaria epidemic. Facing hostility on all sides once he reaches Peru, Tremayne discovers the secrets of the forest, makes an unlikely allegiance, and must fight to protect these and bring back the plants.
Pulley’s novel starts slowly and at first can appear an uninteresting colonialist tale, but it becomes mesmerising as Tremayne is drawn further into the Peruvian world. Part of this is due to his first person narration: initially he seems like an expeditionary gardener stuck in a British colonial viewpoint, but his sense of wonder, his attitudes towards the native people and the Quechua language, and his forging friendships there like his grandfather did before him make the novel engaging and make him a character who really becomes something special. Pulley avoids a lot of obvious plot points or ideas, instead making an unexpected and enjoyable narrative.
As with the narrative pace, at first it seems overly colonialist, focused on British forces and the East India Company, but again, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the focus is more upon Incan and other Peruvian culture and life in the nineteenth century, including the mysterious elements centred around Tremayne’s guide Raphael. Raphael is also the book’s most interesting character and the varied relationship between him and Tremayne is a real highlight and a crucial part of the second half of the novel.
The Bedlam Stacks is a great new novel for historical fiction fans who enjoy adventure, non-British cultures, and a mystical sense of both the past and the present. It is a book that questions belief, reinforces similarity over difference, and shows how someone who feels an outsider in society can find allies and a place in another.