It had been a great night at the Polari salon in Nottingham, and the audience was waiting for the final performer to take the stage, when a woman bounded from the back of the room. Scowl framed by the hood of her black anorak, and ignoring the compere’s insistence that she wasn’t on the programme, Barbara Brownskirt barked out a series of poems from her numerous unpublished collections about, among other things, her unrequited love for Judi Dench. She was scary. She was hilarious. She was – and still is – the unsuccessful lesbian Poet-in-Residence at the 197 bus stop, Penge, and the brilliant creation of writer and performer Karen McLeod.
Is satire redundant when the World’s Most Powerful Narcissist tweets his outrage at the slightest scratch on his orange-tinged carapace, while She Who Should Be Humbled files for divorce from Europe in the full knowledge that this will leave her dependants economically and morally depleted, and literally humbles the Bejewelled Great-Grandmother by committing her to take her New Suitor for a spin in her horse-drawn carriage? Publication proceeding at a slower pace than populist politics, these two novels – the first set in a dystopian near-future and the second in 2013 – were conceived prior to the dystopia that was 2016 but can still evoke a shudder in these early days of 2017.
I decided to pair these novels after reading blurbs suggesting both were about young women adapting to significant losses: the mother’s disappearance in Swimming Lessons and a close friend’s suicide in Our Magic Hour. But, on reading the latter, I felt the main character’s issues predated that particular tragedy, originating with a highly ambivalent mother in a difficult marriage. Unfortunately for the character, but very accommodating for my reading and blogging schedule, the same applies to the first novel. I hope one or both of these will appeal but, if not, you’ll find several other posts and reviews on the theme of family dynamics if you follow the link.
My first two reads of 2017 are linked by one of last year’s favourites: like The Underground Railroad, The Golden Legend is about outsiders on the run, while Homegoing explores the before, after and meanwhile of the slave trade between Africa and America. Both novels also reference the role of literature in challenging partial accounts of the lives of the powerless.
I’ve been interested in fictional Korea since coming across Adam Johnson's chilling novel about the cruelly crazy North Korean regime, The Orphan Master's Son. Later, I learnt that all is not rosy in South Korea either via The Defections by Hannah Michell, and about the brutal response to a rebellion in that country through the translated novel, Human Acts by Han Kang. Courtesy of Picador and Faber and Faber, I’m pleased for the opportunity to read two more novels, both debuts, providing insights into Korean politics, people and culture. Shelter is about a family of Korean immigrants to North America. How I Became a North Korean tells of the fortunes and misfortunes of North Korean defectors crossing the border to China.
Sometimes fiction furnishes a necessary escape from harsh reality. Sometimes it helps us interpret a confusing world. At other times it provides a safe space to explore disturbing issues we’d rather turn away from. These two books from small independent presses fall into the latter category: important stories, but I wouldn’t be supporting them if they weren’t also a good read. Personally, I’d rather dark truth than artificial light, but mostly, as these are, I want my stories well told.
Country (dis)connections: The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop & His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay
For my first post of meteorological autumn, I bring you two novels with a strong sense of season and climate. But what particularly connects them is their explorations of how conflicting attachments to place risks fragmenting family life. The first takes us from England to Australia, with a brief visit to India, and the second back and forth between Canada and the USA, so between them these novels cover a large proportion of the English-speaking world.
These three novels featuring three fictional celebrities take us from the leader of an anti-establishment artists’ movement in 1930s Australia, to an Arab-Berber boxer in colonial Algeria and to a Nigerian musician and political activist in late 20th-century Kenya. Each illustrates the intertwining of social and psychological issues, and the costs and compromises of fame.
In between celebrating my book’s first birthday – and finding the clichéd book-as-baby metaphor more apt than ever – I’ve had the pleasure of reading three novels about the begetting of real human babies: a debut scientific thriller from England; a second gritty comedy from Scotland; a third novel in the literary genre from the USA. As if the authors have responded to a writing prompt to bring a novel angle to “having” a baby, there should be something for everyone in this selection. If you’d like to recommend any others, you can do so via the comments.
Busy with my birthday blog tour, my reviews have been somewhat neglected this month. So good to find a theme to link a couple of books together. Set in Britain, My Name Is Leon is about a boy’s struggle to adapt to being too black for adoption; set in the USA, The Lauras is about a woman revisiting the places she was fostered through the eyes of her own child.
Like Workington and Barrow, Morecambe is a small, slightly rundown, coastal town in north-west England to which I have personal connections: my parents lived there for many years and, coincidentally, one of my good friends, whom I met in Cairo, has a house overlooking the bay which, for a short while, she ran as a guesthouse. Although I don’t refer to it by name, it’s also one of the settings, along with Nottingham, for my forthcoming novel, Underneath. So when I discovered Owl Song at Dawn was set in Morecambe, I was keen to read it. I was even happier to be offered a slot on the blog tour when the author agreed to write a post on the setting. I hope you enjoy Emma Claire Sweeney’s piece as much as I did. My mini review follows at the end.
It’s almost a year until my second novel, Underneath, is published. As it starts with looking around a house, I had it in mind when I posted my guest prompt over at the Carrot Ranch recently. What I didn’t realise at the time was that this would herald a theme cutting across much of my reading and reviews, from Nolan’s work on a building site in Journeyman, to an updated Wildfell in The Woman Who Ran, to the isolated manor house in The Sacred Combe, a large house in Nigeria in This House is not For Sale, a farmhouse in upstate New York which has been bought on the cheap in All Things Cease to Appear and an entire street in Prosperity Drive. Now I’m adding to that list with a novel about a former show house on an unfinished Irish housing estate from which, one by one, all four members of a family disappear and another about the strange children who come to live in an isolated mansion.
It’s UK publication day for two debut novels taking a look back at 1960s in the USA, with an emphasis (at least in my reading) on the subjugation of women. Thanks to Chatto & Windus and John Murray for my review copies.
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional with mutterings about reading and writing seasoned with psychology.
Annecdotist is the persona through whom I navigate that in-between space. When not roaming the blogosphere, I'm reading or writing, tramping the moors, battling the slugs in my vegetable plot or struggling to sing.
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I don't post to a schedule, but average around ten reviews a month (see here for an alphabetical list),
some linked to a weekly flash fiction, plus posts on writing and my journey to publication and beyond.
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Sugar and Snails on 2016 shortlist
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