I’m not always drawn to sequels, but Dr Jekyll and Miss Blaine both caught my eye because they promised to be fun. The first needs no introduction; the second is a time travelling crime novel about a woman who loathes The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for giving her alma mater, the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a bad name. Both feature mysterious deaths and, as an added bonus, the second namechecks Mr Hyde.
I’ve recently read two novels in which a widower has an uncanny encounter with someone from the fringes which, for them at least, feels replete with meaning. Jim Crace’s widower is also mourning the end of his musical career; whereas, twenty years younger, Rebecca F John’s widower is offered a fresh start in caring for his newborn baby daughter.
Two historical novels addressing Spain’s internal conflicts: the first, set in Granada, takes us back 500 years to the last Muslim Court; the second, set mostly in London, begins eighty years ago with the International Brigades and resistance to Franco. Both weave a thread of hope for humanity with a romantic storyline – or two.
1989 brought a transition from communism to democracy across Eastern Europe, with the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, a 600 kilometre joining of hands across Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. These two novels feature a part of that story, one ending, and the other beginning, in 1989 and both, as a bonus, featuring narrators brought up by grandparents partly as a result of political events. Set in Latvia before regime change, Soviet Milk is about the difficulty of living a moral life under totalitarianism. Set in the Czech Republic in the very near future, Spaceman of Bohemia is about how a father’s collaboration impacts on the career and choices of his son.
Scouring my shelves for a book to accompany The Athenian Women, I thought I was “making do” when I picked up Such Small Hands: two translated and disturbing reads. So it was a bonus that the latter included a strand narrated in the first person plural (very like a Greek chorus as Edmund White points out in an Afterword), while the latter, set in Athens 411 BC, takes its characters to the theatre where a genuine Greek chorus stands on stage. Add in the similarities of the authors’ names (I’m assuming Italian and Spanish versions of Barber) and I couldn’t have linked them better if it was planned.
Given the chance, wouldn’t you live in a comfortable right-on community where none of your neighbours voted for Brexit or Trump? Where people read books, and supported libraries, and no-one hung plastic bags of dog poo from the trees? But you know what would happen if you packed up and moved there? You’d have the neighbours on your back for putting out the bins too early, or letting your dandelions run to seed. Because it’s in the nature of utopian societies to have a downside, often manifest in a denial of our baser human instincts and/or excessive control. It makes great fodder for fiction, however, as I hope to show in my review of Celeste Ng’s latest novel set in 1990s suburban America. Alongside that, I’ve gone back to basics with my first-time read of the original Utopia, published 500 years ago.
When I’m not sure what to make of a recent read, it sometimes helps if I couple it with something equally enigmatic. A common thread, even if it’s not the theme the author intended, affords me at least the illusion of understanding. So following White Tears, in which a young white man in contemporary America experiences the terror of a black man in the 1920s arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, with My Falling Down House, in which a former Tokyo “salaryman” experiences homelessness, helped me gain my bearings on both.
From a day in the life of a city in mourning to a week in a busy hospital, in both these novels a large cast of characters tell not only their individual stories, but the story of the settings that shape their interlinked lives.
Apologies for the less-than-inspiring title – and anyway, aren’t all novels about how lives intersect? – but I’m pulling this post together in a bit of a rush to move a backlog of reviews before the end of the year. Each of these novels is by an established writer who isn’t dependent on my short-out whose previous novel I reviewed very positively here, both Laird Hunt’s and Maggie O’Farrell’s eliciting instructions-for-a-novel posts. Their new novels are listed in ascending order of number of point of view characters. (Of course!)
The Greek myths bubble with revenge and betrayal, while the bloodthirsty tyrants of history are themselves made into to myths. Let me present two novels which reinterpret these legendary stories for the modern era, emphasising the human motivations behind the murder and mayhem. Both novels focus on famous families: in the first, the violence turns inwards in an orgy of self-destruction; in the second, the family will do almost anything to ensure their own survival. In both, the gods of the time are co-opted to sanction sacrifice and murder, while the women use their limited power as best they can.
Allow me to introduce you to two translated novels with a supernatural element, albeit less central to the story in the second. Both also give a nod to mental health issues linked to criminality: via one of the off-stage characters in Norma; a neurological disorder thought to be Korsakoff syndrome for the unfortunate narrator of Black Moses. Plus a return to Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge. For another novel with a supernatural element, see my review of A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars.
As far as I’m concerned, the welfare of babies and young children is a collective responsibility, so I offer no apologies for linking these three books. The first is a historical novel that begins with a fascinating account of the experience of a wet nurse in nineteenth century Spain, before moving on to the adult lives of the princess who had first turn at the breast and her milk brother, the woman’s own baby. The second is a contemporary novel set a century later, about a young American woman working as a nanny to a Japanese toddler. Both novels show the strength of attachment we can have to other people’s offspring. The third book is an uncompromising and moving memoir about a young Englishwoman who becomes pregnant as a student and decides to keep the child. Finally, because a baby is a kind of harvest of the womb, we finish with this week’s flash.
Life’s tough on the fringes of society, perhaps particularly if you’re female. Not only have you your own vulnerability to contend with, but the projections of others who feel safer dwelling on your difference than on your similarity to them. Let me take you into the worlds of three such fictional females: The Parcel is harrowing novel about sex workers in Bombay; Dance by the Canal is a lighter novella about a homeless woman in East Germany; my recently published short story, “Ghost Girl” is about an African girl with the wrong colour skin.
With my shameful disregard for non-fiction, I glean many of my facts from fiction. So I was delighted to receive advance copies of two debut novels published this month that I hoped would extend my knowledge of shameful periods of Australian and Scottish history that still resonate to this day. Lucy Treloar and Mhairead McLeod have woven engaging stories around historical facts of land appropriation in the 19th century. Although my reviews focus more on the psychological aspects, these novels clearly articulate the socio-political context of the European colonisation of Australia in Salt Creek and the Highland Clearances in The False Men.
Much as we like to think we’d be willing to risk our own safety to come to the aid of a fellow human being, history shows that many of us aren’t brave enough to go against the grain. But even if we do find the courage to stand apart and make a difference, is the act that feels right necessarily the right thing to do? The conundrum of humanitarian responses to wartime atrocities seems to be the central question of these two historical novels, both set in a European winter, the first during the Second World War and the second in Bosnia, this latter by one of the founders of the humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres.
A historical novel about Arctic exploration or a novel set in a near-future South Africa? A romance or an account of a relationship falling apart? A motherless girl or a fatherless boy? Wild animals or ice? Both of these novels explore the conflict and compassion that connects us to the natural world, but it was a bonus for me to read that the protagonist of Green Lion told his friend that his father was killed in a hunting accident in the Arctic, the setting of Under a Pole Star. Read on to see if I was right to pair these reviews.
I do like it when your comments challenge my thinking about the novels I’ve reviewed. Norah Colvin is very good in this, and she recently got me wondering, in response to my post Married or single, something’s missing: First Love & All Grown Up, if the connections I see between novels might differ from what others would find. Although I sometimes stress (in an extremely laid-back manner) about my inability to find a partner for a novel overdue its review, I think finding unexpected commonalities is part of the fun. While the link is obvious in Two novels about a passion for vinyl, what could possibly unite a historical novel about a real murder case and a translated novel about a contemporary musician? For me both Lea and See What I Have Done are stories of a young woman’s breakdown in the context of enmeshed family relationships. Now see what you think!
Okay, perhaps not the most elegant title to sum up the common thread between these three debut novels from small and innovative independent publishers. But they’re all, in very different ways, about life with a brain or mind that functions a little differently from average. In the first, we meet an elderly voice hearer on a mission to bring hope to his granddaughter. In the second, a retired teacher with dementia is convinced a former pupil can save him from the persecutory antics of his deceased father. The third takes the reader even further into the realms of fantasy as a teenager with unexplained blackouts is drawn into a world she thought existed only in her dreams.
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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