When fifteen-year-old Yael takes refuge in the forest, it’s not because she’s a stroppy adolescent looking for adventure. This is Lithuania in the 1940s and, as a Jew, Yael’s very survival depends on her ability to stay out of sight. But when her companion dies, Yael seeks shelter on a nearby farm. Aleksei, the young owner and village outcast because of myths surrounding his disability, is initially reluctant to help her, conscious that it means putting his own life at risk. But, little by little, the pair grow closer, becoming lovers until the encroachment of a Nazi encampment forces Yael once more to flee.
Today’s two novels focus on characters whose lives have been blighted by past betrayal. Although their inability to forgive others or themselves results in episodes of apathy, their plights keep us turning the pages to the end. While we’re on the subject, here’s a link to my creepy flash fiction piece, “Betrayed”.
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.
This post, my last before Christmas, features two novels about men with marginalised identities. Read on and see if either takes your fancy for your holiday reading.
As the first African-American president approaches the end of his two terms of office, the politics of the creature waiting to replace him send shivers down many a spine. So timely to remind ourselves how western wealth was built on the trade in human beings with two novels about the slave trade between Africa and America and its aftermath. It’s not an easy subject to write – or read – about and, although I’ve read a couple of good ones (Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo and Property by Valerie Martin come to mind, but there may be others), I believe these are the first I’ve reviewed.
Following on from my review of The Fortunes, which fictionalises the lives of ought-to-be-more-famous Chinese Americans, I’m reviewing two novels featuring well-known European intellectuals at either side (in the temporal rather than allegiance sense of the word) of the Second World War.
When I was growing up, it was said that every fourth child was Chinese. As the fourth child of a white working-class Catholic family, I saw no contradiction in applying that logic to myself. I don’t remember how and when I was disabused of this notion, but I imagine being disappointed. Although probably too young to have a concept of Chinese identity (I think it was prior to my family frequenting Chinese restaurants), the idea of being different made perfect sense. Perhaps that’s what attracts me to reading and writing about diversity, but the Chinese are still relatively unrepresented in my fictional world (Everything I Never Told You an exceptional exception). So, having enjoyed his debut, The Welsh Girl, I looked forward to having my horizons widened by Peter Ho Davies’ new novel about Chinese-American identity, courtesy of Sceptre Books.
Not really, of course! But I thought it would be fun to combine my reviews of two novels with “Everything” in the title, especially when both explore the nature of memory and require the reader to work a little harder to figure out who is speaking sometimes. Oh, and they both have blue covers!
In contrast to the three women who shape her through childhood to early middle age, the female narrator of Zadie Smith’s fifth novel is so insipid, she doesn’t even bother to tell us her name. Her mother, a beautiful Jamaican-born feminist, autodidact and activist who resembles Nefertiti, delegates parenting to her less ambitious husband while she plots her escape from the confines of gender, race and class. She barely tolerates our narrator’s intense friendship with Tracey, the only other brown-skinned girl at their North London dancing class. With her doting, but foul-mouthed white English mother and absent African Caribbean father (whom the little girl claims is on tour with Michael Jackson, when he’s actually in prison), Tracey’s allotment of advantage and disadvantage mirrors hers. Their relationship pirouettes around a shared passion and a suppressed mutual envy: while Tracey has the skill and talent to make it to the stage, the narrator’s relative stability with a loving father provide some compensation for her flat feet.
Let me introduce you to two novels by established female authors about young people struck down by serious illness, set in the social context of the British National Health Service, the first in its contemporary incarnation and the second at its inception.
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.
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.
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.
I must confess I’m rather suspicious of the word brave. On the one hand, the term is overused, especially when referring to endurance in the face of tragedy. (Is it brave not to succumb when your life is threatened or is the human drive for survival? Do we call people brave to avoid having to empathise fully with the enormity of their trauma or to deny their despair?) On the other hand, I think bravery, even when applied to cases in which the person has a genuine choice whether to act, is overrated. Sure, if I were drowning I’d be grateful to anyone who dived in and rescued me, but if a stranger were in the same situation I’d rather my loved ones didn’t risk their own lives to save them. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up these two novels with the b-word in the title. Read on to see whether the characters’ bravery convinced me. (Incidentally, I wasn’t aware when I decided to pair them based solely on the titles that both are partly influenced by the author’s grandfather’s experience in the Second World War, and both featuring the ordeal of hunger.)
I hadn’t been reviewing for very long, when I was invited to contribute to the book recommendation site, Shiny New Books. Honoured as I was, I didn’t feel ready back then, but kept it in mind. After Victoria posted a lovely early review of Sugar and Snails on the site and hosted my guest post on writing about secrets, I resolved to keep an eye out for suitable books to review. I’m pleased to announce that my reviews of The Social Brain and Playthings were accepted for the latest edition so if you’re satisfied with the easy answer to my question you can go straight to the reviews by clicking on the images. But if you’d like to discover another connection, then read on.
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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