If I’m lower on reviews this month, blame my book group! We’ve been ploughing through a Russian novel that gets mentioned in the same breath as War and Peace, although Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate was written in the twentieth century and concerns a war still within living memory. An epic tale of the human costs on both sides of the Battle of Stalingrad, it’s a fine achievement in its scope and in exposing the similarities between totalitarian states across the ideological divide. As with a short story collection recently smuggled out of North Korea, it faced a turbulent journey to publication, having been confiscated by the KGB on completion in 1960 and not published until twenty years later, long after the author’s death. But am I glad to have read it? I can’t honestly say I am.
I’ve recently been reading two second novels in which a woman sets out to uncover a family’s tragic secret lodged within a large historic house, aided and abetted by a presence that might or might not be a ghost. In the first, the woman and her husband buy a crumbling manor house as a weekend retreat from London; in the second, the woman is employed in the London mansion as carer for a man who can’t throw anything away. Both have strong voices and characterisation, with beautiful descriptions, but differ sufficiently that you could happily read both. For other novels about mysterious houses see Fell by Jenn Ashworth and post What’s haunting these houses?
Setting a novel in the near future requires two extra decisions. To what extent will this imagined world differ from what’s familiar today? What defines that difference? Although the social, environmental and technological developments or regressions in this fictional landscape are inevitably interlinked, one factor tends to dominate (and perhaps determines the readership to which it most appeals). At least that’s what I’ve been thinking since reading The Unit and Anna back-to-back (as well as recent dabbling in one of the subgenres myself). In the first, a democratic society has agreed (over time) that the lives of economically and socially unproductive citizens can be sacrificed for the common good. In the second, feral children roam a post-apocalyptic world in which adults have been wiped out by a virus and most of the infrastructure by a fire. Tempted? Read on!
I couldn’t resist pairing these recently published, unconventionally structured, debut novels about relationships: their intriguing one-word titles are almost interchangeable, with Alice in Asymmetry magnetically drawn to (and later repulsed by) her much older lover and the mother-daughter relationship explored in Magnetism inherently asymmetrical. My reading experience of both was mixed, strongly engaging with the second halves significantly more than the first. See what you think.
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.
Two novels in which men consider suicide; doesn’t sound very jolly, does it? But there’s rather more to both these stories, as well as the coincidence of texts punctuated by philosophical aphorisms. Read on and see what you think! And before you leave, check out my latest 99-word story linking suicide, unlikely weather and ravens.
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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