While I can appreciate the convenience of e-readers, I much prefer reading in print. But I do have an unloved Kindle and the app I can use with my slightly-more-convenient touchscreen on my laptop. From time to time I download books and then forget to read them; this Christmas I thought I’d try and catch up. Read on for my mini reviews – and apologies for mentioning the C-word in January! I know that the modern Christmas begins at the end of November, so people are heartily sick of it well before New Year but, while I’m a confirmed humbugger, I stick to the old-fashioned notion that Christmas runs for twelve days ending January 6th.
Both these novels feature characters who are challenged and/or challenge others with their different-from-average minds. In the first, it’s a young man with Down’s syndrome, viewed from the perspective of his loving father. In the second, it’s a young woman, latterly diagnosed with schizophrenia, who inadvertently time travels to Elizabethan England. If that doesn’t sound like your kind of book, do give me the chance to persuade you otherwise!
What happens when childlessness develops from being a personal matter to a problem for society as a whole? In Margaret Atwood’s imagined Gilead an alarming drop in the live birth rate calls for Draconian measures, building a society where a woman’s mind and body are subservient to her reproductive potential. In Perumal Murugan’s rural South India, childlessness is a threat to the established order, with friends and neighbours pitching in with advice and criticism, indifferent to the infertile couple’s private grief.
In both these novels, the first set in contemporary New York and Nice and the second in a hypothetical future Tokyo, an older man is looking after a young relative in less than ideal circumstances. In different ways, they illustrate generational interdependence and how the past actions, or inactions, of the older generation have brought about some of the difficulties experienced by the young.
How far should we go to maintain order? Are the winners responsible for the wellbeing of those who’ve drawn the short straw? I’ve recently read two quirky novels in which character is secondary to situation, exploring dystopian societies with elements uncomfortably mirroring our own. The first focuses on tech infiltration of the political and personal; the second on the violence inherent in safeguarding resources for ourselves.
Two novels set in Britain that feature climbing. In the first, it’s the hobby verging on obsession of three of the four main characters, in a homage to Sheffield and the nearby Peak District National Park; in the second, a cli-fi thriller, surmounting the wall is what the narrator and his peers are conscripted to prevent. Thanks to publishers Chatto and Windus and to Faber for my review copies.
Three short reviews of quirky novels published in the UK this month that have taken me around the world without having to leave my armchair. The first, set in Australia, marries historical fact with a lonely alien visitor. The second, set in South Africa, posits an alternative near future where the sick are quarantined. The third, a German translation set in Japan, pairs a suicidal student with an expert on beards for a journey in the footsteps of a revered haiku poet.
Two novels with a fantasy element: the first set in the near future; the second a century in the past. Both feature humans with transmuted bodies: the first through an accelerated process of devolution; the second as a congenital condition, although the explorers who come upon them believe they represent an intermediate stage in human evolution.
Excuse me for bridging such different novels, although both are about the challenge of connection, one looking to the future and the other to the past. In the first, translated from the French, a famous artist juggles the contradictions of Christian and Muslim cultures when he’s commissioned to design a bridge between two shores of a capital city. In the second, a teenage boy more comfortable in the virtual world than the human, ends up fighting for his life when he forges stronger connections between the hemispheres of his brain.
Martha might be twice the age of Ia in All Rivers Run Free, and could well have more than twice her education and wealth, but she shares her grief at lost loved-ones, and expectations, in a simple dwelling where the land meets the sea. Both are in parts of the British Isles that have suffered financial and cultural erosion as a result of English domination, although the Ireland where Martha’s deceased husband had a cottage is experiencing an economic revival, while Ia’s Cornwall is even more desolate for the rural poor than it is today. The authors of both these novels are female poets; read on to see whether either takes your fancy.
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!
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.
With my own short story collection scheduled for November next year, I thought I should give more blog space to the short story. But although I managed to pick the winner of the BBC short story award, the first two of these collections knocked my confidence in my ability to review the short form. Listed in the order I read them, the third has me fizzing with excitement about what the short story can achieve. See what you think!
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.
Two authors with their own lived experience of the challenges of working in South African health care. Two fictional healthcare professionals forced to confront their own privilege within the system and the limitations of what they can achieve. One black, one white; one psychologist, one medical doctor; one in contemporary post-apartheid, one in an imagined dystopia in which it never ends. Two political novels; two engaging reads. Let me know which of them takes your fancy.
It’s my pleasure to introduce two recently published short novels about westward migration. The historical perspective of the first, driven by the aftermath of the Second World War, and the allegorical style of the second, with a contemporary and/or future orientation, shine a hopeful light on a phenomenon currently depressingly exploited by right-wing politicians. These novels remind us that no society is ever static and, wherever we are positioned on the immigration issue, humans and the communities we build are highly adaptive.
I’ve enjoyed these two novels about how we manage the end of life, the first through old age and the second through assisted dying. Mortality gets us all sooner or later; what better way to face it than with a novelist holding our hands?
finding truth through fiction
events coming soon:
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 three fiction books.
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