Only one of these three recent reads is classed as a horror novel and, although not my usual genre, it turned out to be my favourite of the three. But we don’t need to evoke the supernatural to scare ourselves: there are real-life horrors in each of these stories. In the first, a translation, war has killed many and put the survivors’ lives on hold. In the second, set in rural Cumbria, the spooky happenings are extra disturbing for a man with unprocessed memories of violence from childhood, as well as his helplessness in the face of his wife’s agonising three-day labour. The third is a 1960s classic set in a horrific – but typical of its time – psychiatric hospital where the regime seems designed to make a bad situation worse.
I’m sharing my thoughts about three recent reads set in communities slightly apart from the mainstream: the first two in contemporary residential care settings and the third in a dystopian future world. In genre they’re also slightly apart from my usual fare: the first mass-market commercial fiction; the second, a translation (and therefore closest to my usual); the third, cyberpunk. Each offered something to intrigue and enjoy.
I recently read two novels set in England almost a century apart about young women returning to their parents after their marriages break down. Unfortunately for both of them, their childhood homes are stepping stones to something more terrifying than the confidence lost from relationship failures: in the first, Grace spends months on the streets; in the second, Clara is confined to a dismal mental institution.
Is there discrimination against women writers? (Is there even more discrimination against older women writers?) Probably but, there being even worse things to get hung up about right now, I’ll gloss over the fact that these two novels about under-appreciated female writers – one in 1960s Iceland, the other in 21st-century New York – come from fairly successful female authors. With a couple of caveats, either or both would make great lockdown reads.
Although these two historical novels are very different, both sparked some deep reflection about the workings of the human mind, and especially how our reasoning and problem-solving is influenced by beliefs and assumptions which, in turn, are shaped by the times and cultures in which we live. Both are set primarily in mainland Europe – the first in the seventeenth century and the second towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth – and feature – predominantly in the first and latterly in the second – countries ravaged by war.
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!
In these two novels, a teenage girl needs a safe place to retreat from the world, but the sanctuary she’s chosen won’t easily let her go. In the first, a convent provides shelter to a girl fearful of the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy; in the second, a psychiatric hospital offers a welcome respite from the strain of appearing sane. It’s pure coincidence that the main characters’ names – Dolores and Deborah – begin with the same letter and that both remind me of my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home.
Amid the painful aftermath of the UK ‘people’ voting in our pig in a poke, I had reason to remind myself of the literature on the cognitive advantages biculturalism. While I doubt our new PM possesses the skills or intellect to unite an increasingly polarised country – or even the desire, whatever might spout from his mouth – it’s essential if we’re to avoid civil war as we helter-skelter into economic and climactic ruin. So, although neither of these very disparate novels is primarily about straddling two cultures, I make no apologies for linking them via this theme.
Two historical novels in which young people are subject to brutal institutional regimes: in the first as comfort women in Singapore under the Japanese invasion; in the second as supposed offenders in Jim-Crow-era Florida. Both novels contrast the main character’s aspirations prior to captivity with their struggle to survive unspeakable cruelties with their sanity intact, and the scars they carry for the rest of their lives. Thankfully, for the reader who can vicariously accompany them, there’s some hope of redemption by the end. Read on, or jump to the end of the post for this week’s 99-word story.
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.
These two novels reimagine well-known stories from the perspective of women who find themselves banished in disgrace from their parents’ homes. The first is about a witch who features in Homer’s Odyssey; the second about a nun who proves to be a keen observer of Tudor politics. In carving out her own place in the world, each woman discovers there’s not much to envy in the upper echelons of society.
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.
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.
Fourteen-year-old Lucia Stanton lives with her elderly aunt in a converted garage in the grounds of a large house. With her deceased father’s zippo lighter in her pocket, she rides the bus to visit the mother who doesn’t recognise her in a psychiatric hospital, after which she goes to a bar to get drunk. Intelligent and nonconformist, Lucia adheres to a strict moral code; unfortunately it differs widely from the one followed by teachers and the cool kids at school. She hasn’t considered setting fires until, in detention one evening, she hears some students refer to a secret Arson Club.
If there’s a genre for translated novels featuring dentistry, early April must be the prime publication slot. While there’s little else to connect these two novels, they got me wondering about teeth in fiction and I couldn’t resist pairing them here. Fever at Dawn is published this week in hardback, while The Story of My Teeth first appeared in English in 2015 and comes out in paperback this week.
I’m delighted to showcase two second novels published this week (although Song of the Sea Maid has been out for a while in hardback) featuring feisty female characters. Both take a sideways look at history, with a focus on scientific thought either side of Darwin, and celebrate love against the odds. Both stories begin in an asylum (the first a psychiatric hospital, the second an orphanage) and take the reader on an engaging journey beyond its walls.
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.
While I’d recommend this novel to readers, I want to focus, as I did some time ago with Instructions for a Heatwave, on what we can learn from Laird Hunt’s sixth novel (although the first to be published in the UK) as writers, whether we are looking to write historical fiction or not.
High-powered advertising executive, James Marlowe, is delighted when he wins the brief to create a new campaign for an international bank. But his involvement in the corporate world comes at a heavy cost, as he becomes increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol in a vain attempt to keep the unethical nature of this endeavour out of mind. This distances him from his beloved wife and son and, eventually, from himself, as a psychotic breakdown lands him in a psychiatric hospital, terrified by a collection of plastic and metal animals and figurines which he calls The Zoo. It’s there that the reader first meets him, and there that we sit alongside him as he gradually pieces together the sequence of events that have brought him to the lowest point of his life.
The perspective on corruption is chilling, to quote one of the minor characters, Lou, the moral voice of the novel (p234-5):
finding truth through fiction
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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Anne Goodwin's books on Goodreads
Sugar and Snails
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GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
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The Best of Fiction on the Web
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