Both these recent reads have complex family dynamics at the centre, while addressing wider political issues in very different ways. In the first, we follow a middle-class Asian family forced to migrate from Uganda to Britain on the whim of a tin-pot dictator; in the second, three siblings re-enact their childhood rivalries around their mother’s deathbed as bushfires envelop their country and the world colludes in its own extinction.
Two recent reads set in medieval Europe, where reluctant heroines must confront obstacles both spiritual and tangible to take a chance on happiness with the man they love. The first is set in Britain and the second, two centuries later, in France. Both include St Margaret as a minor character, but I was rooting for the maids on a mission, hoping they’d save their loved ones, and themselves.
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.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a mother in fear of penury will sacrifice a daughter in marriage to a man she does not love. Jane Austen famously satirised such mothers two centuries ago; Janice Hadlow’s debut novel gives Mrs Bennet’s unloved middle daughter Mary a makeover in similar style. Angie Cruz, while perhaps not intentionally channelling Pride and Prejudice, draws on the painful mother-daughter dynamic in her Women’s Prize longlisted novel about 1960s migration to New York from the Dominican Republic.
Miguel seems to have won life’s lottery, a beauty from birth. Christina was born into deprivation, but winning the lotto can’t put that right. An Italian translation set in Mexico and coming-of-age story on the Californian coast, these two recent reads explore the ups and downs of being blessed with something many people crave.
Only in court are we required to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. In our ordinary lives, we stretch, bend and turn it inside out. Not always intentionally, or even consciously, but simply to smooth human interactions and present the best version of ourselves. In the first of these two novels, a Wild-West outlaw needs to create an alter ego to survive, while a frontiers woman needs to revise the details of a family tragedy in order to live with herself. In the second, a lie gives a teenage girl a reprieve from loneliness, and an elderly woman a chance to be heard.
Two translated novels in which the return of a beloved family member, after an unexplained absence, irrevocably alters the situation for those left behind. In the first, the wanderer is a younger brother who left Paris for Syria; in the second, it’s a father who has abandoned his son at their home on an island in the Bay of Naples. Both novels are narrated from the perspective of a motherless male.
Two novels featuring mothers who leave a child/children when they’re still quite young, following the implications over several years. In the first, the narrator doesn’t know why his mother has disappeared, or even whether she’s still alive, and claims not to miss her as his older sister fills the gap where the mother belongs. The second is a dual narrative from the perspective of both mother and daughter as each suffers, in different ways, from the mother’s decision to leave Jamaica for New York. The theme gives me an excuse to sound off about attachment and share some of my own fiction, including a new 99-word story.
Two gripping novels that begin with an unexpected death in the family: in the first, set in Scotland, it’s the main character’s niece; in the second, set in Australia, it’s the protagonist’s brother. In both cases, the evidence points to suicide, until the deceased’s relatives start poking around. Both protagonists discover more than they bargained for but nevertheless benefit from confronting the truth. Both novels are also about male violence and sibling rivalry.
Two novels from continental America inspired – if that’s not too optimistic a term for the subject matter – by the authors’ own challenging childhoods with parents who weren’t up to the job. Both girls had a brother, a partially-absent father, a determined mother and grandmother with whom she didn’t see eye to eye. Both learnt early about gender discrimination; both lived in relatively comfortable households on the fringes of marginalised communities (with Native Americans as neighbours in the first novel, set in Dakota, and refugees from repressive South American regimes in the second, set in Mexico). Some say a difficult childhood is the ideal apprenticeship for a writer. Read on, and see what you think!
While the title declares the first of these novels, set in Lagos, to be about siblings and killings, it’s not immediately obvious how it applies to the second, set in Perak, Malaysia. A boy who feels guided by his dead twin, a young woman strongly attached to her stepbrother, and mysterious deaths that might be the work of a tiger: does that nail it? Read on!
A couple of weeks ago, challenged to compose a 99-word story combining mashed potatoes with a superpower, I chose love. Because, as these two novels testify, along with a third I reviewed at the end of last month, love is rarely straightforward, and for some an impossible dream. In Land of the Living, Georgina Harding shows how a husband’s wartime trauma, in conjunction with his wife’s inexperience, acts as a barrier to intimacy. In the City of Love’s Sleep also focuses on romance, in this case the approach-avoidance dance of a man and woman still legally or psychologically bound to another, while Nothing but Dust is a startlingly honest account of the impact of a mother’s inability to love on herself and her sons.
When teenagers flee the family home to fend for themselves, they swap one kind of brutality for another. And while their troubled lives will have forced them to develop survival skills in some areas, they are often more vulnerable than their peers in others, such as emotional literacy. But real-life tragedy can make engrossing fiction as you’ll find if you let the young narrators of these two novels lead you into the wilderness: Jaxie in Western Australia and Sal and her younger sister in Scotland. For real-life youth homelessness, mostly in urban areas, Centrepoint (in the UK) is worth supporting.
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!
Every novel is comprised of different parts that writers, readers and reviewers hope will combine into a satisfying whole. My last two reviews of 2016 – before I reveal my favourites of the year – are of novels for which finding that coherence is a particular challenge, but extremely worthwhile if achieved. Both published this summer, neither seems to have attracted many reviews on Goodreads, but I’m impressed with both (albeit one more than the other) so I hope you’ll at least give my reviews a chance.
These two novels by established British authors, and published today by two independent presses, both feature an English woman in Africa trying to connect with family, against a backdrop of terrorist attacks and political unrest. Read on to discover the different ways these authors have explored these issues. Thanks to Salt and Legend Press for my review copies.
Like Workington and Barrow, Morecambe is a small, slightly rundown, coastal town in north-west England to which I have personal connections: my parents lived there for many years and, coincidentally, one of my good friends, whom I met in Cairo, has a house overlooking the bay which, for a short while, she ran as a guesthouse. Although I don’t refer to it by name, it’s also one of the settings, along with Nottingham, for my forthcoming novel, Underneath. So when I discovered Owl Song at Dawn was set in Morecambe, I was keen to read it. I was even happier to be offered a slot on the blog tour when the author agreed to write a post on the setting. I hope you enjoy Emma Claire Sweeney’s piece as much as I did. My mini review follows at the end.
Paul and Veblen are engaged to be married. They’re clearly in love and clearly, with their mismatched attitudes to the world beyond themselves, unsuited for the decades of companionship we hope will follow a wedding. It is obvious from the moment Paul gives her a ring, with a diamond so large it interferes with her obsessional typing.
Unlike Veblen, who espouses the anti-capitalist values of her namesake, the economist Thorstein Veblen, Paul is ambitious. A research neurologist, when the pharmaceutical empire Hutmacher offers him the opportunity to begin clinical trials on the device he’s developed to minimise battlefield brain damage, he dismisses his ethical reservations with the word Seropurulent “an ironic superlative they used in med school for terrible things that had to be overlooked” (p62). Raised by hippies, the trappings of the consumerist world spell safety for Paul (p66):
I’m pleased to recommend two California-set novels published this week about the fragility of masculinity, sibling loyalty and the impact on families of the Vietnam war, the first for the generation directly affected and the second for the children of men who served.
Two Novels about Bullying and a Craze from Times Past: Bone by Bone by Sanjida Kay & Hush by Sara Marshall-Ball
Humans are social creatures, and the social systems we create can serve as both help and hindrance. Bullying is one of the more disturbing things that can happen when we gather together, but the dark side of human nature can catalyse engaging fiction. In Bone by Bone, childhood bullying is at the core of the novel, while in Hush it’s a consequence of a family trauma, but both make for gripping reads. On a lighter note, I’ve followed these too short reviews with a memory of a more positive aspect of human association, the childhood crazes from which no-one is excluded.
Lately, I’ve been contemplating my identity as a novelist: how, on the one hand, it’s a simple statement of fact while, on the other, it represents an existential anxiety about what I’d be if I couldn’t describe myself in terms of something that sounds like a job. So these two novels exploring identity and make-believe, albeit with reference to film rather than fiction, have come along at exactly the right time.
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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I don't post to a schedule, but average around ten reviews a month (see here for an alphabetical list),
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Anne Goodwin's books on Goodreads
Sugar and Snails
ratings: 52 (avg rating 4.21)
ratings: 60 (avg rating 3.17)
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.56)
GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.44)
The Best of Fiction on the Web
ratings: 3 (avg rating 4.67)