I’m holidaying in and off Florida later this year, and when turning my mind to literature which I’d read with a Floridian setting, I could come up with very little. I thought, therefore, that I would make a list of ten books of interest to me, and hopefully then motivate myself to read a large chunk of them before and during my holiday. I can’t promise that I’ll get to all of these, but I’m going to try!
1. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
‘The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline–think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades–and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the “World of Darkness.” Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve-year-old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the “Underworld,” a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.‘
2. Tangerine by Edward Bloor
‘Paul Fisher sees the world from behind glasses so thick he looks like a bug-eyed alien. But he’s not so blind that he can’t see there are some very unusual things about his family’s new home in Tangerine County, Florida. Where else does a sinkhole swallow the local school, fire burn underground for years, and lightning strike at the same time every day?The chaos is compounded by constant harassment from his football–star brother, and adjusting to life in Tangerine isn’t easy for Paul—until he joins the soccer team at his middle school. With the help of his new teammates, Paul begins to discover what lies beneath the surface of his strange new hometown. And he also gains the courage to face up to some secrets his family has been keeping from him for far too long. In Tangerine, it seems, anything is possible.;
3. The Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
‘When Fat Charlie’s dad named something, it stuck. Like calling Fat Charlie “Fat Charlie.” Even now, twenty years later, Charlie Nancy can’t shake that name, one of the many embarrassing “gifts” his father bestowed — before he dropped dead on a karaoke stage and ruined Fat Charlie’s life. Mr. Nancy left Fat Charlie things. Things like the tall, good-looking stranger who appears on Charlie’s doorstep, who appears to be the brother he never knew. A brother as different from Charlie as night is from day, a brother who’s going to show Charlie how to lighten up and have a little fun … just like Dear Old Dad. And all of a sudden, life starts getting very interesting for Fat Charlie. Because, you see, Charlie’s dad wasn’t just any dad. He was Anansi, a trickster god, the spider-god. Anansi is the spirit of rebellion, able to overturn the social order, create wealth out of thin air, and baffle the devil. Some said he could cheat even Death himself.’
4. Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffman
‘Turtle Moon transports the listener to Verity, Florida, a place where anything can happen during the month of May, when migrating sea turtles come to town, mistaking the glow of the streetlights for the moon. A young single mother is murdered in her apartment and her baby is gone. Keith, a 12-year-old boy in the same apartment building—the self-styled “meanest boy” in town—also disappears. In pursuit of the baby, the boy and the killer, are Keith’s divorced mother and a cop who himself was once considered the meanest boy in town. Their search leads them down the humid byways of a Florida populated almost exclusively by people from somewhere else; emotional refugees seeking sanctuary along the swampy coast.‘
5. To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway
‘To Have and Have Not is the dramatic story of Harry Morgan, an honest man who is forced into running contraband between Cuba and Key West as a means of keeping his crumbling family financially afloat. His adventures lead him into the world of the wealthy and dissipated yachtsmen who throng the region, and involve him in a strange and unlikely love affair. Harshly realistic, yet with one of the most subtle and moving relationships in the Hemingway oeuvre, To Have and Have Not is literary high adventure at its finest.‘
6. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
‘Mara Dyer doesn’t think life can get any stranger than waking up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there. It can. She believes there must be more to the accident she can’t remember that killed her friends and left her mysteriously unharmed. There is. She doesn’t believe that after everything she’s been through, she can fall in love.
7. The Everglades: A River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas
‘Before 1947, when Marjory Stoneman Douglas named the Everglades a “river of grass,” most people considered the area worthless. She brought the world’s attention to the need to preserve the Everglades. In the Afterword, Michael Grunwald tells us what has happened to them since then. Grunwald points out that in 1947 the government was in the midst of establishing the Everglades National Park and turning loose the Army Corps of Engineers to control floods–both of which seemed like saviors for the Glades. But neither turned out to be the answer. Working from the research he did for his book, The Swamp, Grunwald offers an account of what went wrong and the many attempts to fix it, beginning with Save Our Everglades, which Douglas declared was “not nearly enough.” Grunwald then lays out the intricacies (and inanities) of the more recent and ongoing CERP, the hugely expensive Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.‘
8. The Aguero Sisters by Cristina Garcia
‘Reina and Constancia Agüero are Cuban sisters who have been estranged for thirty years. Reina–tall, darkly beautiful, and magnetically sexual–still lives in her homeland. Once a devoted daughter of la revolución, she now basks in the glow of her many admiring suitors, believing only in what she can grasp with her five senses. The pale and very petite Constancia lives in the United States, a beauty expert who sees miracles and portents wherever she looks. After she and her husband retire to Miami, she becomes haunted by the memory of her parents and the unexplained death of her beloved mother so long ago. Told in the stirring voices of their parents, their daughters, and themselves, The Agüero Sisters tells a mesmerizing story about the power of myth to mask, transform, and finally, reveal the truth–as two women move toward an uncertain, long awaited reunion.‘
9. Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye
‘Huron Key is already weighed down with secrets when a random act of violence and a rush to judgment viscerally tear the town apart. As the little island burns under the sun and the weight of past decisions, a devastating storm based on the third-strongest Atlantic Hurricane on record approaches, matching the anger of men with the full fury of the skies. Beautifully written and seductive, Under a Dark Summer Sky is at once a glorious love story, a fascinating slice of social history, and a mesmerizing account of what it’s like to be in the eye of a hurricane.‘
10. 90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis
‘When Julian’s parents make the heartbreaking decision to send him and his two brothers away from Cuba to Miami via the Pedro Pan operation, the boys are thrust into a new world where bullies run rampant and it’s not always clear how best to protect themselves‘
Are there any other books which you feel should be on my list? Which are your favourite tomes set in and around Florida?
The 35th book on my Classics Club list is the rather beguiling Nana by Emile Zola. Nana, which was first published in 1880, is the ninth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, which I am reading in no particular order.
The novel begins in 1867 at the Theatre des Varieties in Paris, where eighteen-year-old Nana is the newest star: ‘Nobody knew Nana. Whence had Nana fallen? And stories and jokes, whispered from ear to ear, were the round of the crowd. The name was a caress in itself; it was a pet name, the very familiarity of which suited every lip. Merely through enunciating it thus, the throng worked itself into a state of gaiety and became highly good natured. A fever of curiosity urged it forward, that kind of Parisian curiosity which is as violent as an access of positive unreason. Everbody wanted to see Nana.’
From the very start, Zola sets the scene of the Theatre des Varieties marvellously: ‘A few individuals, it is true, were sitting quietly waiting in the balcony and stalls, but these were lost, as it were, among the ranges of seats whose coverings of cardinal velvet loomed in the subdued light of the dimly burning lustre. A shadow enveloped the great red splash of the curtain and not a sound came from the stage, the unlit footlights, the scattered desks of the orchestra. It was only high overhead in the third gallery, round the domed ceiling where nude females and children flew in heavens which had turned green in the gaslight, that calls and laughter were audible over a continuous hubbub of voices…’.
The intrinsic position of Nana within the theatre is also strongly built: ‘Nana, in the meantime, seeing the house laughing, began to laugh herself. The gaiety of all redoubled itself. She was an amusing creature, all the same, was that fine girl! Her laughter made a love of a little dimple appear in her chin. She stood there waiting, not bored in the least, familiar with her audience, falling into step with them at once, as though she herself were admitting with a wink that she had not two farthings’ worth of talent but that it did not matter at all, that, in fact, she had other good points… Exceedingly tall, exceedingly strong, for her eighteen years, Nana, in her goddess’s white tunic and with her light hair simply flowing unfastened over her shoulders, came down to the footlights with a quiet certainty of movement and a laugh of greeting for the public and struck up her grand ditty…’.
Just a few deft strokes of the pen is enough for Zola to create scenes which live vividly within the mind’s eye for subsequent pages: ‘The air there was heavy with the somnolence of a party prolonged into the early hours; and a dull light came from the lamps, whose charred wicks glowed red inside their globes. The ladies had reached that vaguely melancholy hour when they felt it necessary to tell each other the story of their lives.’
As a character, Nana is rather a complex construction. On one hand, she is quite sensual and has a way of successfully wrapping men around her little finger and bending them to her will. She is also quite naive, however, and in one particularly memorable scene she almost bursts with excitement at the prospect of going out into the city to drink milk. She is on the borderline between child and adulthood, and that very juxtaposition and all its awkwardness makes her endlessly fascinating. The entirety of the plot revolves around her; we learn of her loves and heartbreaks, and of her small son Louis, who is living in the countryside, and whom she does not get to see.
Whilst Nana is not quite as compelling as the fabulous The Ladies’ Paradise, it is an incredibly enjoyable novel, which brings to life the Paris of old. The entirety is so well written, and I am itching to carry on with the rest of Zola’s works already.
The eleven ‘dark’ stories in Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge were originally published in Japan in 1998, and have been translated into English by Stephen Snyder. Ogawa, who has won every major Japanese Literary Award, has been compared to the likes of Haruki Murakami, and this collection has been heralded ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant’.
All of the tales in Revenge have been linked together, with settings and characters overlapping from one story to the next. Strings of plot meander their way through the whole. Similar themes are repeated too, which adds to the feeling of one coherent whole – ageing, death and dying, grief, despair, and adultery, for example.
Some of the stories are very sad – in ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, a woman purchases a strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday. When asked how old he will be, she says, rather matter-of-factly, ‘Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead’. Others are merely creepy, and are filled with foreboding from the very start: a woman pulls up hand-shaped carrots from her vegetable patch, which have grown as a result of a sinister occurrence, and a woman’s revenge upon her lover when he refuses to leave his wife, for example. Rather unusually, all of the stories are told using the first person perspective. Ogawa focuses upon both male and female protagonists, and each narrative voice is as strong as another.
Ogawa’s work has been crafted and translated with such care. Her descriptions are sometimes beautiful – for example, ‘The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight’. She fills her tales with quite surprising details – the narrator of one story is invited along when a quiet classmate meets her father for the first time, and the pair do not speak again, an elderly landlady has surprising strength, and an abandoned post office is filled to the brim with kiwi fruits. The stories in Revenge are odd, quirky and unusual, and are sure to linger in the mind for days afterwards.
George Burnham Ives’ 1902 translation has been used in Michael Wallmer’s lovely edition of George Sand’s Lavinia. Sand was an incredibly prolific author; her oeuvre is something which most writers can only dream of. Her work spans four decades, being published as she was between 1831 and 1876. Lavinia is one of her earliest books, in fact, and was first published in its original French in 1833.
After a young and rather well-to-do English traveller, Sir Lionel Bridgemont, abandons well-born Portuguese Lavinia Buenafe, he breaks her heart. She consequently marries a nobleman, and is soon widowed. Some time later, after asking Sir Lionel – himself just about to be married – to return the love letters which she sent him many moons ago, she finds that they are near one another in the Pyrenees. They thus decide to meet, and along with their present-day story, elements of their past are revealed.
Lavinia’s cousin, Sir Henry, who has accompanied his friend Sir Lionel to the Pyrenees, adds some humour to the whole. When Sir Lionel berates him for telling Lavinia that her letters were in his constant possession, he says: ‘”Good, Lionel, good!… I like to see you in a fit of temper; it makes you poetic. At such times, you are yourself a stream, a river of metaphors, a torrent of eloquence, a reservoir of allegories…”‘. Sir Henry has rather an adoring, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, view of Lavinia, calling her: ‘”… as fresh as the flowers, lovely as the angels, lively as a bird, light-hearted, rosy, stylish, and coquettish…”‘. Sir Lionel is really his antithesis, in speech at least, holding as he does a very conventional, if amusingly relayed, view of womankind: ‘”… In the opinion of every man of sense, a lawful wife should be a gentle and placid helpmeet, an Englishwoman to the very depths of her being, not very susceptible to love, incapable of jealousy, fond of sleep, and sufficiently addicted to the excessive use of black tea to keep her faculties in a conjugal state…”‘.
Lavinia is a slim novella at its modest 71 pages; perhaps deceptively so, as there is quite a lot of depth to it. The descriptions are perhaps the real strength of the piece: ‘… the lovely valley, bathed in sparkling dew, floated in the light and formed a sheet of gold in a frame of black marble’. Lavinia is beautifully written, and so well translated; it is a real treat to settle down for an hour or two with. There are amusing asides which pepper the text, and make it feel far more contemporary than it is in actuality. There is a wonderful pace to the novella, and the structure of one singular chapter works well with regard to its length. Strong and thoughtful, Lavinia is perhaps most interesting when one looks at the shifting relationships and passing of time within it.
Since I’ve stopped reviewing books for other websites and publications, I’ve found myself rather out of the loop when it comes to knowing about new releases. Yes, I can find not-yet-released books on Netgalley easily enough, but it’s not quite the same as browsing book websites and blogs and building that delicious anticipation. Thus, I have scoured the Internet to bring you a list of ten new releases which I am coveting.
1. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness transports us across a sub-continent on a journey of many years. It takes us deep into the lives of its gloriously rendered characters, each of them in search of a place of safety— in search of meaning, and of love. In a graveyard outside the walls of Old Delhi, a resident unrolls a threadbare Persian carpet. On a concrete sidewalk, a baby suddenly appears, just after midnight. In a snowy valley, a bereaved father writes a letter to his five-year-old daughter about the people who came to her funeral. In a second-floor apartment, a lone woman chain-smokes as she reads through her old notebooks. At the Jannat Guest House, two people who have known each other all their lives sleep with their arms wrapped around one another, as though they have just met. A braided narrative of astonishing force and originality, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is at once a love story and a provocation—a novel as inventive as it is emotionally engaging. It is told with a whisper, in a shout, through joyous tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh. Its heroes, both present and departed, have been broken by the world we live in—and then mended by love. For this reason, they will never surrender.’
2. Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
‘Jules Epstein has vanished from the world. He leaves no trace but a rundown flat patrolled by a solitary cockroach, and a monogrammed briefcase abandoned in the desert. To Epstein’s mystified family, the disappearance of a man whose drive and avidity have been a force to be reckoned with for sixty-eight years marks the conclusion of a gradual fading. This transformation began in the wake of Epstein’s parents’ deaths, and continued with his divorce after more than thirty-five years of marriage, his retirement from a New York legal firm, and the rapid shedding of possessions he’d spent a lifetime accumulating. With the last of his wealth and a nebulous plan, he departs for the Tel Aviv Hilton. Meanwhile, a novelist leaves her husband and children behind in Brooklyn and checks into the same hotel, hoping that the view of the pool she used to swim in on childhood holidays will unlock her writer’s block. But when a man claiming to be a retired professor of literature recruits her for a project involving Kafka, she is drawn into a mystery that will take her on a metaphysical journey and change her in ways she could never have imagined. Bursting with life and humour, this is a profound, mesmerising, achingly beautiful novel of metamorphosis and self-realisation – of looking beyond all that is visible towards the infinite.’
3. Five Get Beach Body Ready by Bruno Vincent
‘Enid Blyton’s books are beloved the world over and The Famous Five have been the perennial favourite of her fans. Now, in this new series of Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups, George, Dick, Anne, Julian and Timmy are keen to hone their physiques ready for the summer holidays. All it will take is a bit of effort and willpower …and pulling together as a team. What could possibly stand in their way? True to form, the path to the body beautiful is less straightforward than they hope! ‘
4. St Petersburg: Three Centuries of Murderous Desire by Jonathan Miles
‘From Peter the Great to Putin, this is the unforgettable story of St Petersburg – one of the most magical, menacing and influential cities in the world. St Petersburg has always felt like an impossible metropolis, risen from the freezing mists and flooded marshland of the River Neva on the western edge of Russia. It was a new capital in an old country. Established in 1703 by the sheer will of its charismatic founder, the homicidal megalomaniac Peter-the-Great, its dazzling yet unhinged reputation was quickly fashioned by the sadistic dominion of its early rulers. This city, in its successive incarnations – St Petersburg; Petrograd; Leningrad and, once again, St Petersburg – has always been a place of perpetual contradiction. It was a window on to Europe and the Enlightenment, but so much of the glory of Russia was created here: its literature, music, dance and, for a time, its political vision. It gave birth to the artistic genius of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, Pavlova and Nureyev. Yet, for all its glittering palaces, fairytale balls and enchanting gardens, the blood of thousands has been spilt on its snow-filled streets. It has been a hotbed of war and revolution, a place of siege and starvation, and the crucible for Lenin and Stalin’s power-hungry brutality. In St Petersburg, Jonathan Miles recreates the drama of three hundred years in this absurd and brilliant city, bringing us up to the present day, when – once more – its fate hangs in the balance. This is an epic tale of murder, massacre and madness played out against squalor and splendour. It is an unforgettable portrait of a city and its people. ‘
5. Tin Man by Sarah Winman
‘The unforgettable and achingly tender new novel from Sarah Winman, author of the international bestseller WHEN GOD WAS A RABBIT and the Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller A YEAR OF MARVELLOUS WAYS. ‘Exquisite’ Joanna Cannon It begins with a painting won in a raffle: fifteen sunflowers, hung on the wall by a woman who believes that men and boys are capable of beautiful things. And then there are two boys, Ellis and Michael, who are inseparable. And the boys become men, and then Annie walks into their lives, and it changes nothing and everything. Tin Man sees Sarah Winman follow the acclaimed success of When God Was A Rabbit and A Year Of Marvellous Ways with a love letter to human kindness and friendship, loss and living.’
6. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
‘Freshly disengaged from her fiance and feeling that life has not turned out quite the way she planned, thirty-year-old Ruth quits her job, leaves town and arrives at her parents’ home to find that situation more complicated than she’d realized. Her father, a prominent history professor, is losing his memory and is only erratically lucid. Ruth’s mother, meanwhile, is lucidly erratic. But as Ruth’s father’s condition intensifies, the comedy in her situation takes hold, gently transforming her all her grief. Told in captivating glimpses and drawn from a deep well of insight, humor, and unexpected tenderness, Goodbye, Vitamin pilots through the loss, love, and absurdity of finding one’s footing in this life.’
7. The Lying Game by Ruth Ware
‘The text message arrives in the small hours of the night. It’s just three words: I need you.
Isa drops everything, takes her baby daughter and heads straight to Salten. She spent the most significant days of her life at boarding school on the marshes there, days which still cast their shadow over her. At school Isa and her three best friends used to play the Lying Game. They competed to convince people of the most outrageous stories. Now, after seventeen years of secrets, something terrible has been found on the beach. Something which will force Isa to confront her past, together with the three women she hasn’t seen for years, but has never forgotten. Theirs is no cosy reunion: Salten isn’t a safe place for them, not after what they did. It’s time for the women to get their story straight…’
8. The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne
‘Eleanor, Richard and their two young daughters recently stretched themselves to the limit to buy their dream home, a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London. But the cracks are already starting to show. Eleanor is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere in the house and becomes convinced it is making her ill. Whilst Richard remains preoccupied with Zoe, their mercurial twenty-seven-year-old lodger, Eleanor becomes determined to unravel the mystery of the house’s previous owners – including Emily, whose name is written hundreds of times on the walls of the upstairs room.’
9. The Paper Cell by Louise Hutcheson
‘From the publisher of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, the first in a new series of distinctive, standalone crime stories, each with a literary bent. In 1950s London, a literary agent finds fame when he secretly steals a young woman’s brilliant novel manuscript and publishes it under his own name, Lewis Carson. Two days after their meeting, the woman is found strangled on Peckham Rye Common: did Lewis purloin the manuscript as an act of callous opportunism, or as the spoils of a calculated murder?’
10. Two Stories by Virginia Woolf and Mark Haddon
‘Virginia Woolf was one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. With her husband, Leonard Woolf, she started the Hogarth Press in 1917: the list ranged widely in fiction, poetry, politics and psychoanalysis, and published all Virginia Woolf’s own work. Its first publication appeared in 2017: Two Stories, bound in bright Japanese paper, contained a short story from both Virginia and Leonard. Typeset and bound by Virginia, with illustrations by Dora Carrington, 134 copies were printed by Leonard using a small handpress installed in the dining room at Hogarth House, Richmond. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of ‘Publication No. 1’ this new edition of Two Stories takes the original text of Virginia’s story, ‘The Mark on the Wall’ (with illustrations by Dora Carrington), and pairs it with a new story, ‘St Brides Bay’, by Mark Haddon, a lifelong reader of Virginia Woolf. TWO STORIES also includes a portrait of Virginia Woolf by Mark Haddon, and a short introduction from the publisher about the founding of the Press.’
Which new releases are you most excited about? Will you be reading any of these?