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Five Under-the-Radar Books

I was thankfully able to read some wonderful books whilst in the horrid period of lockdown.  To my surprise, I found that many of them, to date, have been seldom read by other bloggers and reviewers.  I thought, therefore, that I would collect together five books, all of which I feel warrant far more attention than they have had to date.  All are relatively new releases, and should be readily available wherever you get your reading material from.

 

52889970._sy475_1. A Saint in Swindon by Alice Jolly a dark, dystopian story about the sheer power of literature in uncertain times (certainly fitting to read during the lockdown period…)

When a stranger arrives in town, with a bulging blue bag and a whiff of adventure, the neighbourhood takes notice. When he asks for his meals to be sent to his room and peace and quiet for reading, curiosity turns to obsession. Each day he stays there, locked in his room, demanding books: Plath, Kafka, Orwell, Lawrence, Fitzgerald, James, Bronte (the eldest), Dickens, Dumas, Kesey – on and on, the stranger never leaving his room. Who exactly is he? What is he reading? And will it be able to save us from the terrible state of the world?  Written by award-winning author Alice Jolly, and based on an idea by the book lovers of Swindon town, this funny and, ultimately, dystopian tale, reminds us of the importance of literature in an increasingly dark world.

 

2. The Harpy by Megan Hunter a dark novel, very much in the vein of Hunter’s debut, 50433219._sy475_The End We Start From, which feels startlingly original at times

Lucy and Jake live in a house by a field where the sun burns like a ball of fire. Lucy has set her career aside in order to devote her life to the children, to their finely tuned routine, and to the house itself, which comforts her like an old, sly friend. But then a man calls one afternoon with a shattering message: his wife has been having an affair with Lucy’s husband, Jake. The revelation marks a turning point: Lucy and Jake decide to stay together, but make a special arrangement designed to even the score and save their marriage–she will hurt him three times.  As the couple submit to a delicate game of crime and punishment, Lucy herself begins to change, surrendering to a transformation of both mind and body from which there is no return.  Told in dazzling, musical prose, The Harpy is a dark, staggering fairy tale, at once mythical and otherworldly and fiercely contemporary. It is a novel of love, marriage and its failures, of power, control and revenge, of metamorphosis and renewal.

 

46258455._sx318_3. On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons by Laura Cumming – an engrossing memoir of the brief disappearance of Cumming’s mother, and the tumultuous history which the pair discover of her past

‘Uncovering the mystery of her mother’s disappearance as a child: Laura Cumming, prize-winning author and art critic, takes a closer look at her family story.  In the autumn of 1929, a small child was kidnapped from a Lincolnshire beach. Five agonising days went by before she was found in a nearby village. The child remembered nothing of these events and nobody ever spoke of them at home. It was another fifty years before she even learned of the kidnap.  The girl became an artist and had a daughter, art writer Laura Cumming. Cumming grew up enthralled by her mother’s strange tales of life in a seaside hamlet of the 1930s, and of the secrets and lies perpetuated by a whole community. So many puzzles remained to be solved. Cumming began with a few criss-crossing lives in this fraction of English coast – the postman, the grocer, the elusive baker – but soon her search spread right out across the globe as she discovered just how many lives were affected by what happened that day on the beach – including her own.  On Chapel Sands is a book of mystery and memoir. Two narratives run through it: the mother’s childhood tale; and Cumming’s own pursuit of the truth. Humble objects light up the story: a pie dish, a carved box, an old Vick’s jar. Letters, tickets, recipe books, even the particular slant of a copperplate hand give vital clues. And pictures of all kinds, from paintings to photographs, open up like doors to the truth. Above all, Cumming discovers how to look more closely at the family album – with its curious gaps and missing persons – finding crucial answers, captured in plain sight at the click of a shutter.’

 

4. You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken a thoroughly 52759381._sx318_sy475_enjoyable novel about three friends set in the Republic of Ireland, and their formative years

Katie, Maeve and Evelyn – friends forever, united by their childhood games and their dreams of escaping the tiny Irish town of Glenbruff. Outspoken, unpredictable and intoxicating, Evelyn is the undisputed leader of the trio. That is, until the beautiful, bold Pamela Cooney arrives from Dublin and changes Glenbruff forever… Told from Katie’s witty, quirky perspective, Frances Macken’s debut beautifully captures life in a small town and the power of yearning for something bigger. Filled with unforgettable characters and crackling dialogue, You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here takes a keen-eyed look at the complexities of female friendship, the corrosive power of jealousy and guilt, and the way that life can quietly erode our dreams unless we’re willing to fight for them.’

 

43447542._sy475_5. Attraction by Ruby Porter – so much more than a road trip novel set in New Zealand, there is so much to admire within this collection of fictional vignettes

Three women are on a road trip, navigating the motorways of the North Island, their relationships with one another and New Zealand’s colonial history. Our narrator doesn’t know where she stands with Ilana, her not-quite-girlfriend. She has a complex history with her best friend, Ashi. She’s haunted by the spectre of her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend. And her period’s now weeks late.  Attraction is a meditative novel of connection, inheritance and the stories we tell ourselves. In lyrical fragments, Porter explores what it means to be and to belong, to create and to destroy.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which pique your interest?

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Three Reviews: Carmen Maria Machado, Alice Jolly, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado ** 9781781259535
I had been so looking forward to the lauded debut short story collection of Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties.  Unfortunately, I found that it fell far short of my expectations.  Whilst the stories here are well written, they all feel relatively similar, as there is such a focus upon sex within them.  Some of the tales did pull me in but had unsatisfactory endings; others did not really hold any appeal for me.

The style of prose here is varied.  I ended up skipping the second half of ‘Law and Order, SUV’, as I did not enjoy the very fragmented style of it. My favourite in the collection was by the far the first story, ‘The Husband Stitch’, which was quite beguiling.  On the whole, I felt as though the stories went on for too long, and were thus unsatisfying in consequence.

There is no real consistency to the collection, and the lack of realism in some of the stories really threw me off. Since I finished reading Her Body and Other Parties, I have found that very few of the storylines have actually stuck with me, and I cannot remember anything that happens in a few of them.  Whilst there are some interesting ideas at play here, as a collection, it felt confused and a little unfinished.

 

9781783525492Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly ***
I adored Alice Jolly’s memoir, Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, and was keen to try some of her fiction.  Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was the only work which I could source through my library, and it intrigued me very much.  In this work of historical fiction, which is told entirely in free verse, Jolly introduces us to the elderly maidservant Mary Ann Sate, who is working at the turn of the nineteenth century.  It is described as a ‘fictional found memoir’, and I found the approach which Jolly took to her story and protagonist most interesting.

I enjoyed Jolly’s writing; it feels both modern and old-fashioned, and reminded me somewhat of Nell Leyshon’s impactful novella The Colour of Milk.  Gorgeous, and often quite startling imagery, is produced throughout, and the traditional approach of chapters within the structure does help to make the 600-page story a little more accessible.  The style did take a little while to get into, as no punctuation whatsoever has been used, and there is little which denotes the changing of scene, speaker, or ideas.  Jolly has also included a lot of colloquialisms, which help Mary Ann’s voice to come across as authentic.  I very quickly got a feel for her, her life, and the time in which she was living. In some ways, Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile is a remarkable piece of fiction.

Whilst being very well researched, and having a strong historical foundation, there was a real drawback for me with Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile.  It was rather too long, and I felt as though the repetition which exists throughout made the story lose a lot of its impact.  Jolly has certainly demonstrated that she is a very talented and versatile writer, and she definitely maintained the narrative voice well.  Had it been shorter and more succinct, I more than likely would have given it a 4-star rating.

 

Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ***
I very much enjoy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fiction, which I find poignant and 9780008241032moving.  Of late, she has published two pamphlets, I suppose one could call them, which take feminism as their central focus.  I was rather disappointed with We Should All Be Feminists, which on one level provides a very good introduction to the topic, but does not really add any depth to its explorations.  I thought that, due to liking her novels and short stories so much, I would still go on to pick up Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manigesto in Fifteen Suggestions.  In fact, this was the first audiobook which I chose to listen to with a free Scribd trial; I have since cancelled this, as I enjoy reading at my own pace.

Dear Ijeawele is adapted from a letter which Ngozi Adichie wrote to one of her friends in response to the question of how she could raise her new baby daughter to be a feminist.  In some respects, this was a powerful and insightful work, which gave a lot of good advice on raising a daughter, and tips for enabling her to see the world through measured, fair eyes.  Ngozi Adichie definitely mentions some elements which are worth further thought; for instance, the prevalence of gendered baby clothing, and the continued use of the frankly antiquated societal expectations of ‘blue for a boy’ and ‘pink for a girl’.  I liked the way in which the author had set out this book, in fifteen ‘suggestions’; it was, in this way, like a manifesto, but rather a simplistic one in many ways.

I must admit that I found quite a lot of Dear Ijeawele rather patronising.  It may have come across this way due to the audiobook narrator I listened to, but a lot of what Ngozi Adichie points out feels obvious, and I did not think any of these things particularly needed to be stated.  Her suggestion about teaching her friend’s child to read a lot, for example, felt like a generalisation, and one which the majority of parents of certain means would encourage, regardless of whether they want to raise their child to be a feminist or not.  I failed to connect with the book that much, and felt as though it was a little old-fashioned, and quite underwhelming.

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The Book Trail: Alice Jolly to Mary Beard

Alice Jolly’s wonderful and heartbreaking memoir, Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, is the starting point for this book trail.  As always, I will be choosing one book from the recommended tomes on the Book Depository Website on each successive page.  Without further ado, let us begin.

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns by Alice Jolly 9781783521050
‘The world of dead babies is a silent and shuttered place. You do not know it exists until you find yourself there. When Alice Jolly’s second child was stillborn and all subsequent attempts to have another baby failed, she began to consider every possible option, no matter how unorthodox. Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is a savagely personal account of the search for an alternative way to create a family. As she battles through miscarriage, IVF and failed adoption attempts, Alice’s only solace from the pain is the faded charm of Britain’s crumbling seaside towns. Finally, this search leads her and her husband to a small town in Minnesota, and two remarkable women who offer to make the impossible possible. In this beautiful book, shot through with humour and full of hope, Alice Jolly describes with a novelist’s skill events that woman live through every day – even if many feel compelled to keep them hidden. Her decision not to hide but to share them, without a trace of sentiment or self-pity, turns Dead Babies and Seaside Towns into a universal story: one that begins in tragedy but ends in joy.’

 

Which leads to…

9781250101037Lust and Wonder by Augusten Burroughs
‘In chronicling the development and demise of the different relationships he’s had while living in New York, Augusten Burroughs examines what it means to be in love, what it means to be in lust, and what it means to be figuring it all out. With Augusten’s unique and singular observations and his own unabashed way of detailing both the horrific and the humorous, Lust and Wonder is an intimate and honest memoir that his legions of fans have been waiting for.’

 

Our third book leads us into the world of fiction…

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf 9781447299370
‘This is a love story. A story about growing old with grace. Addie Moore and Louis Waters have been neighbours for years. Now they both live alone, their houses empty of family, their quiet nights solitary. Then one evening Addie pays Louis a visit. Their brave adventures form the beating heart of Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf’s exquisite final novel.’

 

The fourth choice is 2015’s Pulitzer Prize winner, and one which many have raved about (and which I cannot believe I’ve not yet read!)…

9780008138301All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
‘For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth. In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.’

 

Our fifth book is one which I hadn’t heard of before, but which sounds appealing on differing levels…

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham 9781846689949
‘Tilly Dunnage left her hometown of Dungatar in rural Australia under a black cloud of accusation. Years later Tilly, now a couturier for the Paris fashion houses, returns home to make amends with her mentally unstable mother. Mid-century Dungatar is a small town, and small towns have long memories. At first she wins over the suspicious locals with her extraordinary dressmaking skills. But when the eccentric townsfolk turn on Tilly for a second time, she decides to teach them a lesson and exact long-overdue revenge…’

 

The sixth choice in this book trail is a gritty short story…

9781474603041The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
‘A young woman is making a living faking it as a cut-price psychic (with some illegal soft-core sex work on the side). She makes a decent wage mostly by telling people what they want to hear. But then she meets Susan Burke. Susan moved to the city one year ago with her husband and 15-year-old stepson Miles. They live in a Victorian house called Carterhook Manor. Susan has become convinced that some malevolent spirit is inhabiting their home. The young woman doesn’t believe in exorcism or the supernatural. However when she enters the house for the first time, she begins to feel it too, as if the very house is watching her, waiting, biding its time…’

 

Our penultimate choice is a fascinating look into Russian history…

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore 9780297852667
‘The Romanovs were the most successful dynasty of modern times, ruling a sixth of the world’s surface. How did one family turn a war-ruined principality into the world’s greatest empire? And how did they lose it all? This is the intimate story of twenty tsars and tsarinas, some touched by genius, some by madness, but all inspired by holy autocracy and imperial ambition. Montefiore’s gripping chronicle reveals their secret world of unlimited power and ruthless empire-building, overshadowed by palace conspiracy, family rivalries, sexual decadence and wild extravagance, and peopled by a cast of adventurers, courtesans, revolutionaries and poets, from Ivan the Terrible to Tolstoy, from Queen Victoria to Lenin. To rule Russia was both imperial-sacred mission and poisoned chalice: six tsars were murdered and all the Romanovs lived under constant threat to their lives. Peter the Great tortured his own son to death while making Russia an empire, and dominated his court with a dining club notable for compulsory drunkenness, naked dwarfs and fancy dress. Catherine the Great overthrew her own husband – who was murdered soon afterwards – loved her young male favourites, conquered Ukraine and fascinated Europe. Paul was strangled by courtiers backed by his own son, Alexander I, who faced Napoleon’s invasion and the burning of Moscow, then went on to take Paris. Alexander II liberated the serfs, survived five assassination attempts, and wrote perhaps the most explicit love letters ever written by a ruler.’

 

Today’s final selection is a book by one of my favourite historians, which I cannot wait to pick up (especially after a recent trip to Rome!)…

9781846683817SPQR by Mary Beard
‘ Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us. Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome. SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.’

 

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