The Night Brother by Rosie Garland
Publication date: 01 June 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length*: 6 hours 17 mins
(*based on the time it took me to read this title)
My rating: 3 out of 5
From the author of The Palace of Curiosities and Vixen comes a dazzling and provocative new novel of adventure, mystery and belonging. The Night Brother shifts tantalisingly between day and night, exploring questions of identity, sexual equality and how well we know ourselves. Perfect for fans of Angela Carter, Sarah Waters, Erin Morgenstern.
Rich are the delights of late nineteenth-century Manchester for young siblings Edie and Gnome. They bicker, banter, shout and scream their way through the city’s streets, embracing its charms and dangers. But as the pair mature, it is Gnome who revels in the night-time, while Edie is confined to the day. She wakes exhausted each morning, unable to quell a sickening sense of unease, and confused at living a half-life.
Reaching the cusp of adulthood, Edie’s confusion turns to resentment and she is determined to distance herself from Gnome once and for all. But can she ever be free from someone who knows her better than she knows herself?
Exploring the furthest limits of sexual and gender fluidity, this is a story about the vital importance of being honest with yourself. Every part of yourself. After all, no-one likes to be kept in the dark.
When I started reading this book, I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. The language constantly nagged at me, and it took me some time to work out why it felt familiar even as it felt strange: it’s almost the language of fairytales. Until the mention of the Suffragette movement, I couldn’t place the time that the story takes place in and, because of the fairytale feel that comes from the style of language, I wasn’t sure that the story is set in a ‘real’ historical time. The geographical setting is real, and I found myself feeling a connection with the book as parts of Manchester that I know and love (from the couple of years I spent living there) were named and described as their Victorian versions.
It is a striking book: while it is historical fiction, it deals with extremely contemporary themes of gender, sexuality, and identity. The story skilfully questions what it is that defines us as individuals to others, and to ourselves. Through the struggles of Gnome and Edie, it shows how gender and sexuality cannot be defined as binary options, but rather two points on an analogue scale which a person can appear anywhere on. It cleverly illustrates how when the different facets of our personalities are forced to fit into socially acceptable boxes, and we are compelled to fit ourselves in them, it is harmful. We are better off accepting our different sides, seeking to find a way to live with our contradictions peacefully. If we can only be brave enough to share the fullness of the people we truly are with another whom we can trust, fear can be replaced with acceptance.
Rosie Garland’s approach to these questions of gender, sexuality, and identity is inventive and original. Rather than tackle these questions through Sci-Fi or YA fiction (which seem the most obvious genres for these themes), she has skilfully used Historical Fiction to demonstrate that these themes and philosophical questions that we think of as modern concerns are timeless – they have been around for as long as the concept of ‘socially acceptable’ has existed.
The historical setting of the story takes a backseat to the story itself, so if you’re after a historical novel that will closely follow renowned events, or teach you something about events during the Victorian era, you might not get what you are after. You will get a book which is easy and enjoyable to read, with an original plot, and an unexpected outcome. A good book for the daily commute or winding down before bed, it’ll take you out of your own world for a bit and dump you, unapologetically, into the middle of possibly the most dysfunctional family you can imagine.
Thank you to The Borough Press and Netgalley for supplying me with an advance ebook of this story in exchange for an honest review.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Publication date: 18 May 2017 (UK)
Genre: General Fiction (Adult)
Length*: 4 hours 45 mins
(*based on the time it took me to read this title) Published by: HarperCollins, HarperFiction
My rating: 4 out of 5
A stunning debut. Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live.
Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.
Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.
One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life.
Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than… fine?
This debut novel seems to have had a stellar start: Shortlisted in the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress, it has gone on to be sold around the world. Pretty amazing for a debut.
The most striking thing about this book is the perceptiveness of human nature which is embedded in the main character, Eleanor. This perceptiveness takes two distinctive angles; Eleanor’s articulate judgement of other people (she says all the things about other people that you’ve thought but never said), and the details of her own nature which she unwittingly reveals as the story unravels from Eleanor’s first person point of view.
As the reader, you live inside Eleanor’s head. This is particularly interesting as Eleanor is not exactly a likeable character but, despite this, you end up caring about her, realising that all of her most grating qualities are a product of coping mechanisms.
If you enjoy novels told by an unreliable narrator, then you will enjoy the intricate and carefully applied use of this narrative device. Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine and the more she says it, the more she believes it and eventually, if she believes it hard enough, it might actually be true. She is completely ‘fine’ in the same way as you growl ‘I’m fine’ at your partner when you’re really not but don’t have the capacity right now to go into all the reasons why.
As well as being completely fine, Eleanor is also completely average; nothing to see here, move along please, or at least that’s how she sees herself. When someone does think there is something better than unremarkable, Eleanor’s carefully assembled house of cards comes tumbling down. The path from an organised life, totally under control, to chaos (much in the style of the second law of thermodynamics) is tracked through three sections of the book, named “Good Days”, “Bad Days”, and “Better Days”.
This is a beautifully executed book, and an emotional rollercoaster. Full of keen observation of the human condition, it is well written and tightly plotted, taking you on a journey of twists and turns, never quite certain where it will take you next.
Thank you to Netgalley and HarperCollins for providing me with a Kindle edition of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Little Gold by Allie Rogers
Publication date: 02 May 2017
Genre: General Fiction (Adult), Literary Fiction
Length*: 4 hours 30 mins
(*based on the time it took me to read this title)
Published by: Legend Press
Available at: Amazon.co.uk, Goodreads
My rating: 5 out of 5
‘Life affirming and triumphant’ Mark A. Radcliffe
‘Wonderfully moving and atmospheric’ Catherine Hall
‘Vivid and touching… this book left me haunted long after I put it down’ Umi Sinha
‘Brilliantly handled… a great first novel’ Bethan Roberts
‘I found myself engrossed… a vibrant, moving tale’ Alison Smith
The heat is oppressive and storms are brewing in Brighton in the summer of 1982. Little Gold, a boyish girl on the brink of adolescence, is struggling with the reality of her broken family and a home descending into chaos. Her only refuge is the tree at the end of her garden.
Into her fractured life steps elderly neighbour, Peggy Baxter. The connection between the two is instant, but just when it seems that Little Gold has found solace, outsiders appear who seek to take advantage of her frail family in the worst way possible. In an era when so much is hard to speak aloud, can Little Gold share enough of her life to avert disaster? And can Peggy Baxter, a woman running out of time and with her own secrets to bear, recognise the danger before it’s too late?
I always try to keep notes as I read books so that I will remember at the end of the book what I thought at the beginning. With this book I was so spell-bound, I forgot to take notes about a quarter of the way in. Most of the notes I did take were comments of “Yes!!” against references to solid chocolate Kit Kat fingers with no wafer inside, overcooked oven-baked beef burgers, and other references to my childhood. No surprise really since the story is set in 1982 and I was born in 1983. I was transported back to 1980s Britain with crystal clarity. Even Little Gold’s boyishness and her love of climbing the tree in her garden resonated with me – I was that tomboy girl, who had a tree with a branch that created a nook perfect for escaping to for some peace and quiet. Thankfully, given the course of the story, that is where the similarities with my childhood end.
The story gently leads you into the less than easy life of Little Gold and her brother and sister. That their mother doesn’t make an appearance and is barely referred to for a large part of the book is indicative, and makes their home life all the more heartbreaking.
Peggy, Little Gold’s elderly neighbour, is an instantly likeable character, who seems to radiate an aura of youth that led me to forget how old she really is.
I will avoid describing the events that cause this fragile stasis to unravel but must mention how delicately and gradually these events are introduced, lulling you into a false sense of security where although you feel mildly concerned, you don’t reach a point of outright alarm until the final portion of the story where everything happens quickly and unstoppably, sharing Little Gold’s bewilderment and helplessness.
For the final portion of the book, I was inconsolable, stressed whenever I had to put the book down, worrying constantly in the back of my mind, needing to get back to the book and keep reading. I cried. A lot. It was devastating, but through that devastation remained beautiful, which I think made me cry all the more. Even as I write this, I have a lump in my throat, remembering how it made me feel. Rare and wonderful is the book that can have this effect.
I cannot recommend this book enough. Get it, clear your calendar, and spend a whole afternoon reading it, accompanied by an endless supply of tea, wagon wheels, and club bars. When you’re done, find an ice cream van and buy a 99p Mr Whippy Flake.
Thank you to NetGalley and Legend Press for supplying me with a Kindle copy of this book.
When the Wind Blows by Marguerite Steen
Publication date: 31st March 2017
Genre: Literary Fiction, Mystery & Thrillers
Length*: 5 hours 30 mins
(*based on the time it took me to read this title)
My rating: 3 out of 5
On Calvary, the wind never stops…
In the south Atlantic Ocean, sits the island of El Secredo – named Calvary by the first missionary settlers. Little has changed in Calvary since Jebusa Horne first landed on the island and proclaimed it fit for Christendom, in the late 19th century.
The world, meanwhile, has been through a Great War; prohibition and the jazz age have been and gone… When Reverend Smith Prudhomme and his wife came to continue the missionary on Calvary, at worse the Reverend had been warned of ‘Calvary beer’.
What he didn’t expect was Sanchia Mullyon.
Even as a child, Sanchia was different from the rest of the islanders. Spirited, questioning and highly imaginative, the islanders’ were disturbed by her apparent wildness – as wild as the winds that batter Calvary. Scared by her, both her parents and other elders tried to literally beat what they see is the ‘devil’ out of Sanchia. But cruelty begets cruelty and Sanchia becomes known for her brutal cruelness – both from her strength and her words. The only thing Sanchia seems affected by is the island and its animals; it’s well known she can’t bear to see the suffering of animals. Sanchia is now of marriageable age. And on an island that has an influx of men, women are highly prized.
She was promised in her cradle, to Gregory Jodrell; but in her usual fashion, Sanchia refuses to marry not only him, but also any other Calvary man. With a sense of unease in the island community, Reverend Smith is unsure of how to approach the problem. Moreover, Sanchia and by extension, his sympathetic wife Mrs Prudhomme, are chipping away at his once narrow minded views…
Then one stormy night, Sanchia in fear for her life, demands to be married to Gregory, right then and there. Even though it flies in face of all tradition, bordering on insulting, Reverend Smith marries them anyway. If the Islanders had hoped it would ‘tame’ Sanchia, they were wrong. If anything, she’s tamed Gregory.
And when a shipwreck lands the writer, Miss Lenox Robbins, and a mysterious man who can’t talk on their shores, Calvary and Sanchia are forever changed…
A gripping and intense novel, When The Wind Blows is a tale of a woman’s fortitude in the face of her home and community.
This is an e-book ‘reprinting’ of a title originally published in hardback and paperback in 1975. The author, Marguerite Sheen was a British writer who died the same year as this book was originally published. Her first major success was Matador, published in 1934, which was picked up by the Book Society in Britain and the Book of Month Club in the US. Her book The Sun Is My Undoing (published 1941) was a best-seller, both in the UK and the US, and was the first part of a trilogy saga about the slave-trade and Bristol shipping. Although she never achieved critical acclaim, she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1951. Her life spanned the Victorian, Edwardian, and modern eras and her observation of unprecedented societal, cultural, and technological change is evident in this novel.
It took me a little time to get into the story – my notes on the opening pages contain comments referring to what felt like odd wording, however the unusual and old-fashioned language soon reveals it’s character, lending itself to delicious phrases such as “filling them brimful of churned white water and spray” and “leaving them exposed like the vertebrae of some prehistoric monster”. Although this contributed to an opening which felt a little slow to begin with, it soon puts you into the mindset of the island and its inhabitants, who all speak with a heavy dialect, whose root I couldn’t decipher, but reminded me of the dialect used in Tony Harrison’s The Nativity. Be prepared, too, to have your dictionary and notebook at hand – words like “frowardly” (of a person difficult to deal with) and “pusillanimity” (showing a lack of courage or determination), which are little heard these days but feel delightful to say, are scattered throughout the book.
What is striking about the island of Calvary is not just its remote south Atlantic setting, but that nature has seen fit to make males so abundant that the birth of a girl is hoped for and celebrated. Whilst this could have lead to a matriarchal society, this is tragically not the case, with the female’s role being one of servitude amongst a militantly patriarchal structure.
Sanchia, as the only available female of marriageable age, is promised to George Jodrell, the most eligible bachelor on the island. As children of the two families which represent a kind of aristocracy on the island, they are expected to continue both their bloodlines. This duty is held above all else by the islanders since the predominance of men and lack of women mean that very few family lines will survive. George happily submits to this pressure, but wild child Sanchia rejects it, and all the customs and values of the island. Sanchia is desired by all of the men on the island, and the desires of Samson Hawkins are for, a short while, focused on, teasingly suggesting the possibility of a love triangle which never comes to fruition.
The shipwreck is when the story really kicks off and the tension and pace explode, with events and twists happening relentlessly. Perhaps, in this way, the narration is as unpredictable and forceful as the winds that batter the island.
The arrival of Lenox Robbins and the dumb man turn Sanchia and the island on their heads. Miss Robbins provides a refreshing change of tone with her polemic and self-important English, directly challenging the island’s way of life, the way the islanders think, and places blame unapologetically at the feet of Reverend Smith Prudhomme, who she thinks should make use better use of his position. She brings humour with her blunt observations and inability to stay out of other people’s business. The dumb man, unable to speak, due to the shock of his shipwrecking, is mysterious and intriguing, and given the fact that he contributes no dialogue, is nevertheless charismatic.
The latter part of the book moves with extraordinary pace, and the stakes are continually raised to the extreme, providing unpredictable twists that keep you on your toes and continually guessing how this will all end. Given the extraordinary end climax that the book builds towards, the very ending felt a little disappointing, as though it had been cut short by a page or two. All the same, this was an enjoyable read, and a brave undertaking of both narrative choices and a cast of characters, for whom my sympathies continually swung for and against.
Thank you to Netgalley and Endeavour Press for providing me with a Kindle copy of this book.
Write Short Stories – And Get Them Published by Zoe Fairbairns
Publication date: 1 January 2012
Genre: Non-fiction, Education & Reference, Writing
Length: 240 pages
Published by: Teach Yourself
Available at: Amazon.co.uk, Goodreads
My Rating: 4 out of 5
LEARN HOW TO WRITE WONDERFUL AND VARIED SHORT STORIES AND SHARE THEM WITH THE WORLD.
Written by one of the country’s leading experts on the short story, this book is ideal if you want to write creatively in a genre that is increasingly attracting attention from publishers, and which offers plenty of competition and festival opportunities for you to showcase your work.
This new edition includes up-to-date material on web resources and outlets and provides new information on self-publishing. In addition it discusses genres such as micro-fiction, and throughout is fully updated with new resources, events, slams and competitions.
It will help unlock your imagination and creativity, and to discover stories you didn’t know you had. It will help you to observe the world around you more sharply, as well as to structure, shape and polish your story. It is full of practical exercises that will both inspire imagination and refine skills, and confidence-building suggestions and hints.
Ever harboured fantasies about being an author, getting paid to write stories? I, for one, am guilty as charged. But I get an idea, get all fired up about turning it into a story, and then get shouted down by the blank page and the knowledge that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. Every few months I promise myself that I’m going to enter a writing competition, and then…well, life.
If this resonates with you at all, then I think you’ll find this book as inspiring a read as I do. It’s taken me a while to read it all the way through – I keep waiting until I’ve completed that writing exercise before I move on to the next page – but this time I read it from cover to cover. Of course, like all teach yourself something books, it is not a substitute for sitting down and actually doing the thing. However, it is packed with lots of useful advice to get you writing once you’ve honoured that date you made with your notebook and desk.
Zoe Fairbairns writes informatively as she takes you through the steps of crafting a short story. There are writing exercises throughout the chapters and useful discussion of these exercises too. I can tell that it will be a great book to refer to, even if I don’t have an idea for a story. Fairbairns teaches you the ingredients needed to create something that is a story, and so, with this recipe in mind, you can fabricate something out of thin air. Once you’ve got that first draft down, she goes through the stages of researching, revising, and editing.
The latter portion of the book deals with publishing those marvellous little creations of yours. She discusses how to approach publishers, entering competitions, publishing on the internet, self-publishing, getting your short stories on the radio, and public readings of short stories. If this weren’t already enough, she then has a plethora of further reading suggestions for you, covering publishing, punctuation and grammar, magazines for writers and websites for short story writers. It is almost a little intimidating.
So here I go again, this great little book in hand, to sit down and write a short story. I’m planning to enter it in a writing competition later this month. I’ll let you know how I get on.
(I bought the kindle version of the book a long time ago and have recently ‘dusted it off’ for a fresh read.)