Tag Archives: fiction

Unsettled Ground

Family drama novel about parents, poverty and isolation

Content warning: themes of control, parental death

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. This is actually the second book I have read by this author and I was looking forward to it.

Image is of the eBook cover of “Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller. The cover is a collection of colour flowers and fruit against a black background that on closer inspection appear to be wilting and rotting.

“Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller is a novel about twins Jeanie and Julius who unusually, at age 51, still live at home with their mother Dot in a small rural cottage in England. However when their mother suddenly dies, Dot’s carefully balanced, hand to mouth existence begins to crumble around them. The twins begin to realise just exactly how many secrets their mother was keeping from them, and how much she was keeping them from the rest of the world.

This is a disquieting novel that really resonated with me. When I was 18 years old, I lived in the West Midlands in the UK for about 6 months with relatives in a rural area, and Fuller really captured that village setting perfectly. Fuller unpacks in an incredibly realistic way have unnavigable society is for people who are disadvantaged, and examines in close detail the practicalities of life without access to a car, running water or electricity. I thought that Fuller handled writing about literacy difficulties especially well, and watching the recent TV documentary “Lost for Words” shortly afterwards helped me see just how accurately Fuller captured the stigma around lack of literacy but also the workarounds people develop to get by. The other thing I really liked about this book is the relentlessness of the life administration, even and especially in death, and how Dot doing everything for her children really left them unequipped to cope. Fuller pushes this scenario to its extreme, exploring each individual vulnerability to its limit while still remaining well within the realm of possibility.

While the setup for this book was extremely engaging, I’m not sure that in the end it landed. Fuller tiptoes around Dot’s character, and while I appreciate leaving some things to the imagination, there is never really much speculation about why she limited her children’s interaction with the outside world so much. Throughout the book, Jeanie and Julius learn more about their mother’s personal life through those closest to her, but never really why she had absolute control over the way the home was run and made absolutely no contingency plans whatsoever. Of course I accept that this happens all the time in real life, but in many ways Dot was the most interesting character in the book and we got only the faintest spectre. I also appreciate that people fall between the cracks, and it is hard to know what truly goes on in someone’s home. That being said, none of Dot’s friends seemed to think it was particularly strange that her two adult children in their 50s lived at home with her and had next to no life skills whatsoever.

Fuller proves again that she is a master of exploring the intricate and disturbing minutiae of an isolated life and if the ending is not full of drama, the journey certainly is.

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The White Tiger

Novel about ambition and inequality set in India

Content warning: graphic death

This book was a Man Booker Prize winner and I picked up a copy ages ago from the Lifeline Book Fair. I actually tried to start reading it a while ago but wasn’t quite in the right headspace, so put it back on my shelf where it sat for even longer waiting its turn. Sat, until, I saw a trailer for the new Netflix adaptation. There’s nothing like a film adaptation to motivate me to read a book, and I was pretty confident this was going to be good.

Image is of “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga. The paperback book is sitting in front of a redbrick wall next to a crystal tumbler and a small bottle of rum. Above the objects embedded into the wall is a small gold figure of the Hindu god Ganesh. The cover is white with large stylised writing in black and red and letter Is dotted with orange tiger eyes, with an image of an orange car striped liked a tiger.

“The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga is a novel set in India about a young man known as Balram who gets a job as a driver for a wealthy family. Structured as a series of dictated letters recorded over a number of late nights, Balram, a successful entrepreneur, decides to write to a Chinese Premier who is visiting Bangalore about how he rose from poverty to success. Of key importance is how Balram secured a job driving for the young heir Mr Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam, and it quickly becomes clear that Balram’s path to fortune had some morally suspect hurdles.

This is an incredibly clever book with an utterly charming protagonist. Balram has a keen natural intelligence, only limited by his experiences and education, and his commentary about business and politics is an excellent example of dramatic irony being used to comedic effect. However, Adiga’s novel is also a piercing commentary on the inequality caused initially by colonialism and cemented by corruption. His use of metaphor describing roosters in a cage never rising up against their masters who slaughter their friends was chilling, and even more so every time Balram’s grandmother writes to him demanding he marry and promising to make him a chicken curry (which Balram pointedly refuses). There was also an interesting queer subtext to this book that is only ever hinted at (like Balram referring to his former boss Ashok as his “ex”) and for anyone interested, Fernando Sanchez wrote a detailed essay about this subject.

However, alongside all the levity in this book comes some very challenging topics. Adiga does not romanticise poverty, and there are some very difficult scenes in this book including each of the deaths of Balram’s parents. When Balram moves to Delhi with Ashok and Pinky Madam, the living conditions of drivers are shocking, and almost as disheartening as Balram’s realisation that his life is likely never going to improve. A large theme of this book is betrayal, and in this context, Adiga challenges the reader to consider the morality of Balram’s ultimate actions, and whether they can truly be justified.

Regardless of how brilliant this book was, there were some elements that I felt could have been done without. Apart from Pinky Madam’s rather minor role, there are not a lot of women in this book and the way Balram and other drivers speak about women was grotesque. I felt that the film, while remaining faithful to the book, smoothed out some of these rougher edges and gave Pinky Madam a much larger role. It also made the excellent choice of casting a woman in the role of the politician known as the Great Socialist.

A bold and innovative take on the rags to riches theme that has been adapted into an equally excellent film.

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Gulliver’s Wife

Historical fiction inspired by “Gulliver’s Travels” from the perspective of his wife

2020 was a tough year for authors with new releases and unfortunately this was another book that missed out on its due publicity. I first heard about this author through her amazing cookie art. She is also a really lovely person and sent me a gorgeous note and gift when my wedding was postponed last year. It’s a beautifully designed book with bronze foil and I was really excited to read it.

Image is of “Gulliver’s Wife” by Lauren Chater. The paperback book is resting in a bed of purple irises. The cover design is of dark red orchid-like flowers and greenery and a small brown bird with bronze foil around the edges.

“Gulliver’s Wife” by Lauren Chater is a historical fiction novel that asks the question: while Lemuel Gulliver sailed around exploring previously uncontacted lands as depicted in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels“, what did his family do without him? Moreover, it asks what did his family do when he comes home after years of being missing, presumed dead, telling stories of tiny people? Set in London, UK, in 1702, this book follows his wife Mary and his daughter Bess as they navigate the change his return brings to their home’s dynamic, the financial impact his presence has on their lives and their increasingly strained relationship with each other.

This is a meticulously researched book about life as a woman in 1700s England. Using the tension between Mary’s lack of individual rights as an apparent widow and the family’s increasing economic needs as a framework, Chater explores what options are available for a woman of Mary’s background and station, and how they are further limited when her husband resumes his position as head of the household. Choosing midwifery as Mary’s career was a really clever choice: one of the few roles for women with minimal male influence. I thought that the interaction between midwives, surgeons and the church was really interesting as well as the lenses through which decisions are made about who was best placed to handle the work of delivering babies. Mary is a fully rounded character with hobbies (gardening), a love interest (not her husband) and

One of the most powerful elements of this book was the mother-daughter relationship. With utmost sensitivity, Chater teases out the complexities of the way Mary and Bess relate to each other, and how they are at once too close and too distant. Bess idolises her father, and I thought that there were some interesting questions posed about whose responsibility it was to disabuse her of reverence. Should Mary have been more frank with her and risk further teenage derision, or should Bess have been more realistic and let go of her childish ideas about her father’s promises? I really liked the way their relationship evolved over time and how space was made for a new type of respect. Alice, the family’s sole domestic worker, is a great counterbalance to the tension between the two as well as having her own complex family background.

One ever-present challenge for historical fiction is being as true as possible to the era while while still writing for a modern audience. I think that for the most part, Mary’s tolerance for others and openness in relation to social issues is done really well. A career as a midwife creates more room for Mary to be exposed to a variety of different circumstances and creates a bit of distance from an otherwise very religious, patriarchal society. However, there were a couple of situations in which I thought Mary was perhaps a little too understanding for a person of her time.

A creative take on a classic novel. Unlike other works of historical fiction that have used classics as inspiration, I think that this novel has a very clear purpose and prompts the reader to consider what life may have been like for the people literary heroes left behind.

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Emma

Classic Jane Austen romance novel

Content warning: child grooming

I have read some, but not all, of Austen. I saw the trailer for this adaptation that came out last year and it looked fun. I can’t remember exactly when but I picked up a copy of the book from the Lifeline Book Fair, it was sitting on my shelf, and since I like to read books before I watch the movie, I thought I’d better get to it.

Image is of “Emma” by Jane Austen. The paperback book is resting in the corner of a wicker basket that also has a green teapot, scones, a purple and white napkin, a purple Jane Austen’s House Museum bookmark, a bundle of lavender and a small bowl of plum jam.

“Emma” by Jane Austen is a romance novel whose eponymous heroine Miss Emma Woodhouse is a wealthy young woman who lives with her eccentric hypochondriac father in a large home in the bustling English village of Highbury. With her mother dead and her sister married and moved out, when Emma’s old governess Miss Taylor marries as well, Emma finds herself the undisputed mistress of the house and in need of entertainment. Buoyed by the success of matchmaking Miss Taylor with the eminently suitable Mr Weston, Emma turns her sights to other potential matches. She befriends a pretty young girl of unknown parentage and decides to orchestrate a match with the energetic vicar Mr Elton. Ignoring the warnings of family friend Mr Knightly, the older brother of her sister’s husband, Emma’s plans begin to go awry when it becomes quite clear that people, including herself, will follow their own hearts.

This is a clever novel with a likeable protagonist who is as flawed and human as she is beautiful and wealthy. Emma’s unique position as the mistress of Hartfield with a father who is reluctant go out or get involved in anything affords her a considerable amount of freedom compared to other women during the same era. I really liked how Austen tempered Emma by making her good at piano yet envious of her sometime rival Jane, and mostly kind but a little cruel towards Jane’s warm-hearted but a little overbearing aunt Miss Bates. Emma undergoes significant character development and there are some fun twists in the story.

This book was written just over 200 years ago, so it is unsurprising that there are some elements that don’t really stack up against today’s standards. This may be a slight spoiler but I think the most obvious example of this is the age difference between Emma and her ultimate love interest. The suggestion that he has been waiting since she was a young girl to grow up sufficiently did have a bit of a grooming vibe to it even if nothing untoward happens. Even though some of Emma’s views about class are tested by the other characters, and there is some sympathy for characters who have fallen somewhat in station, this is ultimately a story about a stratified society and people marrying appropriately for their class.

However, I think probably the most difficult thing about this book is that it is, unfortunately, quite a slow story. The romance is a very quiet burn, the characters aren’t all that colourful and it was a bit of a slog in the end. I quite enjoyed the adaptation because it brought a bit of colour and drama to the story, even though it too was a little slow.

An interesting and character-driven novel that admittedly took a bit of work to get through.

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The Dangers of Truffle Hunting

Saucy romance about food, wine and photography

Content warning: sex scenes

I have had this ARC sitting on my to-read shelf since I got it from Harry Hartog…gosh, about 5 years ago? I’m making a big effort to get through my reading backlog, and because of the title, I always felt like this was the right book to read in winter.

Image is of an advance reading copy of “The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” by Sunni Overend. The paperback book is standing upright between a champagne bottle and a bowl of cake mixture on a kitchen bench. A shirtless man stands behind it with a flour handprint on him. There are cloves scattered around, a red apple cut in half and two cinnamon sticks.

“The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” by Sunni Overend is a romance novel about Kit, a young woman who has just secured a job as a food photographer for a highly regarded lifestyle magazine with a slick and minimalist style. Kit is engaged to successful if somewhat uptight furniture designer and is about to start planning a big wedding at her family’s vineyard. However, when she visits her family to hear about her father’s new venture, she meets the farmhand Raph and is inspired to start taking much more creative, suggestive photographs. As the tension between her own creativity and desire begins to clash against the path that her work, her fiancé and even her own mother have set out for her, Kit must decide what kind of life she really wants to lead.

This is a fun and very readable romp that I absolutely whipped through. The perfect blend of idyll and serendipity with just the right amount of drama, I was up late at night flipping pages to get to that ending. Overend writes about food with the same sensuality that is drawn from Kit. This book is full of cozy and evocative scenes choosing wines in cellars, making pastry and even participating in cooking classes in France. Although not wildly surprising, there was a good twist later in the story to keep things interesting. Overend writes eroticism well and there are plenty of creative scenes to warm readers up on cold winter nights.

It probably should be said that this book is pure romantic fantasy, so even though it is written with realism in mind, there are enough coincidences, privileges and special opportunities that you’ll have to suspend some considerable disbelief. There are also a couple of scenes that felt a little superfluous. Also, I know it was the point of the book but Kit’s fiancé was so unbelievably boring, every scene with him in it made my eyes roll.

A spicy food-lover’s fantasy with not many truffles but nevertheless a quick and enjoyable to read.

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The Northern Reach

Family saga set in Maine, USA

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of a digital book cover of “The Northern Reach” by W. S. Winslow

“The Northern Reach” by W. S. Winslow is a family saga set in and around the small fictional coastal town of Wellbridge in Maine, USA. Spanning about 100 years and the four intersecting Lawson, Baines, Moody and Martin families, traumas echo through the generations against the dramatic Maine coastline.

This was a really readable novel with an exceptionally strong sense of place. Winslow has a real strength for characterisation and each point of view character has a unique and distinct voice. I really enjoyed Liliane, the sophisticated French woman who finds herself widowed in unwelcoming Wellbridge. I also really liked the sisters Coralene, Marlene and Earlene and the subtleties in their relationships and Winslow’s hints of infidelity. Winslow also thoughtfully and sensitively explores family trauma and how they impact not just the immediate generation but the subsequent generations afterwards. The moody coastal atmosphere is also complemented by some ghostly visitors.

The only thing that was a bit challenging about this book was keeping track of all the families. Winslow helped a lot by providing a full family tree at the beginning of the book and then specific branches throughout, however reading an eBook did make it a little hard to flip back to the diagrams.

An immersive and insightful novel about the complexities of families, relationships and small towns.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Austere Academy

Children’s book series about three hapless orphans

I am still enjoying reading this series and watching the corresponding TV adaptation, and I was looking for a snappy read to curl up in front of the heater with now the evenings are getting colder. If you haven’t read this series before, I would recommend starting at the beginning.

Image is of the book “The Austere Academy” by Lemony Snicket. The hardcover book is sitting inside an open notebook where the letters V.F.D. are written diagonally next to a pen. A tape measure snakes around the book and the notebook.

“The Austere Academy” by Lemony Snicket is the fifth book of 13 in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” collection. After the Baudelaire children Violet, Klaus and Sunny barely escape the events of the previous book unscathed, they are sent to a boarding school called Prufrock Preparatory School. Any hope that finally their luck may change is dashed when Vice Principal Nero advises that because they don’t have a guardian, they will be living in a small, crab and fungus-infested shack. The only upside is that they have finally made some friends: the two Quagmire triplets Isadora and Duncan. However, when a new sports teacher called Coach Genghis starts at the school, things begin to look very dire.

I think that this is my favourite book in the series so far. There is some subtle but noticeable character development. The Baudelaires have started to lose faith in the adults around them and for the first time, do not sound the alarm when they realise a new scheme is afoot to steal their inheritance. Instead, they cut to the chase and start making their own plans. I also really enjoyed that Sunny has started occasionally saying actual words that Snicket doesn’t need to interpret.

Interestingly, I actually liked the plot of this book better than I did the corresponding TV series episodes. The TV adaptation attempted to soften the situation by introducing some additional benevolent characters, and I felt that the Baudelaires’ lack of hope in the book made the ending much more tragic.

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The Love Virus

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.

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Image is of a digital book cover of “The Love Virus” by Eleni Cay. The cover is pink text against a pink and beige background of vertical computer code.

“The Love Virus” by Eleni Cay is a verse novel about a young woman called Katie whose life is turned upside down when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Casting aside her studies at Oxford University and her fiancé, Katie struggles to adjust to her loss of mobility and requiring significant personal care while in hospital. However, in some chapters, Katie is on a retreat in a country called Andratalia. With two bickering travellers accompanying her, Katie tours this hot land and meets some of the curious locals. As the book progresses, the two realities converge and Katie must find her own path forward.

This is an original book, told in long form poetry, with some science fiction themes. Cay draws on her own experiences of MS and the strongest parts of the book are the visceral scenes of Katie having to relinquish control over her body to those caring for her. Katie’s friends, family and fiancé all respond in different ways to her diagnosis, and there are some really important messages in this book about consent and inspiration porn. Cay explores what an alternative variant of MS could mean, amplifying the uncertainty, fear and hope around experimental treatments for chronic conditions. I found the poetic style very readable, and the story had a dreamy flow to it.

I think that the part I struggled the most with were the scenes in Andratalia. The majority of the text in these chapters is the dialogue between Katie’s two travel companions bickering over their competing philosophies. While the purpose of this journey becomes clear later in the story, I was a little disappointed to see Cay falling back on old stereotypes to describe the local people of Andratalia. Given the book hints at themes such as global conspiracy, genetic engineering and experimental medication, I felt that perhaps Andratalia would have been more interesting as a futuristic tech haven rather than a tropical paradise.

This is a really creative book in both theme and in form that blends lived experience with fiction to consider life and love with MS.

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Welcome to Night Vale

Novel set in fictional podcast’s paranormal town

A particular genre of podcast that I enjoy is fictional podcasts, and one of the very first fictional podcasts I started listening to was “Welcome to Night Vale“. If you’ve never listened, the podcast is in the format of a show on a community radio station run by the mysterious and charismatic Cecil. Each episode includes updates about the town’s unusual happenings and immerses the listener deeper and deeper into the unusual and ominous culture of Night Vale as well as regular segments known as Weather and Traffic. Some years ago, the creators of the podcast released a novel set in the town and I jumped out and bought a copy. Although my partner read it at the time, it has waited on my bookshelf, watching me judgmentally with its crescent moon eye symbol. Finally, I relented.

Image is of “Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor. The purple book is on a table in front of baskets of fake fruit and a plastic flamingo. It appears to be nighttime in the background.

“Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor is a novel set in the eponymous town where all manner of strange, paranormal things happen. The story is about two women: Jackie, who runs a pawn shop and has been 19 years old for more years than she can remember, and Diane, a single mother struggling to raise her teenage son who is going through puberty and who also changes shape constantly. When even more strange things than usual begin happening in Night Vale, unlikely pair Jackie and Diane must work together to solve the mystery of the man nobody seems to remember and find their way to King City.

This is a contemplative book with a mildly threatening aura that takes the reader on a journey through lesser known parts of Night Vale. In addition to some of our favourite characters from the podcast such as Cecil and his boyfriend Carlos, we meet new characters and explore some new and particularly dangerous areas of the town such as the Library. The book weaves together several threads and themes to explore broader issues of identity, family, adolescence and parenthood. Although a difficult character in some ways, Diane’s challenges in relating to her son as he grows up were both relatable and poignant. I enjoyed the transcripts of radio show episodes as interludes, with Cecil reporting with alarming accuracy on Jackie and Diane’s activities and whereabouts. The scenes with Jackie’s mother were particularly unsettling and really set the menacing and absurdist tone we have come to know and love from the podcast.

While there were a lot of aspects of this book that were well done, I did find it a little slow to get started. The characters spend a considerable time musing on their own circumstances, and it is some time before the action kicks off. I think that perhaps now wasn’t the best time for me to read this book. We are currently living through a time of significant uncertainty, with things like borders opening and closing and changes in rules about where, how and with whom we associate happening suddenly and without much warning. This is a book that really leans into the unexpected and decisions made by authorities (known and unknown) are often arbitrary and inexplicable, and reading this book made me realise that I do have a bit of fatigue around these things and probably impacted how much I enjoyed it.

Nevertheless, a valuable contribution to the Night Vale universe in a complementary format to the podcast, definitely a book for fans.

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Wild Horses on the Salt

Romance novel about escaping domestic violence and finding a new life

Content warning: domestic violence

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Wild Horses on the Salt” by Anne Montgomery is a romance novel about Becca, a lawyer fleeing her abusive husband. She finds herself on a property in Arizona, USA that belongs to an old friend of her aunt’s who uses it as a guest house. Physically and emotionally bruised, it takes Becca time to open up about what has happened to her. The more she learns about the beautiful country she has found herself in and the environmental issues that threaten it, including the contentious mustangs, the more she begins to feel at ease among her new friends. Especially the handsome Noah. However, her husband is not about to let her go so easily, and Becca soon finds the safety of her new life under threat.

This is an interesting novel that sensitively approaches the issue of domestic violence. Montgomery explores the factors that can leave someone vulnerable to controlling relationships as well as the stigma, financial control and physical danger that make it so difficult to leave. From the outside, Becca is an intelligent, beautiful and successful woman and I think that books like these carry the important message that domestic violence can happen to anyone. This is a well-researched book, and Montgomery brings the Arizona landscape to life through the lens of Becca’s rediscovered passion for art.

However, there were some points in the book where Montgomery’s enthusiasm for description slowed the plot down a bit. The parts of the book that follow the journey of an unlikely pair, a stallion and a sheep, were interesting but I felt that thematically they could have been connected better to the main story as either a well-timed plot device or a clearer metaphor for Becca’s own journey.

A good approach to the difficult topic of domestic violence.

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