Books I Have Read Recently

As said previously, I rarely review books but every now and then I like to do a little catch-up. This will include any books I missed in the last iteration. I tend to lapse for periods, particularly when I’m editing my own stuff, though that has now finished. So –

Wake, by Anna Hope – a beautiful work on the trials faced by four women in the years after WWI, set around the entombing of the Unknown Soldier. Beautiful prose, spot-on dialogue and plotting that is tighter than a duck’s you-know-what.  Research is worn lightly and makes the narrative more vivid. I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in WWI fiction.

The Outsider, by Arlene Hunt – disclosure: I know Arlene via the Novel Fair where she gave me great encouragement with my own work. But happily I can say that this is a compelling, claustrophobic work about twins growing up in a rural village in Ireland where the girl – Emma – turns out to be a talented horse-trainer but has an odd personality which leaves her open to bullying. Her brother, Anthony, strives to defend her – but when he fails and Emma suffers badly for it, he realises he must take on powerful, darker forces in the horse industry. I did not agree with one particular decision made by Emma and her family in the book, but other than that, a powerful illustration of the emotional savagery that lies below the surface of polite Irish society. When I got off the DART, I had to sit on a station bench to finish reading it!

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu. Ostensibly “chick lit” but really like nothing I’ve previously read in the genre. Set in Zimbabwe, this concerns single mother and hairdresser Vimbai, whose thunder is about to be stolen by her new colleague Dumisani, who is a wizard with the scissors, styling black and white customers alike with aplomb. However there is something about Dumi that Vimbai doesn’t know – and once she finds out, it changes everything. Set in a country where the economy is plummeting and people just about get by, this novel zips along with deceptively easy prose and you find that even if you don’t know what a Shona accent sounds like, you immediately recognise the cultural argy-bargy involved. Ending very slightly rushed but I really loved this novel and would recommend it. Its lightness is deceptive.

And here are the more recent batch. Lots of female protagonist in a war stories, but there’s an obvious reason why I go for that.

A Soldier’s Wife by Marion Reynolds, a fellow Novel Fairist of 2013 whose book is out with Indigo Press. It’s the true story of her great grandmother Ellen who grew up on Lord Lucan’s estate (no, not that one!) and ended up travelling out to India with her husband James, only to encounter a tragic loss on the way. Reynolds’s attention to detail is precise and the details are fascinating.

Fallen by Lia Mills. Starts at its own pace, but once I got into it I found it utterly absorbing. Set in the period 1914-1916, it follows the life of Kate Crilly, a young girl whose brother Liam has just gone to war. His death in battle (not a spoiler, it’s on the blurb!) haunts her so badly that she wears his long coat all over Dublin, while her termagant of a mother harasses Liam’s fiancee, Isabel, to give back her engagement ring. This loss, which is beautifully described, binds Kate to Liam’s comrade in arms, Hubie Wilson, with whom she has a fateful meeting. Meanwhile the tensions of the Rising are at boiling point and Dublin is turned to a battleground as Kate doubles back and across the River Liffey checking on  her family, her friends and her desperately ill sister. One thing Mills does very well is encapsulate the nature of grief and how one lives with it, rather than dwelling on the loss per se. The part where Kate observes she has all this love for her brother and nowhere to put it, is heartbreaking.  (I didn’t quite get a purchase on Liam’s other friend, Con the dodgy doctor, though this might have been intentional.) Beautiful, limpid prose and imagery, really enjoyed.

Anyush by Martine Madden. Full disclosure – we have the same publisher. Fuller disclosure – I hoovered it up anyway. This book is heart-rending, gripping, powerful stuff, about a period of history I knew next to nothing about, the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Anyush Charcoudian, a young Armenian girl living in a rural village near Trebizond on the Black Sea, meets and falls for a Turk, an army officer of the Ottoman Empire. This all happens in the backdrop of brutal persecution of Armenians that only intensifies in the months to come. Missionary doctor Charles Stewart, running a hospital at Trebizond, is also caught in the middle of the horror, though he retains a sense of denial about what is happening. The really chilling part is that nothing is said openly; the policy to eliminate the Armenians is never spelled out – it is an implicit, intentional result of government policy, made in conjunction with brigands and freed criminals. The description of the village and the sea around it is beautiful, the prose really paints a picture – and Madden’s knowledge of the culture and politics is, if you’ll forgive the pun, byzantine. Powerful and moving.

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. Another war story, but with a quirk of being about a jazz band with two African-American musicians struggling to keep going in Berlin and later Paris during the Nazi era. Sid, the narrator, cannot forget one of them, Hiero, a black German and a trumpet prodigy, who was deported by the Nazis during World War II after escaping to Paris with some of the group. Their meeting with Deborah sets the scene for a chain of events that causes a terrible decision to be made, the kind that had me nearly gasping aloud and saying “No!” For extra atmosphere, I read this in Hamburg, the city where, Hiero shows Sid, the Nazi regime built a zoo and kept Africans captive there in cages, for the town’s burghers to view at their leisure. Another novel that really stayed with me.

So – that’s it for now.

Edit. oh wait, it’s not! I also read Nuala ni Chonchuir’s The Closet of Savage Mementos and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, two great novels with female protagonists. Highly recommended, and I’ll review them in the next blog entry!

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