The Parisian by Isabella Hammad
This is a sprawling epic of a novel. We first meet Midhat Kamal as a 19-year-old travelling to France from his native Palestine in 1914. We follow him through his medical studies and first love in Montpellier, political salons and ennui in Paris, cafes and self-doubt in Cairo, riots and family expectations in Jerusalem. The Parisian is an ambitious and accomplished novel which casts light on an often-overlooked section of history, specifically the period of unrest in the Middle East which followed the First World War. So much of what is discussed in this novel is so relevant to the world and political landscape we inhabit today.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
This debut novel from Sara Collins successfully blends post-colonialism and feminism with gothic fiction. In Georgian London, Frannie Langton is on trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of her employers. She was arrested while sleeping next to one of her alleged victims, soaked in their blood and with no recollection of what happened. Frannie’s lawyer gives her some paper to help him collect evidence, and so she begins her tale, which takes us from her life as a slave in the plantations of Jamaica to that of a maid in the mansions of London. As she pieces together the disparate elements of her life, we get the feeling that Frannie is doing the job of the jury, she too is trying to discover the truth. Her writing serves to answer just one question - did she do it?
Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson
This is a beautiful book - part memoir, part collection of essays. Gleeson looks back on her life and the incidents, many health related, that have made her the women she is today:
“Without those experiences, I would not be a person who picks up those shards and attempts to reshape them on the page. If I had been spared the complicated bones, I would be someone else entirely. Another self, a different map.”
Gleeson’s experiences as an Irish woman growing up in a conservative and predominantly Catholic country do not lessen the universality of her writing. Literature, art, music, history and politics are all weaved into Constellations which results in a very rich reading experience. Gleeson is an insightful, elegant, fearless writer, and this book is a complete gift.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
If you are a fan of Sally Rooney, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Justin Simien, you will love this book. Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London. The novel chronicles her struggles as young woman, and there are many struggles. She works at a newspaper for a boss that doesn’t register her existence, and where she is made to feel out of place by her white middle-class colleagues. She goes on a break from her long-term boyfriend, Tom, and her family never really listen to her. As you see Queenie make bad decision after bad decision, you really root for her, and wish that she will finally catch a break. A timely and hilarious debut novel.
You Will be Safe Here by Damian Barr
This deftly crafted novel spans a hundred years of South African history. It initially looks at the diaries of Sarah van der Watt, the wife of a Boer farmer, during the second Boer war. She is imprisoned with her son Frederick in a concentration camp built by the British army, Bloemfontein. The camp is squalid; tents offer little protection, there is hardly any food, and disease is everywhere. The conditions presented are not just the work of Barr’s imagination, over 26,000 women and children died in these camps between 1900 and 1902. The second half of the novel is set in in 2010. A 16-year-old white South African, Willem Brandt, has been sent to a training camp to be toughened into a ‘man’. This is partially based on the real-life murder of teenager Raymond Buys in 2011. This novel will make you angry, and it will make you ruminate on the lengths that human beings will go in order to instigate cruelty, and to survive it.
Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts
2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the release of everyone’s favourite childhood film, The Wizard of Oz. The New York Times bestselling author, Elizabeth Letts, focuses on an overlooked figure - Maud Gage Baum. She was the real-life wife of the author of The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum. The daughter of a famous American suffragette, Maud was a student at Cornell University when very few women went to university. She had a loving but unconventional relationship with her husband. She is the definition of good material for a novel. The novel moves between the years of Maud’s early life and subsequent marriage, and the film production of The Wizard of Oz in 1939, when Maud served as an advisor to the production tea. The sections that feature a very young Judy Garland are especially poignant, behind the technicolour brilliance of her Hollywood life, there is already an immense darkness gathering.
The Train Was on Time by Heinrich Böll
This perfectly moulded novella has been reissued as part of the Penguin European Writers series. Henrich Böll was one of the leading German post-war writers, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. The Train Was on Time was his debut, its protagonist Andreas is a twenty-four-year-old German soldier who is travelling to the Eastern Front. He experiences a premonition that he will die in just 5 days. As the train rushes him to his faith, he reflects on the war-torn countryside, disillusioned soldiers and traumatised civilians. He is trying to understand many things: the war, himself, humanity. It is a painful journey and the reader cannot but help feel pity for him. That is the power of a book, it can encourage pity and empathy where there had been none previously.
The Strawberry Thief by Joanna Harris
The Strawberry Thief is the fourth in a series of novels that began with the global bestseller Chocolat, and which continues the story of Vianne Rocher and her daughters, Anouk and Rosette, in the French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. A villager dies and leaves Rosette some land in his will. This causes trouble for all involved and soon Vianne is all at sea. With new arrivals in the village, it becomes clear that change is coming, but will it be for the best?
Harris is a masterful storyteller. She uses smells, tastes, and sounds to seduce the reader with beauty and pleasure: “It promises danger, and sunlight, and joy. It dances through the motes of light in shades of chilli and peppercorn. It catches at the back of the throat like unexpected laughter.”
Paul Takes the Form of A Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
This book is part fairy tale, part history lesson, part Andy Warhol movie. It’s 1993 and Paul Polydoris is a barman and queer theory student. He is promiscuous and fickle. He has also got a big secret: he’s a shapeshifter. Paul can be Paul or Polly; he can morph into any gender at will. Paul likes to consume people and be consumed too. The descriptions of sex are pretty wild and there is a LOT of sex in this book. There are some very witty and humorous sections but there are some poignant ones too. The AIDS crisis is detailed with so much love and loss imbued on the pages that it is impossible to read them without crying. Despite Paul being an antihero, it is hard not to warm to him. There is so much life in Paul, so much life and vitality and zest, and despite the cynical persona he sometimes hides behind - so much hope.
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
Set in an alternative 1980s London, Britain has lost the Falklands war, Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher grapple for power, and Alan Turing is carrying out experiments in artificial intelligence. Many novels focus on love triangles but in Machines Like Me, it is a highly unusual one between two humans Charlie and Miranda, and one of the first synthetic humans to be engineered, Adam. He is perfect – intelligent, attractive and strong. As the lines of their relationship blur, the definition of being human comes up for scrutiny. An interesting take on what might have been and with our current preoccupation with artificial intelligence, what might still be.
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