One of the aspects of fantasy fiction – for adults, young adults or children – which most appeals to me is the worlds they are set in. Narnia, Discworld, Middle Earth or Hogwarts: what they all have is a fully realised world with greater (or lesser) links to our own and, my personal favourite part, they have detailed mythologies and back-stories to back them up. People never believe me but I really love the Silmarillion because it contains so many legends and stories which fill in the gaps in the Lord of the Rings trilogy for me. They act on Middle Earth in the way that fairy stories and folk tales do for the real world – ways we explain the inexplicable to ourselves. This is a need which continues all through our lives so it has always seemed a shame to me that so many adults turn their backs on speculative fiction (or even fiction altogether). Of course a large number don’t – fantasy, sci-fi and horror are always good sellers and have some of our bestselling authors. Tv and film adaptations help but I like to think that escaping to other worlds is the main attraction.
The Beginning Woods by Malcolm McNeill is a book which certainly ticks the world-building box. We start with the fact that there has been a spate of disappearances, people vanishing and leaving just a pile of empty clothing. This intrigued me – I started to think of Boojums and Squonks* – and then I was led further into the story by hints of science and witchcraft and an abandoned changling-like child. The plot became more and more complex but also quite philosophical – at the heart of the story is the orphan child Max who needs to find who he is and why he is there. This book is listed as a children’s title but I would say there is enough depth there to interest any adult with a liking for fairy tales and myth. And, in terms of children, it would best suit an older, more thoughtful child who doesn’t need the story to be full of fights and excitement.
*And I was right about the squonks too…
Home is a funny thing. My first home was a bungalow in Laindon, Essex which had been part of the plotlands developments of the mid-C20th. There was no central heating, no bathroom, only an outside loo (with some huge spiders) and I swear you could see big gaps in the skirting boards that showed the outside world. But I was happy there, I had my family, I had enough to eat: it was home. I’ve only ever really moved home three times (once with my family, once to my first property up in Durham and, finally, once to the house I now live in with my husband) and I’ve been lucky enough to feel that each of these places has been a true home. Some of this is to do with having familiar things around me (I’ve still got a few books, pictures, soft toys and crockery which I had as a child in Laindon) and a huge amount is to do with the fact that I have lived in all these places with people I love. So, home is a place but it is also the people you share that place with.
Nada Awar Jarrar’s latest novel, an Unsafe Haven, seems to me to be about what home means to those who are living in some of the most unstable areas in the world – war-torn Syria and a Lebanon which still bears the scars of its own conflicts. It is the story of a group of friends – Lebanese Hannah and her American husband Peter, their Syrian artist friend Anas and Maysoun an Iraqi woman working for the Red Cross in the refugee camps – and how they deal with the realities of living in a region fractured by a patchwork of ongoing conflicts. Events which in our own relatively safe lives would be difficult or stressful take on even greater significance in these circumstances. An illegitimate child, career dissatisfaction, problems with the in-laws could all, under these conditions become matters of life or death.
The story is, in some ways, slight. Anas’ wife is not responding to phone calls back home in Damascus and he discovers she has taken their children away to her parents in Germany. A young woman and her son are saved from a traffic accident and need help to be reunited with their family. Peter is unhappy in his administrative role since, as a foreigner in the country, he is not allowed to work as a doctor. But the book goes deeper than the plot itself – I found myself thinking about aspects of the ever-changing system of hoops which refugees have to jump through, even in welcoming states like Lebanon, and that I really must read much, much more about the background to the many overlapping wars, conflicts and regimes in the Middle East. I felt that I became more aware of some of the cultural differences between the West and the Arab world and the problems faced by those who try to straddle both. And, in the end, I returned to my thoughts of home. Those who escape from countries like Iraq return because they want their children to know about their heritage. But they return to chaos, with formerly well-off families reduced to selling their jewellery, books and treasures – in fact their heritage – to survive. People use their homes – even if they are tents in a refugee camp – as a way of trying to create the illusion that the world is still normal and safe. And in the end which do you choose? Safety or home?
The world of law and literature feel like they should be worlds apart and yet there are a number of novelists who were originally lawyers. Some, like John Grisham or John Mortimer, write about the world of crime, justice and the legal system but others moved into genres as diverse as poetry, surrealist literature and satire. Oddly, I can find some Sci-Fi/Fantasy heavyweights who started out in the law (Terry Brooks, Guy Gavriel Kay and Adrian Tchaikovsky) which will hopefully bodes well for our occasional contributor Charlotte and, when I worked in a campus bookstore, we often had Alexander McCall Smith shelved in fiction, cosy crime and with medical law textbooks.
Hina Belitz is someone else who has taken the step from writing guides on employment law for the general public to writing fiction. And she has chosen not to write genre fiction, not crime or fantasy, but contemporary fiction. The story revolves around Mani and her brother Nu and how they cope with the problems life has thrown at them. These range from learning how to cope with a sudden move from Lahore to cold and foggy London to dealing with domestic abuse. They deal with suspicion and abuse because of Nu’s paler than usual skin colour, which leads to their flight from Lahore and, eventually, an attack which leaves their mother dead and Nu seriously injured. There are lighter moments with Mani and her best friend Jasmine, dreaming as all girls (whatever their heritage) are prone to of what life they will live when they are grown: this is balanced by the abusive treatment Mani receives when she is swept into marriage by a man who seems to offer everything she dreamt of – security, passion and a future.
Mani is a fascinating character who we see grow from an innocent child to a confident young woman (despite the efforts of her husband). What astounded me was that I kept having to remind myself that she is still only 17 or so at the end of the book – a child who should not have had to live through her ordeals but who has survived them with an impressive maturity. It would be easy to see the abusive relationships shown as just part of the culture Mani and Nu are born into – it is certainly part of it but we would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t admit that abuse, of both women and children, is present in all corners of society.
From time to time a book appears on my radar not because I get to put it in the hands of lots of customers but for the complete opposite reason. One or two of the popular vloggers seem to have self-published volumes which are just not available to us and, occasionally, there are ‘rights’ issues which mean that a book is just not legally available in the UK. (This doesn’t mean the book is banned or anything. Publishers buy the right to produce books in various regions – Australia, Europe, China or USA perhaps – and if you are not in that region you can’t buy that edition. Which is okay if there is an edition in the region you live in but annoying if there isn’t). Recently we have been getting a lot of enquiries about the anonymously written Diary of an Oxygen Thief and, until recently, we have been largely coming up against these ‘rights’ issues. When I heard that a UK edition was due I decided that I should see what all the fuss was about.
Let’s just be really honest from the beginning. I didn’t like this book. The best thing I can say about it is that it was reasonably well-written in terms of pace and style and, despite finding no redeeming features at all in the narrator, I did finish the book. But mostly because he kept hinting that he got his comeuppance (and I did want to see that happen…). Mostly I found the book worrying. It is the diary of a young man in his thirties detailing his relationships with women: and when I say ‘relationships’ I mean his habit of acting like a decent person until a woman falls in love with him (and, somehow, they always do) and then humiliating them in an attempt to break their heart. Now I know that men like this must exist but, in the real world, I suggest they exist mostly in their own imaginations. The humiliations are often very graphic in terms of sexual slurs and insults and always deeply unpleasant to read. There is a plot – a reason for the writing and planned publication of the diary – but, to be honest, it just felt like an excuse for the misogyny to me.
I worry about this book because almost all of the enquiries I’ve had about it have been from teens (or the parents of teens) who have probably seen the infamous opening passage on Twitter or Tumblr. ‘That quote‘ makes it sound like a teen book but I would certainly want to let parents of younger teens know that it is much more adult in content. I mean, the main character is in his 30s – why would teens want to hear about someone so ancient? Although, to be fair, his actions and repertoire of sexist insults have the maturity of the average 12-year-old so maybe that would help…There have been comparisons made to Catcher in the Rye (the narrator is as annoying as Holden Caulfield but without any of the literary class) but I’d say that American Psycho is nearer the mark – and I’d not give that to a younger teen either. I don’t think we should be overly keen to censor what young people read but I would certainly want to advise parents to read this themselves and be prepared to have some difficult conversations with both teenaged boys and girls about why the behaviours in this book would not be acceptable in real life.
Looking back at a fair chunk of my recent reading (Lily and the Octopus, On the Other Side, Language of Dying, The Empathy Problem) and I’m sensing a bit of a theme. To be frank I seem to be getting through a lot of stories about aging and death. Some of this may be because as I, and my family, get older the ideas of being old and dying start to become less a matter of theory and more of an inevitability. Obviously I’d prefer it if I (and all those who mean a lot to me) could avoid death for a good long while but there is no way to stop time flying like an arrow (or, in the end, its effects on the body and mind). I don’t have a problem with getting older – although I do wish my hair would hurry up past the steely grey stage and get to that lovely Judi Dench silvery white – and I’m certainly too lazy/scared to bother with surgical interventions or magic potions. I’d say I want to grow old gracefully but it would be the first graceful thing I’ve done in my life…
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen is a Dutch bestseller, written from the point of view of an elderly man living in an Amsterdam old folks home. Hendrik Groen is a pseudonym and there has been a huge amount of speculation over who he actually is – a famous writer, a comedian or maybe, just maybe, an actual octogenarian. As Hendrik says himself “Nothing is a lie, but not everything is true”. I’m not sure his identity matters because what he has written seems to be so real: in a way that most stories about the older generations usually aren’t. In the world of fiction the elderly always seem to be either having unlikely adventures ( like Allan Karlsson or Harold Fry) or they are passive characters there to act as a foil to younger, more active protagonists. Possibly by imparting wisdom and then dying (like Yoda….) but this book seems to more of a warts and all view of everyday life in a residential home. Or maybe a warts, and incontinence, and nose hair, and Alzheimer’s and all view.
Over the course of a year we meet Hendrik, his friends (the wonderfully named Old-But-Not-Dead club which includes the incorrigible Evert and sensible Eefje) and less pleasant contemporaries in the care home. Bullying, it seems, is ageless. We are also introduced to staff – the sympathetic and the more mercenary – and to the everyday joys, frustrations, challenges and sorrows of an often forgotten group. We see that friendships, respect and love are still important and, of course, this should come as no surprise. The elderly still have the same interests they always did (and just think, our care homes today are now filling up with Mods, Rockers, Punks and Flower Children), there is the same range of interests and beliefs as in the population at large. Of course some older people (and many younger ones too) want to look only to the past – Hendrik and his friends are a group who retain the ability to look around themselves and to look forward. He muses on Dutch politics, world events, pap television and health with wit and without taking any prisoners. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments, quite a few home truths about attitudes to the older generations and, inevitably, sorrow. I’m pleased to hear that a second volume has been published in the Netherlands – I’m thinking of adopting Hendrik Groen as my new Dad and I want to hear as many stories as he wants to tell.
Book tours have probably been going since shortly after Caxton first polished up his fancy new printing press – you can just picture Byron signing copies of Don Juan in every town he visited – and they are still a feature of the book world today. They vary from a local author sitting in the shop on a wet Tuesday smiling hopefully at everyone who passes them to superstars not leaving until they have signed copies for the fans who have queued around the block. And, to be fair, both are good – they sell books, they allow authors to meet readers and they can get people into bookshops who have never visited before – but they are, I find, so last century in some ways. apparently what all the cool authors do now is a blog tour. Which is, basically, the same as an actual book tour but without having to worry about delayed trains or even changing out of your pjs. Since I am one of the aforementioned cool kids*, and I, obviously, have a blog, I was really happy to throw my virtual hand in the air and shout ‘oo, me, me, pick me Miss’ when the publicist for Gavin Extence’s new novel was calling out for blog tour participants over on the Twittersphere. I have read and enjoyed Extence’s two previous books – The Universe Versus Alex Woods and The Mirror World of Melody Black – so I think I can count myself as a fan.
The Empathy Problem, like the earlier books, centres on a character who looks at the world rather differently from most people. Alex Woods is a nerdy teen who develops epilepsy after being struck by a meteor and Abby (confusingly perhaps, Melody herself is a minor character in the novel named for her) is a young woman whose worsening mental health problems are triggered by discovering a dead neighbour. In this book our focus is on Gabriel Vaughn – hedge fund manager with an angel’s name and a very unangelic attitude to the rest of humanity – and his brain tumour. Gabriel is, in some ways, almost a caricature of the worst kind of person working in London’s financial world – he treats women badly, looks down on lowly admin and service staff (or rather never considers them at all) and generally believes that money can get him anything. In short his problem with empathy – from our point of view – is that he has none. But the tumour starts to change him and, in particular, his emotional responses.
I have sat in hospital neuro wards listening to people who, in previous times, were mild-mannered to a fault but now are rude, foul-mouthed and prone to wandering hands. The tumour has changed their personality and this is exactly what happens to Gabriel – but in reverse. There is no question that he will die, the tumour is inoperable and we are told this right at the beginning, but the book explores how Gabriel discovers that there is a better way to live your final days. This book is never sentimental and Extence doesn’t make the mistake of having Gabriel suddenly becoming perfect but by the end he is someone you’d have as a friend. Along the way we learn the value of honesty, love, music and loyalty. As well as the joy of perfectly aimed revenge…
I live in Bradford and was born in Basildon, Essex. What both these places have in common is that they have spent a lot of time being thought of as inferior to some other nearby (or not so nearby depending on your access to transport) town or city. In Basildon for many years any unobtainable item always resulted in the need for a shopping trip to London (which was called ‘going up to town’ as opposed to ‘going down to town’ if you were just shopping in Basildon itself – there’s an Essexism for you). In Bradford the opinion has often been that the only place worth going – for shopping, a night out, a decent football team, gigs – is Leeds. These things are not necessarily true but a reflection of how smaller towns and cities can almost wallow in their perceived inadequacies…*
Broken Wheel is another such town. It is described at one point as ‘a complete waste of brick, asphalt, and concrete’ and its inhabitants have become used to using the neighbouring town of Hope for anything beyond the basics. They are fine people – warm and welcoming when a newcomer arrives in their midst – but they are certainly not fully satisfied with their lives. The newcomer is Sara, who has come for an extended visit from Sweden, but who finds that the woman she was coming to visit, Amy, was a) rather older and more ill than she let on in her letters and b) dead. The townsfolk (who are welcoming, remember) invite her to stay in Amy’s house for the two months she was planning to stay. And, since the thing that bought the two women together in the first place was a love of books, it is not long before Sara decides to pay the townsfolk of Broken Wheel back for their kindness by opening a second-hand bookshop with Amy’s extensive collection. The town is unsure at first but, gradually, Sara (or rather the books themselves) work their magic as the right reader is matched with the right story.
I’m sure some of you may be thinking this sounds a bit twee and cheesy. You are not alone – some of the Broken Wheel residents have the same fears but it is more than that. This book is about a town which is broken and on the point of dying and about people who have, largely, given up hope. Although the books are very important ( especially, to Sara) it is the people who keep you reading. Each character has a back story which is developed and then, eventually resolved: on the surface by books but maybe mostly by someone taking the time to understand them enough to place the right book in their hands. And of course Sara’s unique approach to shop signage and recommendations made my bookseller’s heart beat a little faster.
I really loved this book. It is heart-warming without being sentimental and full of good old-fashioned decent people. There are love stories, tales of sadness and despair and parts that made me laugh out loud. I’ve seen a few reviews complaining that, when Sara talks about the books she loves, she often gives away spoilers. It didn’t bother me to be honest – what book-lover worth their salt doesn’t already know how Jane Eyre ends, for example?
*By the way, I can recommend a visit to Bradford if you want to see a city which is restoring its love for itself. As a wise man (okay, Rob) once said ‘Bradford will come back once it stops trying to be Leeds – Leeds is a fine place but Bradford has got heart> Just like Broken Wheel.