I mentioned on my last post the rather ketchup-y nature of publishing – I’m sure I shook the bottle hard but books are still coming out in big blobs: all while I was planning for Harry Potter Book Night at work. The only way to ketch-up with myself (with no apologies for the awful pun) in to do a bit of a round-up of my recent reading. I usually do multi-book posts in themed way but I can’t think of a theme that will cover a YA novel about a middle sister trying to work out who she really is, a mystery set in mid-60s London and a book by an award-winning Turkish author about a woman’s relationship to God. Could we just go with eclectic?
All About Mia – Lisa Williamson
Williamson’s first book, The Art of Being Normal, was (quite rightly imho) chosen as the winner in its category in the 2016 Waterstones Children’s book award*. This book, on first glance, doesn’t cover as contentious a subject as gender identity but it does still look at how a young person works out who they really are. Mia is the middle daughter: her older sister Grace is the golden child, clever and respected, and the younger sister, Audrey, looks to be a swimming star in the making. Mia feels she has nothing to offer so throws herself into what seems like a tabloid paper’s idea of a teens life – drinking, boyfriends, make-up and general hell-raising. But things aren’t always as they seem and, as the story progresses, Mia learns that Grace isn’t perfect and Audrey, while confident in the pool, is as shy and unhappy as a 13 year-old can be. Even Mia isn’t the girl she seems to be – the brash, lippy girl who is the centre of attention at every party can still be unsure of herself. The girls are such wonderfully real characters – fighting like cat and dog and yet unhesitatingly supportive of each other when things get really tough – and I loved their parents too. They are affectionate (maybe overly so in Mia’s eyes – no teen wants to admit her parents have a sex life, ewwwww), supportive and yet know when to put their foot down. Such a nice change to have parents you can admit to liking.
I enjoyed this as a YA read which isn’t a dystopia, about some traumatic disease or part of a series about a teen in an adult role (like modelling or spying). These books have their place but this is about very real young people finding out how to live in the real world.
Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars – Miranda Emmerson
In a sort of contrast Emmerson’s Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars is set in the London in the mid 1960s – the era of the Moors Murderers, a racist backlash against recent rises in immigration and the first stirrings of a sexual revolution. While this is also a very realistically described world it isn’t the one we live in today – although it does seem to be one which we are doing our best to return to.
Anna Treadway is a dresser at a London theatre and is currently working with Iolanthe (Lanny) Green, an american star. When Lanny goes missing Anna, deciding that the police are not concentrating hard enough on the case, goes in search. This involves night-clubs run by London’s afro-Caribbean community, back-street abortionists and bleak coastal towns. She is helped and hindered along the way by Turkish Cypriot cafe owners, an Irish policeman and an accountant from Jamaica: but no-one is who they seem to be or, if they are, no-one believes them. Every character seems to have a secret, more than one name or difficult decisions to make about their future. We think of London of the era as being all about the Swinging 60s but the reality is much darker, more brutal and somehow colder. Maybe the ‘Swinging’ was an antidote to a real world full of serial murderers, prostitution, and unchecked racial prejudice and police brutality.
Despite this bleakness I really enjoyed this book. The characters were well-drawn and we saw far more deeply into their hidden lives than they were able to share with others. Mysteries are largely solved by the end – but enough doubts and ‘what-ifs’ were left to keep the reader thinking.
Three Daughters of Eve – Elif Shafak
Shafak is an author who has been beeping gently on my personal radar for a while now. Her bestselling 2010 novel, The Forty Rules of Love, is a regular strong seller (and seems to be a local book-group favourite) and our bookstall for her talk during the 2016 Bradford Literature festival sold out of everything we took. This very rarely happens…. It is only my old problem (#somanybookssolittletime) which had stopped me from reading anything by her until now so I was pleased to get the chance to read her latest, Three Daughters of Eve.
This is a novel set in modern Turkey – a country on a knife-edge, teetering between secularism and increasingly strict Islamic faith – with episodes at Oxford University shortly after 9/11 and in the Istanbul of the main character, Peri’s, childhood. The three daughters of Eve (a phrase that immediately made me think of Narnia…) could refer to the three generation of women in Peri’s family: she has always had a difficult relationship with her mother and hopes for a better one with her daughter. Which is not happening so far. Or it could be a reference to the group of young women of Muslim heritage she falls in with when studying at Oxford: Shirin, an outspoken Iranian feminist (the sinner); Mona, an Egyptian-American hijabi (the saint); and Peri, whose relationship with god is largely one of argument and indecision (the confused). The story explores Peri’s family life – with an increasingly devout and traditional mother, a father whose basic acceptance of God’s existence doesn’t keep him from a very secular lifestyle and two brothers (one who follows his mother, the other his father and who both go way beyond their parents in the extremity of their beliefs) – as well as her days at Oxford. The University sections are largely taken up by her feelings for a charismatic professor, known as Azur, who teaches a course on God.
This is largely the story of Peri’s exploration of her relationship with God. There’s also quite a lot of plot – scandals, terrorism, debates on Islam and feminism, family tragedies and personal danger – but it is Peri’s development which is at the centre. This is not, as Professor Azur says of his controversial seminars, about religion but about a personal experience. It is about learning how to be undecided and to move away from the certainty which can lead to extreme viewpoints.
So. It turns out there was a common theme to these books. In each one the characters are trying to work out what their identity is; how they fit into their world. Important lessons which some learn young, like Mia, and others, like Anna and Peri, are still discovering as adults.