How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang: ‘What Makes a Home a Home?’

Cover imageC Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold is one of those books about which there’s been a great deal of buzz in my Twitter timeline – not always a good thing, I know. It was the many and varied literary names singing its praises that first snagged my attention – everyone from Emma Donoghue to Garth Greenwell seemed to love it – but what really sold it to me was its unusual premise. Zhang’s debut is set in a reimagined American West in the grips of the Gold Rush, seen through the eyes of two orphans travelling through a land almost mythical in its beauty and promise.

Lucy and Sam are the children of Chinese parents. Born in America, their orphaned father was raised on stories of the West told by those who had lived there long before the arrival of gold-hungry settlers. He was a dreamer, a storyteller and a lover of the glorious landscape ravaged both by coal mining and gold prospecting. Their fiercely ambitious mother was a beauty who arrived from China unable to speak English, mistaking their father for the man in charge rather than the poor boy dragooned into teaching English to the two hundred Chinese hoping to make their fortunes. These two fell in love and begin an itinerant life, their father prospecting and too often gambling away what he found, their mother making a home at each stop. Lucy and Sam take very different paths – Sam accompanying their father to work, dressing as a boy and listening to his stories, Lucy going to school where she shines. First they lose their mother, then their father. Carrying their father with them, they journey through a landscape where buffalo bones lie and tigers are almost but not quite glimpsed until Sam finally accepts a burial ground for him.

Sun sucks them dry. Middle of the dry season, rain by now a distant memory. Their valley is bare dirt, halved by a wriggle of creek

This is such a confident debut, exploring themes of family, home – or the lack of – and otherness through the experience of a Chinese family, three of whom are American but rarely accepted as such. Zhang’s writing is starkly beautiful, describing both the majesty of a landscape steeped in dreams and its despoliation by those intent on wealth. Much of Sam and Lucy’s story is told from Lucy’s perspective, their father’s voice illuminating her understanding of his relationship with her mother and her mother’s part in their story. Both parents share a longing for home but not where or what form that home will take. Both have a dream of America, each very different from the other but neither acceptable to the white men who dismiss them as ‘savages’. Their children’s dreams are equally different but as their father always told them, family comes first and so it proves to be. Worthy of all that starry approbation, Zhang’s novel reworks the tired old Western genre into something thought-provoking, beautiful and original.

Virago Books: London 2020 9780349011462 336 pages Hardback

Ten More Small But Perfectly Formed Publishers Who Will Send Books to Your Home

Last week’s small publisher post attracted so many hits I thought I’d do another in the hope that Cover imagesome of that interest might have led to a few sales. This time I’ve included a few whose lists I like the look of but have not yet got around to exploring despite having my interest snagged by other bloggers’ reviews. Now’s my chance to put that right. At the time of writing, the ten publishers below are valiantly continuing to mail books to customers – some also sell ebooks. I’ve included links to them plus reviews, either on this blog or to recommendations from blogger pals.

Charco Press published one of my books of 2019. They’re run by translators, keen to bring Latin American literature to the English-speaking world. They sell both paper and ebooks.

My recommendation: The Wind That Lays Waste

Scribe  has one of those lists I’ve been meaning to explore properly for some time, ranging from contemporary fiction to interesting looking non-fiction. They’re currently running a promotion on parenting books with 50% off if you use the STAYATHOME discount code.

Rebecca at Bookish Beck‘s recommendations: The Animators, In Love with George Eliot and Heartland

Little Toller Books specialise in nature writing which might offer some solace now that we can’t get out much. I don’t read nearly enough non-fiction but books from Little Toller often catch my eye on Twitter.

Paul at Half Man Half Book‘s recomendations: Arboreal, Cornerstones

Gallic Books and Aardvark Bureau are one of my favourite publishers and would have Cover imageappeared on last week’s list but I was a little confused by the message on their website and thought they were no longer mailing out books. It turns out they are but through the publishing section of the site.

My recommendations: The President’s Hat, All Day at the Movies, Little

Vagabond Voices have what looks like a nicely varied list promising ‘literary novels, translated literature, poems and polemics penned at home and abroad’.

Annabel at Annabookbel‘s recommendation: 18

Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life‘s recommendation: Stillness of the Sea

Fitzcarraldo Editions have a wide-ranging literary fiction list, both in translation and English-language, plus interesting non-fiction. You may recognise their distinctive cobalt blue jackets from those halcyon days of bookshop browsing

My recommendation: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Galley Beggar Press publish literary fiction recognised by the judges of all manner of literary Cover imageawards including the Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Wellcome Book Prize, The Goldsmiths Prize and The Desmond Elliott Prize. Last year, Lucy Ellman’s doorstopper, Ducks, Newburyport, bagged them a place on the Booker Prize shortlist

Eric at Lonesome Reader‘s recommendations: Ducks, Newburyport, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, The Weightless World

Seren Books are a Welsh publisher whose list includes fiction, poetry and non-fiction. They’re currently offering a 20% discount if you join their book club.

My recommendation: Significance

Honno Press call themselves the Welsh Women’s Press which does what it says on the tin, to quote an ancient advertising strapline

Karen at Booker Talk‘s recommendations: White Camellia, Ghostbird

Handheld Press are based a couple of stones’ throw away from me. They publish what they Cover imagecall ‘forgotten fiction’ as well as some contemporary novels and non-fiction, and tell me they’re using their permitted one bout of exercise to bike orders to the local Post Office which will be including one from me, shortly.

Ali at Heavenali’s recommendations: Blitz Writing, The Caravaners

Jacqui at Jacqui Wine’s Journals recommendation:  Business as Usual

I hope you find something there that takes your fancy, and remember many independent bookshops are happy to mail out books to you. There was a short wobble in supply thanks to wholesalers being hit by coronavirus-related problems but that seems to have been steadied for now.

Six Degrees of Separation – From Stasiland to The A B C Murders

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month, in what feels like an entirely different world from the one we were living in last month, we’re starting with Stasiland, Anna Funder’s clear-eyed, empathetic testament to the dreadful consequences of totalitarianism in which people tell their stories of life in the GDR and the opening of the Stasi’s files.

Which leads me to Red Love, Maxim Leo’s memoir of his years growing up in East Berlin. A fascinating portrait of a privileged family, well-connected within the GDR establishment.

Kapka Kassakova’s riveting Border explores the border zone between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, rumoured to be an easier crossing point into the West than the Berlin Wall in the Cold War years.

Set in the same area Miroslav Penkov’s sprawling Stork Mountain is narrated by a young man who left Bulgaria, aged eight, a couple of years after the Wall fell, returning to Klisura whose roofs are home to many storks’ nests.

Plenty of birds, although no storks, in Eva Meijer’s delightful Bird Cottage, a fictionalised biography of Len Howard who threw up her life as a violinist in London and took herself off to Sussex to pursue her lifelong passion for birds.

Jill Dawson’s novels often take the form of fictionalised biography, including The Crime Writer about Patricia Highsmith’s sojourn in a Suffolk cottage, hoping her lover will join her.

John Malkovich played a suitably chilling Ripley in the film adaptation of Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game. He turned up, slightly disconcertingly, as Poirot in the BBC’s 2018 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The A B C Murders which features a murderer whose victims’ names follow an alphabetic sequence, an early outing for contemporary crime fiction’s staple character – the serial killer.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an investigation of the Stasi’s files after they were opened to the public to a crime fiction classic set in the South East of England. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

The Portrait by Ilaria Bernardini: Every picture tells a story

Cover imageThis is the second novel I’ve read recently in which two women become close to each other, one knowing very much more about the other. In Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow, a half-sister is entirely ignorant of her new friend’s relationship to her. Ilaria Bernardini’s The Portrait sees a celebrated writer whose lover of several decades has been struck down by a stroke, inveigle herself into his house by commissioning his wife to paint her portrait. Both irresistible premises for me.

The feelings both for the painter and the sitter are contradictory. It’s an intangible search for who knows what

Valeria hears of Martin’s stroke over the radio in her driver’s car. She’s in Paris, her latest collection of short stories completed, neither the title nor the jacket yet decided. Distraught, she hatches a plan to find her way into the house where Martin lies in a coma: instead of an author photograph she will commission his wife, Isla, to paint her portrait. After a good deal of persuasion and an intervention by her troubled teenage daughter, Antonia, Isla agrees. Valeria sets herself up in a flat close to Martin’s Holland Park house and the sittings begin: Valeria desperate to catch sight of her stricken lover; Isla seeking a distraction from her anxiety and grief – each very different from the other. Before long, Valeria is a part of the household, welcomed by the striking Argentinean housekeeper, becoming Antonia’s confidante and exchanging intimacies with the warm, welcoming woman seen as her rival throughout the long affair which has shaped both her life and the image she presents to the world. When she answers one of the many texts she’s been ignoring from her estranged mother summoning her to Rhodes, Valeria understands it’s time to go back to the place where her sister died when they were children. The story comes to a close in London with a Valeria rather different from the one with which it began.

She was going to try to let go of her struggle for a purpose, her vanity. She was going to try to not play a character

Bernardini explores loss, love and storytelling in this intimate novel told from Valeria’s perspective. A multitude of stories, memories of her meetings with Martin and of the sister, ever present in her mind despite the four decades since her death, are woven through the few weeks Valeria sits for Isla. She’s a pleasingly complex character, apparently strong and independent, rejoicing in her cosmopolitan life as an acclaimed short story writer, while in reality riddled with a constant questioning insecurity. It’s also a novel about writing – Valeria is a stealer of stories, not above rifling other people’s lives even at the risk of being exposed. There’s a quiet thread of humour running through Bernardini’s novel leavening the loss and hurt – Valeria’s over-empathising assistant is a triumph with her adulation and need for hugs – while the question of how much Isla really knows hovers tantalisingly over the last half. Altogether an enjoyable read – a wee bit too long for me, but that’s a minor quibble.

Allen & Unwin: London 2020 9781911630401 420 pages Hardback

You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken: What are friends for…

Cover imageI grew up in a village with my sights firmly fixed on escaping to the city which was what attracted me to You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here. That title says it all for those of us who couldn’t wait to get away. Beginning in the 1990s, Frances Macken’s debut is set in Ireland where ten-year-old Evelyn, Katie and Maeve are inseparable, following them into a young adulthood in which each turns out to be not quite what the others expected.

Evelyn is the undoubted boss of this disparate threesome, with Katie second in command and in thrall to her. Maeve trails behind them, mousy and the butt of Evelyn’s snide remarks echoed by Katie, only tolerated because she’s Evelyn’s adopted cousin. Gossip is rife in Glenbruff and opportunities thin on the ground. By the time they’re teenagers, Evelyn’s much-voiced plans to escape are the hope that Katie latches on to, determined that Maeve will be left far behind. Katie wants to be a filmmaker, while Evelyn plans to study fine art despite no evidence of any talent. When a new girl arrives at school, Katie briefly entertains the idea of friendship with her but Pamela’s involvement with Katie’s tentative crush puts the kybosh on that, helped along by Evelyn’s disparagement. Then Pamela disappears without trace, a mystery which will cast a long shadow of suspicion over Glenbruff. When Evelyn’s hopes of art school are dashed, Katie is pulled up short. Once in Dublin, Evelyn’s sneering still echoes in her head, scuppering any other potential friendships. Several years later she’s back in Glenbruff to find that not much has changed and everything has changed.

‘God almighty. Why in the world would I want to be anyone else,‘ Evelyn snorts

Macken’s novel may ring a few very loud bells for some. She captures that desperate small town longing for bright lights and opportunity painfully well, narrating her novel through Katie, torn between her sometimes exasperating idolisation of Evelyn and her need to escape. The friendship between the three is well drawn, excruciatingly so at times as Evelyn struts around the small stage of Glenbruff, bolstering herself with her small humiliations of Maeve and basking in Katie’s regard until her influence begins to wane. Macken has a sharp ear for dialogue, scattering her novel with smartly funny lines.

Look at Mammy, sure, existing with the spectre of the unlived Self.

Katie’s parents were a small joy for me, reminding me of my own in their encouragement of her ambitions. Altogether a well turned out, enjoyable first novel which had me cheering Katie on at its end.

Oneworld Publications: London 2020 9781786077653 288 pages Hardback

Ten Small But Perfectly Formed Publishers Who Will Post Books to Your Home

One of the very few silver linings to the coronavirus is a reported upsurge in book sales. We have booksellers, publishers, warehouse staff and posties to thank for getting hard copies to us, despite risks to themselves. You’re probably in the habit of browsing your local bookshop or maybe buying from online booksellers but small publishers are currently struggling to keep their heads above water and many of them sell books direct to the public. Below is a list of ten Cover imagewho, at the time of writing, will mail books to you – some also sell ebooks – together with links both to them and to reviews of a few reviews of their titles on this blog. They’re all publishers with interesting lists to explore. I hope it goes without saying that I’ve nothing to gain financially from this post. Just trying to do what little I can to help some excellent publishers in extraordinarily difficult times.

Eye/Lightning Books not only have a great list of both fiction and non-fiction but they’re offering 30% off plus free shipping to UK customers who use the discount code THANKS. They’re also offering bundles of books that will help see you through the long haul plus ebooks of their six bestselling titles at less than £1 a shot.

My recommendations: Good Riddance, An Isolated Incident

Myriad Editions are another favourite of mine and they, too, have an offer to tempt you – 25% off together with free shipping in the UK if you use the MYREADATHOME discount code.

My recommendations: Magnetism, North Facing, To the Volcano

Pushkin Press offer a wonderfully varied list to peruse: lots of interesting fiction, classics andCover image non-fiction together with children’s and YA books.

My recommendations: Liar, Bird Cottage, Browse

Peirene Press specialise in translated novellas, an excellent way to explore other cultures without leaving the house, and they donate 50p to charity for every book sold.

My recommendations: And the Wind Sees All, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, Her Father’s Daughter

Salt Publishing hail from Norfolk, a place dear to my holiday heart. They publish excellent contemporary fiction, well worth a look.

My recommendations: Good Day?, Flotsam, The Museum of Cathy

The Indigo Press published one of my books of last year. Their list is short but what I’ve read Cov er imagefrom it has impressed me.

My recommendations: Silence is My Mother Tongue, An Act of Defiance

Reflex Press also have a tiny list which includes one of my books of last year, the beautifully jacketed, Witches Sail in Eggshells

Époque Press publish a handful of titles, two of which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. They’re currently taking pre-orders for their new title to be published later in the year

My recommendations: El Hacho, The Wooden Hill

Influx Press have a longer list which I’ve yet to explore in depth but I’ve included them because they’reCover image the UK publishers of the brilliant Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier which has me in tears of laughter last week. Review to follow soon.

And Other Stories are last on my list but only because they’re currently selling only ebooks and subscriptions. They offer a varied list of mostly translated fiction with a few English language novels and some non-fiction.

My Recommendations: Theft, Love,

Janet over at From First Page to Last has a useful list of independent booksellers still posting books which also includes a few publishers. Happy to hear of any favourite small publishers you’d like to help keep afloat, and remember, no matter how grim things seem, there will always be books. Keep washing your hands…

She-Clown and Other Stories by Hannah Vincent: All about women

Cover imageIt was that eye-catching jacket that attracted me to Hannah Vincent’s She-Clown and Other Stories although I’d spotted Amanda at Bookish Chat was interested and she has a sharp eye for short stories. Vincent already has a couple of novellas under her belt but this is her first collection of stories which are all about women, many of them in tricky circumstances of one sort or another.

The sixteen pieces that make up She-Clown and Other Stories stretch over a mere 160 pages, some briefer than others beginning with Portrait of the Artist in which the parents of a bright young girl are called into her school to discuss her disturbing writing. Several explore the gender power imbalance – Carnival sees one woman accept the her boss’ initiation rite while her friend does not, having chosen to impersonate him at the office fundraiser. Others portray coercive relationships in a more tangential way: in Connie and Me a friendship between a Chinese student and an ageing ex-model living with a gambler ends poignantly. Two more of the sixteen stood out for me: Camel Toe in which two ageing sisters come alive at a netball match, one shedding her relentless caring role, and the eponymous She-Clown who performs to a sceptical audience then has her own cynicism overturned when a children’s birthday party gig doesn’t end quite as she expected. Perhaps the most satisfying, though is the final story, Woman of the Year, in which the preceding pieces’ main protagonists are all brought together at an awards ceremony.

Vincent explores her feminist theme with wit and humour, occasionally bringing her readers up short with a touch of the surreal. It takes quite a degree of discipline to tell a story in ten pages or fewer, as so many of the pieces in this collection are, but Vincent carries it off beautifully. Her sharp attention to detail, smartly demonstrated in Woman of the Year, and clean, spare writing coupled with the delivery of more than a few surprises, small twists and subversive details, make this a pleasing collection. Just two stories didn’t work for me, a pretty impressive hit rate for a collection of sixteen.

If you’re keen to get your hands on a copy of She-Clown and Other Stories, you can order one direct from Myriad Editions. They’re a small publisher who will be struggling in these difficult times. This is their 100th publication and I’m hoping they’ll be around to publish 100 more.

Myriad Editions: Oxford 2020 9781912408382 176 pages Paperback

Five Comfort Reads I’ve Read

I suspect we’re all in need of a comfort read now and again and never more so while the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic that currently has us in its grip. I can’t promise that all five of these novels are entirely free of strife or upset – for me it’s hard to find good fiction that contains none of that – but they’re all either entertaining, heartwarming, something to lose yourself in or all three. Here, then, are five consoling reads that might help get you through difficult times, each with links to my review on this blog.

Cover imageSet in the near future, Robin Sloan’s  Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore playfully meshes the old reading world with new technology in a quirky edge-of-your-seat story of bookish folk. Clay Jannon works the night shift at the eponymous bookstore, logging its few customers, most of them oddly attired and in an urgent, distracted state. Curiosity aroused, Clay sets about unravelling the puzzle of the Broken Spine, the society to which all the shop’s customers belong, in a story that encompasses a fifteenth-century sage, extreme Google geekiness, the search for immortality and a bit of consternation about cassettes (remember them?) all served up with a good deal of humour.

If you’re in need of being reminded that things do get better, I’d suggest  Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage which tells the story of Mattie, once met never forgotten. It begins in 1928, ten years after British women who met a property qualification were enfranchised. For many in the women’s suffrage movement the battle’s over but not for Mattie. Evan’s story romps along replete with period detail, wearing its historical veracity lightly while exploring themes of social justice with wit, humour and compassion. It never loses sight of the fact that while some women were given the vote in 1918, the vast majority were not, nor that when they were the battle was still far from won. I loved it, and if you do, too, may I suggest reading Crooked Heart to which Old Baggage is the prequel.Cover image

Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop is narrated by a young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. As Hitomi and Takeo stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister cheers them on from the side lines. Kawakami’s four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging but the star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Very little happens in this delightful novel but it’s an absolute joy and the ending is all you could hope for.

Elinor Lipman writes the kind of sharply observed, absorbing and entertaining fiction that‘s just the ticket when you’re after an intelligent bit of escapism. With its story of a young woman, her widowed father and the high school yearbook left to her by her mother, Good Riddance is the literary equivalent of a smartly turned out rom-com. It follows Daphne, a close-to-thirty woman, flailing around for something to do with her life after her unfortunate marriage, who has the carpet pulled out from under her feet a second time. Lipman narrates her story in Daphne’s sometimes waspish voice, serving it up lightly laced with a few farcical moments and a good deal of sly wit. It’s a pleasingly perceptive comedy of manners whose slightly old-fashioned style would suit Frasier fans well.

Cover imageI could have picked The Dutch House, the more recent of Ann Patchett’s novels which would fit the comfort reading bill well but instead I’ve plumped for the lesser known Commonwealth. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel criss-crosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

I’m sure you have a few novels you turn to when in need of comfort and distraction. I’d love to know what they are.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2020: Part Two

Cover imageUnlike the first part of April’s paperback preview, I’ve read none of the following six titles. I’ll begin with the one that tempts me most – Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter set in Oslo where the eponymous waiter works at the city’s grandest restaurant. Our waiter knows his clientele well, tending to their every whim while watching their various shenanigans. ‘Exquisitely observed and wickedly playful, The Waiter is a novel for lovers of food, wine, and of European sensibilities, but also for anyone who spends time in restaurants, on either side of the service’ say the publishers which sounds just great A vicarious dining experience to enjoy until we can all go back to the real thing.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman in Trouble is one of those books of which I’m a little wary. It was all over my neck of the Twitter woods last summer which could well mean just a literary flash in the pan but its premise is an appealing one. Toby Fleishmann is about to launch himself into his longed-for single life when his ex-wife disappears leaving him in sole charge of his familial responsibilities and impelled to solve the mystery of what has happened to her, while wondering if their marriage was not quite how he saw it. ‘A blistering satirical novel about marriage, divorce and modern relationships, by one of the most exciting new voices in American fiction’ say the publishers.

I’m not entirely sure about Tim Lott’s  When We Were Rich either but, once again, its premise is an appealing one. Six people gather on a London rooftop on Millennium Eve to watch the fireworks on the Thames. All seems rosy as the economy booms but mass immigration from Eastern Europe is causing rumbles of discontent and religious fundamentalism is making itselfCover image known. How will these six weather the challenges ahead? ‘Sad, shocking and often hilarious, it is an acutely observed novel of all our lives, set during what was for some a golden time – and for others a nightmare from which we are yet to wake up’ say the publishers. Apparently, this new novel sees the return of characters who first appeared in White City Blue, a novel I read but about which I can remember nothing.

I’m also a little doubtful about Mary Loudon’s My House is Falling Down which sees a marriage under strain when Lucy falls in love with Angus. Lucy is determined not to deceive her husband but is shocked by his reaction to her affair. ‘Infused with her trademark precision, clarity and dark humour, Mary Loudon’s searing, highly-charged novel My House is Falling Down is a fearless exploration of what infidelity means when no one is lying, and how brutal honesty may yet prove the biggest taboo in our relationships’ say the publishers which suggests an original take on the somewhat hackneyed theme of middle-aged infidelity.

A multitude of bloggers whose opinions I trust sang the praises of Ray Robinson’s The Mating Habits of Stags when it was first published last year although it hadn’t appealed to me at first sight. After a violent act, widower Jake is evading capture on the wintery Yorkshire moors musing about his beloved wife and the child that is not his. His actions will change the friend who is devasted by the news of what he’s done forever. ‘As beauty and tenderness blend with violence, this story transports us to a different world, subtly exploring love and loss in a language that both bruises and heals’ according to the publishers.

After all those doubts, I’m ending on a more positive note with the winner of this year’s Portico Cover imageprize – Jessica Andrews’ debut, Saltwater which follows a young woman from her Sunderland working-class home to the seductive delights of London where she’s won a university place. Lucy finds the transition from one life to another overwhelming, never quite losing her feelings of being an outsider and eventually fleeing to her late grandfather’s cottage in Ireland. ‘Lyrical and boundary-breaking, Saltwater explores the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, the challenges of shifting class identity and the way that the strongest feelings of love can be the hardest to define’ according to the publishers. I do like the sound of this one which puts me in mind a little of Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking.

 That’s it for April’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your attentions and if you’d like to catch up with the first batch it’s here, new titles are here and here. Lots to keep us all entertained and take our minds of things a little this month. Stay safe, and keep washing your hands.

An Act of Defiance by Irene Sabatini: The power of hope

Cover imageBack in 2018 I read a book from a small publisher which blew my socks off. Sulaiman Addonia’s story of a young Eritrean refugee who sacrifices everything for love was one of my books of that year. Hopes were high, then for An Act of Defiance which is also published by The Indigo Press. Like Silence is My Mother Tongue, Irene Sabatini’s novel humanises a story which many of us will have seen played out on our TV screens, in this case the descent of Zimbabwe into ruination and madness under Robert Mugabe, beginning in 2000.

The daughter of a well-connected Mugabe supporter from who she keeps her distance, Gabrielle is a young lawyer, an activist, appalled at what she sees happening around her. She’s involved in the private prosecution of a member of the government accused of raping fourteen-year-old Danika. Her former partner, Gio, has been posted to Colombia, sending an air ticket in the hope that she’ll join him but she’s determined to stay and do what she can for the country she loves, now patrolled by drunken bands of Party Youth intimidating anyone openly opposing the government. Then she meets a smart, young American diplomat. Open and full of curiosity, Ben is keen to show Gabrielle the cultural riches she’s been too busy to appreciate. One day, on the way to a picnic, Ben’s beautiful red Chevrolet is car-jacked: he’s badly beaten and Gabrielle is taken to a torture camp. When she’s released it is Gio who takes her in, nursing her back to physical health, protecting her with a solicitousness that she tries not to find irksome. Over the next eight years, Zimbabwe will be strangled by the iron grip of a man once deemed his country’s saviour now apparently intent on destroying it. Traumatised by her ordeal, Gabrielle withdraws into a numb safety until she finally wakes up to what’s needed of her.

Her laugh bores into him; it sneers at him, at his stick, at his manhood, at his revolution. Again and again he hits her

Spanning seventeen years, Sabatini’s novel is a poignant love story as well as a vivid account of Zimbabwe’s devastation and the beginnings of liberation. Gabrielle’s trauma is sensitively handled, the torture visited upon her detailed in brief snapshots, graphic but necessarily so, and the ruin of Danika wrenchingly portrayed. It’s a powerful story, made all the more so by the awareness of its veracity.  I remember being appalled by the spectacle of black Zimbabweans starving in a country rich enough for all to live in comfortably, beaten and turned out of their houses at the hands of the man once acclaimed as their hero. Sabatini ends her novel in 2017 on a note of hope, both for Gabrielle and for the country she so dearly loves.

A small request: if you decide you’d like a copy of either An Act of Defiance or Silence is My Mother Tongue, please consider ordering it direct from The Indigo Press or an independent bookshop. They’ll need all the support we can give in the current crisis.

The Indigo Press: London 2020 9781911648048 330 pages Paperback