Tag Archives: The Refugees

Paperbacks to Look Out for in February 2018: Part One

Cover imageThere’s an embarrassment of paperback riches this February. Lots to occupy those of us stuck in the depths of winter beginning with one of my books of last year. Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land explores the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of the Bredin family. Furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him, Lottie finds a dilapidated house in Devon and takes the entire, thoroughly metropolitan family off there, renting out their London house in the hope of raising enough money so that both she and Quentin can buy separate homes. What she hasn’t bargained for is something nasty in the woodshed. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now.

Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell sees two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Disoriented and lonely, Marc lets slip information which Josephine weaves through the stories she tells him until they become more real to him than his own predicament. Lowe draws you in with his extraordinarily ambitious structure, frequently pulling the rug from under your feet. The result is utterly immersive and the epilogue is a masterstroke, throwing all the cards up in the air. A very clever, subtle piece of fiction which also made it on to my books of 2017 list.

As did Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees a collection of short stories which enlightens those of us fortunate enough to have lived our lives in a benign political climate, no matter what we mayCover image think of our government. Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, it explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. Nguyen fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. His beautifully polished eloquent collection combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience giving it a quiet power.

Loosely based on a true story, Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots is a doorstopper of a novel which explores political idealism and the stark realities of life under a totalitarian regime through Florence Fein, who sets out for Russia from New York in 1934, and her son Julian, trying to do business in the ‘new’ Russia of 2008.  Well researched and engrossing, The Patriots felt like a particularly timely read given the advent of the Trump administration with relations between the US and Russia under the microscope yet again.

Emily Ruskovich’s debut, Idaho, is entirely different. Six-year-old May and nine-year-old June have had only themselves and their parents for company in their remote mountain home but June no longer wants to play the elaborate games that have kept them whispering together for years. The afternoon the family sets out in their pickup to collect wood will end with an appalling crime which will leave one child dead and the other missing. There’s no black and white in this strikingly written novel, no neat resolution and it’s all the better for that.

Cover image Kevin Wilson’s Perfect Little World is also about families. Alone and pregnant with her art teacher’s baby, Isabelle is offered a place in The Infinity Family Project whose billionaire founder is pursuing a utopian ideal: raising nine babies as part of an extended family in a Tennessee compound. ‘Can this experiment really work – or is their ‘perfect little world’ destined to go horribly wrong?’ ask the publishers. Given the number of unhappy children brought up in communes who’ve shared their experiences with the world in one way or another, I suspect we can guess the answer.

That’s it for the first batch of February’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for the first five titles and to a more detailed synopsis for Perfect Little World should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new titles they’re here and here. More paperbacks shortly…

Books of the Year 2017: Part One

Cover imageI’ve been in dire need of distraction this year. I tend to keep politics out of this blog but ours is a very political household. It’s what we talk about over supper but this year we both decided, for the sake of our mental health, we needed to rein it back. Books, as ever, have been a solace. Far too many favourites for one or even two posts so there will be four, all with links to full reviews on this blog.

January began with a book that was published in the previous December and as a result may not have made the impression it deserved which is why it’s popped up two weeks running here. Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend  kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability. Written from Audrey’s point of view, Down’s debut is a masterclass in elegant understatement steered neatly away from the maudlin. It’s about the way in which friendship can help you through the darkest of times, about resilience and learning when to reach out, and it ends on a note of hope which brought me to tears. A very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely.

Nathan Hill’s The Nix is a big novel in every sense of the word. Through the story of a mother and the son she left when he was eleven, it explores the panorama of American life from the heady idealism of the ‘60s to 2011, the world still reeling from the global financial crisis. The writing is striking from the get-go and it’s very funny: Hill hurls well-aimed barbs at all manner of things from social media to advertising, publishing to academia to mention but a few. Careful plotting ensures that each piece of the puzzle slots neatly into place until both Faye and Samuel’s stories are told. It ends with fresh starts, a much-needed reminder that despite all that’s gone before there will always be both redemption and hope somewhere in the world, albeit personal rather than political.

Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack comes packaged in the perfect jacket. It’s the story of a marriage Cover imagespanning sixty years, contracted in 1952: Jack is about to playfully pull the laughing Milly into what they hope will be the nice warm swimming pool of married life. In many ways they’re an ill-matched couple, neither of them quite what the other expected or thought they were, but they stick it out, always finding some love left no matter how close they are to the bottom of the barrel. Jones’ narrative is a little fragmented in the way that memories are but it’s all beautifully done, anchored by recurring motifs. An engrossing, utterly gripping novel, beautifully bookended by the repetition of Jack and Milly’s first meeting.

February also delivered three novels that hit the spot, each very different from the others, starting with Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. This elegant novella is a book of memory, the story of a teenage girl in the ‘70s which unfolds when a chance meeting after her father’s funeral catapults August back into her past. It’s a gorgeous book – deeply moving, peopled with vividly drawn characters and beautifully expressed. Woodson is known for her young adult and children’s books but I hope she’ll find time to write some more for us grown-up readers.

Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, The Refugees is by an author who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. It explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. Viet Thanh Nguyen considers themes of memory, love, family, identity and belonging – or not belonging – from a variety of points of view in a collection which combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience lending it a quiet power. Every refugee – from Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or any of the many conflicts that afflict our world – has their story which will continue to reverberate for many decades.

Cover imageAt which point you may be wondering about books as a distraction from politics but my next February choice has that in spades. Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree is a rip-roaring tale of thieves and whores, love and folly, corruption and redemption, much of it told in flash – gloriously vivid eighteenth-century thieves’ slang. It’s the story of Edgeworth Bess who is in Newgate Gaol, awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Alongside Bess’ tale, Billy – petty thief, scribbler and molly – tells his own, intertwining his narrative with hers as each moves towards a decisive conclusion. I have a feeling that Arnott had a great deal of fun writing this book, delving into the lives of spruce-prigs, twangs and buttock-brokers.

That’s it for January and February’s favourites. Goodies were thinner on the ground in the following three months but they did include one which should have won all this year’s prizes, as far as I’m concerned, but didn’t…

Five Short Story Collections I’ve Read

This is an idea I spotted it over at Kim’s Reading Matters blog and thought I’d pinch it having  enjoyed digging out books I’ve loved for my Blasts from the Past series so much. The plan is to periodically post five short thematically linked reviews, kicking off with short story collections.

There was a time when I pushed short stories firmly away, making the occasional exception for collections by favourite writers who’d not produced a novel for a while. Then I found myself picking up linked sets of stories until eventually I became persuaded that it might be worth reading a collection for its own sake. I very much doubt that short stories will take precedence over novels for me but it seems I’ve gone some way along the road to conversion. Excellent reading while travelling, too.

Cover imageHere are five of my favourite collections, all but one with links to a full review.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is one of the first linked collections I read, way back at the turn of the century. Melissa Bank’s book follows Jane Rosenal through the trials and tribulations of being newly grown up in America, from sex, love and relationships to navigating the workplace. Smart and funny, these stories are hugely enjoyable.

The stories in Anna Noyes’ Goodnight, Beautiful Women are also linked, sharing the backdrop of smalltown Maine, and they’re about women. Men tend to be somewhere off stage, their presence – or absence – often keenly felt. These are stories about ordinary, everyday people sometimes emotionally damaged, often struggling to get by. Single parents fretting about their kids; children overhearing too much; mental illness and too much alcohol; sexual misadventure and abuse, are all recurring themes. Noyes’ women are entirely believable, their lives unfolding in carefully crafted yet immediate prose – sometimes dreamlike, sometimes sharp and clean.

Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women draws heavily on her own rackety, vivid life which ended in 2004: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. There’s an immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from a graphic, panicky tooth extraction to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Her observation is sharp and her matter-of-fact economy makes its impact all the more striking.

Written with a clear-eyed sensibility and perception, the thirteen stories that comprise The Virginity of Famous Men explore themes of fame, loneliness, love, family and marriage. From a woman’s reflections on marriage to a handsome movie star and the strangeness of sleeping with a man who so many desire, to a young man who may finally have emerged from the Cover imageshadow of his father’s celebrity, Christine Sneed’s collection demonstrates a keen yet empathetic awareness of the messiness of human vulnerability often leavened with a dash of humour.

Viet Thanh Nguyen fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Written over a period of twenty years, the eight stories that make up Nguyen’s The Refugees  explore the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. These are carefully crafted, contemplative pieces which often end with a sentence that makes you consider – or reconsider – all that came before. It’s a compelling collection, heartrending yet optimistic.

Any short story collections you’d like to recommend?

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Listen up, Mr President

Cover imageIt was impossible for me to read this collection without thinking of breach, Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ short stories about refugees living in Calais’ now disbanded Jungle. Whereas breach is based on Popoola and Holmes’ research carried out in and around Calais, The Refugees was written by an author who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, it explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. A particularly timely read given the current state of affairs in America

Nguyen considers themes of memory, love, family, identity and belonging – or not belonging – from a variety of points of view. In ‘Black-eyed Women’ a young woman who resolutely refuses to believe in the ghosts her mother insists she sees, is forced to reconsider when the brother who died protecting her suddenly reappears. A young man is disconcerted to discover that he’s living with a gay couple, one of whom is his sponsor, in ‘The Other Man’ then finds himself behaving in ways he doesn’t recognise. ‘War Years’ sees a man remembering his mother challenging a fellow Vietnamese asking for money to combat a Communist resurgence then thinking better of it, faced with her own relative good fortune, while in ‘The Americans’ a Vietnam vet is invited to visit his daughter, now living in the country he last saw from a B-52, and bitterly resents what he sees as her accusations. These are carefully crafted, contemplative stories which often end with a sentence that makes you consider – or reconsider – all that came before.

Whereas the stories in breach are very immediate – its subjects still in flight from recent conflicts – Nguyen’s collection combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience which lends it a quiet power. His writing is beautifully polished, both eloquent and elegant: ‘In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories’, thinks the young ghostwriter in ‘Black-eyed Women’; ‘Marcus had the posture of someone expecting an inheritance, while Liem’s sense of debt caused him to walk with eyes downcast as if searching for pennies’ in ‘The Other Man’. Nguyen shows not tells, subtly alerting his readers to the ordeals his characters have endured: a character’s water phobia, another’s compulsion to own more than he could ever need having left so much behind. A son’s casual assumption of American peace and prosperity since infancy contrast with his father’s quiet acceptance of a job far beneath his capabilities signalling the gulf that can open up between generations. It’s a compelling collection, heartrending yet optimistic. Every refugee – from Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or any of the many conflicts that afflict our world – has their story which will continue to reverberate for many decades. We need to hear them.