Bite-Sized Books

Bite-Sized Books

I’ve recently begun exploring the shorter books available for Kindle, some of which are free with a Prime subscription. There are Penguin Specials and Kindle Singles, along with the odd short story which doesn’t fit into my regular Tor.com series. As these books are often so short, averaging around fifty pages, I can easily read them on my commute and they’ve encouraged me to take a punt on unfamiliar authors or subjects. And the results are mixed. Some of these works give a brief, striking perspective on a problem or a theme; others, as with all books, promise much but don’t quite fulfill. Here is the first of what will probably become another series, documenting my travels through the world of these shorter, bite-sized pieces of literature, history and journalism.

ROMANCE NOVELS RUINED ME: NICHOLE PERKINS

★★★

Can a literary genre really shape how we look at the world? Self-professed romance-addict Nichole Perkins looks back over her life as a reader, remembering how she came to books via florid romantic novels gleaned from her grandmother’s bookshelf. She recalls how these historical sagas offered her a different pattern for relationships than the workaday marriages she saw among her friends and family in Nashville. They promised that love, true love, would be instantaneous; it would be tumultuous; there would be fiery arguments and passionate, steamy reconciliations. The man would know immediately that she was the one he wanted to marry, even if he pretended to be stand-offish. And so Perkins began dating with these expectations in mind, waiting to be swept off her feet. But it didn’t happen. Masterful men and submissive, swooning women didn’t actually translate into very happy modern experiences; and Perkins realised belatedly that she’d been trying to perform a duet where she was the only one with the script.

But all was not lost. Perkins distinguishes the historical bodice-rippers, with their old-fashioned values, from a new wave of more feminist, egalitarian romances. Often set in paranormal or supernatural settings, these give the women the dominant role and offer them greater agency than their corseted sisters of yesteryear. Women are still writing for women, as has been the case with most romances ever since the birth of the genre, but nowadays there’s a franker attitude to feminine sexuality, meaning that the heroine isn’t just lounging on a chaise-longue in a castle waiting to be ravished. Perkins is a pleasant companion, cheerfully maintaining her right to be a feminist and a romance reader: ‘What’s more feminist than recognising a desire and acting on it without shame?‘ She celebrates the fact that the romance genre is developing, transcending its conventions, and giving modern young readers (and Perkins) a new potential blueprint for their own relationships. It isn’t earth-shattering, but it’s an enjoyable assessment of a genre which often bears the brunt of literary snobbishness (and I’ve often been guilty of that myself).

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THE EDGE OF NORMAL: HANA SCHANK

★★★★

Hana Schank is a perfectionist. She has the perfect career, the perfect husband and the perfect family, thanks to the gorgeous platinum-blonde little girl who’s just been born to complement her robust little boy. But, as the months pass, Schank becomes increasingly unsettled by little Nora: there’s something not quite right and, after taking her baby to a series of pediatricians, ophthalmologists and neurologists, she faces a startling diagnosis. Nora has albinism, which doesn’t just mean being pale and blonde: she will have trouble with her vision throughout her life; she has acute sensitivity to light; she won’t be able to drive. Suddenly Schank finds herself faced, not with a comfortable, ordinary life but with an extraordinary child whose needs she has to cater for.

This little book follows Schank’s journey to find out more about albinism and to ensure that Nora has the best possible treatment (if such a thing is possible) and the broadest possible opportunities. She writes with remarkable frankness about her guilt (was this somehow her fault? Whose genes are to blame? What if she’d married a different husband?), her alarm at having a child who is somehow ‘different’, and how she copes with bringing up Nora to understand how her condition affects her life. It’s illuminating and inspiring. I knew next to nothing about albinism before and Schank takes us with her into a world of medical discovery, always determined to do the best for her daughter. And of course there’s Nora herself: bright, eager and just as keen to ride bikes, explore the world and watch the stars as any other child. A moving story of how an unexpected condition can lead to a more compassionate view of the world.

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YOU’RE JUST TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE: SOFIJA STEFANOVIC

★★★

Stefanovic meets her elderly friend Bill at a support group for victims of online romance scams. Like many older people who venture onto dating sites, he had been targeted by a scammer, who had built up a relationship with him online before asking for money. Caught up in this fictitious relationship, Bill obliges. He was driven to the point of bankruptcy before the Queensland police realised what was happening and took steps to help. Stefanovic had thought that Bill was a success story and so, she realises that he’s been dragged back into the world of the scam, she decides to look into this growing modern brand of exploitation – focusing on romance scammers. Often based in Africa, particularly in Nigeria and Ghana, scammers are amazingly sophisticated, learning as much as possible about their target in order to exploit every vulnerability or weakness. As our lives move online, and even the less experienced older generation start to experiment with online dating, their pool of contacts has exploded. Of course, this isn’t just a story about technology but also about the loneliness of life as an older person in modern society: loneliness which can blind them to red flags in ‘perfect’ online relationships. It’s an important story that deserves to be publicised.

Unfortunately I didn’t feel that Stefanovic ever really gets anywhere. I enjoyed her very personal approach to her journalism, but found myself waiting in vain for the punchy climax that I was sure would wrap everything up. We watch as she tries to help Bill, doing her best to coax him into enlightenment, while he resists her efforts to puncture his fragile bubble of hope. She makes an interesting point about why people cling to these scams: even if, inwardly, they know that they’re being exploited, the ‘relationship’ gives them a focus and an element of excitement otherwise lacking in their lives. But she doesn’t get any further than this. Her efforts to get inside the heads of the scammers fails: they simply won’t engage with her. And so it makes for a curiously unsatisfying little book, more like the first half of a long article: we see the gravity of the problem but don’t come any closer to knowing how to tackle it.

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FADE OUT: KAYLEEN SCHAEFER

★★★★

How far would you go to find your sibling? When she was little, Kayleen Schaefer was best friends with her brother Jarrett. They were inseparable, bound together against their parents and the world. As they grew up, their bond continued: they lived together in New York for a dizzying, brilliant time as Schaefer began to establish herself as a journalist and Jarrett embarked on his directorial debut, the film Chapter 27. But then, after Chapter 27 had come out, something started to change in Jarrett. He’d already moved to the West Coast, but rather than buying into the Hollywood lifestyle he seemed to be getting further and further away from it. Schaefer found herself losing touch with the brother who had always seemed a part of herself. He seemed to be deliberately reacting against the life of comfortable success that everyone had been imagining for him. And then, one day, he simply disappeared.

This is the story of Schaefer’s efforts to find her brother – not just geographically, but emotionally. Wondering whether perhaps she never really knew him as well as she’d imagined, she seeks out those who shared other parts of his life: schoolfriends, New York pals and, because this is a Hollywood story, she drops a line to Jared Leto, who starred in the controversial Chapter 27 (and who comes out of the story as a thoroughly nice guy). Slowly the story begins to take shape and Schaefer must then decide what to do. Should she respect Jarrett’s desire to disappear, or should she try to track him down? A moving tale about families, love and the desire to forge one’s own way in the world – with more than a hint, at times, of Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning, as we see behind the superficial mask of success.

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I MURDERED MY LIBRARY: LINDA GRANT

★★★★

This will resonate with anyone who shares Grant’s – and my – problem. When you’re an enthusiastic reader, you will, sooner or late, come to this point: ‘The books in alphabetical rows were overgrown by piles of new books, doubled in front. Books multiplied, books swarmed, books, I sometimes dreamt, seemed to reproduce themselves – they were a papery population explosion‘. When she downsizes to a smaller flat in London, Grant faces the physically painful task of decimating her library. Confronted with this literary mirror of her past, she remembers how she has engaged with books throughout her life and what having a library means to her. Funnily enough (or not, if you’re in the same boat) it transpires that a ‘library’ isn’t really that much about the contents of the books. It’s a time capsule, a record of memories, friends and events otherwise forgotten, an assertion of personality, (perhaps, shamefully) a display of one’s intellect (“I bloody well will read Herodotus / Proust / Camus one day”), a way to impress boyfriends or colleagues.

Grant has been a book fetishist (‘junkie‘) for much of her life. Those broken-backed spines and scruffy pages have been beloved objects. But now, as she gets older, she finds that the tiny print of her 1960s paperbacks is proving too much of a challenge. She finds herself increasingly seduced by the Kindle, with its resizeable text, its clarity and, joy of joys, its capacity. A library can now be in a pocket (assuming, that is, you can get the books you want on Kindle and, as Grant laments, that isn’t always the case). Far from shunning modern technology, Grant embraces it and she makes an interesting point. As an author, she knows all too well what it’s like to write a book and she makes a point that books are now written on screens. Authors bring their books to life in Microsoft Word, in a white, blank space. Reading the book on a Kindle screen is, perhaps, much closer to the author’s experience of writing it than reading it in a cherished hard copy. It’s a good point. A love story about books, yet also about the need to let them go, it’s a short piece that will strike a chord with anyone who’s come back from Oxfam with yet another pile of books, thinking, “Oh bugger. No more shelf space…”

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