Lights All Night Long: Lydia Fitzpatrick

★★★★

Passing through Arrivals at Baton Rouge airport, Louisiana, is the most significant moment in Ilya Alexandrovich’s young life. On one side of the door he can pretend that this is all still a dream: that he’s still just the bookish student in his remote Russian hometown, cherished by his teacher, mocked affectionately by his peers, with a vague prospect of getting to America one day. But, on the far side of the door, his reality must be faced: his host family, the Masons, who have agreed to let Ilya live with them for a year while he attends school, improves his English and assimilates to a Western view of life. Ilya is profoundly aware of his good fortune in coming here, in escaping the dead-end lifestyle that faces so many of his friends; but that isn’t only reason he feels unhappy. His guilt is sharper, more focused, for in coming to America Ilya has been forced to leave behind the person he loves more fiercely than any other: his troubled brother Vladimir, who has recently been sent to prison for murder – a crime that Ilya passionately believes he didn’t commit. This evocative, moving story asks us what it means to belong – what we do when we don’t fit in – and how we can redeem ourselves when all hope seems lost.

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Future Home of the Living God: Louise Erdrich

★★★

A dystopian future; a world in flux, where fertility has rapidly declined and pregnant women are hunted down by the State: Louise Erdrich’s novel certainly has a fair bit in common with The Handmaid’s Tale. And yet it is distinguished by a fascinating concept (which unfortunately isn’t explored in anywhere near enough detail): evolution has, quite suddenly, just stopped and quietly gone into reverse. As the flora and fauna of North America begin to regress to prehistoric forms, the State grows increasingly anxious about the nature of the babies being born. Pregnant women are gathered together, so that their children can be monitored, but as birth becomes more difficult, fewer and fewer women survive these State interventions. And yet the State keeps searching. And, for Cedar Hawk Songmaker, it’s about to get very personal.

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The Mere Wife: Maria Dahvana Headley

★★★★

Dana Wills is dead. That’s what everyone thinks, and she’s happy to keep it that way. She was beheaded live on TV, after all, a soldier taken hostage in a desert war she never really cared about. She came back to herself dazed, stranded in the middle of the sands, six months pregnant, with no memory of what went before. Now she’s home, with her son. And, with her soldier’s ruthlessness, Dana will do anything to protect her Gren. She heads to a mountain above the place where she grew up, her home now flattened beneath the shining enclave of Herot Hall. Here wealthy women jostle for status within their shining, perfect homes. Life is a round of cocktail parties, gossip and side-eye judging, and Willa Herot is beginning to chafe at the edges of her picture-perfect existence. Wife to Robert Herot, and mother to seven-year-old Dylan, she should be at the top of the tree. But, when Dylan starts chattering about an imaginary friend called Gren, Willa begins to panic. A masterful, forceful modern retelling of Beowulf, this is a tale of dangerous women, and the two boys caught between them.

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Vox: Christina Dalcher

★★★★

Jean McClellan’s life has become one of few words. It wasn’t always this way. She was once a brilliant neurolinguist, running a groundbreaking team of researchers. But now, every time she speaks, the metal counter on her wrist ticks down from the daily allowance of 100 to the grim nullity of 0. To speak after the counter reaches 0 is to risk a series of rapidly intensifying electric shocks. All women in the US have been issued with these counters, from infants to the elderly, round about the same time that they were removed wholesale from the workforce and sent back to their ‘proper’ place in the home. Now Jean lives in a daze of depression, watching her four children adjust to a world in which women are penalised, and longing for her lacklustre husband Patrick to make a stand against these wretched innovations. But, with the weak President following the lead of the charismatic, dangerous conservative Reverend Carl Corbin, and the unreformed masses baying for the blood of those who step out of line, what’s the chance of change? Sobering and scary, this is The Handmaid’s Tale for our time, which should be read both by women and men: an all-too-plausible next step to damnation.

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A Good School: Richard Yates

★★★½

This is the first novel I’ve read by Richard Yates, although Revolutionary Road has been on my TBR list ever since the film (which I haven’t actually seen) came out. I wasn’t sure what to expect beyond a vague sense of classic American sensibilities being placed under the microscope. In a sense, this semi-autobiographical novel was an easy way in, playing to my interest in school stories, as it follows the young William Grove through two years at the isolated Dorset Academy in Connecticut. Around Grove’s story swirls those of the other boys and the masters at this odd, struggling school; while Pearl Harbour looms on the horizon, and war threatens to change the Dorset boys forever.

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Lock In: John Scalzi

★★★★

Yesterday was my last free day before the New Year, so I indulged myself with a book binge, having been to the library on Saturday. John Scalzi’s novel is already tipped as being a modern sci-fi classic, its central concept all too plausible for an alarmingly near future. Set in a world some fifteen years in the future, it shows us the aftermath of Haden’s Syndrome, a global flu-like epidemic, which leaves many of its sufferers ‘locked in’ to their bodies. Thanks to a rapid advance in science, these ‘Hadens’ are able to access and interact with the world through specially-implanted neural pathways which allow them to control mechanised bodies, or ‘threeps’ (named for C-3PO). One such Haden is Chris Shane, the only child of a wealthy would-be senator, who contracted the disease as an infant and has spent his life as the poster-boy for an increasingly powerful lobby group. But now he wants to escape his privilege and give something back, working as an FBI agent. It’s just sod’s law that his first day on the job coincides with a murder case that looks set to upend everything he knows. Part sci-fi, part FBI gumshoe procedural, this is a ridiculously gripping book stuffed with incredible ideas.

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The Wife: Meg Wolitzer

★★★★

Everyone has been talking about this novel recently, as its film adaptation hits cinemas amid whispers of an Oscar nomination for its protagonist Glenn Close. I’m keen to see the film, which gave me the impetus to finally dig out the book from my TBR pile. That pile houses several other novels by Wolitzer, although this is the first I’ve read. If it’s anything to go by, I have plenty of other treats in store. Acerbic, ironic and wise by turn, this novel is a blistering criticism of male privilege, set in a very particular milieu – 1970s and 1980s American literary circles – which, like a stone dropped into a deep pool, sends out ripples which lick against our modern shores.

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Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing

Lange: Unemployed lumber worker

(Barbican Art Gallery, London, closed on 2 September 2018)

Dorothea Lange was no stranger to adversity: at the age of seven, she survived an attack of polio which left her with a limp for the rest of her life. After studying photography in New York, she moved to San Francisco in 1919, opening a portrait photography studio in the city centre. She became the favourite photographer of the city’s elite, gifted with a shrewd insight into the personalities of her sitters. But in the early 1930s something changed. Lange began to see impoverished men, women and children flooding into the city from the ‘Dust Bowl’ states out east. Droughts and over-farming, coupled with the economic crash of 1928, had ushered in the Great Depression. Their plight electrified her: in 1934 she closed her studio and devoted her life to cataloguing the world around her. The Barbican’s stunning retrospective was a worthy celebration of this remarkable woman: a visionary artist with a social conscience, capturing images which, even a century later, evoke the brutal realities faced by many thousands of her countrymen.

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Love Online: Lisa Tuttle

★★

This is the first Lisa Tuttle book that I’ve read, though I have several more already lined up on my Kindle, and it probably wasn’t the best one to choose. English girl Rose Durcan has come to stay with her grandmother at Wishbone Creek while her scientist parents head out for fieldwork in Africa. This means Rose must attend American high school, something which fills her with anxiety: she’d much rather be online, playing long-distance with her brother Simon (a student at Oxford) in one of their multiplayer adventures. But school has to be endured, and her first day isn’t that bad: she sees the delectable Orson Banks, on whom she immediately develops a crush. Unfortunately, Orson only has eyes for the aloof Olivia, who in turn has no interest in dating. But there is one way that Rose can get close to Orson: the online gaming world of Illyria, where Orson takes the role of Count Orsini and Rose, eager to spend even some virtual time in his company, adopts the persona of a helpful young musician, Roberto.

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The Driveway Has Two Sides: Sara Marchant

★★★

Time for another Fairlight Modern novella! This time we’re off to a remote island on the east coast of America, to a world of crisp winter winds and pines, and sudden summer influxes of tourists; a world where the year-round residents all know everyone else’s secrets and newcomers are watched with suspicion. And the gossiping islanders have plenty to occupy them now, because an old rental cottage has just been sold to the young and beautiful Delilah. The neighbours wonder about her story (and her morals), gleefully scandalised while Delilah rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the business of transforming her little cottage into a home. But she swiftly realises that she isn’t the only mystery on the island. What about the man who lives in the yellow house next door, with whom she shares a driveway, but who hardly ever comes out into the world?

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