The Heart Goes Last: Margaret Atwood

★★★

Society has collapsed. The crumbling economy has snatched away the chance for most people to have jobs, homes, security. Vicious, drug-addled gangs roam the streets, preying on the vulnerable. Charmaine and her husband Stan have lost their house and are now living on the street in their car, scraping a meagre existence thanks to Charmaine’s work as a waitress in a dive-bar. They still have their pride, but it’s on the blink; and Stan is on the point of turning for help to his estranged criminal brother (the aptly-named Con) when Charmaine sees an advert that changes their lives. It offers hope. The chance to have dignity restored. A roof over their head; a purpose in life. In return, they just have to take part in a social experiment. Oh, and, once you’re in, there’s no turning back. As you’d expect from Margaret Atwood, this is a high-concept dystopian fable about the corruption of power and the subjugation of the individual for the ‘good’ of the whole. It lacks the taut urgency of The Handmaid’s Tale and veers into absurdity in the later chapters, but it’s nevertheless a sobering vision of a not-too-distant future.

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Valencia and Valentine: Suzy Krause

★★★

Suzy Krause’s debut novel is a charming low-key tale of two women whose lives have been formed by stories. On the one hand is garrulous old-age pensioner Mrs Valentine, always ready with a twinkle in her eye and a new instalment of her colourful life-story. On the other is Valencia, crippled by neuroses and social anxiety, stuck in a dead-end job as a debt collector. Her stories are within her mind: the relentless litany of things that might go wrong if she forgets to do one tiny little things. Crushed by past guilt, Valencia has limited her life to her flat and the four walls of her work cubicle; but, as her thirty-fifth birthday approaches, she begins to long for change. And then, quite of the blue, the possibility of change appears: in the form of a new colleague and an unexpectedly friendly client. Could this be the start of a new life? Or will it be simply the same old tale of opportunities missed through fear, shame and cowardice?

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A Place Called Winter: Patrick Gale

★★★½

When Harry Cane wakes up in a fresh bed in a quiet room, he doesn’t understand where he is. Where’s the noise of the institution where he’s been incarcerated for the past weeks or months? Where are the restraints and attendants? Why does he seem, confusingly, to be free? Gradually, Harry comes to understand that he is now at Bethel, a therapeutic community where the progressive doctor Gideon Ornshaw hopes to treat non-conformist patients with gentler means. Surrounded by the beautiful, wild Canadian countryside, Harry allows Gideon to coax him back into his memories of the time before he came here. Times of brute hardship, fighting to tame the untouched Canadian earth; times of hope and love; times of leisured ease in a privileged English life that never touched his heart; times of fear. Times of murder and disgrace. Harry Cane has lost all he’s ever had. But is it too late to find himself?

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Let’s Kill Uncle: Rohan O’Grady

★★★ ½

One warm summer, a little boy and a little girl come to a remote Canadian island for their holidays. Initially things don’t look promising. The orphaned Barnaby Gaunt, who has spent his life shuttling from boarding school to boarding school, is a foul-mouthed little heathen; while Christie McNab, who lives with her single mother in the city, is sullen, prim and spoiled. The children hate each other on first sight, of course. But, as time passes, the peace of the island and the gentleness of the inhabitants soften their spirits. There are all sorts of wonderful adventures for two children to enjoy in this paradise. In fact, there’s only one tiny, teeny dark cloud on the horizon. Barnaby’s uncle is due on the island any day now. And Barnaby knows perfectly well that his uncle is planning to kill him.

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A Tale for the Time Being: Ruth Ozeki

★★★★

It’s been a long time (for me) since I read a novel: the last few months have been more conducive to dipping in and out, and not really getting anywhere with anything. And so on Saturday I went on a day trip out of London, left my tablet and my phone behind, and took a book for the journey. Being alone with the book for that length of time was exhilarating: for the first time in weeks I became dragged into another world and I spent the rest of Saturday and Sunday reading. For, if it’s been a long time since I read a novel at all, it’s been even longer since I read the kind of novel that, on finishing, elicited a strangled half-yowl of frustration – not at the book itself, but at the knowledge that I just don’t have the depth of understanding in order to appreciate all the clever stuff that I’m sure is going on in there.

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The Snow Child: Eowyn Ivey

★★★★

I took a little time to get around to Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child: I downloaded the ebook from Amazon a couple of months ago, when it was on sale, without knowing very much about the story, save that it was set in 1920s Alaska. That’s from a later period than the historical fiction I usually read, so I put the book aside as something to try in a quiet moment. That moment came in the last few days, and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t read it sooner: I’ve been captivated by this charming blend of historical novel and fairy tale. I suspect that many of my fellow book-lovers will already have read this, so I’m looking forward to hearing what you felt about it.

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