The Bookish Life of Nina Hill: Abbi Waxman

★★★

My book club has already thrown up several choices that take me outside my usual reading habits. Following on from Liar’s Candle, this month’s selection is a light and bubbly piece of biblio-chick-lit. Nina Hill is an attractive, kooky, bookish 29-year-old singleton, who works in a bookstore (of course she does), and lives alone with her cat (naturally) in a picturesque suburb of Los Angeles. She plans her life with military precision, but as the book starts she’s about to encounter two major curveballs that threaten to disrupt her cherished schedule. One curveball is Tom, the cute guy in the rival team at trivia night (aka pub-quiz night for Brits). The other, potentially more shattering, is news that Nina’s father has died. This comes as something of a shock, since she never knew who her father was. As she embarks on this terrifyingly unpredictable new chapter of her life, she must push herself to her limits, forcing herself out of the comfort zone she has so painstakingly created for herself. Will it be worth it?

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Paper Wife: Laila Ibrahim

★★★

This gentle novel throws light on an aspect of history that I knew nothing about. Set largely in San Francisco’s Chinatown, it focuses on the surreptitious custom of the ‘paper wife’, and on one particularly determined and compassionate woman. In March 1923, in a small village in China’s Guangdong Province, young Mei Ling is obliged to take her elder sister’s place in a matchmaking deal. New American immigration laws mean that Chinese workers in the USA can no longer move freely back and forth to their families in the motherland. A businessman from San Francisco has come home, hoping to take his wife and son back with him, only to find that his wife has recently died. Now he needs a replacement, and Mei Ling’s family are poor enough and desperate enough to send their daughter to the other side of the world, with a stranger, in the hope of securing a good life for her. The catch is that Mei Ling must pretend to be the dead wife of her new husband, in order to get through the examination given by US border officials. A tale of resilience, hope and well-meaning deceit, this book looks at the challenges of building a new life in the New World – and stepping into another woman’s shoes.

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Liar’s Candle: August Thomas

★★½

I said just a few days ago that thrillers aren’t really my comfort zone. So you can imagine I was rather amused when, after discussing The Binding, my book club decided to go for something completely different: this fast-paced CIA thriller set in Turkey. It’s a breathless modern tale of terrorism, murky ambitions, double-dealing and innocence maligned, and it’s certainly very readable: I got through it in a couple of days. But it is weakened considerably by its complete implausibility, which I shall detail with relish in just a moment. Let’s set the scene. Naive US intern Penny Kessler has been working at the American Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, for just three weeks when she wakes up in the Ankara state hospital with a piercing headache and vague memories of an explosion. She is one of the few survivors of a terrorist bomb that detonated at the American Embassy’s Fourth of July party, killing swathes of people. Penny has also become the poster girl for the tragedy, thanks to a photo of her, dazed and blood-drenched, pulling an American flag from the rubble. Suddenly everyone is very interested in her. But are they really just interested in her welfare? Or is there something more sinister going on? Before Penny knows it, she’s on the run – and there’s no one she can trust.

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The Family Tooth: Ellis Avery

In this trio of very short but moving memoirs, the American author Ellis Avery revisits three key moments in her life. Each involves an uncomfortably close encounter with mortality, and a form of grieving, whether that’s for a person she once knew and loved, or a part of her life that is over. The quirky title is taken from the tooth, mounted as a pendant, that Avery finds among her late mother’s jewellery in the first part of this memoir-sequence. It becomes a symbol of the strange remnants that we leave behind us, a mere fragment of the life its unknown owner once lived. The two later memoirs show us Avery dealing with her own mortality, as she confronts a cancer diagnosis. When I first read the three bite-sized books, almost exactly a year ago on 20 February 2019, I found them engaging, pragmatic and compassionate explorations of the way we deal with grief. Little did I realise at the time that Avery had died only five days before I read them. Having read them again, knowing that, her courage and honesty – coupled with a refreshing lack of sentimentality – is all the more striking.

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Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence: Michael Marshall Smith

★★★

Hannah Green is eleven years old and has recently learned the word ‘mundane’. She learns that it has two meanings: 1) of the earthly world; and 2) tedious, everyday, inconsequential. As the book opens, her life very definitely falls into the latter category. She is an only child whose life follows a comfortable set of patterns: trips with her parents downtown in Santa Cruz; visits to a favourite restaurant in Los Gatos; holidays to a lodge in Big Sur. These things have formed Hannah’s childhood with a reassuring sense of security. But then things start going wrong. Suddenly Hannah’s mum and dad don’t seem happy any more. Then her mum moves out to focus on a big work project in London. Then her dad announces that Hannah is going to stay for her granddad for a couple of weeks. And it’s at this point that things start to become very, very weird, and Hannah begins to realise that perhaps her new life is going to be best defined in the first sense of ‘mundane’. Because, quite frankly, when your granddad turns out to be working for the Devil, and you end up on a road trip with said prince of darkness, ‘tedious’ just doesn’t quite fit the bill.

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The Living Infinite: Chantel Acevedo

★★★½

The Infanta Eulalia of Spain is a disappointment: another girl to add to the royal nursery, rather than the longed-for second son to secure the family line. But she is, nevertheless, a princess and such a child must be raised in state. Officials searching for a wet nurse find and hire Amalia, a woman from Burgos with a bouncing, healthy baby boy of her own, christened Tomás. Amalia is offered a small fortune to come to Madrid to serve at the palace, with one free day each month to meet her husband. Her decision to accept is the point from which several different stories spiral outward, affecting the lives of those involved far into the future. Chantel Acevedo’s novel resurrects, on captivating form, a very real Spanish princess (1864-1958) who questioned convention, who loved and lost and travelled, who wrote with a fierceness and freedom that none of her predecessors had dared, and who sought to broaden the boundaries of her own stifling world.

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The Newlyweds: Nell Freudenberger

★★★½

When Amina meets George on an online dating site in the early 2000s, she can hardly believe her good fortune. She is in Bangladesh, he is in America, and yet they seem to be perfect for one another. She admires his old-fashioned values, while he appreciates her pragmatic and unmaterialistic spirit. They message for eleven months – with one brief interruption; he comes from America to visit her and her parents in Bangladesh; he produces a ring; she applies for a fiancee visa. And suddenly here they are: in a three-bedroom house in Rochester, New York, freshly married, at the beginning of their life’s journey together. Freundenberger’s novel traces – with clear-sighted compassion – the choices we make when we select a spouse: the futures we cross out in doing so, the futures we assume without ever actually talking about them, the pasts on which we turn our backs. What initially seems to be a simple story about domestic adjustment becomes something much bigger and, perhaps, much sadder.

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The Testaments: Margaret Atwood

★★★★

This was waiting under the tree at Christmas and, needless to say, I wolfed it down. In case you’ve missed the frenzy, this 2019 Booker Prize winning novel is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s 1985 modern classic was set in the dystopian near-future of Gilead (formerly the United States), where a crushing patriarchal structure, clothed in the guise of religious fanaticism, restricts women to a handful of social roles based on their age and rank. That first novel focuses on the Handmaids, fertile but ‘fallen’ women in an age where infertility is widespread, who are passed around elite ‘Commanders’ as broodmares to supply the ruling classes with children. The Handmaid’s Tale is as old as I am, but has recently been given new life by its adaptation into a TV series. Although I’ve only seen the first season so far, I should get myself up to date: Atwood is a consulting producer on the show and not only has she helped to create a richer, more complex world on screen, but she has drawn on aspects of the TV series for the new book. Delving deeper into Atwood’s world, this novel introduces us to three very different women, whose intertwined fates offer a glimmer of hope for Gilead’s future.

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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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