Donal Poseidon is an ordinary citizen, living an ordinary life. Each day he gets up and goes to work and each day he does the things expected of him, without grumbling or questioning the way things stand in the town of Oothangbart. But he’s also a fellow with a secret yearning, a quiet curiosity about the world beyond the town’s gates, and a tendency to daydream without meaning too.
And in a place like Oothangbart, all these things spell trouble.
In Oothangbart: A Subversive Fable For Adults and Bears, Rebecca Lloyd has created a world that seems both fairytale perfect and disturbingly controlled. Rules include ‘No slumping or giving the appearance of dejection.’ The greatest insult is to be referred to as “an irregular fellow”. The jobs carried out by the majority of citizens are stultifying dull and even pointless. Indeed, pointless seems to be the key word here, as notable citizens – the top fellows – are allowed privileged access to The Escalator that goes nowhere but up to a flight of steps they then need to climb back down. The exercise seems full of pomposity, yet utterly pointless.
Author Tim Stevenson is a master of the final line, turning a tale on its head with a few carefully chosen words. Throughout his collection of “flash-fictions and curiosities” (what an enticing sub-head!), in just a single page or so Tim creates worlds that feel like close parallels to our own, where our own fate, and how to avoid (or embrace) it, is shown up in eerie technicolour. Human nature is spotlit and dissected, not only in the tales themselves, but through toying unsettlingly with our preconceptions, so that we’re caught off-step without even realising we’ve been led astray, as in Feral Oxide and in An Artist’s Impression.
I’m not a great devourer of sci-fi, but literary thought-provoking futuristic tales please me as much as any well-wrought fairytale, and Stevenson is particularly adept at these. Mother’s Milk is gorgeously chilling, ending with a satisfying pinch of justice, while The Mr Jones Emulator raises questions about what it is to be a person, while remaining a soothingly jolly read.
This richly detailed, immersive book draws you into the life of Nella Oortman, 18 years old in 1968 and freshly married to a man she barely knows. At the start of her story, she arrives in Amsterdam, a very different place to the rural Assendelft she’s left behind. Her life is on the brink of changing forever, but not in the ways she anticipates.
Told solely from the point of view of this naïve yet spirited girl, The Miniaturist is a story that crackles with suspense, straining at the seams with vivid descriptions and characters so finely sketched they seem utterly real. Within the first few pages we meet Marin, the stern sister-in-law with a hunger for distant shores, and Cornelia, the servant who will prove a crucial ally as the novel unfolds, and Otto, the first black man Nella has ever seen.
The actual miniaturist of the title, however, is a far more intangible creature, difficult to meet and impossible to grasp, yet armed with an uncanny knowledge of Nella’s new household and its many mysteries.
Often, I find fiction the best way to gain an insight into the human side of political events. In the case of The Free World by David Bezmozgis, it’s the exodus of Jews from Russia that’s explored, and the impact of this journey on the people who leave, as well as those who remain behind.
It’s 1978 and a train takes a family from Latvia to Vienna to Rome in search of a new life – the destination is less important than the act of departure itself. Alec and his wife Polina, his brother Karl, Karl’s wife Rosa, their sons and Alec and Karl’s parents Samuil and Emma, make up a hopeful, sometimes fearful, frequently exhausted and exasperated group of travellers among the huge volume of émigrés realising how different the rest of the world is to the place they left behind.
The point of view changes from chapter to chapter, offering you fresh opinions and perceptions of the city that is serving as their temporary home while they first try to choose their destination, and then struggle to attain the required visas. Continue reading
Remember letters, those fragile sheets of paper that used to flutter through that curious rectangular hole in the door only bills and fast food fliers now fall through? It was such an exciting moment when you realised there was an envelope with your name hand-scrawled across it, just waiting for you to open it and start reading.
Even more thrilling were the moments when you received a response to your fan letter or query sent weeks before. Look, he/she/they’ve written back! Look, that’s their signature!
Amazing. Like being retweeted or followed on Twitter by someone you admire, only 100 times better.
In this beautiful, decidedly hefty book, Shaun Usher has compiled some fantastic, examples of this increasingly rare art.
Based on Shaun’s website, which receives more than 1.5 million hits each week, Letters of Note provides well over 100 pieces of correspondence and their transcriptions (thank goodness, some are pretty illegible). Continue reading
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a book that transports you. The Mistress Of Nothing manages to do that in location, time and (for most of us, I should think) circumstance, offering a rich mix of escapism and realism.
The book offers an intriguing blend of historical romance coupled with a clear-eyed examination of human nature that’s as relevant to us today as to Kate Pullinger’s 19th century characters.
The creamy pages draw you in and deposit you in the vibrant landscape of colonial Egypt. Sitti Duff Gordon is an adventurous English Lady whose poor health drives her to leave her home in Esher, Surrey, to seek the dry climate of Upper Egypt, accompanied by her maid Sally and dragoman Omar.
The book tracks Sally’s gradual, potentially perilous transformation from English to almost-Egyptian and servant to almost-equal: “I felt as far from Esher as it was possible to be; it was as though not only did I inhabit a different land, but I inhabited a different body.” Continue reading