Archive for the ‘Literary Fiction’ Category
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller begins after a super-flu has wiped out nearly all of the world’s population. The novel follows Hig and his dog Jasper, who have taken refuge in a small airport hanger in the mountains, and Bangley, an army-type survivalist who has set up camp with enough weapons and ammunition to stave off bands of wanderers. Hig and Jasper fly the perimeter of camp in a 1956 Cessna, providing Heller with the perfect vessel for describing a world that is both lonely and scenic. When Hig receives a strange transmission over the plane’s radio, it triggers the possibility of hope, ultimately sending Hig on a flight past the point of no return.
I could not put this book down. It’s restrained, beautiful, heartfelt, and simply fantastic. It speaks to the human condition on a number of levels, examining survival, hope, love, and friendship with a deftness that is expertly applied. The prose of the book is terse, but fluid, and mimics the world Hig finds himself in: one that is starkly populated but beautifully wild. Outdoorsmen will find a great deal to appreciate in this book, as Heller’s background as a journalist for Outside magazine and National Geographic weaves in a true sense of adventure.
The beauty of Dog Stars resonates in a number of ways, but none more profoundly than the extreme care in which it was written and in the fantastic journey it offers readers.
Highly recommended! Perfect for fall.
Following last week’s review of Anderby Wold, here’s the next in our Winifred Holtby series: The Land of Green Ginger.
Joanna dreams of the world beyond Yorkshire, the mystique of faraway places, and is in love with the idea of adventure. At eighteen she meets Teddy Leigh, and he sweeps her off her feet and into a quick marriage before heading to the trenches of World War I.
Teddy returns from the war, but the world isn’t as the magical fairyland Joanna hoped for. Teddy suffers from tuberculosis, and she has to care for him in addition to their two daughters and struggling farm. She’s overwhelmed by her responsibilities, but she can still dream of the world she wants to see.
When Joanna is asked to take in a lodger it seems like the perfect solution to their financial woes. The lodger, a Hungarian named Paul, has seen the world, and is a healthy man. But Yorkshire in the aftermath of World War I isn’t welcoming to foreign labor, and the neighbors are suspicious of Joanna’s feelings. Will her family survive?
The Land of Green Ginger brings insight into Britain just after World War I while also illuminating the lives of women. Like South Riding and Ander by Wold, the sense of time and place is amazing.
The tuberculosis aspect of the novel is fascinating; it wasn’t until the 1940s that scientists were able to create an antibiotic to cure the disease. (Researchers are still batting TB, as the newer multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis, usually referred to as MDR-TB, has a strong foothold in parts of the world.) During the time period of the novel, patients with TB would go into sanitariums and be exposed to lots of fresh air and proper nutrition. If their immune system could fight the bacterial infection, they might go into remission with the infection dormant, but present. Teddy’s fight and fear of being stuck in a sanitarium is understandable, even if his relationship with his wife is troubling.
Next up: Poor Caroline, the third and final installment in our Holtby Series.
Title: The Land of Green Ginger
Author: Winifred Holtby
Read: March 2012
Source: ARC from Publisher
Going into Downton Abbey withdrawals? Here are some books to help you while away the time until season three. Since the miniseries is set at a fictional Yorkshire estate, we’ve chosen novels that feature the same region.
South Riding by Winifred Holtby
Set between World War I and World War II, South Riding follows a cast of characters as they negotiate the Great Depression. The different social background and ideals of ideals of the characters sets up their conflicts, follies, and greatest strengths. The third season of Downton Abbey will most likely coincide with this time period.
Back room land deals, political and moral intrigues, the lives of the struggling, whether they’re landowners brought to the brink of financial ruin by the depression, or working class families struggling to eat, bring this novel to life. Strong characters, like the salty Alderman Mrs. Beddows, passionate headmistress Sarah Burton, and sympathetic landowner Richard Carne might not exactly be Lady Mary, or Anna-the-maid, but they’re easy to like and care for.
We reviewed South Riding on this site, and there was a PBS mini-series as well. Colby’s other novels are being re-released this spring in the United States, and check back here in May for reviews as we’re proud to be part of the blog tour.
The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison
World War II and the evacuation of children from London to a fictional Yorkshire estate create the background for The Very Thought of You. Eight-year old Anna Sands leaves her mother for a good education and careful, but not individual, life on the Ashton estate. Lord Ashton is wheelchair bound due to polio, and his marriage to his high-strung wife is fraying.
The Very Thought of You was nominated for an Orange award, and we reviewed it here.
Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
Shirley might not be the most popular Yorkshire-based novel by any of the Bronte sisters, but it’s always held a special place it my heart. I originally read it during the long, dark, Finnish winter and Caroline, her beau Robert, and Shirley have always seemed like friends.
Shirley is an interesting contrast to South Riding, as it is set from 1811-12 during the industrial depression sparked by the Napoleonic wars and the War of 1812. Mill owner Robert struggles to run a profitable business, and the workers he lays off react violently. His cousin, Caroline, is a bright spot in his life, and he is everything to her. When a wealthy heiress, Shirley, moves to town, she quickly befriends Caroline and Robert sees Shirley as the answer to his financial woes. Shirley, meanwhile, has her own opinion on the matter of love, responsibility, and how to spend her fortune.
Have other suggestions for novels to read while combating Downton Abbey withdrawal? Please recommend them and we’ll add them to the list!
Looking for gift ideas this Christmas? How about giving a book? Here’s some gift recommendations based on books or series we read during 2011.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
About: Effortless novel from one of our favorites.
Best for: Fans of The Virgin Suicides or Middlesex; people who enjoy character studies; Fans of Jane Austen, and also of Victorian writers.
Also consider: Game of Secrets by Dawn Tripp or The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.
Short Story Collection
20 Under 40: Stories from the New Yorker
About: Sampling of the hottest short-story authors under 40 years old. Great way to find your favorite new literary author.
Great for: fans of short stories, literary fiction.
Also consider: St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell, Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman.
Adult Dystopian, Sci-Fi, or Fantasy
Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
About: Game of Thrones is a layered high-fantasy novel with high stakes.
Great for: fans of high fantasy, people who like epic sagas.
Also consider: Greywalker by Cat Richardson
Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite.
Why: Five different female narrators tell the story of Nellie’s unfortunate marriage to Hobbs Pritchard.
Great for: fans of Southern gothic novels, literary ghost stories.
Also consider: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Soulless by Gail Carriger
About: Victorian steampunk with supernatural creatures. Mixes romance and humor with a mystery. Absolutely brillant fun read.
Best for: readers with a sense of humor.
Also consider: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Young Adult Dystopian, Sci-Fi, or Fantasy
Feed by M. T. Anderson
About: Ecological and technology issues, sci-fi, and dystopian blend in this YA novel perfect for boys and girls. Also has one of the best first lines ever: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
Best for: fans of dystopian or sci-fi.
Also consider: Divergent by Veronica Roth, Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Daughter of Smoke and Bones by Laini Taylor, and Witchlanders by Lena Coakley.
Young Adult, Contemporary
Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
About: Vera’s journey as grieving high school student with broken family has heart, and her journey rings true.
Best for: YA contemporary fiction.
Also consider: Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan
Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein
About: excellent analysis and insight into the “girly-girl” culture invading US society. Go check out the pink toy aisle at your local Target if you don’t believe me.
Good for: parents of daughters, people who deal with children, anyone concerned with the way girls are taught to value themselves.
Also Consider: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
On Writing by Stephen King
About: Great advice and insight into King’s journey.
Best for: writers.
Also consider: Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
Set during the backdrop of the depression, ghosts and a sense of magic is woven through the story. Seventeen year old Nellie meets Hobbs as she works in a soup kitchen, and she marries him despite her mother’s objections.
Hobbs takes Nellie home to Black Mountain, and his cruel nature is slowly revealed to Nellie. She also begins to see the ghosts of people Hobbs killed, and she has to decide: will she take action, or end up becoming a ghost herself?
Ghost on Black Mountain is great for fans of Southern fiction, paranormal stories, literary ghost stories, and Southern gothic. The sense of time and place is wonderful, and the writing will suck you from the first page until the last. The different narrators all bring a new perspective to the story.
Title: Ghost on Black Mountain
Author: Ann Hite
Date Read: September 2011
Nine-year-old Rose is excited to bite into her mother’s homemade lemon cake. Little does she know she’s about to learn about a peculiar gift: Rose can taste the emotions of the person who created the food. If the person loves to cook and finds the experience joyful, she will taste the joy. If the person feels trapped and upset, the sense of despair will come through in the taste of the food, say, in a lemon cake made by a mother anxious to change her life but unsure what to do.
While Rose is too young to fully realize the full impact of the emotions she’s tasting, she’s still upset and reaches out in the way she knows how. For years, she sticks to eating processed food to escape the emotions (and she can narrow foods down to the factories and farms that produced them). In part through food and its affect on Rose we learn about her father’s curious detachment, her mother’s affair, and her brother’s odd, almost Asperger-like behavior.
Overall, I enjoyed this novel and I appreciated the concept. I enjoy novels about food and family life, and I generally love magic realism. While there are a few things in the second half of the novel that made me scratch my head, I’m happy I read this. (I’m also very happy I can enjoy food without learning about the emotional state of the cook.)
Title: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Author: Aimee Bender
Source: Nook E-book
Read: September 2011
Jennifer Egan is no stranger to book awards or press, especially with her latest Pulitzer Prize win in Fiction for A Visit From the Goon Squad earlier this year. Look At Me, is yet another of her award-winning books, a literary fiction novel that garnered critical acclaim and earned Egan a National Book Award nomination in 2001. Naturally, I had high expectations.
Look At Me begins with the story of super model Charlotte Swenson. Swenson endures a car accident, that renders her unrecognizable, but luckily, still beautiful. Upon her return to New York she’s forced to deal with reintegration into a society where youth and beauty are paramount. The book goes to great lengths to examine identity and Egan emphasizes this point by weaving in other character perspectives, which include the daughter of Charlotte’s childhood friend, a private detective, and a strange new teacher, to contribute to the novel’s greater goal. The narratives change back and forth as each character deals with different veils of identity and the search for how identity is defined, both within ourselves and within society.
Not surprisingly, the novel is expertly written and Egan’s prose is flawless. I felt some of the elements surrounding the mysterious characters came to an inevitable crossroads and the first person perspective of Charlotte felt in contrast, sometimes too much so, to the third person narratives of the other characters. All in all the book is a layered and intriguing read and is more than deserving of its positive press.
Reviewed by: Kim
Title: Look At Me
Author: Jennifer Egan
Read: July 2011
Source: Powell’s Books
So far, 2011 has been the year of Yorkshire novels. The Red Riding Quartet shows the region at it’s darkest, while South Riding shows the region at a time of transition. The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison is set in Yorkshire during World War II, and shows the spirit of England at its best as it rallied to protect their country.
During World War II, children were evacuated from the London to the countryside as a well-founded precaution to shield them from German bombings. The Very Thought of You follows the life of eight-year-old Anna Sands when she ends up at Ashton House, the fictional Yorkshire estate of Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton. The novel shifts perspective between various characters, including Anna’s mother back in London, the Ashtons, and other characters.
Thomas Ashton is wheelchair bound from polio, and his marriage with his beautiful wife is unraveling. Elizabeth Ashton expresses her desperation to have a child by drinking heavily. In London, Roberta feels guilty that Anna isn’t with her, but she’s also experiencing freedom from marriage and responsibility while enjoying her wartime position with the BBC. Meanwhile, Anna and the rest of the children on the Ashton Estate are growing up in a house that seems idyllic with it’s excellent education and caring teachers, yet they’re growing up without parents and individual attention.
The prose is beautiful, yet it relies on a telling voice to explain each characters emotions and actions. Anna’s journey from eight-year to an unfulfilled wife and mother in her early thirties didn’t quite seem believable. Yet I still enjoyed reading this novel, and am happy I had the opportunity to do so.
Note: The Very Thought of You was nominated for an Orange award.
Read by: Kelly
Title: The Very Thought of You
Author: Rosie Alison
Read: June 2011
Winifred Holtby’s posthumously published novel South Riding is considered the best work of her too-short career. Set in the fictional “South Riding” area of Yorkshire (but inspired by the real-life East Riding), the novel follows the lives of multiple characters as they navigate life in Yorkshire during the Great Depression.
I read South Riding after watching the Masterpiece Classic adaptation, and I’m sure my opinion was colored by the experience. The TV adaptation focuses on Sarah Burton, the newly appointed Headmistress of the local girl’s school. In many ways she’s the heart of the story, but the novel spends equal time with a large cast of additional characters. While I enjoyed the series, the last hour or so felt a little rushed. The novel feels more complete. I’m glad I’ve read the novel and seen the series.
At its heart, South Riding is a political novel although it does focus on the relationship between Sarah Burton and Robert Carne. Carne is a landowner struggling to stay afloat, caught between providing quality care for a mentally-ill wife and keeping his farm from going bankrupt. His plight shows the lives of farmers and struggling landowners struggling during the depression. Carne is the counterpart to more progressive individuals who want to do more to help the poor—build council estates, new schools, etc—even though the local government doesn’t have the money to pay for it. Yet Carne is sympathetic to the poor, able to relate to them in ways that this fellow committee members can’t. Other councilmen—like Joe Astell—have grand ideas about helping the working (or unemployed) man, and discount the effect of the depression on farmers and landowners like Carne. Characters like the smart, talented, but poor Lydia Holly represent the people who need help while adding human interest to the story.
No description of South Riding is complete without mentioning the salty Alderman Mrs. Beddows (unique since she’s the first woman to sit on the council). She’s a friend to Carne, eventually forms a bond with Burton, and from a literary perspective, is a strong, well-written character throughout the novel.
South Riding is an especially interesting read today given our economic climate. The parallels between political scapegoats, how to best help our communities, etc, are paralleled and make our current situation seem like something we’ve faced before. The novel itself is strongly written, with memorable characters. The sheer number of characters can be daunting, but they help create a large portrait of Yorkshire life.
One final note: South Riding won the illustrious James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1936.
Read by: Kelly
Title: South Riding
Author: Winifred Holtby
Date Read: June 2011
Source: Public Library