Short and Sweet: How about a novella?

One of my favourite things in the world is finding a well-curated novella table in a bookshop. Waterstones Kensington always has a couple of great ones – translated novellas, seasonally appropriate novellas and a truly great one of Bowie’s favourites where I found one of the below. Novellas can be a wonderful way to explore ideas, and I’ve been very lucky to read some really great ones in the last year.

Here’s a few of them.

9781447283904A Whole Life is a German novella originally published in 2014 and translated into English late last year. Seethaler’s gentle story focusses on the life of Andreas Egger, a man who lives in – and for – the wildness of the mountains. Arriving in the Austrian Alps as an orphan and taken in by a farming family, Egger grows, falls in love and is enlisted for the war. With the same gentle melancholy spiced with humour as John Williams’ Stoner, A Whole Life is a beautiful short meditation on one man’s life. It’s really very enjoyable and the cover is so absolutely divine. Thank you to Picador for sharing this copy with me to review.

 

9780486437132Passing by Nella Larsen is a beautiful novella about the dangers of being black in the 1920s. This is the one I discovered thanks to Bowie, albeit sadly posthumously. Light skinned Irene’s life turns upside down when she meets an old school friend Clare Kendry, who admits that she has been “passing for white”, to the extent that her racist husband believes her to be a white person. The prose absolutely simmers with tension as Irene is drawn into Clare’s lie, and Clare digs her claws into Irene’s life.  At only 94 pages it makes a great single sitting read. But don’t be fooled by its diminutive length; this is an incredibly important, powerful novel about passing privilege, and the violent threat racism in America, even in your own home or marriage; it sadly remains as relevant today as it was almost 100 years ago.

9780141188348Sticking with tense thrillers, I must also recommend the lesser known work of Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat. Spark’s story is of Lise, the woman in bright colours, who is looking for someone, a man, on her trip to the South. Peppered in the prose are nods to the future, where the people she passes will eventually testify seeing her before she died. A crime in reverse, with a really quite terrifying protagonist. Thrilling, tense, often times peculiar as Lise finds her way around an unnamed city looking for a man, but for what? And who is the man?

Muriel Spark is author of one of my other favourite novellas, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Thoroughly recommend both of these very different books.

 

9781447269991Meanwhile, if you’re looking for something charming and light, The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher is easily the most whimsical book I’ve read recently. This beautiful little fable by Korean poet Anh Do-Hyeon is literally the story of a salmon migrating upriver, but it is also more than that. He speaks to the river, he falls in love, he questions life’s purpose. There is something a little Tove Jansson about it, but that may be just because I’ve been filling my mind with philosophical Moomin tales.

I recommend it, wholeheartedly.

 

What novellas have you been reading this year? Tell me in the comments, as I’m always on the hunt for new ones!

Together by Julie Cohen | 1 Minute Reviews

I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Julie Cohen earlier this year and interviewing her for Hillingdon Libraries, alongside Rowan Coleman and Lisa Jewell. All through the talk I was fangirling at all three authors, and desperately trying to find a way to explain this novel without giving too much away. I’ll give it a good go here too.

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Together is not your typical romance story. One morning, Robbie wakes up and goes about his morning, leaving his wife Emily to sleep. He leaves her a letter, and he walks into the sea. From here, their story uncurls in reverse, revealing new secrets and mysterious in every new chapter of their life – while new to you, it’s history to them. Why did Robbie make the decision to leave Emily alone?

I’m really fascinated by the reverse-narrative structure of a novel. I recently read Genuine Fraud by Emily Lockhart which also employs this complex structure to piecemeal feed you secrets and untruths. Julie spoke about how complex it was to write, remembering that the characters knew many secrets that you hadn’t come across yet.

Together is an emotional book, that had me weeping more than once. Robbie and Emily are wonderful characters, whose love and story you immediately get behind – even more so as you realise the trials and tribulations they’ve gone through to reach their happy settled life at the beginning of the book.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking story about love with more than a few twists and turns, Together is the book for you. Make sure you have a box of tissues handy.

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

Thank you kindly to Orion Books for sharing this copy with me and to Hillingdon Libraries for allowing me to chair such a wonderful event.

The Less You Know The Sounder You Sleep by Juliet Butler | 1 Minute Reviews

Please note, disabled readers – this book discusses the medical torture of a number of disabled people and thus is a very difficult and possibly triggering read. Do take care. This novel also discusses alcoholism and familial domestic abuse.

I didn’t know about Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova until 4th Estate sent me this copy of The Less You Know the Sounder You Sleep; now I cannot get them out of my mind. Born in the 1950s in Soviet Russia, conjoined twins Masha and Dasha were raised by scientists in research institutes and subjected to what is now considered prolonged medical torture.

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While this novel is a fictional novel, the author Juliet Butler knew the twins for many years and coauthored their autobiography with them, which was released in German while they were still alive. However, due to Masha’s dominating personality, much of their story was skewed heavily, specifically aspects of Dasha’s life. Determined to tell Dasha’s story, Butler wrote The Less You Know the Sounder You Sleep.

Their story is one of being physically attached to your opposite, to someone who beats and hurts you. Most narratives of conjoined twins show a closeness, a love despite differences; however Butler explores this disparity between Masha and Dasha, and the dangerous corners of their relationship. Told from Dasha’s point of view, Butler gives a voice to the twin constantly diminished and controlled by her sister.

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Following their lives through various institutes, their triumphs, their first loves and friendships, The Less You Know The Sounder You Sleep is an important, oftentimes harrowing and very emotional novel.

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

Thank you to 4th Estate for sharing this copy with me.

The Book of Fire by Michelle Kenney | 1 Minute Reviews

In quite a big change to regular content, this review is focussing on a book that is currently on available as an ebook – though I hold my hopes that HQ Digital will eventually release the trilogy as paperbacks. Luckily for me, HQ gave me a printed copy of the manuscript to read as my strange little brain cannot seem to handle ebooks.

The Book of Fire is the first in a trilogy of dystopian novels from Michelle Kenney. Inspired by the wealth of Roman history around her home in the South West of England, Kenney has created a rich historically inspired novel set in the future shortly after nuclear war.

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In the aftermath of nuclear war, humans have retreated to living inside protective domed cities, except for a small group of Outsiders. When their forest home is attacked, Talia is set on a course to rescue her grandfather and twin brother Eli, protect the sacred Book of Arafel and protect their home from the interests of the Insiders. Entering this new world, Talia’s understanding of the world she lives in is challenged by the scientific advancements before her. Aided by mysterious knight August and lifelong friend Max, Talia battles the cruel realities of the dome and its vicious despot, Octavia.

Kenney convincingly creates a world built from a need to simultaneously look forward to a new future and back to the great blueprints of the past. Not only is this a novel rooted in real world history, but it also weaves in a number of scientific concepts not usually seen in YA. Taking a number of cues from The Island of Doctor Moreau, Book of Fire has some quite gruesome moments. I must admit, I didn’t see a lot of it coming.

The comparisons to Hunger Games are not without merit, and fans of Suzanne Collins’ famous trilogy will find a lot to like here. I’m really interested to see how the story progresses through the second and third novel, especially as Book of Fire itself wraps up quite neatly – but Kenney’s world is ripe for exploration.

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

Thank you to HQ Digital for sharing the printed copy with me.

Wonder Woman by Leigh Bardugo | 1 Minute Reviews

I’ve never really connected with DC’s comic book heroes in the way I have with Marvel. As a child, I was more interested in the X-Men and the myriad of genders and non human characters on screen. That has started to change, as Diana has moved more into the forefront due to her more recent comic book adaptations and most notably the newest film with Gal Gadot – neither of which I’ve actually participated in yet.

When I heard Leigh Bardugo was writing a Wonder Woman novel, I was immediately interested. Leigh Bardugo is one of my favourite authors (not that you’d know here because somehow I’ve neglected to review any of her books??) and I completely trust in her writing and vision, even if she’d moved away from my beloved world of the Grisha to one of DC’s greatest superheroes.

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I was completely right to trust her. Bardugo’s love for Wonder Woman is clear – as discussed in this Book Riot interview and her acknowledgements – leaving me in no doubt that she was the right person to author this book.

Warbringer is a great novel for those unfamiliar with Wonder Woman’s backstory and lore, the latter I realised I know little about. Warbringer predates Diana’s true origin story as Wonder Woman, so consider this a prequel to the movie.

While racing her sisters, Diana spots a shipwreck off the coast of the Amazon island Themyscira. Called to the chaos, Diana rescues a drowning girl, Alia Keralis, ensuring their fates entwine deeply. Alia is no mere ordinary mortal; she is a descendant of Helen of Troy and a person fated to bring about blood shed and disaster – a Warbringer. When the Oracle suggests Diana either leave her to die or attempt to cure Alia of the Warbringer’s curse, Diana chooses the latter, determined to prove herself as an Amazon like her sisters.

In Warbringer, Bardugo assembles a wonderful cast of characters to join Diana on the mission to save the world – stern focussed Jason, creative loyal Nim, and troubled Theo. Alia herself is a wonderful young science nerd, determined to live up to the Keralis scientific legacy with her brother’s help. In a race against time, the gang must travel from New York to the ruined spring of Helen of Troy in Greece.

Bardugo’s research into the mythology of Amazons and ancient Greece is clear (so much so that she provided a very handy bibliography at the back of the book!). In Warbringer, the mythology of the Amazons is brought closer to our world, stepping away from the Amazons as a super race and towards a kind of reincarnation for brave women. This change in their origin made me connect much more with the Amazons as a people, and in turn with Diana’s desire to prove herself as one of them.

Diana facing up to the realities of our world – particularly gross men on the New York subway – is a joy to read. I especially love Diana’s bafflement and literal interpretations – much like Drax the Destroyer of Guardians of the Galaxy – not just for the pure comedy, but also the solidarity that someone else feels relatively confused by the operational structure of our Western society.

Bardugo’s Diana feels her own fully fleshed creation, clearly the version that has lived in her mind since she was a child; she feels a completely full person of her own. Her compassion, strength and vitality leap from the page, in a book that is as much her story as it is Alia’s. In my opinion, this is contrary to most interpretations of comic book origin characters which rely on knowledge of canon and backstory to flesh out underwritten personalities – in Warbringer, Bardugo has soared beyond that and made Diana fully realised.

You can read the opening of the novel here!

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

Thank you kindly to Penguin Platform for sending me this copy, at which I screamed at very loudly.

The Summer of Impossible Things by Rowan Coleman | 1 Minute Reviews

I was incredibly lucky earlier this year to meet Rowan Coleman as I chaired a panel she was on, along with Julie Cohen and Lisa Jewell, discussing their newest releases. It did dissolve quite quickly into me fangirling in their general direction, but I think it was at least relatively coherent. For Rowan, we were there to discuss her 2017 release, The Summer of Impossible Things.

A protagonist who is a physicist and a woman? Seizures that might actually be time travel? I couldn’t shout sign me up quicker, could I?

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When Luna and her sister Pia visit New York to settle the estate of their recently deceased mother, strange seizure-like episodes begin to happen to her. But she doesn’t black out; Luna keeps finding herself in New York in the summer of 1977 – the season that changed her mother’s life forever. Realising that she has the power to impact her future, Luna realises she could change the past and save their mother from dying from suicide.

I was immediately hooked by this stunning novel. Luna and her mission are both so easy to get behind, and Coleman sews the landscape of 1977 New York as vividly as though she’d just walked through there herself.

Lovely Penguin have helpfully supplied an extract here – you must check this out.

The Summer of Impossible Things, like Hold Back the Stars and Of Things Gone Astray, is one of those high concept fiction novels that I keep pushing on young adult fiction readers. Both contain great stories, believable romances, characters you get behind and a quick pace to the writing that seems to be a hallmark of the YA genre.

The novel is so beautiful, an impassioned tale of determination and redemption, in which Luna tries to solve the mystery of what changed her mother that summer and who is responsible. It kept me guessing throughout, while also feeling a sweet heartache at the scenes of her parents falling in love. I truly loved The Summer of Impossible Things so much that I know it is a book I’ll revisit in the future (a rare behaviour for me!)

Get it here.

What to read next:

Thank you kindly to Ebury Press for sharing this copy with me and Hillingdon Libraries Events team for giving me the opportunity to chair this lovely panel.

Genuine Fraud by E Lockhart | 1 Minute Reviews

At the Young Adult Literature Conference (YALC) this year, Hot Key Books pulled off a stunt where a number of people swanned around in identical wigs and sunglasses passing out samplers for Genuine Fraud. I was immediately intrigued by this story of dual identities.

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Hot off the heel of finishing We Were Liars, I was determined to spend some quality time with Genuine Fraud. The day of my PIP assessment, I decided that I should spend the afternoon with some escapism, and it seemed that a novel rooted in the main character’s desire for escapism was the sort of meta level I needed.

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Jule is living in a hotel in Mexico, working out and drinking diet coke with a shot of vanilla syrup which is the grossest sounding drink I’ve ever heard of. It’s only when someone called Nao shows up, suddenly befriends her on a treadmill, that things start to slip. Jule introduces herself as Imogen, encourages Donovan the bartender to help her escape and flees the hotel. But who is Jule? Who is Imogen? And why is she so afraid of being found.

Genuine Fraud is a novel told in reverse. Earlier this year I thoroughly enjoyed Julie Cohen’s Together, which also employs this structure to reveal secrets. Having spoken to Julie about it, I can appreciate the artistry and sheer amount of post its it takes to write a narrative in reverse that reveals secrets to the reader that the characters have known up until this point.

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I daren’t explain any more than this for fear of giving away any plot; I went into this novel fairly dark and chose to not even read the blurb, with only my knowledge of the Hot Key Books stunt giving away any inkling of the book’s plot. However, Lockhart has an excerpt of the book available to read here.

E. Lockhart’s thrillers demand attention and are best read over a couple of hours, preferably somewhere quiet so you can loudly swear when key plot twists are just casually brought up with increasing intensity as the novel progresses. Genuine Fraud is a rollercoaster of a novel littered with literary references, unreliable narrators, privilege and orphans.

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

Thank you to Reader’s First and Hot Key Books for sharing this copy with me.