Tag Archives: contemporary fiction

#BookReview ‘An Unfamiliar Landscape’ by Amanda Huggins

An Unfamiliar Landscape, the new short story collection by Amanda Huggins, is made for dipping in and out of, comprising longer reads with satisfying snappy flash fiction. There is something in every story that made me think, ‘that’s so right,’ or ‘that happened to me,’ or ‘I know how that feels.’ That’s why everyone should read her work. Amanda HugginsThe landscape changes from story to story, from Huggins’ native Yorkshire via Paris and London to Spain and Japan. Each story offers a glimpse of a relationship, an insight into the emotions of love, hope, longing, loss, betrayal, regret and grief. She writes about everyone’s emotions, her stories seem familiar, so well-worn and lived-in they must be true.
‘Ten of Hearts’ is a short, hard-hitting story about magic, about vulnerability, gullibility and sleight of hand. Once bitten, it is difficult to move to a new relationship but often too easy. A previous version of this story was broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds in 2021.
In ‘Eating Unobserved,’ Marnie rents an apartment in Paris where she will work on her next book. Seduced by the beauty of the apartment and the simple delight of the food, she spends her time alone. Until one dark night she sees a light on in an apartment opposite, a man unpacks groceries and pours a glass of wine. For a few nights she watches him, and then grows bolder.
Sam and Isla are in the kitchen in ‘In the Time it Takes to Make a Risotto.’ He is chopping vegetables and she is reading headlines off her phone, reciting his horoscope, sharing crossword clues. As he cooks, her mind returns to the affair she had with his best friend, the lies she has told and secrets kept. As the risotto cooks, the atmosphere tightens with words unspoken.
In other stories, a teenage daughter challenges her father; a tourist visits a war grave on behalf of a friend; a young waiter delivers a room service tray to an older female guest.
Themes recur. Food, the eating and drinking of; the freeing sensation of being somewhere foreign, somewhere that is not home; the assumptions made on first meetings and the subsequent challenging of those perceptions; the making of repeat mistakes; and the time it takes to grieve, both for loved ones, and for chances lost or misused.

Click the title to read my reviews of other short stories, novellas and poetry by Amanda Huggins:-

If you like this, try:-
The Story’ by Victoria Hislop
Yuki Chan in Bronte Country’ by Mick Jackson
Big Sky’ by Kate Atkinson

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:-
AN UNFAMILIAR LANDSCAPE by @troutiemcfish #shortstories https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5Qr via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Oh William!’ by @LizStrout #contemporary #literary

What a gifted writer Elizabeth Strout is. Oh William! sees the return of Lucy Barton as she meets again her first husband, William, and reflects on love, loss, friendship and the fact that life can seem bewildering. Lucy’s voice is so real it seemed as if we were having a real conversation, face-to-face. Elizabeth StroutThis is the stream-of-consciousness story – complete with ums, ahs, meanderings and distractions – of a few months in Lucy’s life, after the death of her second husband David and when William’s latest wife, Estelle has just left him. Lucy and William were married for twenty years and have two daughters; that’s a lot of baggage. The connections that bind a married couple do not disappear after they are divorced, memories and experiences are inextricably linked. William, now 71, came home one day to find the flat looking odd, with gaps where things should be, and a note from his wife Estelle saying she had moved out. As he explains to Lucy, now a successful writer in her sixties, what has happened, she relives the moment she also left William, how she felt at the time and how she feels now. She calls him Pillie, he calls her Button. They spend more time together and their daughters ask if they are getting back together. In fact, they are investigating a family secret recently revealed when William is given the gift of an ancestry records service. As they travel back into the past of William and of his mother, Catherine Cole, Lucy recalls her own childhood, the neglect, the poverty, and considers how this shaped who she is today.
Strout has written a short, elegant story with hidden depths that draw you in. She explores the affections, regrets, irritations and resentments of a couple, once married, now sort-of friends. They are an everyman couple who loved each other, who were at times thoughtless, cruel, unforgiving and impatient but now show moments of heart-stopping fondness. Lucy recounts the road trip undertaken into William’s past except it is also a journey into her own past as the revelations of someone else’s secrets shed new insight into her own desperately sad childhood.
A novel about human flaws that shows how it’s almost impossible to know ourselves as others see us, as we can never thoroughly know someone else.
This is a companion novel to My Name is Lucy Barton, the first ever book by Strout I read, but each novel can be read independently.

Read my reviews of these other books by Elizabeth Strout:-

If you like this, try:-
Mum & Dad’ by Joanna Trollope
A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
In Another Life’ by Julie Christine Johnson

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OH WILLLIAM! by @LizStrout #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5pB via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Here We Are’ by Graham Swift #literary #Brighton

What a delightful slim story is Here We Are by Graham Swift. On the surface it’s a simple tale of a summer season at the theatre at the end of Brighton Pier in 1959. It’s a tale about a magician and his assistant. It’s also a tale about perception and delusion, truth and lies, what is real and an illusion. Graham Swift

When young magician Ronnie Deane gets a job for a seaside summer season, he advertises for an assistant. Evie White has experience in the chorus line but has never worked for a magician before. They are both on a steep learning curve. Their guide in Brighton is Ronnie’s friend Jack Robbins, compere, listed on the bill as Jack Robinson. ‘Some patter, some gags, some of them smutty, a bit of singing, some dancing, some tapping of his heels.’ As Ronnie and Evie, listed as ‘Pablo & Eve’, perfect their act, work their way up the bill, they go out as a foursome in the evenings with Jack and his latest girl. They change so frequently Evie can’t keep track of their names, instead thinking of them simply as ‘the Floras’.

This is principally Ronnie’s story, how at the age of eight he left his mother and was evacuated to safety in Oxford. There he found a new home, new parents and a magician to share all the secrets and tricks of the trade. By the end of the war, when Ronnie returns home to London and to his mother, he is a man who knows what job he wants to do.

Like all Swift’s stories, this can be read on many levels. At its simplest it is about a love triangle.

Only 208 pages, it is a short novel. The language is beautiful with not an unnecessary word. Not much may happen, but as the events of 1959 unfold Swift tells us the story of Ronnie’s childhood and how it impacts on the man he has become. The lies told to prevent hurt, the lies told for self-protection, lies told for unknown reasons, and some lies which may actually be the truth. As unknowable as Ronnie’s Famous Rainbow Trick. Unpretentious, at its heart lies a mystery that is in itself mysterious.

Here’s my review of Swift’s MOTHERING SUNDAY.

If you like this, try:-
A View of the Harbour’ by Elizabeth Taylor
The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain
Redhead by the Side of the Road’ by Anne Tyler

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HERE WE ARE by Graham Swift #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5iB via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Unsettled Ground’ by @ClaireFuller2 #contemporary

The title is well chosen. From the first page, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller is unsettling. An eclectic mixture of setting and detail make the timeframe difficult to pin down, it seems other-worldly. An ordinary world, but not quite. This is a world of Google and internet banking, of smartphones and digital life. Claire Fuller

Fuller writes about twins Julius and Jeanie who, aged 51, still live with their mother in a remote rural cottage. They scratch a living, cash-in-hand earned from odd jobs, vegetables and eggs sold at the garden gate and the local deli, money kept in a tin rather than a bank account. Everything changes when their mother, Dot, dies suddenly and they realise how she protected them and kept them safe. But with Dot gone, their familiar world collapses. Their routines don’t work, the difficulties their mother smoothed are now rocky, and they are evicted from their home.

This is a novel about relationships – sibling, parental and with the local community – both supportive and dismissive. As the twins attempt to cope with the paperwork following their mother’s death, their isolation from modern society becomes evident to them. Many people step aside from their helplessness, finding them strange and ignorant, people make assumptions and take the easy option of turning away. Jeanie is mortified to find out that other people know more about her life and family history than she does, how neighbours silently colluded in a scenario either from a sense of helplessness, a misguided assumption they are helping, or malicious sniggering. Unsettled Ground is an uncomfortable but at the same time uplifting read.

As Julius and Jeanie confront each revelation about the life they have been living, they begin to question each other’s loyalty. Jeanie finds emotional strength she didn’t know she had, despite a heart complaint she’s had since childhood. She sneaks back home and finds solace in the abandoned garden, harvesting vegetables. This is an uncomfortable depiction of modern poverty in a society where money exchange is cashless and application for help depends on literacy. Both find a way to cope but inevitably they need each other despite their grumbles and disagreements. At times of stress, they pick up their guitars and sing folk songs as their parents taught them.

When the truth slowly emerges about their father’s accidental death and Dot’s subsequent struggle as a single mother, they realise that deep down they had always had suspicions. This is a powerful story about the strength of human nature and the bonds of family, about fighting back against bullies and finding light in the future.

If you like this, try:-
The Faerie Tree’ by Jane Cable
In the Midst of Winter’ by Isabel Allende
The Lie of the Land’ by Amanda Craig

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
UNSETTLED GROUND by @ClaireFuller2 #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5a0 via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘How to Belong’ by @SarahEFranklin #contemporary

How to Belong by Sarah Franklin considers what it is to belong – in a place, and within a family – and how not belonging affects one’s wellbeing. Like Franklin’s successful debut novel Shelter, How to Belong is set in the Forest of Dean, an at times stifling woodland location where community seems set beneath a magnifying glass in which everyone knows everyone else’s business and they rub along together. Except, they don’t if you don’t belong. Sarah Franklin

This is the story of two women who don’t belong; one believes she does, the other thinks she is too different. Jo Porter grew up in the forest, daughter of the local butcher, and close friends with Liam whose single mum sometimes struggled to cope. Liam grew up learning to recognise his mum’s good and bad times and what to do when the bad periods happened, knowing there was always sanctuary provided by Jo’s parents. When Jo leaves the forest for university and then to work as a lawyer, Liam stays at home, marries Kirsty and has two daughters.

Tessa is a farrier, loving her solitary job in the open air, working with horses. When her romance in Bristol with Marnie turns sour, Tessa retreats to the country and into herself, blaming her fainting fits, her memory losses and secretly afraid she is ill.

When Jo’s parents retire, Jo surprises everyone by leaving London and the law to return to the Forest and take over her parents’ business. She rents a room in Tessa’s remote cottage. Things don’t go as Jo expected. Butchering is not her natural occupation despite having practically grown up in the shop at her parents’ knees, her landlady proves herself silent and uncommunicative, and worst of all Liam seems to be giving her the cold shoulder. Meanwhile, Tessa has crashed her van and is earning barely enough to feed herself. When Jo tries to help diagnose Tessa’s illness, things don’t go according to plan. While Tessa keeps her secrets to herself, Jo doesn’t understand her own motivation in wanting to help her landlady. Neither woman appreciates the effect that their actions have on others, neither feels comfortable in the role of landlady/lodger perhaps because they are unsure of their own identity. It’s difficult to fit into a place if you’re not sure why you are there, whether you should be there, and if you are running towards or away from something.

The contemporary setting is very different from the wartime story of Shelter. This is a character study of two women lacking self-awareness who begin to understand themselves through their new friendship. When awareness arrives, it is raw and uncompromising. At times I grew impatient with each of them, perhaps because the author had to withhold some information about them in order to maintain the mysteries from their past until the end is reached. The end, when it came, felt like a rather quick shutting of the door.

The cover of How to Belong is one of my favourites of this year, but then I love trees.

Read my review of Shelter, also by Franklin.

If you like this, try:-
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler
Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Lost Lights of St Kilda’ by Elisabeth Gifford

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
HOW TO BELONG by @SarahEFranklin #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4Qb via @SandraDanby

#Bookreview ’Summerwater’ by Sarah Moss #literary #contemporary

Twenty-four hours in the Scottish countryside, twelve people are staying in holiday cabins beside an isolated loch. Summerwater by Sarah Moss starts off with strangers concerned with the minutiae of their own lives and ends with a tragedy. Sarah Moss

This is beautifully written with sly humour coupled with sensory description of the place which puts you right there. The pace is slow and contemplative, taking time to plait together the observations by characters and the actual names, so carefully building together a picture of a temporary community. At first, they make assumptions and generalisations about each other. A retired couple sit and look out at the rain, reminiscing about the previous years they spent in this cabin. A young mother runs in all weathers and at all times of day, leaving her husband to look after the children. A teenager escapes the boredom of his bedroom by kayaking around the loch. The Romanian family, who party all night and don’t know how to behave, are the only ones seeming to have fun on holiday. They are also the only ones whose viewpoint we don’t hear, setting them apart from the rest. While at night a shadow stands in the woods, watching.

I never did get the identity of some characters straight in my head and the building of tension – the shadow in the woods – didn’t convince me. I didn’t feel it was necessary as I quickly became fascinated by the setting and the gradual interaction of characters. The constant rain acts as a claustrophobia device keeping everyone inside, feeling trapped, looking out and watching others, making judgements.

Summerwater is also darkly funny. Don’t miss the chuckle-out-loud scene when Milly and Josh are having sex but she’s thinking about a cup of tea and a bacon butty. The chapters about people are alternated with short sections about the natural world – a deer and fawn, the geology of the rocks, the origin of water flowing into the loch, bats, birds waiting for the rain to stop. These briefly pause the story – most are two paragraphs long – but add to the sense of place.

Most definitely not a page-turner in the thriller sense, Summerwater ends abruptly. It is however thick with atmosphere. The rain, the wet vegetation, the finger-chilling cold, the sense of the holiday park, the loch and earth being much older than the visitors. It is a book about a day in which not a lot happens, showing how small things become big when you are bored, and how we are all inter-connected.

Here’s my review of Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss.

If you like this, try:-
Akin’ by Emma Donoghue
These Dividing Walls’ by Fran Cooper
Anderby Wold’ by Winifred Holtby

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
SUMMERWATER by Sarah Moss #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4SD via @SandraDanby