Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Ronali Collings – Love & Other Dramas

Book Cover of Ronali Collings' Love and Other Dramas

Ronali Collings had a fascinating journey to publication. Her children getting older, she realised how much of herself she’d given to everyone else and started writing and taking courses (an MA with Bernadine Evaristo as her mentor) before dropping out of her PhD, stopping writing, and then starting again under the mentorship of her now agent. She kept going this second time and Love & Other Dramas was the phenomenal result.

The book follows Tania and Priya – both in their forties – as well as Helen, Tania’s 66-year-old mother. Tania is newly divorced and looking to find herself (she’s somewhat based on Collings), Priya did not receive a much hoped for promotion after giving her all to her long-standing employer, and Helen is discovering herself after years as an unhappy wife (unhappy is an understatement). The book covers their transitions to new milestones.

There is something incredibly special about Collings’ book and, dare I say, utterly unique. (The more I read, the more I find that there is something unique about the vast majority of authors, but it still deserves a mention, particularly here.) To speak personally, I got to the end of this book, blissfully happy about the film scenes I had had playing in my head and the characters whose faces and general looks I had created and seen in detail, but couldn’t work out what I thought of the writing itself. It took a few minutes of further thinking before I realised that the fact that Collings’ book raced by, as well as the fact it was so easy to visualise, easy to feel deeply about the characters and the connections between them, whether romantic or familial, themselves summed up the writing. Collings is a superb writer. So as not to reiterate what I’ve just listed as positives, the author’s use of character (and with it development) is bar none. This is very much a character-driven book, and highly relatable – they are very British, very multicultural, and just like any person you might meet on the street. The very fact of their everyday-ness is a winning factor and with everything that happens to them being completely believable, it is impossible not to feel a lot for them.

This doesn’t necessarily equate to actively liking them. Tania in particular keeps making the same mistake which is frustrating, if incredibly realistic. Priya could often do with a bit more self-awareness. (Helen gets a pass here as she’s been through hell.) But perhaps that is part of the point – these women and, often, the other people around them, are just so true to life that they make you question your own life decisions, which isn’t generally a comfortable thing to do.

As well as the theme of women coming into their own, the racial backgrounds add a constantly-running background question about how British people of colour, particularly, in this case, people of South Asian heritage, are treated. Priya’s done very well in her job but she’s not done as well as she could due to being a British Indian; she’s the wrong colour. Tania wanted to do ballet when she was younger, but her skin colour didn’t fit the look. She also wasn’t able to cook Sri Lankan food at home without wafting the smell away because her white husband didn’t like it. It’s the things that keep adding up and adding up.

A mention must be made of Helen’s newly found happiness – she starts blossoming from the beginning but once she discovers love her story becomes perhaps the best. She represents an age group in women that is generally forgotten and Collings brings not only her story to life but shines a light on older women as a whole. Helen’s burgeoning relationship with Oscar is a joy to read and she is the character that ends the tale with the most tied threads.

The ending is interesting, both sudden – you’re likely to expect it to continue for a bit longer – and absolutely perfect. You’ll want to read more about the women whilst at the same time recognising and appreciating why Collings leaves it where she does.

Love & Other Dramas is simply wonderful. It’s a book with the power to hit you in a way you haven’t experienced in reading before and the amount is does within its limits of being a look at everyday characters and lives is incredible. Without a doubt, one of the best books of 2022.

Publisher: Embla (Bonnier)
Pages: 269
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-41308-7
First Published: 19th July 2022
Date Reviewed: 4th May 2023

 
Kristina McMorris – Sold On A Monday

Book Cover of Kristina McMorris' Sold On A Monday

Kristina McMorris’ 2018 novel, Sold On A Monday, just recently reached the 1 million mark of copies sold. It’s not difficult to see why, nor why it’s the author’s most rated book on GoodReads – inspired by a real photograph taken in 1948 of children sat on a porch, a sign saying ‘4 children for sale’ in front of them, it offers a rather unique premise.

McMorris sets her tale in 1931, and her fictional photograph sports two children rather than the four seen in real life. Ellis, a photographer and reporter in Philadelphia, originally sees two children ‘for sale’ on a non-work related trip out and, when his photograph of the scene is lost after having been shown to an appreciative boss, he goes back to the location and stages a new photograph, this time with different children. This may or may not lead to Ellis’ big break – he’s been wanting to be more than a society pages writer for ages – but it will definitely lead to the contents of this new, staged, photograph, becoming a reality. In tandem we have Lily, a single mother who is hoping to rise beyond her current station of secretary, to become a reporter. Lily is the person who introduced the boss to Ellis’ work.

McMorris’ decision to focus on Ellis and Lily’s experiences may be surprising (certainly I was expecting the story to focus on the children from the perspective of those children) but it is nevertheless a fascinating decision. Hailing from a media background herself, McMorris has steeped the book in the world of the newspaper and the historical details and storytelling in general mean it is rich in atmosphere and period dialogue. Interestingly, the book is pretty long, with lots of twists and turns as it moves towards its conclusion, but thanks to the overarching idea of the news, the busy nature of it all ensures the book never drags.

The main characters are well drawn, with both characters effectively sharing the theme of family; Lily’s has motherhood included. Ellis is driven in his career not just for his own benefit but to prove to his father his worth as a son. Lily is driven similarly, wanting to be a reporter for herself but also seeing the need to better her situation for her son; her parents own a business but this is the post-WWI 1930s and she wants her own career; she sees a role model in Nellie Bly, the (factual) journalist who emulated Phileas Fogg.

Another character in particular deserves a mention – Clayton. He is a star reporter at the Philadelphia paper and McMorris has done a splendid job in her portrayal of him. It’s not even a question of character development, just the way she’s written about him each time he is either in a scene or mentioned by others (generally Lily). Is he friend or foe? Is he the right choice or not? In the plot thread he is most included in, McMorris does a great job at really making you believe something is possible even when common sense and any experience in reading will tell you it’s not, and whether or not it does happen (I won’t spoil it) doesn’t, to that end, really matter. A brief mention should be given to co-worker ‘Dutch’, who also defies literary stereotypes, just to a much lesser extent than Clayton.

So to those twists and turns, as said, there are a lot of them but they work. After a chunk of time spent focusing on Ellis and Lily, McMorris moves on to the children, albeit still through Ellis and Lily’s eyes. It’s worth noting that McMorris has significantly improved the outcome of the major event when compared to the real life story – thankfully, it must be said; read the reality and McMorris’ tale is a welcome change. The twists and turns themselves keep coming to a degree but they always move the story on, and, perhaps, given what I’ve said about Clayton, one of McMorris’ overall aims is to show the grey in every story; you very often think you’ve spied a villain only to be given cause to wonder if that’s quite correct.

Sold On A Monday tells a difficult tale in a very good way. Its secondary focus on family and motherhood is rather wonderful and helps in the exploration of the primary idea, while never losing sight of the historical context. This is a fantastic book.

Publisher: Sourcebooks
Pages: 289
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-492-66399-7
First Published: 28th August 2018
Date Reviewed: 2nd May 2023

 
Orlando Ortega-Medina – The Fitful Sleep Of Immigrants

Book Cover of Orlando Ortega-Medina's the Fitful Sleep Of Immigrants

Orlando Ortega-Medina’s third novel, publishing a few years after the almost psychedelic in atmosphere, semi-religious The Savior Of 6th Street, offers a difference to his previous books. Whereas the others have been quite individual in terms of content and specifics of genre (though they are no less fantastic for it), The Fitful Sleep Of Immigrants sees the author turning 90 or so degrees towards the mainstream; the book, whilst still sporting what could be termed classic psychological and thriller Ortega-Medina elements, offers its story to an additional audience or two.

This new novel looks at a few impactful periods in the life of one Marc Mendes, a lawyer from San Francisco via Los Angeles, via, in heritage, Cuba, Spain, Syria, and Israel. Marc’s religion, and religious and cultural heritage, as well as his sexuality, inform almost every part of this novel, and it’s to stunning effect. In the ‘present day’, which in this book is 1997, Marc is in a happy and long-term relationship with Issac, a political refugee from El Salvador. This starts to change when Marc’s law firm is approached first by a man who has been accused of murder and then, later, when Issac finds himself looking at possible deportation for illegal entry and settlement in the US. Surrounding and informing this present day narrative is Marc’s relationship history, a romance in his younger years that later took a very sorry turn.

Ortega-Medina takes these subjects and many more and handles them with aplomb. Using his unique style of writing – conversational on the surface with a tougher interior – the author takes his character on a personal and relational journey that begins with of all his life’s problems cropping back up at once. It’s fast-paced, and every so often verges on the confusing, which is absolutely on purpose. You are always with Marc and, as Marc is told himself, he can be an unreliable narrator.

The keyword of the title, ‘immigrants’ wraps around everything else in the novel, holding it together with a couple of different glues. The main aspect of the novel in a variety of ways, immigration and its link to asylum and forceful exportation comes into play in Marc’s thoughts of his family heritage and, more so, understandably, Issac’s presence and life in the US. The author’s explanation of Issac’s situation is slow with fair reason; set in the 90s, people in the US especially would have hopefully had some idea of the situation but, more importantly and more notably, Ortega-Medina asks us as readers to decide for ourselves what should be the outcome for Issac based on more than the simple laws because the simple laws do not allow anywhere near enough space for specifics; there is then the point that every case needs to be looked at personally and with empathy in addition to the idea of specifics. And so we see Issac as Marc sees him, as many people see him – a phenomenal person who has triumphed, who has given back in spades to the country he came to live in, and who has made a comfortable long life with a US citizen. When Ortega-Medina does fill you in completely, towards the end, it only adds spades more to how you feel that it is right that Issac be given the lawful right to stay.

So Issac is a wonderful character, and it would be great to hear even more from him, but here we are with Marc. Marc’s life is very messy. A key part of his progression as a character comes in the form of Alejandro Silva, a client who Marc is drawn to due to a resemblance to a past partner, Simon. Alejandro does his best to get Marc’s attention and does so on a number of occasions due to Marc’s conflation of him with Simon, and whilst the plot thread is drawn out possibly to your distraction (but utterly necessarily in terms of the book) it has a particular relevance to Marc’s life that shows itself in time.

Marc has a lot of reckoning to do with himself and as the novel continues on he gets better at it – an incredible shaky start leading to some absolutely ‘bravo!’ moments – and you could be forgiven for wondering how much time there will be for Issac’s conflict arc. Suffice to say when it gets to the climax the pace picks up, the plotting and writing is more incredible than before, and it’s nail-biting. You get a real sense for the immigration system that was in place (still is in place in many ways) and the difficulties therein for the individuals facing deportation. The end itself is a brilliant mix of ends and beginnings and of hope.

The Fitful Sleep Of Immigrants shows that what we thought was great fiction from the author previously, was but an alright opening first serve. This latest work has raised the bar significantly.

Publisher: Amble Press (Bywater Books)
Pages: 265
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-612-94263-6
First Published: 18th April 2023
Date Reviewed: 7th April 2023

I received this book from the author for review.

 
Lisa See – Lady Tan’s Circle Of Women

Book Cover

Lisa See made a discovery during lockdown. As she was walking past her bookcase, she noticed a particular book she hadn’t yet read, a book about pregnancy and childbirth in Ming dynasty China; it included a woman doctor called Tan Yunxian and when See read about her she knew what she wanted to write about next1.

In Lady Tan’s Circle Of Women, See uses as a base what history tells us about Tan Yunxian, and fills the rest in with appropriate fictional detail. Having a list of cases, a small slither of information about Yunxian’s grandmother (also a doctor), and brief details from the Lady’s great-nephew who republished the book in the late 1500s, See weaves a story of a woman from a wealthy background who learns how to treat women for conditions often confined to women’s bodies, going above and beyond what a male doctor could do due. In creating her narrative, See takes Yunxian to situations that you will have to read the book to find out (it’s far too satisfying to spoil), and looks at a few closely-related aspects of life for wealthy women in medieval China.

One of these is the isolation that came with being a wealthy woman – being inside Yunxian’s head (the novel is told in a wonderful first person narrative) and See’s focus on the aspect, allows you to see the incredible downsides to such a social standing that you likely have at least some knowledge of already, here amplified to a near constant consideration. This is apt; Yunxian makes decisions always in the knowledge of what she can and can’t do, and what she can do isn’t very much. A woman in her position is a possession of men and her wants and needs are also controlled by senior women, such as her mother-in-law. See shows the restriction and limitation – as a child, Yunxian cannot leave her home. She will only leave the family compound when she marries, after which she will not leave her marital home. And then there is the fact that women who are wealthy, or who are not wealthy but destined to be bought as a concubine, must have their feet bound in order to please their future husbands, which makes the women literally unable to run. These considerations and thoughts See compares to the lives of poorer women, those with ‘big feet’, whose professions are often seen as dirty, but who can at least go wherever they want. Yunxian relies on ‘lesser’ women to give her a taste for what she is not allowed to see.

This, together with the first-person narrative, leaves a pronounced effect on the reader as you are essentially limited in your experience by the fact of being always in Yunxian’s head. But this is no bad thing; See uses this fact to remarkable effect, providing you with exactly what you have been wishing for as and when the appropriate time comes. You may well be able to close the book where Yunxian couldn’t change her life, but the unfolding of the story is highly pleasurable. Perhaps it’s not unexpected – See has been doing this writing thing for many years – but it’s no less fantastic when it happens.

This leads us to another aspect looked at closely – friendship and effective sisterhood. Yunxian makes a friend in childhood who is poor, which allows for both constant comparison of economic situations as they go through life, as well as the subject of jealousy. Jealousy has been included with a foundation of Chinese birth years – both Yunxian and her friend, Meiling, are Metal Snakes, creatures known for their stubbornness, conceitedness, but also their goodness, and See employs a variety of Metal Snake personality traits in the development of the two characters.

Sisterhood effectively extends to several other characters in the book. Lady Tan’s ‘circle of women’ includes, over various years, her grandmother, Meiling, Meiling’s mother, Miss Zhao (Yunxian’s father’s concubine), and Miss Chen (one of her father-in-law’s concubines). The lives of these women all add extra matter to the plot, which in turn leads to its epic atmosphere.

The world-building is rather electric. Yunxian’s world is so cloistered and yet there is never a dull moment, with See always keeping the days full of different conversations and the hustle and bustle of the household. You can feel the life of the household beyond the walls of any particular scene.

As said before, See gives the reader what they are after. This also applies to every question you may have and every plot thread that is begun; make no mistake, leave your question on the page and See will absolutely get back to you. No thread is ever left untied and the only things that are not completely explained are things that don’t really need to be explained.

Lady Tan’s Circle Of Women reminds us again of why Lisa See is so loved. It is another story brilliantly planned and written, an absolute joy to read despite the pain it may cause at times, and a great introduction for new audiences to a woman whose work still influences Chinese medicine today.

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 339
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-982-11708-5
First Published: 6th June 2023
Date Reviewed: 30th March 2023

I received this book from the author and publisher in preparation for a podcast recording.

Footnotes

1 Library Journal (15th March 2023) “New York Times Bestselling Author Lisa See Discusses Her New Novel Lady Tan’s Circle of Women”, accessed 30th March 2023

 
Amanda Geard – The Midnight House

Book Cover

It takes a village… going back to it.

Publisher: Headline Review
Pages: 418
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-28370-2
First Published: 12th May 2022
Date Reviewed: 2nd June 2022

Ellie has moved back home to her mum’s farms in County Kerry; a ruined engagement and career have left her running for a retreat to a slower-paced location. Given a box of secondhand books by her mum’s friend, she finds an old letter hidden in one of them; a woman in the 1940s tells someone she’s able to get away and where she’ll be going. There’s an unsolved mystery to do with the family at the big house nearby and as much as Ellie’s come back to Balinn to get away from anything like this, she can’t resist it.

The Midnight House is a triple third-person narrative tale of secrets, the restrictions of class – upper, here – and, arguably, the value of community in Ireland. Told via a wholly historical war-time narrative, a not-as-historical 1950s narrative, and a contemporary narrative, the book explores its issues and questions with a careful hand, ending in a highly satisfactory conclusion with a couple of ending pages that are a wonderfully pleasant surprise and beg a literary consideration of what a happy ending can comprise of.

Geard has made an interesting and ultimately highly successful choice in the way she goes about revealing details of her mystery – the vast majority, particularly in terms of the historical mystery (I think we can call Ellie’s reason for being in Ballinn a ‘reader’s’ mystery) are given pretty freely. We’re not talking predictability here, nor red herrings that are easy to guess – Geard offers you the information on a plate, almost as though it wasn’t supposed to be a mystery. The success, then, comes in the last pieces of information, which you don’t get until a while later. I realise it may seem too open to write about it but I reckon Geard’s plans are good enough it won’t spoil it – the last pieces you are left with seem quite mundane at first but this is perhaps part of the plan; with your guard entirely down, Geard comes in with answers to pertinent questions you likely haven’t thought of before. It’s entirely thrilling and well done, effectively causing you to re-examine and consider what makes a mystery narrative and whether you might be just that bit too used to a general formula.

We’ll leave that there.

What is left out completely in these ‘easy’ servings is the raison d’etre of the contemporary plotline, Ellie’s homecoming. The details help to ‘place’ the novel but their early introduction could well have given too much away about the novel’s structure and would have spoiled the journey of Ellie’s character development. This is important because whilst Charlotte – the main character who doesn’t get a narrative – isn’t the same as Ellie, couldn’t be, due to their respective societies and time periods, there are enough similarities to mean that Ellie’s discovery of Charlotte but, more so the reader’s discovery of Charlotte (because no present day character can find out everything a reader can) affects her own plotline, the part that is informed by her ‘detective’ work but is not critical to it.

On the narratives, then, we have one from Nancy in the 1940s (beginning in 1939), Nancy’s daughter, Hattie, in 1958, and Ellie’s 2019 narrative. They’re all pretty similar in terms of narrative strength; there’s perhaps less time for Hattie but that’s simply due to her overall role, and she appears elsewhere, balancing it out. Nancy’s is perhaps the most important – it deals with particular details and is where the historical information can be found.

Through Nancy’s narrative we learn a bit about the difference in approach to WW2 – Britain’s entry into it, Ireland’s neutrality – and a bit about the elite from the regular person’s perspective. While neither are the focus, they do add to the charm of the narrative, helping it further stand out from the others.

Community is a big part of the novel. Ellie is very, very, often at the coffee shop, she’s very often seeing the same secondary characters, characters who are sometimes (not always) there purely to facilitate this. In most other novels this wouldn’t work, but with Geard’s setting and the overall idea in place of coming home to a more friendly, closer-knit location, it gives the book that added reality, especially as reality often means hanging out at the same places.

We really need to talk about Charlotte, the main character who does not get her own running narrative and only appears in the novel from others’ perspectives – Charlotte is the subject. She’s always there; the novel is effectively hers. As you’d expect, she’s got quite a personality, wants to be more ‘regular’, wants real love and to work and to do the rest that the working classes do. And to some extent she does.

A now-repeating phrase: let’s leave it there.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the epilogue. It’s fantastic, and I don’t think it’s revealing too much (because I don’t want to spoil it here) to say it does an excellent job of asking you to consider what happiness means; it’s a happy scene for the character in it. Top marks to Geard; this and the couples of pages prior are absolutely grand, the kind of satisfying and literary ending you want.

The Midnight House, then, does some subverting, some surprising, and some questioning. With Geard unafraid to be open with her answers in order to play the long game you get a good pace – easy reading at first and great speed at the point of reveal. It has the cosy mystery as well as the thrilling whodunit all in one book and an ending to savour well beyond the last page. Great stuff.

I received this book in preparation for a podcast.

 

Older Entries Newer Entries