American Literature

Matrix by Lauren Groff

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Matrix

The Original Girl Power

At seventeen, Marie is kicked out of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court in France and exiled to a godforsaken abbey in the English countryside. Deemed too ugly to marry, Marie, an orphaned ‘bastard’ with royal blood, is stowed away for life. There’s far more to Marie than meets the eye, however, and soon enough, she has turned the poverty-stricken abbey into a powerhouse. The question is: how does Eleanor feel about that?  And, anyway, are women really meant to achieve this much? If a story about nuns in a 12th century abbey sounds dull to you, think again; Matrix by Lauren Groff is an absolutely riveting read.

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Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

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Year of Wonders

A vivid evocation of a village struck by plague

It is 1666 and the plague reaches a remote Derbyshire village of some 360 souls. They decide to cut themselves off from the outside world in order to protect the surrounding villages. Based on a true story, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks  is a haunting and poignant novel told through the voice of an 18-year-old village girl. Although published twenty years ago it has, of course, extra resonance for our times.

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Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

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Great Circle

A bumpy ride

Having just finished Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s a talented writer. Her metaphors are spot on, her ambitions high and she’s an accomplished storyteller – at times. This Booker Prize long-listed novel about Marian Graves, a female pilot in the early 20th century, takes off with a roar, but seems to stall before it picks up again at the very end. Whether or not you’re willing to go on that 600 page journey I’ll leave up to you. I certainly haven’t given up on Shipstead as an author although this book was a bit of a schlep.

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The Yellow Birds

Timely, tough and beautifully written

The desperately sad situation in Afghanistan brought back memories of The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Powers is something as contradictory as a machine gunner and a poet, as well as an extremely talented author. A Michener Fellow of Poetry from the University of Texas at Austin, Powers served as a machine gunner in the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tal Afar in 2004 and 2005. His novel The Yellow Birds, inspired by his own experiences of war, is a superb book, heart wrenching, moving and beautifully written. Read full Review

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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Catch-22

Exposing the absurdity of war

In Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, we find ourselves in the presence of Yossarian, a quizzical and virile man who is serving as a bombardier in the American army, with a tenacious animosity towards flying more missions. Under the command of Colonel Carthart, we are introduced to the amphora of the novel: Catch-22. The single way to be discharged from service in the army is through insanity, though to admit that you are insane shows signs of sanity. Hence, no one will ever be sent home. Overtly or discretely, you can be sure that Catch-22 is haunting you at every turn.

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Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome

An intense and unforgettable read

Mr Ethan Frome still cuts an imposing figure in Starkfield, despite being left ‘but the ruin of a man,’ by a terrible accident some years previously. As mute and melancholy as the wintry New England landscape he inhabits, Ethan stoically shoulders the burden of a cruel past. In Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, we uncover the story of his joyless existence and his one shot at blazing, beautiful love. An intense and compelling addition to our Classics archive, this certainly isn’t a tale for lightweights.

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The Easter Parade

Enduring American classic

After reading a few contemporary duds, I’ve taken refuge in the haven of mid-20th century American literature and read The Easter Parade by Richard Yates.  I adore literature from this era for it’s well-edited, unpretentious yet profound writing and I haven’t been disappointed this time either. We’re in 1930’s New York. Sarah and Emily are sisters and the children of divorced parents Pookie and Walter Grimes. The opening sentence sets the stage: ‘Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.’ Expect no happy ending.

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The Underground Railroad

American slavery with a twist – one of my best reads this year

At the beginning, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead feels like a typical American slave novel (think Beloved, The Polished Hoe, 12 Years a Slave and Roots) with horrifying details of physical and sexual abuse and a particularly evil plantation owner. Whitehead has a surprise in store for us, though, and that’s what makes this novel so original and intriguing.

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We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida

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We Run the Tides

Addictive coming-of-age story

Remember being thirteen? Or rather not? We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida will take you back to your teens the way Sally Rooney took you back to your first love in Normal People. The insecurities, dramas, hopes, lies, friendships, crushes, embarrassments; Vida reminds us what a roller-coaster of emotions puberty is through the story of headstrong Eulabee and her best friend, the bewitchingly beautiful and charismatic Maria Fabiola. Addictive reading.

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Real Life by Brandon Taylor

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Real Life

Honest, painful, and real

Set in a Midwestern town, Booker Prize short-listed Real Life by Brandon Taylor follows Wallace, a black biochemistry postgraduate student. Wallace is struggling; his father has just passed away, his experiment has been destroyed by contamination and the relationship with his friends is crumbling. Seeking a source of temporary relief, Wallace decides to ‘meet his friends at the pier after all’. Yet, as the summer draws to close, it isn’t just the season longing for change in this evocative and provocative novel.

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