My Pen Is The Wing Of A Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women — a fabulous anthology of short stories translated from Dari and Pashto. It is the culmination of a two-year project initiated by Lucy Hannah, funded by the Jan Michalski Foundation and managed by an editorial team led by Will Forrester. Bios of the authors cannot be printed in the book for their safety especially after the takeover of #Afghanistan by the #Taliban in August 2021. ( Hachette India)
Akwaeke Ezmi’s (They/them) You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty is an incredibly old-fashioned love story in modern trappings. They explore love after experiencing intense grief in this novel. It is unexpected as Ezmi is known for writing about the gender fluid spaces within an African social context, sometimes even with autobiographical elements. But this novel is freer, it is about Ezmi growing as a writer and not being confined to a single narrative, based on firsthand experience. ( Faber Books )
Acclaimed poet Ngyuen Phan Que Mai’s debut novel The Mountains Sing is an astonishing account of the Vietnam war. Is it fact? Is it fiction? Is it faction? Just read it even though it is not always easy given that it is based on meticulous research and oral histories too. I began it months ago, finished it this weekend. It needs long pauses between reading spurts. ( HarperCollins India)
The Betrayal of Anne Frank by Rosemary Sullivan is the account of a cold case. Who betrayed Anne Frank to the Nazis? How did her family get on to the last train to Auschwitz? Why do people betray their own? Decades later, with the rise of fascism in many nations, this book is deeply disturbing to read but also essential. I think you should read it now. It is imperative that you do. Learn about operations that have not gone out of fashion. They still exist. The betrayal by one’s community is the most devastating betrayal ever. Judases exist. Even now. And that is what is extremely disturbing. (HarperCollins India)
“As we like to say,” Dr. Vidal continued, “Love is particular. You’re an individual — you’re not a ‘type’/ You deserve to be with someone who appreciates you for your idiosyncrasies, and vice versa. What it comes to love, we want you to believe that anything is possible.“
Torey Henwood Hoen’s debut novel The ARC is about a dating agency of the same name ( Corvus imprint, Atlantic Books). The protagonist, Ursula Byrne, a successful architect, pays a hefty fee to subscribe to their services. Eighty percent of US$40,500 is to be paid upfront and twenty percent after eighteen months of the client having spent time with the partner they were introduced to via the dating app. Ursula is introduced to Rafael and they have an immediate connection. But it takes them a while to recognise that they are meant for each other, while being plagued by doubts about the dating agency. The ARC is a crackling mix of light romantic fiction with some literary fiction qualities and a magnificent dose of a strong, independent woman. Increasingly commercial fiction has stronger women characters who are phenomenal role models for their readers. It is a segment of readers that are probably less than thirty five years and are probably not as well versed with the intricacies of various women’s movements but are benefitting from the many freedoms won. Reading The ARC confirms this viewpoint that Ursula is very capable of standing her own in any kind of a corporate set up but her vulnerability is visible when she is alone at home with her adopted cat. The ARC has a very predictable ( but extremely satisfying) conclusion but it is probably exactly what we need to read in this neverending pandemic. It reminds us of the joy that can be experienced in simple acts such as finding the right person to love.
And when coincidentally, tweets like this pop up on Valentine’s Day when I was reading the book, you know that such books like The ARC will exist for a very long time. Dating apps, matchmakers, dating websites and matrimonial sites will never go out of fashion. Nor will literature based upon romance. Everyone wants to experience it at least once.
But for me, the true gift was to watch them work and talk unconstrained. No men chaperoned them here, in thsi space sacred to women and thr goddess. I could watch the animation light their young faces and I could hear their breathless, excited conversations conversations echo of two sisters who had loved each other all those years ago in Crete.
In Ariadne, Jennifer Saint ( Hachette India) has not deviated from the well-told Greek myths. Instead she is so familiar with them, even the number of variations, that she is unfazed about multiple versions floating about. She knows the basic elements of every story, every Olympian God, every mortal, the legends and acts. Like an old-fashioned storyteller she weaves the stories together seamlessly. They are so smoothly nested inside one another without being jarring. The digressions, if you can call them that, happen beautifully. It is almost as if Ariadne becomes the reason to retell many of the popular Greek myths. It is the mesmerising storytelling meant for children but told to adults. It works. So many of the stories such as the twelve labours of Heracles, various quests of Theseus, King Minos, Minotaur, Zeus/Herald and Dionysius, travel to Hades, Medea, King Midas, Jason and the golden fleece and much, much more.
Of course the focus is on the two sisters Ariadne and Phaedra. It becomes an excuse to explore sisterhood, friendships among women, building a community of women as Phaedra did when she invited talented weavers across Athens to create a bigger peplos than has ever been seen before, “big enough for the state of Athen at the heart of our city, and magnificent enough to please the goddess”. Her descriptions are stunning. For instance, this beautiful description of Helios’s daughter, Pasiphae, by her daughter, Ariadne.
Unlike the searing blaze of my grandfather, she shimmered with a gentle radiance. I remember the soft beams of her strange, bronze-tinged eyes, the warmth of summer in her embrace and the molten sunshine in her laughter.
The men too are discussed from the perspective of the women. It is much like the exploration Chitra Bannerji Divakurni did in The Palace of Illusions. Suddenly, the women in these myths/epics came alive as women of strength and character, not neceaarily as pawns in the hands of men. Having said that, Ariadne follows in the very contemporary trend of writers such as Pat Barker, Madeline Miller, and Natalie Haynes in retelling the Greek myths by exploring modern and liberal aspects. Earlier they may have only been hinted at but are now explored with confidence.
S. J. Bennett’s Windsor Knot( Harper Collins India) is her first mystery novel in this newly launched series. It is also the beloved young adult author’s debut foray into adult literature. In it, she has the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II as an investigator. Rozie Oshodi is the Queen’s assistant private secretary who doubles up as her sidekick investigator. According to the author, “the Queen’s new Assistant Private Secretary. Rozie is a Nigerian Londoner who grew up in a council estate in Notting Hill and went on to serve in Afghanistan as a captain in the British Army. She is quick-witted, brave and somewhat amazed to find the Queen is asking her to do increasingly unusual things.” In fact, the real Queen’s current equerry is Lieutenant Colonel Nana Kofi Twumasi-Ankrah, a Ghanaian-born British army officer. Like Rozie in the book, he’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. S.J. Bennett adds:
I’ve always written books with a feminist element to them, and I’m fascinated by the idea of a ‘little old lady’ surrounded by men, someone who is deeply respected, but not always taken seriously. In this series, the Queen (my Queen) has learned that she can trust only certain women to keep her secrets. They are her assistant private secretaries, a role I interviewed for myself after a brief career as a strategy consultant with McKinsey. I’ll never forget walking across the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. I didn’t get that job in the end, and it’s still the one that got away.
The Windsor Knot investigates the mysterious death of a Russian on the premises of Windsor Castle. The novel is set at the time the Queen is 89 and approaching her ninetieth year. She comes across as a sparkling old lady who is very aware of the manner in which she should conduct herself as a British monarch and yet, she seems to exhibit the excitement and enthusiasm of a little school girl in getting to the truth about Maksim Brodsky, the Russian pianist. He had been invited to entertain her guests the previous night at dinner. The manner in which he is found in his room is scandalous and all attempts are made to ensure that the story is underplayed. More so, when they discover a little more about his Russian connections. Yet, those in the know, including the Queen, cannot help but speculate on the circumstances of the death. More so, since Brodsky was known to also run a political blog. So could he have possibly fallen foul of the Russian authorities, especially Putin? ( The eerie parallels of political intrigue to the ongoing story about Roman Protasevich, the Belarus blogger, are purely coincidental. Prostasevich has gone on record saying that the authorities will kill him for managing Telegram channels broadcasting mass protests against the Belarus leader, Alexander Lukashenko. )
Back to the novel. The Queen’s top policemen are investigating the crime. They are Ravi Singh, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police; Gavin Humphreys, Director General of MI5 and the most junior of the trio, Detective Chief Inspector David Strong. They are a motley bunch who are perfect team in this mystery story. The author has everything, diversity, true representation of British society, a peep into royalty, the secret conversations, the investigation, and it is pure delight in reading excellent English, nuanced and truly Queen’s English without having to read mangled words and phrases.
I truly love how the author has set her characters in place. I can just see them develop and if she maintains the pace of creating two novels a year, she is on to an excellent formula. I hope she does not run out of ideas and plot settings. First books in a series are always dicey but S. J. Bennett is on to a good thing with this launch. It is the perfect antidote for the gloom and doom that we are surrounded by. This is just the kind of lighthearted banter, mixed with some detective work, that we as readers need to help us look the other way during theese dark pandemic days. Life goes on despite being reminded of our mortality on a daily basis.
It is the perfect blend of Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Very English. Very much aware and happy being in the space it inhabits. And makes the best of the scenario. You don’t need to be a Royalist or an Anglophile to appreciate this kind of storytelling. Just go with it and enjoy it. The author has a very tight control on the language. She will hone her point-of-view skills fairly soon, once the characters begin to assert themselves. The first book is always a testing ground for the roles everyone will play and the author figuring out how to manipulate the scene. Soon everyone will find their niche and it will develop beautifully. I am so sure of it. This first book has sufficient glimpses of a good series in the making.
In fact, the first volume has an extract from the opening pages of the second novel in the series scheduled for publication in November 2021. It is called The Mystery of the Faberge Egg. I cannot wait to read it. Just as the webseries, The Crown, inspired this storyline, these books need to launch a webseries of their own.
On a drive one English spring evening, I found myself thinking about an episode of The Crown. The young Queen Elizabeth II had picked up a painted soldier from a model battlefield and absentmindedly returned him to the wrong place. Her punctilious private secretary corrected the mistake. And I thought to myself that, while it made a nice observation about the private secretary, it was something the Queen – the woman I knew – would never have done. I haven’t met her, but my father has, many times. In the course of a long career in the army, he’s hosted her at the Tower of London, drunk cocktails on the Royal Yacht Britannia and been awarded medals at Buckingham Palace. The woman my father knows is funny, engaged, well-informed and good company. She would have understood that it’s impolite to fiddle with someone else’s model battlefield, and if she’d ever moved a soldier it would have been to put him in the right place, not the wrong one. That got me thinking, here’s a woman with a lifetime of learning, who is often thought of as not very clever. But she’s recognised as a world expert on horse racing, and there are many other fields besides, such as military history, that she knows extremely well. Also, while we’re all looking at her, she’s looking out. She must spot things all the time that others don’t see. What a perfect set-up for a detective. The woman I know could do it brilliantly.
Meanwhile, read The Windsor’s Knot — it is the perfect read.
I read two books in quick succession — Consent and My Dark Vanessa ( HarperCollins). Both deal with the same subject. Grooming of a young school girl by a much older man, a writer / school teacher. The difference being that “Consent” is a true account by Vanessa Springora about her being groomed by French literary giant Gabriel Matzneff. It is a horrifying account of a 14-year-old girl groomed by a man who was at the time fifty years old. It is sickening. Springora, the head of the Julliard publishing house, met Matzneff at a dinner with her mother. ( https://www.theguardian.com/…/french-publishing-boss…) She was going through a troubled childhood as her parents were divorcing. Springora began a relationship with Matzneff but despite breaking it off two years later, she was not rid of the man for the next few decades. He pursued her. He stalked her. To the extent he wrote letters to her bosses in the publishing publishing she worked in. Ultimately, the Me Too movement happened, giving her the space to write her account of the events. Consent has been translated by Natasha Lehrer.
It is a memoir that flits between the perspective of the 14yo school girl and the 47yo Springora. It is disturbing. The school girl participates in the relationship with a much older man, but the adult Vanessa questions some of the acts/moments. She is able to see through the sexual exploitation and misogyny of the male writer and the protection he got from his social circle. It is incomprehensible to her. Consent is minimalistic. It does not delve into too many gory details but what the author chooses to share are emotionally shattering. It is inexplicable why this man was protected so well by the French establishment. If anyone had dared to look close enough, the evidence was apparent in the “illustrious” literary career where Matzneff published books that were thinly veiled accounts of his paedophilic acts, letters with his under-age mistresses and his regular visits to the Philippines to sexually exploit boys as young as eleven years old. Yet, Springora too only found the courage to reveal her dark secret after the Me Too movement became popular. She was relieved when she showed her mother this manuscript, who upon reading it said, “Don’t change a thing. This is your story.”
Towards the conclusion of the memoir, she writes:
I spent a long time thinking about the breach or confidentiality, particularly on a legal area that is otherwise strictly controlled, and I could only come up with one explanation. If it is illegal for an adult to have a sexual relationship with a minor who is under the age of fifteen, why is it tolerated when it is perpetrated by a representative of the artistic elite — a photographer, writer, filmmaker, or painter? It seems that an artist is of a separate caste, a being with superior virtues granted the ultimate authorization, in return for which he is required only to create an original and subversive piece of work. A sort of aristocrat in possession of exceptional privileges before whom we, in a state of blind stupefaction, suspend all judgement.
Were any other person to publish on social media a description of having sex with a child in the Philippines or brag about his collection of fourteen-year-old mistresses, he would find himself dealing with the police and be instantly considered a criminal.
Apart from artists, we have witnessed only Catholic priests being bestowed such a level of impunity.
Does literature really excuse everything?
It is a question that the reader is left asking with My Dark Vanessa. Nearly twenty years in the making and endorsed by Stephen King, it too explores the grooming of a young school girl by her English teacher. King calls it is a “hard story to read” and it is. Maybe because Kate Russell’s imagination is very detailed and sometimes gut-wrenching. It is torture to read this story. Initially I stopped reading it after a few pages but then managed to resume reading it after having finished reading Consent.
Somehow My Dark Vanessa comes across as a brilliantly crafted story but it is not as easy to read as Consent. Every despicable encounter/event in “Consent” is meticulously documented but it is shocking to read for the complicity of the French elite in permitting the writer to flourish. Not only did his books sell well, but he was lauded with honours, practically given an expense account by his publishers and the French state. It is astonishing. Whereas My Dark Vanessa reads like fiction although the events described in it are plausible. It is fiction but it sometimes seems to stem from an overactive imagination. The distinction is real. It is unsurprising that My Dark Vanessa has been shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2021.
Interestingly Vanessa Springora’s memoir Consent has been endorsed by Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa, as “A gut-punch of a memoir with prose that cuts like a knife.”
Currently the controversy about Blake Bailey, the biographer of Philip Roth, is raging in the world of Anglo-American publishing. Take for instance this article published in the Slate, called “Mr Bailey’s Class“. It eerily parallels the events described in My Dark Vanessa and Lisa Taddeo’s nonfiction Three Women, where the only girl who agreed to be identified by her real name was Maggie. She spoke about her grooming by her teacher and later taking him to court. It is hard at such moments to distinguish between what is real and what is fiction.
These kinds of stories are not going away in a hurry. There are many, many more. Predatory men and women exist. It is a fact. Children are vulnerable. These books may only focus upon young girls but there is no denying that boys too are victimised.There is no telling how much longer will these stories have to be constantly told for there to be some positive change in the attitude of individuals and society. But for now, read these stories.
Chris Power’s debut novel, A Lonely Man ( Faber and Faber) gets a little tough to read in the middle due to the complexity of keeping pace with the Russian drama but as a literary construct trying to make sense of this very bizarre new world is fascinating. The clever literary device of distancing oneself from the actual action while naming very real names who have been at loggerheads with the Putin administration is very well done. It is an artifice that enables the narrator/ghostwriter to continually distance himself from the ugly world of Russian mafia and more. Yet, the unsettling ending to the novel leaves the reader gasping with the realisation that there is actually a very, very thin dividing line between reality and fiction.
Seriously, what is there not like about this debut novel. It has all the masala of a staid, boring, writer, a family man, who is pulled into telling the life story of another man, a ghostwriter. Roles are reversed and the original writer, Robert, who is facing writer’s block, suddenly recovers his writing abilities when trying to retell Patrick’s story. One that is unclear whether it is true or not but it is certainly fascinating. So while it has been established through the course of the novel that Robert himself can be prone to exaggeration while ghostwriting biographies that turned into bestsellers, it becomes increasingly hard to prove the truth of his current story. Robert claims to have been hired to ghostwrite the story of a Russian mafiosi, except that the man is discovered dead in a suspected suicide. Ever since then Robert has been on the run fearing for his life. The entire action of the plot takes place in Berlin and Sweden. Also, if one is familiar with the Russian exiles and more, as has trickled into many newspapers and documentaries, it makes this book much easier to read. But no harm done if you are unfamiliar with the names. It is just that then the reader will spend some excruciatingly distracting moments googling for the names.
This elegantly-told thriller, very gently turns a humdrum middle class reality into a sinister, dark world, and needs to be optioned for film pretty soon. Till then, read it. Enjoy it.
It is at times like this that it becomes difficult to diffrentiate between truth and fiction. Alexey Navalny is one of the Russian figures mentioned in the novel, as being one of the severest critics of Putin and having to suffer consequences like many others have in the past.
This is an utterly charming, sweet, heartwarming novel about two shy men — Leonard and Hungry Paul. Why he is called “Hungry” is never explained. Both are single and both continue to inhabit their parents home — a deed that in itself is unusual for adult men. Leonard ghostwrites children’s encyclopaedias and genuinely loves his work as these kinds of books gave him joy in his childhood. He is passionate about his writing and factchecking. Whereas Hungry Paul likes to be mostly at home with his parents and sometimes is called in to help with the local postoffice. Leonard has recently lost his mother and misses her but continues to meet Hungry Paul regularly. The friends meet in peaceful silence and are happy to have meandering conversations while playing board games. There is a gentleness to the story which seems to reflect the slow, ordinariness of their lives. But it does not rankle anyone, least of all the characters themselves. They are at peace being who they are. A sentiment that Leonard shares when wooing his soon-to-be girlfriend Shelley. He reminds her that anyone can say beautiful things at any point but that is not real and does not prove anything. Most importantly he says, “I am not scared to be myself.”
This novel is full of lovely insights about character and of course creating books, such as:
Encyclopaedias were books you were meant to immerse yourself in. They created their own worlds with magical pairings of writers and illustrators, using short exciting prose with memorable tableaux, drawn in a way that was meant to look lifelike but not so detailed that a young seven-year-old couldn’t attempt to copy the picture themselves. Yes, they were factual books, but they weren’t just books of facts. They were storytelling books that used the world around us merely as a starting point, as kindling for a child’s imagination.
He had always pictured the author and illustrator as intrepid, inseparable friends who wrote the books about facts they had discovered themselves. The books were written and illustrated with such a personal touch that it was hard to imagine that the people involved had not actually seen all the animals and shared campfires with all the tribes in the pictures. As a child, they showed him what life could be like: an adventure undertaken in the name of curiosity alone. He had resolved to do everything in those books: climb Mount Everest, swim in a shark cage, walk on a tightrope over Niagara Falls, and pull himself out of quicksand.
( pp. 63-64)
Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession is a sleeper hit for Bluemoose Books— it is the perfect healing read during the pandemic. It has generated a lot of chatter on social media with everyone who has read it, recommending it to others, creating the best kind of buzz: word-of-mouth publicity. No wonder it has been selected as the 2021 One Dublin One Book choice in April!
This book arrived today — Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins by David Ashby. My daughter immediately picked it up and was glued to it. Refused to budge. Ever so often one heard snorts of laughter and giggles. Or she would turn up with eyes shining and read out snippets from the book and repeat to say how much she was loving it. Made no difference to her whether I had understood the snippet or not, she was just very delighted with the story. It had magic, goblins, an invisible dog, children and the pace was just right.
Now I have been instructed to read it. You must.
Oh, BTW, David Ashby wrote this book to disprove a fortune teller who had predicted that David would never write a book. Well, now he has and if kid is to be believed, it is an “AWESOME BOOK!”
Cover illustration is by Jen Khatun and cover design by Anna Morrison.
25 Jan 2021
Update: On Instagram, David Ashby spotted the post and has been delighted with my daughter’s response. This is what he wrote: I am so happy to hear that Sarah enjoyed reading #Gribblebob – and especially that she read bits of it out loud to you! When I wrote it I read each new chapter out loud to my children as a bedtime story and so it’s lovely to know that it still works that way. Please tell her that I think she’s an AWESOME READER!!
Here is a short clip on fanfiction. It was triggered by a conversation I had with a friend upon reading Keshav Guha’s debut novel Accidental Magic ( Harper Collins India ) and Stephen Alter’s Feral Dreams ( Aleph Publications). This is a new space for modern literature especially as access to the Internet and new forms of edevices proliferate. As I say in the video, The Wired noted in 2015 that more than 1 billion minutes per month were being spent either creating or reading material on fanfiction websites such as Wattpad. Of these 90% of the users accessed the websites using their mobiles. Fanfiction is a modern literary phenomenon whose popularity is astonishing and understandable. It permits people who are infatuated with the books that they have read, characters, plots and/or literary landscapes to explore the oft asked question, “What If?”. It is also permitted to flourish by the original creators as long it sticks within the purview of the fair use clause of copyright laws and is not commercially exploited. It is a win-win situation as it allows the readers to exercise their writing skills, get feedback in real time from other users and it allows the writers to see their stories/characters remain in focus. In fact in a Bookseller article discussing Rainbow Rowell writing Harry Potter fan fiction, quoted a spokesman for Rowling’s literary agency, The Neil Blair Partnership, to say: “Our view on Harry Potter fan fiction is broadly that it should be non-commercial and should also not be distributed through commercial websites. Writers should write under their own name and not as J K Rowling. Content should not be inappropriate – also any content not suitable for young readers should be marked as age restricted.”
Fanfiction writing has spawned some bestselling authors in the West such as E L James of Fifty Shades of Grey and Cassandra Clare who wrote the Shadowhunter series. In India, it is still restricted to online spaces but in print there are a few examples. Not exactly in the definition of what constitutes fan fiction, a tribute, an imitative act, an exploration but Keshav Guha writes a form of fiction that is pays obeisance to Pottermania but also investigates what it means to be in this mostly online world. Stephen Alter’s Feral Dreams extends the story beyond the original and makes it his own but in his case the original work is out of the copyright domain, so these literary creations using the original characters are absolutely acceptable.
Sherlock Holmes is another literary character who has given rise to many, many fan fiction stories — offline and online. People have explored this for years and publishers regularly commission stories for young and older readers.
The struggle of women in India to have independent identities and to rise above patriarchy runs deep, but the status of women fighting for their rights is not often represented in literature. However, a seminal bestselling book of 2014 raised the issue of patriarchy and the fight of a single mother to establish her identity in the face of power, money, deceit, and treachery. Ratna Vira’s debut novel, Daughter By Court Order, is the story of a woman fighting for her right to be recognised as a daughter. This is a must read and it explores with sensitivity and frankness the real issues that women in India deal with.