The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness

Set in Iceland after World War II when America was trying to buy land to build a NATO airbase, The Atom Station tells the story of a nation in turmoil through the eyes of a young girl from the North. Ugla has come to the capital to work in the household of her Northern MP. She comes South full of the wide open landscapes of the countryside and a love of Icelandic sagas. She hopes to learn to play the harmonium.

What Ugla, our narrator, finds is a city full of people with ideas that have as little connection to reality as the mythical wild horses of her Northern home. The only difference being that the mythical horses may have a weight of history behind them.

Though Ugla finds much that would lean her towards communism, no ism escapes her level-headed observation. She listens to the politicians in her employer’s home and the radical thinkers in the home of her harmonium teacher and treats them all equally, her eyes bent thoroughly on the importance of the basics of living.

Of course there is also love – love within and across social boundaries – offering us an insight into how basic living continues through social upheaval, and offering us a different plot line through which to examine the political lay of the country. Continue reading

Hodder & Stoughton #readwithoutprejudice

The story of Ruth Jefferson, a midwife – delivery nurse, as they’re called in America – , who happens to be black, is asked to stop looking after a child because the parents are white supremacists and want no one of colour to touch their child.

The cogs of this inciting incident move in ways you would expect. Ruth is rightfully angry that her boss would allow this level of discrimination to be practised against her and when she is left alone to monitor the baby she has been asked not to touch, and he has trouble breathing and eventually dies (I’m leaving out her actions so as not to spoil the finer points), you can see where the white supremacists might go next. Ruth is put on trial for murder.

Where the story goes then, though, is not predictable. Ruth’s isn’t the only voice we hear. The white supremacist father, Turk, also has a voice, and so does Ruth’s lawyer, Kennedy. At every turn racism in America is brought under the microscope, challenging characters in ways they didn’t anticipate. The fact that it is still a subject mostly avoided, especially by white authors who make up the majority of published voices in the English-speaking market, makes this novel all the more fascinating. Continue reading

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

I was excited at the prospect of this novel. I loved the idea of a novel about time-travel in which a hero narrates the story of his family from outside the flow of chronological time.

Waldemar is exactly this kind of hero and even better his heroism involves a kind of active inactivity, stuck as he is, writing his family’s history in a place out of the flow of time, hoping to win back the affections of Mrs. Haven, to whom he addresses his history.

Waldemar is the end of a chain of sons and daughters grown mad on a legacy left by Waldemar’s great-grandfather, Ottokar Toula, an amateur physicist who claimed to have understood the nature of time just as Einstein published his theory of relativity, but who died on the day of his discovery of what he called time accidents. Waldemar takes it upon himself to solve this family obsession with time, to understand, explain and explore it. Continue reading

Love across a broken map. An expanded book review

I was lucky enough to be given Love across a broken map by Farhana Shaikh of Dahlia Publishing. Through Byte the Book and the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society, I’d been invited to the All Party Writers Group (APWG) Summer Drinks Reception at the House of Lords. The APWG helps to raise matters that affect writers at a parliamentary level and the theme for this reception was the lack of diversity in the publishing and TV industry. Farhana was in the queue with us to get into the House of Lords and we finally chatted, beyond brief introductions, over a cup of tea having just listened to Baroness Floella Benjamin and Shai Hussain talk about their vision for a diverse publishing and TV industry in which every voice could be represented without stereotype or prejudice.

Baroness Floella Benjamin was a particularly hard act to follow because her fervour for representing our country of diverse peoples in our stories on and off screen was very moving. Don’t we want to project a world in which young people feel included, their voices valued and opinions sought? Shai Hussain had to follow her passion with a story of his own, asking the publishing and TV industries to listen to stories that stand outside typical patterns and that are written by people whose voices have yet to be given a chance to shine.

When Farhana said she ran a small publishing company, Dahlia Publishing, which manages The Asian Writer and Leicester Writes, and that they had a new book coming out that week, Love across a broken map, I quickly offered to review it. How do small presses, often those most interested in publishing diverse writing in all its forms, get their books noticed? How do they get the big reviews? As we know from the recent series of Literary Salons held by Something Rhymed, even getting books written by women, let alone any other diverse group, read and reviewed in mainstream newspapers is a struggle. #readdiverse2016 is a good place to start, but as with #readwomen2015 what happens the following year? Why aren’t good books, why isn’t good writing, rising to the surface as it really should? Continue reading