Readers’ corner – September to October 2022

Every month I give my brief take on books I’ve been reading, and an article or two that I’d recommend from my travels on the internet.

Here’s what’s been keeping me busy since my last post:

Circus of Wonders – Elizabeth Macneal (Picador)

Imagine if your father sold you to the circus? That’s what happens to Nell, who lives in poverty in rural Victorian Britain, literally up to her elbows in flowers that she and other people pick to be sent to far-off markets. Nell is different – she has speckled skin. So when the circus comes to town, her father sees his chance and sells her to Jasper Jupiter, an unpleasant man with ambitions for his Circus of Wonders.

Turns out that Jasper has a nicer, younger brother called Toby… you think you know where this is going, right? That Nell falls in love with Toby, who rescues her after many daring adventures. Thing is: that’s not what happens at all. Instead Nell falls in love with the limelight and attention; she finds she is good at entrancing an audience. She does fall in love with Toby, and there are some daring adventures. But the book is much more than that. It’s a look into the underbelly of the Victorian mania for ‘freak’ shows, and an exploration of what liberation might look like.

Songs of the Humpback Whale – Jodi Piccoult (Hodder)

A note from author at the front of this novel says it was her first book, published when she was in her twenties, in 1992. She’s written close on 30 books – so it’s interesting to read the first.

For me, its safe to say she’s improved over time.

Songs is a very good book, with a complex structure and a story to tell about the interwoven lives of a mother and daughter at a time when things are changing for both of them.

Jane (the mother) and Rachel (the daughter) leave their family home after a break in Jane’s marriage. They travel across the United States to Jane’s brother, and her husband Oliver follows them across the country. Things both lovely and tragic happen when Jane reaches her brother, and it all comes together when Oliver finally finds them.
So – a gripping tale that I read to the end. But I was left feeling that the motivations of the characters were either opaque or improbable. And Jane’s dangerous blindness to her daughter’s life was simply irritating by the end of the book.

Blue Monday – Nicci French (Michael Joseph)

Nicci French (actually the writing team Nicci Gerrard and husband Sean French) is my go-to for a good detective novel. Blue Monday, the first of a series featuring psychoanalyst Frieda Klein, delivers the goods. Klein finds herself in the middle of a hunt for an abducted child, courtesy of the dreams of a patient. There’s a twist at the end, and the pleasurable anticipation of tracking down and reading the next in the series.

Recommended online reading

Would It Really Work to Punch a Lion in the Face? What If You’re Idris Elba?

I came across this article courtesy of one of my favourite email newsletters (The Whippet by Australian writer McKinley Valentine). The kick-off is that Idris Elba punches a lion in the face in a new movie. So Slate intern Emma Wallenbrock sets out to establish if that’s a thing. Some serious scientists weigh in. General takeaway: don’t try this at home.

On the basis of this article, Slate should be giving Wallenbrock a full-time job.

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Main picture: JOSHUA COLEMAN, Unsplash

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