The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan (Hogarth, 2016)
This novel has a simple plot with a high impact. It takes place in the winter of 2020, not too long from now, in the UK. The main character leaves London when his mother dies and leaves him a home in a trailer park in northern Scotland. Due to climate change, the winter is much, much colder than normal (even for northern Scotland) – essentially a new Ice Age. He makes friends with his neighbors, a single woman and her transgender teen, and they get through the winter together. That’s it, but it’s worth reading.
The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2015)
Bill Bryson is a very entertaining writer of non-fiction, a genre not generally known for its humor. Although I have only read A Short History of Nearly Everything, he has authored many other popular books. In this one he travels across the United Kingdom from the southern to northernmost points, describing the various cities and villages that he visits on foot, by bus, by train or by car. It is not meant to be a guide to specific places to stay, but more of a verbal tour and commentary – like a television travel program. I really enjoyed the way he brought the country to life for me.
Bryson’s background is in journalism, but he writes about the places he visits in a casual and humorous voice that he probably couldn’t get away with in everyday print journalism (at least not the parts where he reveals his liberal political views). I was surprised to learn that Bryson has British citizenship and has lived in England for forty years, but still thinks of himself as an American. I highly recommend this book if you’ve never been to the UK and want to know what it’s like, although since I haven’t been there myself I can’t vouch for how accurate it is.
Emma: a modern retelling by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon Books, 2014)
I have read that there is a project among fiction publishers where modern writers retell Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in twenty-first century settings, as some kind of homage to Austen. This novel is Alexander McCall Smith’s contribution. In my opinion it’s better than the original, but I’m one of the few people in the world who hated Pride and Prejudice, so this is not a high bar. Although I am normally a fan of Alexander McCall Smith, I disliked this book for many of the same reasons I disliked the original. There’s no real plot; it’s just a lengthy and boring description of the lives of rich British people who are looking for husbands (for themselves and their peers) to help them continue their privileged lives. The main characters are just as unlikable as Austen’s original ones, although Smith does work in some commentary on their lack of understanding of the lives of the less affluent. Obviously I was unimpressed, but readers who love Jane Austen’s work might well enjoy this novel too.
One Day by David Nicholls (Vintage Books, 2009)
This novel comes packaged with two full pages of glowing reviews from professional reviewers, but I didn’t actually enjoy it that much. It’s the love story of a young British man and woman, and their adventures over the fifteen years after they meet at university. Each chapter takes place on the same date (July 15) of the year, but you don’t find out until the end why this date is chosen. The novel is probably most meaningful for British readers in their forties because they would be able to relate to the events and experiences the main characters go through on their way to finally being a couple.
Us by David Nicholls (HarperCollins, 2014)
Based on the book jacket describing a failing marriage, I was worried that this novel was going to be too emotional and melodramatic for my taste. But the male protagonist had a self-deprecating sense of humor that kept the drama at a respectable distance. The basic plot involves a couple taking a month-long tour of Europe with their son the summer before he starts college. The structure of the novel, at least for the first half, consists of alternating chapters describing how the couple met, married, and raised the son, and their present day adventures in various cities in Europe. The wife and son are both artists, but the husband is a biochemist. The differences in personality between husband and wife and between husband and son are the cause of most of their problems. Yet, it all works out all right in the end.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (Hogarth, 2014)
The first thing you notice about this book is that the edges are gilt, like a Bible or other sacred book. This is not a coincidence. ‘The book of strange things’ is what the aliens in the story call our Bible. In this science fiction tale, an English pastor is recruited by a corporation to travel to a distant planet as a missionary to the sentient humanoid species there. It turns out that after some unspecified negative experiences, the natives have only agreed to cooperate with the small settlement of human colonists (primarily engineers) if they send them a missionary from Earth. Unlike the situation most missionaries encounter, the natives are already familiar with Christianity from a previous missionary’s work. They crave more knowledge of the religion, so the new church grows rapidly and easily. The pastor’s positive experiences are in marked contrast to those of his wife who had to stay behind on Earth. Things back home are rapidly falling apart due to climate change (earthquakes, flooding etc) and his wife lacks a good support network to help her cope. This is a page turner that Christian science fiction fans will enjoy.
Maeve’s Times: In Her Own Words by Maeve Binchy, Edited by Roisin Ingle (Alfred A, Knopf, 2014)
This book is an enjoyable compilation of newspaper articles published in the Irish Times by novelist Maeve Binchy (a staple of public library fiction sections). From 1964 until her death in 2012, Maeve Binchy wrote regularly for the “lifestyle” section of the Dublin newspaper, as well as posting travel articles and news reports from locations around the world. Binchy’s observations of people and everyday life ring true in her unique voice, even for those of us who don’t understand her Irish references. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of Binchy’s novels, you’ll appreciate this final chance to hear Maeve Binchy in her own words.