Review Roundup: Meat and Two Loves Edition

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A quick summary of some books I’ve recently read.

Five Came Back coverFive Came Back by Mark Harris.

After the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1942, five major Hollywood directors volunteered for active duty in the US Army: Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wylder, John Huston and George Stevens. None of them were in any danger of being drafted and some were too old or medically unfit to qualify in the first place. Yet they took indefinite leave from their flourishing careers to join the war effort, primarily making army documentaries, training videos, propaganda and even cartoons, all to contribute their much lauded skills to what they saw as a higher cause.

Mark Harris remains one of the sharpest and most interesting writers in film criticism and history. His previous work Scenes From a Revolution crafted a gripping narrative of the changing film industry from the five films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1967. Here, his ambitions are even more lofty: Examine the ways in which the film industry advanced the American military during World War Two, told through the study of five separate directors. Thanks to an enormous amount of research combined with industry know-how, political analysis and a touch of glitzy gossip, Harris has crafted something equal parts revealing and riveting. What could read as dense and impenetrable is instead as thrilling as many of the movies discussed.

Once Upon a Marquess by Courtney Milan.Once Upon a Marquess cover

Once upon a time, Judith Worth was a lady with bright prospects and a blossoming romance with Christian, a childhood friend. That was before her father and brother Anthony were exposed as traitors and the family were stripped of their titles and land, leaving Judith to raise her remaining siblings in drastically reduced circumstances. Several years later, she requires Christian’s assistance to help keep her siblings’s futures bright, an act she’s less than thrilled with seeing as Christian was the one who ratted her family out in the first place.

Signaling Milan’s much awaited return to historical romance after dipping her toes into the contemporary world, One Upon a Marquess is the first novel in the Worth Saga. With the ambitious world whose foundations lie in this book, the potential for something of immense scope is staggering. Here, we are granted glimpses into a world where colonialism has paid off well for the white people with the ships to the backdrop of the Opium Wars, with hints of the conflict amongst those in power over the impact of the trade.

Milan’s novels are practically trademarked by their immense compassion for her characters, particularly the women who are often forced to be pragmatic and self-sacrificing with little to no reward for it. Judith is smothered by the weight of what she must do to scrape together a good future for her siblings, and her lack of self-care eventually breaks through in a moment of emotional release. The novel is also unique in its depiction of neuroatypical characters in a historical setting. Judith’s sister and Christian display actions that label them as weird or difficult in contemporary society, yet they’re handled with skill by Milan, who offers no easy explanations or quick fix cures.

It’s arguably Milan’s funniest novel, with bird puns and kittens galore, yet it’s probably also her least romance focused. Christian and Judith’s second chance at love feels like an endnote rather than a proper element of the story. What’s there is interesting and sweet, but with such a wide reaching world being built around it, it can’t help but stand out for its sketchiness.

The abrupt ending and cliffhanger may also rub some readers the wrong way, but the sheer promise of Once Upon a Marquess is enough to keep fans waiting eagerly for more from the Worths.

The Vegetarian CoverThe Vegetarian by Han Kang.

Yeong-hye had a dream, and as a result of it has decided to stop eating meat. This is a most inconvenient development for her husband, who finds comfort in their mundane yet reasonably content and structured life together. As Yeong-hye’s diet becomes more restricting and she borders on starvation, her family struggle to deal with the irrevocable destruction of their ordinary lives.

Kang’s work, translated by Deborah Smith, is a short but bracing and visceral read; The Yellow Wallpaper as directed by David Cronenberg. Split into three parts, told from the points of view of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister, each segment deals with the ramifications of her decision and the effect it has on them. While neither her husband or brother-in-law seem too focused on Yeong-hye’s life or safety, we are given a glimpse into the ways in which they deal – or don’t – with the opposition to societal expectations. Her refusal to eat meat or act in a way deemed normal by family, friends and total strangers impacts everyone, and they seem more annoyed by that than Yeong-hye’s eventual descent into mental illness.

Kang’s prose shifts with these structural changes – from the exasperation and ignorance of Yeong-hye’s husband to the narcissism and desire of her brother-in-law to the splintering reason of her sister, interspersed with the shocking violence of her own dreams. Like those nightmares that inspire such a dramatic life change, her living days become saturated in brutality and pain, almost always at the hands of men. The smothering pressure of normal expectations hurts everyone.

With translated fiction still a tiny minority of the British publishing scene, it’s a joy to discover the new and strange from across the globe. Han Kang has certainly aroused the interest of many readers, myself included, so I heartily recommend the hallucinogenic grotesque of The Vegetarian.

Act Like It by Lucy Parker.Act Like It cover

Every now and then, a romance novel comes along that has the entire community of readers chomping at the bit to recommend it and descend into the traditional pile of squee. While hype of all forms tends to leave me cringing and more likely to avoid the book in question, even I can only hold out for so long.

Act Like It, the debut contemporary romance by Lucy Parker, comes with the Smart Bitches seal of approval, and I’m delighted to be by their side on the hype train. The novel, set in the world of West End theatre, centres on Lainey, an up and coming star of the stage who must suffer the indignity of kissing her ex-boyfriend 8 shows a week, made all the worse by the very public nature of his infidelities. Alongside them is Richard Troy, essentially the more volatile Mark Rylance of this world if Rylance looked like Richard Armitage. Troy is wildly talented, obscenely wealthy and basically the biggest pain in the arse. Following a very public temper tantrum, the producers of the show fall into damage control to help his reputation and increase ticket sales. Enter Lainey and a fake relationship to titillate the tabloids and make Troy seem like less of an ogre. Of course, it’s never that simple.

Parker’s debut is a highly confident effort with a strong grasp of its setting. Bar one notable geographical language slip – no kindergartens in UK – the world feels lived in and authentically London, right down to the insults. There’s charm to spare and much to love for romance fans who like their antagonistic pairings with a hefty side order of “I don’t like her and can’t stop thinking about her, dammit”. Lainey refuses to bow to Troy’s demands or sneering elitism, and Troy himself manages to make the journey from jerk to romantic hero in a satisfying manner.

It’s easy to see why so many readers have been utterly charmed by Act Like It. It’s a self-contained story with a good balance of laughs, emotion, character development, setting and good old fashioned sex scenes. While the conclusion is a little too neat and wrapped up quicker than desired – the book easily could have been an extra chapter long to flesh it out – Parker has already established herself as one to watch.

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