“But perhaps Laura wasn’t very different from other people after all. Perhaps she was the same – the same as some odd, skewed element in them that most people keep hidden but that Laura did not, and this was why she frightened them.”

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Fasting, Feasting – Anita Desai

This is a captivating, readable and sad story about the repressed upbringing of a traditional, aspirational Indian family.

It focuses on a sister and a brother, with the novel split into two halves, focusing on each.

Uma is a kind but not beautiful or especially competent girl who watches other girls be married off and boys get an education. Her parents – the strict Mama and worried Papa – take her out of school to look after her younger brother and arrange for two marriages for her, both of which turn out to be scams, and eventually she is left at home, little more than a help. She longs to volunteer at local Christian school, the only people that have ever offered them any autonomy, but her parents refuse.

Arun, as a boy is offered so much more, but in a way that has a similarly repressive effect. From a young age he is at school and in tutoring almost constantly, eventually getting into a good university in the States. But his upbringing has made him chronically introverted and unable to deal with the people and situations he encounters – the other students and especially the Pattons, the American family he stays with over the summer. Mr Patton is a football loving, meat eating worker, Mrs Patton someone who loves having Arun and a chance to mother someone again, while her two kids have their own lives, the girl bulimic and the boy sport obsessed.

The Patton family is as dysfunctional as Arun’s but in a different way, one stemming from having too much rather than the risk of too little. And it’s this comparison or similarity that’s at the heart of this book, with each family set to reproduce itself again and again.

The contrast between men and women is as marked as that between rural India and suburban America. Uma has a freedom within, a life of the mind, a will, but her outward possibilities are limited, whereas Arun has all the chances but his upbringing was so stultified that he is imprisoned in his own mind, and so unable to make the most of any of them.

This is a brilliant book, but there’s something of its time about it, at least in its portrayal of the traditional patriarchal Indian family, where Uma is strictly prohibited from most activities because of her gender and marital status – today novels on these themes are often more complex, with resistance and oppression and snatches of freedom mixed together, the portrayal of people not quite so one dimensional.

“No, he had not escaped. He had travelled and he had stumbled into what was like a plastic representation of what he had known at home; not the real thing – which was plain, unbeautiful, misshapen, fraught, and compromised – but the unreal thing – clean, bright, gleaming, without taste, savour or nourishment.”

From India to America. Anita Desai in Fasting, Feasting

The Half God of Rainfall – Inua Ellams

This a beautifully written epic poem, riven with joy and despair, that combines classical Gods, basketball and brutality as a way to illuminate how women struggle and succeed against the odds in a deeply unequal world.

It’s a simple story, of Demi, the son of Modupe, a beautiful woman who was raped by Zeus. Demi, the half God of the title, is conceived – part man and part powerful being, who among other things is able to conjure up water and rainfall when in despair.

Growing up in Nigeria, he joins the basketball team and discovers that he has skills and ability beyond compare, a consequence it turns out, of being a half God. He leads the Nigerian team to the world basketball finals, but just as the deciding game begins, the crowd chanting for Demi, he has his Godly powers removed, making him nothing more than a normal player and his team is destroyed. Angry he confronts Zeus and is killed, and his family, his mother Mordupe is distraught.

It’s a beautifully written, elegant poem, that tells of the despair, the rage, that so many people feel because they lack control over their lives. Demi, of course, who has a gift but not the power to direct it when he needs to. But also, and more than anything, this is a poem about women – about the powerful, resilient Modupe who despite being attacked by Zeus, despite being oppressed, remains a strong woman intent on raising a brilliant child.

The fact that Zeus, a privileged, powerful, untouchable male is able to brutally attack and rape her with impunity is the horror at the heart of this poem, one that both she and Demi try to seek justice for, and one for which they both fail. A reflection, surely, of the realities of our unequal world where Zeus-like men can get away with, quite literally in this case, murder.

The style of the poem is lyrical and upbeat and beautiful, and one that optimistically celebrates the power of the powerless, but nevertheless it is this sad theme that is the main message of the book.

You get this mix of power and despair in the opening lines to the second part of the poem:

“They say when Modupe was born her own mother,

Who worshipped the God of vision and fiction, screamed

When she foresaw the future looks of her daughter:

the iridescent moon she’d resemble, the dream

she’d seem to men and thus the object she’d become.

Her mother had known these men her whole life, had seen

them all … from the weak and pathetic overcome

by lust, to warlords who to crush rebellion

would attack the women to daunt their men and son.

She’d suffered such brands of violence. It had churned

her for years.”

The High Window – Raymond Chandler

I don’t read Chandler or other hard-boiled fiction for it’s characters or plot, but it’s dialogue, style and atmosphere.

Set in a corrupt LA, populated by a pool of greedy rich people and a sea of desperate souls searching for money, security and happiness, The High Window is classic Chandler.

Marlowe is enlisted on a job for Mrs Murdoch, an ageing patriarch tracking down her daughter in law, Linda, who Murdoch says she suspects of stealing a valuable coin. As always, the trail takes Marlowe far and wide into a seedy world of high and low crime. There are murders, new character after new character, twist after twist as it turns no one is who they say they (except Marlowe), and in the end a resolution of a case that is as much to do with revenge and justice as the legal system.

I can’t say I followed all the plot twists, but it’s a joy to read. In fact, the style of writing, the incessant plot changes, encourages you read like Marlowe lives – in the moment, dealing with one situation after another as it arises, enjoying each scene as it’s happening.

Spring – Ali Smith

Written in Ali Smith’s wonderfully readable style, this a story about hope and positivity set against a very contemporary setting of immigration and discrimination.

Two tales interweave over the book. One is of an ageing BBC play director who is grieving the loss of his best friend, a women called Paddy. He impetuously gets on a train to Scotland to get away from the pressures of a new play he’s been asked to direct.

The other is of a security guard at a migrant detention centre, Brit, who apparently randomly meets a 12 year old called Florence who she thinks she recognises as a pro-migrant activist and, mostly out of curiousness and a sense of adventure, joins her on a train journey to Scotland. And it’s on the train that they meet Richard.

They are picked up by a women called Alda from the station who, it turns out, is part of a network of resistance against migrant detention.

This novel is an insightful take on the injustice and downright unfairness of migrant detention centres. But more than this it’s a positive exploration of human motivation. Brit, in particular, is far from the stereotypical prison guard; her reasons for doing her job are not clear but she does her job with care and attention, and her sense of protection towards Florence is huge, and she begins to develop a friendship with her, one as equals, even if she ends up disappointed at the end.

Florence meanwhile is a beacon of hope – impossibly intelligent, mature, brave, challenging, charming, a symbol of what immigrants offer.

It is spring after all, so much of this is about hope, even against a backdrop of racism and sexism and immigrant sentiment.

And as always, it’s as much Ali Smith’s style that makes this book. She writes in long flowing sentences that you kind of gulp down, that are realistic, that read just as you’d hear them, without adornment or metaphor or pretension. Despite tackling weighty themes and the big ideas of social theory that lie behind much of her writing, her style is fluid and readable and digestible.

Cousins – Angela Carter

A simple and simply told short story but one that lingers, making you reflect on humans and animals, men and women, and hierarchies.

In the first couple of pages we meet a family attacked by wolves who’s young children disappear, save from one baby boy. Years later, as a child of nine or so, he comes across a pack of wolves with a female among them who is more human than wolf and he thinks is in fact his cousin, thought killed years ago by the wolves.

The family capture and take her to their home, where she prowls around on all fours, her body grown into the shape of a wolf, and her mannerisms more animal than human. Eventually the family is attacked by the wolves who return her to their pack.

What’s so interesting is how Carter uses this simple tale to show that the difference between animal and human is not too big – how over a few years a child socialising only with animals might develop things like longer ankles, walking on all fours, defacating as they walk and so on, taking on the characteristics of animals not humans. The gap is so small.

Likewise, the way the boy gazes at his female cousin’s naked body leads you to wonder not only about how humans are so divorced from what’s natural, the naked body, but also how men objectify women, liken them to an irrational species, to animals, and use this to create a hierarchy between men and women. In this way Cousins is an allegory about how women are treated by men, as animals to be tamed rather than equals.

Anna Burns – Milkman

Blimey. Milkman offers a hugely inventive, insightful and darkly comic take on the cultures that develop in divided places. But it is a difficult book too, it’s stream of consciousness style both readable and tough in equal measure.

Set in an unnamed city divided by religious / ethnic conflict, it follows the story of an unnamed 18 year old as she describes her fate when a member of the paramilitary elite (known as the Milkman) starts to fall for her and follows her around. Rumours begin to spread about their involvement, meaning she’s treated a bit like royalty in some ways, but looked down on in others. It leads to fall-outs with her complex family and her ‘maybe-boyfriend’ and ‘longest best friend’.

It’s not so much the plot that makes this such an interesting book but the insights into living in a city divided by religion – clearly supposed to be Belfast – where violence, murder and conformity are constants that force people to live self-censored and limited lives for fear of standing out. It’s the everyday nature of the narrator, the writing and the events that brings the ever-present threat and terrible affects of the divided culture to life.