The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)
There is the most superficial similarity between The Great Alone and Queen of Bloody Everything: both are about lonely children who come from dysfunctional families and who find another family to cherish them.
But the great alone describes a life almost unimaginable to South Africans – in the beautiful but punishing state of Alaska. Leni’s father is a Vietnam war veteran and former POW who has come back to the US a damaged man. He can’t settle at anything, and his wife, who adores him, keeps telling their daughter how different, how much fun he was before.
Then he inherits a piece of land in Alaska from a Vietnam buddy, and the family move up north. Leni’s dad Ernt is capable and clever with his hands, but the people in the town where they end up fear for them as they are utterly unprepared for the harshness of an Alaskan winter.
Ernt has always been more difficult when the days are short and the nights long and dark and freezing. In many ways the family couldn’t have chosen a worse place to settle. Ernt becomes increasingly erratic and violent, and joins a group of right-wingers preparing for the end of the world.
But through it all, Leni, 13 at the start of the book in 1974, tries to have a normal teenagerhood, deeply in love with a classmate. This is something of an epic about survival, of love and fortitude, and living under a brooding cloud.
Kristin Hannah is best known for her novel The Nightingale, which has sold almost four million copies and which, having devoured The Great Alone, I now want to read.
The Queen of Bloody Everything, by Joanna Nadin (Mantle/ Pan Macmillan)
This is a delicious piece of fiction: interesting, warm and often very funny.
Dido is around six when her mother Edie, both feckless and fierce, inherits a house in Essex and moves in. Dido loves fairy tales, and almost immediately finds herself in one. At the bottom of the garden there is a gate in a wall, which she discovers leads into the house behind – a grand house complete with two proper parents and two lovely children of about her own age.
Dido falls in love with her neighbours’ home, lifestyle and the kids. The children’s mother is not so sure about Dido, though. When she asks Dido about her absent father, the guileless six-year-old says she doesn’t have one. “I thought it was Denzil, but Edie said don’t be daft because he’s black.”
The three children become inseparable, finding in each other’s homes what is lacking in their own. And then there is a night when Edie, drunk, arrives at a party given by the neighbours and tells everyone the secrets she has been keeping.
Forty years later a grim Dido is at Edie’s hospital bedside, looking back on what may have sometimes seemed like a fairy tale, complete with locked garden gate, a widower, and a wicked stepmother. But there was no enchantment, says Dido, “no fairy godmother, no genie, no amulet or grail. There is just us. You and me.”
I loved it.