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Highlights In The Charts

Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin

Reviewed by Daisy Young

Wandering Souls is a story about many things. War, childhood, loss, regret, identity, hope. However, at its heart, it is a story about family.

Pin’s debut novel is a masterpiece of multiple narrative threads meeting with detailed historical understanding. She captures the impact that war has on families and the stories we choose as the most important to us. It begins: “There are the goodbyes and then the fishing out of the bodies – everything in between is speculation.”

The novel starts as it continues, shining light on the brutal realities faced by Vietnamese families fleeing their homeland post-war. We are introduced to Anh and her family as they prepare for their last night together before Anh and her two older brothers make the terrifying journey to Hong Kong. Anh’s father has dreams for America and sends his eldest children ahead with the promise that the rest of them will soon follow. Tragedy strikes and Anh, Minh and Thanh are left alone as a family of three. The book then takes us through the complicated loss of childhood as Anh steps into the role of mother for her two brothers. Her role is complicated further as the family is moved from camp to camp, before making their home in Thatcher’s Britain. 

Pin’s book grapples with duality and belonging as Anh, Minh and Thanh struggle to find their place in a not always welcoming society. Anh wants her brothers to assimilate but not lose their Vietnamese identity. Minh struggles to find his place and resents the pressures placed on him to achieve for the sake of his lost family. Thanh wants to keep the peace between his siblings but also has his own dreams. This story follows these children as they mature and discover themselves and their identities – both British and Vietnamese – and more importantly, where those identities belong together. 

What I adored about this book was its balance of reality in fiction. I knew little about the Vietnam War and the devastation it caused local people. I knew even less about Operation Wandering Soul – a horrific psychological scare tactic implemented by American soldiers against the Vietnamese. The premise behind the operation shapes the continued presence of Anh’s family; their ghosts watching over the siblings in a broken narrative style that is almost poetic. The events of this book are steeped in reality which makes it such an impactful and important read. 

Pin is emotive and uses brilliant sensory writing to bring her work to life. If you are looking for a sensitive and poignant read, full of heart and relevance in our modern world (where refugees still make the terrifying journey to safer shores), I urge you to pick this up.

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Reviewed by Jenna Tomlinson

Novels where a beloved animal is a focal character, especially if that character's point of view features heavily in the narrative, are currently taking the charts by storm. You only need to look at the role of Six Thirty – the dog in Lessons in Chemistry. Animals, especially pets, share an intuitive and personal perspective on our lives.

But what if, instead of a beloved pet or cuddly creature, the animal was an octopus? And not just any octopus, but a sixty pound, highly intelligent, Giant Pacific Octopus in the local aquarium? 

That's precisely the basis of Shelby Van Pelt's debut novel Remarkably Bright Creatures, though it sounds strange, I can assure you it's as warm and heart wrenchingly emotional as any Homeward Bound tale. 

Tova Sullivan is a meticulously regimented and stoically independent seventy-something living in quiet Sowell Bay, Washington. In her youth, Tova shared her home and life with her beloved husband Will and their son Erik. But Tova has experienced a huge amount of loss in her life; firstly, when Erik dies in a tragic yet mysterious event at just eighteen and later, when she loses her husband to pancreatic cancer. 

Tova now spends her days keeping busy by cleaning, running errands or meeting her friends at their Knit-Wits sessions and spending her evenings cleaning the local aquarium, which houses Marcellus, a Giant Pacific Octopus with a penchant for escaping his tank. But what Tova doesn't initially realise is that Marcellus is incredibly intelligent. He knows about Erik's accident, when new arrival Cameron turns up in Sowell Bay, Marcellus also knows that Cameron and Tova have more in common than they realise. 

This book was so beautiful in both its themes and the writing. I loved the diary entry style segments from Marcellus, which range from explaining how he has escaped his tank to his musings on the humans who visit the aquarium. The relationship between the characters has been meticulously thought out, with each character cementing the “small town” scene Van Pelt creates for Sowell Bay. Tova's relationship with Marcellus is also adorable and it was so heartwarming to see them both learn about each other and steadily grow so fond of each other. 

Van Pelt manages a multitude of back stories, characters and links with a deft ease, which pushes the pace of the book. You can wholly imagine life in Sowell Bay plodding along yet existing under the weight of a historical tragic incident. Tova's Swedish heritage is also richly furnished and it’s clear that Van Pelt has a secure familiar knowledge of the culture (her grandmother is Swedish and Van Pelt remarks in the acknowledgements that Tova is in some ways modelled on her). I must admit that I've never been a huge fan of octopuses or marine life in general, but Marcellus may have just changed my mind. 

Definitely give this a read if you're looking for something cosy and familiar to ease yourself out of winter and into spring with.


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