Not to be Overlooked
By Natalia Alvarez and Rachel Gray
Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column covers a review of Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes by J. Robert Lennon and Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal.
Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes by J. Robert Lennon
You would expect a book that promises one hundred different stories to seem overwhelming or unreasonable, but that is not the case. J. Robert Lennon’s collection, published by Graywolf Press in the US and Granta Books in the UK, starts off with a short introduction of the author and his daily tasks as a happily unemployed forty-seven-year-old, living in a remote college town in the state of New York. He writes this in the third person as if he is a character for his readers to learn about and understand. We get a sense of why he felt it necessary to put these words out and share them with the world, we learn the reason for this book stems from the thoughts that come to him during his daily walks. The author felt compelled to write these thoughts down until a book began to take shape. Pieces for the Left Hand gives readers a sneak peek inside the author's mind – where things can seem simple on the surface, but a closer look is sure to reveal hard-hitting truths and ideas.
Despite the promise of one hundred short stories, this is a quick read with each story no longer than a page-and-a-half and the entire book only 212 pages long. I completed this read in only a few hours but found myself thinking about the dilemmas long after that. Lennon sets up his stories by including common scenarios. These include themes such as vandalism, family drama, money issues, etc. They all start outwardly harmless but always include a twist. This is what sets this collection apart from the rest: Lennon’s ability to flip assumptions and turn a seemingly boring story upside down with such few words.
The closest examples I can give of this would be the television shows Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone. Although not as gruesome or mysterious, they share some key similarities. They almost always start off one way before veering in a completely different direction and usually involve a moral dilemma that attempts to showcase society as it truly is.
I loved the thought that went into creating these anecdotes and believe the author wanted to reach people with his words. I would recommend this book as a fun, quick read that also promises to make you reevaluate the way you think.
Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal
Circus of Wonders is the second book by Elizabeth Macneal, after her debut The Doll Factory, which was a Sunday Times Bestseller and Waterstones Book of the Month.
In the Author’s Note, Macneal takes great pains to explain her reasoning behind writing this book. During the Victorian period, society was obsessed with people with physical differences and treated them as a form of entertainment.
This novel follows Nell, who lives in a village in Southern England. She is set apart from her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin. When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives, her father sells her to them. In London, Nell’s fame grows and crowds rush to watch her perform. I love the character of Nell; she really is the driving force behind this novel. The feelings of coercion and objectification, but also of opportunity and fame felt by Nell are deftly explored by the author.
Macneal has a beautiful emotive style, which creates rich images and feelings. The way she describes the feelings Nell experiences while performing high above the adoring crowds makes you feel that you are swooping and soaring up there with her.
The second thread that Macneal expertly weaves through this narrative is that of Jasper, the ambitious and selfish owner of the Circus, and his gentle brother Toby. They are both haunted by the battlefields of the Crimean War, where Jasper was a soldier and Toby a War Photographer. They are bound by their dream of running a circus together and by a terrible secret.
The contrast between the brothers’ chapters and those focused on Nell is cleverly done. We follow the rise and fall of the Circus with Jasper, the growth and development of Nell and her rise to stardom and Toby’s move from out of Jasper’s shadow all at once. The reader gets an omniscient view of the story; we follow Nell’s rise to fame while knowing that everything is not secure in the circus.
This is another excellent novel by Elizabeth Macneal. The setting is beautifully written and the characters made their way into my heart. I loved Nell and I loved following her as she grew as a character. She explores accepting her differences, embracing her power, finding her voice and writing her own story. I highly recommend this novel.