Shiny Archive Reading List #2: Character Duos

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Compiled by Annabel

In its ninth year, Shiny New Books has passed the 2000 mark in published posts. We thought it would be good to go back through our archives to create some thematic reading lists, and re-share some great old reviews with our readers.

For our second list, we’ve picked out all of those book titles, fiction and non-fiction that consist of just two names ‘A’ & ‘B’, be they family, friends, lovers, enemies or just colleagues. It’s a popular format that tells you exactly what you’re getting, theoretically…

Mapp & Lucia by E.F. Benson

The prolific Benson is most read for his series of six books, which cover the cattiness, social struggles and domestic dramas of the two title ladies, Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas (Lucia), which remain popular today. The fourth in the sequence, simply called Mapp and Lucia, is often regarded as the high point, bringing this formidable pair together, for in this one, the ladies lock horns and social battle ensues! (Karen Langley, 2014)

Amy & Lan by Sadie Jones

Set in the early 2000s, this is the story of three middle-class couples who have decided to abandon city life in Bristol and make an attempt to live off the land. They have bought a dilapidated farmhouse with a collection of large outbuildings and converted it into three separate homes to live in with their ever increasing families. They live separately but celebrations and family occasions are enjoyed together. The idea is a fine one, but cracks start to appear – disagreements, infidelities – can their idyll survive them? I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Sadie Jones, and this was no exception.  (Harriet, 2022)

Eustace & Hilda by LP Hartley

Leslie Poles Hartley was forty-nine when he published his first novel, The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944). It was followed by The Sixth Heaven (1946) and Eustace and Hilda (1947). As they made up a trilogy, all three were subsequently combined in one volume, as is the case with the new edition by W&N Essentials. I had read the first part some ten years ago and I’d always been curious to find out how the lives of the two young protagonists who are nine and fourteen at the beginning would turn out. Though undeniably sad, it’s completely believable. L P Hartley is a superb writer and this is a very welcome reprint of three important novels. (Harriet, 2021)

James & Nora by Edna O’Brien

This book is somewhat of an oddity: first published by the private Lord John Press of New York in a luxury limited edition in 1981, it now appears as a slight paperback volume of just over sixty pages. It’s really an essay, amounting to about ten thousand words, more or less. This is not a conventional work of biography. O’Brien does not offer dates or evidence, there is no historical context or original research. Instead, this is an intense, almost mystical reverie on the relationship between Joyce and Nora Barnacle, the country girl he courted and with whom he eloped as a young man. (Rob Spence, 2020)

Beatrice & Benedick by Marina Fiorato

In taking on one of Shakespeare’s most popular pairings in this novel, Marina Fiorato takes a big risk. The sparring partners who dominate the action of the comedy Much Ado About Nothing take centre stage in her sixth novel, a sort of prequel to the play. Luckily, for me she pulled it off, producing a brilliant summer read, with the sparkling banter and bickering I hoped for. Darker as a whole than expected, this novel is, ultimately, a comedy though, because as Florio says at one point, ‘In a tragedy, everyone must die. And in a comedy, everyone must marry.’ – and you know how it ends up! (Annabel, 2014)

Stanley & Elsie by Nicola Upson

Nicola Upson is probably best known as the author of a series of excellent historical crime novels featuring the novelist and playwright Josephine Tey. Here we have her in quite a different mode: Stanley and Elsie is a novel based in the true life history of the painter Stanley Spencer and his long-serving maid Elsie Munday. Many biographies of Spencer have been written, but here we see him from a different perspective: much of the novel is told from Elsie’s point of view, though we also get glimpses, later in the text, of the machinations of Spencer’s second wife Patricia Preece through the eyes of her lover Dorothy Hepworth. Reading this has sent me searching online for Spencer’s paintings – there are many to be seen – as well as those of the talented, tragic Hilda, who never recovered from Stanley’s desertion, though after the debacle with Patricia he became deeply involved with her again. But the real star of this particular show is the wonderful Elsie, whose strength and common sense stand as a brilliant foil to all the goings on around her. (Harriet, 2019)

Mikhail & Margarita by Julie Lekstrom Himes

One Russian author who exerts an eternal fascination is Mikhail Bulgakov; recognised nowadays for his epic work “The Master and Margarita”. Here, he makes his debut as a character in the first novel by author Julie Lekstrom Himes, “Mikhail and Margarita”. Where Himes excels is in capturing the atmosphere of fear and suspicion that must have been common whilst living in Soviet times; the uncertainty of everyday life, the feeling that at any moment you might be arrested and dragged off to who knows what fate. “Mikhail and Margarita” is an interesting, if unexpected read. (Karen Langley, 2017)

Edgar & Lucy by Victor Lodato

For seven years Florence, Lucy and Edgar have lived in the wake of Frank’s death; Grandmother, Daughter-in-law and Son live under the weight of the grief Frank left behind. When Florence dies Lucy is forced to face a reality she has been avoiding, and Edgar – raised predominantly by Florence – is suddenly alone in a world turned upside down. Edgar & Lucy by Victor Lodato is a heartbreaking, intelligent book. Set predominantly over half a year, but encompassing three generations of a shared history, it offers a new perspective on the kidnapping of a child. While the major event of the novel is Edgar’s abduction, Edgar & Lucy looks at what motivates both the kidnapper and the family events that lead up to and follow on from Edgar’s disappearance.  (Alice Farrant, 2018)

Edith & Oliver by Michelle Forbes

Edith and Oliver by Michelle Forbes

Edith and Oliver is set in the world of the Edwardian music hall and after a flash-forward prologue, begins with a memorable morning after the night before scene. Oliver Fleck wakes up half-dressed in the kitchen at the theatre with a pounding head and a bloody molar tooth in his hand. A young woman is sprawled asleep on top of Oliver’s clothes with his blue cravat tied around her thigh. Love at first sight, but it’ll be a rocky road for the Belfast magician Oliver and sparky pianist Edith. Forbes captures the itinerant life of the entertainer. the camaraderie between performers and rivalries in the theatre delightfully. It’s a brave author that avoids an unnecessary happy ending, life is no illusion after all, but although I enjoyed this novel, I would have a slightly bigger glimmer of hope.  (Annabel, 2018)

(The thrilling adventures of) Lovelace & Babbage by Sydney Padua

Some years ago Padua started putting graphical short stories on her website. Catching the steampunk zeitgeist and bringing together her graphical skills and her in-depth research into two great Victorians, Charles Babbage and Lady Ada Lovelace, it soon began to attract considerable interest. This book brings to perhaps a wider audience a graphical biography of Lovelace and Babbage plus a number of short graphical stories which are not historically accurate in themselves but which contain great erudition (via a surfeit of explanatory footnotes) and are pretty funny too. Would I recommend the book – you have to ask?! Is it just for historical, computing geeks? Of course not. It is well written, beautifully illustrated, erudite on a whole range of Victoriana, and extremely witty. Oh and it has cats; but don’t take my word for it. (Peter Hobson, 2015)

Paulina & Fran by Rachel B Glaser

Female friendship is a frequent theme in fiction, or at least what’s often dubbed as ‘women’s fiction’. It can be more than a little idealised but that’s not an accusation that could be levelled at Rachel B. Glaser, for sure. Her first novel, Paulina & Fran, is a raucous roller-coaster ride following the eponymous friends from their meeting as students back in 2000 along the thorny path their friendship is propelled. It’s a very smart piece of fiction. Glaser’s depiction of this tortured friendship resists any saccharine sentimentalisation, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory. And the ending is a masterstroke. (Susan Osborne, 2016)

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

It was quite a few years before I read this book and I had quite a few false starts before I read it all the way through. It wasn’t that I didn’t love it – I loved it from the start – but it was such a big book, I so wanted to linger, and I kept getting distracted, by life and by other books. I finally read the whole book and I did love it that much; and maybe more.

I loved the magic, that has been so beautifully woven into real history and that is so nicely understated. The set pieces are wonderful. There’s a wonderful early scene in York Minster that might be one of my favourite scenes in any book, ever.  I was delighted that nearly all of the magic drew on the natural world. It would have been easy to overplay the magic, but that didn’t happen. This was always a human story set in a real world where magic just happened to have a part to play. I found a book that spoke to both my childish love of a magical world and my grown up love of period fiction. (Jane Carter, 2015)

Do click through on the book titles to read the full reviews from their précis here. We hope you enjoyed this list. Suggestions for our next one are welcome!

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Annabel is a co-founder of Shiny, and one of its editors.