World Book Night 2021- Books To Make You Smile!

The theme for this year’s World Book Night which took place on 23rd April was Books To Make You Smile, which is something we could all do with after the year we have had. Normally, there would be many public events taking place in libraries and other establishments to get people reading. Of course, these could not take place. My friend and colleague Louise and myself, who both work for Isle Of Wight Libraries decided to produce a Book Chat to discuss books which have made us smile. This can be found here. Just click on the link and Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ut1frGMeD1Y

Agatha Christie Challenge Month 4- Murder Is Easy (1939)

This month’s challenge was to read a book set before World War II and this 1939 publication just fits into the timescale.  This  was the title recommended by the good folk at agathachristie.com and I did think it was a stand-alone, but no, after I read it I discovered it is the 4th in the series featuring Superintendent Battle,  a sequence which had begun with 1925’s “The Secret Of Chimneys”.  Here Battle makes a blink and you miss him appearance and adds nothing to the plot so my thinking it a stand-alone is very excusable.

Main character Luke Fitzwilliam is a retired police officer returning to England from his post in the Mayang Straits when he meets an elderly woman on the train on her way to Scotland Yard to report a murderer at large in her village of Wychwood-Under-Ashe.  Fitzwilliam, at a loose end goes to investigate on the pretence of writing a book about folklore and local customs.

This has been my favourite of the Challenge books so far and there’s quite a notch up in the entertainment factor from my second favourite, The Hollow.  Most of the murders have already taken place leaving Fitzwilliam to work out whodunnit.  I like the feel of this book, the location and characterisation gives it stronger atmosphere and the folklore slant offers us suggestions of darker forces at play and even of satanic orgies in the woods.  Fitzwilliam stays at the home of poor-village-boy-made good now newspaper magnate Lord Whitfield and becomes fascinated by his fiancée.  There’s a mixture of doctors, librarians, publicans, servant girls in the cast list and even a cat called Wonky Pooh!

The novel feels freer and less formulaic than some of her Poirot titles.  I was thoroughly entertained and didn’t guess whodunnit.  I would have been unlikely to have encountered this book without the Christie Challenge and would have missed out on this enthralling cosy crime caper with good edges of darkness.  Next month it’s a story featuring tea, luckily there’s a suggested title.

Murder Is Easy was first published in 1939.  I read a Harper Collins paperback edition. Further details about the Agatha Christie Challenge and Facebook/Instagram book groups on this title can be found at http://www.agathachristie.com.

100 Essential Books – Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2020)

This account of a troubled Glasgow childhood in the 1980s blew away the judges of the 2020 Booker Prize and is certainly one of the greatest debut novels of the twenty-first century.  It has an incredible emotional pull.

Shuggie is devoted to his mother Agnes, who, in 1981, is attempting to hold things together to keep her man, a taxi driver, and to eventually escape from the oppressive atmosphere of her parents’ home in a Sighthill tower block with her three children Catherine, Leek and Shuggie.  Her youngest is regularly referred to by other characters as “a funny wee bastard”, out of step with what is expected from a boy living close to poverty in his environment and totally dedicated to his mother.

When that escape is not quite how Agnes planned she resorts increasingly to alcohol and opportunities diminish for her and the family.   Agnes is a superb creation, equally monstrous and appealing, living an Elizabeth Taylor fantasy in an impoverished, tough world.  It is Shuggie, however, who the reader will root for.  His childhood makes often for grim and heart-breaking reading but humour is never far away and Stuart relates the tribulations of this family and those around them with such verve and energy that the reader is allowed to rise above the misery and see this extraordinary work for what it is- a tremendous achievement. 

It is rich in detail and beautifully observed throughout, the characterisation is so strong and there is often sympathy for the most alarming of occurrences.  It’s gritty and raw but at its heart is an incredible beauty and humanity which even when the reader is dabbing away tears of sadness, frustration or laughter is life-affirming.  There are very strong autobiographical elements in this fiction as the author grew up in Sighthill with an alcoholic mother.  He did manage to escape his environment and became a leading designer for Banana Republic, holds dual British-American citizenship and lives in New York with his art curator husband which is light years away from the world of Shuggie Bain.  It is probably this distance and the ability to look back on these years which gives this book its quality and power.  I haven’t enjoyed a Booker Prize winning novel as much since 2004 when Alan Hollinghurst won with “Line Of Beauty”.  The paperback is to be published in the UK next week and this would be one very good way of celebrating the reopening of bookshops after months of lockdown by purchasing a copy.

Shuggie Bain was published in hardback by Picador in the UK in February 2020. The paperback is available from 15th April 2021.

A Little Devil in America – Hanif Abdurraqib (2021)

Ohio resident Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and music critic and is both critically acclaimed and a good commercial proposition in his homeland.  This non-fiction work is something we’ve been seeing a fair bit of recently- a mash-up of memoir and analysis.  At times it feels like a collection of essays but I don’t think it is.  Linking the pieces together is the theme of the black performer in America and coming from that is the significance of dance.  Saying it like this, however, is very much simplifying matters.  Abdurraqib, being a poet sees things in terms of metaphor and the notion of dance and performance is used to touch on many aspects of the American experience, and especially the African-American experience.

Also, being a poet Abdurraqib does not see things the way many of us do, he has the ability to zoom in on a detail and expand out from that.  It’s often a moment in a life he finds fascinating and what it tells us about that particular life and the environment in which it was lived and that in itself is intriguing.  In terms of the performers examined there is a very good range and I find much of his writing illuminating.  With Aretha Franklin, he examines her funeral, and what the “sending home” of the ritual says of a life and then moves backwards to the filmed version of her live gospel recording “Amazing Grace”- the biggest selling gospel live album of all time.  With Whitney Houston he focuses on the response of the black audience and how that changed.  There’s a lively section about the antagonism between two demonstrative performers, Joe Tex and James Brown.  The issue of “blackface” is dealt with through William Lane known as Master Juba who Charles Dickens saw perform and how casual racism caused a latter day TV tribute by Ben Vereen to this black minstrel who performed in blackface to become meaningless because his performance was cut inappropriately. 

People who have not fitted in to what was expected of them are examined including Sammy Davis Jnr, Michael Jackson and the always amazing to read about Josephine Baker.

This is where this book is the strongest for me, a white British reader, I can see the common threads and follow the arguments.  When the author veers away from this central theme I miss the tightness of the structure although I am still impressed by the writing.

And the writing is impassioned, creative, energetic and very often enthralling.  Culturally, very few will get all the references initially because of the broad timescale Abdurraqib employs in this work.  If this looseness of structure and digressive style which I have mentioned before (most recently in “Gay Bar” by Jeremy Atherton Lin) is going to become commonplace I’m just going to have to get used to it because to ignore it would mean missing out on impressive, quality writing.

A Little Devil in America was published in the UK by Allen Lane on 30th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Many Different Kinds Of Love – Michael Rosen (2021)

I’ve mentioned here before that Michael Rosen is one of my literary heroes, especially for his work with children.  On a number of occasions I have been lucky enough to experience how this man can totally captivate a school hall full of children who hang on his every word.  His “Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here” collection is one of my favourite children’s books ever.  And last year we almost lost him, hospitalised with Covid just around the time the first lockdown started, his illness made everything seem more grim and even more scary.

After 13 days in bed with what was diagnosed as just a viral illness the writer was hospitalised when a GP friend witnessed his blood oxygen reading of 58, the lowest she had ever seen on a conscious person. Following time in intensive care he was put in an induced coma on a ventilator remaining in the ICU ward for 46 days before beginning rehabilitation and having to relearn basic functions the disease had stripped from him like standing up and walking.

This collection is subtitled “A Story Of Life, Death & The NHS”.  In a sequence of prose poems Rosen catalogues his illness and recovery.  Alongside this is the extraordinary response from the staff who cared for him who maintained a diary throughout to boost his recovery.  These people were exhausted, often redeployed from their usual job and no doubt stressed beyond belief but they made the time to communicate with this comatose man in this way and these diary entries form an extremely moving section of the book.  Above the bed they placed a copy of his “These Are The Hands” poem produced for the 60th anniversary of the NHS.

I really always enjoy Michael Rosen’s poetic style, direct, closely observed and dealing here with painful honesty the effects this cruel virus has had on him.  When we are moaning about lockdown restrictions and posing conspiracy theories it’s important to feel the voice of those affected and Michael Rosen’s experience speaks for the thousands who have been similarly affected and for those thousands we have lost.

He always has the ability to find humour in the ridiculous even in the darkest moments.

“They’ve been worried

about my low blood pressure

but they’ve brought me the Daily Mail

so it’ll be fine in a moment.”

I read this on the anniversary of the first lockdown and there was no better way to get me to reflect on the year’s events and how it has hit this very special person.  This is a magnificent work which has been beautifully put together by the author and Penguin Books.  It will prove to be a lasting testament to the talent and tenacity of this man and of a reminder of the strange times we have been living in.

Many Different Types Of Love was published by Ebury Press, a division of Penguin Random House 18th March 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

The Black Flamingo – Dean Atta (2019) – A Rainbow Read

This is another welcome addition to the canon of LGBT+ literature for young adults which feels like it is meant to last for more than the current generation discovering it.  The author’s unique selling point here is that he has produced a verse novel, now this might sound off-putting, but actually makes the work really accessible.  It’s written plainly, no meanings hidden behind poetic language, in fact, many readers might not realise they are reading verse at all, but will be drawn in by the movement and rhythm of the piece. The varied lay-out of the book is also impressive.

This is the fictional tale of Michael, who with his Black Jamaican/Greek-Cypriot heritage feels that he is a different person for different members of the family.  This is a boy who yearns for a Barbie for his 6th birthday and as a teenager adopts another persona, The Black Flamingo, to reinforce his sense of identity in a sheen of fabulousness.  Within Atta’s vibrant language we have the tale of a boy growing up, his London childhood, his school days and a move to Brighton University exploring aspects of himself; his black culture, his Greek-Cypriot identity, his sexuality and finding answers through the medium of drag.

To read this is also to become involved in the history which has helped Michael accept himself and at one point he thanks the performers and activists who mean much to him.  This is the second time I’ve seen this done recently- Robert Jones Jnr in his outstanding “The Prophets” has hundreds of acknowledgements but Michael’s list has a British bias and I would hope that those reading this would find out more about the names they are not familiar with.

Dean Atta has published critically acclaimed adult poetry with themes of race, gender and self-development which are all relevant here.  The Independent On Sunday featured him amongst their list of the most influential LGBT+ people in the UK.  This feels a highly significant work from him which will continue to enhance his reputation.  It should feature prominently in YA reading lists.  I really enjoyed being drawn into Michael’s world.

The Black Flamingo was published  in hardback by Hodder and Stoughton in 2019 and in paperback in March 2020.

Agatha Christie Challenge- Month 3- Lord Edgware Dies (1933)

This is the 9th Hercule Poirot novel and was the recommended choice for this month’s Christie Reading Challenge which specified a book including a society figure.  Its 1933 publication date means that it is the earliest of the novels I have read for the Challenge.  I’m beginning to think that my suspicions that those featuring Poirot would not be my favourite of hers is coming true, I do find him a little hard to take as a character.

However, this is narrated by sidekick Captain Harding who I do like and who is as exasperated by the Belgian detective as I am, who wearies at any mention of “his little grey cells” which assist greatly in helping Poirot solve his cases.

I also like there being more than one corpse, thus whittling down the suspect list.  My only real gripe is with characterisation.  I feel that they are introduced well and I know who each is and the relationship to the victim initially but start to lose my grip on this mid-way through.  I think this is because there is limited character growth.  This was certainly a stronger feature in the later publication “The Hollow” I read in January so perhaps this is a way in which Christie developed as a writer.

It’s no spoiler to say that it is Lord Edgware who is the first victim here.  His American actress wife has already met Poirot and enlisted his help before the nobleman’s demise.  Other suspects include his heir, a disappearing butler, a film actor and a stage actress who impersonates Lady Edgware as part of her act.  Poirot is keen to find out whodunnit before Inspector Japp and asks the right questions to the right people.  Unusually this book ends with the confession by the killer which has been sent to Poirot so no looking to the last page or it will spoil everything.  Next month the challenge is to read a story set before World War II.  I’m hoping to read one of her stand-alone novels and it will be interesting to see if, as I suspect, I will favour these.

Lord Edgware Dies was published in 1933.  I read a Harper Collins e-book which was available on Borrowbox, my library service’s online app.  Further details about the Agatha Christie Challenge and Facebook/Instagram book groups on this title can be found at http://www.agathachristie.com.

Hot Stew- Fiona Mozley (John Murray 2021)

Fiona Mozley’s debut “Elmet” was my pick from the shortlist for the 2017 Booker Prize which I described as a “traditional, poetic, literary novel which packs a good punch”.  I found it haunting with a sense of timelessness about it all and that “plot and characterisation gives it a commercial pull”.  It lost out to George Sanders’ “Lincoln In The Bardo” which in my opinion fell short of Mozley’s achievement.

Here comes her second novel and it is very different from the first showing an author with real versatility.  The rural lyricism is replaced with an episodic, very urban tale.  I was impressed enough by this prospect to make this book one of my potential highlights of 2021 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  First things first, I did very much enjoy it.  It’s written in the present tense which is something I don’t always warm to but here it is very readable.  It’s been picking up very good reviews but I don’t think there’s anything within it which will remain with me in the way “Elmet” did.  I liked the feel of a harsher world in the debut which gave it, I felt, a 1970’s air, here, although the setting is also contemporary it has an 80’s feel as redevelopers threaten the traditional ways of life in Soho.  The echoes I felt here stirring in my subconscious was of Nell Dunn’s 1981 play “Steaming” where a group of women stand up against eviction.

Fiona Mozley introduces us to a range of characters, perhaps the central is Agatha, aiming to redevelop the investments of a father she never knew.  Of all of the characters she feels a little cartoony.  Pitched against the pretensions of big business is the oldest profession in town represented by sex workers Precious and Tabitha who lead the resistance against eviction.  A group of homeless people residing in a cellar under the brothel and regulars of a local pub add to this hot stew of characters.  Not all characters contribute much to the central plot and so exist as vignettes of their lives in and around Central London.  It’s all likeable and in a way I can appreciate those that are seeing this as modern day Dickens but it all feels a little unresolved which Dickens would not be.  I am certainly applauding an author prepared to go off in a very different direction for a second novel and her publishers who have supported her in this.

Hot Stew is published by John Murray in the UK on 18th March.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Girl In The Walls -A J Gnuse (4th Estate 2021)

This debut is an unusual and highly effective thriller.  There’s been good buzz about it pre-publication.  This was one of the titles I highlighted to watch out for in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  We were promised a Gothic spooky house novel with comparisons made to Shirley Jackson.  I’m not sure I am on board with the comparison although it was this which attracted me to the title.  It is, however, highly enjoyable with a more original feel than the comparison might suggest.

Set in 2005 (judging by songs mentioned playing on the radio) just south of New Orleans, main character 11 year old Elise, having lost both her parents in an accident, escapes from her foster carers to return to a house her family formerly lived in now owned by the Mason family with two teenage boys.  There, unbeknownst to them she resides in the house, within gaps between walls, in hidden chutes and in the attic emerging when the family are not around or otherwise occupied.  This is working chillingly well until a younger boy turns up unannounced at the house and the teenagers in the family begin to have suspicions about the things going bump in the night.

I found the premise fascinating but did struggle with the geography of the house which would allow such a thing to be possible.  The tension is cranked up incredibly well when the boys begin to act on their suspicions and then environmental factors, particular to the region, begin to play a part.

As I was reading it I was aware of an easy option Texan author Gnuse could have taken and I was hoping he wouldn’t (he doesn’t) which means the story-telling is satisfactory throughout.  There are lots of unusual touches, including Elise’s fondness for Norse mythology and the characters of the neighbourhood boy and Eddie, the younger of the teenagers both give the novel a quirky feel (as does one character I don’t even want to talk about here in the interest of not revealing too much plot).  I was pulled in to the story, rather like Elise being pulled into the walls, found some section breath-takingly tense and all in all this ends up a quality commercial thriller with good literary touches which could also work splendidly as a TV or film adaptation.

Girl In The Walls will be published by 4th Estate in the UK on 18th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out – Jeremy Atherton Lin (Granta 2021)- A Rainbow Read

I really liked the premise of this non-fiction work.  Jeremy Atherton Lin explores, largely via memoir, the significance of the gay bar in the forging of the LGBTQ+ community, bringing with it a sense of belonging.  At a time when bars and pubs and nightclubs have greatly diminished in number and where the survival of those left is threatened by extended lockdowns and coronavirus restrictions it is important that we recognise these venues as part of our LGBTQ+ history, our present and hopefully, our future.

The author focuses on those places he knows well beginning in more or less present day South London, moving to the Los Angeles of his college days, back to London where he meets his long-term partner, referred to as Famous Blue Raincoat, to San Francisco where the two set up home together returning to London once civil partnerships becomes legal here, with a brief sojourn to the bars of Blackpool.

This book is strongest when it is dealing with history.  Initially, we are plunged graphically into the sleaze of the cruising bars in Vauxhall and then on to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, an institution for generations, which does deserve its own thorough examination and the author does well to bring this extraordinary venue to life.  I used to frequent it regularly over 30 years ago and memories and the unique feel of the place is evoked by Jeremy Atherton Lin’s writing.

The focus on all the bars is great, I enjoyed the author’s perception of them at the time when he was frequenting them.  It is no fault of his, obviously, but you often get the sense that he has missed the boat, time-wise.  The LA of his college days is a pale shadow of its heyday, ravaged by the decimation of the gay population through AIDS and in most of the other areas he is visiting places past their prime.  This is due to chronology but in many ways it feels typical of the gay bar set-up, on a quiet night there will always be someone to tell you how busy it was the night before!

The author broadens his focus to encompass, well everything, and this is where the book slips for me.  He has much to say about the gay experience and it is extremely worth saying but it’s a scattergun approach of digressions and the books loses the structure I was enjoying so much initially.  It becomes a mish-mash of history, of gay culture, of memoir, of essay.  I would have got more out of the memoir aspect if I felt I knew more about the author and Famous but I was kept very much at arm’s length, which for biography doesn’t work that well for me.

 I do think that there is a tremendous book hidden in here with some extremely quotable passages which sum up the gay nightlife experience better than I’ve ever read.  Here are a couple of examples:

“It dawned on me that many of the people we used to know to say hello to we never really knew.  We just enjoyed recognizing faces.”

“Gays can relax in a gay bar, people will say, but I went out for the tension in the room.

“We once flattered ourselves that all popular culture was subversively designed to amuse gay men.  It’s become apparent gay men are there to make popular culture amusing to everybody else”.

And with February’s LGBT+ History Month just behind us he quotes Michael Warner from “The Trouble With Normal” (1999), which is another reminder why our stories still need to be told;

“In the queer world memory is very fragile.  You don’t learn from your parents how the gay world is structured.  So there’s not a whole lot of intergenerational transfer.”

I think that this is a significant work but for me it was a little overpowering in its structure, the many elements did not mesh as well as I had hoped, so it just misses out on being a book I would want to keep on my bookshelves.  Just occasionally I wonder if I am too harsh in my judgements and that time will see a book linger in my memory, displaying a lasting power that I had not anticipated.  This might be one such book where I could become convinced to revise my opinion.  The audience for it is niche but that audience would certainly be drawn in by Jeremy Atherton Lin’s attack and relish of his subject.

Gay Bar was published by Granta on 4th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.