A Thousand Moons – Sebastian Barry (Faber 2020)

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Irish author Sebastian Barry’s last novel “Days Without End” (2016) won the Costa Book Of The Year and I read it when it made the 2017 Booker longlist. I enjoyed its unlikely coupling of the two main characters and its “adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America” but was a little put off by the present-tense narrative. I was fascinated to hear that Barry was to revisit his characters in what is loosely a sequel to its predecessor. This was one of the titles I focused in on as wanting to read in my start of year Looking Back Looking Forward post.

The main character here is Native American Winona. I had highlighted her and the relationship with Thomas McNulty and John Cole, her adoptive parents, as one of the strengths of “Days Without End” so I was looking forward to her (not present tense) narrative. After the years of wandering and adapting to their environment in the first novel the main characters have settled as farm workers in Tennessee. Their world has very much shrunk and the two men do fade into the background a little here becoming supporting characters and that is disappointing.

Winona’s life consists of risking the antipathy of the local town population because of her heritage in her trips to assist the local lawyer. A young man who works in the dry-goods store, Jas Jonski, takes a shine to Winona and that is where her troubles begin. It’s far less of an adventure tale but the need for survival and the suffering of injustice are once again present and Winona is a positively vibrant and complex character, who like her adoptive parents challenges stereotypes.

As one would expect of an artist of Barry’s calibre it is very well written but for me it just seems to simmer along and never really takes off in the way the last novel did. I missed the epic sweep of that book.

It may be because it is a much quieter novel anyway but given these characters and what we have had from them in the past this quietness was surprising and on this reading just a little disappointing.

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A Thousand Moons was published by Faber and Faber in hardback on 17th March 2020. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

The Last Romeo – Justin Myers (2018) – A Rainbow Read

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I’d missed out on this debut 2018 publication until I saw it recommended in a LGBTQ+ Book List. I looked for it in my local Waterstones, couldn’t find it, and then five minutes later spotted a pristine copy in an Oxfam bookshop. If I was still wavering, not sure if it was my kind of thing, I was propelled towards the till by on-cover recommendations by Jill Mansell and Adam Kay, author of “This Is Going To Hurt” (my most visited review of 2019) who describes it as “Funny, clever and warm.”

It spent a short time on my bookshelves and hadn’t even featured on my up and coming reads list until after reading the powerful “Another Country” in the first week of Coronavirus lockdown I decided the reads I had lined up might be too demanding for my current state of mind and anxiety levels and what I actually needed was something “funny, clever and warm”. This book virtually leapt into my arms off the bookshelf.

This was a perfect read in troubled times where most of the world is unable to go out of their houses at present. In those now far-off seeming pre-Corona days I might have just been a tad scathing on what is a gay male slant on Chick-Lit (Dick-Lit? is than an actual term? It certainly came into my mind whilst reading this) but its heart is certainly in the right place and it fulfilled my reading needs perfectly.

After a break-up from a six year relationship with a controlling partner, 34 year old James decides to plunge back into single life and record his dates on a blog in which he anonymously rates and reviews hook-ups until he finds true love again – his “last Romeo”. James works on a gossip magazine and tries to keep his work and blog separate but soon finds the blog begins to overshadow his work, his life and relationships with others. James is a typical hero for this kind of novel, flawed and prone to jumping in feet first and with a blinkered tendency to see the world primarily from his point of view. He’s very much a modern metropolitan man and Justin Myers works a bit of magic in making him likeable and relatable. Without this, the book will fail. James certainly does try the readers’ patience with his inability to empathise with others but it does set up amusing situations. The narrative switches from first person to examples of James’ blog posts in which this unreliable narrator becomes further unreliable.

Journalist Justin Myers set up his own anonymous dating blog in a career trajectory not too unlike his main character which led to this first novel so he does know what he is talking about when he sets James up into various predicaments. It can only work from a gay male perspective, transferring this into chick-lit with a female character would resonate in a very different way, but with a list of questions for reading groups at the back of the paperback publishers Piatkus are pushing for a wider audience. It felt like a breath of fresh air in my reading schedule and I now feel I can go back to my planned list of less fun fare with my anxiety levels lowered. Just what the doctor would have ordered if it was possible to get an appointment!

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The Last Romeo was published by Piatkus in 2018.

Another Country – James Baldwin (1963)

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I was reminded of James Baldwin recently when I read Polish set novel “Swimming In The Dark” by Tomasz Jedrowski. Here a copy of Baldwin’s second novel “Giovanni’s Room”, a suppressed text, is glued between the pages of another publication and has a significant part to play. Main character Ludwik also goes on to study Baldwin for his doctorate.

I said at the time I should re-explore this American author’s work. I haven’t read him since my final degree dissertation which was on the search for love in his works. A Classics book order I was doing for work in the library saw me adding this title, and, as a little perk, I decided I should be the first to borrow it.

It’s actually one of Baldwin’s titles I remember least yet in the 30+ years since my first reading it has become acknowledged (well, certainly in the introduction by Colm Toibin) as the “essential American drama of the century.” In fact, I had to dig out that dissertation from the loft (plenty of time for rummaging around up there at the moment) to see how much I referred to this in my work and actually I did quite a fair bit as the search for love is certainly a significant driving-force for these characters.

The most powerful of the characterisations on show here is Rufus, an African-American man who cannot fit into society because of his skin colour and sexuality. Attempting to do so leads to an abusive relationship with Leona a white, Southern woman. It’s not a spoiler to say that surprisingly early on in the novel Baldwin dispatches one of these characters in a suicide jump off George Washington Bridge and the rests of the novel explores their group of friends putting their lives back together.

They are an intense lot. Vivaldo, a white man begins a relationship with Rufus’ sister; Rufus’ ex-love Eric moves back from a stable relationship with a man in France to the melting pot of New York and infiltrates the partnership of writer Richard and his wife Cass. It’s all very introspective with the characters seeming extremely self-centred which feels like it would have seemed more appropriate in the analytical soul-searching years of the early 1960s than it does today but there is great power and richness in Baldwin’s writing which made this a very welcome rediscovery. Toibin in his introduction compares him to Henry James and I can see where he’s coming from but I find Baldwin far more readable. This remains a very balanced, potent read. I will be fascinated to find out if the works which meant more to me than this when I first read them will continue to resonate as strongly.

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Another Country was first published in 1963. I read the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition.

The Four Symbols – Giacometti & Ravenne (Hodder & Stoughton 2020) – A Running Man Review

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The Adventure genre has calmed down somewhat since its mid noughties peak when Dan Brown and a host of similarly slanted authors dominated best-seller lists.  I read quite a few of these at the time but found they became too samey,  I wearied of reading about symbols of great powers but hidden meanings, Nazis, a myriad of locations and often confusing plot lines.

I was, however, tempted by this title I selected from a list of upcoming publications, the first of a trilogy entitled “The Black Sun”.  I thought its French slant (this is a translation)  might just breathe new life into a genre which was in danger of becoming stale.  Eric Giacometti worked as a journalist and was involved in the uncovering of French medical scandals before teaming up with Jacques Ravenne and writing according to the blurb “over 15 books together” (I really don’t know why this is such a vague statement!).  This was originally published as “La Triomphe Des Tenebres” and has been translated by Mauren Bauchet-Lackner.

Have the authors breathed new life into this genre?  Well, here we have Nazis chasing symbolic artefacts which will give them ultimate power in a novel which switches from location to location just as each section starts to get good.  So, the answer to that is sadly no.

A discovery in a Tibetan cave encourages the outbreak of World War II and leads to a belief by some in power that if similar treasures are tracked down the Third Reich will become unstoppable.  In the way of the Nazis is a French mercenary, Tristan, fresh from his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, a British SOE team and French resistance fighters.  The action feels distinctly stop-start to begin with and there are some examples of Nazi sadism that the authors certainly do not shy away from.

The success of books in this genre lies for me in whether the author makes me care about multiple plot strands and shifting location settings and the secret behind getting me to care is often in characterisation.  To begin with I found everybody cardboardy but by the end I was beginning to be drawn in enough by them to make me interested in the next part of the trilogy, but the characters, good and bad did take a while to establish themselves which may cause readers to fall by the wayside.

This was a very flooded market ten years ago so whether a title which isn’t fundamentally different from what we were reading then will resonate much in the UK today is another matter.  I think it being the first part of a trilogy might help as readers may come to feel invested in the authors’ perceptions of the War Years.

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The Four Symbols will be published by Hodder & Stoughton as an e-book on 14th May 2020 and as a paperback on 3rd September.  Many thanks to the publishers and Secret Readers for the advance review copy.

We Begin At The End – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A reviewsrevues.com favourite and former author interviewee is back with his third novel.  Chris Whitaker’s 2016 debut “Tall Oaks” was very strong and critically applauded but I think he got even better with his 5* 2017 offering “All The Wicked Girls“.  With this, his third novel Whitaker proves there’s few better at creating small town America all done with vivid and vibrant characterisation.  Thing is, Chris Whitaker is British.

In Cape Haven the impending release of a prisoner whose crime tore the community apart is causing much anxiety for those directly involved including ailing Police Chief Walker, a troubled mother, Star, and her two children Duchess and Robin.  A solid plot develops as the historic crime overlaps into a present day one but once again what Whitaker does best is characterisation, especially with quirky youngsters.  In “Tall Oaks” we had gangster wannabe Manny, a great comic creation, who really made the debut sparkle, in “Wicked Girls” it was teenage crime-solver Noah and his crew.  Here we have a choice of two with main character Duchess who copes with a miserable life by adopting the guise of an outlaw (I think the author could have made more of this perhaps even referencing it in the book’s title) and maybe even more so the adorably loyal Thomas Noble, a short-sighted black boy with a withered hand whose devotion to the not always appealing Duchess is unquestionable.

I found myself really caring for the characters and enjoying the book most when it focused on these and took a step back from the crime plot.

It feels like a more substantial novel than what has gone before and there is no doubt that Whitaker has matured as a writer.  For sheer reading pleasure I would give “All The Wicked Girls” the edge and I’m still not sure why it wasn’t amongst the big sellers of 2017 but this is still very good and should further enhance his reputation.  He is one of those writers that I am absolutely fascinated to see what he will do next.  Will he continue to recreate the intensity, prejudices and obsessions of small town America or have a go at setting fiction in  his homeland?  Will the crime aspect take more of  a back seat?  I feel that Chris Whitaker could, should he desire, have a good crack at producing The Great American Novel but I would also like to know how his writing would work within a British framework.

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We Begin At The End will be published in hardback by Zaffre on 2nd April 2020.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Recovery Of Rose Gold- Stephanie Wrobel (Michael Joseph 2020)

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Here’s a debut that has had a big buzz around it pre-publication. Stephanie Wrobel is a Chicago born writer now living in the UK who has ditched her advertising agency copywriting work to concentrate on fiction and the feel is that this could very much be one of the biggest thrillers of the year. I was determined to get in before the hype and find out if this buzz is deserving. I’ve already mentioned it in my Looking Back Looking Forward post so I know I’m adding to that hype but now I’ve read it I’m more than delighted to build up a bit of anticipation for readers. It is very good.

Taking as its theme (although I don’t think it’s actually mentioned by name in the text) Munchausen By Proxy, which is a fascinating idea ripe with dramatic potential the novel opens with Patty Watts being released from her prison sentence for child abuse which was sustained over a number of years treating her daughter as if she was seriously ill. On release she (and this is such a good idea for gripping fiction) goes back to live with the daughter, Rose Gold, now in her twenties with a family of her own. I’m saying little more about the plot but it wouldn’t take too much conjecturing to realise the potential. These two damaged women attempt to put together the pieces of their fractured relationship. Is this going to be a second chance for them or will they not be able to escape the traumas of the past?

The author uses an effective structure of two first-person narratives from the main characters with different time settings. Mother Patty focuses on the time from her release and Rose Gold’s narrative is interspersed moving from the time of the mother’s conviction towards Patty’s present day. Given the context of the plot this works sublimely.

It has an under the surface darkness which I love and it builds beautifully. This is certainly a read to look out for.

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The Recovery Of Rose Gold is published in hardback by Michael Joseph on  5th March 2020.  Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.

The Animals Of Lockwood Manor – Jane Healey (Mantle 2020)

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With Sarah Waters absent from fiction since 2014’s “The Paying Guest” here comes the latest author who has incorporated the feel and themes of some of her work into their debut novel. This also reminded me slightly of Sara Collins’ 2019 debut “The Confessions Of Frannie Langton” and that as well as selling well was one of the most critically acclaimed titles of last year scoring the Costa First Novel Award. Jane Healey here has produced a commercial literary novel which has the potential to do well.

Set largely in the early years of World War II museum director Hetty Cartwright is evacuated together with a sizeable collection of stuffed mammals to Lockwood Manor where recently widowed Major Lord Lockwood lives with his daughter Lucy. Hetty has much to prove in the male world of museums and she attempts to do this professionally in this large country house populated by a dwindling staff who view the extra work caused by the displays as a nuisance. Someone begins tampering with the collection but is it human or supernatural? The Major’s wife had been turned mad by the house which had proved to be too alien for her Caribbean upbringing (shades of “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca”) and her surviving daughter fears for her own sanity in the stifling atmosphere which proves conducive to nightmares.

Narrated alternately by Hetty and Lucy there is generally a good feel for the period but I think the author could have ramped up the tension of life in the house but as the novel progresses I feel that this is lost a little with the focus moving to the relationship of the two leading female characters (incidentally, I felt exactly the same about “Frannie Langton.”)

I found it easy to read, polished it off quite quickly and was involved throughout and enjoyed the turns of the plot but it never managed to crank up to the higher gear which would have made this more memorable. For me the standout book I’ve read in recent years of this type is still Laura Carlin’s “The Wicked Cometh” and as diverting as this is I don’t think it came up to that debut’s standard.

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The Animals Of Lockwood Manor is published by Mantle on March 5th 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark -Michelle McNamara (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have an uneasy relationship with the true crime genre. I’ve mentioned this before and I think it all boils down to one book which so disturbed me – the account of Muswell Hill killer Dennis Nilsen in Brian Masters’ “Killing For Company” (1985). However, a couple of times in the last week I have held a copy of this in my hands and contemplated buying it and re-reading it. (I lent my copy to someone years ago and it never came back). So far I’ve held back the temptation but the reason for Masters’ book shifting back into my focus is this 2018 true crime publication.

I’ve also been thinking about true crime in relation to author Carol Ann Lee whose five star account of the Bamber killings “Murder At White House Farm” has deservedly ascended the best seller lists since the impressive recent ITV reconstruction of the case. When this book came out nearly five years ago I reviewed it and Carol Ann became an early interviewee in my Author Strikes Back Thread. I asked her for recommendations and I was convinced that reading-wise I would begin a true crime spree but this hasn’t happened. However, the on-paper bizarre mash-up of an arson case and a love letter to the public library system Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book” made it into my current Books Of The Year Top 10 but that’s been about it. I only read “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” because friend Louise whose book opinions I very much value (she put both “Count Of Monte Cristo” and “Sanditon” my way) told me this was her Book Of The Year and I highlighted it in my “Looking Around….” Post.

Michelle McNamara’s obsession (and it was an obsession) was an individual who committed around 50 sexual assaults and at least 10 murders in California in a decade long frenzy (mid 1970’s -mid 80’s). Michelle dubbed him “The Golden State Killer” and he featured heavily in her true crime blog before she began to put this work together. She sadly died aged 46 in 2016 before completing the work.

This, unavoidably, does give the book a haphazard sketchy structure which did mean I kept having to refer back to the list of known victims and crime locations. The sheer number of offences and the lengthy period of time the killer was active also made for at times a stilted and repetitive read and affects the flow but I really can’t just judge this on how I feel it read as a book (I was also very aware of a surprising number of linguistic differences with many terms I was unfamiliar with) but the motives behind the work is what makes this extraordinary.

Michelle McNamara over the years became an expert on the case, came to have access to evidence even investigators did not have and pooled much of this vast amount of material for the first time. The thing I just cannot get out of my head as a British reader in 2020 is how was this man not apprehended at the time? There were a wealth of traits and characteristics that led nowhere. It’s hard I suppose for us looking back to what were largely pre-DNA days to appreciate how much luck was needed to solve cases and luck was certainly not with the many investigators. They could not seem to tap into the extraordinary level of planning that must have foreshadowed many of these crimes and the structure of US state policing at the time means evidence was not shared nor links made. If this was fiction we would deem it unbelievable.

Through her determination to unmask the Golden State Killer it is Michelle McNamara herself who shines through this work and it is this which will see it as an important and perhaps ultimately game-changing addition in the realm of true crime writing.

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I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was published in 2018 in the UK by Faber & Faber.

A Knock At The Door – T W Ellis (Sphere 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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British writer Tom Hinshelwood has written 7 novels and 2 short story collections as crime novelist Tom Wood creating the Victor The Assassin series. Here he is writing his first thriller as T W Ellis locating it in an American suburb where the Chief of Police is an overweight demotivated marijuana smoking woman, Rusty, who blows up at her team if they make her coffee incorrectly.

Living in this town is Jem whose husband leaves her one morning for a business trip whilst she is breakfasting on avocado on toast. Jem is a yoga teacher with anxiety issues which are certainly exacerbated when she responds to a knock at her front door and finds two FBI agents on her step. Not only is Jem placing herself in danger when she lets them in but she begins to realise that she does not know her husband as well as she thinks she does.

Set largely within a twenty-four hour period with a couple of flashbacks Jem’s worst day ever plays out proving you can certainly pack a lot into a day if your very existence is threatened. Much is Jem’s first-person narrative as she tries to come to grips with what she is informed is the truth and has to deal with whom she can trust. There’s also a third-person narrative focusing on Rusty and her attempts to make sense of sudden events happening in her sleepy jurisdiction.

It was hard not to find Jem annoying at times and there was really only one character I warmed to, the elderly Trevor, who attempts to live a quiet life and is suspicious of all authority and the minute by minute breakdown of the action perhaps made it too thorough leading to a number of empty conversations but there’s plenty of action and twists which I’m still kicking myself for not spotting.

The style of the novel does make it a quick read and as most people coming to this will know the type of popular thriller it is they will not be disappointed. This is a good choice for a holiday read.

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A Knock At The Door will be published as an e-book in May 2020 and in hardback on July 9th. Many thanks to the publishers and Secret Readers for the advance review copy.

 

Blonde – Joyce Carol Oates (2000)

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Prolific American author Joyce Carol Oates writes across many styles and genres and back in 2000 published what can very easily be seen as her contribution to The Great American Novel. “Great” in that it comes in at 939 pages in the paperback edition and with its concerns of a woman conquering and then being destroyed by that most American of institutions the Hollywood film industry it surely fulfils all the criteria for consideration of being up there amongst the ultimate American epic. For this is the fictionalised story of Marilyn Monroe.

But, perhaps word didn’t get round because this remained under the radar for me really until I was casting around for other fictional biographies having enjoyed my current Book of The Year the Truman Capote led “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. I’ve never read Joyce Carol Oates but know that with a writing career spanning well over 50 years and 58 novels that she is one of America’s most significant living writers. “Blonde” was shortlisted for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction but it was beaten by another “Great American Novel” consideration “The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon which breezed into my end of year Top 3 when I read it in 2006.

On paper I was pretty sure I was going to love “Blonde”. Fiction featuring real life characters is something I do have a predilection for . Hollywood always has an appeal in my non-fiction choices (less so with fiction) and the air of tragic glamour which would inevitably permeate this novel was always going to get my attention. I think I was anticipating a kind of literary Jackie Collins! I was, however, daunted by the length. Anything over 600 pages brings me out in a sweat and I knew it would mean giving over at least a couple of weeks to this one work (it took me 19 days to read but I have been busy and struggling to allocate as much time to reading as I wanted).

First things first, this is fiction. I don’t know enough about the life of Marilyn Monroe to ascertain just how much was from the mind of Joyce Carol Oates but it has certainly whetted my appetite for a biography but it would need to be extremely thorough and well-written to match this and I’m not sure that such a work even exists. Oates has an interesting (if inconsistent) way of distancing us from the central character. Men that we do know that she married such as Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller are just referred to as the Ex-Athlete and The Playwright with her adopting the role of the Blond Actress for the duration of their relationship. However, with a long-lasting and somewhat scandalous menage a trois set up with the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G Robinson names are revealed . Some characters are referred to by a single letter, C is Tony Curtis (who here dislikes Marilyn) W is Billy Wilder and H John Huston who both had the (mis?) fortune of directing Monroe in more than one of her movies. I was a little perturbed by this haphazard naming (or not) but it does give the effect of making the reader a spectator to the action rather than feeling part of it, which seeing the theme is the mirage of Hollywood may very well be appropriate.

One aspect which I certainly appreciated was how much the actress tried to put between herself, Norma Jeane and the studio’s creation. I don’t think this was anything I’d really considered before. Norma Jeane was not Marilyn but fame dictated that Marilyn take over in almost a parasitical way which certainly doomed the host.

Of course, the character of MM is always going to draw in the reader just as she drew in a generation of movie-goers. Oates certainly keeps us on our toes with a range of narrative styles and techniques which considering the length of this novel is no bad idea. At times I did feel frustrated and challenged but I also loved it and applaud it as a major achievement and probably one of the best fictional deconstructions of “celebrity” I have read.

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Blonde was published in 2000. I read the Fourth Estate paperback edition.