Other Names For Love – Taymour Soomro (Harvill Secker 2022)

Pakistani author Taymour Soomro’s debut sees teenage Fahad very reluctantly accompanying his father to his upcountry farm estate in Abad, an area developed largely from jungle as his power-hungry father is keen to tell everyone.  Fahad would rather spend his summer with his mother in London or Karachi but Rafik wants to toughen him up, show off his own power and influence in the area and present Fahad as the next generation.

Fahad is unable to fit into his father’s image of him.  Things seem to improve when ex-London resident and Rafik’s cousin Mousey returns home but his motives challenge Rafik’s plans.  A young man, Ali, is introduced to Fahad as a role model but Fahad finds himself attracted to him.

Tradition and the importance of family are two unsurprising themes here with those unable to sustain those values being swept aside.  The characters are unable to express their feelings to one another causing long lasting frustration and resentment.  Rafik’s need for power and prestige cannot allow anyone to stand in his way.

The story is well told and there are some lovely moments especially in the interactions between characters, Fahad with the “young thug” Ali and also with his aging father in the latter stages of the novel but for me it did not have the resonance I was expecting.

The author switches from father to son’s perspective within the third person narrative and there are jumps in time which gives a jerky, disjointed feel at times which sometimes I can actually appreciate in novels but here I think it affects the reader’s relationships with the characters.

I didn’t feel that I knew the characters well enough.  There is so much potential within the cast here, Rafik, Fahad, the mother, father’s cousin Mousey and Ali have all potential to blend into something outstanding but I felt the author was only allowing me to have a superficial understanding of them as if something was being held back.  I felt this particularly with main character Fahad, on this occasion leaving the reader to fill in the gaps influences the reader’s response to him.  I felt I wasn’t being pulled in to the novel as consistently as I could have been.

I do feel however that Taymour Soomro has provided us with a very visual work and there are considerable poignant, subtle scenes.  A TV/film adaptation could work very well indeed incorporating these beautiful small moments within the novel into a visual narrative.

Other Names For Love is published by Harvill Secker on 7th July 2022.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Rainbow Milk- Paul Mendez (2020)

I have at last got round to a book I highlighted in my annual “What I Should Have Read” post back at the end of 2020.  Excellent reviews on publication and fulsome praise by Bernardine Evaristo on the teatime Richard & Judy Bookclub during lockdown had me eagerly anticipating and I bought the paperback the day it was published.  That was February 2021 and inexplicably it just stayed on the shelf.  I was beginning to think it might not live up to my long-held expectations and that may have been the reason I was choosing other titles.  The recent series of BBC’s book show “Between The Covers” saw more praise from author and comedian Deborah Frances-White who described it as “so beautiful, so literary” when selecting it as her favourite book pick.  This made me realise I had procrastinated for too long.

I knew the outline for this book, Jesse, a young black male from the Midlands who has grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness is disfellowshipped because of rumours about his sexuality and flees to London and becomes a sex worker.  I knew it would be edgy, explicit, and that debut author Paul Mendez enjoyed  proclamations that an important new British voice had arrived with his writing which was said to have a strong autobiographical element.

This only goes someway.  It actually begins in the 1950s with recent immigrants Norman and Claudette and their two small children discovering the British dream they’d been tempted by wasn’t quite true and with Norman becoming unwell Charlotte was having to hold down two jobs while he looked after the children.  Jesse’s story begins 50 pages in and it is not clear for a considerable time how the two strands connect.

Despite Deborah Frances-White’s TV recommendation I was still surprised by how well rounded and literary this debut is.  It increasingly reminded me of the best work of Booker Prize winning Alan Hollinghurst.  Yes, it is explicit and I hope that the details of how the young Jesse makes his money to survive in London will not deter readers because this is just one element of a story which amazingly given the subject matter is full of hope and life-affirming.

Mendez handles language very well and there is a multi-sensory richness to his work.  He uses two potential pitfalls well.  He’s not afraid of dialect, especially in the early scenes where Jamaica meets Black Country.  At one point a French character is introduced and whilst reading a lengthy explanation from her I wondered if Mendez was just pushing this a little too far but her role in the novel is brief.  The other thing which he does well which is not always a success in fiction is rooting in its time through the use of many music references.  The sound of the Sugababes, turn of the Millennium R&B and hiphop and earlier bands such as Joy Division permeate and enhance this novel. This is a very strong, confident debut and I hope that given the two years since publication that Paul Mendez will soon be ready with something else to further boost his reputation. 

Rainbow Milk was published in 2020 by Dialogue Books   

The Kingdom Of Sand – Andrew Holleran (Jonathan Cape 2022)

Andrew Holleran’s 1978 debut “Dancer From The Dance” was amongst the first prominent novels written from the gay male experience which infiltrated the mainstream.  I read it probably before I was ready for it and it’s a novel I thought I would revisit one day as it is now established within the gay writing canon and is pretty rare as it was both written and set in the hedonistic post-Stonewall pre-AIDS era.   

In a career where publications have been sporadic I was surprised by the news of this his 5th novel and was very interested to explore this writer’s perspectives 44 years on from that debut.  I cannot fault the quality of the writing but from my personal standpoint this is one of the most depressing books I have ever read.

It is a raw, brutally honest study of gay men, loneliness and death.  This is the generation who survived the epidemic which emerged a few years after Holleran’s debut and here they are decades on being snuffed out one by one in barren, lonely lives in small town America.

The starting point is the narrator’s invitation from his sister to spend Christmas with her.  This would mean a departure from his rituals and routines he carries out in his dead parents’ house to which he has returned and cannot move on from.  The novel is a meditation on getting old, of still not being able to fit in, of loneliness and a paranoid fear of the future for that can only involve greater isolation, sickness and death.  Much of it features the slow demise of the narrator’s friend, Earl, ten years his senior and surviving to get through his pile of old movie DVDs whilst being observed closely by the narrator for parallels to his own situation and what this would mean for him in the not too distant future.

There’s no real physical decline in the narrator.  His home environment has shrunk him to a fearful shadow roaming the streets at night, even though he has friends, seems to regularly travel to Washington and still functions as a sexual being but for him his outlook is totally bleak.

Such nihilistic writing might have really appealed were I not on the wrong side of 50.  There’s too many nerves being touched and too much triggering going on for this to be anything but a difficult read. There’s also the issue of lightness and shade.  There’s little lightness here, where there is humour it is so black it actually drags the reader down further rather than providing relief.  Writers like Douglas Stuart have very successfully shown huge ability recently in making difficult subjects not only readable but very entertaining.  There’s a balance to be struck, I feel, but Holleran does not permit this here.  I’m wondering if this could at least be partly down to the difference between American and British viewpoints where we have a tendency to seek for humour in the darkest times.  I can’t just say this book is not for me and leave it at that because this book is exactly for me, but like when I read “Dancer From The Dance” all those years ago, I’m not sure I’m ready for it.

However, all this being said there are very important issues Holleran raises here and he is doing so in a style which will linger on in the reader’s mind and his writing is engrossing and actually really quite seductive (okay, it can be repetitive but I’m putting this down to emphasis).  It is no way a disappointment and has the potential to garner much critical praise and win awards but it is just very difficult to see things laid so bare and I felt quite relieved when I finished this book.

The Kingdom Of Sand is published on 9th June 2022 in the UK by Jonathan Cape.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Village That Died For England -Patrick Wright (1995)

December 1943- The sleepy coastal Dorset village, Tyneham, is taken over by the British Military for use as a firing range, incorporating it into neighbouring areas such as Lulworth and Bovington, already being used for manoeuvres and tanks.  The village, which included a school, church and post office is emptied of its residents who are relocated to other parts of Dorset.  They are told they can come back when the war is over.  They never return.

These are the bare bones.  It’s certainly not as simple as this idyllic bit of lost England being subsumed by officialdom suggests and Patrick Wright is on hand to tell this story which feels as British as an Ealing film comedy.

Having recently moved to Dorset after only ever holidaying here decades ago I’m finding myself stirred by long distant memories and back in the early 1980s I could recall a visit to a lost, abandoned village.  I hadn’t thought about it for years but moving here I began to wonder about it, I couldn’t even recall its name.  I saw this in Dorchester’s Waterstones and realised this was just the book to fill in the memory gaps.

I read the 1995 hardback edition from the library but it was reissued in paperback in 2021 by Repeater Books with a new introduction which brings the story up to date.

This is an unusual non-fiction choice for me and I wasn’t totally at ease with the author’s style, initially.  I found it slightly wandering to begin with and he didn’t bring me in  as a newcomer to his subject- I felt he assumed I’d know things I didn’t and with the passage of time there will be fewer of us who remember the national controversy over Tyneham which simmered from the war years onwards so a new edition would seem a good idea.

It is far less about the good, dislocated people of Tyneham than the reasons for the decisions made for them and the development of this part of the Dorset coast in National Defence.  There’s some memorable characters who made their home in this area before the war, including Rolf Gardiner, who promoted youth work camps and of whom there’s quite a bit here; the literary set of the Powys family as well as the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner and her same-sex partner Valentine Ackland; the fiery squire of the Lulworth Castle who may or may not have been tainted by the Curse of Tutankhamun and who sat and watched  his castle burn down in 1929 (I’ve just found out it was restored and is now an English Heritage site).  In his bringing these people back to life Wright’s account shines brightest.

There’s some mileage to be had in the rival associations aiming to repopulate Tyneham in the late 1960s-70s where hippy idealism both works with and clashes against the established order with young firebrand Rodney Legg taking central stage.

It is more than a story of lost England as within Tyneham’s takeover and the decades spent in trying to get it back for the residents there’s really a pocket guide to the shifts in values and priorities of the nation.  Class, unsubstantiated fears and prejudices and relationships with authority all play their fascinating part in this tale which is equally complex and straightforward.  A measure of the success of this type of book is whether it makes me want to read more about the subject and although I feel that most of the texts would be bucolic reminiscences from those who lived thereabouts at the time Wright has certainly piqued my interest.  I also think a visit to Tyneham might be on the cards.

I read the Jonathan Cape 1995 hardback edition but it would probably be easier to find the 2021 Repeater paperback reissue.

The Black- Eyed Stranger – Charlotte Armstrong (1955)

I encountered US novelist Charlotte Armstrong (1905-69) within the pages of Christopher Fowler’s “The Book Of Forgotten Authors”.  With some 29 novels under her own name and as Jo Valentine her speciality was “to portray women locked in psychological warfare with the members of their extended families and male-dominated workforces” which sounds as if her work should still be commercial and relevant today.

The title I chose to read feels more like she is following a male style of writing and so not typical of what might be expected from her. I associate the clipped dry tones with the hardboiled crime fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and the type of film that might have starred Humphrey Bogart but she does do it with a lighter touch and many of her turns of phrase are appealing; “But it would be better if he took the car.  It couldn’t answer questions three days later.” “It was like watching a petal spin on the skin of a wave, a pretty petal that could never sink.”

There’s a lot of dialogue and it is a fast-paced novel that can be polished off in a couple of sittings.  I can’t help but think it could be faster-paced if characters said what they actually meant rather than talking in riddles to one another.  Kay Salisbury meets this black-eyed stranger at a party.  He is crime reporter Sam Lynch, who mixes with certain undesirables including the vengeful Ambielli and his muscle-mountain henchman Baby Hohenbaum.  When Lynch hears of a plan to hold Kay to ransom he takes matter into his own hands.

All the characters here become confused as to each other’s motives.  It really isn’t that deep in terms of characterisation, plot or themes but Armstrong weaves an involving enough tale.  From what Christopher Fowler says of her I would imagine that the more typical work would have more resonant characters and relationships but this is an example of a technically proficient, tightly-written short novel.

The Black-Eyed Stranger was first published in the UK in 1955.  I read the Head Of Zeus ebook edition from 2012.  

The Hanged Man – Linda Mather (Joffe 2021)

It’s unusual for me to read a mid-series title without having read the rest but here is Book 4 of the Zodiac Mystery series by Joffe author, Linda Mather, a long running but intermittent series which began with “Forecast Murder” back in 1994.

Central character here is Jo Hughes, an astrologist currently running a workshop at Alcott College in the Cotswolds.  She is with the recently appointed CEO of the college, Aoife, when they discover Seb, the financial director, hanging in the woods.  Is it suicide?  Jo becomes obsessed with finding out when another staff member disappears at the same time.

I think this setting marks a shift in the series.  It seems from the support systems Jo uses that prior to this she has been assisting a Private Detective, David Macy, in Coventry.  He has moved into debt collection and the new working environment for Jo places her in the middle of the situation and provides a fairly open-ended set-up for future novels.

It doesn’t match the luridness of the title and it is not consistently gripping.  The hanging and disappearance occur early on before these characters are established so it is quite easy not to care that much about them.  The astrological aspect is a good idea, but apart from it giving the reason to be at the college it seems a little tacked on and a tad unconvincing.  But there’s probably not that many readers who come in at Book 4, so they will know what to expect from the author and most will be satisfied with this title.  Plot-wise there are not many twists but it read well and although I didn’t totally feel drawn in by Jo’s experiences at Alcott College fans of this series would be happy with its resumption.  If you wish to get up to speed with this series before the fifth book arrives the publishers have put together the first three in a set at a bargain price (currently £1.99 on Amazon).

The Hanged Man was published in 2021 by Joffe.

The Whalebone Theatre- Joanna Quinn (Penguin 2022)

Dorset author Joanna Quinn has produced a very strong debut here.  Her depiction of the Seagrave family between 1919 and 1945 is full of wonderful moments.  The manor house at Chilcombe, a village which actually exists 10 miles from Dorchester (last estimated population in 2013 was 10!) is lovingly created and provides the central focus although the action splinters to other locations during the war years this house is the lifeblood for this novel.

A great favourite of mine is Dodie Smith’s “I Capture The Castle” (1949) and I am regularly tempted by works which aim to get the feel of that novel, with its memorable characters, excellent set-pieces and its superb balance of being heart-warming, funny and poignant within a family setting.  Get this balance slightly off and it shows and I tend to end up not really responding positively but Joanna Quinn, whether this is an explicit aim or not, gets the feel of this type of novel beautifully and the first half was a thing of sheer of joy which I loved reading.  At the mid-way point I thought I’d got a strong contender for my Book of The Year.  From the outbreak of war, when the characters inevitably leave to play their part, I felt it slipped into more standard fare, which I still very much enjoyed but for me the real magic of the first half was not sustained.

Playing a part is an important theme of this novel.  Fish out of water Christabel is a toddler when her father arrives at Chilcombe with a new wife and the family dynamics further change in time leaving Christabel very much an outsider.  Her life changes when the corpse of an errant whale washes up on the beach.  With younger siblings and others originally encountered on the beach where the whale lies dead Christabel develops a theatre on Seagrave land using the whale bones in its construction.  The theatre where friends and family all have a part to play brings Christabel into the fold.  This “Swish Of The Curtain” aspect gives this novel  a vitality and the notion of the theatre simmers away in Christabel’s heart when war takes her far away from Chilcombe.

The war sees these memorable characters involved at home and overseas- some slip away at this point and have little part to play in future proceedings but others develop a stronger focus. Looking at my review of “I Capture The Castle” I also say that it is a book of two halves, with the first half more captivating for me than the second.  I’d actually forgotten about that when I read “The Whalebone Theatre” and even when I began writing this review but it’s interesting (for me anyway) that I felt the same way about a book I just can’t help comparing this to.

It is a splendid debut and this was enriched for me by the Dorset location, as a newcomer to the County myself I loved the references to places I have so recently visited and the mentions of my new home town in an earlier part of its history.  This book will charm and thrill many readers and could be a very pleasing commercial as well as critical success.

The Whalebone Theatre is published in the UK by Penguin on June 9th. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Shelter In Place – David Leavitt (2020)

David Leavitt is an author I’ve not read for about ten years but who is responsible for one of my all-time favourites “The Lost Language Of Cranes” (1986) which I first read not long after publication (when Leavitt was 25) and last re-read in 2008 to see if it had lost its shine and as a re-read it came 2nd in my Books Of The Year.  His 1998 novel “When England Sleeps” also made it to my end of year Top 5 in 2012.  Two outstanding novels from this American author.  I have also read and fully enjoyed his short story collection as well as books he has edited with Mark Mitchell.  I enjoyed but didn’t love “The Body Of Jonah Boyd” (2004).

“Shelter In Place” is his 10th novel, published seven years after his 9th.  It’s one of those novels where I’m not sure what I think, which certainly suggests it’s not on the same level as my favourites by him.  This is a waspish comedy of manners, peopled by characters it is hard to care about and yet I would still recommend it. 

It is set in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the horrors of this causes New York society doyenne Eva Lindquist to want to relocate to a life of faded grandeur in Venice.  Eva is at the centre of a group of friends, most of whom she doesn’t seem to care very much about and the novel is largely a response to her fears of the Trump administration.

Although American politics is the catalyst for action it is not especially a political novel, the characters’ immediate concerns are dominated by the trivial, will interior designer Jake agree to work on the Venetian apartment?  Will Min rescue her job in magazines by getting a front cover from the apartment? Will husband Bruce allow Eva to buy the apartment?  Will Eva’s Bedlington Terriers do their number ones and twos on their walks with Bruce?

There are a lot of dinner parties, catered by a procession of nondescript (to the rest of them) young gay men and there’s a lot of dialogue with brittle humour.  This makes it a quick fast-moving read even when plot-wise there’s not too much happening.

The author seems fully ensconced in American literary academia as Professor of English at the University of Florida and he obviously feels confident enough in this world as, through the voice of his characters, especially disgruntled book editor, Aaron, he is very sniping of the US literary establishment with Barbara Kingsolver, Paul Auster, Lydia Davis, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Safran Foer amongst those facing his vitriol.  Hopefully, they know Leavitt well enough to take this dismissal of their work.

It is interesting that the cast for this are generally in their fifties or above, which feels unusual for a novel of this sort which tend to be peopled by bright young things.  This gives an added dimension as they are facing change which Trump might bring about at a time when questioning their own positions as less relevant to the modern world.

There’s only one act of kindness in this book and that has to be carried out under the radar with the character responsible constantly questioning their own actions.  Towards the end another character fills in back story in a section which could potentially have been a more impressive novel than the one Leavitt has actually written- I wonder if he is toying with us here, showing us glimpses of what might have been?

My four star criteria is always based on whether I would want to read it again and I think here the answer is yes, despite me not really caring for the characters nor the world they inhabit as they did still very much draw me in.  It was humorous, involving and with a lot more depth than the shallow lives portrayed here which just nudges this book into the four star category.  I can see why some people wouldn’t like it but I can’t see that many would proclaim this Leavitt’s finest work.

Shelter In Place was published in the UK in 2020 by Bloomsbury.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter- Tom Franklin (2011)

This is a book which passed me by until I saw it recommended by US author Attica Locke as an example of Southern Gothic claiming it to be “everything Southern Noir should be”.  It also won the UK Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger Award in 2011 given for the best novel of the year.  I was also a little fascinated to discover that an author who received such fulsome praise for this, his third novel, (there was also a short story collection in 1999) has only produced one book in collaboration with his poet wife in the decade since.  I don’t know why this is.

My initial impression was that it was a very dense novel and despite the prestigious British award I found it as a British reader to be a bit of a struggle to find points of common ground in terms of cultural references, characterisation and attitudes.  In a quiet Mississippi town, there’s a continual macho undercurrent of violence and a real love of guns.  As the plot builds I did find myself enjoying it more.

Is history repeating itself when a teenage girl disappears?  The main suspect is a man who close to twenty years before was implicated when another girl vanished without trace.  His life since has been made a misery by the locals but he has stuck it out, alone and vulnerable now his mother is in a home with dementia.  A Black cop, Silas, known as 32 because of his baseball shirt number when he played back in the day, has returned to the area and discovers an ex-team mate, latterly a drug-pusher, dead in a swamp.  A violent attack on the town scapegoat follows.

Much has been concealed from the past which may have some influence in the present crime-wave.  There’s a lot of hostility in the town tied up in past and present responses to the two main characters.

I enjoyed this book.  It’s technically very strong and tightly written.  Unlike most crime novels the tension comes out not in the situations but with the characters’ relationships with one another which gives this depth and emotional resonance.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter was published in the UK in 2011.  I read the Pan paperback edition

The Manningtree Witches – A. K. Blakemore (2021)

Winner of the 2021 Desmond Elliott Prize which is given to the best debut novel and a book I highlighted in my 2021 round-up of “Books I Should Have Read”.  At the time I mentioned “A quick look at Amazon reviews suggest some readers have not really got it which might make it a bit of a Marmite novel.”  Well, having now read it it’s time to reveal where I am on the love/hate divide and just like the actual yeast extract spread, I love it.

I do have a bias towards historical novels, 7 years of reviewsrevues have taught me this.  The 1640’s setting is going to tick boxes for me.  I also like it when there is a fiction/fact overlap, particularly in the use of characters (most existed here) and documentation.  The author weaves in (but does not overdo) statements from the 1645 Witch Trials.  I have a taste for darkness, and the work of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins certainly brings that but perhaps the main reason I am giving this debut five stars might have been the reason it turned off some readers.  The language is rich, detailed and poetic, just occasionally over-wordy, this award-winning poet certainly came up with a few words I had never heard before.  I actually felt this added to the depth of the novel and enriched the sensory experiences such evocative language conjures up.

This is the narrative of nineteen year old Rebecca West, daughter of Anne, who has her own local nickname, the Beldam West, a good-natured woman who keeps an eye on the less fortunate including the ancient one-legged Old Mother Clarke, but who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  Her occasional clashes with neighbours does not help her when Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins takes over the local inn and begins his puritanical interfering into the lives of these country folk in Manningtree, Essex.

Plot-wise we know what it going to come.  A group of women will be singled out and victimised and manoeuvred into confession.  Rebecca finds herself in this situation because of her mother and others she associates with and not even her blossoming relationship with Hopkins’ Secretary, Matthew Eades will help.

Characters are strong here, some of the women are adept at saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  I felt myself both cringing and full of sympathy for them.  The author has avoided the stereotypical baddie in her creation of Hopkins which we might have expected from horror films (and some of the criticism aimed at this book has been because of this) but her depiction of him as misguided and hypocritical rather than out and out evil makes him seem more rounded as a character.  There is often black humour in the townsfolks’ dealing with him and the situations he brings about. 

The subject matter was always going to win me over but A.K Blakemore’s poetic recreation of this dangerous world was so rich.  The evidence sought to prove consorting with the Devil is ludicrous and the seventeenth century prejudice, hypocrisy and victimisation still resonates in this world we live in.  The author, in her Afterword, acknowledges areas of the world where individuals are still murdered because of accusations of witchcraft.  This is a potent debut.

The Manningtree Witches was published by Granta in 2021.