A Rising Man – Abir Mukherjee (2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

This is a book which often appears in best crime series debuts and mystery/thriller recommendations lists.  I did the unusual thing (for me) of reading the third in this series “Smoke And Ashes” when it came out in 2018 and with the recent publication of the fourth in paperback I thought I’d start off at the proper place – the beginning- especially as I enjoyed very much the book I did read.

“A Rising Man” introduces Police Captain Sam Wyndham, recently arrived in Calcutta in 1919 and billeted in a British run guest-house where the food he is served up puts him at greater risk from illness than if he took his chances on the streets of Calcutta.

He is called to a street murder of a senior Civil Servant and he meets up with Surendranath Banerjee, nicknamed “Surrender-not” by British officers unwilling to learn the correct pronunciation of his name, who becomes Wyndham’s sidekick in this series.  The pair set out to uncover the murderer amongst growing unrest in the local population which comes to a head when news of a massacre by British troops in Amritsar travels to Calcutta.

This novel won the 2107 Historical Dagger at the Crime Writers Awards so I was expecting big things.  I was impressed by it but I think I just slightly preferred “Smoke And Ashes” which felt a little pacier and by which time Abir Mukherjee had confidently established the characters.  Wyndham’s flaw is a predilection for opium as a result of the trauma of the war years and the loss of his wife in the flu epidemic straight afterwards, an addiction which he will certainly have the opportunity to explore in early Twentieth Century Calcutta.

This is a strong debut with a satisfactory conclusion and has set the series up appealingly and I am keen to seek out the other titles.

A Rising Man was published by Harvill Secker in 2016.  I read the 2017 Vintage paperback edition.

A Christmas Memory – Truman Capote (Penguin Classics 2020)

With the reign of my current Book Of The Year “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott coming to an end I have made good my promise to myself to explore further the writings of her central character, Truman Capote.  Penguin Classics have put out for this festive season a collection of six of his short stories around the theme of Christmas.

I read an early review edition which was without any introduction which I would have really appreciated to put these tales in context.  I’m not sure whether this would be put right in the published version but it seems the stories span from 1945 when Capote was a callow youth of 21 to a tale which is copyrighted 1982 so may not have seen the light until a couple of years before his death, but I guess was probably written much earlier.

Capote writes with a sense of nostalgia which is so appropriate for the festive period and I could see some of these stories ending up in my “read yearly” list.  I don’t know enough about him to know how autobiographical they are (again an introduction would have helped).  The first three feature the narrator’s relationship with an elderly yet almost child-like female cousin, Miss Sook, who the young protagonist adores.  “A Christmas Memory” is a wistful tale of seasonal preparations and their relationship is explored further in “A Thanksgiving Visitor” (okay, not quite Xmas) where her role as care-giver and educator is enhanced.  The young boy spends Christmas with an absent father in “One Christmas.” The least successful story “Master Misery” dates from 1949 and is a more brittle New York tale with a female main character which deals in the importance of dreams and will no doubt have some bearing on his later (1958) novel which confirmed his literary superstar status. “Breakfast At Tiffanys”.

My favourite story is also not especially Christmassy, “Children On Their Birthdays” shows strong characterisation and his plot of a new young female arrival in town is highly involving.  It is also characterisation which is the strong point of “Jug Of Silver” but it is not as fully realised as its predecessor in the book. 

This has really whetted my appetite for more Capote.  I like his style.  He handles the short story format well and I’m even beginning to feel a little more joyous towards the coming festival after reading it.

A Christmas memory was published by Penguin Classics on 5th November 2020. Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the review copy.

Hungry – Grace Dent (Mudlark 2020) – A Real Life Review

I know who Grace Dent is.  I occasionally read her restaurant reviews in The Guardian and in other publications over the years and she generally makes me laugh.  I know her as a talking head on nostalgia programmes reminiscing about a biscuit or forgotten gem of Children’s TV. I don’t know much more than that about her but my interest was certainly piqued by the arrival of this work.  Subtitled “A memoir of wanting more”, when I finished it I was the one who was certainly wanting more.

Grace won me over from the Epigraph which conveys the wisdom of Coronation Street’s Ena Sharples circa 1965; “When I was a little lass, the world was half a dozen streets, an’ a bit of waste land, an’ the rest was all talk.”  Grace’s all talk is an upbringing in Carlisle and the importance food played in her working class Cumbrian home runs throughout as she develops a palate from the tinned Fray Bentos pie to unimaginably posh food at top London restaurants.  As Grace moves into a world of journalism, London magazines, working with Piers Morgan (life’s not always a bowl of cherries, I suppose) she remains the girl who swung around lampposts waiting to be called in for her tea.

Her relationship with family is beautifully conveyed, especially her parents and particularly her Dad as he begins to slip away from them with dementia which as the book moves towards the present day has a potent pull on Grace’s priorities. 

It is full of superb observations on life and the recalling of the 80’s and 90’s is palpable.  I relished her reflections, such as the most significant person in eighties Cumbria being the woman who worked in the big Asda in Carlisle with the price reduction gun.  I like a memoir where the writer carries you along establishing points of common contact and yet telling their own story and I think Grace Dent does this brilliantly here. 

I haven’t enjoyed a food-based memoir as much since Nigel Slater’s “Toast” (2003) and like that book it is the people fuelled by the food who really are memorable.

Hungry was published by Mudlark on 29th October 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle – Shirley Jackson (1962)

I’ve always been a bit sniffy about the novella.  As recently as June this year in my review of Adam Mars-Jones’ “Box Hill” I said; “My main quibble comes with the novella form.  I end up feeling slightly short-changed”.  Could this be the book which has at last caused a change of heart?  Over 146 pages in the Penguin Classics paperback edition Shirley Jackson creates a superb, unsettling Gothic tale with an unreliable narrator and a series of beautifully written set-pieces which will forge this book forever in this reader’s memory.

I have never read American author Shirley Jackson (1916-65).  I know her career was established by short-stories and short form novels where a surface respectability hid tales of darkness.  In a superb opening we meet 18 year old Mary Katherine Blackwood (known as “Merricat”) negotiating her twice weekly trip into her local village as a kind of board game where her fate may be decided by a roll of the dice.  She perceives great hostility from those she encounters before returning to her sizeable family home now occupied only by her sister and an ailing uncle who do not leave the premises.  The veneer of respectability is tested when neighbours come to take tea in what is almost a parody of a familiar social situation.  We know something is very awry with this family and that the girls’ parents, brother and aunt all died on the same night within this house.  Merricat herself is happy with the unchanged world of isolation which has become the norm the last six years until a cousin comes to visit which makes things fall further out of kilter.

There’s a menace throughout which is stifling but that runs alongside Merricat’s often simplistic observations.  Even though none of the plot twists are surprising we end up with an extraordinary work where the lines between innocence and guilt are blurred, where the narrator continually disturbs and the horror story and fairy tale lay side by side without either becoming more than subtle.  I thoroughly enjoyed this and feel that I have discovered a writer who will continue to resonate strongly with me.  Length-wise it was perfect and I don’t think I have often said that about a novella before.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle was first published in 1962.  I read the 2009 Penguin Classics paperback edition which has an afterword by Joyce Carol Oates.

To Be A Gay Man – Will Young (2020) – A Real Life Review

I am a big Will Young fan.  A quick scan down my 100 Essential CD lists would illustrate this with his “From Now On” at #52, “Friday’s Child at #54 and “The Hits” compilation at #58.  He is somebody who I have written about a lot and who over the last 18 years has established himself as a significant national figure and especially within the cultural history of British LGBTQ+ issues.  This book is an inevitable choice for me to want to read soon after publication.

Some may be surprised by Will’s unflinchingly honest, forthright tone in this book but those of us who have listened to the “Homosapiens” podcast which he started with friend Chris Sweeney (I’ve gone through every edition with Will and Chris, the current series sees Will on sabbatical with Alan Cummings now alongside Chris) will be aware that the issues raised in this book are of great importance to the author.

Will has been upfront in the past about mental health issues and here deals with the notion of “gay shame” which for most of his life has overwhelmed him, threatening his ability to function.  Will very impressively explains the ways this becomes internalised, often at a very young age, in LGBTQ+ individuals and offers his strategies he has over time employed to help.

I did start off being slightly puzzled as to the extent of Will’s agonies over gay shame.  I am older than him and closer to the time when being gay was still considered a crime in the UK and grew up in a time when the only visible people who may have felt like I did (although this was never acknowledged by them at the time) were the camp comedians such as Kenneth Williams, John Inman, Larry Grayson and Frankie Howerd, none of whom were especially good candidates for the title of role model.  This history of LGBTQ+ culture is very well accounted for in Paul Flynn’s 2017 “Good As You”, my review of which can be read here.

In fact, it was really only when Russell Davies’ “Queer As Folk” was aired and Brian Dowling winning “Big Brother” and Will himself conquering the first season of “Pop Idol” that gay men could recognise something of themselves being portrayed.  Although Will seemed at the time an ideal, positive role model he was still grappling with the issues and shame of being gay which had been projected upon him by society and as a visible representation of a gay man he suffered considerable shocking homophobia from members of the public and in the media.  Will is right to air these here including the DJ Chris Moyles, the Mail Newspaper and correct once again to revisit the Mail’s hateful inclusion of an article on the death of the Boyzone singer Stephen Gately which is the reason why I will never pick up a copy of that newspaper again.  Incidentally, those most likely to suffer homophobia are young straight men who often in the form of “banter” have to face more putdowns and questioning of their sexuality than their gay male counterparts.

As well as being an honest and sensitive work this is extremely thought-provoking.  It made me wish I was part of an LGBTQ+ book group (or in fact any book group could valuably discuss this) to further explore the issues raised as it would be fascinating to hear others’ perspectives in the safe environment that should a group should provide. I may not have agreed with everything Will raises here but there is no doubt how his personal issues regarding being a gay man have caused a considerable struggle and his willingness to air these issues to help others is to be highly commended.

To Be A Gay Man was published in September 2020 by Virgin Books.

Shadow Sands – Robert Bryndza (Sphere 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

I really enjoyed Robert Bryndza’s fairly grisly “Nine Elms” earlier this year and so was really looking forward to the second in his series featuring ex DC Kate Marshall, now working as a university lecturer and her assistant, Tristan.

At the end of the last novel it looked like a career change may have been in the offing with the duo moving on to private investigations but here two years later both are still at the university.

A new case is triggered when Kate, out diving with her teenage son in a reservoir near her home in Devon, encounters the corpse of a young man.  Initial post-mortem reports seem implausible and the youth’s mother gets in contact to get Kate to carry out her own investigations.  Alongside this we get more insight into the two lead characters who Bryndza is fleshing out nicely, especially the very appealing Tristan in this novel and their working relationship shows much potential for the future.

This is a strong crime novel.  Last time round I felt Bryndza was hovering too closely towards the horror of torture and abduction and said of it; “That’s quite a lot of evil for one book and it might be a little full on for the times we are living now.”  I do think here the author has reined it in a bit.  It’s still admittedly a dark tale with some difficult scenes to read but it feels less over the top and this lighter touch has made for a second in the series novel which is even stronger than the debut.

At the novel’s satisfactory conclusion Kate announces her intention to give up academia for private detective work.  Whether this happens remains to be seen but I am certainly looking forward to more cases for her and Tristan.  This is a strong partnership in what is developing into a high-quality crime series.

Shadow Sands will be published by Sphere on 3rd November.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day – Winifred Watson (1938)

This is a book I have been aware of but have never read.  I also haven’t seen the film version (but I will soon be putting that right) which was made some 70 years after publication and which starred Frances McDormand and Amy Adams.

Winifred Watson is one of Christopher Fowler’s Forgotten Authors and because I am working through his book rediscovering writers I would have got round to her eventually but was urged to bump her up the list by my friend Louise, whose recommendations are so often spot-on. 

This is a charming little tale of a dowdy middle-aged spinster sent for a job interview for a governess post and who finds herself being brought into a whole set of circumstances involving a sparkling night-club-visiting theatrical social set who accept her totally. It is fast-paced with lots of dialogue, a lively wit and an optimistic kindness which runs throughout and which is very endearing.  Apparently, Winifred Watson, a Newcastle resident who had written a couple of Northern sagas which may or may not have been an influence on Catherine Cookson whose writing mined a similar area, knew nothing about the type of people she was writing about here, the smart theatrical London set, and never in her 95 year life-span went anywhere near a nightclub which provides one of the significant locations in her book.  She made it all up and it does actually have the naïve charm of 9 year old author Daisy Ashford’s “The Young Visiters” another author who because of her youth wrote from sheer imagination and not experience.  The wit is slightly Wodehousian and also reminiscent of E F Benson’s “Mapp and Lucia” novels but you feel that these two characters would have made mincemeat of Miss Pettigrew and however much that is a joy in their novels in this one it would have been to its detriment.  This book illustrates that just occasionally being in the right place at the right time can cause some very special things to happen.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day was first published in 1938 by Methuen.  I read the 2001 Persephone edition.

The Illustrated Child – Polly Crosby (HQ 2020)

Do you remember the Kit Williams book “Masquerade”?  Published in 1979 it was a picture book which sparked a national treasure hunt when it became known that the author had created and buried a gold bejewelled hare and the clues to its whereabouts were hidden in the book.  It became a worldwide bestseller, caused a boom in the sale of metal detectors and led to sudden mounds appearing in the countryside as treasure hunters began digging up public and private property in the belief they had located the hare. The whole thing ended in confusion and a hint of scandal which was documented by ex-University Challenge host Bamber Gascoine (“The Quest For The Golden Hare”).  Both Kit Williams and his most famous work is the undoubted inspiration for Polly Crosby’s debut novel.

Romilly and her father live in a large ramshackle country house with a moat which will bring comparisons to Dodie Smith’s outstanding “I Capture The Castle” (1949).  I wasn’t too disappointed by this as I love that novel and Smith’s main character Cassandra is one of my favourites in fiction so I settled in for a comforting read.  Romilly’s father, an illustrator and craftsman begins a series of best-selling picture books with a promise of treasure featuring Romilly and her kitten, Monty, both of whom become fictional celebrities which attracts groups of treasure seekers to their property.  I felt at this point I knew what type of read this would be but this is a novel of distinctly shifting tones becoming increasingly bleak and at times horrific.  Although I love unpredictability in my fiction it did feel as if the author was a little unclear as to what sort of book she was writing and I wonder if this would alienate readers.  There were times when I really liked it and times when I didn’t.  If you like the father/daughter relationship aspects and the treasure hunt you will find the turn into darker territory disturbing.  If the more bleak supernatural elements appeal you might find the first half overly twee.  There’s definite mixed feelings from me on this occasion.

The Illustrated Child is published in hardback on 29th October 2020 by HQ.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Shapeless Unease – Samantha Harvey (2020) – A Real Life Review

Novelist Samantha Harvey endured a year of insomnia and this is her account of that time.  As well as the physical act of not sleeping, the dilemma of whether to stay in bed becoming increasingly anxious or getting up to wander frustratedly or do jigsaws is her inevitable examination of why she had forgotten how to sleep.

I had to time this book carefully into my reading schedule.  I was aware of it during the national lockdown but felt that by reading it then Harvey’s insomnia might be contagious at a time when the balance between sleep and anxious tossing and turning was precarious.  In my head it just seemed to follow nicely after the thriller I have just read “Before I Go To Sleep” where the lead character’s restful nights wipes her memory clean.  There’s a superstitious literary balance going on here.

Samantha Harvey’s lack of sleep causes her to address guilt, loss, death and her past.  She also inserts parts of an unresolved short story.  At 176 pages it can be read in a couple of hours (I made sure they were daylight hours).  Her writing is enthralling and makes me want to seek out her four novels.  After finishing it I felt less convinced as to her motive behind the book than when I started it, it flows in a nebulous way like the dreams she was largely missing out on. I like the story of a man who robs a cash machine which creeps in from time to time but am not sure what it is doing here.  It is the quality of the writing I will remember this book for rather than the work as a whole.  There’s a story from her past regarding a dog which would keep me awake at night and I did enjoy her writing in her accounts of doctors’ appointments where on one occasion, a plea for a blood test led to a rebuke of “This is not a shop”.  I could appreciate her reaction to those people who tried to make helpful suggestions (sleep hygiene?) and her search for answers.  Ultimately, she concludes “This is the cure for insomnia – no things are fixed.  Everything passes, this too”. This seems more potent than prescription remedies and therapy but, boy, did she have to struggle to get to this viewpoint.

The Shapeless Unease was published by Jonathan Cape in 2020.

Before I Go To Sleep- S J Watson (2011)

S J Watson’s thriller debut made a splash on arrival, getting critical acclaim, picking up awards and having a 2014 film made of his book starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, (it’s currently on Amazon Prime in the UK, I haven’t seen it but may watch it this weekend now I have finished the book) not bad for a hospital audiologist writing on evenings and weekends.

The premise is fascinating.  A middle-aged woman wakes up each morning knowing nothing about her life, believing herself to be in bed with a much older stranger.  Shocked by her appearance as much older than she was expecting to see in her bathroom mirror she has to piece together her life since she lost her memory.  Each morning it’s back to square one, no recollections and needing her husband to fill in the gaps.  It seems that this has been going on for years and secret meetings with a doctor provide her with a strategy of getting some of these memories back.  She begins to keep a journal which makes up the bulk of the narrative and through this starts to realise that all is not as it seems.

This is a real-slow burn of a thriller and Watson is great at building up the tension gradually as the reader begins to share Christine’s mistrust.  I was very involved but felt the resolution did not live up to the build-up which had been so very good.  It’s impossible to read about Christine’s predicament without putting yourself in her shoes reflecting how you would react in her circumstances and that is a great way to build empathy for your main character.

This book’s success made it one of the key titles in revitalising the psychological thriller which dominates best-seller list almost ten years on.  Since then Steve Watson has published two more novels, the latest “Final Cut” published in August 2020.

Before  I Go To Sleep was published in 2011.  I read the Black Swan paperback version.

PS: Just watched the film last night. Oh dear! The slow burn and gradual cranking of tension has been abandoned and everything I liked about the book has more or less gone.  Instead we get a creaky standard straight-to-DVD type thriller with an unnecessarily starry cast who do not add much to it.  The film doesn’t limp above a 2* rating.  I wonder if the author was disappointed with the liberties taken to get this end result?