Welcome to reviewsrevues

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Welcome to reviewsrevues.com.  If this is your first visit – where have you been?  I’ve been here since January 2015.  If you like what you read please consider clicking on the “Follow” button and then you will be notified whenever there is something new on here.   I live on the Isle Of Wight off the south coast of the UK (lovely place if you have never been).  I have been producing book reviews for websites and magazines for some time and now want a place where these can be gathered together.  I really will have a go at reading anything.  I love variation and will skip from genre to genre.   This is what you should find on the site:

  • Reviews of recently read books and pieces about books
  • Murder They Wrote – Crime book reviews
  • Female Fiction – (from a male point of view)
  • Kid-Lit (I was a Primary School teacher for many years and the habit of reading children’s books is hard to break!)
  • The Running Man (Adventure/Thriller reviews- so called because my local library, where I volunteer, uses a symbol of a running man for this fiction category.)
  • Real Life – Biographies, autobiographies, biographical fiction fits in here
  • 100 Essentials – Books and Music – Those that will have a permanent place on my shelves and hopefully in yours too!
  •  What I have been watching – TV, Films
  •  Music Now – What I have been listening to – the future Essential CD’s?

Use the indexes to find out what you may have missed.  There’s also a very good search option in the side-bar if you are looking for something specific.  Thank you for visiting reviewsrevues.com.  I hope you like what you find and that you come back soon.  Feel free to comment on any of the specific posts (you should find a Comment link underneath each post which will bring up the Comment box.)  I always reply……………….

Book Bingo – A Monthly Update

And we’re off!  One month into the Book Bingo organised by my local Shanklin Community library and I’ve managed to achieve four stickers.  Here’s a little reminder of what my card looked like ……………

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And here is how it is looking one month later……………….

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That’s four stickers this month.  On the top line is “set in another country” for this I chose Iceland in the nineteenth century for “Burial Rites” by Hannah Kent.  The sticker on the second line was for a book set in wartime Britain and for this I read the rather marvelous “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” by Chris Cleave which has both wartime London and Malta as its setting.  I know a lot of the cards have a book written by an author whose surname begins with the same letter as the first name, I haven’t got this on my card, but Chris would be a good choice for this category too.  I got the frog sticker for “A book published in the last three years” and was helped out here by a review copy of “White Tears” by Hari Kunzru, which also would have been useful if I had a “book with a colour in the title” as some cards have.  Final sticker this month needed a one word title.  Take a bow Ian McEwan with his one worded “Nutshell“.  Ian has written a number of one word title novels, so a useful author for this category!  Three out of the four books were borrowed from the library.

Not that bad for the first month.  I’m ploughing through quite a long non-fiction book at the moment so we’ll see how many more stickers I can claim next month…………………

A Life Discarded – Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate 2016) – A Real Life Review

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Biographer Alexander Master’s latest highly unusual subject following his acclaimed 2006 “Stuart: A Life Backwards” (excellent TV adaptation starring Tom Hardy in 2007) and “Simon: The Genius In My Basement” (2012) made its presence known following a discovery in a skip.  A friend found 148 diaries abandoned in Cambridge.  He passed them on to another friend and when she became ill Alexander became the keeper of this extraordinary find, a vast number of diaries and notebooks filled with great intensity over a period of decades by person unknown.

What Masters had in his home was the work of the most prolific diarist of all time (Guinness Book of Records had recognised “newspaperman” Edward Robb Ellis’ 22 million words but here is something like 40 million words ) a record of one life and found in a skip.

It took Masters five years to discover the identity of the diarist.  The words became something of an obsession for him.  He pored over the writing looking for clues, at writing which became smaller as the writer aged becoming miniscule in later volumes.  A life which had begun with hope and optimism with many potential avenues became frustrated, disturbed even close to madness as the sequence continued.

I’m purposely giving little away about Masters’ subject because the gradual uncovering of the biographical details is one of the great strengths of this book.  Biographers obviously begin with research and getting to know and understand their subject before putting pen to paper, here we get a fascinating alternative process of nothing being known and everything having to be deduced from a personal monologue.  Diaries are not the best way to discover some things, even the basic biographical details such as gender, name, description is rare in this type of personal writing (why would you write about the things you know already?) and remained very much hidden amongst the millions of words.  The very nature of diaries is their tendency to be outlets for outpourings of the irrational and unanalysed.  So how much of a person’s life is actually revealed in this way?

This is certainly a real life with a difference and it is the process rather than the life itself which becomes gripping.  Extracts from the diary are not as prevalent as might be expected and are more used to put together a picture of the writer and why their life’s work ended up in a skip.  It reminded me occasionally of Alan Bennett’s “Lady In a Van” but instead of the physical presence of Miss Shepherd  turning up outside in her old van here we have the presence of the 148 volumes which takes over Master’s existence in much the same way as  Miss Shepherd did.

Another strength is how Masters’ biography has to shift gears as details are uncovered.  We have seen this recently in Kate Summerscale’s “The Wicked Boy” which changes track when research brings something astonishing about her subject to light but Masters is doing this all the time as assumptions are proved incorrect often built from passing remarks and gut feelings.  The twists and turns in the development of his narrative are really quite thrilling.

There, I think I’ve completed this without giving much away.  This book is best approached as a blank slate to really get maximum enjoyment from it.  Read it before you find out too much about it.

fourstars

A Life Discarded was published by Fourth Estate in hardback in May 2016 and in paperback in February 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Peter Kay’s Car Share – BBC1 (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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The success of the first series of Peter Kay’s Car Share certainly took the  name-checked star and director by surprise.  It was a much lower-key  piece than we had come to expect from this larger-than-life stand-up.  It was subtle and character-led.  I was talking to a friend about it today who said they watched just one episode and it was like watching paint dry and in a way I know what she meant.  I think expectations were high for another series like “Phoenix Nights” which could make you laugh until your sides ache or something which reflected his live shows with not enough recovery times between jokes.  A series largely composed of two people sat in the car on the way to work needed time to work its magic.  But for those of us who stuck with it, the charm of the piece hit home.  It was almost a case of letting the jokes find you.  There were the big laugh moments but for much of the time this viewer would have little more than a wry smile.  Series 1 won the BAFTA award for Best Comedy and a viewer voted National TV Award.  This was a great surprise to Kay but not, perhaps for the majority of us who are now struggling to find TV comedy funny.  For the BAFTAs it was up against “Peep Show”, which I had given up with quite a few series back and “Chewing Gum” and “People Just Do Nothing”, two shows on smaller channels E4 and BBC3.  Kay’s uncommercial idea was the most commercial of the lot. The audience rating led National TV Award saw him a worthy winner against two comedy juggernauts, long past their prime “Benidorm” and “Birds Of A Feather” and “Not Going Out” of which I’ve seen only one episode.

Peter Kay speechless at the BAFTAs

For those who had stuck with Series 1 and its more leisurely pace Series 2 was an essential.  The relationship between characters John Redmond (Kay) and Kayleigh, his car share partner from the supermarket where they work (Sian Gibson) was simmering nicely.  The warmth generated by these long-time off screen friends was palpable and it was this rather than laugh out loud jokes which made it special.  Series 2 consists of four episodes and once again followed the now more common but radical idea of having all four episodes available on BBC I-Player as soon as episode 1 has been transmitted.  Last time round I watched each episode as they were shown on a weekly basis, not really understanding why anyone would do anything different.  At time of writing two episodes of Series 2 have been transmitted, but for the purpose of this review I have found myself downloading and watching the other two.

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Checking reviewsrevues for a good review?

This series seems to be bookmarked at each end by two quieter episodes.  The first re-establishes the characters, carries on from Kayleigh giving John a copy of her all-time favourite album (Now 48) with a note to listen to a specific track (“Pure And Simple” by Hearsay).  According to news reports the reintroduction of Now 48 to Series 2 caused a huge demand for the 16 year old double compilation CD which led to appearing it on Amazon.co.uk’s Charts on the basis of its second-hand sales alone.  That demand is still continuing.  Now 47 and 49 are in plentiful supply for a penny, yet Now 49 will currently set you back £24.75.  I absolutely love that this has happened on the strength of its mention in a comedy show.

I bet that has got you going off to the CD shelves to see if you own this potential money-spinner.  (I’ve just checked Now 46 is the closest I’ve got).  I enjoyed this first episode with Kayleigh attempting to find her own way to work “I’m in court shoes, I’m not Zola Budd.”  Much of the humour came from the soundtrack of Forever FM and the character’s reactions to the ads and playlist (Eurovision runner-ups Bardo’s “One Step Further” being a little gem here).  The fourth episode has to deal further with the relationship between John and Kayleigh with some knockabout comedy when Kayleigh finds herself locked indoors and a nod towards “La La Land” for the resolution.  Once again there’s musical highspots in Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” and Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance”.  However, in both of these episodes I found myself wishing that there was just a little more to laugh at.

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Get it on E-Bay quick!

What lifted this series were Episodes 2 and 3 for different reasons.  Episode 2 (shown on BBC 1 last Tuesday) set the comedy up with John and Kayleigh on the way to a staff do fancy dress Chinese banquet but then handed the whole thing over to a new character, Elsie, who they give a lift home to dressed as a Smurf.  (“There’s no taxis, it’s the Ramadan”). Costume and make-up were so convincing that I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t Peter doing one of his double roles, which had fooled many people in “Phoenix Nights” days when he played Brian Potter and the bouncer Max.  It turns out that this comedy-tour-de-force was Conleth Hill, best known for his role as Varys in “Game Of Thrones”.  Peter played second fiddle and the result was comedy gold.  But for bigger belly laughs Episode 3, which will be shown on BBC1 this week is a gem.  When John and Kayleigh decide to skive off work for a day it leads to a section which had me laughing like I haven’t done for a TV comedy in ages- a sequence where laugh is piled upon laugh which was certainly nothing like paint drying!

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Not Peter Kay but it could have been!

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Elsie – 2017’s great new comic character

This second series of four episodes has felt familiar and yet surprising.  I love Peter Kay when he is unsubtle (presenting Royal Variety Performance and in the magnificent TV talent show spoof “Britain’s Got The Pop Factor….”), I love his stand-up (made Guinness Book of Records for most successful of all time playing to 1.2 million people) I loved the whole set-up of “Phoenix Nights”, have enjoyed his three number 1 UK hit singles, but admittedly was not wild about his “Max and Paddy’s Road To Nowhere” series.  This revitalised attempt at a very British road trip, a car share journey to work, has seen him once again getting close to comedy gold.

fivestars(On the strength of Episodes 2 and 3)

The third episode of “Peter Kay’s Car Share” will be shown on Tuesday on BBC1 at 9pm.  The whole series (4 episodes) is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.

 

Ginny Moon – Benjamin Ludwig (HQ 2017)

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I tend to steer clear of child neglect and abuse in my fiction choices yet there was something about this American author’s debut that had me interested right from the blurb.  It begins four years after the neglect of autistic teenager Ginny who has now settled with a “Forever” family .  With adopted mum having her first baby and Ginny discovering the whereabouts of her birth mother the uneasy balance topples.

Narrated by Ginny over nearly four months with exact timings (an obsession with time being part of her condition) this is certainly a novel of an outsider attempting to make sense of a world where people are unreliable and use expressions which confuse and bewilder.  Ginny, very much the life-breath of Ludwig’s tale, finds herself having to misbehave, adapt the truth and steal in order to put what she believes to be wrong, right. It’s a tale which is both heartwarming and alienating, funny and sad.  Ludwig whose motivation was his own adopted autistic teenager clearly shows how the best intentions can be wrongly interpreted with potentially tragic results.

I was captivated by Ginny and her tale, but that does not mean that the reader will not experience frustration nor not be shocked by her challenging behaviour.  She does make a superb, flawed narrator.  I’m not sure how Harper Collins would want to market this.  A Young adult/teen market seems plausible yet like Mark Haddon’s crossover “Curious Incident Of The Dog..” it could work better with our adult experience looking back at what for us all are the bewildering adolescent years, let alone for someone with Ginny’s challenges.  This is a strong debut.

fourstars

Ginny Moon is published in May 2017 by HQ.  Many thanks to Real Readers and the publishers for the advance review copy.

The Lost Book Of The Grail – Charlie Lovett (Alma 2017)

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I recently read Charlie Lovett’s 2013 debut “The Bookman’s Tale” and was impressed by his successful combination of a passion for books with an adventure genre novel.  His latest, his third, is a much quieter work but once again this ex-antiquarian bookseller makes a love for old books a central theme and ends up with a novel every bit as entertaining.

He has taken the brave step of setting it in the cathedral town of Barchester, a fictional location familiar to Trollope fans but by bringing it to the present day there are merely echoes of those classic novels.  Central character Arthur Prescott is the main reason I enjoyed this.  A frustrated English lecturer at the University, with a penchant of PG Wodehouse he is a man without religious beliefs who attends church services a number of times a day.  From a child he has been obsessed with Arthurian myths and the legend of the Holy Grail and his grandfather suggested there could be links with these and their home town.  Arthur’s life changes when another Grail devotee, an American woman, arrives to digitize the cathedral’s manuscripts.  The dilemma over the future of our important works is a fascinating theme of the novel and would create much discussion for reading groups.

In many ways this book is the antidote to the Dan Brown-type adventure novel suggested by the title. There’s no globe-trotting, the puzzles are intellectual and carried out in the Cathedral library.  We are teased throughout with moments in history where the keepers of Barchester’s secrets overlap and with sections from a Guide Book Arthur is writing about the cathedral.

If this sounds a little too restrained there’s the delights of Arthur, at odds with changes in modern academia and his group of code-busting pals, the Barchester Bibliophiles who keep the momentum going in this inaction action quest novel.  I ended up enjoying this even more than his slightly more genre-aware debut.  Reading about a genuine love for books is always a delight.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Charlie Lovett about this book for nb magazine (now retitled as nudge books rather than new books).  This can be found in the edition which is out now (nb 92).  This can be ordered by following this link.

fourstars

The Lost Book Of The Grail was published by Alma Books in March 2017.  Many thanks for nudge for allowing me to interview the author and the publishers for the review copy.

100 Essential CDs – Number 90 –Glenn Miller – The Ultimate Collection

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The Ultimate Collection – Glenn Miller  (Prism 1998)

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And now for something at least a generation earlier than most of the music on my Essential CDs list.  This was the music that our parents and grandparents listened and danced to.  My Dad was a big Glenn Miller fan and always said that during the War that was what the people he was serving with wanted to listen to.  He always said that the notion that Vera Lynn was the sound of the War Years was wrong, that most people he knew found her depressing, that if you didn’t know whether each night was going to be your last then “In The Mood” was a much better bet.

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Fast forward fifty years when I knew someone who worked in a crematorium.  I asked him what was the most popular music chosen to leave a service and he said it was Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood”- Now, that was a few years ago and things are likely to have changed as the war years generation have diminished in numbers so much, but there is no doubting the effect that this bandleader’s music has had on many lives.  For those of us born in the decades after his death there is still so much to consider as essential.  The research for chart positions usually takes some time for these CD reviews, but Miller predates all UK charts and the US Billboard charts.  However, “Moonlight Serenade” has charted twice as a re-issue in the single charts (In 1954 probably due to the release of “The Glenn Miller Story”, of which more later, and  again in 1976 when there was a bit of a swing revival).  There have been 11 charting albums for Miller and his Orchestra of re-issued music.  The most recent was actually the most successful – 2010’s “The Very Best Of” issued on Sony which reached number 4 in the charts.  That is a 24 tracker and would seem to be a very good choice.  I however, have gone for this non-charting budget 1998 release  which has 23 tracks in an order which seems to me to provide the perfect Miller playlist.  At times this can be not enough Glenn Miller so then I would opt for the 100 hits collection over 5 CDs which was released by Demon in 2009.

Three of the many other Miller compilations available

Glenn Miller was born in Iowa in 1904 and slogged away very much on the breadline for many years as a trombone player and song arranger.  The 1954 movie “The Glenn Miller Story” which I watched recently, starring James Stewart as the bandleader makes much of the fact that Miller was searching for a sound that he heard in his head.  This came about when he moved a clarinet to the lead with saxophones harmonising which led to a rich, distinctive feel which became established as “The Glenn Miller Sound”.  This clarinet player Wilbur Schwartz spent five years in the Orchestra until 1942 and died aged 72 in 1990. By the time war broke out in Britain in 1939 Miller was a huge star.  He had the Orchestra, a vocal group “The Modernaires” and a number of featured vocalists such as Ray Eberle, Marion Hutton, Tex Beneke, Paula Kelly and Skip Nelson all of whom feature on tracks on this CD.

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James Stewart in “The Glenn Miller Story”

Miller was first and foremost an arranger, adapting tunes to his signature sound.  His main songwriting success came with “Moonlight Serenade” which closes this CD.  The “Glenn Miller Story” features it being composed then being turned into a cheesy vocal number with limited approval before Miller is persuaded to develop it as an instrumental track.  With its clarinet led saxophone section this sums up perfectly the Miller Sound that turned him into a household name.

The most essential tracks, and those that brought the most success were the instrumentals and the CD kicks off with the most radical of them all.  “In The Mood” had been first recorded by the Edgar Hayes Orchestra but Miller’s version from 1940 with its jive rhythms seems to nod towards the rock and roll that would be sweeping the nation by the mid 50’s.  Its changes of volume and intensity throughout the track also makes it memorable.  Great track, but I think I favour even more what comes next, “String Of Pearls” which is chock-a-block with hooks and has that middle section which sounds like it comes from a 60’s movie soundtrack.  This is a more jazz-influenced sound.  Here Miller’s 1941 recording is the original version of the song.  It is significant in The Glenn Miller Story as James Stewart’s Glenn, whilst a struggling musician, scrimps to buy a pearl-like necklace for girlfriend Helen (played by June Allyson) who is presented with the real thing when, now famous, he introduces the song at a nightclub.

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June Allyson and James Stewart

The same film also features “Little Brown Jug” with more than a measure of poetic licence.  In the film Helen loves the song and it is heard sung by a glee club as the courting couple take a walk through campus grounds.  She suggests Miller arranges it but he holds out until it is used as a Christmas surprise for his wife at the Christmas concert.  This is a tearjerker moment in the film because (I’m sure I’m not spoiling anything here, we all know what happened to Miller) he has not turned up for the concert as his plane has been lost in fog.  In reality, the song was one of the Orchestra’s early  hits from 1939, his first million-seller recorded some five years before Miller’s disappearance.

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After these three instrumentals we get a number of vocal tracks including the sublime “Serenade In Blue” and the rightly famous “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (rather spoilt for my generation who will recall it as “Toffee Crisp A Choo Choo” from a television ad). A number of the vocal tracks are songs that were already popular numbers such as “Over The Rainbow”, “That Old Black Magic” and “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree” but there are some little gems to be found amongst these.  I have a big soft spot for “Humpty Dumpty Heart” and especially, “Elmer’s Tune” from 1941 which was a vocal version of an instrumental by the Dick Jurgens Orchestra.  “On A Little Street In Singapore” is another gem which was covered magnificently in 1978 by Manhattan Transfer(UK#20)- a group who had their UK debut hit with another song associated with Miller when “Tuxedo Junction” got to number 24 in 1976 during that mini Swing music revival I mentioned earlier.

Manhattan Transfer scored big with songs associated with the Orchestra

There’s a couple of ambitious instrumentals in Miller’s take on Verdi with “Anvil Chorus” with its drum solo and “Song Of The Volga Boatman” recorded with the Army Air Force Band with its strident jazz arrangement.  In 1942 the Glenn Miller Orchestra was disbanded as Miller joined the Army Air Force and directed its band.  Miller was an incredibly popular touring attraction, played to troops in war-torn Europe and America and was promoted to the rank of Major.

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The CD ends with five first class tracks, the almost-instrumental of “Pennsylvania 6-5000” (the phone number of New York City’s Hotel Pennsylvania where the Orchestra played).  “I’ve Got A Girl In Kalamazoo” is a great fun track with vocals by Marion Hutton, Tex Beneke and The Modernaires.  This leaves us with two monumental instrumentals the stirring “American Patrol”, a nineteenth century marching song  which Miller brought to a whole new audience with his 1941 version and the aforementioned Miller composition “Moonlight Serenade” which provides a  great closer for this immense talent.

Major Glenn Miller was lost at sea in a plane crossing to France in December 1944.  His success did not last the entire war and yet over 70 years later his music is so redolent of that time and the hope and optimism of those who listened and danced to his music.

 

Glenn Miller- The Ultimate Collection is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £7.78 , used from £0.01 and as a download for £5.99.

Nutshell – Ian McEwan (2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I feel that Ian McEwan has been part of my reading life for a long time.  I was 18 and supposedly revising for my A Levels when I discovered his first two collections of short stories, the Somerset Maugham award-winning “First Love, Last Rites” (1975) and “In Between The Sheets” (1978).  I had never read anything like these tales ever before.  I also devoured  his dark debut novel “The Cement Garden” (1978) whilst I should have been listing the reasons for the French Revolution.

His next couple of novels seemed slighter affairs but I was back with him for “The Innocent” (1990) and particularly for his tale of  hot air balloons and obsession “Enduring Love” (1998), a book I am determined to re-read this year to see if it is as good as I remembered.  His 1998 Booker Prize winning “Amsterdam” is less memorable and came before the book which should have picked up every accolade going, his masterwork as far as I am concerned “Atonement” (2001), one of the best novels of this century so far.  I still have the last three before this latest, “Solar” (2010), Sweet Tooth (2012) and “The Children Act” (2014) sitting on my shelves waiting to be read but I couldn’t hold out when I saw “Nutshell” in my local library and had to borrow it and read it, especially as he is the current holder of my  Reviewsrevues Book Of The Year Re-Read Award.

My verdict- it is very good but not classic McEwan.  It lacks the richness and depth of his very best but it is a very involving and memorable read.  Narrated by a foetus in a womb this is certainly a crime novel with a difference.  This very well-informed youngster has picked up significant life experiences from listening to podcasts and the radio as well a gourmand’s tastes from the rich food and copious amounts of wine his mother imbibes.  He has a vivid sense of the world he has never seen, two factors which make his a fascinating if not totally reliable narrator.  When he hears his mother and her lover, Claude, his father’s brother, plotting to kill his father (obvious shades of “Hamlet” here) he faces the dilemma of being a small part of a “perfect crime” coupled with a need for his biological father backed by an awareness of what repercussions there will be for his young life if things go wrong.

This is very much a character study of the three parts of the love triangle as seen through the (unopened) eyes of the embryo.  There are digressions aplenty as he attempts to make sense of his word before he makes an appearance and an attuned awareness of the developments of the murder plot.  The three adults are brought to life vividly but it is the unborn that the reader will be rooting for.  It’s original and like the best crime novels I did find myself holding my breath towards the end as McEwan’s plot comes to resolution.

fourstars

 

Nutshell was published in hardback by Jonathan Cape in September 2016.  The paperback edition is due in June 2017.

White Tears – Hari Kunzru (Hamish Hamilton 2017)

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I was introduced to British born New York resident Kunzru via his 2004 novel “Transmission” which I loved.  That was a laugh-out-loud work with good line after good line and probably the funniest novel about a computer virus that you could ever imagine reading.  Excited by what I believed to be a major talent I went back to his 2002 debut “The Impressionist” which did not impress me as much.  I felt it ran out of steam and it was written largely in the present tense, which does not always work for me.  When I heard his latest was about record-buying obsessives I was very keen to find out more.

Seth meets rich boy Carter Wallace, a record collector prepared to splash the cash if he feels the music is authentic.  Seth, an audiophile himself, who records his day to day movements in the streets, becomes drawn into this obsession as it begins to be dominated by old shellac 78 rpm Blues records.  This becomes one record in particular, “Graveyard Blues” by Charlie Shaw- a record so steeped in authenticity that no-one is sure that it ever even existed.  This hunt for Shaw becomes part crime story, part ghost story, part road story and part love story all infused (for the first half at least) with the wry humour that made “Transmission” so enjoyable.

And then, about two thirds of the way through the whole thing begins to unravel.  Has obsession turned to madness or is something more supernatural on the loose? Is this recompense for white men dabbling in Black American culture in order to manipulate,   exploit, possess and obsess?  Sometimes, when a gear is changed and the author appears to veer off in a different direction it can prove exhilarating for the reader but at other times it can feel as if we have been left behind.  And on this occasion, unfortunately, I did feel Hari Kunzru did leave me behind and I didn’t really get what was going on.  The whole thing begins to feel feverish and we seem to be presented with alternate endings as what was going on felt blurred.  It reminded me in the way this made me feel, rather than the size and scale of 2015’s “City On Fire” by Garth Risk Hallberg, which I also had reservations about.  Ultimately, my very high hopes were a little disappointed.  Perhaps I was too consciously looking for more of what I got from “Transmission” but here I didn’t quite find it.

threestars

 

White Tears was published by Penguin/Hamish Hamilton on April 6th 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential Books – Everyone Brave Is Forgiven – Chris Cleave (2016)

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With its references to Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” and Sarah Waters’ “The Night Watch” from a Financial Times review quoted on the back cover of the paperback edition I knew that this would be a must-read for me.  It is also an apt and deserved comparison.

And like McEwan and Waters I am happy to welcome Cleave as an author of one of my 100 Essential Books – such is the quality of this novel.  His fourth book but the first I have read and for once I am pleased about this because I can tell this writer is going to be spreading much more delight my way with “Incendiary”, (Winner of a Somerset Maugham award for writers under 35 in 2006), the 2008 Costa Award shortlisted “The Other Hand” and “Gold” (2013).

Also like McEwan and Waters Cleave has re-created the war years perhaps more evocatively than most of the countless writers who were writing when that period was not so distant.  Perhaps we need that distance and the stories of our parents and grandparents need to become assimilated into what we perceive life in those years to have been like.  Cleave loosely based his novel on a series of letters between his grandparents.

The novel spans from September 1939-June 1942 and has a refreshingly simple month by month chronological structure.  It is centred on wartime London and Malta where a blockade is starving the serving officers and civilians.  Mary North signs up for War Office work and finds herself being sent to teach in a Primary School where preparations for evacuation are under way.  She soon discovers that not all children are welcomed by host families and within her now empty school and with the support of her school official boyfriend, Tom, begins to work with the children unwanted by the countryside.

Tom’s work means that initially he is too valuable to be called up but flatmate Alastair joins up, taking a jar of jam Tom made to be eaten together at the end of the war and soon finds himself an officer in Malta, struggling to survive.

What Cleave gets across very well is the thin line between life and death for this generation.  Catastrophe can descend very quickly and the characters have to adapt their lives to this.  They fall in love quickly, have to endure long absences and periods of not knowing whether loved ones are dead or alive.  This all seems alien to our generation but there are still many people with us who lived through these times and Cleve’s novel has further deepened my appreciation of these people.  Also very effectively conveyed are the attitudes of a class-driven society suspicious of other races.  The treatment of black American schoolboy Zachary is shocking both in terms of action and language used.  Cleave confronts these issues which can make for some disturbing moments.

The novel is well-written and totally involving.  I found myself purposely slowing down my reading of it because I wanted to savour just what was going on (causing a bit of a backlog of books to be read to build up) but  I don’t regret a single moment spent in the time of Chris Cleave’s characters.

This is an excellent novel from a great story-teller who deserves his position amongst the best of the novelists who have written about this time in our history.  Seek it out!

fivestars

 

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven was published in April 2016 by Sceptre and as a paperback from January 2017.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Picador 2013) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A little while back I read Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel “The Good People”,  a dark sombre tale set in nineteenth century Ireland with superstition and folklore battling against religion and common sense.  A friend, who read and loved it recommended I seek out Kent’s debut and I am very glad I have.

This writer can certainly do atmosphere.  The claustrophobic smoke-filled peat huts of village Ireland are here replaced by the darkness, freezing conditions and damp wool of nineteenth century Iceland.  Like “The Good People” Kent has used a real-life case for this historical crime novel.  Here it is the plight of Agnes Magnusdottir whose claim for infamy is that she was the last person to be executed for murder in Iceland in 1834.

Following a spell in prison after the death of two men Agnes is sent out to lodge with a local official’s family to await her beheading and to get access to a local minister who would attempt to set her back on the right path.  Agnes had previously spent some time in the area where she had met a young Reverend who she nominates as the man to meet with her. With an Icelandic winter approaching escape from her situation is unlikely and she becomes involved with the work of the family in their preparation for winter.

Her tale is largely told in the one room of the farm with the family and workers, understandably wary of the murderess in their midst, listening in.

This is some debut with Kent totally abandoning the “write what you know” advice to recreate nineteenth century Iceland.  She had spent some time in the country as an exchange student.  This was when the location of the real-life Agnes’ execution was pointed out to here but this novel obviously required a vast amount of research and immersion into the environment to give its intense atmosphere and make it totally convincing.  Her absorption of Icelandic sagas is incorporated into the narrative style of the novel.  This is backed up with good use of documents and reports, which I’m loving in crime novels at the moment and which was the real strength of “His Bloody Project” another nineteenth century tale of murder in a small, isolated community.

The fate of Agnes and the truth about her incarceration is central to the novel and the theme of the woman outside the norm being seen as somehow wicked is a fairly universal one for the time when it was set.  Agnes could have indeed worked as a character in Victorian England but what Kent would have not been able to achieve is this intensity, the claustrophobia, the darkness and dampness nor the vivid impression of the life of these Icelandic folk.

If asked to choose between the two I might give “The Good People” a slight edge because I really enjoyed the way it incorporated Irish folklore into the story.  These two novels show Kent as a writer with so much potential.  I  was also fascinated by the author’s account of the writing of this novel in the back of the paperback edition I read.

fourstars

Burial Rites was published by Picador in 2013.