Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2021)

Colson Whitehead’s reputation as one of the greatest living American writers took off with his last two novels which both won the Pulitzer Prize making him only the 4th writer to win this most prestigious Fiction award twice (alongside William Faulkner, John Updike and Booth Tarkington) and the only Black American to do so to date.

The Underground Railroad”(2016) was the book that took him to the big league- I still cannot understand how it did not win the 2017 Man Booker Prize describing it thus “It ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”.  I still feel aggrieved by the panel awarding the big prize to “Lincoln In The Bardo” with Whitehead failing to make the transition from longlist to shortlist.  I still haven’t watched the adaptation of this currently on Amazon Prime in the UK. 

Pulitzer Prize number 2 came with “The Nickel Boys” (2019) which focused on a boy’s reform school.  This was a more straightforward narrative which managed to both please and slightly disappoint me so I ranked it four stars.

This latest, his 8th novel is more understated than his two big-hitters but he is now at a point of his career where each publication is a big literary event.  Set in late 50’s/early 60’s Harlem it feels what I imagine Chester Himes to read like (I’ve never read him but I did recently buy “A Rage In Harlem” (1957) so it’s only a matter of time) with greater awareness of the history between now and then and the significance of civil rights unrest.  Here this unrest provides a backdrop more than a focus for the novel and in fact is seen at best as an inconvenience by the characters.

Main character Raymond Carney’s focus is furniture, a salesman with his own store. His desire is to become the first black shop-owner allowed to stock branded items previously only available in white-owned stores.  Carney is doing okay, he is employing staff and looking towards expansion but the start-up money derived from wrong-doings from his largely absent now deceased father and that association causes Carney problems.  Fencing stolen goods becomes part of his trade yet (and this will become the most quoted phrase from this novel) “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

The influence of family leads to Carney becoming involved in a heist at a hotel frequented by a black clientele which begins a slippery slope.  What begins as a crime caper becomes darker as Carney becomes obsessed by revenge whist always trying to separate the personal from his business life.

Carney is a great character and he comes up against a number of other memorable creations here but I found plot development a little stop-start and the novel does not flow as well as I would have hoped.  I actually found it hard to retain what had been going on.  There’s a tendency to introduce something then backtrack as to how it happens, but this introduction caused me to feel like I’d missed out on something and started leafing back when there was no need as the author hadn’t got to that bit yet.  The plot seems too content to just simmer along, there were points when the pace accelerated and then the book really takes off. 

There’s nothing wrong with this novel and it’s totally right that an author should be allowed to move back from creating the extraordinary to do something which feels less momentous but it is not up there with his best.  I think my own expectations might have let me down here.  I’d been looking forward to the publication of this since the start of the year when I highlighted as a must-read for 2021 and that is probably the reason why it feels for me just a touch disappointing.

Harlem Shuffle will be published on 14th Sept 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Dust Off The Bones – Paul Howarth (One 2021)

Have you ever been away on holiday, had bad weather and had to put up with everyone saying how glorious it was the week before?  Well, that’s a little bit how I felt reading this book.  And that is my fault.

This is the sequel to the very well received “Only Killers And Thieves”, a historical tale of early Queensland, Australia by British-Australian author and former lawyer Paul Howarth.  I haven’t read that book and when Paul’s publishers got in touch to see if I would be prepared to read and review his latest I was intrigued enough to say yes – to a sequel.  I was hopeful it would work as a stand-alone and I’m sure for many it would.  Unfortunately, I’m not that kind of reader I’ve realised.  I’m happiest when working chronologically through a writer’s oeuvre and for me to read a sequel to a book I didn’t know is pretty much unheard of.

On its own “Dust Off The Bones” is a very good novel but I suspect that “Only Killers And Thieves” is even better and read as a pair might just be something pretty extraordinary.  The action which the sequel hinges on has taken place in the first book and this is largely the repercussions of those actions which affect a family throughout their lifetime.  There are enough references back to the first book to let the reader know what was going on (and thus it can work as a stand-alone) but some of the references seemed so good that I felt like I was missing out.

None of this is Paul Howarth’s fault.  He has focused on a fictional account of one of the many real-life atrocities carried out by the Native Police in Victorian Queensland where treatment of the native population was both obscene and went unpunished.  The McBride brothers have been split up by the traumatic events from the first book and are stalked by the truly evil Noone, who heads a division of the Native Police.  When a lawyer tries to get justice for terrible crimes the poison these characters carry with them takes hold again.

Anyone who has ever enjoyed a Western would love this with the Australian setting giving it a different feel.  It is violent and the existence can be harsh but family bonds, however strained, cannot be broken by such harshness.

Those that have read “Only Killers And Thieves” will no doubt be chomping at the bit to read this book.  For maximum reading pleasure I would suggest reading that first to allow this recommended read to create an even greater impression.

Dust Off The Bones was published by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press which promises “compelling writing, unique voices, great stories” on August 26th 2021. Many thanks to the publishers, particularly Tara from the Press Office for the review copy.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 8 – Midsummer Mysteries (2021)

The theme for this month’s challenge was a story set at the seaside and the recommended title at agathachristie.com was this recently published collection of 12 stories and 1 autobiographical extract.  It’s an unsurprising companion piece to “Midwinter Murders” which appeared at the end of last year.  I think maybe the fireside and a winter evening feels more appropriate for Christie.  I wasn’t exactly thrilled to purchase this book but certainly wasn’t giving up on the Challenge at this point and I can see why the official website is promoting this collection.

Discounting the introductory fragment here called “Summer In The Pyrenees” which came from the 1977 “An Autobiography” most of these stories herald from the 1920s with just one first published in 1933.  I was disappointed that they did not feel unified by the theme- summer is strong in a couple of the tales but otherwise the selection seems somewhat random.  Two I’ve also read this year in the challenge as they were taken from “Parker Pyne Investigates”.  I think they do make more of an impression, however, in this collection.

Poirot gets the lion’s share of stories with four and the strongest is the longest which closes the collection, “The Incredible Theft” which adds a touch of political intrigue to the country house tale.  Two Marple stories come from “The Thirteen Problems” which I assume follows the format of mysteries being told by different individuals in a group with Marple providing the solution.  She doesn’t really exist as a character here.  That said, the summer flavour of “The Blood Stained Pavement” was strong and this would end up in my Top 3 from this collection.

I’ve not read the five Tommy and Tuppence novels and I don’t think “The Adventure Of The Sinister Stranger” would spur me on to do so.  Out of context from its appearance in “The Mysterious Mr Quin”, “Harlequin’s Lane” is just odd and I found it hard to like. 

My favourite and one that best fits with the theme is the stand-alone “The Rajah’s Emerald” in which the crime is backstage leaving us with a highly likeable character study of James Bond (no, not that one, Christie is using the name long before Ian Fleming) attempting to impress his girlfriend on the beach, but unable to compete with her wealthier, more entertaining friends.

This is definitely a mixed bag of tales and I can’t help feeling that most would work better in their original collections.  I’m not sure that if this was my introduction to Agatha Christie (and theoretically a new publication would lure new readers in) whether I would have a strong urge to read on.  I think, because of the stronger variety, I’d put it just ahead of Month 2’s “Parker Pyne Investigates” as my 7th favourite from the Challenge.  Next month I’m to read a novel featuring a school.  I think I will be back in Poirot territory.

Midsummer Mysteries was published by Harper Collins on 22nd July   2021.

Next Of Kin – Kia Abdullah (HQ 2021)

Kia Abdullah’s last novel, the terrific “Truth Be Told” (2020) made it onto my End Of Year Top 10 and was my favourite new novel of the year slipping in just ahead of Kiley Reid’s “Such A Fun Age”.  I pledged to read this author’s debut and I do have it waiting for me on Kindle but she is ahead of me and exactly one year later her third novel is ready for publication.

On the evidence of these two novels she has a format.  After getting to know the characters a shocking event takes place which leads to a court case and its aftermath.  It’s an effective format and she handles it superbly.  She drip feeds us information, taking us on wrong turnings and just like last time when you think it you have it sorted we’re off in a different direction.  This author is so good at manipulating her readers and I for one, love it. Also like last time I found myself covering the bottom half of pages as I didn’t want to know of various outcomes until the exact moment Abdullah intended me to.

Plot-wise I’m giving nothing away, but once again it is disturbing and thought-provoking and so set in the everyday that it would make most readers blood run cold.  I’ll just introduce the characters- Leila Syed is a successful businesswoman who has achieved much having escaped poverty when her mother died when she was 18 leaving her to bring up her 11 year old sister Yasmin.  Both are now married, Leila to Will, a journalist and Yasmin to Andrew who works in IT.  Three year old Max completes the younger sister’s family and that is all you are getting from me.

At times sympathies towards these characters will be strained but there will be much empathy.  There are moments which are difficult to read because of the misery heaped onto these people (and because of this I might just give the slightly more restrained “Truth Be Told” the edge) but the events and the plot will drive the reader on.  With two out of two five star novels, this is a writer I am thrilled to have discovered.

Next Of Kin is published by HQ on 2nd September 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Long Call – Ann Cleeves (2019)

This is the first Ann Cleeves novel I’ve read, despite having watched every episode of “Vera” which features her characters and is adapted from her series of 9 novels and 1 novella featuring Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, beautifully played by Brenda Blethyn.  I also had neither watched any of her other acclaimed tv adaptation, “Shetland” nor read any of those 8 novels, 1 Quick Read and 1 associated non-fiction work, but I have always wanted to.  There’s also two earlier series of novels featuring George and Molly Palmer-Jones (8 titles) and Inspector Ramsay (6 titles) so it is pretty incredible that I hadn’t got round to this prolific British author’s work.

This novel is an obvious staring place- a brand new series, “Two Rivers”, and one which has been recommended to me a number of times.  I’ve also seen it on lists of titles with positive LGBTQ+ representation embodied here in main character Detective Matthew Venn.  Set in coastal North Devon, which Cleeves has conveyed very effectively through her writing, Venn is embarking on married life with husband Jonathan following years of estrangement from his Christian Fundamentalist family who rejected him and his lifestyle.  Ostracised from the community he grew up amongst he has returned to the area to live and work.  Jonathan runs a community arts centre and when a body which turns up on the beach close to their home proves to be a volunteer from The Woodyard, Venn knows he has to tread carefully to avoid conflict of interests.

Matthew and Jonathan are well-established as characters with the policeman’s background giving a depth which could last for many cases.  His team, Jen Rafferty and Ross May also both have lots of potential.

There’s a lot going on in this novel and I very much liked that.  I felt, away from the crime, a community of memorable characters had been created and I felt part of their lives, which is an unusual experience for me within the crime fiction genre where I tend to feel less connected with characters’ lives. 

This is a strong opening title for a new series and with the second “The Heron’s Song” due to arrive on September 2nd 2021 whilst the paperback edition of this is still selling well I’d heartily recommend seeking this out.

The Long Call was published in September 2019 by Macmillan. The Pan paperback edition is also available.

A Corruption Of Blood – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2021)

This is the third in a very solid historical crime series written by husband and wife Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman.  The combination of their professional backgrounds, Brookmyre, an established best-selling crime author and Haetzman, an expert on anaesthesia, is tailor-made for this mid-nineteenth century series set in Edinburgh featuring two fictional characters working for Dr Simpson, a real-life medical pioneer who developed the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic.

Good groundwork has already been laid in the first two novels “The Way Of All Flesh” (2018), a book I often recommend to our library users, and “The Art Of Dying” (2019).  Firstly, the will-they-won’t-they relationship between main characters Will Raven and Sarah Fisher is enthralling as are the ongoing obstacles for a nineteenth century woman attempting to prove herself as anything other than a wife and mother.  At the start of this novel, in 1850, Sarah has set off to meet with another real life figure, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain a medical degree and be registered with the UK General Medical Council for advice, but she is not encouraging.

In fact, the malaise experienced by Sarah as she returns to Edinburgh following this encounter seems to infiltrate the novel as the first half feels a little flat compared to its predecessors.  Raven should be in celebratory mood as he has developed an understanding with a doctor’s daughter, Eugenie, but she feels under-drawn here (purposely so?) making it hard to appreciate why Raven would choose her over Sarah.  However, the Victorian Era is full of contradiction and hypocrisy and the victim of one of the crimes, which occupies Raven’s time, is an advocate for ill-treatment of prostitutes who may have been poisoned by his son.  The title refers to the term for total disinheritance should the heir be convicted of such a crime.

Sarah, at the same time, is engaged on locating the whereabouts of an unfortunate housemaid’s baby, given away at birth. It’s not until the two main characters come together that the pace picks up enhanced by the chemistry between them.  The last quarter of the novel is very strong indeed which lifts this book back up onto a par with the other two.  Further crimes are revealed, some particularly horrific, and careful plotting leads to an impressive exciting climax and resolution.

There is plenty of mileage left in this series and I look forward to finding out what the writers have in store for these characters.

A Corruption Of Blood is published in the UK in hardback by Canongate on 19th August 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. 

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig (Canongate 2020)

This is one of the biggest selling books of the last year or so and is performing extremely well as a paperback.  It is the 7th adult novel for an author whose reputation continues to grow with each publication and who has been tremendously successful as a children’s author and writer of non-fiction focusing on mental health.

The popularity of his latest is significantly due to it capturing the mood of a nation where the need to personally protect mental health has become essential. We are living in a world of uncertainty, fear and social isolation due to lockdowns and we have probably all had time to re-evaluate our existences.

A central theme here is regret and putting that into perspective within the framework of a parallel universe novel.  The conceit within this work is a place between life and death. For main character Nora, this takes the form of the Midnight Library where there is an opportunity to try on her lives which could have been lived.  It is a fast-paced, quick read which is surprising given its philosophical and quantum physics slant.

I have struggled a little as to how I feel about it as a book.  It is undoubtedly very enjoyable, has an emotional pull and deserves its success.  However, it fell a little short in what I was expecting as it skimmed the surface of so many issues and maybe there’s a slight glibness to its resolution.  I couldn’t help feeling that Nora, plunged into new lives, was helped out tremendously by other characters feeding her information on the life she was living which did jar a little too often.  I think technically it relies too much on exposition which I find surprising.

Ultimately, however, it is a novel with its heart very much in the right place.  My usual criteria for a four star rating is would I want to hold onto a copy to read again and here (hence my struggle) I’m not sure whether I would but I feel this rating is deserved because of its significance in 2021 and because I think the many captivated by it will continue to love this novel and I cannot doubt that it has therapeutic value.  It would be a perfect book for a bibliotherapist to recommend yet it is also, away from its worthiness, a really strong read so I heartily recommend  it despite my own odd personal niggles.

The Midnight Library was published by Canongate in 2020.

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward (2017)

The paperback edition of this has sat on my shelves since it was published when I was so eager to get hold of a copy and I feel bad that it has taken me so long to get round to reading it.  Mississippi resident Jesmyn Ward made history with this book when she became the first Black American writer as well as the first woman to win a second National Book Award for fiction in her home country.  It seems incredible it took until 2017 for this to be achieved.  Her earlier win came with “Salvage The Bones” (2011) which I also haven’t read.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, the title and front cover made me think I would be in similar territory to Robert Jones Jnr’s masterful “The Prophets” (2021) but this is a Southern-set contemporary novel enriched with the rhythms and the sense of folklore, rhythms, spiritual beliefs and history of the community.  This makes it a powerful read. 

At first I was a little resistant.  I thought it might be a novel about bad parenting using thirteen year old Jojo and his neglectful mother, Leonie, to narrate sections and I wasn’t sure I fancied that, despite the quality of the writing.  A road trip (which I can also be ambivalent about in fiction) to collect Jojo’s white Dad from prison surprised me by really drawing me in even as it emphasised the poor parenting skills as the adults focus on getting high .  Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, are forged closer together during this time because of their strong feelings for one another and their mother’s indifference.  They leave at home Jojo’s grandparents, Pop, who is filling the gaps Leonie creates through his care and his stories of the past and Mam, rooted in mysticism and the supernatural but now in terminal decline as cancer ravages her body.  The other side of Jojo’s family is dominated by a racist who wants nothing to do with his son’s choice of partner.  The ghosts we carry around with us become palpable as the narrative progresses leading to an extraordinary last third which so impressed but which wouldn’t have functioned had not the character development in the opening two-thirds been so strong.

It is rare that I am drawn to a book both so lyrical and spiritual and on completion I experienced that shift in my perspective which you get from reading top-quality fiction.  It definitely had some difficult, challenging moments both for the characters and the reader and it cannot be consistently described as enjoyable but it certainly provided a powerful experience and it will stay with me for a long time.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, was published in the UK by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 7 – The Murder At The Vicarage (1930)

This is more like it!  This has the sparkle I was expecting from Agatha Christie which I haven’t always found in some of the other books I’ve read during this Challenge.  This month the book needed to feature a vicar and here we have one in a first-person narrative.  It is set in St. Mary Mead and was the first novel to feature Miss Marple, not in a central role but she certainly knows what’s going on and I’m not surprised that Christie saw her potential as a recurring character.

Clement, the vicar lives with his much younger wife Griselda and his sixteen year old nephew Dennis at The Vicarage.  The Protheroes lives up at the Old Hall.  In the opening lunch scene the vicar announces any would-be murderer of Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world a great service and before long the Colonel turns up dead in the vicar’s study.  It’s investigated by the prickly Inspector Slack who has no time for how things are done in small villages and the more genial Chief Constable Colonel Melchett.  Two people own up to the murder early on but their confessions do not fit into the timeline.  The villagers, especially the group of elderly ladies who don’t miss a trick are keen to unravel the truth behind the murder.

There’s a good range of suspects to consider from an adulterous couple, the future heiress, a handsome artist, a mysterious newcomer and a vengeful poacher and luckily Miss Marple is on hand to sort and analyse as in Christie’s words; “There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

This has been my favourite of the Christie titles I have read for the seven months of the Challenge.  Next month I need to seek out a story set at the seaside.

Murder At The Vicarage was first published in 1930.  I read a Harper Collins e-book edition.

Mrs March- Virginia Feito (4th Estate 2021)

This is a stylish, mannered debut by an American author who has been compared to Shirley Jackson and Ottessa Moshfegh.  I can appreciate these comparisons as it doesn’t take long to realise that underneath the veneer of respectability something dark might just be going on.

Feito drips feeds this to us and this could frustrate some readers.  I felt a little frustrated myself at times but I kept reading and it did draw me in.  Mrs March’s husband has a successful new novel out and his wife is told she resembles his main character.  She hasn’t read the book but knows that Johanna is a hard-to-like prostitute.  This causes shifts in Mrs March’s mental balance and as things go off-kilter she begins to suspect her husband is a killer.  Plot-wise that’s about it, but there’s much more than plot going on here.

Mrs March is self-centred and only sees the world from her point of view.  It’s a third person narrative but the formality holds the reader at bay.  Mrs March is not referred to by her first name.

There’s also the setting – the smart New York apartment, but when is it set?  There’s a 1960’s Jackie Kennedy- as- style- icon vibe, with real furs being worn, the Lawrence Welk show on TV but there’s nothing to cling onto here and there are Rubik’s cubes which only became a thing in the 80’s.  I found myself highlighting every reference to try and pin this down realising that Feito is playing with us, unsettling us throughout which is very effective.  It doesn’t matter when it was set but it feels like it does. 

I felt undertones of the work of Ira Levin, not just “Rosemary’s Baby” but also “Sliver” and “The Stepford Wives” and as I was obsessed with his work when a teenager I experienced quite a nostalgic chill even though Feito’s work is a 2021 publication.

The disorientation the author nicely sets up is enriched by hallucinations, something is definitely not right here.  I was expecting a “Ka-boom!” moment to hit me between the eyes which Ottessa Moshfegh’t “Eileen” did to me, but Feito is content to keep us simmering and questioning what we are reading but not sure of what questions to ask of ourselves.  This makes for a slick, surprisingly emotionally complex debut.

Mrs March is published in the UK by Fourth Estate on 4th August 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.