The Echo Chamber – John Boyne (Doubleday 2021)

Anyone looking for the best, most versatile author of our times?  Here’s a suggestion – John Boyne, and I’m making this claim after only reading 7 of his 21 books.  There’s two timeless classics in his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” and this novel become the 5th of his five star reads, alongside “A Ladder To The Sky” and “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain”.  When he has missed out on a 5* rating his work is also extraordinary, the tightly structured stylistically so impressive “A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom” and his 2019 YA novel “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica”, with its focus on the family of a transgender teen which I found “marvellously empathic” but it missed out on 5* because I didn’t feel totally convinced by the main characters’ family set-up and felt it lacked some of the subtletly of his best work.  My reviews for all of these titles can be found by following the links on this site.

What I did not appreciate was the fuss “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica” caused in the months after I read it.  An interview with Boyne in last week’s Guardian (17/07/21) details this with backlash against it leading to online harassment, misrepresentation, death threats and a period of depression for the author.  It also, far more positively, sowed the seeds for this, his latest novel for adults.

I cannot remember laughing out loud so much at a novel since another Irish author Paul Murray’s “The Mark And The Void” from 2015 and like that novel the humour is rooted very much in the present making it a book for 2021.  Already, I’m acknowledging this may not have the longevity of his greatest work but it warrants five stars for the sheer enjoyment it gave me.

And yes, there is going to be some controversy again over this.  At the centre is social media and the effects this has on one notable family, the Cleverleys.  Father George is a BBC light entertainment staple, a chat-show host famous for many years (I’ve already seen Graham Norton praising this work and jokingly wanting to make clear this character is not based on him), his wife Beverley, a best-selling romantic novelist who now provides the ideas which are written up by a ghost-writer, who is herself celebrated enough to be having an affair with her Ukranian “Strictly Come Dancing” partner, a man who has spread his charms amongst the next generation of the Cleverley family; Nelson, in therapy and only able to cope with social interactions whilst wearing a uniform; Elizabeth, an online troll who gave me a great number of laugh out loud moments and Nelson, a teenage extortionist.  They inhabit a world where the number of likes on your social media is what validates you as a person.  Modern life is a minefield for this family and things soon go wrong with attempts to escape situations only making it worse.  John Boyne is happy to tread on everyone’s toes using real-life celebrities to add to the humour. 

This is a work of satirical fiction and is not intended to be factual” states the publisher’s note at the beginning but satire is often not funny (as anyone attempting to watch the Britbox “Spitting Image” reboot will testify) but here it is.  Another trap for the comic novel is that the humour often wanes before the mid-way point but Boyne is able to sustain it for the length of his work (only in a couple of places does the pace falter and that is occasionally due to over-reiteration which the author needs to employ to ensure we, as readers, are keeping up) and too often the humour in books becomes predictable whereas here I had no idea where this book was going which was a joy in itself.

Maybe some people will be upset by this and some people deserve to be upset by this but I think John Boyne has written a great comic novel of our time and which should provide a great tonic for these strange times we live in.

The Echo Chamber will be published by Doubleday on August 5th 2021. Many thanks to Lilly and the team at Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read an advance review copy.

Dog Rose Dirt- Jen Williams (Harper Collins 2021)

This marks a complete change of direction for award-winning British author Jen Williams whose published works to date have included two Fantasy trilogies.  Here, she has poured herself into crime writing which offers hovers close to horror.  It’s all imbued with a sense of dark folklore which has the effect of making the implausible seem possible and it simmers throughout with an edge of nastiness which makes even the lighter moments seem tense.

Heather has returned to her family home after the suicide of her mother with whom she has always had a difficult relationship.  Whilst sorting the house she discovers she does not know her mother as well as she thinks she did, opening a veritable Pandora’s Box of serial killers, dark fairy tales, copycat murders and a barghest, a legendary phantom dog around the setting of a commune where her mother lived when she was younger.

Heather is a journalist who has made bad decisions in her past and quite frankly continues to make them as she keeps things quiet which she should be sharing with the police whilst giving out too much information to others.  There are reasons for this which are posited by the turn of events but it is difficult to relax with her as a main character.

I think personally I could have done with a little more light amongst all this shade but there is no doubt that this is atmospheric with the rural environment demonstrating its power running alongside the depressing banality of clearing up after a lost life.  There are incidents in this book I found particularly difficult which made me feel I was reading it at the wrong time for me but there is no doubt that Jen Williams here makes a powerful entrance into the world of crime writing.

Dog Rose Dirt is published in the UK by Harper Collins on July 22nd. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. 

Bond Street Story- Norman Collins (1959)

Reminded of Norman Collins (1907-82) by Christopher Fowler in his “Book Of Forgotten Authors”, last year I rediscovered “London Belongs To Me” (1945) which brought great joy during lockdown and ended up at #2 on my Books Of The Year List.  That is currently available as a Penguin Modern Classics but is seems like nothing else by this British author is in print.

I found a copy of “Bond Street Story” in our library stack of withdrawn out of prints book (I’d discovered Willard Price again in the same place earlier this year) in the familiar blue of Collins (the publishers) mid 1960’s Autograph Editions which I can remember from the public library shelves of my youth where there was a healthy Collins (the author) stock.  The copy I took home with me has its pre self-service date label in front and it looks like it didn’t get borrowed at all between 1978 and 2005 (27 years!).  We’ll never know where it was for all this time but thankfully nobody disposed of it as it is clear evidence for me that this is an author who should not have become so forgotten as it has provided another five star read.

“London Belongs To Me” focused on the residents of 10, Dulcimer Street, Kennington in the build up to and the early days of World War II, now we have gone upmarket to Rammells, a family-run Bond Street Department Store, here in a contemporary setting but Collins once again employs his Dickensian talent of carefully creating and exploring a cast of characters and bringing the details of their everyday lives into sharp, convincing detail.  This is done with a delicious sense of irony, which is more prevalent in this work where he is dealing with a wider range of class.  He can be laugh out loud funny and demonstrates a superb grasp of the descriptive to enhance his narrative.

Plot-wise it is thinner than “London Belongs To Me” and admittedly, does not feel such a significant work.  That book is elevated when it takes a darker turn when a crime comes into focus, here the lives feel less complex with its sailing model boats on Highgate Ponds and preparing budgies for competitions which occupy a couple of the main characters.  It is the store that fuses these individuals together.  Three generations of the Rammell family are involved, Sir Harry, inspirational and forceful but all over the place with his ideas as he ages, representing the store’s past, the hard-working dyspeptic current head and his son Tony, reluctant to get involved with the family business but seen as the face of the future.

The shop itself conveys an authentic feel but probably even at the time of publication would have felt somewhat old-fashioned.  Floor walkers navigate customers around the store, exclusive models demonstrate fashion ranges, the fur department has a huge allure and the new-fangled television department give a snapshot of the time.  There are, inevitably, a few places where the attitudes of the time jar the modern reader but this does reflect the feel of a smart London street leaving the austerity of the post-war years behind but for which the cultural, social and economic changes of the 1960’s seem fairly unthinkable.

Once again I loved being in the company of these characters and can even forgive this author’s tendency to write the odd characters dialogue in their accent (here it is floorwalker Mr Bloot who is given strangulated vowels of the “Ah’ve ‘ad er naccident” variety) because these people and their lives did draw me in.  I’m not sure how representative of the work of Norman Collins these two novels I have read are, Fowler claims his favourite is “The Governor’s Lady” which he describes as “a colonial story of secrets, lies and endless ineptitude among Africans and the English” which seems very different fare from what we have here but unless an enterprising publishing house beings to reprint these works I may never find out. 

Norman Collins as a significant figure in the development of media (especially ITV).  Given the real visual feel of his work this does not surprise, here there’s a soap operaness which would of course soon become the mainstay of British commercial television.  The key to this man’s rediscovery, I feel, is a good TV adaptation, probably of this work with effort spent in recreating the world of Rammells which would undoubtedly create great demand for the original source.

Bond Street Story was first published in 1959.  I read the Collins hardback Autograph Edition from 1966.

Jet- Russell Blake (2012)

This is a very different read for me.  I’ve had it on my Kindle for a long time and can only assume it was a free title I’d picked up at some time.  I thought I would give it a go but didn’t have a lot of positive expectations.  In a “From The Author” at the start, American born now Mexican resident Blake states; “It’s unapologetically over-blown and strives to be a non-stop adrenaline rush, an action thriller that breaks the mold and tramples convention.” He does deliver on that statement.

We start off in Trinidad on Festival evening where hitmen turn up at the internet café Maya is working in.  Dealing with this pretty effectively we learn that Maya had previously been Jet, working as a hitwoman for the Israeli Secret Service, a highly trained killing machine now seeking a quieter life.  Only this doesn’t happen as she realises her identity has been blown and sets off to seek answers.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope with a ruthless assassin as a main character but Blake gradually lets her humanity come through without compromising on her toughness.  I found myself rooting for her when I was expecting to feel distanced from a potentially preposterous narrative.  I was also pleased that it wasn’t exactly a non-stop adrenaline rush aimed at a video-games market but that the author had put in some light and shade and welcomingly varied the pace. 

Wanting to know about Russell Blake I discovered that this was the first in this (so far) 16 book series featuring Jet and he has got it off to a roaring start and has developed the main character enough to get the reader to want to read more.  Whether he can sustain this over another 15 titles is another matter.

He’s not an author I would have thought would have been on my radar.  He has written a lot of titles and a number of series but he has actually got into the top division as co-author of a couple of books with action/adventure legend Clive Cussler in his best-selling Sam and Remi Fargo series.  This was where I had seen his name before, I haven’t read these titles but I have shelved them often enough at work in the library.  So this is an author who can operate at the top levels of his genre.  It wouldn’t be one of my usual reading choices and I felt I might get lost in the globetrotting, weapon hardware and espionage aspects of the novel but I felt well supported and guided by Blake (in the same Author’s Note I quoted earlier he explains there will be flashbacks.  “Don’t be alarmed when it jumps around a bit.  It will all make sense as you get further into the book, I promise” ). I wasn’t and it did.

If you like this kind of title then this is a treat and although it won’t feature in my end of year Top 10 it kept me reading, I did experience tension as it built to a strong plot climax and the author certainly delivered his intentions.  I might need to read more.

Jet was first published in 2012. A paperback edition is available through the Createspace Independent Publishing Platform. I read a Kindle edition.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace – Kate Summerscale (2012)

Kate Summerscale is responsible for the true crime classic “The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher” (2008) in which she took a case from 1860 and provided us with a leisurely trawl through all the facts and relevant documents in a highly readable, engrossing style.  I was just as impressed by 2016’s “The Wicked Boy” which featured an 1895 crime involving a thirteen year old.  I was aware at the time that I had skipped reading this work which arrived between  the crime studies but I have now put that right.

This is, on the surface, more sedate than the lurid crimes I’ve enjoyed Summerscale re-exploring.  Subtitled “The Private Diary Of A Victorian Lady” this is the true tale of an 1858 divorce which got much press attention at the time.  It took place in the very early days following the 1857 Divorce Act which feasibly made it easier for married couples to go their separate ways.  This, of course, being the Victorian era means the odds are stacked very much against the woman who faces complete loss of reputation should adultery be proved.

Enter Mrs Isabella Robinson.  The author cleverly splits the background, much of which come from Robinson’s diaries from the court proceedings which bases its evidence almost exclusively from the same diaries and weaves a tale of infatuation and illicit romance.  Whilst living in Edinburgh, Isabella, trapped in a fairly loveless marriage to a husband who cares more for her money meets Henry Lane, a younger married man.  Their children strike up a friendship and this is used as a pretext for home visits, excursions and longer holidays.  Isabella becomes besotted with Lane over a period of years during which time he becomes a doctor and opens a health spa to which prominent Victorians, including Charles Darwin, become regular patients.  Mrs Robinson, as can be guessed from the subtitle uses her diary to confess her affair.  This is discovered by her husband (under Victorian law it is his property anyway) and legal proceedings ensue.  Was Isabella Robinson recording actual events or letting her imagination run away with her?

There’s a lot at stake here and Summerscale has carried out extensive research both of the details of the case and the context, which pretty much fits into what we now acknowledge as the double standards of Victorian society. 

It has all been done very well and once again is very readable but on this occasion the case lacks the punch of those in her other books I’ve read so did not create such a strong impression.  As an example of a thoroughly researched study into Victorian life it is highly illuminating.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace was first published by Bloomsbury in 2012

Agatha Christie Challenge – Month 6 – Nemesis (1971)

It’s half-way through the challenge set by agathachristie.com and I’m still going strong.  This month the choice had to involve gardens and this late-period Miss Marple was the official suggestion.  By 1971 Agatha Christie was a publishing phenomenon and had been putting out her crime stories for over 50 years.  I really enjoyed having Miss Marple as the central character here, rather than off in the side-lines (as she was in last month’s choice “A Pocket Full Of Rye”).  By this time the mature amateur sleuth had been cracking cases for 41 years and as a character, Christie, who by this time was herself 81, allows Miss Marple to feel her age, living a much more sedentary life at St. Mary Mead (her doctor seems to have banned her from gardening) is in need of more care and is less mobile (although she soon leaves the village and is off on location for this book).  There are quite a lot of references made to advancing age for both Marple and other characters here.

There is actually a weird sense of time going on.  Whilst perusing the obituaries Marple notes the passing of a character she has previously encountered in “A Caribbean Mystery” a 1964 novel which I have never read.  Plot-wise, though this is set only around a year and a half later and the death notice leads to her involvement with other characters but its conveyed as if it is years ago and these overlapping characters have only hazy memories of one another.  I’m sure if I met Miss Marple on holiday 18 months ago and became embroiled in a murder situation with her I would have remembered clearly.

It is a strange plot structure here which can feel a little lumbering but it does allow my favourite of Christie’s recurring characters to have prominence.  The dead man offers Miss Marple a reward for some sleuthing but she has to embark on this without knowing what is going on or why.  It requires her attendance on a organised tour of English houses and gardens (there’s the Challenge theme for you) during which she begins to piece together what is asked of her.

There’s a lot of chat and not much action and a lot of reiterating what Marple already knows when she encounters characters who might edge her quest forward.  Christie normally catches me out but I had this one solved quite early on.  A little more tension might have been good for the reader if not for the well-being of Christie’s aging characters.

This was the last Miss Marple novel Agatha Christie wrote (although “Sleeping Murder” was the last one published) and it is a bit of a muted, if age-appropriate farewell.  At the time it was generally considered not be amongst her finest.  On my list of those I have read so far for the challenge I think I would slot it in at 4th below “The Hollow” and just above “Lord Edgware Dies”.  For August’s challenge my job is to read a book involving a vicar, a challenge which I could have anticipated would make an appearance before long.

Nemesis was first published in 1971. It is available in the UK as a Harper Collins paperback. Further details/book group info etc on the Reading Challenge can be found at www.agathachristie.com

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (2020)

Another book from my What I Should Have Read In 2020 post (I’ve now managed to get through 60% of these).  Here was one I suspected  that I would really like but I enjoyed it even more than I imagined.  This is American author Brit Bennett’s second novel and after this I would certainly be keen on seeking out her 2016 debut “The Mothers”.

This, however, is the book that has established her breakthrough into the big time, appearing on so many Best Of The Year lists and has been shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for fiction.  The hype has built up which is often a dangerous thing for me and my expectations, but I’ll emphasise this, my expectations were exceeded here.

I came to it knowing roughly what it was about but there was so much more to it . Two light-skinned black twin sisters disappear from their small-town home and head for the excitement of New Orleans.  One, Desiree, eventually pairs up with an abusive, dark skinned man and has Jude, whose blue-black darkness of her skin shocks the residents of her home town, Mallard (where its black residents generally have a much lighter tone) on her return whereas her twin, Stella, ditches Desiree to disappear once again and decides to “pass” and live her life as a white woman.  In a decades spanning time frame we have as our starting point 1968 when Desiree returns to Mallard with her young daughter. 

There are so many discussion points in this novel regarding identity that one might expect it to feel issue-driven but no, plot and characterisation are both very strong and that together with its immersive readability provides an extremely impressive rounded work.  Those plot lines and unpredictable turns do drive the reader forward.  It’s not without a healthy dollop of melodrama and on a few occasions the authors use of cliff-hangers resembles the soap operas that one of the characters makes a name for herself on, but this is also a good thing, making it feel highly commercial, this together with its relevance where its publication alongside the media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement created publicity at a time when lockdown ensured the usual avenues of publicising their work were not open to most authors.  This book deserved the exposure, however, not because it was of the moment but because of the sheer quality of the handling of all areas of the book.

Performance has a major part to play.  Many of the characters are donning a disguise and playing a part, some professionally and some within their lives and even within their closest relationships.  I found the implications and repercussions of this fascinating.  It has the unusual advantages of being both a thought-provoking important novel and a great holiday read and I hope many more people will discover this work over the summer.  My only criticism of a book I found very difficult to put down is that perhaps the ending felt a little flat and less defined than I would have hoped but that may have been because it was the end of the novel and there was no more to read about these characters. 

The Vanishing Half was published in the UK by Dialogue Books in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now.

The Broken House- Horst Kruger (Bodley Head 2021)

This is the first English translation of a German memoir originally published in 1966 as “Das Zerbrochene Haus” and subtitled “Growing Up Under Hitler”.  In the Afterword the author (who died in 1999) reflects that it was a book which was developed backwards, in a way.  As a journalist in 1964 he was invited to attend the Auschwitz trials.  This forms the closing section of the book and is the most powerful and it was his attendance which caused Kruger to look back on his life.  In the 1960s he was stunned by how perpetrators of unthinkable crimes at the concentration camp had assimilated into society before having to answer for their actions at the trials.  I think if this book had been written more recently this central moment would have been the starting point but back in 1966 Kruger chose to employ a chronological approach which leads from his childhood outside Berlin, in Eichkamp, in an apolitical family where his environment would have made the rise of Adolf Hitler seem even more extraordinary.  Alongside this are the family dramas, the suicide of his oldest sister in 1939 and his own dallying with resistance and its repercussions.

There is a sense of detachment throughout which may feasibly be from the translation but I would imagine it is from the original text which does affect the flow and holds the reader at arm’s length.  There is little of Kruger’s own participation in the hostilities, it jumps to the end of his war, and indeed, this is acknowledged by the author in the Afterword which was written in 1975 and reflects back on the work, but this absence of this part of his life does seem a little odd.

In parts, it is magnificent, especially the second half of the book where Kruger feels to be on more certain ground, the actual growing up under Hitler sections in Eichkamp can feel a little tentative but there admittedly would have been so much that the town’s inhabitants would have been unsure about at the time.  It is not quite the masterpiece I had hoped but the author provides many moments that will linger long in my memory.

The English translation of “The Broken House” is by Shaun Whiteside. The book is published on 17th June 2021. The hardback is published by Bodley Head, the e-book by Vintage Digital. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Promise – Damon Galgut (Chatto & Windus 2021)

The me of 16 years ago read this South African author’s breakthrough novel which had been shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize.  I had to check back through my records to see that in the winter of 2005 I quite enjoyed “The Good Doctor”, his tale of a remote rural hospital and thought it well-written but I felt it had failed to draw me in and my verdict was that it was unexceptional.  To be honest, I had forgotten all about this opinion when I was invited by the publishers to review his latest title.  I was assured a novel “confident, deft and quietly powerful” and “literary fiction at its finest”.  I was intrigued.

If “The Good Doctor” failed to draw me in 16 years ago then things were soon put right with this.  I was very involved early on and it is the self-assurance of the writing and his handling of life-changing events which kept me hooked.  The Swart family live on a farm outside Pretoria and we visit them at various moments in their lives.  It is the tale of four deaths and the coming together of those left. Linking these occasions is a promise 13 year old Amor believes she has heard her father making to her dying mother, a promise which is denied, ignored or postponed for decades due to circumstances within the country and within the family.  The strength is in the characterisation and interactions between the family members. The tragic trigger points which cause the reunions roll back the preceding years with great economy and truth by the author.  I loved the structure of this novel, some demises are tragic, some violent, some tragi-comic but all imbued with a sense of South African history which is extremely effective.  There is an appealing calmness which runs alongside the tragedies.  It makes me think that the older me might have a greater appreciation of  “The Good Doctor” and I would be very interested in discovering more work (Galgut’s published oeuvre consists of novels, short story collections and plays) by this author.

The Promise will be published in the UK by  Chatto & Windus on 17th June 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. The Kindle/ebook edition is published by Vintage Digital.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line- Deepa Anappara (2020)

This debut has been on my radar since pre-publication and it featured on my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” post (this is now the 5th book on this list I’ve since read).  At that time I said I hadn’t actually seen a copy, perhaps it was initially lost amongst the impossible to promote debuts which appeared in the early months of 2020 but this has now become a very visible title (helped by its striking front cover in hardback, less striking in the paperback edition which appeared on 3rd June 2021.)  There is still a good buzz about this book which suggests it should be a strong seller in paperback.

It deserves success.  It’s an impressive book with characters that will linger for a long time and a lightness of touch which belies some very serious issues.  We begin with street children scavenging for survival for a man called Mental in a preface which suggests this may be dark reading but within a few pages we are into a first person narrative from 9 year old Jai, a child living with his child-like concerns of school, friends and TV, poor but happy in the slum-like conditions of his basti with his parents and sister.  When local children start to go missing Jai takes on detective duties with his two friends, the academically successful Pari and Faiz, a Muslim minority within their Hindu environment.

The authorities are not taking the disappearances seriously, they demand bribes for even basic policing and threaten demolition of the basti.  It is up to the children to find out more.  The superstitious Faiz believes it is the work of the supernatural, namely, djinns.  Pari and Jai remain unconvinced but do not recognise the daily dangers they face closer to home.

These three children are the life-blood of this book and it is impossible not to be drawn in by their outward confidence and swagger.  Anaparra worked for years as a journalist amongst such children and seems to have got her portrayals just right.  The fact that there’s a touch of the “cosy crime” novel about this when behind the façade much is horrific actually serves to intensify its power.  This is a strong work.  It will be interesting to see if Anaparra gives us more from these children in future as her reading public might demand or whether this will remain an enthralling stand-alone novel.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line was first published in the UK in hardback in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now published by Vintage.