The Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho – Paterson Joseph (Dialogue 2022)

Paterson Joseph is a noted British actor of stage and screen.  I saw him most recently in the Suranne Jones starring BBC TV Drama “Vigil” playing the Commanding Officer of the beleaguered submarine.  He has now joined the sphere of actors turning to fiction writing with very worthy intentions to fill some of the gaps of pre-Windrush Black British history by giving us a fictional account of the life of this notable 18th Century character, who became the first African man to vote in a British election.  The author has been researching this life for twenty years, and has written and performed a one-man play. He has now rightly decided (if not only because of the gaps in what is actually known) to recreate the man known as Sancho as Historical Fiction.

What is done really well here is in the feel of the piece. Paterson Joseph has obviously submerged himself in the fiction of the time and without doubt in “Tristram Shandy”, the author of which, Laurence Sterne makes a brief appearance here. With a combination of a memoir intended for the main character’s son, diary entries and letters to and from his betrothed we get a real sense of Sancho and the world he inhabits.

Initially, as a child, a dress up doll/valet for three spinsters Sancho finds an entrée into society under the eye of the Duke of Montagu.  It is a precarious arrangement and there are many turns of fortune for this black man in 18th Century London.  Deemed at various times a novelty, a creative talent, a threat and a runaway slave Sancho has to wrestle with his own inconsistencies and this makes for fascinating reading.  In the eyes of some he is seen as deserving of a place in high society for others he is the lowest of the low.  How does a man come to terms with his own self-worth in such circumstances?

The early sections of this book are just splendid, as Sancho ages it grows more reflective, the tale shifts significantly to his wife-to-be Anne’s experiences in an epistolary section of the book which serves to contrast experiences outside of Britain but doesn’t work as well as the London-based writings.  Throughout there is a feel of authenticity, even when the structure (as in all actual eighteenth-century novels I have read) feels jerky.  There were areas of the life of Charles Ignatius Sancho which I felt could have been fleshed out more but I welcome the opportunity of getting to know this man through this novel.  I am thinking this could be the best actor-turned-writer novel I’ve read since 1960’s icon and model Marsha Hunt’s “Joy” from 1990.

The Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho is published by Dialogue Books on 6th October 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Toll House – Carly Reagon (Sphere 2022)

As the nights draw in something creepy becomes an increasingly appealing reading choice and this debut novel might very well fit the bill.

In 1863 the cottage on the Old Turnpike Road, Stonebridge, was a working Toll House lived in by the keeper Joseph Walton and his pregnant wife Bella.  In the present day it becomes a new home for Kelda and her six-year-old son Dylan.  They chose the house out of financial necessity but from their initial viewing Kelda senses it needing her and confuses this with homeliness.  The house is, in fact, haunted and the past and present clash.  The nineteenth century is covered largely by a first-person present tense narrative by Walton with a third person narration for the present day.

It takes a while to move from gently unnerving to anything more chilling, and as in many ghost stories, it is the child, Dylan, who bears the brunt whilst Kelda cannot believe anything is seriously amiss despite increasing evidence to the contrary.  It does build nicely as both Kelda’s own past and the distant past of the Toll House come back to haunt her.  Her desire to live a life no more demanding than work, childcare and maybe meeting the perfect man on a dating app is certainly thwarted by the history of her house. 

The novel doesn’t add anything new to the haunted house genre and it was more subtly creepy than out and out chilling as far as I was concerned but plot and characterisation are handled well and there’s a solid sense of history throughout.  There are some good twists, especially towards the end.  This could very well be a popular choice for bookshop browsers in the month leading up to Halloween.

The Toll House is published by Sphere as a hardback and e-book on 6th October 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Best Of Friends- Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus 2022)

I loved Kamila Shamsie’s last novel, the 2018 Women’s Prize For Fiction winning “Home Fire” placing it at number 6 in my 2017 Books Of The Year.  Although based on the Ancient Greek myth of Antigone it felt extremely relevant to our world.  There were some big themes tackled and I said that the author “is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.”

No wonder I was looking forward to reading this.  It feels a much less ambitious work, a quieter novel but it still managed to impress.  The best friends are Zahra and Maryam and we first meet them in Karachi in 1988 as two fourteen year olds negotiating adolescence and kissing posters of George Michael.  Their friendship has been strong for years, Zahra is keen to point out the difference between their own close bond with a word she has found in the dictionary “Propinquity- a relationship based on proximity” which is what they feel they have with others.

The first half explores the potential minefields of teenage life for two girls in late 1980s Pakistan excellently.  It feels pitch-perfect, Zahra is coming to terms with physical changes and feelings, the awkwardness and newness of which will bring shudders of recognition.  Maryam, more privileged, feels that her future is mapped out for the with a family leather goods business and a grandfather who sees in her the abilities to take the business on.  She plays cricket with his employees, is popular and has more vision than her own father.  The girls sense new beginnings with the ascendancy of Benazir Bhutto until an event takes them into an unexpected direction.

The second part of the novel takes us to London in 2019 where the friends are now living very different lives.  How far are they the products of their past experience?  The second half is unsurprisingly more political as they attempt to improve the adult world they felt let them down as teenagers, but will their friendship survive?

I loved the first half and enjoyed the second half but for me the novel’s strength is in their teenage Karachi days exploring the girls’ strongly forged friendship with all its intensities and experiences together with the limitations that their environment places on them.  This feels magnified by the bombardment of the myriad mixed messages of their Pakistani upbringing which the author skilfully conveys.

Best Of Friends is published by Bloomsbury Circus on September 27th 2022.   Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Young Pretender- Michael Arditti (2022)

I read about the subject of this historical novel in an article in the May 2022 edition of “The Oldie” magazine.  It was written by the author and entitled “The First Child Star”.  I knew of Michael Arditti but have never read him (I do have a copy of his “The Celibate” on my shelves) and was totally fascinated by his account of his latest hero.

William Betty (1791-1874) became a hugely celebrated actor in his early teens, playing to huge acclaim and intimidating other very popular performers into semi-retirement and playing roles he was far too young to act.  This fame ended suddenly as it would do for myriads of child stars to the present day.  This novel begins when at the age of 20 he attempts to make a comeback.

In Arditti’s novel we see William going it alone.  The tutor who had so inspired and believed in him was dismissed by his manager father who has subsequently died. His first-person narrative feels authentic.  He does seem to have only sketchy memories of the time of his fame, even though it was just a few years before and is trying to piece together what caused him to fall out of favour.  This lack of memory is an effective device within the narrative but is quite a big ask for the reader to take on board and I admit to getting confused at times between the switches from Master Betty to the now Mr Betty’s attempts to emulate his success.

It is a slim novel and didn’t really get going in the way I was expecting it to.  Technically, it is impressive but perhaps the author had over-whetted my appetite in “The Oldie” article and I would have liked this fascinating, now pretty much forgotten subject to have been opened up more.  I do have a fascination for the fleeting nature of celebrity and this very early historical example is certainly worth a read.  It was always enjoyable even if it did not quite make the impression on me that I was anticipating.

The Young Pretender was published by Arcadia Books in 2022.

Lessons- Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape 2022)

I first discovered Ian McEwan when I was a teenager and I can still recall being blown away by his two collections of short stories – “First Love, Last Rites” (1975) and “In Between The Sheets” (1978).  I had never read anything like these before and his first novel “The Cement Garden” (1978) was equally flooring.

Decades on we are up to his 17th adult novel and along the way there has been the all-time classic, “Atonement” (2001) and the very strong, (“Enduring Love” (1997)“, The Innocent” (1990), “Saturday” (2005) and “Nutshell” (2016)), the okay “On Chesil Beach” (2007) and the one which left me cold but won him the Booker Prize in 1998 “Amsterdam”.  I haven’t read everything by him- “Nutshell” was the last and I reckon this latest makes it my 11th experience of him over the years.

Main character in this decades-spanning work is Roland Baines (a character the same age as McEwan which gives this an autobiographical feel to historical perspectives if not the actual events of the novel) and central is his experience as an 11 year old new to private school in 1959 when his female piano teacher punishes his mistakes by slipping a finger under his shorts and pinching his thigh.  This leads to an obsession for Roland which endures over the next few years.  Obsession is something McEwan does so well, we’ve seen it before in “Enduring Love” but here it is two-sided and we see the influence of this woman in the rest of Roland’s life.  Another starting point is in 1986 when his wife fails to return home leaving new father Roland as a suspect in her disappearance.

McEwan’s novel brings us up to the present-day – post-lockdown (this is my first experience of the lockdown months in fiction and it feels very authentic and I  discovered I am ready to read about it now ) and takes in family members, including Lawrence, the son he had to bring up alone and also incorporates back-story of his mother-in-law’s experience in post-war Germany.

At times the writing is superb and it is bated-breath fiction- particularly around the relationship with Roland and piano teacher Miriam yet at other times it feels surprisingly loose for an author whose work is often so concise and tight and yet even when it feels close to becoming bogged down in the everyday minutiae of family life, for example, he is able to produce writing and scenes which pulls it back and keeps the reader on side.  His son, Lawrence, and his generation feel quite safe characters and I did expect more spark and tension to come from them (unless this is McEwan’s comment on this age group) and there is one characterisation (I’ll leave you to work it out) who does not feel totally plausible.

It does feel a long book, in terms of words and scope.  It is highly reflective with a lot of evaluating the past and the lessons learnt.  I feel it is almost but not quite up there amongst his best work, there are scenes which will likely remain with me for a long time but I think that the fact that I found myself struggling with a star rating for this (even as I was writing this review) suggests it was not a five star read for me but a very high four star work. 

Lessons was published in hardback by Jonathan Cape and as an e-book by Vintage on 13th September.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

And Away…- Bob Mortimer (2021)

Although I’ve really enjoyed a healthy amount of the work of Bob Mortimer over the years I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this best-selling autobiography if it had not been for his appearances on BBC TV’s “Would I Lie To You”.  I came to this series quite late and have been watching catch-up earlier editions almost daily throughout this summer, and one thing I’ve learnt, is that if Bob Mortimer is a guest you are in for a treat.  His anecdotes on incidents of his life (not always true as that is the nature of the game but usually so) made me want to find out more.

Some of these anecdotes make it to the book and are very representative of the life of Bob Mortimer.  Born in Middlesbrough in 1959 we get a childhood shadowed by the early loss of his dad, his eventual decision to become a solicitor until an invitation to see a comedy show at a South London pub introduced him to Vic Reeves and in the fullness of time led him to being one half (although he wouldn’t credit himself with an equal fraction) of one of the best-loved comedy duos of our time.

I think those “WILTY” guest spots where Bob allows himself to shine through and his downbeat fishing shows with Paul Whitehouse were significant in the germination of this book but central to it is his 2015 quadruple heart-bypass and recovery.  Alongside this narrative thread which continues for most of the book is the chronological tale of Bob’s life.

The latent hypochondriac in me found the health stuff unsettling and I might not have chosen to read this had I known it was so central but we know that this has a happy ending and the Bob who recovers is a person more at ease with himself.  For much it is a tale of chronic shyness, of not fitting in, of undervaluing achievements (Who knew that his acting in the BBCTV reboot of “Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) caused him such anxieties?) and yet coming much closer to calm, even a wisdom in his present life (well a wisdom that gets him to share; “As you age do not fear the elasticated waistband; it can be a good friend”).

His acknowledgement of the importance of comedy partner Jim Moir (Vic Reeves) is also central and it is here that the laugh out loud moments (not as many as I was expecting) tended to come.  There’s a good balance of the career and personal life which is something I always appreciate in a biography.

I really enjoyed spending time with Bob Mortimer and despite his self-effacing nature I felt he shared so well and I got a good understanding of him professionally and as a person.  You don’t get that in many celebrity autobiographies.  I’m delighted this book has been such a success.

And Away was published in 2021 by Simon & Schuster.  The paperback edition is now available.

Joseph Andrews- Henry Fielding (1742) – A Book To Read “Before You Die”

Time for one of my occasional bursts of classic fiction taken from Peter Boxall’s book “1001 Books To Read Before You Die” (I’m using the 2006 edition with “The Clockwork Orange cover).  So far I’ve read “The Golden Ass”, “Don Quixote” and “Moll Flanders” which has taken me up to 1722.  I’m dividing the chronological recommendations into groups of five and choosing one.  The next five were:

Roxana -Daniel Defoe

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

A Modest Proposal – Jonathan Swift

Joseph Andrews – Henry Fielding

Memoirs Of Martinus Scriblerus

I have already read a Defoe this year and as I mentioned in my review of “Moll Flanders” my experience with Swift was not good, so I’d rather not and I wasn’t even sure what the last title was so that left Fielding’s second most notable work which dates from 1747 – so I added 25 years onto the time machine for a mid-eighteenth century reading experience.

Fielding (sort of) describes this as a comic epic and it once again had me looking up the definition of “picaresque” (I can never retain what that means) which came to mind when reading it.  It’s an “episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero”.  Well, the first part applies but not the second as Fielding’s titular hero is virtuous and honest and just a little bland- for a significant chunk of the book he doesn’t feel present at all but Fielding has catered for this with his full title “The History of The Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of his friend Mr Abraham Adam” and it is this co-star, the goodly natured but often bumbling parson who gets into most scrapes.  Much of the novel takes place on the road and is thus very reminiscent of “Don Quixote” but here the humour is less broad and the shenanigans more quickly resolved.

It seems Fielding is doing something which still feels highly unusual in borrowing a character, Pamela, from Samuel Richardson’s 1740 best-seller as Joseph is her brother.  The edition I read also had “Shamela” Fielding’s parody of that book which I didn’t read because I thought I would have had to read “Pamela” to get much from it and whereas I had fully expected that book, often credited as the first English novel, to be one of Boxalls’ recommendations it wasn’t so I took the hint implicit in that and decided I may get round to it in the future.  Fielding also seems to have an obsession with one Colley Cibber, a contemporary of his who was a leading light in the theatre and Poet Laureate.  His 1740 memoir is poked fun at in the proceedings.  If you are planning to read this book I would suggest splashing out on a good version with notes etc. to support your reading.  I read an e-book by SMK (it did only cost 75p on Amazon) and it was without notes and had an uncredited and not especially helpful introduction.

As expected with literature from this era there are many digressions and stories within the story which the readership at the time would have expected but which tends to trip us up today.  I kept up with it more than the admittedly much longer “Don Quixote”, but didn’t quite get the same level of overall satisfaction and didn’t enjoy is as much as “Moll Flanders” but where it is stronger is in a fuller cast of well-drawn characters and it does feel like it is getting somewhere faster than the Cervantes tome.  As I was wavering between a three and four star rating we had a bed-hopping farcical scene which actually had me chuckling 280 years on and everything was resolved highly satisfactorily which pushes it into four star territory as I would certainly consider reading this again in the future.

Joseph Andrews was first published in 1742.  I read an e-book edition which also includes “Shamela” (a few of them do) published by SMK.

All The Broken Places – John Boyne (Doubleday 2022)

A new John Boyne title is always a reading highlight for me.  I’ve read 7 of his up to now, 4 of which have ended up in my end of year Top 10s. I was both thrilled and made nervous by his decision to write a sequel to his most famous and my 2nd favourite of his, (“The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is probably still my most loved book of the 21st Century so far), “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” (2006) which I read in 2018 when it was runner up in my Books Of The Year to “The Count Of Monte Cristo.”

It is such an impressively self-contained piece that it seems an unlikely and perhaps unnecessary book to have a sequel.  In his Author’s Note John Boyne says he’s been mulling the idea over for years and the isolation of lockdown felt like the right time.  The question for me was, did I want to revisit these characters in another setting?

This is the first-person narrative of Gretel, the sister to Bruno, main character in “Striped Pyjamas” and it follows a dual narrative, one which moves through time from the end of World War II and one taking place in modern day London.  Here, Gretel is a sprightly 91 year old living in a smart apartment in Winterville Court, overlooking Hyde Park, the other narrative explores how Gretel has reached this point in her life.

Unsurprisingly, the central theme in the novel is guilt. Gretel has got to 91 living daily with her family’s involvement in the hostilities in the place Bruno thought was called “Out-With”.  The immediate post-war years saw a need for re-invention in different locations until she settles in London. 

My dilemma here, and I think this will be the case for many readers, is Gretel.  She is realistically rather than sympathetically drawn but I couldn’t help rooting for her and I struggled whether this was the right response, and this was likely to be the author’s intention.  Obviously she has got to an old age thousands were deprived of and there are some extraordinary moments in her past which will stop you in your tracks and will fundamentally change the way you feel about this character in “Striped Pyjamas” and Boyne does extremely well to also convey her effectively as an elderly woman still struggling after many decades to come to terms with her past.

Supporting characters do not seem as well drawn as in other of this author’s novels (especially in the contemporary section) but we are seeing them from Gretel’s perspective and words and she is very wrapped up in herself, so perhaps this is appropriate.  As “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” builds to a big twist there are a couple of those along the way for those readers looking for a big reveal.

I did enjoy this and wanted to know what was going on but my ongoing niggle as to whether a sequel was necessary was unresolved and so I take that as meaning that this book is not as Essential as “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas”.  All of the now 8 Boyne works I have read have had something in them to enrich my life but this  for me does not quite make it into my Top 5 of his novels.  It is thought-provoking and at times really gripping but remains slightly in the shadow of his 2006 masterpiece.

All The Broken Places is published by Doubleday on September 15th 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Whale Tattoo- Jon Ransom (2022)

This debut is published by The Muswell Press, an independent publishing house I’d not heard of before but a look at their catalogue shows they are putting out some very promising new material alongside fascinating Classic Crime list and a Queer Classics strand re-publishing out-of-print titles which deserve another airing.  So far so good!  They currently have a title “Scent” by Isabel Costello longlisted for the Polari Prize, the pre-eminent LGBTQ+ award and I can only think Ransom’s work must have been published after the cut-off date for 2022 as this would certainly seem to be worthy of consideration.

The novel hinges on a back-story event of a washed up whale on the Norfolk coast who Joe Gunner believes is an omen of further death which will haunt him.  I expected a ghostly, lyrical piece but this is a highly visceral read with lots of bodily fluids, copious amount of vomit and armpits and underpants which makes for a slightly uncomfortable highly sensory read (thank goodness a scratch and sniff version is not available!).  It’s dark, raw and relentlessly gritty as Joe returns home after a period of attempting to escape harsh realities.  One of the main sources of anguish, Tim Fysh, has married Dora yet wants to pick up with Joe where they left off.  It’s a tale of hurried encounters, of numbing lust, love and hate.  The river like the dying whale speaks to Joe taunting him for his return and his mistakes.

Its simmering power will continue to haunt me for some time although I would have relished a little more lightness.  Some plot turns surprised me and considering it is peopled with characters that were not always easy to care for I found myself driven to find out what would happen to them and the portrayal of this unsympathetic environment had a very hypnotic pull making this an impressive, unflinching debut.

The Whale Tattoo was published in paperback by Muswell Press on 3rd February 2022.

Let’s Do It- Bob Stanley (2022)

This is the second non-fiction work with this title I’ve read this year.  First up was a five star biography of Victoria Wood by Jasper Rees, this second “Let’s Do It”  also merits my highest rating.  Subtitled “The Birth Of Pop” by music writer, DJ, film producer and founding member of classy pop act Saint Etienne, Bob Stanley.

I read Bob’s work in “Record Collector” and even when I have no connection with what he is writing about (just a glance at my 100 Essential CD Countdown will show I’m pretty much on the margins for what “Record Collector” considers significant) I always enjoy his column and when I heard about this book decided that this author would probably be up to the gargantuan task he has set himself.

Over nearly 600 pages in the hardback edition Bob Stanley illuminates the history, the chronology and the connections of popular music, giving pretty much equal weight to the US and UK- a parallel history which had points of convergence and divergence over the decades but one in which the UK, until the British Invasion of the 1960s pretty much took the supporting role. 

This is very much the story before the British Invasion.  I haven’t read his critically acclaimed “Yeah Yeah Yeah” (2013) which is a chronicle of modern pop and for which this is a much needed prequel of what went on before and I would say this history, maybe because of its further distance from us could be the more fascinating.

Is there a starting point in the development of popular music?  It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to cite Ragtime and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” from 1899, the sheet music of which was the first to sell a million copies and  from this point the author is able to track the separation of “serious” classical music to what came to be considered “popular” and its huge significance to our world.  He succinctly sums up the appeal and influence of the major players along the way including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra as well as shining lights on people whose positions attained in the pop hierarchy may not have been as stellar, for one reason or another.

Bob Stanley is a brilliant guide because you do believe he has absorbed all this music from decades before any of us were born and his love of popular music, in all its forms, shine through.  He can be great when he’s not buying it (Al Jolson, Rice/Lloyd Webber, much of Tom Jones) but in a book where the scope is so huge and there’s so many names to be mentioned that half a page suggests an artist who has really made an impact his writing can be outstanding. 

On Nat King Cole;

Gradually his style became sleeker, soft and comforting, but slightly rough, like corduroy.  His delivery, like his piano playing, was relaxed, economical and emphatic.  When he sang you felt like you could trust him completely, and when he told a story, it sounded as if he was making it up off the top of his head.

On the (still) under-rated British singer Matt Monro, who Stanley acknowledges “there was never anything but kindness and warmth in his singing”;

He still looked like the bus conductor he had been before turning pro, like he’d just given the school bully a clip round the ear and chucked him off the 68 to Chalk Farm.  No matter what the exotic setting on his album covers, you could cut the shot of Monro and place him on a Watney’s pub backdrop and it would fit just as well.  A pint of bitter at his side, a fag in his hand.  Never a cigar.  Part of his classiness was that he never looked down on his own.  Monro was a working man’s hero.  In this respect certainly, he was Sinatra’s equal.”

On Shirley Bassey;

“When she sang Sweet Charity’s “Big Spender” in 1967 (wouldn’t you like to have fun, fun, fun?) it was like the hardest girl in school had taken a shine to you and was repeatedly slamming you against her locker door.”

If you had never heard of these three artists Stanley’s interpretation of what made them fit into the pop canon would be enough.

Is there a central character in the way that I suspect (but don’t know) that The Beatles would dominate “Yeah Yeah Yeah”?  Answer- not really because the fickle nature of pop suggests there’s always something else around the corner, those who survive were able to reinvent themselves or their timing was just right to take them onto the next big thing and judging by index references that would be Frank Sinatra (who Bob Stanley really wishes had stuck to his original retirement plan of 1971), Duke Ellington (so influential and who moved back and forth from “serious” to “pop”) and Bing Crosby (who was so popular).  Also hugely significant is the body of songs now known as The Great American Songbook from the greatest songwriters of all time and whose influence can be felt throughout the 500+ pages (and played a very important part in the careers of those I’ve mentioned above).

Reading books about music nowadays is a treat because with Spotify you can be seconds away from listening to performers whose work you would probably never have accessed.  Here are some of the artists I added to playlists whilst reading this book who I feel need to be discovered/rediscovered by me: –

Reginald Foresythe, Henry Hall, Art Tatum, Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, Dick Haymes, Frankie Laine, The Andrews Sisters, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Roy Hamilton, The Tokens, Caterina Valente, Chris Connor, Nat King Cole, Earl Bostic, Sammy Davis Jnr

Reading this book has been a joy and I feel there is more to come in discovering some of the music I read about.  Highly recommended for all music fans and I will very soon be purchasing “Yeah Yeah Yeah” for the next part of the story.

Let’s Do It was published in hardback by Faber in May 2022.