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.

Agatha Christie Challenge – Month 5- A Pocket Full Of Rye (1953)

This month’s challenge book needed to involve tea and the featured choice, published in 1953 was the most recent Christie I have read so far and the first to feature Miss Marple.  I am beginning to show a preference for her later work, they seem more subtle with greater depth in terms of character and psychology behind the crime, although of course, I am basing this on just a handful of titles.

This one is slipping in at number 2 in my favourite Christie titles.  It didn’t sparkle as much as last month’s “Murder Is Easy” (1939) but positions itself just ahead of “The Hollow” (1946).  The tea makes an early appearance as it is the last thing consumed by Rex Fortescue, the head of Consolidated Investments Trust, a family business, which he has controlled by just being on the right side of the law.  Inspector Neele is on the case and much of the work is done before Miss Marple makes a very delayed appearance and stays at the Fortescue’s home on the flimsiest of pretexts.  Further crimes occur which appear to link to the “Sing A Song Of Sixpence” nursery rhyme or is someone just using this as a device to mask the real motive?

It’s very much a backstage role for Miss Marple here and some may say her presence wasn’t necessary but I did rather enjoy her contribution to balance out the not terribly likeable set of suspects.  I thought I’d picked up on the clues and sorted out the ending but I hadn’t, so there is the pleasure of Miss Christie outfoxing me again.  All in all a very satisfactory read which will have me looking forward to next month without blowing me away on this occasion.  June’s challenge is to pick a book which features a garden.

A Pocket Of Rye was published in 1953.  It is available as a Harper Collins paperback.  I read it from an omnibus edition of Miss Marple novels (number 2) which also includes A Caribbean Mystery, They Do It With Mirrors and The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side. Further details about the Christie Reading Challenge can be found at http://www.agathachristie.com

Goodnight Mister Tom – Michelle Magorian (Puffin 1981)

Puffin have celebrated the 40th anniversary of this enduring children’s classic by issuing it in a new edition which also contains a story of the young Tom and lyrics Magorian wrote for the musical adaptation.  I had always thought I had read this book before but I hadn’t.  I have also never seen the acclaimed TV version which starred John Thaw.  It was one of those books where my vague ideas about it had cemented into what I believed was fact but I was often wrong.  I knew it was a tearjerker but what I had always thought occurred never actually happens.  The twists and turns of the plot were quite a revelation for me.

Will is sent from Deptford, South London, just before the outbreak of World War II, as an evacuee to the rural environment of Little Weirwold where he is allocated to Tom Oakley, an elderly widower who lives a very self-contained life with his dog Sammy.  Will’s arrival disrupts this but the malnourished, poorly treated Londoner wins Tom over from the start and the youngster begins to thrive under his care.

The country scenes have a direct line to earlier children’s classics such as “The Railway Children” where nothing much happens but it is still a ravishing read.  It’s a boy finding his feet amongst a new environment and new friends and the challenges he faces, a common enough theme in junior fiction but it is when the book reverts to London with a grimness which is shocking compared to what we have read before that it is elevated to another level.  Following this, with the war established in both town and country Magorian pulls no punches and conveys the sense of not knowing what is round the corner brilliantly.  As the war disrupts the lives of those in the country there’s a tension between adapting to the new events and wanting their lives to go on as before.

I loved this book.  I loved the characters and the plot.  I enjoyed the short story “Rachel And The Paintbox” which would be a lovely back-story read for long-standing fans of this book.  The song lyrics were inessential but there again would be appreciated by those who have had this book in their lives for decades.

I cannot believe it has taken me this long to get round to it.  My advice to you is to celebrate its special birthday with me by discovering it for yourself, re-reading it or buying a copy for a younger member of the family.  This is a great read.

Originally published by Kestrel in 1981, the first Puffin paperback edition arrived in 1983 and this edition with the additional material was published in the UK on May 6th 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Yes, Daddy – Jonathan Parks-Ramage (HMH Books 2021)

I’m a sucker for any title marketed as “Modern Gothic” and I was also tempted into reading this book as the author and I share an unusual surname.  He is no relation, however, this is an intriguing debut from an author from Los Angeles.  At times I thought it was stunningly powerful and gripping but for me it ran out of steam meaning I finished the book feeling a little flat from an author with so much potential.

This is the tale of Jonah, an aspiring playwright who sets his sights on seducing an older, successful dramatist who then finds he gets considerably more than he bargained for.  As a character his motives are often very questionable which is no bad thing (see John Boyne’s “Ladder To The Sky”, for example, for another ruthless lead ) but some readers’ responses to this book may be affected by his limited likeability.

We begin at a trial so we know from the start that something has gone awry in their relationship, there’s an early twist and then a shuffle back in time to relate the whole story in a first-person narrative by the ambitious, emotionally damaged younger man.  It’s not that long before it gets really good, at a point where Jonah feels woozy at a dinner party and although there’s not a hint of demonic possession here the tension of the writing and the surface of respectability hiding much darkness reminded me of Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, a book I love.

There are many plot turns along the way but the last third feels as if the build-up dissipates greatly to find an acceptable resolution and I rather think that this resolution might feel more acceptable to an American audience.

There are issues raised which are relevant to the #MeToo campaign and LGBT considerations here given a powerful, fresh dimension and I’m not sure how Parks-Ramage could have otherwise found his way out of the plot he has weaved but I feel he might have let his dramatic peaks appear too early in the narrative denying me the really splendid reading experience I thought I was going to get with this book.

Yes, Daddy was published on 18th May 2021 by Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Books.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Don Quixote- Cervantes (Wordsworth Edition 1993) – A Book To “Read Before You Die”

It’s time for my second pick from Peter Boxall’s “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die”.  Last time round, from this chronologically arranged publication I went with “The Golden Ass” dated around 260 AD.  I’m dividing the titles up into groups of five and selecting one to read from these.  The next five choices were:

The Thousand And One Nights

Gargantua and Pantagruel – Rabelais

Euphues: The Anatomy Of Wit – John Lyly

The Unfortunate Traveller – Thomas Nashe

Don Quixote- Cervantes

As with my previous choice I went with the most recent of the bunch but primarily because I had an unread Wordsworth paperback edition on my shelf.  So I set the time machine forward some 355 years from Apuleius for this doorstop of a book which appeared in two parts, the first in 1605, the second 10 years later.

The Wordsworth Edition uses this novel’s third English translation by Peter Motteux which dates from 1712.  Most of us would some idea as to what Don Quixote is about as both he and his squire Sancho Panca have entered our consciousness.  Most would know the “tilting at windmills” episode from early on in the book.  I knew it was a tale of a knight-errant obsessed with tales of chivalry but I had no idea how Cervantes would sustain this for a book of this length, nor did I appreciate just how old this work is, Cervantes was around the same time as Shakespeare, he died just a few days before him and this Spanish classic has proved an intriguing reading experience.

It has taken me a month but I do feel enriched for having read it.  There’s a marked distinction between the two parts, the first was pretty much what I was expecting.  Don Quixote, nothing like the chivalrous heroes of old and suffering from delusions sets out with the verbose Sancho Panca (spelt like this in this edition but the c in his surname is now more commonly a z), Quixote on an old nag he has mentally reinvented into his steed Rozinante and the squire on his beloved donkey Dapple to do deeds of derring do in the name of a peasant woman Quixote has fantasised into his Lady Dulcinea.  They encounter various folk on their way who tend to have fun at their expense with Quixote’s mental wanderings occasionally leading him to make atrocious mistakes.  He believes a dilapidated inn is a castle and is so wrapped up in his image as a chivalrous knight that fact and fiction is blurred.

In the second part this fact vs fiction theme is rounded out nicely.  Cervantes writes as if he is the editor of an Arabic translation of the first part which has become a best seller.  Many of those who meet Quixote from here on in have read about him and his exploits.  A significant part features a Duke and Duchess who have much sport in setting up scenarios for the knight and his squire, bestowing on Sancho Panca a fake governorship of an “island” which was something Quixote has always promised him as a reward for his duties.  Another well rounded dimension is added to the book when Cervantes addresses something which had occurred in the real world when an author stole his characters and published his own “Don Quixote Part 2”.  Cervantes regularly insures his own reputation is intact and employs various methods to attack this author in his text.

All in all this is a very rich, very dense text.  At times it did feel like I was plodding through it but then I would remember the age of the book and the vitality of Cervantes’ tales and it would not be too long before it shifted into a fresh direction.  It’s a comic tale with much more besides and I emerged from my reading of it exhausted but very impressed.

Don Quixote was originally published in two parts in Spanish in 1605 and 1615.  I read the 1712 translation by Peter Motteux.

World Book Night 2021- Books To Make You Smile!

The theme for this year’s World Book Night which took place on 23rd April was Books To Make You Smile, which is something we could all do with after the year we have had. Normally, there would be many public events taking place in libraries and other establishments to get people reading. Of course, these could not take place. My friend and colleague Louise and myself, who both work for Isle Of Wight Libraries decided to produce a Book Chat to discuss books which have made us smile. This can be found here. Just click on the link and Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ut1frGMeD1Y

Agatha Christie Challenge Month 4- Murder Is Easy (1939)

This month’s challenge was to read a book set before World War II and this 1939 publication just fits into the timescale.  This  was the title recommended by the good folk at agathachristie.com and I did think it was a stand-alone, but no, after I read it I discovered it is the 4th in the series featuring Superintendent Battle,  a sequence which had begun with 1925’s “The Secret Of Chimneys”.  Here Battle makes a blink and you miss him appearance and adds nothing to the plot so my thinking it a stand-alone is very excusable.

Main character Luke Fitzwilliam is a retired police officer returning to England from his post in the Mayang Straits when he meets an elderly woman on the train on her way to Scotland Yard to report a murderer at large in her village of Wychwood-Under-Ashe.  Fitzwilliam, at a loose end goes to investigate on the pretence of writing a book about folklore and local customs.

This has been my favourite of the Challenge books so far and there’s quite a notch up in the entertainment factor from my second favourite, The Hollow.  Most of the murders have already taken place leaving Fitzwilliam to work out whodunnit.  I like the feel of this book, the location and characterisation gives it stronger atmosphere and the folklore slant offers us suggestions of darker forces at play and even of satanic orgies in the woods.  Fitzwilliam stays at the home of poor-village-boy-made good now newspaper magnate Lord Whitfield and becomes fascinated by his fiancée.  There’s a mixture of doctors, librarians, publicans, servant girls in the cast list and even a cat called Wonky Pooh!

The novel feels freer and less formulaic than some of her Poirot titles.  I was thoroughly entertained and didn’t guess whodunnit.  I would have been unlikely to have encountered this book without the Christie Challenge and would have missed out on this enthralling cosy crime caper with good edges of darkness.  Next month it’s a story featuring tea, luckily there’s a suggested title.

Murder Is Easy was first published in 1939.  I read a Harper Collins paperback edition. Further details about the Agatha Christie Challenge and Facebook/Instagram book groups on this title can be found at http://www.agathachristie.com.

100 Essential Books – Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2020)

This account of a troubled Glasgow childhood in the 1980s blew away the judges of the 2020 Booker Prize and is certainly one of the greatest debut novels of the twenty-first century.  It has an incredible emotional pull.

Shuggie is devoted to his mother Agnes, who, in 1981, is attempting to hold things together to keep her man, a taxi driver, and to eventually escape from the oppressive atmosphere of her parents’ home in a Sighthill tower block with her three children Catherine, Leek and Shuggie.  Her youngest is regularly referred to by other characters as “a funny wee bastard”, out of step with what is expected from a boy living close to poverty in his environment and totally dedicated to his mother.

When that escape is not quite how Agnes planned she resorts increasingly to alcohol and opportunities diminish for her and the family.   Agnes is a superb creation, equally monstrous and appealing, living an Elizabeth Taylor fantasy in an impoverished, tough world.  It is Shuggie, however, who the reader will root for.  His childhood makes often for grim and heart-breaking reading but humour is never far away and Stuart relates the tribulations of this family and those around them with such verve and energy that the reader is allowed to rise above the misery and see this extraordinary work for what it is- a tremendous achievement. 

It is rich in detail and beautifully observed throughout, the characterisation is so strong and there is often sympathy for the most alarming of occurrences.  It’s gritty and raw but at its heart is an incredible beauty and humanity which even when the reader is dabbing away tears of sadness, frustration or laughter is life-affirming.  There are very strong autobiographical elements in this fiction as the author grew up in Sighthill with an alcoholic mother.  He did manage to escape his environment and became a leading designer for Banana Republic, holds dual British-American citizenship and lives in New York with his art curator husband which is light years away from the world of Shuggie Bain.  It is probably this distance and the ability to look back on these years which gives this book its quality and power.  I haven’t enjoyed a Booker Prize winning novel as much since 2004 when Alan Hollinghurst won with “Line Of Beauty”.  The paperback is to be published in the UK next week and this would be one very good way of celebrating the reopening of bookshops after months of lockdown by purchasing a copy.

Shuggie Bain was published in hardback by Picador in the UK in February 2020. The paperback is available from 15th April 2021.

A Little Devil in America – Hanif Abdurraqib (2021)

Ohio resident Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and music critic and is both critically acclaimed and a good commercial proposition in his homeland.  This non-fiction work is something we’ve been seeing a fair bit of recently- a mash-up of memoir and analysis.  At times it feels like a collection of essays but I don’t think it is.  Linking the pieces together is the theme of the black performer in America and coming from that is the significance of dance.  Saying it like this, however, is very much simplifying matters.  Abdurraqib, being a poet sees things in terms of metaphor and the notion of dance and performance is used to touch on many aspects of the American experience, and especially the African-American experience.

Also, being a poet Abdurraqib does not see things the way many of us do, he has the ability to zoom in on a detail and expand out from that.  It’s often a moment in a life he finds fascinating and what it tells us about that particular life and the environment in which it was lived and that in itself is intriguing.  In terms of the performers examined there is a very good range and I find much of his writing illuminating.  With Aretha Franklin, he examines her funeral, and what the “sending home” of the ritual says of a life and then moves backwards to the filmed version of her live gospel recording “Amazing Grace”- the biggest selling gospel live album of all time.  With Whitney Houston he focuses on the response of the black audience and how that changed.  There’s a lively section about the antagonism between two demonstrative performers, Joe Tex and James Brown.  The issue of “blackface” is dealt with through William Lane known as Master Juba who Charles Dickens saw perform and how casual racism caused a latter day TV tribute by Ben Vereen to this black minstrel who performed in blackface to become meaningless because his performance was cut inappropriately. 

People who have not fitted in to what was expected of them are examined including Sammy Davis Jnr, Michael Jackson and the always amazing to read about Josephine Baker.

This is where this book is the strongest for me, a white British reader, I can see the common threads and follow the arguments.  When the author veers away from this central theme I miss the tightness of the structure although I am still impressed by the writing.

And the writing is impassioned, creative, energetic and very often enthralling.  Culturally, very few will get all the references initially because of the broad timescale Abdurraqib employs in this work.  If this looseness of structure and digressive style which I have mentioned before (most recently in “Gay Bar” by Jeremy Atherton Lin) is going to become commonplace I’m just going to have to get used to it because to ignore it would mean missing out on impressive, quality writing.

A Little Devil in America was published in the UK by Allen Lane on 30th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Many Different Kinds Of Love – Michael Rosen (2021)

I’ve mentioned here before that Michael Rosen is one of my literary heroes, especially for his work with children.  On a number of occasions I have been lucky enough to experience how this man can totally captivate a school hall full of children who hang on his every word.  His “Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here” collection is one of my favourite children’s books ever.  And last year we almost lost him, hospitalised with Covid just around the time the first lockdown started, his illness made everything seem more grim and even more scary.

After 13 days in bed with what was diagnosed as just a viral illness the writer was hospitalised when a GP friend witnessed his blood oxygen reading of 58, the lowest she had ever seen on a conscious person. Following time in intensive care he was put in an induced coma on a ventilator remaining in the ICU ward for 46 days before beginning rehabilitation and having to relearn basic functions the disease had stripped from him like standing up and walking.

This collection is subtitled “A Story Of Life, Death & The NHS”.  In a sequence of prose poems Rosen catalogues his illness and recovery.  Alongside this is the extraordinary response from the staff who cared for him who maintained a diary throughout to boost his recovery.  These people were exhausted, often redeployed from their usual job and no doubt stressed beyond belief but they made the time to communicate with this comatose man in this way and these diary entries form an extremely moving section of the book.  Above the bed they placed a copy of his “These Are The Hands” poem produced for the 60th anniversary of the NHS.

I really always enjoy Michael Rosen’s poetic style, direct, closely observed and dealing here with painful honesty the effects this cruel virus has had on him.  When we are moaning about lockdown restrictions and posing conspiracy theories it’s important to feel the voice of those affected and Michael Rosen’s experience speaks for the thousands who have been similarly affected and for those thousands we have lost.

He always has the ability to find humour in the ridiculous even in the darkest moments.

“They’ve been worried

about my low blood pressure

but they’ve brought me the Daily Mail

so it’ll be fine in a moment.”

I read this on the anniversary of the first lockdown and there was no better way to get me to reflect on the year’s events and how it has hit this very special person.  This is a magnificent work which has been beautifully put together by the author and Penguin Books.  It will prove to be a lasting testament to the talent and tenacity of this man and of a reminder of the strange times we have been living in.

Many Different Types Of Love was published by Ebury Press, a division of Penguin Random House 18th March 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.