100 Essential Books – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018)

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This is sublime.  A debut novel from an American writer who has poured ten years of research and four years of writing to produce this critically acclaimed little gem.  You can tell it has been a real labour of love for this author, picking up prizes when still a work in progress and now one of the 16 books selected for consideration for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.  

 In 1975 Esquire Magazine produced an extract of an unfinished novel by literary giant Truman Capote which showed a writer past his prime and with a subject matter which shook his circle of friends.  The women in high society with whom Capote spent much of his time with saw themselves mocked and their secrets revealed in an astounding case of literary treachery.  They turned against him and he never got over it.

 I was hooked from the moment I saw printed on the back cover; “They told him everything.  He told everybody else.”  It is a novel fuelled by gossip which makes it sound tacky but it is so beautifully written and every word seems considered and measured.   Some may tire of reading of these privileged lifestyles and the manoeuvrings to keep their place in society but I certainly didn’t. Salaciousness as literature – just fabulous!

 Narrated unusually in the third person this is the voice of the wronged chorus, Capote’s women, his swans, as they dip in to various parts of their lives, the times when they left themselves open to betrayal.  Truman Capote is the central figure, absolutely fascinating and repugnant and totally convincing in this portrayal.  His spark of genius faded as he became wrapped up in these swans, the six women whose lives he shattered.  The women themselves would mean more to the American reader but amongst them is Lee, the sister of Jackie Kennedy, one amongst the circuit of society women in an age not too far away but which now seems to us an echo of distant glamour.

 In the supporting cast is everyone whose light shone during this period when showbiz, politics, power and finance combined including Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, various Kennedys, Gore Vidal, The Rolling Stones.  I find the whole era fascinating and Capote was at the centre.  We rediscover him at various points in his life from a child playing with a young Harper Lee who would later immortalise him as Dill in “To Kill A Mockingbird” to dancing to his own tune as an alcoholic on the disco floor at Studio 54.  Hanging over him throughout this time is his relationship with his mother, engendering in him a need for revenge which comes across in his dealings with these society women, his belief in his own talent even when the writing dried up and his obsession with the perpetrators of the crime behind his most celebrated non-fiction work “In Cold Blood”.  The complexities of the real man come across so clearly through this re-creation.

 But it is Capote’s dynamics with these women who weave in and out of this beautifully written prose which is this novel’s greatest success.  Its heavily factual basis has left me thirsting for more and to want to find out about these people and their time but I feel as if I can’t rush into doing this because I want this author’s creations and her versions of events to linger before I start exploring the facts behind this astonishing piece of fiction.

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Swan Song was published in hardback by Hutchinson in 2018.  The paperback published by Windmill Books is due on 27th June 2019.

Oct 19 Update:  Read about Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott at the Isle Of Wight Literary Festival here.

100 Essential Books – Things In Jars – Jess Kidd (Canongate 2019)

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I have read both of Jess Kidd’s previous novels and I was delighted to interview her for NB issue #90 following the publication of her debut. It was this book “Himself” (2016) that I expressed a slight preference for – a novel set in 1970s Ireland which absolutely fizzled throughout although both books have been very strong. “The Hoarder” (2018) had a modern West London setting and like its predecessor combined a good mystery with vibrant language, colourful characterisation and a supernatural element.

All of these factors are present in her third novel, with its setting always of particular interest to me, Victorian England, yet it is not just for this reason that I think that Jess Kidd has written her best novel to date and all that potential she has shown up until now has come into fruition with this hugely entertaining novel.

Like all of Kidd’s main characters to date Bridie Devine can see ghosts but here it’s just one, a half-naked ex-boxer she encounters in a churchyard who remembers her from her past. This supernatural touch is something which obviously means a lot to the author and I felt in “The Hoarder” it did not work as well as it had in “Himself” but the pugilist Ruby is a great character and becomes Bridie’s sidekick on some private detective work.

A child has been kidnapped from a country house in Sussex but it is soon apparent that this is no ordinary child and a gallery of rogues, richly-drawn characterisations worthy of the best of Dickens, seem to be involved in her disappearance. Bridie enlists the help of her seven-foot maid Cora, the spectral Ruby and crossing-sweeper Jem to locate the child.

I do read quite a few of these gutsy Victorian set novels and I’m aware that when they are done well they are likely to feature in my end of year Top 10. The actual case within  the novel recalled for me another female amateur detective Heloise Chancey in MJ Tjia’s series of novels but here with greater depth and the sheer vivacity of the language reminded me of Michel Faber’s “The Crimson Petal And The White” and (although set in late eighteenth century London) within its themes of “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” by Imogen Hermes Gower- both great favourites of mine, but this novel certainly has a life of its own.

I particularly like it when the history of a historical novel is incorporated seamlessly. Here we have the Victorian love of the unusual and freakish and the developments in medicine which attracted the honourable and the disreputable sitting beautifully in with what becomes a gripping mystery peopled with characters about whom I wanted to know so much more. I hope this novel will be the making of Jess Kidd and will get readers discovering both her other publications. The effervescence of her writing will stay with me for some time.

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Things In Jars is published in hardback by Canongate on April 4th 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2018 – Part 2: The Top 5

I am continuing my countdown of my favourite books I read in 2018.

5. House Of Stone – Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Atlantic 2018) Read and reviewed in November

tshumaAnother title (like Claire Hajaj’s #8 rated novel) that I would never have come across if it were not for the good folks at nb magazine who sent me a copy to help out with the longlisting for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards.  The shortlist is due to be announced this month and this is one title that certainly should be up for serious consideration as for me it was the best debut novel I read and narrowly misses out on being my favourite novel published in 2018.  Zimbabwe born Tshuma is a real storyteller and here tells the history of the last fifty years of her homeland using an unreliable narrator who plots his way through and manipulates the other characters.  I said of it “Along the way there are some brilliantly memorable characters and writing often outstanding in its vibrancy and power.  The horrors are not at all shied away from but there are also moments of great humour and to put at the centre the dark machinations of the narrator is a stroke of genius.  It’s a prime example of how a location can be seamlessly embedded into a plot and used to inform and enrich.”  This is unlikely to be as easy to find as some of the works on this list but is definitely worth seeking out.

4. Ladder To The Sky – John Boyne (Doubleday 2018) – Read in June, reviewed in July

boyneladder A great year for books with ladders in the titles (cf: Anne Tyler’s # 6 rated book).  Irish author John Boyne reached the top of my personal book ladder last time round with his outstanding “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and this, his latest, is almost as good.  Novels about writers tend to not be as good as they think they are but this look at the publishing industry with its emphasis on the creative process and the ownership of ideas is extremely strong.  I said “this is a beautifully balanced book, another complete package, which offers a tremendous variety for the reader with humour, tragedy, twists, crime and moral dilemmas all present to form a heady brew.”  For the second year running John Boyne has produced the best novel of the year published in the year I read it.

3. Bookworm: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg 2018)- Read and reviewed in March

bookwormMy favourite non-fiction read of the year.  I’d highlighted this as one I really wanted to discover before publication and I was certainly not in anyway disappointed.  In fact, I enjoyed it even more than I had anticipated.  Lucy Mangan explores the reading material of her childhood in a superb “book about books”.  I said of it; “Thank you Lucy Mangan.  This book has brought me so much pleasure.  I have relished every word, laughed out loud and been bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow which has made me late back from tea breaks and almost missing bus stops.”  I don’t think there can be much higher praise!  I have recommended this book so many times this year and will continue to do so.

2. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne (Definition 2006) – Read in September, reviewed in October

pyjamasI actually had this sat on my bookshelves for quite a few years unread.  I’d seen the film but I was so enthralled by Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” that I had to explore a bit of his back catalogue and read this, his most famous work.  He really is a great find for me as an author and got very close to doing the unprecedented and being named the author of the Book Of The Year for a second year running.  In fact, everything I had read by this writer has been a five star read with his 2015 children’s novel “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain“, pretty much a companion piece to this just missing out on the Top 10 this year because of the number of outstanding books I’ve read (the other non-Top 10 5 star read was Kate Atkinson’s “A God In Ruins“).  Bruno is relocated with his family away from the grandparents he loved to a house in the grounds of a place he believes is called “Out-with” peopled by men and boys in pyjamas behind a wire fence.  Painfully sad and extremely powerful and an essential read, even if you have seen the film.

And the reviewsrevues book of the year for 2018 goes to:

1.The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (Penguin 1845) – Read and reviewed in December

dumasI’m sure that this is just coincidence but for the second year running the Book Of The Year has been the very last book I’ve read.  I don’t think this is because I forget the books I’ve read earlier in the year because I do carefully go through everything, it may be because I’m keen to fit in a book which has the potential to be a big-hitter before the new year dawns and this was certainly a big-hitter in every sense of the word.  It took me a month to get through the 1200+ pages but it was certainly time well spent as it introduced me to a classic novel dominated by a fascinating character which will stay with me for the rest of my life.  Brought to life in a vibrant translation by Robin Buss and recommended to me by my friend Louise, whose mission is to get everyone to reading this book.  I certainly now think she has a point.

I’ve never read Dumas before and I’m certainly looking forward to reading more and he is a deserved addition to my awards list.  Dumas becomes my first French author to join my ultimate favourites and the fourth translated work.  It is the best nineteenth century novel I have read since I read “Jane Eyre” in 2000.  Here is my Hall of Fame for the past 11 years:

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2019!

The rest of my Top 10 for this year can be found in my earlier post here

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2018 – Part 1 (10-6)

2018 – 66 books read, which was one down on last year.  It looked like I would beat last year’s total until it took me a month to read the final book.  That seems to be very much around the sort of total that I can manage in a year, apart from 2016 when I managed 80, my 2015 figure was exactly the same as last year.  So, now it is time to whittle those 66 down to the 10 which created the greatest impression.  For the first time ever I’ve awarded more 5 stars than places in the top 10, 12 in fact, which means that two five star reads will not even make my Top 10, which has never happened before because I’m stingy with those five stars.  It just shows how many good books I have read this year.  To complete the breakdown I read 12 five stars, 32 four stars and 22 three stars (2017’s spread was 10/31/26).  Like last year I haven’t read anything I rated below three stars (I think this is because I am better at choosing titles to read) and absolutely everything I read this year has been reviewed on this site.

Where things are different to last year is the publication dates.  Last year the whole top 10 was made up of books published either that year or the year before, here there is a wider spread as I’ve caught up with older books I’ve been meaning to read for ages.  If I read it this year then it’s eligible for a Top 10 placing.  There’s a geographic spread of writers from the UK, US, Europe and Africa and co-incidentally I’m back to the 50-50 gender balance after last year when the women edged ahead.  Unlike last year when all the authors made their first appearance on the list this year three have been celebrated here before and for the first time since 2014 when Peter James appeared twice there is an author who takes up two of the coveted spots (and also just missed out on a third novel making the Top 10).  Last year the list was entirely fiction but we have a bit of non-fiction creeping in for 2018.   If you would like to read the full reviews on this site just click on the link to be taken to the full review.

10. The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass (Vintage 1959) – Read and reviewed in June

the-tin-drumI’m still not sure whether I count this as a re-read or not, for although I know that I started to read it not too far off 40 years ago I’m not sure whether I ever finished it but I put that right this year with a different translation by Breon Mitchell which was authorised for the fiftieth anniversary of this classic of German post-war literature. Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass’ (1927-2015) most famous work.  I said of it “This is an extraordinary novel which at times I loved and at other times felt frustrated or just plain baffled by but it is incredibly powerful and would benefit from countless re-readings.”  As this made my Top 10 I’m allowing myself to hold on to my copy (the books that don’t make this list get culled, unfortunately)  so that re-reading may be sometime within the next 40 years!

9. Dead Man’s Grip – Peter James (Macmillan 2011) – Read and reviewed in February

peterjamesNo stranger to my end of year Top 10, in fact James’ Brighton-set Roy Grace novels have now made it four times from the first seven books in the series.  I felt this was his best yet and yet, because of strong competition he has just crept in the lower reaches of the list.  The other titles to make the list in previous years are the first instalment “Dead Simple” (#3 in 2008), Dead Man’s Footsteps (#10 in 2014) and “Dead Tomorrow” (#3 in 2014).  I also read the 8th book this year “Not Dead Yet”, a four star read but not good enough to do the double for a second time.  Of “Dead Man’s Grip” I said “this really does have everything I look for in a police procedural crime novel.

8. The Water Thief – Claire Hajaj (Oneworld 2018)- Read and reviewed in November

waterthiefI was sent this novel as a potential longlister for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards in their Fiction with a sense of place category and although the location is non-specific Claire Hajaj, in her second novel, creates a vivid picture of African life.  It’s a rich, haunting tale and the author almost brought this tough old reviewer to the verge of tears with superb characterisation and the unfolding of the plot, as gripping as any thriller I have read this year.

7. The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gower (Harvill Secker 2018) – Read and reviewed in May

mrshancockOne of two debut novels to appear in my Top 10 this year. Published early on in 2018 there was a lot of buzz around this book and it made shortlists for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and a National Book Award amongst others and has appeared on a number of best of the year lists but has been eclipsed by some of the big hitters of the year.  I thought it was a terrific read and deserved all the accolades it has got.  I loved the first two thirds best before a little fantasy crept in when it read like a right rollicking modern slant on “Vanity Fair”.  I said “This is an ambitious novel which works beautifully.  It’s the kind of gutsy, spirited writing that I love with rich characterisation and a real feel of a love for history and literature.”

6.Ladder Of Years- Anne Tyler (Vintage 1995) -Read and reviewed in March.

tylerladderI have only read two of Anne Tyler’s 22 novels yet they have both appeared in my end of year Top 10 (“A Spool Of Blue Thread was my #3 in 2015 in the year of its publication).  I’m  not even sure I can explain the appeal of this author to me, I wouldn’t have thought that tales of American family life would really strike that much of a chord but I can tell that as I read more of  her novels she is going to appear more and more in my end of year lists.  Here a middle-aged woman who feels her family is taking her for granted just walks away to start a new life- a selfish act, which nevertheless got this reader willing her to succeed. I said “it is just the quality of the writing and the deftness of characterisation that has me hanging on every word, not wanting it to end and that is what makes it a five star read.”  If you haven’t discovered Anne Tyler yet you have a treat in store.

Next post – My Top 5 reads of 2018

100 Essential Books – The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1844)

 

 

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For my final challenge in the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge I chose what felt like the momentous task of getting through 1243 pages of small, quite dense print in the Penguin Classics Paperback edition of this book which I had never read before.

One of the challenges drawn from the hat in this year long initiative was to ask a member of staff what their favourite novel was and then to read it. My co-worker Louise would offer this book as her most cherished but once potential readers saw its size they balked at the task (“What’s your second favourite read?”).  So disheartened was she by this reaction that I said if I made it to the last challenge then I would read it.  It has taken a month and the closing date for the challenge went by before I was mid-way through it but I am so glad that I took a month out of my reading commitments to experience this.

Written as a serial in the “Journal Des Debats”, beginning in 1844 Dumas was being paid by instalment and needed the money so kept things going.  To maintain the plot movement over this length is a considerable achievement and to keep the readers’ interest over the twists and turns of the tale is even more of an achievement and Dumas manages both.

Part of this success is down to the robust, lively translation from Robin Buss which dates from 1996 and feels different from the somewhat turgid older versions which derive largely from the Victorian period where the text is mistranslated, bowdlerised and aimed to meet the needs of those who desired to read it purely as adventure fiction.  On trips out, put off by the weight of my copy, I downloaded a cheap Kindle version which was an earlier translation and found myself largely stumbling through it.  It was a relief to get back to Buss’ version of the text.

The bare bones of the story is likely to be well known through the myriad of adaptations in various media over the years.  Edmond Dantes is accused of treason on the eve of his wedding by men who seek to benefit from his downfall.  Imprisoned in the foreboding Chateau D’If he plots revenge on those who set him up and prevented him from proving his innocence.  The rest of the novel takes in the 25 years of seeking to attain that revenge.  It all goes much deeper than that, obviously, and there is actually less swash-buckling than I had anticipated.  Central to it all is Dantes who adopts the role of the Count of Monte Cristo, a character who will provoke mixed emotions from the reader as he is a profound, enigmatic creation and who provides the lifeblood of the book even when less well-drawn characters are brought more into focus.  It is his desire for vengeance which drives the reader onwards though some extraordinarily surprising moments in a plot that moves so fast it can at times leave the reader behind trying to piece together the significance of what has occurred.  Its length made it a challenge but it was so entertaining that I wasn’t going to give up and I feel on completion that a major gap in my reading history has been filled and that it was all a pretty amazing experience.

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The publication of The Count Of Monte Cristo first began in 1844.  If you are going to spend as much time to read it as it requires I suggest you do not choose an early translation.  I went for the 1996 translation by Robin Buss in the 2006 Penguin Classics anniversary edition.

 

 

 

100 Essential Books – The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne (2006)

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Irish author John Boyne has been one of the best finds for me in recent years.  My introduction to his work is my 2017 Reviewsrevues Book of the Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and this year both “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” and his latest “A Ladder To The Sky” have been five star reads.

 This is the book which made his name and although I have had it on my shelves for some years had never got round to reading it, despite my partner telling me it was one of the best books he has ever read.  I have seen the 2008 film adaptation and it’s taken me quite a while to get over it!

 This may very well be one of the saddest books ever.   I knew what was going to happen because of the film and yet I consciously chose to read the ending in the public place of on the bus, thinking I would be less likely to break down in tears but it was a close run thing!

 Boyne adopts an impassive narrative style making his writing reminiscent of a fairy tale or something within the oral tradition with its matter of fact sentences and fair amount of repetition for emphasis (for both the listener and the main character).  This is a book which would read aloud extremely well.  (Philip Ridley also did this very successfully with his much lighter tale “Krindlekrax”- a huge favourite of mine).  This oral feel is powerful and draws the reader in but also provides some emotional distance from the action which may initially protect from some of the horror but it also carefully and cleverly informs the plot making it all very believable.  The narrator sees everything from nine year old Bruno’s point of view but allows us to read between the lines with ever-mounting trepidation. 

 Like Pierrot in “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” Bruno is forced to relocate to a home very different from what he has been used to.  For Bruno this means with his family but away from his beloved grandparents left behind in Berlin.  In this new place which he pieces together is called “Out-With” there is no one to play with and instead of the view of Berlin from his bedroom window he sees groups of men and boys in pyjamas behind a wire fence.  His decision to go exploring to combat his loneliness cannot end well.

 Also like Pierrot in the later novel at times Bruno’s interpretation of events feels insufferable but perhaps more comprehensible because of the lack of communication with his family, which allows such a distorted picture of his environment to be developed.  His view of the world is formed solely through his ignorance, there is not much that he gets right and that is a powerful thing to take from this novel.

 Despite John Boyne’s development as a writer in the 9 years between this and the unofficial companion piece of “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” this eclipses it in terms of power and importance.  It is a book which works well in the Children’s, YA and Adult sections of the bookshop.  Frankly, everyone should read it.  The film version, although good lacks the power of Boyne’s words and style.

 Of those novels I have read which gives a child’s perspective of wartime only “The Book Thief” is better and that is arguably my all-time favourite novel.  John Boyne continues his ascent as one of my all-time favourite authors.

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 The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was first published in 2006.  I read the 2008 Definitions paperback version.

100 Essential Books- A Ladder To The Sky- John Boyne (Doubleday 2018)

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Just occasionally the words I use in these reviews like to come back to bite me. It was only last week when I wrote in a review of Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less”; “Books about writers are often not as good as they think they are.” I excused Greer from this statement and certainly proving me wrong here is John Boyne, author of my 2017 Book Of The Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” who has produced another outstanding novel- this time about writers.

Sometimes reading choices turn up these unintentional patterns. Take the last two books I’ve read, “Less” with its gay writer as lead character and Boyne’s excellent children’s novel “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” with its Nazi Germany setting and then comes along this book which begins with a gay German writer looking back at his youth in Nazi Germany.

It is 1988 and prize-winning author and Cambridge lecturer Erich Ackermann has returned to his Berlin roots for a book event. At the bar of the hotel he meets an ambitious young waiter. Their story spans 30 years to the present day. It is told by a number of different voices and has an enthralling mixture of the purely fictional and real life literary figures (one section is narrated by Gore Vidal whose writing Boyne has certainly re-whetted my appetite for). Running through the narrative are the machinations of a fabulous baddie and I’m not even going to reveal who this is, only to say that John Boyne has created a compelling monster whose antics had me often open-mouthed in horror.

Like “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” this is a beautifully balanced book, another complete package, which offers a tremendous variety for the reader with humour, tragedy, twists, crime and moral dilemmas all present to form a heady brew. I also loved the publishing background even if a week before reading this I was down on it as an idea.

With more literary fiction being spawned from real life and the stories of others this novel raises some thought-provoking points about the creative process and the ownership of ideas in a way which is thoroughly entertaining. When I read “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” back in December 2017 I justified my stinginess (compared with many other reviewers/bloggers) by saying; “If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.” This is the third John Boyne novel I have read and my third 5 star rating for his work. This shows just how highly I think of him as a writer and he’s not even given me the chance to do too much exploring of this back catalogue between his two latest publications. I still think “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is his masterwork (of what I’ve read of his so far) but then it is probably my favourite read of this century but “A Ladder To The Sky” is also very, very good indeed. Be prepared for a real treat of a read and one which I would expect in the upper echelons of my end of year Top 10.

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A Ladder To The Sky will be published in hardback by Doubleday on 9th August 2018. Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential Books – A God In Ruins – Kate Atkinson (2015)

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I thought Kate Atkinson’s previous novel , the Costa Award winning “Life After Life” (2013) was terrific.  I’ve recommended it many times but the feedback I get back can be mixed.  Some readers find the author’s structure off-putting.  Main character Ursula meets with many deaths on her way through the book, reliving parts of her life in different ways in a novel where “practice makes perfect” is an underlying theme.  I personally loved the structure, the rich and memorable cast and the superb sense of the era, especially the years of World War II.

 These years also provide the main focus of this novel, more of a companion piece than any kind of sequel as we revisit the lives of the Todd family through Ursula’s brother, Teddy.  This time, structurally, it’s far more straightforward.  It moves around chronologically but Teddy, unlike his sister in “Life After Life” has one life to live.

 During the war Teddy is a fighter pilot and it is the author’s recreation of his everyday battle for survival which packs a potent punch.  He is a wonderful character and I love the way the author has developed him with this outing.  He really comes alive on the page, especially as a caring grandfather when his war heroics are barely ever discussed by the family.

 I did feel that it was the unusual structure that helped the last book to sizzle and I was concerned initially that this more conventional approach but using some of the same characters might pale in comparison.  It is different but it certainly does not disappoint.  I was totally involved throughout and taken aback by the novel’s depth and richness.  It stands alone from its predecessor and those who like Atkinson’s writing but found its stop-start technique wearying are urged to give this a go.

 Within both of these novels Kate Atkinson has taken pains to remind us that we are experiencing fiction and there is a bit of toying with us as readers to bring this home.  What we have here is a writer in superb control of her craft.  Her next novel, due later this year, will take us in a different direction and it would be good if, in the meantime, I could catch up with her four books featuring detective Jackson Brodie (of which I’ve only read the first so long ago that it will need revisiting). 

 With “A God In Ruins” Kate Atkinson also won the Costa Novel Of The Year.  On the evidence of this pair of celebrated novels she is one of our finest living novelists writing at the height of her powers.

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A God In Ruins was published by Doubleday in 2015. I read the 2016 Black Swan paperback edition.

100 Essential Books – Bookworm: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg 2018)

 

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Thank you, Lucy Mangan. This book has brought me so much pleasure. I have relished every word, laughed out loud and been bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow which has made me late back from tea breaks and almost missing bus stops. I found myself yearning for a “snow day” so I could just stay at home and fully immerse myself in the author’s childhood.

Lucy Mangan truly deserves the title “Bookworm”. Reading, as a child, at every opportunity, eschewing social situations and getting through vast numbers of books makes her a true authority on children’s literature from a child’s perspective. I didn’t think I read as much when I was young as I do now but I realised I must have done as a sizeable number of books Lucy devoured I had also read. She is a few years younger than me but the world of juvenile publishing did not move as fast as it does today and many of the books in our libraries and schools in the 70’s had been published a generation before. I didn’t come from a home with a lot of books and whereas Lucy’s Dad provided her with a regular supply from when she was quite young, my Dad tended to do the same for me with comics. I have two older sisters so much of their abandoned reading material became mine, because as Lucy rightly points out as a child the bookworm will read whatever is available, so my knowledge of books involving characters such as “My Naughty Little Sister“, or set in girls boarding schools or about girls with ponies (the last being my sister Val’s staple reading diet) is probably greater than most of the men who will read this book.

Lucy is lucky enough to still possess her childhood books. She obviously didn’t have a mother so keen to donate “treasures” to jumble sales to either be sold for a few paltry pennies or occasionally bought back by myself.

Her memoir reinforces the importance of libraries. I can still remember the very first library book I borrowed, (it was a picture book version of “Peter And The Wolf” with a yellow cover. I took it out many times) so that experience obviously firmly imprinted itself in my West London mind as much as it did for Lucy on the South of the River in Catford.

Some of the titles alone brought back great memories – “Family From One End Street”, “Tom’s Midnight Garden”, “The Saturdays” “The Phantom Tollbooth”, “The Secret Garden”, “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”, “Lion Witch & The Wardrobe”, The “William” novels were all great favourites with both Lucy and myself. (No mention of a couple of others I was obsessed by “Emil & The Detectives” and “Dr Doolittle”, maybe they were moving out of public favour by Lucy’s time).  She shares her strength of feelings against certain things, she had a limited tolerance of talking animals and fantasy (which saw off both “Babar The Elephant” and Tolkien) and does so in a way which is both stimulating and very funny.

Through the books she read we learn much about her family life which brings in a whole new level of richness into the work. I’m also totally with her on the subject of re-reading, which in my teaching days was often a bugbear for some parents who wanted their children to forge ever onwards to “harder” books. She puts this over masterfully;

“The beauty of a book is that it remains the same for as long as you need it. It’s like being able to ask a teacher or parent to repeat again and again some piece of information or point of fact you haven’t understood with the absolute security of knowing that he/she will do so infinitely. You can’t wear out a book’s patience.”

As well as examining the past she looks to the future and to her own young son, not yet so fussed about reading and announces: “It is my hope that our son will read our amalgamated collection and become the world’s first fully rounded person.” I love that!

Expect perceptive insights on all the major players and books from the period – from the still very popular Enid Blyton (“She was national comfort reading at a time when mental and emotional resources were too depleted to deal with anything more complex”), the religious elements (which also completely passed me by as a child) of CS Lewis (“no child ever has or will be converted to Christianity by reading about Cair Paravel, Aslan, naiads, dryads, hamadryads, fauns and all the rest. If they notice it at all, they are far more likely to be narked than anything else. And they probably won’t notice it at all.”), the development of the first person narrative dating from E Nesbit’s “Story Of The Treasure Seekers” to her 80’s obsession with “Sweet Valley High” (that whole publishing phenomenon passed me by as I was no longer a child by then).  Her thoughts on the joys of reading pile up one after another in this book. I cannot imagine enjoying a book about children’s literature more. It is an essential read for all of us who like to look back and who like to feel we are still young at heart!

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Bookworm was published as a hardback by Square Peg in March 2018 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

100 Essential Books – Ladder Of Years – Anne Tyler (Vintage 1995)

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This is only the second Anne Tyler novel I have ever read.  2015’s “A Spool Of Blue Thread” was my introduction to her work and I described it as “a highly readable, high quality work with bags of appeal.”  I reviewed it under my 100 Essential Books thread and it appeared in my end of year Top 10 at number 3.  Although I haven’t read much by her I do know that she is a writer many readers hold dear for her beautifully written tales of American life.  This book confirms this.

“Ladder Of Years” was her 13th novel and appeared in 1995.  There’s a 1982 copyright at the front of the book which suggests it may have been around in some format for a considerable time before that publication.  Like many of Tyler’s novels it features a family living in the Baltimore area.  The most striking thing about it is how calm and quiet it is as a novel which places it at loggerheads with the dramatic decisions characters make but on this occasion this makes it seem all the more effective.

 Forty year old Delia Grinstead is feeling taken for granted, by her husband, a GP who practises from their home, the same house her father ran his surgery from; by her adolescent children and by other family members.  An infatuation with a younger man reaches a dead end and one day on an extended-family annual beach holiday Delia just walks away along the sands and into a new life.

 We’re never totally sure why she does this other than she fancies a change.  There’s no fireworks and little emotional trauma on show as Delia just knuckles down and begins again somewhere new.  It’s beautifully written, the reader knows how selfish Delia’s act is yet still wills her to succeed.

 The title refers to a metaphor used by one of the older characters who employs a playground slide ladder to convey how we climb up through life, with others following close behind leading to the moment when you have to go over the top and commence the slide downwards – there’s no turning back.

 The introduction of a couple of cats into the narrative caused me momentary stress (in case something bad happened to them) but Vernon and George are great cat characters who enrich the lives of those they meet.  As with “A Spool Of Blue Thread” I couldn’t imagine a book which examines the details of American middle-class family life would have much resonance for me, but I was wrong and I’m not yet sure how Tyler has managed with both offerings to really reel me in.  It could be seen as a simple tale of a female mid-life crisis but it is much richer than that implies.  There’s no gimmicks and no real set pieces here.  When there is a dramatic situation – a confrontation at a family event, Delia’s walking out and last- minute wedding jitters, for example, they are pretty much underplayed for their dramatic potential and it really works.  It is just the quality of the writing and the deftness of characterisation that has me hanging on every word, not wanting it to end and that is what makes it a five star read.

 I actually don’t think that us Brits can fully engage in  quite the same way with feeling that we know these characters, their locations and lives in late twentieth century Baltimore anywhere near as much as her American market would and this also adds to the achievement in winning me over.  I did have some reservations about the ending but then life doesn’t always turn out as we expect, so why should it in fiction?

 Structurally, “The Ladder Of Years” is a simpler novel than “A Spool Of Blue Thread” and I think it may just be behind it in the impression it has made on me but without doubt Anne Tyler scores 2 from 2 for me with five star essential reads.  

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I read the 1996 Vintage paperback edition of “Ladder Of Years”.  It was first published in the UK in 1995 by Chatto & Windus.