100 Essential Books – The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021)

I was looking forward to reading this.  It is an extraordinary debut novel from gay black American author Robert Jones which could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.

It is a historical work set in the Halifax family’s cotton plantation in Vicksburg, Mississippi and over the years the slave plantation is a location I have visited quite a few times in fiction but I don’t think that many have made so much of an impression upon me as this.

In a barn live and work two teenagers, Samuel and Isaiah, who have become lovers.  Set apart from both the rest of the slaves and the members of the white household but observed by both they are true outsiders.  The response to these boys searching for happiness in such a grim existence is commented on by other characters, often in sections that relate to Books of the Bible.  They are also observed by a chorus of ancestral voices who powerfully and poetically comment on proceedings. 

The boys, unbeknown to them, have been part of an economic experiment by the white master, Paul Halifax, who has put them in an environment of hard physical work away from the cotton-picking to make studs of them, to provide him with a strong stock of future slaves.  The problem is, the boys are only interested  in one another.  Along comes another slave Amos, granted rights of preaching who uses his sermons to turn the slaves against the boys known to all as “The Two Of Them”.  Others in the plantation cannot comprehend what Amos is against thinking that happiness should be taken wherever it is possible to find it.  Samuel and Isaiah’s combustible situation is exacerbated by the sexually frustrated white mistress and her son returned from a “liberal” education up North.

The plot, in its bare bones here, seems a tad melodramatic, but oh my, how well Jones brings it alive, developing characters quickly and effectively and by having these two young men at the centre of a love story which feels bound to be ultimately tragic.

Amongst this Jones also superbly intersperses tales from previous generations- of the plantation’s ancestors, of plunder, of slave ships encompassing the black American history to this point into one superb novel.

When reading this it was a comment I had seen by Marlon James which kept coming to mind.  He said of this book; “The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel should do, and can do.  That shuffling sound you hear is Morrison, Baldwin and Angelou whooping and hollering both in pride and wonder.” 

What a marvellous thing to say about another author’s book but it is so appropriate.  And this is a debut novel!  At the end Robert Jones Jnr acknowledges hundreds of people by name, those black writers, educators, public figures, musicians, performers, friends who have inspired him, an awe-inspiring roll-call which might have seemed over the top if Jones did not have the goods to deliver.  With this enthralling, heart-breaking, poetic, challenging, very accessible yet difficult novel he certainly has.  The only thing I am not totally on board with is the cover which has a self-published self-help book vibe about it but certainly do not judge this by that. It is possible that I may have already read my Book of The Year.

The Prophets was published by Quercus in the UK in hardback on 5th January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2020 – Part One (10-6)

It’s time to begin to put this strange old year to rest by having a look back to see which books made the greatest impression upon me in 2020.  This was a year when more of us turned to reading as a means to escape from what was going on in our everyday lives.  My Top 10 is not just based upon books published this year. (3 out of the 10 were, which is the same proportion as last year), if I read it during 2020 it is up for inclusion.

This year I read 68 books which is certainly up on last year where I slumped down to 56 but mid 60’s is generally the figure so it is not up considerably especially considering the length of lockdown and the time I had to spend working from home this year.  Some of that time I was too pre-occupied to really get into my reading, which is something we have also heard time and time again this year.  I have read more 5* reads this year, 13, in fact, which means that some of my five star reads will miss out on a Top 10 placing, with 36 4* and 19 3*.  Gender-wise, my Top 10 is showing a win for the women as last year’s 60-40 split is reversed.  There are 2 non-fiction titles (both autobiographical) amongst the list and two of the authors have featured in previous year Top 10’s.

Right, here is the first part of the list, numbers 10-6.  If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I’m really prompting you to find out more about) just click on the title.

10. Such A Fun Age- Kiley Reid  (Bloomsbury Circus 2020) (Read and reviewed in December)

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I did say about this book ” I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year” and here is the proof  with this being the only 2020 debut novel in the list.  It is a book which deals with big issues with warmth and humanity and great characterisation.  It has just been issued in paperback in the UK and is currently hovering outside the Top 100 in Amazon’s chart.  I’m still expecting it to be a big seller going into 2021 in this format.  It feels contemporary, commercial and literary which seems to me to be a winning combination.

9. Truth Be Told – Kia Abdullah (HQ 2020) – Read and reviewed in August.

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The best new thriller I read this year.  This novel, which has issues of consent at its centre had me finding places to read away from everyone at work during lunchtimes, so can be seen as a perfect book for self-isolation!  I found I was using my hand to cover up text I hadn’t read on the page in case it gave something away too soon! This is Kia Abdullah’s second novel.  In 2021 I will certainly seek out her 2019 debut “Take It Back”.

8. The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles (Vintage 1969) – Read and reviewed in July

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I treated myself to a new copy of this book which I first read aged 18 and which had a place on my bookshelves ever since when I spent a day in Lyme Regis in the summer of 2019.  Knowing I wasn’t going anywhere in 2020 I treated myself to a re-read just to put myself back into Fowles’ depiction of this Devon town in the nineteenth century.  This was one of those books which I encountered at just the right time of my life for it to make a huge impression.  I have read it a number of times since my teenage years but probably not for a couple of decades.  I said of it this time “It is a very intelligent work which does make demands of the reader and on this re-reading I must admit it does occasionally seem a little too clever for its own good (perhaps that was also true of the me who read this many years ago!) and occasionally a little inaccessible.” It still very much deserves its place in my Top 10 but not right towards the top which I might have expected when I started to re-read it this summer.

7. Mama’s Boy – Dustin Lance Black (John Murray 2019) (Read in August, reviewed in September)

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Screenwriter, Oscar-winner, Activist and husband to Olympic Diver Tom Daley revisits his past focusing on his relationship with his extraordinary mother.  She survived through sheer determination never letting disability and pain from a childhood bout of polio grind her down.  She sought support through the Mormon Church which caused conflict in the young Dustin Lance Black who knew from an early age he would never be accepted by the Church and perhaps by his family because of his sexuality.  I said of it “at times I felt tearful, angry, baffled, delighted the list goes on and this is why this book ticks every box for how a memoir should be written.  Relationships are complex and this illustrates that perfectly.”

6. Hungry – Grace Dent (Mudlark 2020) – Read and reviewed in November

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This was the pick of the 2020 published books I read.  It works brilliantly as a memoir on two levels -firstly, it catalogues the author’s relationship with food growing up and to read about food seems to transport me back there more successfully than a time machine would and like the previous title it’s a beautifully conveyed record of a family relationship, here especially with her father who begins to slip away with dementia.  It is also laugh-out-loud funny throughout.  I said of it “I haven’t enjoyed a food-based memoir as much since Nigel Slater’s “Toast (which has made #3 on my Top 10 list on two occasions) and like that book it is the people fuelled by the food who really are memorable.

Next Post : The Top 5

100 Essential Books – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018)

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I’ve got round to another of the books I highlighted in my 2019 What I Should Have Read Post. This is a major prize-winner picking up the Carnegie Medal for Outstanding Adult Fiction, also the Stonewall Prize and gained prestigious shortlist nods for the Pulitzer Prize and US National Book Award. In the UK it has remained fairly under the radar, the paperback (which I read) was published in 2019 but that still didn’t lift this book to the commercial recognition it deserves. (Amazon currently has it as #2727 in Literary Fiction with a 4.4 rating from 509 reviews).

Two parallel narratives with one set in mid/late 1980’s Chicago and the other in Paris in 2015 with a handful of characters who feature in both. In the Chicago section the Boystown area is being decimated by the AIDS virus and Fiona is losing those she loved. The novel begins with the memorial for her brother Nico whose lifestyle was rejected by his family causing an irreparable rift between Fiona and her parents as she cannot cope with his lover and friends being excluded from saying goodbye.

In 2015, Fiona, now a mother herself, is searching for her missing daughter last known to be a member of a religious cult in the US before a sighting of her is flagged up in Paris. The Fiona in the later narrative is still clinging to the events of thirty years before which has affected her ability to parent. She is a flawed yet very real character.

In the eighties narrative it is her friend Yale who is central. In a relationship with activist and magazine publisher Charlie. Yale is far more conservative, working in funding for art and following a tip off from Fiona regarding her great-aunt’s collection seeks the acquisition which would make both Yale and the gallery he works for names.

I really enjoyed both plot lines (with a preference for the earlier narrative) which are superbly handled but the strength is really the relationships between the characters. The AIDS crisis is pushing them together as much as it is tearing them apart and the repercussions of this are ever-present in the later narrative and that is why this is such an excellent work.

You will find yourself invested in these characters, you will laugh with them, be totally frustrated by their actions as well as egging them on and will cry with them and for them and for all that to happen convincingly as far as I am concerned everything needs to be top-notch and here it is. Expect me to be recalling this book in my end of the year round-ups. I thoroughly recommend it.

Rebecca Makkai is a straight woman and there could have been potential criticism in this current climate of her immersing herself in a story which is not hers to tell, which should be the province of a gay male writer, especially with so much talk about appropriation but the fact that this has won a major LGBTQ literary award with The Stonewall Prize shows that this is not an issue. This is a novel for everyone, for those whose lives were touched by the events of the time where they will be brought back with chilling clarity, for those aware of them in some degree and perhaps even more importantly for those who were not even born then. It wasn’t easy reading about a killer virus whilst in lockdown due to another killer virus and I really did feel quite purged by the end but with the sense that I had received a tremendous reading experience. Rebecca Makkai has published three novels before this. I would certainly imagine this to be her masterwork to date but I will definitely be looking out for her other titles.

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The Great Believers was published in the UK by Fleet in 2018. I read the 2019 paperback edition.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2019 – The Top 5

Right, let’s crack on with this.  Here is the rest of the countdown.

5. The Meaning Of Night – Michael Cox (2006) (Read and reviewed in July)

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Amazingly the only book I re-read this year, just a couple of years ago I had read enough re-reads to give them their own separate Top 10 but I cannot ignore this book and so my Book Of The Year from 2007 makes it into the Top 5 for this year.  It is a strange one, I read it and totally love it but after I finished it the events in the novel seem to rapidly fade from my memory and I struggle to remember what it was about even when I can remember books I enjoyed much less in greater detail.  This has happened twice which makes me think there is some kind of ethereal quality to this which causes it to dissipate once finished.  It’s a great Victorian revenge novel and I said of it “On completion the feeling was of total satisfaction for a high quality reading experience. This novel does seem to have faded from public consciousness but I can’t help feeling that a sensitive tv or film adaptation could bring it back to the top of bestsellers lists.” Maybe that will happen in 2020.

4. Shadowplay – Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker 2019) (Read in December not yet reviewed)

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I highlighted this in my earlier 2019- What I Should Have Read post and managed to squeeze it in before the end of the year.  A full review of this will follow but this is a splendid historical novel, shortlisted for Best Novel at the Costas, with Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula the main character and here part of a long-lasting love triangle with actress Ellen Terry and actor and theatre impresario Sir Henry Irving.

3. Sanditon – Jane Austen and Another Lady (Corgi 1975) (Read and reviewed in December)

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I can’t say I’ve ever been tempted to read a novel which has been finished by someone else after the original author had died before completion, particularly one that was completed 150 years later.  This was all changed by the ITV adaptation which was one of this year’s television highlights as far as I was concerned and a recommendation from my friend and colleague Louise who felt I should read how it should have ended (well how “another lady” wanted it to end anyway).  I always thought the joins between the two authors would be obvious but I thought this was done seamlessly and ended up enjoying this more than when I re-read “Pride And Prejudice” a couple of years back.

2. Little – Edward Carey (Gallic 2018) (Read and Reviewed in June)

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Another splendid historical novel with that added bit of quirkiness which I so often find appealing.  This is a fictionalised account of the early life of Madame Tussaud.  Punctuated throughout with little pencil drawings which adds much to the experience.  I said of this “Through a first-person narrative Carey has created an enthralling character I will probably remember forever.  Written with gusto and an eccentric energy “Little” will not be beaten down however bad circumstances get.  There’s a naivety and optimism which fuels this novel- she is certainly no “Little Nell” yet the skill of storytelling here will suggest comparisons to Charles Dickens.”

1.Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (Hutchinson 2018) (Read and reviewed in April)

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This sublime account of the later years of Truman Capote and an act of literary betrayal towards his friends was always going to be in with a strong shot of being at the summit this year.  Debut author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s position was further cemented when I went to see her talk about this book at this year’s Isle Of Wight Literary Festival following its publication in paperback.  I said of 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.”  I can’t remember ever falling for a book written in the third person (by a chorus of the betrayed women) but here it worked just brilliantly.

So Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott joins my Hall Of Fame for producing the book which has given me the most pleasure this year.  She becomes the first American author to do since 2014.   Here is my list of my favourite books going back to 2008.

2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)

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 2020!

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2019- Part One (10-6)

Even though we’re not quite at the end of the year I now know that I am unlikely to finish the book I am currently reading so it’s time to look back again to the 10 books which made the most impression on me during the year.  These are not necessarily published this year (just 3 out of the 10 were) if I read it this year then it was up for inclusion.  The total number of books I finished in 2019 is 56, which is down on previous years where I usually hit the mid to late 60’s mark, apart from the golden year of 2016 when I read 80.  I’m not sure why this figure is down so this year probably due to a change of commitments.  Out of those 56 nine of them I classed as five star reads which nicely fills up most of my Top 10 places, the spread of the other star ratings is 28 at 4*,15 3* and 4 at 2* (didn’t have any two star reads last year where the spread was (12/32/22)- I must have been feeling a bit stingier this year.

It does seem like quite a bit of my reading has been books which I missed out in 2018, obviously a bit of a vintage year as 50% of the titles were published then.  Gender wise the men have pushed ahead with a 60-40 split putting an end to last year’s perfect balance.  Nobody makes the list more than once this year and there are two authors who are no strangers to my end of year Top 10.  It does seem, however, and perhaps it is no surprise given the state of the world currently, that for much of 2018 I have been rooted in the past as all of the fiction choices are set in earlier times with a significant chunk (4) being set in the Victorian era or earlier.  Right, let’s get on with the list.  The full reviews for each title can be found be clicking on the link.

10. The Library Book -Susan Orlean (Atlantic 2019)  (Read and reviewed in August)

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My non-fiction pick of the year is this extremely memorable book which works both as a love letter towards libraries and their continued importance and as a true crime work where the author explores the fire which destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986.  It wasn’t just because I work in libraries that I found this work so inspirational although it was one of the reasons behind me applying for (and getting) a promotion.  Susan Orlean reinforces everything I believe about libraries although the systems in place in the UK seem decidedly impoverished compared to the USA.  I said “The book itself was inspired by Orlean’s memories of going to a public library with her mother when she was a child and them bonding over their piles of chosen books. This seems to me a valuable inspiration for a fascinating work.”

9.Things In Jars – Jess Kidd (Canongate 2019) (Read and reviewed in March)

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I’m up to date with Jess Kidd having read all three of her novels and this marks her first time in my end of year Top 10 with her best book yet.  This built on the supernatural elements which have been present in all her works yet with its nineteenth century setting it seemed to work better here than it has in the past.  I said of this “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.”

8. Bridge Of Clay – Markus Zusak (Doubleday 2018) (Read and reviewed in July)

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We had to wait years for it to arrive but Australian author Zusak manages to get his follow up publication to my 2008 Book of The Year, “The Book Thief” into my Top 10.  I would have thought that a publication from an author of a modern classic after a lengthy wait would have been a major literary event but it seemed to creep under the radar somewhat when it arrived in hardback last year and this year in paperback.  That made me initially a little anxious but I needn’t have been.  I said “Its chatty, scattered narrative actually masks the emotional depth of the content.  It was only looking back as I neared the end that I realised how much I knew about the characters’ lives and how involved I had become, a testament to a great novel.” I read a library copy and then had to go out and buy it to have it readily on hand for a re-read.

7.The House Of Impossible Beauties – Joseph Cassara (Oneworld 2018) (Read in July, reviewed in August)

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2018 was the year when the New York Drag Balls of the late 70’s and 80’s went mainstream in the UK thanks to TV series such as “Pose” and “Rupaul’s Drag Race” and at least a couple of novels of which this was the best.  In my review I compared it to what else was out there (as well as the documentary “Paris Is Burning”, available on Netflix, from where Cassara’s characterisations are developed) and concluded “Perhaps more than “Pose” it shows the struggles in terms of coping with discrimination, poverty, prostitution and mortality but like the television series it is all done with great humanity and compassion and more than a fair share of glitter.”

6. Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale  (Tinder 2018) (Read in February, reviewed in March)

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This marks British author Patrick Gale’s fourth appearance in my end of year Top 10’s out of the nine books of his I have read which must mean that he has settled into being one of my most favourite authors.  Previous end of year positions have been 4th for “Facts Of Life” (1995) in 1996, 9th for “Rough Music” (2000) in 2001 and 6th for “A Perfectly Good Man” (2012) in 2013.  His latest matches this position and I can’t help but note that the books of his I really like I miss out on at the time and catch up with in the following year.  This has the most modern setting of any of the books on this year’s list with one narrative strand actually being set in the present (gulp!) with the main character contemplating his past whilst receiving treatment for cancer, but it was the past that Gale really drew me into with his story of Eustace, the young gifted cellist.  I said “I fell in love with the boy growing up in his parents’ old people’s home in Weston-Super-Mare in the 1970s with ambitions to be a musical great if only his mother and father and society will let him realise his dreams. It is haunting, nostalgic and sensitive and has all the qualities to make it an essential read.”

Find out the Top 5 in my next post.

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.