History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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It’s always great to see debut novelists on the Man Booker lists. It feels like we have been given a privileged opportunity to be there right from the beginning. The work a debut novelist has to do to see their book in print is often tremendous and all too often first novels vanish making barely a ripple. So I welcome American author Fridlund’s book onto the longlist.

We are in the backwoods of Northern Minnesota, the home of fourteen year old main character Madeline, known as “Linda” but to some at school as “Freak”. She lives with her parents in the remains of a commune, without a great deal of parental intervention and with mainly the tethered dogs for company.

Two things change for Linda. A new teacher invites her to participate in a Schools Challenge for which she chooses the “history of wolves” and a family move opposite her across the lake with Paul, a young child for who Linda begins to babysit. These events provide Linda’s entry into an adult world as she becomes drawn towards both the teacher and the new family’s life. We learn very early on that this leads to the death of a child.

The tale meanders around different times in Linda’s life but it is the main thread of the teenager’s search for belonging and an end to her aching loneliness that is by far the most involving. The warped values of the world she inhabits also very much motivates the adult Linda. It is a very calm book, perhaps surprisingly with its distressing emotive themes but it lacks a little of the build I would look for in a book of this kind. I felt it petering out before the end. Linda’s existence is evocatively created, however, and a number of scenes will stick in my mind for some time but it never fully realised the potential I thought it had in the first few chapters.

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History of Wolves was published by Wiedenfeld & Nicolson in February 2017

 

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The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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Whether American author Colson Whitehead’s novel makes the Man Booker shortlist or not this book is likely to be commercially the biggest seller of the lot, due to its very good word of mouth which is creating an army of devotees and also its raft of American literary prizes including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  Deservedly so? Absolutely!

This is a little gem of a novel which has Barack Obama claiming “terrific” on the cover and was helped up the bestsellers lists by Oprah Winfrey’s enthusiasm.  If Whitehead wins the Man Booker and he must be up there with a very strong chance, he will be the third man of colour in a row following Jamaican Marlon James and American Paul Beatty.  Whitehead’s book is, as far as I am concerned better than these two winners.

It is the story of Cora, who begins the novel as a slave on a plantation in Georgia.  The first section is involving but nothing that we have not read before, well researched from slave accounts.  I felt that I knew where the novel was going.  All this changed with Cora’s escape on the Underground Railroad, which many will know as a network of supporters and safe places which helped escapees in their bid towards freedom.  Whitehead has made this a physical thing in his book, an actual railroad which operates underground.  One character says of it;

“Most people think it’s a figure of speech…….. The Underground.  I always knew better.  The secret beneath us, the entire time.”

 Operating in the book almost like a primitive Hogwarts Express characters emerge from this surreal journey not knowing where they are into Whitehead’s fictional representation of a Southern American location, as if they are Dorothy in Oz or Gulliver on his travels but here the new locations provides a different aspect of the black American experience.

A word being used frequently about this novel is “dazzling”, appropriate enough for the characters emerging from the darkness of the underground system as well as for the tale Whitehead spins for his readers.  Strong characterisation, a rich and imaginative plot, this is a book I found myself slowing down as I got near the end as I didn’t want the experience to finish.

I knew I was going to like this book and bought it in paperback as soon as the longlist was announced.  It was a novel I had earmarked for reading whether it made the lists or not.  I was worried that because I had built it up in my head it would be disappointing (which is how I felt about “The Essex Serpent”).  I certainly was not disappointed on this occasion.  It ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.  Whether the Man Booker judges will, in order to ensure a balance of winners, will favour a female or British author remains to be seen but this would be a deserving winner.

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The Underground Railroad was published in paperback in the UK in June 2017.  It is currently number 53 in Amazon’s Top 100 books and is the number 1 bestseller in their “Metaphysical and Visionary” category.

 

Days Without End- Sebastian Barry (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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Sebastian Barry has already been one of this year’s big literary prizewinners with the Costa Novel and Book Of The Year Awards for this.  I very much liked the story-line and it is impressively written, is selling well and will give the Man Booker judges much food for thought.

 Beginning in the mid nineteenth century Irish emigrant Thomas McNulty, aged around 15, meets the younger John Cole, a boy with Native American heritage.  With tough experiences in their young pasts, poor and road-weary with “the same look of the arse out of his trousers that I had too” the pair strike up a friendship in the difficult adult male environment of Missouri; “We were two woodshavings of humanity in a rough world.”  The boys become female impersonators entertaining miners in a saloon in Daggsville where women are in short supply before enlisting in the military.  Initially hunting down Native Americans they later become caught up in the Civil War.

Written as a present tense account (which is something I’ve grumbled about in the past) this is McNulty’s tale of a relationship which blossoms into love in the most unlikely of circumstances.  This love is at the heart of the book and is portrayed positively and despite these unlikely circumstances, plausibly.  There is a touch of the “Brokebank Mountains” here but the love is underplayed and feels more real as a result.  Mostly, however, this is an adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America.

It’s a personal taste thing but I preferred the sections of the book away from the battlefield with the boys in the business of “entertaining” and functioning as a family with their adopted daughter.  In the army sections I found, yet again, that the present tense narrative style put it a little all on one level, and I wearied at times.  I am niggling a little because I did very much enjoy it and the novel is certainly shortlist worthy but I’m not sure that I would be pushing this big literary prizewinner to scoop the actual award.

Irish novelist Sebastian Barry has won the Costa Book Of The Year on two occasions (also “Secret Scripture” in 2008) and has been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker.  “Days Without End” is his ninth novel, could this be the one to “do the double”?

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Days Without End was published in paperback by Faber & Faber in February 2017.  The hardback edition was first published in October 2016.

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (2017) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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The seventh novel by Pakistan-born London resident Kamila Shamsie, a former Granta Best Of Young British novelist, feels particularly relevant to our world today.  Perhaps more than the other Man Booker longlisted novels I’ve read so far this feels especially for our times, with the most relevance to our modern lives.  Strange then, that this is based upon one of the oldest recorded stories, the Greek myth of Antigone, most famously written as a tragic play by Sophocles in about 442 BC.

I didn’t know the myth beforehand and I’m actually rather glad I didn’t, although it did make me want to seek it out once I’d finished Shamsie’s adaptation.  I went with one of her recommended versions and listened on spoken word CD to another 2017 Man Booker longlisted author Ali Smith who narrates her children’s book “The Story Of Antigone” (2013).  In an interview following the story she says of this source material;

“It’s the kind of story that will always be relevant for all sorts of reasons because some things never change no matter what century we’re in and no matter where we are in history and it is a story about what matters to human beings and how human beings make things meaningful and how we act towards one another and what power is, what it makes us do and how much or how little power human beings really have.”

 I’m not actually going to tell you more about the myth as it will give too much information as to where Shamsie’s plot-line will go.  If you know it, you know it.  If not I don’t want to spoil things for you as developments certainly took me by surprise.  It does involve a chilling attempt to stand up against the authorities.

Shamsie has recast the main characters as a Muslim family from Wembley.  Isma, the oldest daughter begins the novel by travelling to the US to commence a long-delayed Sociology PHD leaving her younger law student sister Aneeka at home and Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz removed from the family.  Isma had been a mother figure to the twins after they were orphaned.  We learn early on that their father had died whilst being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

Isma is attempting to pick up the pieces after family tragedies and the shame and distrust caused.  She has a chance encounter with a family acquaintance, Eammon, son of a British Muslim politician whose career, after setbacks, is in the ascendancy.  On Eamonn’s return to the UK he offers to take a bag of M&M’s to Aneeka setting up a catalogue of events which will lead to tragedy and a startling international incident.

I read very few books as explicitly political as this and did find it difficult to hone in as to what my feelings were or the author’s stance on incidents.  This is because the issues are extremely complex and involves the prejudices of nations, the power of religions and the media.  Shamsie is certainly to be applauded for her bravery in tackling these themes head-on.  The fact that she does it pitch-perfectly in a tale which is brilliantly realised, both unpredictable and chillingly inevitable borders on the extraordinary.  I found it totally compelling to read but harder to always gauge my responses.  Shamsie is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.  This feels like a very important novel for our times and yet has an age-old story as its framework.  Although I wasn’t aware of the relevance to Antigone as I was  reading, it does give the work resonance and great authority.  So here we have it, my first 5 star Man Booker longlist read.  The battle is on…………..

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Home Fire was published by Bloomsbury Circus in August 2017

 

 

Mama Tandoori – Ernest Van Der Kwast (Scribe 2017)

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Dutch author Ernest Van Der Kwast made his breakthrough with this 2010 Netherlands and Italian best-seller translated now into English by Laura Vroomen.  Publishers Scribe have done a great job in the recent past bringing Dutch authors to wider attention- their 2006 publication of Tommy Wieringa’s “Joe Speedboat” is the current Reviewsrevues Book of The Year and here is another strong title.

“Mama Tandoori” is a study of a family with Dutch and Indian parents.  An autobiographical novel which focuses on Ernest’s mother whose outrageous behaviour verges on the monstrous.  She is a woman determined to get her own way as cheaply as possible.  I was initially quite resilient to Van Der Kwast’s fictional account of his childhood whilst reading of a trip to Lourdes with his disabled brother but the novel really began to draw me in when other adult characters were added to the mix. I found myself fascinated by Uncle Sharma who came from a dirt-poor background and was transported by a visiting outdoor cinema into dreams of becoming a movie star, which came to be realised. From here things all fall into place and I seemed to appreciate more the wider family dynamics.  Mother herself became a more rounded character in my mind when running alongside her competing son on the athletics track and proving to be too nervous to pin on his race number.

There is no doubt that this character can be mean but this meanness does become more appealing in a tragi-comic way.  Her ploy to get a fitted kitchen out of her husband’s dying grandmother is shocking but you cannot help but admire the gall of this character.  The humour is ramped up by the contrast between the narrator’s unemotionally “wooden-hipped” Dutch relatives and the fiery passion and determination of the Indian women.  His mother will both shock you and win you over in laugh-out-loud moments.

Van Der Kwast writes in a likeable, easy style which makes the book feel highly visual and enjoyable.  It has certainly made me keen to read his take on the Italians in his Dolomites-set family saga “The Ice Cream Makers” also published as a Scribe paperback.

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Mama Tandoori is published on 10th August 2017  by Scribe.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

 

 

The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Picador 2017)

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A novel full of poignant moments and a sense of yearning at a time of great change.  Austrian born Seethaler’s novel is quietly impressive.  It begins in 1937 when 17 year old Franz is sent by his mother from their Austrian Lake District home to Vienna to work in a small tobacconist’s shop.

Here Franz begins to learn about life from the merchandise and the shop’s aromas, from the newspapers he reads each day and from the customers.  These include an aging Sigmund Freud with whom Franz strikes up an unlikely friendship.

But the times are a changing and anti-semitism makes a bond with the Jewish Freud increasingly difficult and the one-legged tobacconist who Franz works for seems a threat to the authorities.  Franz, initially bewildered by the mysteries of love and an obsession for a worldly Bohemian girl finds he has more difficult things to contemplate.

The very likeable Franz is the heart of this novel.  Everything is underplayed, there are few big dramatic scenes yet the drama and turmoil of the times is palpable.  It is clear that for the people in Franz’ circle things can never be the same again.

I like novels where young characters attempt to make sense of the adult world and in Franz’s Vienna there is little that makes sense.  His retreats to analysing his dreams is both as a result of his meetings with Freud and an attempt to fathom out his existence where neither the real nor dream world seem quite right.

Robert Seethaler has written five novels.  His last “The Whole Life” was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.  This, translated by Charlotte Collins, with its quiet tenderness may slip under the awards radar but it is of lasting appeal.

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The Tobacconist was published by Picador in 2017.

The Brazilian – Rosie Millard (Legend Press 2017) – A Chick-Lit From A Male Point Of View Review

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In a Victoria Wood tribute I watched recently I saw for the umpteenth time “The Shoe Shop Sketch” and I laughed at every single line, as always, feeling almost overwhelmed by laughter at the end.  Such a clever writer.  It got me wondering what would have happened if Victoria had followed the lead of chums Celia Imrie and Julie Walters and written a novel.  Would she have gone for comedy and would it even have worked?  Would it have been possible to sustain her brand of humour (which I find very funny) over the entire length of a novel.  To do this is notoriously difficult……

 

Legend Press invited me to read Rosie Millard’s second comic novel “The Brazilian”.  Rosie is a journalist and as BBC Arts correspondent has been on the TV herself a fair few times so eases herself into that group of women novelists that includes Dawn French,  Fern Britton, Celia Imrie,  Meera Syal and Helen Lederer who we feel we know something about already due to a public persona and “celebrity status”.  So long as they are written by the person named on the cover (not Katie Price then), I’m really quite interested in reading them.  In fact, it was a celebrity moment, a television appearance on the fairly ghastly sounding “Celebrity Five Go To Lanzarotte” in which Rosie took part which provided the inspiration for this novel.

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Rosie Millard

Rosie has cleverly incorporated the characters from her first novel about North London neighbours in “The Square” (2015) into a holiday setting, rather in the way that comedy classic “Are You Being Served?” did when it was expanded into a movie, but here with much better results.  I read and reviewed “The Square” and enjoyed it as a North London comedy of (bad) manners which evolved from the location so I initially felt that uprooting some of these upmarket existences felt like a bit of a risk.  I said of the first novel; “Most of the women are ghastly and the men not worthy of any of the female lustful attentions” but that certainly doesn’t diminish its comic potential and by opening it all out into a relaxed holiday setting the women can become more ghastly and the men less worthy.  Over the years much situation comedy has indeed focused on ghastly women and inept men.

The location for all this is Ibiza.  A couple of The Square residents have been chosen to take part in a daytime reality show “Ibiza (Or Bust)”; there’s a holiday for Jayne, Patrick and their son where a babysitter is needed and with boyfriends and wives making their way over to the island it takes about eight characters out of “The Square”.  I’m sorry that recently rich lottery winner Tracey has only a bit part to play here.  Central character this time round is Jayne who during her family holiday becomes more monstrous, self-centred and devious than in the previous novel.

The title refers to both a character from the Reality Show and a certain waxing Jayne has in preparation for her holiday.  The TV show aspect gives it more structure and ensures it builds towards a climax rather than lose momentum (which I feel “The Square” was a little guilty of).  There’s some new characters to spice things up.  I must admit I like my humour a little warmer than what is on display here but the prickly comic situations are enjoyable enough although I didn’t laugh out loud.

The cover compares Rosie Millard to Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen and Arnold Bennett but that’s more fitting of the socially mannered “The Square”.  If we’re looking for a classic comic comparison I’d be more likely to go with E F Benson and his monstrous characters Mapp and Lucia who gave him enough comic potential and staying power to last six novels.  I think there’s still potential for the author to go further with these characters.  Taking them back to “The Square” with their Ibiza experience behind them could pay dividends.  All in all, although I preferred the set-up of the first novel I think that “The Brazilian” is better structured, the humour is more sustained and therefore a more satisfying sequel.

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The Brazilian is published on 14th June 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

Crimson & Bone- Marina Fiorato (Hodder & Stoughton 2017)

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I really enjoyed Marina Fiorato’s last novel “The Double Life Of Kit Kavanagh” which was a vibrant account of an extraordinary gender-challenging woman who, away from the author’s fictional account of her life, became the first female Chelsea Pensioner in tribute to her distinguished military service.  Here Marina Fiorato returns to purely imaginative historical fiction, taking her inspiration for her main character the young woman portrayed in John Everett Millais’ painting “The Bridesmaid”.

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Fiorato recasts this woman as Annie Stride, a prostitute whom we encounter at the beginning about to recreate the recent suicide of her only friend by jumping off Waterloo Bridge.  She is stopped by a passer-by, Francis Maybrick Gill, a Pre-Raphaelite artist who nutures Annie as his model and muse.  There is a simmering tension throughout as Annie attempts to put her miserable past behind her whilst something is askew with her relationship with the artist.

The plot moves from Central London to Florence as Gill takes Annie with him for further inspiration.  His main theme is the fallen woman throughout history and Annie finds herself his Mary Magdalene.  There’s admittedly a slight dip in interest when the novel first moves to Italy but the author makes up for that with an excellently handled last third.

When I moved into my new house I was delighted to find a Camelia in the garden, but after this I’m not so sure as the flower here plays a slightly menacing role, becoming overly dominant in Annie’s new life, from its cloying smell to the artist’s obsession with Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame Aux Camelias”.

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Plot, characterisation and atmosphere are handled here so well that this book confirms Marina Fiorato’s reputation as a strong historical story-teller.  She gets across the darkness and obsession present throughout the novel very well indeed and never overplays her hand, avoiding the melodrama it could so easily have become.  Like the best historical fiction, the history is incorporated seamlessly creating a seductive yet chilling tale.

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Crimson and Bone is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 18th May 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

Nudge-Book issue 92- Now Available

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The latest edition of the magazine I am delighted to be a contributor for has its latest issue available now.  And it has had a name change!  It’s still nb but that now stands for nudge-book to tie it in with its associated website (www.nudge-book.com) where I am the “Community Voice” for the Book Hugger section.

You may think, oh here he goes, pushing a magazine he is writing for and okay, I hold my hands up, but I was reading nb long before I was a contributor and it is the only UK magazine out there for readers and reading groups so it is well worth supporting.  In this issue we say goodbyes to our editor and publisher, Guy Pringle, who has done a fantastic job in ensuring such a magazine can survive in this digital age and after 17 years at the helm has decided to start his well-earned retirement.  We are all sure that it will continue to go from strength to strength under Mel Mitchell who has also worked tirelessly on the publication for a number of years.

If you head over to the nudge bookshop you can purchase a copy (or take out a subscription).  This edition has features a Crime Fiction Supplement and much else besides.  There’s an interview with Graeme Macrae Burnet whose Man Booker shortlisted “His Bloody Project” I so loved.  There’s an interview with Clare Mackintosh who became the fastest selling new crime writer in 2015 with “I Let You Go”.  Her latest, “I See You” is available as a Recommended Read and is available free for nb readers from the nudge website (you just pay p&p).

There’s a couple of exclusives from me as well.  You can find my interview with Charlie Lovett whose “Lost Book Of The Grail” and “The Bookman’s Tale” both delighted me this year and there is a feature on TV adaptations.  You can also find out the NB books of the year as voted for by readers.  Just one spoiler here as I am so delighted that my five star rated “Owl Song At Dawn” by Emma Claire Sweeney was voted the Book Hugger Book of The Year.

There does seem to be more content in each edition of nb, so if you haven’t seen it for a while give it a go.  The directory at the back of the magazine features reviews of a whole range of books which might have escaped your notice.  If your “To Be Read” list is looking a little lacklustre and out of date then let nudge books give you a nudge…………….

Ginny Moon – Benjamin Ludwig (HQ 2017)

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I tend to steer clear of child neglect and abuse in my fiction choices yet there was something about this American author’s debut that had me interested right from the blurb.  It begins four years after the neglect of autistic teenager Ginny who has now settled with a “Forever” family .  With adopted mum having her first baby and Ginny discovering the whereabouts of her birth mother the uneasy balance topples.

Narrated by Ginny over nearly four months with exact timings (an obsession with time being part of her condition) this is certainly a novel of an outsider attempting to make sense of a world where people are unreliable and use expressions which confuse and bewilder.  Ginny, very much the life-breath of Ludwig’s tale, finds herself having to misbehave, adapt the truth and steal in order to put what she believes to be wrong, right. It’s a tale which is both heartwarming and alienating, funny and sad.  Ludwig whose motivation was his own adopted autistic teenager clearly shows how the best intentions can be wrongly interpreted with potentially tragic results.

I was captivated by Ginny and her tale, but that does not mean that the reader will not experience frustration nor not be shocked by her challenging behaviour.  She does make a superb, flawed narrator.  I’m not sure how Harper Collins would want to market this.  A Young adult/teen market seems plausible yet like Mark Haddon’s crossover “Curious Incident Of The Dog..” it could work better with our adult experience looking back at what for us all are the bewildering adolescent years, let alone for someone with Ginny’s challenges.  This is a strong debut.

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Ginny Moon is published in May 2017 by HQ.  Many thanks to Real Readers and the publishers for the advance review copy.