We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff – Isabel Waidner (2019)

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Fewer novelists have chosen to set their novels on the Isle Of Wight than might be expected. Perhaps the first that comes to mind is “England, England” by Julian Barnes (1998) where the whole island is transformed into a theme park. Isabel Waidner’s novel is set largely in Ryde with Shanklin and Sandown Zoo getting a mention.

Despite living on the island I did not know anything about this publication until I saw it at #39 in the Daily Telegraph’s Top 50 Books Of The Year. Its description as a “garrulous, magical realist and Brexit-tinged comedy set in a “no star” hotel on the Isle Of Wight” soon got me searching it out on Amazon. Published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe, an experimental company, which explores different modes of publishing, Waidner’s book is printed on demand and as it’s getting good critical reviews this demand should be there for it.

Waidner’s Isle Of Wight is not one I actually recognise, in fact, I can identify more with the cut-price Disneyland model of Barnes’ satirical novel but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. I can’t imagine, however, it will feature highly on the island’s tourist promotions and can’t see it being for sale at Sandown Zoo, which is somewhat savaged through a series of Trip Advisor Reviews at the end of the novel.

The author focuses on the higher than average levels of unemployment and the very lowest end of the tourism industry exploiting migrant workers to tell the story of Shae and the narrator, two non-binary workers concerned with life post-Brexit, citizenship, keeping the hotel guests from leaving without paying and gutting squid to use the ink in the kitchens. They are also concerned about polar bears, space travel and literary leopards in paranoid, trippy sequences which lead them to bizarre actions, such as covering the hotel carpet with grey paint.

I wanted Waidner’s forthright prose style to win me over but I do think the reader needs to know what is going on and sadly for much of this I didn’t. Boosted with references from books such as Jasbir Puar’s 2006 work “Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism In Queer Times” the whole thing felt like an in-joke which this reader was being excluded from. I did think, when reading the Telegraph thumbs-up that I would be representative of the market for this book, but I’m not. It didn’t leave me cold because Isabel Waidner can write, I found the prose seductive and at just over 100 pages it’s a short, fast read but unfortunately, and surprisingly, given what I expected when I clicked the “Buy It Now” button on Amazon it is not for me.

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We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff was published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe in 2019.

Shadow Play – Joseph O’ Connor (2019)

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One of my selections of books I  highlighted in my  2019 What I Should Have Read post which I just managed to fit in before the end of the year where it ended up in 4th place in my  Books Of The Year.  Short-listed for a Costa Award (losing in the final judgement to Jonathan Coe) but victorious in the Irish Book Awards Eason Novel of the year this is Irish writer Joseph O’Connor’s 9th novel. I’ve not read his celebrated work “Star Of The Sea” (nor anything else by him) but I will be looking out for this to read this year as I feel I’ve made a real discovery here.

This is a beautifully written historical work which represents pretty much a love triangle between actor and impresario Sir Henry Irving, founder of the Lyceum Theatre, hugely popular actress Ellen Terry and “Dracula” author Bram Stoker. As well as his using various narrative techniques as in Stoker’s most famous work O’Connor drops seeds of inspiration throughout showing how Stoker came up with his iconic creation. Largely unknown as a writer in his lifetime, Stoker earnt his living as general manager and dogsbody in Irving’s theatre, attempting to find time to write against his employer’s wishes. All three characters are a little obsessed with one another and this proves fascinating reading.

Also fascinating is spotting the allusions to “Dracula”, some obvious (characters called Mina and Harker) and some more subtle and beautifully interwoven into the text.

It is the quality of the writing that makes this book a joy. O’Connor is good with multi-sensory lists which build such evocative pictures of the time. The narrative touches in at different parts of their lives and an undercurrent to all are the crimes of Jack The Ripper.

The main narrative thrust ends with the death of Irving but then there is a Coda which I initially didn’t warm to feeling it unnecessary but this change of atmosphere achieved here really drew me in and was so beautifully written that I felt close to tears at the end. For an author to change the pace and mood of the piece feels brave, for it to work so well is a real achievement.

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Shadow Play was published in hardback by Harvill Secker in 2019. The paperback is due in May 2020.

Looking Back….Looking Forward

I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, early on in the year I post ten titles that I am looking forward to being published and at the beginning of the next year I see how many I have read.  I’ve discovered that other things take priority and these titles often go on the back burner, my best score for this was in 2017 when I read four of the ten.  Let’s see how I got on this year.

The Library Book – Susan Orlean (Atlantic) – Read it and really enjoyed it.  Made it into the Top 10 of my Books Of 2019.

What Hell Is Not – Alessandro D’Avenia (Oneworld) – Some books seem to have a big pre-publication buzz and then you never actually come across them again.  This was certainly the case with this a translation of an Italian best-seller which I didn’t even encounter again during the year.

Out Of The Woods – Luke Turner (W&N) – I know this sounds petty but the publishers turned me down for a review copy of this via Netgalley which immediately puts my hackles up and made me decide not to bother with it.  So beware publishers!  This also happened this year with “Queenie” by Candice Carty-Williams and I’m still holding out from reading that one too.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf – Marlon James (Hamish Hamilton) – I keep picking this up in the library but it’s such a big book and I do struggle with fantasy that I’ve never got round to borrowing it, but I could very easily one day get round to reading it.

Zuleikha – Guzel Yahkina (Oneworld) – This is a debut that I think I have probably missed out on by not reading.

Narrow Land – Christine Dwyer-Hickey (Atlantic) – This was shortlisted in the An Post Irish Book Awards Eason novel of the year which was won by another of my Top 10 Book choices “Shadowplay” by Joseph O’ Connor.  I’ll still be looking out for this.

New Daughters Of Africa – Edited by Margaret Busby (Myriad) – I think I should try and read more anthologies in 2020 especially as I missed out on this in 2019.

Confessions Of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins (Viking) – Read it.  I enjoyed it and rated it a four star read.  There was good publicity for this book and I think it would have received very healthy sales for a debut.

Big Sky – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) – I knew I would be taking on a bit challenge to get to this stage in the Jackson Brodie series having only read one and needing to read books in order.  I do have the first of this series “Case Histories” lined up as my next re-read so maybe I will get round to this one day.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Fleet) – Read it and rated it four stars.  Didn’t impress me quite as much as his terrific  “The Underground Railroad” as a novel but it is still a chilling, impressive read we are promised a tale of a 1960’s set novel of two black boys sent to a reform school, based on a hideous real-life institution which operated in Florida for over a century.

Well, three out of ten, that’s 10% better than last year and only 10% behind my all time best.

2019 had its highs and lows.  I’ve been promoted at work which might have a slight influence on how much time I have for reading and reviewsrevues.com.  I started the new job today.   The low certainly came on the very last day of the year when my lovely cat Tara, aged 11, was put to sleep after the vet discovered a large tumour in her intestines.  I feel that Tara has been a part of reviewsrevues as she has so often been by my side when I have been on the computer putting the reviews together and she features sat on my lap whilst I am reading in the photo on the introductory post.  I do have another cat, Archie, who is Tara’s son, who was obsessed with his mum and is just a little bewildered by her absence.  It was not a very nice way to round off 2019.

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But looking forward to 2020.  Here are the titles that I have highlighted that will be out in the coming months which hopefully I will get to read during the year:

Swimming In The Dark – Tomasz Jedrowski (Bloomsbury) Due 6th Feb. Written in English by a Polish author described as a major literary debut about the forbidden love between two young men on opposite sides of the political divide receiving much praise from Edmund White and Sebastian Barry.

Here We Are – Graham Swift (Scribner) Due 27th Feb. I’ve not read Booker winner Graham Swift before but I will be very tempted by his latest set in 1959 on Brighton Pier.  I like the idea of books set on piers, I was impressed by “Murmuration” by Robert Lock (2018) which featured a seaside pier in different points of time.  Here we are promised “a masterly piece of literary magicianship which pulls back the curtain on the human condition.”

Actress – Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape) Due 20th Feb- Another Booker Prize winner.  I’ve read and really enjoyed  this Irish author’s “The Green Road” (2015).  This, her 10th novel focuses on a mother/daughter relationship where the mother is a famous actress.  The blurb has completely won me over “Brilliantly capturing the glamour of post-war American and the shabbiness of 1970s Dublin, Actress is an intensely moving, disturbing novel about mothers and daughters and the men in the lives.  A scintillating examination of the corrosive nature of celebrity“.  This sounds just the sort of book that makes it into my end of year Top 10.

Animals Of Lockwood Manor – Jane Healey (Mantle) Due 5th March.  Another debut which sounds quirky enough to get me interested.  A World War 2 setting in a country house where a museum’s collection of mammals has to be stored for safe-keeping.  This is described as a “gripping and atmospheric tale of family madness, long-buried secrets and hidden desires.”

The Recovery Of Rose Gold – Stephanie Wrobel – (Michael Joseph) Due 5th March.  This is a debut with a big buzz around it from a US born author now living in the UK.  At its centre is Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy.  Some are predicting it will be the year’s biggest thriller and I’m determined to read it early on.

Box Hill – Adam Mars-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions) Due 18th March.  I’m surprised I’ve never read Adam Mars-Jones before but I feel that this his first novel in a decade will be a good place to start and at only 160 pages may be a good entry point.  In “Box Hill” we are promised “a sizzling, sometimes shocking, and strangely tragic love story between two men, set in the gay biker community of the late 1970s. ”

Thousand Moons – Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber) Due 19th March.  The sequel to Barry’s very impressive “Days Without End” (2006) which won both the Costa Novel and Book Of The Year award.  This puts the focus on the previous novel’s main protagonists’ adopted daughter set in nineteenth century Tennessee.  It is described as “a powerful, moving study of one woman’s journey, of her determination to write her own future, and of the enduring human capacity for love.”

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder) Due 31st March.  I still only have read one Maggie O’Farrell novel and that was “The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox” (2006)which was a five star read included in my 100 Essential Books thread and which ended up in my 2016 end of year Top 10.  Here she delves back to the late sixteenth century with this novel based on Shakespeare’s son.

Everyday Magic – Jess Kidd (Canongate) Due in June.  An author who is getting better with every publication and who found herself in my Top 10 this year for “Things In Jars” has decided to write her first children’s book in which according to The Guardian a young orphan discovers his aunts are witches.  Expect mystery, magic and perhaps the odd touch of the supernatural if her adult novels are anything to go by

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury) Due in September.  Struck big with the stunning “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” but that was sixteen years ago.  I may even have time for a re-read of that modern classic before embarking on what is described as “a new otherworldly fantasy”.

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.

2019 – What I Should Have Read

Here’s something that I did last year which I feel is worth revisiting.  My post 2018 – What I Should Have Read  highlighted ten publications that I felt I had missed out on by not reading.  Looking back on these now I see I actually read 5 out of those 10 this year which was a pretty good success rate.  Here are this year’s 10 books which I just haven’t got round to but feel as if I should and which I will hopefully put right in the first few months of 2020.

We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff – Louise Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe)

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Completely passed  me by until I saw it placed at number 39 in the Telegraph’s Top 50 Books Of The Year.  I was fascinated by the description of it as ” a garrulous, magical-realist and Brexit-tinged comedy about a pair of trans migrants working at a “no star” hotel on the Isle Of Wight”.  Being an ex-hotel owner on the Isle Of Wight myself this sounded a perfect match (although we had plenty of stars, thank you) so found myself clicking the Buy It Now button on Amazon to get this book from a small publishing company I had also not heard of until now.

Shadow Play – Joseph O’Connor   (Harvill Secker)

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I haven’t read any Joseph O’Connor to date although I’m a little surprised that I have never got round to his most celebrated “Star Of The Sea” but this book has also got a good smattering of critical acclaim this year and has been shortlisted for Best Novel at The Costa Book Awards where the judges have praised it as exploring “the danger and complexity of unconventional love, the restlessness of creativity, and the experiences that led to the creation of the most iconic supernatural tale of all time.”  That tale is “Dracula” as this novel features Bram Stoker alongside actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.  This kind of rich, historical novel is right up my street and often features on my end of Best of Year lists.  I have a copy out from the library so should get round to finding out if this will be the case.

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (Harvill Secker)

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I’ve been reading about this book for some time now, in pieces about translations it gets a mention because it is a big Japanese seller that is making its English language debut this year after 25 years.  Translated by Stephen Snyder, The Guardian describes it as “the story of an island where both objects and memories are “disappeared” by shadowy totalitarian forces” and that “this timeless fable of control and loss feels more timely than ever.”  Not the sort of thing I read often (I have never read a translated Japanese novel) I was  fascinated enough to also pick up a library copy the other day and am waiting to begin this.

The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (Fleet)

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Another book I hadn’t heard of until my workmate Louise mentioned that she had bought it for herself for Christmas hoping it was going to be this year’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies“.  You don’t need to be that regular a visitor to this site to know how much I love that book and after about five seconds perusing her copy I ordered this for myself.  It has made more of a splash so far in the US where it won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Outstanding Adult Fiction beating strong finalists Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black” (how many times am I going to mention this title before reading it!) and Tommy Orange’s “There There”, it has been a New York Times Top 10 Bestseller and scooped The Stonewall Prize as well as being shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and a US National Book Award.  Although it first appeared in 2018 the paperback came out this summer and it has been picking up 2019 awards so thought I should include this tale set in Chicago and Paris at the time of the first years of the AIDS crisis.  I know I’m going to need tissues for this one.  Can’t tell you more about it as my copy is in my Amazon parcel which I’m not opening until Christmas Day.

Leading Men – Christopher Castellani (W&N)

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Also in that Amazon parcel is this book described by Celeste Ng as “a timeless and heart-breaking love story”, a fictional account of the relationship between Tennesee Williams and his long term partner Frank Merlo, this sounds like it can be 2019’s “Swan Song”.  Reviewers are talking about Castellani’s recreation of the glamour of 1950’s Italy, which sounds ideal for discovering  during the post-New Year slump when short days and short-lived diets feel as if they will go on forever!

Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan 

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I’ve also got a copy of this already sat on my shelves and feel like I should have read it.  I can absolutely love Ian McEwan “Atonement“, his early short story collections, and “Enduring Love” have all embedded themselves in my psyche.  I can also just really enjoy him as in “Innocent” “Saturday” and his most recent pre 2019 publication, the clever “Nutshell“.  He can also leave me unimpressed as in his Booker Prize winning “Amsterdam”.  He put out two books this year and this seems to be the one worth bothering with, but with its themes of Artificial Intelligence I’m not absolutely convinced I am going to love it- but I do hope to get round to finding out.

The Secret Commonwealth – Philip Pullman (David Fickling Books)

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This year I caught up with Lyra’s adventures in “La Belle Sauvage” just as this second in the “Book Of Dust” sequence was published.  I reserved a copy from the library but the reservation list grew too long and I doubted whether I’d be able to finish it within three weeks so I cancelled my reservation until the demand dropped.  But with the TV adaptation of “His Dark Materials” (which I started off loving, then wasn’t sure but am enjoying again now) doing so well I’m sure I’m going to have to wait some time for the demand to drop.  The Guardian in their round up of the year describes it as a “huge, challenging novel (which) asks the reader more questions than it answers”.  Am I ready for this yet?

Me- Elton John (Macmillan)

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I’m not a massive Elton fan but he has been around so long that you just can’t ignore him.  I have seen him perform live (with George Michael) although I think his glory days as a performer are probably now behind him.  This year I watched “Rocketman” which I felt was okay as a film, although did very much admire Taron Egerton’s portrayal (more so than the Oscar winning Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody”) but Elton knows everything about everybody so this autobiography seems like a must.  The Guardian felt that it might very well be the celebrity memoir of the decade and the Telegraph had it at number 8 in their books of the year describing it as “gossipy”, “self-aware” and “as eye-popping as his wardrobe”.  I enjoyed his interview with Graham Norton on TV recently and want to read his revelations before they become common knowledge.

Chinglish – Sue Cheung (Andersen)

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I seem to make this reading resolution every year.  I must read more Young Adult Fiction.  I have missed out this year on this 1980’s Coventry set account of a teen living over her parent’s Chinese takeaway restaurant.  The Guardian feels that “it will resonate with any teenage reader who feels alien or left out.”  Apparently funny and moving in equal measures this is a title I am determined to seek out.

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton)

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One of the big hitters of the year which made headlines when jointly awarded the Booker Prize.  In the furore of the judges not being able to make up their minds between this and Margaret Attwood’s best-selling follow-up to “The Handmaid’s Tale” “The Testaments” it was this title which seemed to be winning the hearts of critics.  Described as “innovative”, “fresh”, “life-affirming”, brimming with “heart and humour”, it’s the title on what felt like an underwhelming shortlist that I would have been most likely to have wanted to read.  I’m a bit put off by it being a verse poem which explains why I’ve not placed it higher on this list but I do very often read the Booker winning titles so feel I should at least give it a go.

Which books did you not get round to reading this year?

 

The Language Of Birds – Jill Dawson (2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This is not exactly a crime novel, although a murder is very much at its centre and it focuses on a case most readers would have some sense of familiarity with, that of children’s nanny Sandra Rivett killed by absconding aristocrat Lord Lucan in what was believed to have been a case of mistaken identity (Lucan had intended to kill his estranged wife).

The real life events from 1974 are here turned into fiction with changed names, Dawson’s reasons for this are stated in an Afterword; “The life of a victim is a hard story to tell when there are living descendants (of the Lucan family too) and others who might still be hurt. My solution was to invent new characters whose story you have just read.” I think we as readers will respect the author’s decision here. Since reading this I haven’t gone into what was known about this grubby case other than what Dawson has told us in the Afterword and my vague recollections but she does seem to have followed the framework of events closely.

The narrative switches between a third person retelling and the first-person views of Rosemary, a friend of the doomed nanny. The two meet as voluntary patients in a psychiatric hospital and when a recovered Rosemary finds work as a nanny in London, Mandy follows and finds herself in charge of the two children from the fractured Morven family assisting the fragile and not-coping Lady Katherine who is trying to break free from the enigmatic but charismatic Dickie, wrapped in underhand tactics in a custody case. The two girls waver as to who should get their sympathies.

I think what Jill Dawson does very well here is to get the feel of the mid 1970’s just right not only in its many references but particularly in the attitudes. Mandy and Rosemary feel like two young girls new to the London of 1974. There’s a lot of anger in the novel, rightly so, in a case in which time has tended to lionise the disappearing perpetrator. In many ways just as Hallie Rubenhold aimed to reclaim the victims from the hype of Jack The Ripper in her non-fiction work “The Five” Dawson here has managed to move the focus back to the real-life victim Sandra Rivett perhaps even more effectively, especially as the character of Mandy is so vibrant and well-drawn.

There’s an element of imagery going on in the title and on occasions within the text based upon bird communication. At one point it takes the form of auditory hallucinations by swans and pigeons which caused Rosemary’s mental health episode but I’m not sure that this fits into the feel of the novel or understand why it is there. The relevance of this and of the title of the novel has passed me by.  It is not what I will remember this book for which is the great feel for the period, strong characterisation and the build up of dread as to how what we know is inevitable will pan out and the ramifications for those caught up in the grisly events.

fourstars

The Language Of Birds was published in hardback by Sceptre in April 2019.

Oct 19 Update – Read about Jill Dawson at the Isle Of Wight Literary festival here.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2019)

 

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Here’s a book I’ve been looking forward to. I highlighted it as one of my must-reads for 2019 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post in January. At that point August seemed a long time away but here it is and I have managed to get my hands on an advance copy.

Last time around Colson Whitehead ended up as #3 in my 2017 Books Of The Year list with the very impressive “The Underground Railroad” which won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in the US and was a big seller over here. I said at the time “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read”. This is why expectations were so high for this.

“The Nickel Boys” focuses on a boys’ reform school, The Nickel Academy, which the author based on the real life Dozier School for Boys in Florida. Main character Elwood Curtis, an intelligent ambitious teen gets caught up in the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and ends up being sent to the school on ludicrous charges. This school is tough, but particularly on the black inmates, many of whom have found themselves there without just cause. They face segregation, malnutrition, cruelty, indiscriminate beatings and a number disappear without being seen again. Whitehead focuses on the out-of-place Elwood and his more street-savvy friend Turner and their experiences as teens in this hideous place alongside a later narrative of revelations about the place which come to the surface (literally) many years later.

“The Underground Railroad” focused on slavery and veered off in an unpredictable direction which saw it top the Amazon Book charts in its “Metaphysical and Visionary” lists. This book plays things more straightforwardly. In a way, I was pleased by this, because the author has such an important story to tell but also I was a little disappointed that this does not soar in quite the same way as its predecessor with its imaginative elements. As I was reading it, however, I was expecting it to which did affect the way I approached this novel. I was a little wary in case Colson Whitehead took it off into another direction and left me behind.

It is well-written and tales of appalling prejudice still need telling. The ridiculousness of such viewpoints can be seen here in the character of Jaimie, a mixed-race Mexican boy who “ping pongs” between the two sections of the school. As soon as he becomes tanned by working outside in the sun he is sent to the “coloured” half until he is deemed too light-skinned to be there and sent back. Most of the examples of prejudice are, however, far more chilling than this.

In airing these issues from the past to Trump’s America Colson Whitehead has written another book which will enhance his growing reputation as one of the US’s most important novelists.

fourstars

The Nickel Boys was published on August 1 2019 by Fleet. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape 2019) – A Rainbow Read

 

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Thirty-one year old Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese-born poet who moved to Connecticut with his extended family whilst still a toddler. Dyslexic, gay and agoraphobic his first collection of poems which explored some of these areas together with his experience of being from a background influenced by traumatic experiences was entitled “Night Sky With Exit Wounds” and achieved huge critical acclaim including the TS Eliot Prize in 2017.

Vuong has decided to follow this up with an autobiographical novel focusing on his childhood which has the main character exploring his relationship with his mother to whom the narrative is addressed in the form of a letter. Vuong’s gift for language rings clearly throughout as his writing is full of vivid images and episodic snapshots of memory that are clear and powerful. This is obviously a novel written by a poet. In fact, it was the deliciously poetic title that first drew me to this work. Having said that there is enough plot narrative in his tale of the boy known as “Little Dog” to ensure that this works very well as a novel.

Little Dog’s mother is a manicurist who works long hours and can erupt in explosions of violence. His grandmother, Lan, far more uprooted from her Vietnamese life than the other characters is ailing and is very much seen in terms of the damage inflicted on her via years of conflict, becoming increasingly distant to her family, but whose strength of spirit is evident in Little Dog’s memories. Perhaps more than the relationship between mother and son it is with the grandmother and grandson where the heart of this novel really lies.

The bullied, abused Little Dog has to grapple with his sexuality in a tough world of prescription drug addiction and struggling to get by. Alongside the narrative it is the visual images conjured continually by Vuong’s writing which brings this debut to life. Recurring images including butterflies migrating long distances and  herding buffalos plunging off a cliff top feel very appropriate for the fragility, tenacity and bewilderment of these characters’ situations.

This work is less plot-driven than I would normally recommend but its sensitivity and power and linguistic richness would ensure a valuable reading experience.

fourstars

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is published by Jonathan Cape in June 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Bridge Of Clay – Markus Zusak (2018)

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It’s been a long wait.  13 years since the publication of one of my all-time favourite novels “The Book Thief” Australian author Markus Zusak is back.  For a writer of an acknowledged modern classic this book snuck out last year and has recently appeared in paperback.  This relative lack of fanfare and the time between the two novels made me a little anxious but when I saw a copy on the library shelves I knew I just had to rejig my reading schedule to fit it in.

 This is actually Zusak’s 6th novel, those before his major breakthrough being aimed at the young adult market, one of which “I Am The Messenger” (2002) has been sitting on my shelves unread for some time but I have not dared to read it in case my admiration for this author is any way diminished.  In fact both “The Book Thief” and this latest novel could be seen as being appropriate for young adults but both demand a wider audience.

 There are elements of the predecessor in “Bridge Of Clay”, especially in the narrative style.  Here, Matthew Dunbar slowly weaves the tale of his family, jumping backwards and forwards in time, half-revealing events that are explored fully later in much the same way as Death does when he narrates “The Book Thief”.  Here, however, the stakes are not so high, the plot is a family tale without the huge issues that makes “The Book Thief” such an important read.  Books are once again important, a well-thumbed biography of Michelangelo spans the generations and there’s a lot of running which reminded me of Rudy and his Jesse Owens obsession.

 Matthew narrates the story of his parents and his four brothers but especially Clay, a gifted runner who is attracted to his neighbour Carey, an apprentice jockey, and who is torn by the loss of both of his parents and determined to build bridges in every sense when a face from the past shows up.  To start with it does feel all over the place, as did “The Book Thief” (I always advise the many people I have recommended the book to stick with it until they are used to the narrative conceit) as initially some of the events are hard to follow but it all makes sense as we are drip-fed the story of the Dunbars.

 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.  Like “The Book Thief” which improves with each re-read I think the events that washed over me on first reading will have a much deeper significance on a revisit.  This is one of those books that when you finish you will be tempted to start all over again.  I’ve got to hand my library copy back but I will be purchasing this so I can read it again.  True, thematically, it is all on a much smaller scale than “The Book Thief” and lacks the power and perhaps some of the lasting resonance of that work but it is high-quality fiction which did everything to me that a very good book should.  After over a decade of waiting my expectations were shaky but really I couldn’t have asked for more from this book.

fivestars

 Bridge Of Clay was published by Doubleday in 2018.  I read the 2019 Black Swan paperback edition.