Wildest Of All – P K Lynch (Legend Press 2017)

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Scottish author PK Lynch has followed up an award-winning debut “Armadillos” (2016) with this thoughtful, family novel.  It commences with the death of family lynchpin Peter Donnelly and the effects this has on those left behind.

Main character Sissy is 17 and adores her Dad.  The suddenness of his demise has deprived her without the chance to say goodbye and her attempts to do this her own way are thwarted by her staunch Catholic grandmother, Anne.  Sissy’s mother Jude is crumbling without her partner and the rest of the family seem not to know what to do about this.

The first half of this novel carefully and precisely examines the effects of bereavement on the family and it is grandmother Anne, befuddled by the death of the son she idolised, with her own secrets about her marriage and frustration at Jude’s inability to function as well as her need to control potentially wayward teenager Sissy, who comes across as the strongest drawn and most rounded character.  The dynamics between the three are strong, felt authentic and kept me involved.

Circumstances take Sissy away from Glasgow and the novel shifts to become a young-girl-surviving-in- London tale which loses some of the depths of the novel as the characters here are not so well-drawn.  Sissy, herself, is not terribly likeable and becomes less so once she moves down South.  Anne and Jude take more of a back seat and this change of emphasis alters the balance of the novel from something potentially excellent to following along more predictable lines.

Those interested in novels which focus on family and friendship at times of duress would find much to become involved with but I felt a little disappointed that it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the opening chapters.

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Wildest Of All was published in September 2017 by Legend Press.  Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Book Of Forgotten Authors – Christopher Fowler (2017) – A Real Life Review

 

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Now, this is just the sort of book to throw out my reading schedule. Novelist Christopher Fowler briefly examines the careers of 99 authors, who either used to be big but have faded from prominence of who deserved to be more popular than they were. It’s a fascinating, highly readable book which is both illuminating and nostalgic. The author has always been a voracious reader and book purchaser and he’s certainly done the groundwork for us here.

Christopher Fowler need not have any real fears of being forgotten, certainly not by me. You wouldn’t know it from this blog as this is probably his first mention in over 400 posts but since I’ve been keeping my own meticulous records of what I’ve been reading (I’ve always done this but lost a book which went back quite a few years), so we’re talking the last 23 years here, he is the author whom I’ve read the largest number of books by.

This book puts the Fowler total up to 15 (+ 1 I’ve read twice in this time) which pushes him further ahead from his nearest competitors , Charles Dickens (12) and Peter Ackroyd (11 + 2 re-reads). I’ve still got plenty of Fowler to discover, a quick tot-up of his books listed inside the front cover suggest 43 publications in total. I did gobble up a number of his horror novels in a short space of time in the mid to late 90’s after discovering “Spanky” (1994), a Faustian tale of a pact with the devil, which I still consider to be his best. In recent years he has concentrated on the Bryant & May detective series. I realise, with a fair amount of shock, that the last of his books I read was the third in this sequence “77 Clocks” and that was 10 years ago now! I haven’t forgotten you, Mr Fowler, honest! (I did last re-read “Spanky” in 2013).

Here the author tackles his findings alphabetically with considerably more than 99 names actually being thrown into the mix as in addition to the potted biographies and commentaries on individuals there’s also sections of forgotten authors linked to themes and genres.

It wasn’t long before I found myself making lists of those I’ve already read (not many and those a long time ago), those whose books I have unread on my shelves (5), those I can get from the library (36), those I can get on Kindle for free (4), for under £1 (8), or at a higher price (8) and those I can buy from Amazon (32). This left just those whose books do not seem readily available (4) or just too collectable for my budget (2). So thanks for all this, Mr Fowler, I’m supposed to be reviewing, not spending my time making lists!
And now I’ve got said lists I’m going to have to use them! So starting with what I have on my shelves already I hope over the coming months to unforget as many authors as possible. So this would include Margery Allingham, (a Golden Age of Crime Fiction writer who appears time and time again on recommended lists), I have a copy of her “Police At The Funeral” to start me off. There’s also Edmund Crispin (I bought a set of his Gervaise Fen novels from “The Book People”), Patrick Dennis (I bought his “Auntie Mame” because I love the Rosalind Russell film version and it’s pretty pricey on DVD), Barbara Pym’s “Excellent Women” (Book People purchase set again) and Edgar Wallace (a mammoth Wordsworth publication of “The Complete Four Just Men” taking up considerable shelf space). I’m adding these to the reading mix over the coming months and will of course be letting you know what I think and then I’ll move onto the others. Christopher Fowler has whetted my appetite so much I want to read them all!

This book would make a great present for bibliophiles – even those who claim to have “read everything” may find some hidden gems. A number of them are names that you’d remember from bookshop visits from your past, but may have never read. It could be time to put this right.

fourstars

The Book Of Forgotten Authors was published by Riverrun in October 2017.

Modern Gods – Nick Laird (4th Estate 2017)

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This novel opens with a shocking, violent prologue and then settles into a family drama reminiscent of the best of Anne Enright.  Set in the small town of Ballygrass, Northern Ireland, Alison is preparing for her second marriage and hoping to put behind her an abusive first marriage.  Her mother is fearful that a serious illness has made a comeback and her father has been left slightly confused after bouts of ill-health, and is no longer the man he once was.  Her sister, Liz, the main character, is coming to terms with the break-up of yet another relationship and their brother has secrets of his own.

The author pitches these family dynamics perfectly.  They are well-rounded characters and feel like a real family with its own issues and  tensions of a lifetime’s making.  It feels very modern, there are well-observed references throughout and certainly the first part of the novel is an unpredictable joy.

In Part Two we get a split narrative away from Alison’s wedding as Liz travels to New Ulster Island off Papua New Guinea to film a BBC documentary about a new religion.  The author opened up my eyes  here to Cargo Cults which is something I knew nothing about yet in making this shift in the novel I felt that some of the power and vivacity of what had gone before was diluted.  This is always a risk (I felt exactly the same recently about Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time”) as there is a danger that the reader will favour one strand over the other and want the author “to get on with it”. Although I enjoyed reading about Liz’s experience and it makes for chilling reading as the disastrous repercussions of western intervention begins to unfold I was itching to get back to Ireland where there were equally difficult situations regarding fanaticism to resolve.

The sections do link together and I can see what the author is trying to convey.  The whole thing ends up as a very good novel whereas for the first half I thought it was going to be an exceptional one. 

This is Irish writer Laird’s third novel.  He has also published collections of poetry and this is not surprising as his use of language is rich and precise.  He currently teaches creative writing at New York University.  I will certainly be seeking out his earlier works.   

fourstars

Modern Gods was published by 4th Estate in June 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers and to the folks at Nudge for the review copy.

The End Of Eddy – Edouard Louis (Harvill Secker 2017)

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This debut novel packs quite a punch.  An autobiographical work which caused something of a sensation when it was published in France.  There was considerable outcry as the French life depicted here is certainly not the live-and-let-live philosophy which the rest of Europe considers France to have.  It is a depiction of recent working-class culture which is chilling and harrowing.  In fact, I was I very surprised to discover that French author Edouard Louis is only in his mid-twenties.  The tale he is telling seems to be of older generations.  I would have hoped that even French village life might have moved on from the events depicted here, but it would seem not. 

This translation, by Michael Lucey, a winner of an English PEN Award is an account of a difficult and intense childhood.  Set in a village in Picardy from the late 1990s where a tough working-class culture dominates and it is virtually impossible for anyone to be different.  The youths follow in their parent’s footsteps of either hard, monotonous work or no work at all, heavy drinking, machismo and make the same mistakes as the previous generation.  It is hard to escape this way of life and many just survive underneath the poverty line. 

Eddy does not fit in.  He questions his sexuality from an early age and his gentler behaviour causes him to be labelled by homophobic family members, fellow pupils and other villagers.  He is told what he is before he himself has come to any decision.  This leads to lack of self-esteem and a victim mentality which causes him to seek out on a daily basis a couple of youths who will beat him up in a lonely school corridor away from the eyes of others who would want to follow suit.  It is a heart-breaking and harrowing account of a childhood.

It is, however, a novel, although one largely based on fact.  That may make things slightly easier for the reader but then again there isn’t the same sense of completion that we would get from reading a memoir.  Louis is quite prepared as a novelist to leave us hanging and it is only through reading between the lines that we deduce that things must have got better.  It’s written very much as a memoir, it flows well and although I read it quickly the appalling treatment meted out to Eddy will certainly not quickly leave my mind. 

Often this type of “misery-lit” leaves a bitter taste in my mouth and I question whether I should be reading it at all.  I found myself caring and being very concerned about Eddy throughout.  It’s written with such honesty that I would imagine all readers would find some parallels with times of doubt in their own childhood.  The skewed logic of an immature mind is heartbreaking, yet as a piece of literature it works both beautifully and brutally.

fourstars

The End Of Eddy is published in the UK in February 2017.  Many thanks to the folks at Nudge and to the publishers for the review copy.

The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst (2017)

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I’ve been really looking forward to the publication of this, Hollinghurst’s sixth novel in 29 years.  This highly talented British author is one of the few novelists whom I’ve read everything by.  I read his debut “The Swimming Pool Library” (1988) not long after it first came out and it is one of my all-time favourites.  The standard was every bit maintained for “The Folding Star” (1994) and both of these were my Books of The Year from when I first read them and have been re-read and much enjoyed since.  His Booker Award Winning “The Line Of Beauty” (2004) may very well be my favourite Booker winner.  This is an author I hold in very high esteem. 

But it is not all roses.  He has let me down in the past.  His third novel “The Spell” was nothing special and his last from five years ago “The Stranger’s Child” was good but didn’t make it onto my end of year Top 10 (and thus ended up at the charity shop).  I couldn’t shake off a slight disappointment over it.  His characters were strong but largely unlikeable and although I admired the epic sweep of British life from World War I to the present day I felt his “moments in time” structure a little artificial and felt that it led to him not following through with his characters.  It was undoubtedly haunting, but I also described it as “mannered and often dry.”

There has been five years between novels and I’ve been certainly eagerly anticipating the latest since the title was being bandied around in notifications of forthcoming releases at the start of the year.  I’ve changed a lot in the 29 years I’ve been reading Hollinghurst, but I’m not totally convinced that he has nearly as much.  He’s found his groove and has stuck to it.  Unfortunately, this means that the criticism that I aired for the last novel largely still applies, but this time more so. 

Once again he’s gone for a saga format with two generations of family and friends.  We move from Oxford during World War II to present day (ish) London.  A group of artistic friends notice another student working out which sparks an interest in him as a potential friend, lover or artist’s model (or some combination of the three).  We meet this athletic young man, David Sparsholt, at other times in his and his son’s life.

The most successful section features a tale of unrequited love.  David’s teenage son, Johnny, had a fling with Bastien on a trip to France.  A year later Bastien is with the Sparsholts in England and Johnny is keen to rekindle things but Bastien’s interest is now firmly in girls.  This is handled perfectly.  Once again, though, I found it to be too dry and mannered (which the first two novels are definitely not) and that I felt indifferent to many of the characters.  I think it’s that they take everything too seriously and there’s no humour in their relationships, which just doesn’t ring true with family and friends, where most of us need the humour to survive!  Also, a lot of the action in the lives, including the central “Sparsholt Affair” and most birth, marriages and deaths take place between the sections.  This reminded me of a production of “Madame Butterfly” I once saw where much of the action seemed to take place off-stage.  It leads to me feeling a bit cheated.  On that occasion I threw off Opera as being not for me, but I don’t wish to throw off Alan Hollinghurst, we go back such a long way!  I thought his early novels spoke to me directly as a reader in a way few novels of the time did.  As we have both got older this no longer seems to be the case.  The worlds he depicts, both in the distant and recent past and in the present feels somewhat alien and aloof. 

There are memorable sections and it is carefully plotted and so elegantly written and put together but there doesn’t seem to be much development from the last novel and it felt like I’d read it before, which after a five year wait and a nearly thirty years devotion to previous work made me feel somewhat disappointed on this occasion.  I’m sure that this is just a rocky patch between us but I hope I don’t have to wait another five years to find out.

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The Sparsholt Affair was published in hardback by Picador in October 2017.

 

She Be Damned – M J Tjia (Legend Press 2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have a big old soft spot for novels set in Victorian London.  I love the mix of classes, the hypocrisy of the wealthy and the poor struggling to get by through any means.  From Dickens to “Fingersmith” to Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White” this kind of fiction has the tendency to end up amongst my all-time favourites, especially when there is a strong female lead to stand against the patriarchal society.

Enter Heloise Chancey, main character in the first of a proposed historical crime series by Australian author Tjia.  This is the first full-length novel for a Brisbane-based novelist much lauded for her short stories and novellas.  Heloise is a strong, complex character- a well off courtesan with a background on the stage and as a celebrated beauty, posing as a widow, who helps out an aristocratic private detective with his cases.  Heloise is able to move fairly effortlessly thorough the ranks of society from the upper echelons who may have used her courtesan services, their wives who cannot imagine these services and to those who have remained in the less respectable strata of society, the “renters” in the brothel houses where Heloise passed through in what is evidently a very rich back story.  As such she is a character who has been carefully thought out for a series of novels.

In “She Be Damned” she is asked to investigate a missing girl who has left home after revealing her pregnancy to her family and where her only option is to sink towards harder times.  Prostitutes are being mutilated and murdered around the Waterloo area and Heloise gets caught up with all of this.

Interspersed with the narrative are the back-story experiences of Amah Li Leen, Heloise’s oriental maid and this is done in such a way that we know she will be a supporting character in subsequent mysteries.  Tjia keeps a lot up her sleeve about both characters, good for the future but not without risks as by holding back too much in an introductory novel these characters may end up not as well-rounded as we’d like.  I think the author just gets away with this, but only just in the case of Amah.

There’s a fair evocation of nineteenth century London.  It’s not as drenched in atmosphere as I might have wanted but there can be a tendency to over-egg this leading to cliché and melodrama, both of which are avoided here. 

All in all it’s a very readable introduction to a series and I would certainly seek out follow-ups.  I don’t think Heloise Chancey is going to challenge my favourite investigators but I certainly enjoyed spending time in her company.

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She Be Damned was published in the UK in August 2017.  Many thanks to Legend Press for the review copy. 

Man Booker 2017- Is it possible to pick the winner?

The winner of the Man Booker prize 2017 is announced in just a few hours.  The Duchess of Cornwall is due make the presentation this evening.  I have managed to get through the six titles on the shortlist and thought I’d give a kind of end of term report and make my prediction for the prize.  I’ll list them in the order the bookies are favouring them:

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Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders – The bookies hot favourite was just a little too odd for me both in structure and content.   Latest sale figures suggest it has sold around 10,000 copies  ***

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Exit West– Mohsin Hamid – Also notching sales of around 10,000 this is a sparse novel which impressed but I felt it fizzled out towards the end.  ****

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Elmet – Fiona Mozley – A debut which was apparently partly written on the author’s phone which sounds terribly modern but this is a traditional, poetic literary novel which packs a good punch.  Another one with sales figures around 10,000 ****

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4321– Paul Auster – It’s just too long and with too much detail.  It’s ambitious, clever and probably has the most memorable moments but it is an exhausting read. Now published in paperback which at least makes it lighter, around 15,000 people have bought this so far.****

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Autumn – Ali Smith.  With around 50,000 copies this is definitely the commercial hit of the bunch but the bookies place it at 8-1.  I think it’s a strong contender and is the most enjoyable of Smith’s books I have read.  ****

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The History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund – The Bookies outsider and my outsider as well.  It just didn’t sparkle like I hoped it would.  (So probably the winner then).  Not really tempting the book-buying public with sales so far of around the 3.5 thousand mark. ***

Phil’s Tip For The Prize– I’m going for Elmet by Fiona Mozley.

POST ANNOUNCEMENT UPDATE– And the winner is……………….George Saunders for Lincoln In The Bardo proving once again I just cannot second-guess the Man Booker judging panel.  In her summing up Baroness Lola Young, the Chair of the Panels “This really stood out because of its innovation- its very different styling and the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these not quite-dead souls in this other world.”  I said in my review, with equal gravitas; “what I couldn’t get out of my head was a manic, adult version of “Rentaghost”.” So each to their own, I suppose and congratulations are certainly due to George Saunders for beating off the competition with this great award for his first full-length novel.  Now it has won the prize many more will be seeking out the book.  It certainly hasn’t been the biggest seller of the list to date and a copy prominently on display in one of the libraries where I have been working has been sat ever since it came in without anyone taking it home.  All that will change now………Roll on, Man Booker 2018 where I will no doubt once again be barking up the wrong literary tree.

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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Mohsin Hamid made his first appearance on the Booker shortlist ten years ago with “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” in a year when Anne Enright took the prize.

“Exit West” is a slim, sparse novel with big themes which centres on a love affair amidst turmoil and conflict.  Hamid can be precise in his vagueness and we never learn for sure the country of Nadia and Saeed’s birth but it is, like many others, a nation of escalating conflict. 

They meet at an evening class but their freedoms and opportunities become increasingly diminished as militants take over.  Nadia wears dark robes to cover herself fully as a way of distancing male interest but is actually far less religious and traditional as Saeed who prays regularly and cannot contemplate sex before marriage.  The situation in their homeland worsens and they hear of a fantastical means of escape.  Here I could certainly see parallels with “The Underground Railroad” both with its forced migration and the means to achieve this.  Whereas Whitehead is masterful in drawing us into his tale Hamid keeps us purposely at a distance with a detached documentary style which actually makes some of the terrible events seem even more terrible.

Whereas Colson Whitehead’s book really took off from the escape onwards  I felt that this novel reached its peak before the escape and that the attempts to relocate in a London which is becoming increasingly as tense as their homeland and then to the USA didn’t captivate me as much.  Like Whitehead these locations feel highly fictionalised and have a nightmarish quality which is magnified by the pared down nature of Hamid’s writing.

Like a number of the Booker shortlist novels there were moments that were absolutely first class but although I can see its relevance and importance to our modern world I wasn’t totally enraptured throughout.

fourstars

Exit West was published as a Hamish Hamilton hardback in March 2017

Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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saundersI’m feeling a little discombobulated.  Firstly, congratulations are due to highly esteemed American author Saunders who comes onto the shortlist much praised for his previous published works which includes essays, short stories and novellas. This is his first full-length novel and its arrival was much anticipated.

I’m disturbed firstly because it is distinctly odd. The whole thing is written as observations, either as quotes from books or character statements. These are often in short sections and in common with first-hand sources can be contradictory so you get different opinions of the same event. This does make it quick to read but the short length of these breaks up any real flow. It does on occasion lead you in almost addictively when there’s a barrage of different views on an event, but generally, although it is undoubtedly cleverly done, it feels a little too much like style over substance to me.
The subject matter also disturbs. It’s very much an account of grief. President Abraham Lincoln’s young son dies of a fever. The “Bardo” is a graveyard-set half-life where spirits who have not yet resolved themselves to their demise drift in a shape-shifting existence and are joined by the spirit of Willie Lincoln. This disparate group of beings from the cemetery and mass graves beyond attempt to reconcile the boy to his death. At times these sections reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s “Graveyard Book” and what I couldn’t get out of my head was a manic, adult version of “Rentaghost”.

The whole thing just feels a little off-kilter. Anyone actually experiencing grief or recent bereavement would be advised to steer clear. This was the bookies’ early favourite to win the Man Booker Prize. Do I think that this should get the prize for the best work published in English this year? No, I don’t and perhaps I might have enjoyed the whole thing more if I wasn’t aware the whole time if this wasn’t stirring around in my mind and that the judges favoured this over longlisters “The Underground Railroad” and “Home Fire”. I will give it points for cleverness and originality but the style and theme are just too unsettling for me to really get behind this one.

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Lincoln In The Bardo was published in March 2017 by Bloomsbury

Elmet – Fiona Mozley (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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elmet2The media buzz when the Man Booker shortlist was announced centred around this young British debut novelist.  Portrayed very much as the David amongst the Goliaths this tactic proved to be commercially rewarding last year for Graeme Macrae Burnet (who I felt should have won the award) and this year it may also pay dividends as quality-wise, I would nudge this book ahead of the others I’ve read so far on the shortlist.

The title refers to the Vale Of York setting, the area of the last independent Celtic kingdom which a quote from Ted Hughes at the start of the novel refers to as traditionally “a sanctuary for refugees from the law”.  Mozley places her novel in the modern-day but this is still a tale of outsiders and the immediate association with Hughes feels appropriate as this book shares the nature-based, naturalistic, elemental power of much of his poetry.

I was admittedly initially resistant.  I tend to balk at openings which are in italics and place an unknown character in a first-person narrative walking or running through woodland with in this case “The remains of Elmet lay beneath my feet.” Once the plot kicks in, however, I’m fine with the lyrical narrative style and evocative descriptions.  It’s just that I like to know where I am at the start of a book and the first few hundred words of this opening hovers towards literary novel cliché.

All is redeemed, however, by the three main characters and powerful, memorable characterisation.  Two young teenagers Daniel and Cathy live with their father in a house he has fashioned for them out of the woodland.  “Daddy” is a powerhouse of a man, who fights for money and who has removed his children away from mainstream society to live very much on the land.  The bond between the three is terrific and this main strength is recounted in Daniel’s tale, a youth so unlike his father attempting to find his place in this harsh unsentimental world where those from outside their family unit mainly threaten their existence.  It’s powerful and haunting and as their place in the woods is questioned it becomes increasingly gripping.

It does feel like a book from a different era, perhaps a harsher 1970’s world with main character Daniel as out of place in his world as Barry Hines’ Billy Caspar from “Kestral For A Knave” (1968).  I’ve not really read a book like this for years, the nearest I could conjure up was Sara Baume’s critically acclaimed “Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither” (2015) which ended up in my end of year Top 10 and had the same lyrical, poetic feel which is rooted in the natural world with its depiction of a relationship between a man and his dog.  Here Daniel’s trust is totally in Daddy and Cathy and there are times when you wonder whether this is such a good thing.

I do think that this novel will linger in my mind.  It feels of less relevance to this particular time certainly than Ali Smith’s very contemporary-feeling “Autumn” but with that timelessness could come longevity and it might just seduce those Man Booker judges not distracted by relevance.  It is what I imagine a “literary novel” to be and yet plot and characterisation gives it a commercial pull which I was both a little surprised by and highly appreciative of.

fourstars

Elmet was published in 2017 as a John Murray Original.