The Paris Library – Janet Skeslien Charles (Two Roads 2020?)

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Not an author I’d heard of before this and I though it was due for imminent publication but checking on Amazon it seems to have been pushed back to February 2021 which may mean it is one of the casualties in how the publishing industry is having to deal with COVID-19. If this is the case then this is very advance notification of a books seriously worth your consideration.

Janet Skeslien Charles is the American author of “Moonlight In Odessa” (2011). At one point she worked as programmes manager at The American Library in Paris and it was this institution which is the inspiration for this novel.

Written in two narrative strands, one set during World War II and the other in Montana in the 1980s, both strands feature Odile, who obtains her dream job when she gets to work at The American Library in Paris in 1939. The real-life Library was set up during the previous war from two million American donations with it becoming revolutionary in being one of the first to allow subscribers to browse the open shelves and introducing story-times for children. By 1939 it was a much loved, over-subscribed establishment and its war years are dealt with here very impressively. The author has placed Odile alongside real-life characters who actually did do their outmost to keep the library functioning in Occupied Paris led by the extraordinary Dorothy Reeder (good name for a librarian). Skeslein Charles has turned these staff members into vibrant characters and placed them in a plot which certainly mirrors actual events.

Alongside this we see an older Odile, now living in the US, largely through the eyes of her young neighbour Lucy who is fascinated by the elegance of her neighbour becoming quite the Francophile amidst her small-town American life. I was very involved in both strands and this was a very involving read. I loved Odile’s obsession with the Dewey Decimal System which has her constantly categorising and found the relationship between her older self and the younger Lucy touching and convincing. I loved the whole aspect of the establishment doing what it could to support its subscribers and once again the importance of libraries is brought home as well as in the non-fictional “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean (2019). I also loved the way the fiction was weaved through a fascinating historical situation that I did not know about.

I hope that if this book is to be delayed until the New Year that it can be launched with enough momentum to give it a chance of achieving the sales it deserves.

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The Paris Library is currently scheduled (according to Amazon and I can’t find any information about it yet on the publishers site) to be published in the UK in February 2021. Sorry about confusion here but we might get quite a bit of that over the next few months. Many thanks to Netgalley and John Murray Press/Two Roads for the advance review copy.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold – C Pam Zhang (Faber 2020)

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C Pam Zhang’s striking confident debut places us in the nineteenth century American West in the dying days of the Gold Rush. Prospecting turns to tragedy for one family of Chinese heritage. The novel opens grimly with the father’s corpse and two young siblings Lucy and Sam taking to desperate measures to obtain two silver dollars to close their father’s eyes.

Uprooting themselves once again the children are forced to grow up during their search for a new settlement with the prospect of gold as their salvation. They bring with them their father’s dead body looking for a place to bury him. One section switches from third person narration to allowing the dead father to tell his story which does answer the questions the readers will have about the characters and their predicament.

Main character Lucy is hard to get a grip on. I wasn’t always sure of her motives. I was hoping for something from her viewpoint but this never happened. Her motivation seems to be based on the notion “family is family”. Much easier to read is Sam, thirsting for adventure with the same ideas as their father that gold would provide solutions.

Where I liked this novel most of all is when it slipped into backstory, the father’s narration and the family’s life before the events at the start of the novel where their pregnant mother encourages Lucy to get an education from a man besotted by the family’s exoticness. “Beauty is a weapon” Ma informs her daughter but that’s not always easy to use living hand to mouth in the open air of the American West.

As much as I admired the writing I wasn’t always sure here this novel was heading and once again I find present tense narrative distracting.  Lucy’s “education” is completed in a town called Sweetwater where she settles at one point in a section with a distinct change of tone. Sometimes the writing is feverish which gives the work a haunted, nightmarish quality which puts demands on the reader whilst at other times it reminded me both of Sebastian Barry’s recent novels (perhaps brought more clearly into focus as I have so recently read “A Thousand Moons”(2020) and I did find Zhang’s novel stronger) and of the New Zealand set “The Luminaries” (2013) by Eleanor Catton in more ways than its prospecting for gold themes. That book became a Man Booker Prize-winner so I think Zhang is on very strong ground here to turn heads with this literary debut.

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How Much Of These Hills is Gold is published today (April 9th 2020) by Virago in the UK. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Thousand Moons – Sebastian Barry (Faber 2020)

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Irish author Sebastian Barry’s last novel “Days Without End” (2016) won the Costa Book Of The Year and I read it when it made the 2017 Booker longlist. I enjoyed its unlikely coupling of the two main characters and its “adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America” but was a little put off by the present-tense narrative. I was fascinated to hear that Barry was to revisit his characters in what is loosely a sequel to its predecessor. This was one of the titles I focused in on as wanting to read in my start of year Looking Back Looking Forward post.

The main character here is Native American Winona. I had highlighted her and the relationship with Thomas McNulty and John Cole, her adoptive parents, as one of the strengths of “Days Without End” so I was looking forward to her (not present tense) narrative. After the years of wandering and adapting to their environment in the first novel the main characters have settled as farm workers in Tennessee. Their world has very much shrunk and the two men do fade into the background a little here becoming supporting characters and that is disappointing.

Winona’s life consists of risking the antipathy of the local town population because of her heritage in her trips to assist the local lawyer. A young man who works in the dry-goods store, Jas Jonski, takes a shine to Winona and that is where her troubles begin. It’s far less of an adventure tale but the need for survival and the suffering of injustice are once again present and Winona is a positively vibrant and complex character, who like her adoptive parents challenges stereotypes.

As one would expect of an artist of Barry’s calibre it is very well written but for me it just seems to simmer along and never really takes off in the way the last novel did. I missed the epic sweep of that book.

It may be because it is a much quieter novel anyway but given these characters and what we have had from them in the past this quietness was surprising and on this reading just a little disappointing.

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A Thousand Moons was published by Faber and Faber in hardback on 17th March 2020. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

The Four Symbols – Giacometti & Ravenne (Hodder & Stoughton 2020) – A Running Man Review

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The Adventure genre has calmed down somewhat since its mid noughties peak when Dan Brown and a host of similarly slanted authors dominated best-seller lists.  I read quite a few of these at the time but found they became too samey,  I wearied of reading about symbols of great powers but hidden meanings, Nazis, a myriad of locations and often confusing plot lines.

I was, however, tempted by this title I selected from a list of upcoming publications, the first of a trilogy entitled “The Black Sun”.  I thought its French slant (this is a translation)  might just breathe new life into a genre which was in danger of becoming stale.  Eric Giacometti worked as a journalist and was involved in the uncovering of French medical scandals before teaming up with Jacques Ravenne and writing according to the blurb “over 15 books together” (I really don’t know why this is such a vague statement!).  This was originally published as “La Triomphe Des Tenebres” and has been translated by Mauren Bauchet-Lackner.

Have the authors breathed new life into this genre?  Well, here we have Nazis chasing symbolic artefacts which will give them ultimate power in a novel which switches from location to location just as each section starts to get good.  So, the answer to that is sadly no.

A discovery in a Tibetan cave encourages the outbreak of World War II and leads to a belief by some in power that if similar treasures are tracked down the Third Reich will become unstoppable.  In the way of the Nazis is a French mercenary, Tristan, fresh from his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, a British SOE team and French resistance fighters.  The action feels distinctly stop-start to begin with and there are some examples of Nazi sadism that the authors certainly do not shy away from.

The success of books in this genre lies for me in whether the author makes me care about multiple plot strands and shifting location settings and the secret behind getting me to care is often in characterisation.  To begin with I found everybody cardboardy but by the end I was beginning to be drawn in enough by them to make me interested in the next part of the trilogy, but the characters, good and bad did take a while to establish themselves which may cause readers to fall by the wayside.

This was a very flooded market ten years ago so whether a title which isn’t fundamentally different from what we were reading then will resonate much in the UK today is another matter.  I think it being the first part of a trilogy might help as readers may come to feel invested in the authors’ perceptions of the War Years.

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The Four Symbols will be published by Hodder & Stoughton as an e-book on 14th May 2020 and as a paperback on 3rd September.  Many thanks to the publishers and Secret Readers for the advance review copy.

We Begin At The End – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A reviewsrevues.com favourite and former author interviewee is back with his third novel.  Chris Whitaker’s 2016 debut “Tall Oaks” was very strong and critically applauded but I think he got even better with his 5* 2017 offering “All The Wicked Girls“.  With this, his third novel Whitaker proves there’s few better at creating small town America all done with vivid and vibrant characterisation.  Thing is, Chris Whitaker is British.

In Cape Haven the impending release of a prisoner whose crime tore the community apart is causing much anxiety for those directly involved including ailing Police Chief Walker, a troubled mother, Star, and her two children Duchess and Robin.  A solid plot develops as the historic crime overlaps into a present day one but once again what Whitaker does best is characterisation, especially with quirky youngsters.  In “Tall Oaks” we had gangster wannabe Manny, a great comic creation, who really made the debut sparkle, in “Wicked Girls” it was teenage crime-solver Noah and his crew.  Here we have a choice of two with main character Duchess who copes with a miserable life by adopting the guise of an outlaw (I think the author could have made more of this perhaps even referencing it in the book’s title) and maybe even more so the adorably loyal Thomas Noble, a short-sighted black boy with a withered hand whose devotion to the not always appealing Duchess is unquestionable.

I found myself really caring for the characters and enjoying the book most when it focused on these and took a step back from the crime plot.

It feels like a more substantial novel than what has gone before and there is no doubt that Whitaker has matured as a writer.  For sheer reading pleasure I would give “All The Wicked Girls” the edge and I’m still not sure why it wasn’t amongst the big sellers of 2017 but this is still very good and should further enhance his reputation.  He is one of those writers that I am absolutely fascinated to see what he will do next.  Will he continue to recreate the intensity, prejudices and obsessions of small town America or have a go at setting fiction in  his homeland?  Will the crime aspect take more of  a back seat?  I feel that Chris Whitaker could, should he desire, have a good crack at producing The Great American Novel but I would also like to know how his writing would work within a British framework.

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We Begin At The End will be published in hardback by Zaffre on 2nd April 2020.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Recovery Of Rose Gold- Stephanie Wrobel (Michael Joseph 2020)

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Here’s a debut that has had a big buzz around it pre-publication. Stephanie Wrobel is a Chicago born writer now living in the UK who has ditched her advertising agency copywriting work to concentrate on fiction and the feel is that this could very much be one of the biggest thrillers of the year. I was determined to get in before the hype and find out if this buzz is deserving. I’ve already mentioned it in my Looking Back Looking Forward post so I know I’m adding to that hype but now I’ve read it I’m more than delighted to build up a bit of anticipation for readers. It is very good.

Taking as its theme (although I don’t think it’s actually mentioned by name in the text) Munchausen By Proxy, which is a fascinating idea ripe with dramatic potential the novel opens with Patty Watts being released from her prison sentence for child abuse which was sustained over a number of years treating her daughter as if she was seriously ill. On release she (and this is such a good idea for gripping fiction) goes back to live with the daughter, Rose Gold, now in her twenties with a family of her own. I’m saying little more about the plot but it wouldn’t take too much conjecturing to realise the potential. These two damaged women attempt to put together the pieces of their fractured relationship. Is this going to be a second chance for them or will they not be able to escape the traumas of the past?

The author uses an effective structure of two first-person narratives from the main characters with different time settings. Mother Patty focuses on the time from her release and Rose Gold’s narrative is interspersed moving from the time of the mother’s conviction towards Patty’s present day. Given the context of the plot this works sublimely.

It has an under the surface darkness which I love and it builds beautifully. This is certainly a read to look out for.

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The Recovery Of Rose Gold is published in hardback by Michael Joseph on  5th March 2020.  Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.

A Knock At The Door – T W Ellis (Sphere 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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British writer Tom Hinshelwood has written 7 novels and 2 short story collections as crime novelist Tom Wood creating the Victor The Assassin series. Here he is writing his first thriller as T W Ellis locating it in an American suburb where the Chief of Police is an overweight demotivated marijuana smoking woman, Rusty, who blows up at her team if they make her coffee incorrectly.

Living in this town is Jem whose husband leaves her one morning for a business trip whilst she is breakfasting on avocado on toast. Jem is a yoga teacher with anxiety issues which are certainly exacerbated when she responds to a knock at her front door and finds two FBI agents on her step. Not only is Jem placing herself in danger when she lets them in but she begins to realise that she does not know her husband as well as she thinks she does.

Set largely within a twenty-four hour period with a couple of flashbacks Jem’s worst day ever plays out proving you can certainly pack a lot into a day if your very existence is threatened. Much is Jem’s first-person narrative as she tries to come to grips with what she is informed is the truth and has to deal with whom she can trust. There’s also a third-person narrative focusing on Rusty and her attempts to make sense of sudden events happening in her sleepy jurisdiction.

It was hard not to find Jem annoying at times and there was really only one character I warmed to, the elderly Trevor, who attempts to live a quiet life and is suspicious of all authority and the minute by minute breakdown of the action perhaps made it too thorough leading to a number of empty conversations but there’s plenty of action and twists which I’m still kicking myself for not spotting.

The style of the novel does make it a quick read and as most people coming to this will know the type of popular thriller it is they will not be disappointed. This is a good choice for a holiday read.

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A Knock At The Door will be published as an e-book in May 2020 and in hardback on July 9th. Many thanks to the publishers and Secret Readers for the advance review copy.

 

Swimming In The Dark – Tomasz Jedrowski (2020)

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The first of the books I highlighted as those I wanted to look out for in 2020 is this debut written in English by a German born author with Polish heritage. It is an impressively written tale of the relationship between two young men set in Poland during the late 70’s/early 80’s at a time of great unrest.

The pair meet at a summer work camp picking beetroots and the development of this blossoming connection is handled very effectively. Behind much of this lies another book, “Giovanni’s Room” by black American author James Baldwin,  a suppressed text which main character and narrator Ludwik glues between the covers of another publication becoming the link which forges he and Janusz closer together. (Incidentally in a recent Guardian interview with Sara Collins of Costa winning “Confessions Of Frannie Langton” fame she praises Baldwin’s work as her choice for most under-rated novel calling it a “perfect love story.” I’ve been thinking for a time that I should re-read this and this book has further convinced me that I should do so.) In the novel Ludwik is researching the author for his doctorate and in fact just a couple of years after this novel was set I was doing the same for my degree dissertation. Ludwik faces the additional difficulties of a system where who you know is important in his quest to get his academic work off the ground.

The relationship is threatened by the atmosphere in Poland and the political differences between the two men. The whole narrative is directed towards Janusz as an explanation behind the actions and feelings Ludwik had at the time which he could not express to him face to face. The difficulties of dealing with same sex attraction at different times and places appears in many novels I have read but I feel that these stories need telling and retelling and this literary work is a very welcome addition to this.

My slight quibble is to do with the number of chance encounters the two men seem to have but maybe when attraction is that strong they can’t avoid the pull of fate that places them in similar locations at the same time. Well written and a strong debut, it had the feel of Andre Aciman’s “Call Me By Your Name” which became an Oscar winning film, especially stylistically in this book’s more languid moments but I think I may have enjoyed Tomasz Jedrowski’s novel slightly more.

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Swimming In The Dark is published by Bloomsbury on February 6th 2020. Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.

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.