Devil’s Way – Robert Bryndza (Raven Street Publishing 2023)

This is the first of the titles I highlighted in my “Looking Forward” post. Over three novels Robert Bryndza has established a very impressive crime series featuring Private Detective Kate Marshall and her assistant Tristan. Kate has moved on from her horrific back-story which featured in the first book “Nine Elms” and has settled to sleuthing in Devon whilst running a campsite she inherited in order to stay financially solvent.

After three books all of which felt quite different in tone to one another and which certainly displayed the author’s skills at crime writing he can’t be blamed for taking his foot off the gas a little with this 4th in the series and producing a solid, satisfactory work which is not as quite an exceptional read as the first three but would definitely be a fan-pleaser.

As in “Darkness Falls” the case here involves a long-time missing person.  Here it is a three year old boy who has been missing ten years by the time Kate and Tristan get the case from a grandmother desperate for closure.  The plot is not as rich nor as intense as in the other novels and the twists did not surprise me as much, in fact, unusually for me, I had things sorted fairly early on.  What still works well, and why this book was no way a disappointment to me is the relationship between Kate and Tristan.  Here Kate shows vulnerability with a near-fatal accident early on which switches the dynamic slightly between the two.  Aside from the case I just enjoy these lead characters and I’m sure there’s a lot more mileage in their detective work.

Devil’s Way was published on 12th January 2023 by Raven Street Publishing.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The New Life- Tom Crewe (Chatto & Windus 2023)

Here’s a book which was my last read of 2022 and which I loved so much that it just had to be in my Books Of The Year Top 10 even though it is not published until January 2023…

This extraordinary debut opens with a sex scene in a public place which instantly brought back the memory for me of watching the 1986 French film “Betty Blue” (although it’s known as a different title in France) at the cinema which also begins with a steamy sexual encounter going on.  It brought back the same sense of unease which filled the cinema as without any preamble and little context the description of the act become more shocking, more distancing and challenges the reader/viewer who begins to feel they are a voyeur.  It’s a device which obviously isn’t used that often (which was why a film I saw decades ago came to mind) and I can see why (surely even porn films have some build up to the act).

It materialises that, in this instance, this encounter is actually a dream experienced by John Addington, in the last years of the nineteenth century.  Addington, a middle-aged married man is obsessed by his sexuality.  His wife knows of homosexual encounters in his past and he struggles to channel these feelings into watching naked men swimming in the Serpentine until a meeting in Hyde Park causes him to confront his desires.

Alongside this narrative strand we meet Henry Ellis on his wedding day.  He is an advocate for change in Victorian society, both he and his wife-to-be believe in a New Life with greater freedoms.

I’m a sucker for Victorian-set novels especially when they highlight the double standard of the era and they trace along the darker sides which this novel certainly does.  The byline for the book on Amazon proclaims it – “A daring  new novel about desire and the search for freedom in Victorian England” and that pretty much fits the bill.

The benchmark I seem to always use for such novels is Michel Faber’s sublime “The Crimson Petal And The White”.  Does it match this book by conveying the feel of the time?  Does this feel authentic?  Is the author able to bring the characters and events to life?  In this case, this book is certainly comparable in terms of quality and also up there with other classics in this field -such as John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and Michael Cox’s “The Meaning Of Night”.  Also, like Faber’s work the subject matter and its handling means that it becomes a difficult book to recommend to all.  Looking back at my review of “The Crimson Petal..” I said “Reading groups will be divided because of the graphic elements.  The reader will know within the first pages whether they feel they will be able to accompany Sugar on her momentous journey.”  Substitute the character of Sugar for John Addington and it still feels apt.  This book is not as explicit but there is something about sex in Victorian settings which still shocks.

I didn’t know this until after reading the novel but it is very loosely based on John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis who collaborated on a book called “Sexual Inversion” as do the main characters here.  Written just as the Oscar Wilde scandal is kicking off there will be serious repercussions for our Addington and Ellis.

I loved the characterisation.  Addington tries the patience despite being a soul in  torment.  Ellis’ passivity will frustrate whilst their wives and lovers are richly drawn and add much to the depth of the novel and the issues raised here.  In one or two places the theories of the time clog the flow a little but I think that this is a very important addition to the genre of modern Victorian-set literature.  This is an outstanding literary debut from the former editor of the London Review Of Books.

The New Life will be published by Chatto and Windus on the 12th January.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Looking Back….Looking Forward….

This is my end of year report, looking back at the 10 titles I had eagerly anticipated last year and seeing how many of them I actually got around to reading as well as picking ten more choices for 2023. In 2021 I got round to reading eight out of the ten titles.  Let’s see if I can top that in 2022 and whether they turned out to be the big-hitters of the year . 

The Heretic – Liam McIllvanney (Harper Collins)

Read and rated it four stars in January.  Second in the series which began with the Scottish Crime Book Of The Year “The Quaker“.  Time moved six years on from the previous book giving it a mid 70’s Glasgow setting and this was more quality writing.  At over 500 pages it was quite a lengthy crime novel which allowed richness of detail in its depiction of two warring gangs, one Protestant, one Catholic. Good characterisation of a Serious Crime Squad, all of whom are outsiders which brought interesting dynamics into play.

Devotion – Hannah Kent (Picador)

Another four star read for me in January which was certainly on a par with her first two novels.  I thought this very much a book of three parts with distinct tonal shifts between them.  This turns into a nineteenth century love story which I described as “touching, often heart-breaking and effectively conveyed throughout.”

Love Marriage – Monica Ali (Virago)

I read this in February and this is a book which made it onto a number of “Best Of” round-ups.  I rated it four stars. Her 5th novel, I thought characterisation was especially strong within the supporting cast with a delicious lightness of touch.  I don’t think many readers would place this over Monica Ali’s 2004 “Brick Lane” but it provided a highly satisfactory reading experience. 

Flicker In The Dark – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins)

Debut thriller which livened up January for me when I read and rated it four stars.  I said of it “It reads well, the Louisiana setting effectively makes its presence known and I am not surprised that options for a TV adaptation have reputedly been picked up.”  It created enough impression on me to have made her next book one of my highlights for the coming year. 

A Good Day To Die – Amen Alonge (Quercus Books)

A big-buzz debut which I read in February and ranked three stars which I found a little underwhelming.  I think that might have been because the publishers were keen to compare this to the superbly written and crafted US TV series “The Wire”.  The odd cartoonish violent scene jarred and I wasn’t convinced by the first person/third person narrative switches.  It did feel fresh and vibrant but perhaps did not live up to the expectations I had for it when I highlighted it as a title I wanted to read last year

Mother’s Boy – Patrick Gale (Tinder Press)

Haven’t read this yet, but I do have a copy sitting waiting on my Kindle.  I’m not sure it made the impression so far some of his titles have on the book-publishing world, but I would imagine that the paperback which is published in February will be a strong seller.

Mouth To Mouth- Antoine Wilson (Atlantic Books)

An American debut with a lot of pre-publication fanfare which did get me seeking it out in February but once again I think maybe I was taken in by the hype.  I thought it had a brave narrative style, as it is a recounting of a tale told second hand.  I said of it “I can see why some readers would really like this book and I can see also why it might leave some unconvinced.  Unusually for me, I’m somewhat stuck in the middle.” That will explain the three star rating then. 

Memphis – Tara M Stringfellow (John Murray)

A debut I read in March and a four star read.  I said of the author; “There’s a voluptuousness to her words, a richness in description, an over-ripeness which beautifully conveys Memphis, Tennessee.”  Tara M Stringfellow certainly left me wanting more with this strong contemporary saga.

Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Picador)

I was itching to read this book and when I finished it in April I was so taken aback that I loved it even more than the Booker Prize winning debut which was my 2021 Book Of The Year and by the end of 2022 I still hadn’t read anything to top it and so Douglas Stuart was the author of my favourite book for two years running.  Don’t know why it wasn’t Booker shortlisted but The Guardian, Telegraph, Time Magazine showed much taste in having it on their end of year highlights list.  Outstanding. 

Theatre Of Marvels – Lianne Dillsworth (Penguin)

This proved to be another four star debut and one which could also generate some very healthy sales when the paperback arrives in March.  Set in 1840s London with Crillick’s Variety Theatre as a central location.  It felt very commercial, an ideal reading group choice which would generate much discussion about the issues involved and appreciation for the author’s story-telling skills. 

That’s 9 out of 10 of this read which is my best score ever.  Here are ten more titles which have attracted my attention pre-publication which I hope to be getting around to in 2023.  I wonder, as last year, whether my ultimate Book Of The Year is lurking amongst these books.  

Devil’s Way- Robert Bryndza (Raven Street Publishing) (Due out on 12th January)

Book number 4 in what has so far been a very strong crime series featuring Devon based Private Detective Kate Marshall.  There has been a different feel to each book from the really quite harrowing series opener “Nine Elms” to the much gentler whodunnit feel of “Darkness Falls”.  Who knows what direction Robert Bryndza will take with this but I am expecting high quality writing and further developments in the working relationship between his very effective lead characters – Kate and her younger gay male partner Tristan.

The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels – Janice Hallett (Viper Books) (due out on 19th January)

Third book for the author who made #4 in my current Books Of The Year list with her so impressive debut.  Second novel not quite as good but did not disappoint so I’m fascinated to see where she goes with this.  The Sunday Times described her as “The Queen Of Tricksy Crime” which seems appropriate for her cleverly structured misdirecting fiction.  We’ve had e-mails and phone communications in the debut, audio files in “The Twyford Code”.  Here it seems to be research for a true crime work found in a safe which forms the basis for the plot.

My Father’s House – Joseph O’Connor (Vintage Books) (due out on 26th January)

The one Joseph O’Connor novel I have read 2019’s “Shadowplay” ended up at number 4 in that year’s Books Of The Year list.  This is a historical thriller based on a true story and set in Nazi occupied Rome of 1943.  Last time around I praised the quality of the writing.  I said “O’Connor is good with multi-sensory lists which build such evocative pictures of the time.”  I will be looking forward to more of this.

All The Dangerous Things – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins)  (due out on 2nd February)

I rated Stacy Willingham’s debut four stars and this is the second year in a row she has appeared in my anticipated list.  The cover has me interested with its “What if the past is best left unburied” teaser.  It’s been heralded a one-sitting read, but I actually can’t remember when I last did that.  I will prefer to take my time to let what Karin Slaughter calls its “palpable tension” to really get its grip.    

Hungry Ghosts- Kevin Jared Hosein (Bloomsbury Publishing) (due out on 16th February)

A debut with a big pre-publication buzz.  The BBC news website described is as “One of the most talked about forthcoming books in literary circles.”  Well, add me to that circle as I’m telling you about it here.  Bernardine Evaristo has described it as “astonishing” and the late Hilary Mantel found it “deeply impressive” so I would imagine it has great depth.  It is a saga of two families in 1940s Trinidad which promises violence, religion, family and class.

Fire Rush – Jacqueline Crooks (Vintage Books) (due out on 2nd March)

This is another debut novel from a young author, who, her publishers say, escaped involvement with a gang underworld through writing and music.  Her short stories have received critical acclaim and here we have something which is being heralded as “about dub reggae, love, loss and freedom.  Fire Rush is an electrifying state-of-the-nation novel and an unforgettable portrait of Black Womanhood.”

The Sun Walks Down -Fiona McFarlane (Sceptre) (Due out on 9th March)

Here’s an epic tale, this time, according to the publishers,  featuring “unsettlement, history, myth, love and art.”.  Set in the late nineteenth century Australian outback and featuring a child who goes missing. Anne Patchett has already described it as “marvellous”.  I haven’t read this Australian author’s previous work which includes an award-winning novel and short-story collection.  This seems a good place to start.

Death Under A Little Sky – Stig Abell (Harper Collins) (due out on 13th April)

Stig Abell has been editor of The Times Literary Supplement and managing editor of The Sun.  He currently co- hosts the breakfast show on Times Radio.  He has been a member of the Press Complaints Commission and has already written two fascinating sounding non-fiction works one of which examines “How Britain Really Works” and one a study on reading “Things I Learned On The 6.28”.  What has been missing from his CV so far is fiction, and here he is with a debut crime novel – a British countryside set whodunnit. Expect high quality literary writing.

Arthur And Teddy Are Coming Out – Ryan Love (HQ Books)  (due out on 13th April)

The publishers are calling this the feel-good read of 2023 and by April we might all be needing some light relief.  This is the tale of a 79 year old grandfather and his grandson who are simultaneously coming to terms with their sexuality.  The cover claims “It’s never too late to be you”. This is another debut which is promising much from a Northern Ireland born writer who has worked in public relations in the music industry, is a former Showbiz editor for Digital Spy and an advocate for mental health.

The Making Of Another Motion Picture Masterpiece – Tom Hanks (Penguin Random House) (due out on 9th May)

Yes, it’s that Tom Hanks and this is his first full-length novel and I’m not normally a sucker for Hollywood A-lister celebrity authors but this certainly sounds ambitious as it spans 80 years of American history and is about the production of a superhero movie. I’m getting John Irving/Michael Chabon vibes.  This will get a lot of publicity and could very well be one of the big titles of the year.

What I Should Have Read In 2022

It’s time for the annual namecheck for 10 books which I didn’t get round to reading in 2022 but I think I should.  Perhaps they are books I’ve intended to read since publication or titles that passed me by and which I’ve only found out about recently in end of year lists.  Since publishing last year’s list I’ve got round to reading 30% of them, which is a lot lower than I would have expected.  I do have 5 of them on my bookshelves or on my Kindle so hopefully I will get round to them in 2023.  Here are the ten titles in alphabetical order of author’s surname.

Too Much – Tom Allen  (Hodder Studio)

This is the second time comedian and TV presenter Tom has made this list.  I did read his debut autobiography “No Shame” (2020) early on in 2021 which I described as “well-written, funny, significant”. This second work has his response to the death of his father as the central theme.  Graham Norton’s three words to describe this are “Funny, candid and measured.”  It’s a very British thing to process feelings about grief through humour and it is something which fascinates me.  I look forward to seeing how Tom has achieved this. 

A Tidy Ending – Joanna Cannon (Borough Press)

When am I going to get round to reading this author?  I don’t know how many times I have had “The Trouble With Goats And Sheep” recommended to me and I have had it on my shelves for years.  I’m not sure I fancy “Three Things About Elsie” but this 2022 novel seems up my street and I have bought a Kindle copy.  It’s described as “dark comedy” which is something I approve of.  The Mail On Sunday said “Cannon’s shrewd characterisation, sparky observations and subtly menacing plot makes this a darkly funny and delightfully sinister read.” Whereas I rarely believe what The Mail On Sunday say I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one because reviews are consistently good.  It made the Times Thrillers Of The Year list. Right, next year is going to be the year I catch up with Joanna Cannon.

Without Warning And Only Sometimes – Kit De Waal (Tinder Press)

I haven’t read anything by Kit De Waal’s, although “My Name Is Leon” has been on my radar since publication and there is no reason why I would not get round to this,  especially once I have read this memoir which made it to number 39 on the Telegraph Books Of The Year list.  The only book in her house when growing up was a Bible, the possession of her Irish, Jehovah’s Witness mother.  Of her childhood in 1960’s/70’s Birmingham, Kit has said; “We were the only black children at the Irish Community Centre and the only ones with a white mother at the West Indian Social Club.” Cathy Rentzenbrink has said of it “I loved it and couldn’t put it down.  Both joyous and heart-breaking, it captures an era and is also a beautiful tribute to sibling love, and a completely compelling story of how one girl became a reader.”  This just sounds like the perfect memoir to me. 

Exit Stage Left- Nick Duerden (Headline)

I’m fascinated by the subject of this non-fiction work.  Fame in the entertainment business can be intense and also fleeting.  This book looks at what happens when the adulation disappears.  Nick Duerden interviews a whole range of artist across the music business in a book which featured on Sunday Times, Guardian & Telegraph best books of the year list and according to Surrey Life Magazine “… is a candid and at times, laugh-out-loud look at the curious afterlife of pop stars.”

The Trees – Percival Everett (Influx Press)  

It was only a few years ago that I made a determined effort with the Booker Prize to read as many as the shortlisted titles as possible before the winner was announced.  In order to fit them in I had to actually read from the longlist trying to make an educated guess as to what would stay in the running.  This has dwindled over the last couple of years to just reading the winner.  This year I didn’t even fancy that but this was the title from the shortlist which piqued my interest.  I already have an unread Percival Everett title on my bookshelves “Erasure” from 2001 but this new title promises much.  The Telegraph called it “grotesquely entertaining” and the NY Times applauded its combination of “unspeakable terror and knock out comedy”.  It deals  with racism and police violence and yet it is funny.  I’m fascinated to see how the author pulls this off.  I think it would be a powerful impressive read.

In Perfect Harmony – Will Hodgkinson (Nine Eight Books)  

Another music-based non-fiction title this time examining how in the grimy industrial strife of the 1970s we became awash with sunshiny pop music.  Punk, disco and reggae may have been more cool but it was this more mainstream music which dominated  record sales and radio playlists.  This promises to be both a social and popular cultural history which appeals in the same way that Bob Stanley’s “Let’s Do It” did this year.  It also made a number of best of lists in the British press.  Suzi Quatro describes it as “A colourful picture of the entire 70s in Great Britain” which sounds right up my street. 

Vladimir – Julia May Jonas (Picador)

This American debut fiction title made it to number 40 in the Telegraph Books Of The Year and caused quite a stir on publication.  It’s a tale of obsession and has been talked about as “Lolita” in reverse as a female academic in her 50s falls for a young male novelist.  The Boston Globe described it thus; “Vladimir goes into such outrageous territory that my jaw literally dropped at moments while I was reading it.  There’s a rare blend here of depth of character, mesmerizing prose, and fast-paced action.”  I think this is a book which sounds like it will cause a much greater impact in the UK when the paperback arrives (scheduled for Feb 2023).  It sounds like a page-turning and head-turning debut.

Mercury Pictures Presents – Anthony Marra (John Murray)

This historical novel also attracted plaudits this year and was a Book Of The Year in both the Sunday Times and The Observer.  It’s a tale of a woman who moves from Italy under Mussolini to Hollywood where she becomes an associate producer at a movie studio.  The blurb describes it as “an epic story of love, deceit and reinvention”.  Ann Patchett says it is “full of history, comedy and horror.  It’s a great literary read.” Sounds good enough to me. I don’t know of American author Marra but he has been compared to literary greats such as George Orwell, Nabokov and Kafka, which does seem a very broad comparison but suggests that there’s a bit of a genius at work.

The Guncle- Stephen Rowley (GP Putnam’s)

I’ve got a bit confused by this book as to its availability over the year.  I just wasn’t seeing it around like I had expected to. It looks like it was published in the UK in April but I’m sure I knew about it long before then.  I’m assuming that this was because it was a big American title which gained a lot of attention in the US in 2021, reaching the shortlist in the reader chosen Goodreads awards but took a while to appear over here.  I think when I was looking for it only a US edition was available. It’s a feel-good, funny novel and we can all do with some of those this winter about a once-famous gay sitcom star having to take over the care of his niece and nephew (hence the title).  Author Timothy Schaffert describes it as “Delightful, sharp, and very funny.  The Guncle is the cocktail equivalent of the fourth sip of your martini while you sit poolside at sunset.”  We might have to swap that for a cup of tea and sitting with a blanket over your knees deciding whether to put the heating on but I think you’ll get his point!

Portable Magic – Emma Smith (Penguin)

Subtitled “A History Of Books and their Readers” from the critical appreciation being heaped on this non-fiction work it looks like Emma Smith has done what she set out to do.  Colin Burrow in The Guardian described it as “Thought-provoking …fizzing with jokes…Smith does it all with such a light touch you barely notice how much you’re learning.”  Lynne Truss says “Emma Smith’s terrifically knowledgeable and thoughtful Portable Magic helps us understand every aspect of what our beloved books stand for.  I for one am very grateful.  What a delight this book is.” Books about books, I’m know I’m probably preaching to the converted if you are reading this but I’m sure you will agree with me that this is worth seeking out. 

The Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho – Paterson Joseph (Dialogue 2022)

Paterson Joseph is a noted British actor of stage and screen.  I saw him most recently in the Suranne Jones starring BBC TV Drama “Vigil” playing the Commanding Officer of the beleaguered submarine.  He has now joined the sphere of actors turning to fiction writing with very worthy intentions to fill some of the gaps of pre-Windrush Black British history by giving us a fictional account of the life of this notable 18th Century character, who became the first African man to vote in a British election.  The author has been researching this life for twenty years, and has written and performed a one-man play. He has now rightly decided (if not only because of the gaps in what is actually known) to recreate the man known as Sancho as Historical Fiction.

What is done really well here is in the feel of the piece. Paterson Joseph has obviously submerged himself in the fiction of the time and without doubt in “Tristram Shandy”, the author of which, Laurence Sterne makes a brief appearance here. With a combination of a memoir intended for the main character’s son, diary entries and letters to and from his betrothed we get a real sense of Sancho and the world he inhabits.

Initially, as a child, a dress up doll/valet for three spinsters Sancho finds an entrée into society under the eye of the Duke of Montagu.  It is a precarious arrangement and there are many turns of fortune for this black man in 18th Century London.  Deemed at various times a novelty, a creative talent, a threat and a runaway slave Sancho has to wrestle with his own inconsistencies and this makes for fascinating reading.  In the eyes of some he is seen as deserving of a place in high society for others he is the lowest of the low.  How does a man come to terms with his own self-worth in such circumstances?

The early sections of this book are just splendid, as Sancho ages it grows more reflective, the tale shifts significantly to his wife-to-be Anne’s experiences in an epistolary section of the book which serves to contrast experiences outside of Britain but doesn’t work as well as the London-based writings.  Throughout there is a feel of authenticity, even when the structure (as in all actual eighteenth-century novels I have read) feels jerky.  There were areas of the life of Charles Ignatius Sancho which I felt could have been fleshed out more but I welcome the opportunity of getting to know this man through this novel.  I am thinking this could be the best actor-turned-writer novel I’ve read since 1960’s icon and model Marsha Hunt’s “Joy” from 1990.

The Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho is published by Dialogue Books on 6th October 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Toll House – Carly Reagon (Sphere 2022)

As the nights draw in something creepy becomes an increasingly appealing reading choice and this debut novel might very well fit the bill.

In 1863 the cottage on the Old Turnpike Road, Stonebridge, was a working Toll House lived in by the keeper Joseph Walton and his pregnant wife Bella.  In the present day it becomes a new home for Kelda and her six-year-old son Dylan.  They chose the house out of financial necessity but from their initial viewing Kelda senses it needing her and confuses this with homeliness.  The house is, in fact, haunted and the past and present clash.  The nineteenth century is covered largely by a first-person present tense narrative by Walton with a third person narration for the present day.

It takes a while to move from gently unnerving to anything more chilling, and as in many ghost stories, it is the child, Dylan, who bears the brunt whilst Kelda cannot believe anything is seriously amiss despite increasing evidence to the contrary.  It does build nicely as both Kelda’s own past and the distant past of the Toll House come back to haunt her.  Her desire to live a life no more demanding than work, childcare and maybe meeting the perfect man on a dating app is certainly thwarted by the history of her house. 

The novel doesn’t add anything new to the haunted house genre and it was more subtly creepy than out and out chilling as far as I was concerned but plot and characterisation are handled well and there’s a solid sense of history throughout.  There are some good twists, especially towards the end.  This could very well be a popular choice for bookshop browsers in the month leading up to Halloween.

The Toll House is published by Sphere as a hardback and e-book on 6th October 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Best Of Friends- Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus 2022)

I loved Kamila Shamsie’s last novel, the 2018 Women’s Prize For Fiction winning “Home Fire” placing it at number 6 in my 2017 Books Of The Year.  Although based on the Ancient Greek myth of Antigone it felt extremely relevant to our world.  There were some big themes tackled and I said that the author “is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.”

No wonder I was looking forward to reading this.  It feels a much less ambitious work, a quieter novel but it still managed to impress.  The best friends are Zahra and Maryam and we first meet them in Karachi in 1988 as two fourteen year olds negotiating adolescence and kissing posters of George Michael.  Their friendship has been strong for years, Zahra is keen to point out the difference between their own close bond with a word she has found in the dictionary “Propinquity- a relationship based on proximity” which is what they feel they have with others.

The first half explores the potential minefields of teenage life for two girls in late 1980s Pakistan excellently.  It feels pitch-perfect, Zahra is coming to terms with physical changes and feelings, the awkwardness and newness of which will bring shudders of recognition.  Maryam, more privileged, feels that her future is mapped out for the with a family leather goods business and a grandfather who sees in her the abilities to take the business on.  She plays cricket with his employees, is popular and has more vision than her own father.  The girls sense new beginnings with the ascendancy of Benazir Bhutto until an event takes them into an unexpected direction.

The second part of the novel takes us to London in 2019 where the friends are now living very different lives.  How far are they the products of their past experience?  The second half is unsurprisingly more political as they attempt to improve the adult world they felt let them down as teenagers, but will their friendship survive?

I loved the first half and enjoyed the second half but for me the novel’s strength is in their teenage Karachi days exploring the girls’ strongly forged friendship with all its intensities and experiences together with the limitations that their environment places on them.  This feels magnified by the bombardment of the myriad mixed messages of their Pakistani upbringing which the author skilfully conveys.

Best Of Friends is published by Bloomsbury Circus on September 27th 2022.   Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Young Pretender- Michael Arditti (2022)

I read about the subject of this historical novel in an article in the May 2022 edition of “The Oldie” magazine.  It was written by the author and entitled “The First Child Star”.  I knew of Michael Arditti but have never read him (I do have a copy of his “The Celibate” on my shelves) and was totally fascinated by his account of his latest hero.

William Betty (1791-1874) became a hugely celebrated actor in his early teens, playing to huge acclaim and intimidating other very popular performers into semi-retirement and playing roles he was far too young to act.  This fame ended suddenly as it would do for myriads of child stars to the present day.  This novel begins when at the age of 20 he attempts to make a comeback.

In Arditti’s novel we see William going it alone.  The tutor who had so inspired and believed in him was dismissed by his manager father who has subsequently died. His first-person narrative feels authentic.  He does seem to have only sketchy memories of the time of his fame, even though it was just a few years before and is trying to piece together what caused him to fall out of favour.  This lack of memory is an effective device within the narrative but is quite a big ask for the reader to take on board and I admit to getting confused at times between the switches from Master Betty to the now Mr Betty’s attempts to emulate his success.

It is a slim novel and didn’t really get going in the way I was expecting it to.  Technically, it is impressive but perhaps the author had over-whetted my appetite in “The Oldie” article and I would have liked this fascinating, now pretty much forgotten subject to have been opened up more.  I do have a fascination for the fleeting nature of celebrity and this very early historical example is certainly worth a read.  It was always enjoyable even if it did not quite make the impression on me that I was anticipating.

The Young Pretender was published by Arcadia Books in 2022.

Lessons- Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape 2022)

I first discovered Ian McEwan when I was a teenager and I can still recall being blown away by his two collections of short stories – “First Love, Last Rites” (1975) and “In Between The Sheets” (1978).  I had never read anything like these before and his first novel “The Cement Garden” (1978) was equally flooring.

Decades on we are up to his 17th adult novel and along the way there has been the all-time classic, “Atonement” (2001) and the very strong, (“Enduring Love” (1997)“, The Innocent” (1990), “Saturday” (2005) and “Nutshell” (2016)), the okay “On Chesil Beach” (2007) and the one which left me cold but won him the Booker Prize in 1998 “Amsterdam”.  I haven’t read everything by him- “Nutshell” was the last and I reckon this latest makes it my 11th experience of him over the years.

Main character in this decades-spanning work is Roland Baines (a character the same age as McEwan which gives this an autobiographical feel to historical perspectives if not the actual events of the novel) and central is his experience as an 11 year old new to private school in 1959 when his female piano teacher punishes his mistakes by slipping a finger under his shorts and pinching his thigh.  This leads to an obsession for Roland which endures over the next few years.  Obsession is something McEwan does so well, we’ve seen it before in “Enduring Love” but here it is two-sided and we see the influence of this woman in the rest of Roland’s life.  Another starting point is in 1986 when his wife fails to return home leaving new father Roland as a suspect in her disappearance.

McEwan’s novel brings us up to the present-day – post-lockdown (this is my first experience of the lockdown months in fiction and it feels very authentic and I  discovered I am ready to read about it now ) and takes in family members, including Lawrence, the son he had to bring up alone and also incorporates back-story of his mother-in-law’s experience in post-war Germany.

At times the writing is superb and it is bated-breath fiction- particularly around the relationship with Roland and piano teacher Miriam yet at other times it feels surprisingly loose for an author whose work is often so concise and tight and yet even when it feels close to becoming bogged down in the everyday minutiae of family life, for example, he is able to produce writing and scenes which pulls it back and keeps the reader on side.  His son, Lawrence, and his generation feel quite safe characters and I did expect more spark and tension to come from them (unless this is McEwan’s comment on this age group) and there is one characterisation (I’ll leave you to work it out) who does not feel totally plausible.

It does feel a long book, in terms of words and scope.  It is highly reflective with a lot of evaluating the past and the lessons learnt.  I feel it is almost but not quite up there amongst his best work, there are scenes which will likely remain with me for a long time but I think that the fact that I found myself struggling with a star rating for this (even as I was writing this review) suggests it was not a five star read for me but a very high four star work. 

Lessons was published in hardback by Jonathan Cape and as an e-book by Vintage on 13th September.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

All The Broken Places – John Boyne (Doubleday 2022)

A new John Boyne title is always a reading highlight for me.  I’ve read 7 of his up to now, 4 of which have ended up in my end of year Top 10s. I was both thrilled and made nervous by his decision to write a sequel to his most famous and my 2nd favourite of his, (“The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is probably still my most loved book of the 21st Century so far), “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” (2006) which I read in 2018 when it was runner up in my Books Of The Year to “The Count Of Monte Cristo.”

It is such an impressively self-contained piece that it seems an unlikely and perhaps unnecessary book to have a sequel.  In his Author’s Note John Boyne says he’s been mulling the idea over for years and the isolation of lockdown felt like the right time.  The question for me was, did I want to revisit these characters in another setting?

This is the first-person narrative of Gretel, the sister to Bruno, main character in “Striped Pyjamas” and it follows a dual narrative, one which moves through time from the end of World War II and one taking place in modern day London.  Here, Gretel is a sprightly 91 year old living in a smart apartment in Winterville Court, overlooking Hyde Park, the other narrative explores how Gretel has reached this point in her life.

Unsurprisingly, the central theme in the novel is guilt. Gretel has got to 91 living daily with her family’s involvement in the hostilities in the place Bruno thought was called “Out-With”.  The immediate post-war years saw a need for re-invention in different locations until she settles in London. 

My dilemma here, and I think this will be the case for many readers, is Gretel.  She is realistically rather than sympathetically drawn but I couldn’t help rooting for her and I struggled whether this was the right response, and this was likely to be the author’s intention.  Obviously she has got to an old age thousands were deprived of and there are some extraordinary moments in her past which will stop you in your tracks and will fundamentally change the way you feel about this character in “Striped Pyjamas” and Boyne does extremely well to also convey her effectively as an elderly woman still struggling after many decades to come to terms with her past.

Supporting characters do not seem as well drawn as in other of this author’s novels (especially in the contemporary section) but we are seeing them from Gretel’s perspective and words and she is very wrapped up in herself, so perhaps this is appropriate.  As “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” builds to a big twist there are a couple of those along the way for those readers looking for a big reveal.

I did enjoy this and wanted to know what was going on but my ongoing niggle as to whether a sequel was necessary was unresolved and so I take that as meaning that this book is not as Essential as “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas”.  All of the now 8 Boyne works I have read have had something in them to enrich my life but this  for me does not quite make it into my Top 5 of his novels.  It is thought-provoking and at times really gripping but remains slightly in the shadow of his 2006 masterpiece.

All The Broken Places is published by Doubleday on September 15th 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.