The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes -Zoe Playdon (Bloomsbury 2021)

This is the first book by LGBT+ activist and human rights specialist and Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at University of London Zoe Playdon.  This is an author with an impressive CV and this book comes out of a five year research project which she only had the time to begin after retirement.

It’s both a simple story of basic human rights and an incredibly complex web of legal ramifications which attempts to put into context society’s treatment of individuals who do not belong in the gender to which they were assigned at birth and tracks how much of society’s response to trans people has developed from a court case from 1968, the details of which were hidden from the public.  The author states;

“Most people are unaware that until the late 1960s trans people lived in complete legal equality with everyone else.  Ewan was the reason that changed.”

Ewan Forbes Semphill was an unassuming figure to have caused such a seismic shift in attitudes.  A religious man, born in 1912, a gifted and popular local doctor in the small Scottish community where he lived, he liked dancing and was happily married.  Ewan, however, was born the Hon. Elizabeth Forbes-Semphill, a member of one of Scotland’s distinguished families and whose father had the dual titles of a baronetcy and a barony (he was the 8th Baronet Forbes of Craigievar and the 17th Lord Semphill).

The child became known as Benjie and had a very outdoorsy existence made miserable when forced to don dresses and pose as the “Hon. Elizabeth”.  With money, prestige and a supportive mother came the opportunity to tour Europe and receive revolutionary new treatments and Benjie became Ewan.  His gender was reassigned and an action which would surprise many who battled in later decades to achieve this, his birth certificate was changed without that much fuss.

Ewan slipped easily into the life he wanted to follow and that might have been it if the concept of primogeniture did not raise its ugly head.  With titles succeeding along the male line Ewan’s right to succession was challenged by a cousin he had barely met who forced a court-case to get Ewan to prove he was male who had been wrongly assigned to a female gender at birth.

It is an extraordinary tale of a man who just wanted to get on with his life but became inevitably and continually swept up in developments even though he lived largely under the radar.  I found this clash of the simplicity of Ewan’s life as a Highlands doctor against the whole maelstrom of long-lasting legal ramifications not easy to read.  There were so many big issues going on here that I found it hard occasionally to maintain focus in this format.  Perhaps it was too ambitious to condense a five year research project into one book for the general reader who may be grappling with these concepts of gender and sexual identity for the first time.  It is a demanding work but at the heart of it is this one man who probably never saw his life as extraordinary.

The actual tale of Ewan Forbes I loved.  His hidden case did have me lost at times but the author does bring it back to contemplate the legacy of the case and the gap that still exists in terms of trans rights and the ongoing threats to the existence of trans men and women.  This is some hope with greater acceptance, and strong following and support for a new wave of activists as well as Joe Biden’s pledge to improve matters in the US, following shocking policies from the Trump administration as well as the gradual removal of long-lasting practices which contravened basic human rights, in both US, UK and world-wide, even in places we might consider “enlightened”.

I do think just a little tweaking would have made this work a little more accessible and would have got it the wider audience it deserves but it is a sobering, thought-provoking and at times quite extraordinary read.

The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes was published by Bloomsbury on 11th November 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Lily – Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus 2021)

I haven’t read Rose Tremain for 8 years since I discovered her via her 1989 publication “Restoration”.  I absolutely loved it and it ended up in my Top 3 books for 2013. For some reason I’ve not got round to her novel from a decade later “Music & Silence” which I have had on my shelves for some years.  On reading the description of this, her latest and 16th novel, I felt it was time to revisit her as an author.

Nineteenth century settings are always going to win me over.  We start with an abandoned baby in an East London park at night and wolves who chew off her toe.  She is rescued by a Police Constable and taken to the London Foundling Hospital.  This is the story of the first 17 years of Lily’s life.

Subtitled “A Tale Of Revenge” we know from early on that guilt hangs over the young girl.  She sees herself as a murderer but we don’t know who or why.  The story is told in a third person narrative from her past and her present as a 17 year old employed as a wigmaker.  Some of these switches are a little abrupt I felt which tended to jar rather than build up the suspense as intended.

I was totally captivated by Lily’s story.  I really enjoyed the author’s writing style, use of language and ability to bring Lily’s world to life with some great characterisation.  It did, however, feel a slighter more understated work than I was expecting, plot-wise it hovers towards the sentimental and predictable and I felt disappointed that some plot-lines fizzled out.  Since finishing the book I read an interview with Rose Tremain in The Daily Telegraph Review section (30/10/21) where it is described as a recovery novel following a pancreatic cancer diagnosis which has led to her not being able to retain as much historical research as she has in the past which might explain the route she decided to take with this book.  She also says an initial inspiration came from hallucinations from drugs she was taking or anti-nausea which conjured up Victorian type children asking her for help.

I relished the writing and story-telling here.  It’s not going to end up in my end of year Top 10 like “Restoration” but I was certainly rooting for Lily throughout.

Lily is published by Chatto & Windus in the UK on 4th November 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Black Drop – Leonora Nattrass (Viper 2021)

It’s London in 1794 and those with power are nervous. A fragile treaty with America is being attempted, relations with France have become further rattled by events following the French Revolution, and their own subjects fill the pungent air with talk of sedition and treason. This provides the starting point for Leonora Nattrass’ historical  debut novel.

Nattrass has combined fictional characters with those really around at the time and provides us with a useful cast list at the beginning (I consulted this a number of times).  Largely the confession of Foreign Office clerk Laurence Jago, who is hiding his French ancestry and offering information to a shadowy female spy (an underdeveloped character I felt here and perhaps the only one the author does not bring fully to life).  Jago becomes implicated in leaking information which would hurt the British army in France but he is innocent and the house of cards he had built up around himself begins to fall.

This is Jago’s narrative throughout and he meets some lively characters, most notably Philpott, a loyalist journalist who the author states she based upon William Cobbett, who brings a lot of life to the scenes he is in, including one set in a menagerie.  There’s much political intrigue in this well-researched novel but I found it most gripping away from the main plot to uncover spies when it deals with the human cost and the changing loyalties of the volatile mobs.  A trial for treason follows closely along historical facts and involves the Prime Minister William Pitt and provides a high point of the novel.  The title refers to a laudanam type medicine Jago becomes addicted to but this is somewhat underplayed.  This is a strong debut from a promising author.  There were, admittedly, times when my attention wandered but I was pulled back in and found myself caring about the outcome for these characters.

Black Drop is published by Viper on October 14th 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Are We Having Fun Yet? – Lucy Mangan (Souvenir Press 2021)

Here’s a title from my picks for 2021 I nominated in a post at the start of the year (I’m doing extremely well with these having so far read 80%).  Back then it was provisionally titled “Diary Of A Suburban Lady” with an acknowledged E.M Delafield’s “Diary Of A Provincial Lady” as its inspiration.

It’s now got a snappier title and the Delafield connection would not be apparent to most readers.  What we have here is a year in the life of a harassed mum of two presented in a diary form.

I always enjoy reading diaries.  In fiction they can make a quick read, which is a good thing when humour is the key goal.  It’s a day-to-day battle of juggling child-care arrangements, balancing work-load between the spouses (husband Richard not doing as well as he thinks here), negotiating the school run and drop-offs and bringing up placid 7 year old Thomas and precocious set-to-rule-the-world five year old Evie.

Thematically, there are parallels with the BBC TV Comedy “Motherland” which I love, especially with the parent outsiders having to fit in with the expectations of those in the PTA.  As the year progresses the characters form stronger identities and I felt sorry leaving them at the end of the year.  It is on occasions laugh out loud funny but a good level of smile-along humour is maintained throughout.

Lucy Mangan, columnist and TV reviewer from “The Guardian” made my end of year Top 10 last time out with her sublime non-fiction account of her childhood reading habits, “Bookworm“, (I included it here within my Essential 100 Books thread), making number 3 in my 2018 Books Of The Year, so I obviously had very high expectations.  It is a very commercial work, written in a genre where fans will be loyal and supportive, it feels fresh and contemporary, so it’s a shrewd move which could sell very well indeed.  I’m aware I’m not the intended audience for this book but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It would make an excellent Christmas present for those too busy coping with family life to spend time browsing in Waterstones, or for those now with the strength to look back on how they coped as well as those contemplating raising a family.

Are We Having Fun Yet will be published by Souvenir Press on 14th October 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Corruption Of Blood – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2021)

This is the third in a very solid historical crime series written by husband and wife Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman.  The combination of their professional backgrounds, Brookmyre, an established best-selling crime author and Haetzman, an expert on anaesthesia, is tailor-made for this mid-nineteenth century series set in Edinburgh featuring two fictional characters working for Dr Simpson, a real-life medical pioneer who developed the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic.

Good groundwork has already been laid in the first two novels “The Way Of All Flesh” (2018), a book I often recommend to our library users, and “The Art Of Dying” (2019).  Firstly, the will-they-won’t-they relationship between main characters Will Raven and Sarah Fisher is enthralling as are the ongoing obstacles for a nineteenth century woman attempting to prove herself as anything other than a wife and mother.  At the start of this novel, in 1850, Sarah has set off to meet with another real life figure, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain a medical degree and be registered with the UK General Medical Council for advice, but she is not encouraging.

In fact, the malaise experienced by Sarah as she returns to Edinburgh following this encounter seems to infiltrate the novel as the first half feels a little flat compared to its predecessors.  Raven should be in celebratory mood as he has developed an understanding with a doctor’s daughter, Eugenie, but she feels under-drawn here (purposely so?) making it hard to appreciate why Raven would choose her over Sarah.  However, the Victorian Era is full of contradiction and hypocrisy and the victim of one of the crimes, which occupies Raven’s time, is an advocate for ill-treatment of prostitutes who may have been poisoned by his son.  The title refers to the term for total disinheritance should the heir be convicted of such a crime.

Sarah, at the same time, is engaged on locating the whereabouts of an unfortunate housemaid’s baby, given away at birth. It’s not until the two main characters come together that the pace picks up enhanced by the chemistry between them.  The last quarter of the novel is very strong indeed which lifts this book back up onto a par with the other two.  Further crimes are revealed, some particularly horrific, and careful plotting leads to an impressive exciting climax and resolution.

There is plenty of mileage left in this series and I look forward to finding out what the writers have in store for these characters.

A Corruption Of Blood is published in the UK in hardback by Canongate on 19th August 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. 

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (2020)

Another book from my What I Should Have Read In 2020 post (I’ve now managed to get through 60% of these).  Here was one I suspected  that I would really like but I enjoyed it even more than I imagined.  This is American author Brit Bennett’s second novel and after this I would certainly be keen on seeking out her 2016 debut “The Mothers”.

This, however, is the book that has established her breakthrough into the big time, appearing on so many Best Of The Year lists and has been shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for fiction.  The hype has built up which is often a dangerous thing for me and my expectations, but I’ll emphasise this, my expectations were exceeded here.

I came to it knowing roughly what it was about but there was so much more to it . Two light-skinned black twin sisters disappear from their small-town home and head for the excitement of New Orleans.  One, Desiree, eventually pairs up with an abusive, dark skinned man and has Jude, whose blue-black darkness of her skin shocks the residents of her home town, Mallard (where its black residents generally have a much lighter tone) on her return whereas her twin, Stella, ditches Desiree to disappear once again and decides to “pass” and live her life as a white woman.  In a decades spanning time frame we have as our starting point 1968 when Desiree returns to Mallard with her young daughter. 

There are so many discussion points in this novel regarding identity that one might expect it to feel issue-driven but no, plot and characterisation are both very strong and that together with its immersive readability provides an extremely impressive rounded work.  Those plot lines and unpredictable turns do drive the reader forward.  It’s not without a healthy dollop of melodrama and on a few occasions the authors use of cliff-hangers resembles the soap operas that one of the characters makes a name for herself on, but this is also a good thing, making it feel highly commercial, this together with its relevance where its publication alongside the media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement created publicity at a time when lockdown ensured the usual avenues of publicising their work were not open to most authors.  This book deserved the exposure, however, not because it was of the moment but because of the sheer quality of the handling of all areas of the book.

Performance has a major part to play.  Many of the characters are donning a disguise and playing a part, some professionally and some within their lives and even within their closest relationships.  I found the implications and repercussions of this fascinating.  It has the unusual advantages of being both a thought-provoking important novel and a great holiday read and I hope many more people will discover this work over the summer.  My only criticism of a book I found very difficult to put down is that perhaps the ending felt a little flat and less defined than I would have hoped but that may have been because it was the end of the novel and there was no more to read about these characters. 

The Vanishing Half was published in the UK by Dialogue Books in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now.

The Broken House- Horst Kruger (Bodley Head 2021)

This is the first English translation of a German memoir originally published in 1966 as “Das Zerbrochene Haus” and subtitled “Growing Up Under Hitler”.  In the Afterword the author (who died in 1999) reflects that it was a book which was developed backwards, in a way.  As a journalist in 1964 he was invited to attend the Auschwitz trials.  This forms the closing section of the book and is the most powerful and it was his attendance which caused Kruger to look back on his life.  In the 1960s he was stunned by how perpetrators of unthinkable crimes at the concentration camp had assimilated into society before having to answer for their actions at the trials.  I think if this book had been written more recently this central moment would have been the starting point but back in 1966 Kruger chose to employ a chronological approach which leads from his childhood outside Berlin, in Eichkamp, in an apolitical family where his environment would have made the rise of Adolf Hitler seem even more extraordinary.  Alongside this are the family dramas, the suicide of his oldest sister in 1939 and his own dallying with resistance and its repercussions.

There is a sense of detachment throughout which may feasibly be from the translation but I would imagine it is from the original text which does affect the flow and holds the reader at arm’s length.  There is little of Kruger’s own participation in the hostilities, it jumps to the end of his war, and indeed, this is acknowledged by the author in the Afterword which was written in 1975 and reflects back on the work, but this absence of this part of his life does seem a little odd.

In parts, it is magnificent, especially the second half of the book where Kruger feels to be on more certain ground, the actual growing up under Hitler sections in Eichkamp can feel a little tentative but there admittedly would have been so much that the town’s inhabitants would have been unsure about at the time.  It is not quite the masterpiece I had hoped but the author provides many moments that will linger long in my memory.

The English translation of “The Broken House” is by Shaun Whiteside. The book is published on 17th June 2021. The hardback is published by Bodley Head, the e-book by Vintage Digital. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Promise – Damon Galgut (Chatto & Windus 2021)

The me of 16 years ago read this South African author’s breakthrough novel which had been shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize.  I had to check back through my records to see that in the winter of 2005 I quite enjoyed “The Good Doctor”, his tale of a remote rural hospital and thought it well-written but I felt it had failed to draw me in and my verdict was that it was unexceptional.  To be honest, I had forgotten all about this opinion when I was invited by the publishers to review his latest title.  I was assured a novel “confident, deft and quietly powerful” and “literary fiction at its finest”.  I was intrigued.

If “The Good Doctor” failed to draw me in 16 years ago then things were soon put right with this.  I was very involved early on and it is the self-assurance of the writing and his handling of life-changing events which kept me hooked.  The Swart family live on a farm outside Pretoria and we visit them at various moments in their lives.  It is the tale of four deaths and the coming together of those left. Linking these occasions is a promise 13 year old Amor believes she has heard her father making to her dying mother, a promise which is denied, ignored or postponed for decades due to circumstances within the country and within the family.  The strength is in the characterisation and interactions between the family members. The tragic trigger points which cause the reunions roll back the preceding years with great economy and truth by the author.  I loved the structure of this novel, some demises are tragic, some violent, some tragi-comic but all imbued with a sense of South African history which is extremely effective.  There is an appealing calmness which runs alongside the tragedies.  It makes me think that the older me might have a greater appreciation of  “The Good Doctor” and I would be very interested in discovering more work (Galgut’s published oeuvre consists of novels, short story collections and plays) by this author.

The Promise will be published in the UK by  Chatto & Windus on 17th June 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. The Kindle/ebook edition is published by Vintage Digital.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line- Deepa Anappara (2020)

This debut has been on my radar since pre-publication and it featured on my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” post (this is now the 5th book on this list I’ve since read).  At that time I said I hadn’t actually seen a copy, perhaps it was initially lost amongst the impossible to promote debuts which appeared in the early months of 2020 but this has now become a very visible title (helped by its striking front cover in hardback, less striking in the paperback edition which appeared on 3rd June 2021.)  There is still a good buzz about this book which suggests it should be a strong seller in paperback.

It deserves success.  It’s an impressive book with characters that will linger for a long time and a lightness of touch which belies some very serious issues.  We begin with street children scavenging for survival for a man called Mental in a preface which suggests this may be dark reading but within a few pages we are into a first person narrative from 9 year old Jai, a child living with his child-like concerns of school, friends and TV, poor but happy in the slum-like conditions of his basti with his parents and sister.  When local children start to go missing Jai takes on detective duties with his two friends, the academically successful Pari and Faiz, a Muslim minority within their Hindu environment.

The authorities are not taking the disappearances seriously, they demand bribes for even basic policing and threaten demolition of the basti.  It is up to the children to find out more.  The superstitious Faiz believes it is the work of the supernatural, namely, djinns.  Pari and Jai remain unconvinced but do not recognise the daily dangers they face closer to home.

These three children are the life-blood of this book and it is impossible not to be drawn in by their outward confidence and swagger.  Anaparra worked for years as a journalist amongst such children and seems to have got her portrayals just right.  The fact that there’s a touch of the “cosy crime” novel about this when behind the façade much is horrific actually serves to intensify its power.  This is a strong work.  It will be interesting to see if Anaparra gives us more from these children in future as her reading public might demand or whether this will remain an enthralling stand-alone novel.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line was first published in the UK in hardback in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now published by Vintage.

Yes, Daddy – Jonathan Parks-Ramage (HMH Books 2021)

I’m a sucker for any title marketed as “Modern Gothic” and I was also tempted into reading this book as the author and I share an unusual surname.  He is no relation, however, this is an intriguing debut from an author from Los Angeles.  At times I thought it was stunningly powerful and gripping but for me it ran out of steam meaning I finished the book feeling a little flat from an author with so much potential.

This is the tale of Jonah, an aspiring playwright who sets his sights on seducing an older, successful dramatist who then finds he gets considerably more than he bargained for.  As a character his motives are often very questionable which is no bad thing (see John Boyne’s “Ladder To The Sky”, for example, for another ruthless lead ) but some readers’ responses to this book may be affected by his limited likeability.

We begin at a trial so we know from the start that something has gone awry in their relationship, there’s an early twist and then a shuffle back in time to relate the whole story in a first-person narrative by the ambitious, emotionally damaged younger man.  It’s not that long before it gets really good, at a point where Jonah feels woozy at a dinner party and although there’s not a hint of demonic possession here the tension of the writing and the surface of respectability hiding much darkness reminded me of Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, a book I love.

There are many plot turns along the way but the last third feels as if the build-up dissipates greatly to find an acceptable resolution and I rather think that this resolution might feel more acceptable to an American audience.

There are issues raised which are relevant to the #MeToo campaign and LGBT considerations here given a powerful, fresh dimension and I’m not sure how Parks-Ramage could have otherwise found his way out of the plot he has weaved but I feel he might have let his dramatic peaks appear too early in the narrative denying me the really splendid reading experience I thought I was going to get with this book.

Yes, Daddy was published on 18th May 2021 by Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Books.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.