The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Picador 2017)

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A novel full of poignant moments and a sense of yearning at a time of great change.  Austrian born Seethaler’s novel is quietly impressive.  It begins in 1937 when 17 year old Franz is sent by his mother from their Austrian Lake District home to Vienna to work in a small tobacconist’s shop.

Here Franz begins to learn about life from the merchandise and the shop’s aromas, from the newspapers he reads each day and from the customers.  These include an aging Sigmund Freud with whom Franz strikes up an unlikely friendship.

But the times are a changing and anti-semitism makes a bond with the Jewish Freud increasingly difficult and the one-legged tobacconist who Franz works for seems a threat to the authorities.  Franz, initially bewildered by the mysteries of love and an obsession for a worldly Bohemian girl finds he has more difficult things to contemplate.

The very likeable Franz is the heart of this novel.  Everything is underplayed, there are few big dramatic scenes yet the drama and turmoil of the times is palpable.  It is clear that for the people in Franz’ circle things can never be the same again.

I like novels where young characters attempt to make sense of the adult world and in Franz’s Vienna there is little that makes sense.  His retreats to analysing his dreams is both as a result of his meetings with Freud and an attempt to fathom out his existence where neither the real nor dream world seem quite right.

Robert Seethaler has written five novels.  His last “The Whole Life” was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.  This, translated by Charlotte Collins, with its quiet tenderness may slip under the awards radar but it is of lasting appeal.

fourstars

The Tobacconist was published by Picador in 2017.

The Brazilian – Rosie Millard (Legend Press 2017) – A Chick-Lit From A Male Point Of View Review

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In a Victoria Wood tribute I watched recently I saw for the umpteenth time “The Shoe Shop Sketch” and I laughed at every single line, as always, feeling almost overwhelmed by laughter at the end.  Such a clever writer.  It got me wondering what would have happened if Victoria had followed the lead of chums Celia Imrie and Julie Walters and written a novel.  Would she have gone for comedy and would it even have worked?  Would it have been possible to sustain her brand of humour (which I find very funny) over the entire length of a novel.  To do this is notoriously difficult……

 

Legend Press invited me to read Rosie Millard’s second comic novel “The Brazilian”.  Rosie is a journalist and as BBC Arts correspondent has been on the TV herself a fair few times so eases herself into that group of women novelists that includes Dawn French,  Fern Britton, Celia Imrie,  Meera Syal and Helen Lederer who we feel we know something about already due to a public persona and “celebrity status”.  So long as they are written by the person named on the cover (not Katie Price then), I’m really quite interested in reading them.  In fact, it was a celebrity moment, a television appearance on the fairly ghastly sounding “Celebrity Five Go To Lanzarotte” in which Rosie took part which provided the inspiration for this novel.

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Rosie Millard

Rosie has cleverly incorporated the characters from her first novel about North London neighbours in “The Square” (2015) into a holiday setting, rather in the way that comedy classic “Are You Being Served?” did when it was expanded into a movie, but here with much better results.  I read and reviewed “The Square” and enjoyed it as a North London comedy of (bad) manners which evolved from the location so I initially felt that uprooting some of these upmarket existences felt like a bit of a risk.  I said of the first novel; “Most of the women are ghastly and the men not worthy of any of the female lustful attentions” but that certainly doesn’t diminish its comic potential and by opening it all out into a relaxed holiday setting the women can become more ghastly and the men less worthy.  Over the years much situation comedy has indeed focused on ghastly women and inept men.

The location for all this is Ibiza.  A couple of The Square residents have been chosen to take part in a daytime reality show “Ibiza (Or Bust)”; there’s a holiday for Jayne, Patrick and their son where a babysitter is needed and with boyfriends and wives making their way over to the island it takes about eight characters out of “The Square”.  I’m sorry that recently rich lottery winner Tracey has only a bit part to play here.  Central character this time round is Jayne who during her family holiday becomes more monstrous, self-centred and devious than in the previous novel.

The title refers to both a character from the Reality Show and a certain waxing Jayne has in preparation for her holiday.  The TV show aspect gives it more structure and ensures it builds towards a climax rather than lose momentum (which I feel “The Square” was a little guilty of).  There’s some new characters to spice things up.  I must admit I like my humour a little warmer than what is on display here but the prickly comic situations are enjoyable enough although I didn’t laugh out loud.

The cover compares Rosie Millard to Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen and Arnold Bennett but that’s more fitting of the socially mannered “The Square”.  If we’re looking for a classic comic comparison I’d be more likely to go with E F Benson and his monstrous characters Mapp and Lucia who gave him enough comic potential and staying power to last six novels.  I think there’s still potential for the author to go further with these characters.  Taking them back to “The Square” with their Ibiza experience behind them could pay dividends.  All in all, although I preferred the set-up of the first novel I think that “The Brazilian” is better structured, the humour is more sustained and therefore a more satisfying sequel.

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The Brazilian is published on 14th June 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

Crimson & Bone- Marina Fiorato (Hodder & Stoughton 2017)

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I really enjoyed Marina Fiorato’s last novel “The Double Life Of Kit Kavanagh” which was a vibrant account of an extraordinary gender-challenging woman who, away from the author’s fictional account of her life, became the first female Chelsea Pensioner in tribute to her distinguished military service.  Here Marina Fiorato returns to purely imaginative historical fiction, taking her inspiration for her main character the young woman portrayed in John Everett Millais’ painting “The Bridesmaid”.

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Fiorato recasts this woman as Annie Stride, a prostitute whom we encounter at the beginning about to recreate the recent suicide of her only friend by jumping off Waterloo Bridge.  She is stopped by a passer-by, Francis Maybrick Gill, a Pre-Raphaelite artist who nutures Annie as his model and muse.  There is a simmering tension throughout as Annie attempts to put her miserable past behind her whilst something is askew with her relationship with the artist.

The plot moves from Central London to Florence as Gill takes Annie with him for further inspiration.  His main theme is the fallen woman throughout history and Annie finds herself his Mary Magdalene.  There’s admittedly a slight dip in interest when the novel first moves to Italy but the author makes up for that with an excellently handled last third.

When I moved into my new house I was delighted to find a Camelia in the garden, but after this I’m not so sure as the flower here plays a slightly menacing role, becoming overly dominant in Annie’s new life, from its cloying smell to the artist’s obsession with Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame Aux Camelias”.

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Plot, characterisation and atmosphere are handled here so well that this book confirms Marina Fiorato’s reputation as a strong historical story-teller.  She gets across the darkness and obsession present throughout the novel very well indeed and never overplays her hand, avoiding the melodrama it could so easily have become.  Like the best historical fiction, the history is incorporated seamlessly creating a seductive yet chilling tale.

fourstars

Crimson and Bone is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 18th May 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

Nudge-Book issue 92- Now Available

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The latest edition of the magazine I am delighted to be a contributor for has its latest issue available now.  And it has had a name change!  It’s still nb but that now stands for nudge-book to tie it in with its associated website (www.nudge-book.com) where I am the “Community Voice” for the Book Hugger section.

You may think, oh here he goes, pushing a magazine he is writing for and okay, I hold my hands up, but I was reading nb long before I was a contributor and it is the only UK magazine out there for readers and reading groups so it is well worth supporting.  In this issue we say goodbyes to our editor and publisher, Guy Pringle, who has done a fantastic job in ensuring such a magazine can survive in this digital age and after 17 years at the helm has decided to start his well-earned retirement.  We are all sure that it will continue to go from strength to strength under Mel Mitchell who has also worked tirelessly on the publication for a number of years.

If you head over to the nudge bookshop you can purchase a copy (or take out a subscription).  This edition has features a Crime Fiction Supplement and much else besides.  There’s an interview with Graeme Macrae Burnet whose Man Booker shortlisted “His Bloody Project” I so loved.  There’s an interview with Clare Mackintosh who became the fastest selling new crime writer in 2015 with “I Let You Go”.  Her latest, “I See You” is available as a Recommended Read and is available free for nb readers from the nudge website (you just pay p&p).

There’s a couple of exclusives from me as well.  You can find my interview with Charlie Lovett whose “Lost Book Of The Grail” and “The Bookman’s Tale” both delighted me this year and there is a feature on TV adaptations.  You can also find out the NB books of the year as voted for by readers.  Just one spoiler here as I am so delighted that my five star rated “Owl Song At Dawn” by Emma Claire Sweeney was voted the Book Hugger Book of The Year.

There does seem to be more content in each edition of nb, so if you haven’t seen it for a while give it a go.  The directory at the back of the magazine features reviews of a whole range of books which might have escaped your notice.  If your “To Be Read” list is looking a little lacklustre and out of date then let nudge books give you a nudge…………….

Ginny Moon – Benjamin Ludwig (HQ 2017)

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I tend to steer clear of child neglect and abuse in my fiction choices yet there was something about this American author’s debut that had me interested right from the blurb.  It begins four years after the neglect of autistic teenager Ginny who has now settled with a “Forever” family .  With adopted mum having her first baby and Ginny discovering the whereabouts of her birth mother the uneasy balance topples.

Narrated by Ginny over nearly four months with exact timings (an obsession with time being part of her condition) this is certainly a novel of an outsider attempting to make sense of a world where people are unreliable and use expressions which confuse and bewilder.  Ginny, very much the life-breath of Ludwig’s tale, finds herself having to misbehave, adapt the truth and steal in order to put what she believes to be wrong, right. It’s a tale which is both heartwarming and alienating, funny and sad.  Ludwig whose motivation was his own adopted autistic teenager clearly shows how the best intentions can be wrongly interpreted with potentially tragic results.

I was captivated by Ginny and her tale, but that does not mean that the reader will not experience frustration nor not be shocked by her challenging behaviour.  She does make a superb, flawed narrator.  I’m not sure how Harper Collins would want to market this.  A Young adult/teen market seems plausible yet like Mark Haddon’s crossover “Curious Incident Of The Dog..” it could work better with our adult experience looking back at what for us all are the bewildering adolescent years, let alone for someone with Ginny’s challenges.  This is a strong debut.

fourstars

Ginny Moon is published in May 2017 by HQ.  Many thanks to Real Readers and the publishers for the advance review copy.

The Lost Book Of The Grail – Charlie Lovett (Alma 2017)

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I recently read Charlie Lovett’s 2013 debut “The Bookman’s Tale” and was impressed by his successful combination of a passion for books with an adventure genre novel.  His latest, his third, is a much quieter work but once again this ex-antiquarian bookseller makes a love for old books a central theme and ends up with a novel every bit as entertaining.

He has taken the brave step of setting it in the cathedral town of Barchester, a fictional location familiar to Trollope fans but by bringing it to the present day there are merely echoes of those classic novels.  Central character Arthur Prescott is the main reason I enjoyed this.  A frustrated English lecturer at the University, with a penchant of PG Wodehouse he is a man without religious beliefs who attends church services a number of times a day.  From a child he has been obsessed with Arthurian myths and the legend of the Holy Grail and his grandfather suggested there could be links with these and their home town.  Arthur’s life changes when another Grail devotee, an American woman, arrives to digitize the cathedral’s manuscripts.  The dilemma over the future of our important works is a fascinating theme of the novel and would create much discussion for reading groups.

In many ways this book is the antidote to the Dan Brown-type adventure novel suggested by the title. There’s no globe-trotting, the puzzles are intellectual and carried out in the Cathedral library.  We are teased throughout with moments in history where the keepers of Barchester’s secrets overlap and with sections from a Guide Book Arthur is writing about the cathedral.

If this sounds a little too restrained there’s the delights of Arthur, at odds with changes in modern academia and his group of code-busting pals, the Barchester Bibliophiles who keep the momentum going in this inaction action quest novel.  I ended up enjoying this even more than his slightly more genre-aware debut.  Reading about a genuine love for books is always a delight.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Charlie Lovett about this book for nb magazine (now retitled as nudge books rather than new books).  This can be found in the edition which is out now (nb 92).  This can be ordered by following this link.

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The Lost Book Of The Grail was published by Alma Books in March 2017.  Many thanks for nudge for allowing me to interview the author and the publishers for the review copy.

White Tears – Hari Kunzru (Hamish Hamilton 2017)

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I was introduced to British born New York resident Kunzru via his 2004 novel “Transmission” which I loved.  That was a laugh-out-loud work with good line after good line and probably the funniest novel about a computer virus that you could ever imagine reading.  Excited by what I believed to be a major talent I went back to his 2002 debut “The Impressionist” which did not impress me as much.  I felt it ran out of steam and it was written largely in the present tense, which does not always work for me.  When I heard his latest was about record-buying obsessives I was very keen to find out more.

Seth meets rich boy Carter Wallace, a record collector prepared to splash the cash if he feels the music is authentic.  Seth, an audiophile himself, who records his day to day movements in the streets, becomes drawn into this obsession as it begins to be dominated by old shellac 78 rpm Blues records.  This becomes one record in particular, “Graveyard Blues” by Charlie Shaw- a record so steeped in authenticity that no-one is sure that it ever even existed.  This hunt for Shaw becomes part crime story, part ghost story, part road story and part love story all infused (for the first half at least) with the wry humour that made “Transmission” so enjoyable.

And then, about two thirds of the way through the whole thing begins to unravel.  Has obsession turned to madness or is something more supernatural on the loose? Is this recompense for white men dabbling in Black American culture in order to manipulate,   exploit, possess and obsess?  Sometimes, when a gear is changed and the author appears to veer off in a different direction it can prove exhilarating for the reader but at other times it can feel as if we have been left behind.  And on this occasion, unfortunately, I did feel Hari Kunzru did leave me behind and I didn’t really get what was going on.  The whole thing begins to feel feverish and we seem to be presented with alternate endings as what was going on felt blurred.  It reminded me in the way this made me feel, rather than the size and scale of 2015’s “City On Fire” by Garth Risk Hallberg, which I also had reservations about.  Ultimately, my very high hopes were a little disappointed.  Perhaps I was too consciously looking for more of what I got from “Transmission” but here I didn’t quite find it.

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White Tears was published by Penguin/Hamish Hamilton on April 6th 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Possessions- Sara Flannery Murphy (Scribe 2017)

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Edie works for the Elysian Society, an organisation which channels the deceased for relatives and friends.  By taking a pill (a lotus) the employees can “become” the dead person until the effects wear off.  It’s a fascinating premise, developed nicely as the boundaries as to what is acceptable for the lotus takers to do are pushed as the plot builds.  Edie becomes attracted to a man who has lost his wife in a drowning accident and becomes obsessed with him- but is this as herself or as his dead wife?

This is an intelligent, subtle ghost story and comparisons have been made to both Margaret Attwood and Daphne Du Maurier but ultimately I think it lacks the depth and richness of their work.  Edie’s behaviour is often questionable even if explained away as possession by the dead wife and Patrick really does not seem worthy of her intentions.  It’s set up well but the tension for me fizzled out in the last third.  A murdered girl sub-plot works nicely alongside the relationship between Edie and Patrick but I think the promise of the ramifications of the work of the Elysian Society, which is the novel’s most fascinating aspect is not sustained throughout as  the Edie/Patrick/Dead Wife love triangle becomes the emphasis.

This is American author Sara Flannery Murphy’s debut novel and shows a writer confident with exploring obsession and loss.  For those looking for a romantic ghost story with a subtle science fiction edge this is worth considering.

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The Possessions was published by Scribe in March 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail 2016)

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There’s something lurking in the waters of Aldwinter, near Colchester, towards the end of the nineteenth century and recently widowed Cora Seaborne, a keen fossil hunter is determined to find out what it is.  Could it be the Essex Serpent rumoured to have terrorised villagers over 200 years ago?

This is a very good quality Victorian-set novel which features, unsurprisingly, the themes of superstition versus rational thought , Darwinism against established religious beliefs and the fear that despite the growth of scientific understanding and medical advances there may just be primitive, natural, environmental things lurking that no-one can comprehend.

Sarah Perry’s critically acclaimed second novel has already scooped the Waterstone’s Book Of The Year award.  Its cover by Peter Dyer based upon a William Morris design certainly looks stunning in book shop windows and the whole look and structure of the book with its quotes from the actual seventeenth century pamphlet warning of the dangers of the serpent, the use of correspondence in the text and its chronological structure through the months of 1893 are all impressive and shout out quality fiction.

Perry creates a convincing set of characters.  Cora, released from an abusive marriage receives attention from the doctor who attended her husband but finds stronger attraction to the village’s vicar, a family man with a consumptive wife.  The threat of the serpent looms throughout giving the book a rich edginess, which together with its warm humour works very well.

I think in all aspects this is a strong work but for me it didn’t quite have the extra something which would put it up amongst the very best of the Victorian historical literary novel.  I’m thinking John Fowles “French Lieutenant’s Woman” , Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith”  and  particularly Michael Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White”.  These authors developed upon the Victorian cliff-hanger technique to bring us real surprises in the plot which is what makes them so memorable but I didn’t feel that happened here, and I was expecting it to. Perhaps I was just looking forward to reading it too much.  It is, however, a very welcome addition to my bookshelves of another very good 21st century evocation of the nineteenth century novel.

fourstars

The Essex Serpent was published (appropriately) by Serpent’s Tail in May 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and to newbooks for the review copy.

Newbooks 91- Now available

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I am aware that I’ve been a little slow off the mark here telling you about the latest newbooks magazine.  I can only put it down to wanting to tell you about some of the books shortlisted for the Nudge/newbooks Bookhugger book of the year.  There is now just one day to cast your vote- as a reminder here are the selections.

Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult.  My five star review for this is here.

Exposure – Helen Dunmore – My five star review for this is here.

The Wonder – Emma Donoghue – My four star review is here.

The Song Collector – Natasha Simons – My four star review is here.

How To Measure A Cow – Margaret Forster – My three star review is here.

Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Father’s Day – Simon Van Booy

Hide – Matthew Griffin

The Good Guy- Susan Beale

Owl Song At Midnight – Emma Claire Sweeney (I am currently reading this and enjoying it very much, my review will follow shortly).

If you have read any of these books and think they are worthy of the title of Bookhugger Book Of The Year you have now just a few hours (voting closing on 10th Feb) to head on over to the Nudge site (here) to register your vote.

Bookhugger Book Of Year nominees that have already featured on reviewsrevues.com

I must confess that for this issue of newbooks I did not contribute as much as I have done in the past.  That was because of moving home (twice in a short period of time) and losing contact with the rest of the world with no phone line, mobile phone signal or internet (something which I have griped about before on here, and which I have now just about got over).

There is a lot of great stuff to read in this latest edition of newbooks which can be purchased as an individual copy or as a subscription over on the nudge site (just click here).  There’s a great feature on authors’ new years resolutions (I wonder how many of them have already been broken).  Those contributing include reviewsrevues favourite Chris Whitaker (good to see that sense of humour still going strong, Chris), Sara Baume and Natasha Solomons.  The big interview and cover author is Claire Fuller, who is interviewed by Mel Mitchell, who also does a great job with author Magdalena McGuire.  A section on debut authors focuses on Joseph Knox, Katie Khan and Ross Armstrong as well as rounding up the debut novels that are going to be appearing over the next couple of months. There is also an extract from the book I am currently reading “Owl Song At Dawn”  and interview with author Emma Claire Sweeney.  There are loads of books reviewed in the Directory for those of us looking for the next great discovery.

There’s also the Recommended reads which can be picked up from the Nudge website for free (you just pay P&P).  These are subject to availability and include the aforementioned Emma Claire Sweeney (this is where my copy came from), Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg, The Bones Of Grace by Tahmima Anam and Life In A Fishbowl by Len Vlahos.

If your to be read list is looking a little depleted (as if!) or you just want to experience one of the only print magazines about books still available in the UK check out Newbooks 91.