The Devil Aspect – Craig Russell (Constable 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have not read Craig Russell before. Hailing from Scotland he has published five novels in his post-war Glaswegian series “Lennox” and seven set in Hamburg with his detective Jan Fabel taking centre stage. This is a stand-alone which could, especially with Hollywood interest in the film rights, be a big-selling title.

Set in Czechoslovakia in 1935 and it wasn’t long before I could appreciate Russell as a real story-teller with his fiction enriched by cultural stories, myths, urban tales and localised legends. Main character Viktor Kosarek begins work at the Hrad Orlu Asylum For the Criminally Insane housed in a foreboding castle. The Asylum houses just six inmates, the most dangerous and criminally insane of the lot. Dr Kosarek has a theory that pure evil lurks in an obscure part of the psyche and this “Devil Aspect” can be brought to the surface during therapy and then exorcised. Meanwhile, there is a killer stalking the streets of Prague viciously dismembering whilst clad in a blood- stained leather apron.

Russell is very good at cranking up the fear factor and tying it back to the darkness in our pasts. There’s even a scary clown, for goodness sake! The technique of the main character dealing with the six prisoners in turn and getting their backstories through the guise of therapy starts off extremely effectively but perhaps six were a little too many as it was here I found myself losing a little interest amongst their catalogue of hideous crimes.

Apart from this minor gripe the plot is handled well. I never saw what was coming with any of the twists in the tale. It is extremely dark and occupies the space where crime and horror blend which would make it a potent and highly commercial brew for a film adaptation.

Although at times some of the revelations seem audacious and over-the-top, Russell certainly gets away with it.  This is because of his seamless research, a good feel for the period and that enrichment of legends from the past juxtaposed with the psychological theories in his novel’s present which all builds up the spine-chilling elements.  This is a gory read, but a gripping one.

fourstars

The Devil’s Aspect is published in March 2019 by Constable in hardback.

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Transcription – Kate Atkinson (2018)

 

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Kate Atkinson’s previous two novels have been outstanding achievements based around the time of World War II.  The first, “Life After Life” played with structure in a way in which I (and many others including awards committees) found glorious and the second “A God In Ruins” had a more traditional narrative using characters from its predecessor.  Here, the author has kept pretty much within the same time-frame but produced a stand-alone novel.

 We meet main character Juliet Armstrong in two concurrent narratives ten years apart.  In 1940, as a young typist she is recruited to work for MI5 to produce transcripts of conversations between German sympathisers and in 1950 she finds she hasn’t fully escaped her wartime past whilst working for the BBC as a producer of Schools Radio programmes.  Atkinson gets the feel of London in both the war and post-war years perfectly, perhaps unsurprisingly as this is her third consecutive novel set in a period she must have certainly immersed herself in over the last few years.

 Juliet is involved in spying so the elements of who is finding out about who and who can be trusted provides a mystery element to the story which drives both narratives.  As always, characterisation is very strong and is written with the confidence, authority and playfulness that I have come to expect from this author.

It is a strong novel but I don’t think there is quite enough in the plot for me to consider it an excellent one, so no unprecedented three five stars in a row for Kate Atkinson.  I do very much like the juxtaposition of the war-time MI5 and post-war BBC and both work convincingly within the plot.  It does provide a fascinating insight into the workings of the secret service during the war, here involved in tasks which seem mundane but which can suddenly turn to the life-threatening and chilling and it is great to have Juliet’s back-room girl’s valuable contribution to all this given some limelight.

fourstars

Transcription was published by Penguin in September 2018.  The paperback version is due in  March 2019

Looking Around………

 

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For the last of my 2018 retrospectives I thought I’d have a little look at what some of the other bookbloggers out there have been saying about their favourite reads of last year.  This exercise means that I have now added even more titles to my Reading Wishlist and it may just introduce you to some other bloggers that you might not know about (but don’t stop following me!)

With so many books out there it is perhaps not surprising that I haven’t found any books on my Top 10 that have featured in others listings.  Also, we are each using our own criteria for inclusion, some restrict themselves to books published in 2018 others, like myself, believe if they read it this year then it’s up for contention.  I did find, over at Random Book Reviews Web , Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire” which I had at #6 in my 2017 list at number 7 in Lou’s, who runs this site, 2018 list.  She, like me gone for a classic as her top read by choosing Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”.  I’m also intrigued by a book I have never heard of which she has her number 8, “The Star Machine” by Jeanine Basinger, which is a non-fiction expose of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

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One book which does keep cropping up is “The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle” by Stuart Turton.  This week it scooped the Costa Prize for Best First Novel.  It appears on lists by amongst others The Owl On The Bookshelf and over at Secret Library where Nicki has adopted a self-interview approach to 2018 which enables her to celebrate books in categories and  we get mentions of this title for most original book together with the longest book (512 pages) she read and the best book read based solely on others’ recommendation.  This has been a real word of mouth hit and I did feature it on my “What I Should Have Read” Post.

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There were other titles praised that I had already felt I had missed out and had included in “What I Should Have Read”.  Fictionphile  has 25 picks of the year and these include one that I had read and enjoyed “The Visitors” by Catherine Burns and two I should have read “Snap” by Belinda Bauer and “The Chalk Man” by C J Tudor (both of these I’m putting right so look out for reviews for these two soon).  Inexhaustible Invitations has already read one of the books in my Looking Back, Looking Forward post, “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean and has made it his non-fiction pick of 2018.  This is an interesting list which has Capote’s “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” as his classic choice and two titles sharing the fiction pick Edouard Louis’ “History Of Violence” (I read and enjoyed this author’s “The End Of Eddy” this year and another translated from the French title “Disoriental” by Negar Djavadi, which I had never heard of but I think I have been won over by (another one for the wishlist).

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Other books which I know I should check out include three of Books On The 7.47’s choices “Normal People” by Sally Rooney (winner of “Waterstones Book Of The Year”, “Tin Man” by Sarah Winman and the biggest book of the year “Eleanor Oliphant Is Competely Fine” by Gail Honeyman.  I have read and enjoyed Book On 7.47’s non-fiction choice “This Is Going To Hurt” by Adam Kay.  Another that I have been after this year appears on The Owl On The Bookshelf’s list “The Corset” by Laura Purcell, but I have decided I need to read her previous publication first.  Cathy at 746books  has “The House Of Impossible Beauties” by Joseph Cassara on her list and I have nearly bought that book a number of times over 2018.  I know that I am going to love it and because I have to read things in chronological order it is probably going to be some time before I get round to Fiction Fan’s choice, the large tome that is C J Sansom’s “Tombland”, a book which I know a lot of people have enjoyed this year, his 7th in the Matthew Shardlake series.

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Although I’m not sure how I will get on with Aperture Reads #1 pick “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers I am prepared to give it a go but Liam who runs this site does have a title in his Top 5 which I am aware of and which has also interested me this year, although I have not read it and that is “The Bedlam Stacks” by Natasha Pulley.

That leaves me with one title which I saw on a couple of lists (including  The Owl On The Bookshelf ) which I had not even heard of but which sounds a very good match for me.  It was Bookish Beck who won me over with her description of the book she had at number 3 on her list “Little” by Edward Carey which she describes as a “macabre Dickensian novel about Madame Tussaud”, I’m not sure how that passed me by in 2018 but I am adding it to my Wishlist.

little

So that’s just a taster of what delighted some of us bookbloggers last year.  Now, let’s get on with 2019!!

 

 

Looking Back Looking Forward…..

 

Some I read, some I didn’t ………….

This time last year in my “looking back looking forward ” post I highlighted nine titles which I would be looking out for during the year.  I thought I’d take a look back at these.  In 2017 I managed to read four of the ten titles I’d focused on then, how did I do last year.  Just as a reminder here are the titles and how I’ve got on.

The Only Story – Julian Barnes (Cape) – Came out in February.  After mentioning this here I seemed to forget all about it.  Didn’t read it and it hasn’t even really been on my radar.

Bookwork: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg) – Read it, loved it.  Was number 3 on my Books Of The Year list.

Barracoon- Zora Neale Hurston (Harper Collins) Read it in September.  Based on interviews with the last known slave in 1927, Hurston’s non-fiction work remained unpublished to this year.  I said “This is a work which manages to be spine-chilling and endearing and is a thought-provoking and always relevant read.”  My four star review can be read here.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje – Didn’t read it and I do think I have missed out because it appeared regularly on “Best Of The Year” lists.  I did highlight it again recently in my “What I Should Have Read” post and I will get round to it sometime.

My Year of Rest And Relaxation- Ottessa Moshfegh – Didn’t read this when it arrived in July but did read her earlier novella “McGlue” which was published in the UK following the success of her “Eileen”.  I said of that “I can appreciate it as writing but it does not satisfy me in the way that I feel a novel should.”  Therefore, I did not rush to seek her latest title out.

Playtime – Andrew McMillan (Cape) – I said “Hopefully I will read more poetry in 2018.”  Unfortunately I did not read any.

The Lost Magician -Piers Torday (Quercus) – I also didn’t read as much children’s fiction as I had anticipated .  Due out in paperback in March so perhaps I will get around to it then.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) – This one I have scheduled as I have borrowed it in e-book form from the library.

Melmoth — Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) – I forgot I had this on this list.  I’ve toyed with the idea of reading it a few times when I’ve encountered it but haven’t done so yet.  Once again I am sure I will.  Got slightly mixed reviews (and I was a little disappointed I couldn’t buy into the hype of “The Essex Serpent”) but readers seem to think it is certainly worth giving a go.

 

Some potential highlights from 2019

Well that’s my excuses for these books done.  Reading takes a different direction than planned and that is what is exciting.  20 of the books I read this year were as part of the Sandown Library Reading Challenge which I was certainly thrilled to take part in as it introduced me to authors such as Susan Hill, Elizabeth Taylor and, especially, my book of the Year “The Count Of Monte Cristo” which I would never have got round to reading.

On so onto the forthcoming titles that have piqued my fancy for this year.

The Library Book – Susan Orlean (Atlantic) – just published in last couple of days.  This non-fiction work examines a 1986 fire at the New York Public Library and becomes a love letter to libraries and how essential and relevant they are to modern societies.

What Hell Is Not – Alessandro D’Avenia (Oneworld) – Due Jan 24th- From one of my favourite publishers, a translation from the Italian of a best-selling novel set in the mafia run slums of Palermo

Out Of The Woods – Luke Turner (W&N) – Due Jan 24th – A memoir with Epping Forest at its centre which according to Olivia Laing is “electrifying on sex and nature, religion and love.”  There’s quite a buzz about this book

Black Leopard, Red Wolf – Marlon James (Hamish Hamilton) – Due in Feb – How do you follow a Booker Prize winning novel about an attempted assassination of Bob Marley?  I know, begin a fantasy trilogy set in mythical Africa.  There are “Game Of Thrones” comparisons being bandied about and I’m not a huge lover of fantasy novels but this seems such a brave (and potentially foolhardy) move that I’m certainly going to be looking out for it

Zuleikha – Guzel Yahkina (Oneworld) – Due in Feb – Books in translation seem to well in my end of year Top 10.  This one is translated from Russian and is apparently a stunning debut set in a Siberian camp in 1930.  A tale of survival and conquering terrible conditions can be a life-affirming read.

Narrow Land – Christine Dwyer-Hickey (Atlantic) – Due in March – I really liked this author’s “Tatty” published back in 2004 and this new title set in Cape Cod in 1950 looks stylish and highly promising .  We are promised a novel which takes in loneliness, regret and the myth of the American Dream

New Daughters Of Africa – Edited by Margaret Busby (Myriad) – Due in March- An anthology which takes in different types of writing from 200 women writers of African descent.

Confessions Of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins (Viking) – Due in April- This is a big buzz debut which sounds right up my street.  A nineteenth century tale with a good feel of the Gothic about a Jamaican slave girl ending up at the Old Bailey in London.

Big Sky – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) -Due in  June – A new Jackson Brodie novel after a nine year wait.  Hopefully I can read those I still have outstanding before June.  I’ve been promising myself this for some time and I have most of them on my shelves so maybe this new arrival will be the impetus I need.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Fleet) – Due in August.  In his first publication since the five star rated, Top 3 Book Of The Year “The Underground Railroad” we are promised a tale of a 1960’s set novel of two black boys sent to a reform school, based on a hideous real-life institution which operated in Florida for over a century.

I think it’s going to be good year….Happy reading!

 

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2018 – Part 2: The Top 5

I am continuing my countdown of my favourite books I read in 2018.

5. House Of Stone – Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Atlantic 2018) Read and reviewed in November

tshumaAnother title (like Claire Hajaj’s #8 rated novel) that I would never have come across if it were not for the good folks at nb magazine who sent me a copy to help out with the longlisting for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards.  The shortlist is due to be announced this month and this is one title that certainly should be up for serious consideration as for me it was the best debut novel I read and narrowly misses out on being my favourite novel published in 2018.  Zimbabwe born Tshuma is a real storyteller and here tells the history of the last fifty years of her homeland using an unreliable narrator who plots his way through and manipulates the other characters.  I said of it “Along the way there are some brilliantly memorable characters and writing often outstanding in its vibrancy and power.  The horrors are not at all shied away from but there are also moments of great humour and to put at the centre the dark machinations of the narrator is a stroke of genius.  It’s a prime example of how a location can be seamlessly embedded into a plot and used to inform and enrich.”  This is unlikely to be as easy to find as some of the works on this list but is definitely worth seeking out.

4. Ladder To The Sky – John Boyne (Doubleday 2018) – Read in June, reviewed in July

boyneladder A great year for books with ladders in the titles (cf: Anne Tyler’s # 6 rated book).  Irish author John Boyne reached the top of my personal book ladder last time round with his outstanding “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and this, his latest, is almost as good.  Novels about writers tend to not be as good as they think they are but this look at the publishing industry with its emphasis on the creative process and the ownership of ideas is extremely strong.  I said “this is a beautifully balanced book, another complete package, which offers a tremendous variety for the reader with humour, tragedy, twists, crime and moral dilemmas all present to form a heady brew.”  For the second year running John Boyne has produced the best novel of the year published in the year I read it.

3. Bookworm: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg 2018)- Read and reviewed in March

bookwormMy favourite non-fiction read of the year.  I’d highlighted this as one I really wanted to discover before publication and I was certainly not in anyway disappointed.  In fact, I enjoyed it even more than I had anticipated.  Lucy Mangan explores the reading material of her childhood in a superb “book about books”.  I said of it; “Thank you Lucy Mangan.  This book has brought me so much pleasure.  I have relished every word, laughed out loud and been bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow which has made me late back from tea breaks and almost missing bus stops.”  I don’t think there can be much higher praise!  I have recommended this book so many times this year and will continue to do so.

2. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne (Definition 2006) – Read in September, reviewed in October

pyjamasI actually had this sat on my bookshelves for quite a few years unread.  I’d seen the film but I was so enthralled by Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” that I had to explore a bit of his back catalogue and read this, his most famous work.  He really is a great find for me as an author and got very close to doing the unprecedented and being named the author of the Book Of The Year for a second year running.  In fact, everything I had read by this writer has been a five star read with his 2015 children’s novel “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain“, pretty much a companion piece to this just missing out on the Top 10 this year because of the number of outstanding books I’ve read (the other non-Top 10 5 star read was Kate Atkinson’s “A God In Ruins“).  Bruno is relocated with his family away from the grandparents he loved to a house in the grounds of a place he believes is called “Out-with” peopled by men and boys in pyjamas behind a wire fence.  Painfully sad and extremely powerful and an essential read, even if you have seen the film.

And the reviewsrevues book of the year for 2018 goes to:

1.The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (Penguin 1845) – Read and reviewed in December

dumasI’m sure that this is just coincidence but for the second year running the Book Of The Year has been the very last book I’ve read.  I don’t think this is because I forget the books I’ve read earlier in the year because I do carefully go through everything, it may be because I’m keen to fit in a book which has the potential to be a big-hitter before the new year dawns and this was certainly a big-hitter in every sense of the word.  It took me a month to get through the 1200+ pages but it was certainly time well spent as it introduced me to a classic novel dominated by a fascinating character which will stay with me for the rest of my life.  Brought to life in a vibrant translation by Robin Buss and recommended to me by my friend Louise, whose mission is to get everyone to reading this book.  I certainly now think she has a point.

I’ve never read Dumas before and I’m certainly looking forward to reading more and he is a deserved addition to my awards list.  Dumas becomes my first French author to join my ultimate favourites and the fourth translated work.  It is the best nineteenth century novel I have read since I read “Jane Eyre” in 2000.  Here is my Hall of Fame for the past 11 years:

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2019!

The rest of my Top 10 for this year can be found in my earlier post here

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2018 – Part 1 (10-6)

2018 – 66 books read, which was one down on last year.  It looked like I would beat last year’s total until it took me a month to read the final book.  That seems to be very much around the sort of total that I can manage in a year, apart from 2016 when I managed 80, my 2015 figure was exactly the same as last year.  So, now it is time to whittle those 66 down to the 10 which created the greatest impression.  For the first time ever I’ve awarded more 5 stars than places in the top 10, 12 in fact, which means that two five star reads will not even make my Top 10, which has never happened before because I’m stingy with those five stars.  It just shows how many good books I have read this year.  To complete the breakdown I read 12 five stars, 32 four stars and 22 three stars (2017’s spread was 10/31/26).  Like last year I haven’t read anything I rated below three stars (I think this is because I am better at choosing titles to read) and absolutely everything I read this year has been reviewed on this site.

Where things are different to last year is the publication dates.  Last year the whole top 10 was made up of books published either that year or the year before, here there is a wider spread as I’ve caught up with older books I’ve been meaning to read for ages.  If I read it this year then it’s eligible for a Top 10 placing.  There’s a geographic spread of writers from the UK, US, Europe and Africa and co-incidentally I’m back to the 50-50 gender balance after last year when the women edged ahead.  Unlike last year when all the authors made their first appearance on the list this year three have been celebrated here before and for the first time since 2014 when Peter James appeared twice there is an author who takes up two of the coveted spots (and also just missed out on a third novel making the Top 10).  Last year the list was entirely fiction but we have a bit of non-fiction creeping in for 2018.   If you would like to read the full reviews on this site just click on the link to be taken to the full review.

10. The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass (Vintage 1959) – Read and reviewed in June

the-tin-drumI’m still not sure whether I count this as a re-read or not, for although I know that I started to read it not too far off 40 years ago I’m not sure whether I ever finished it but I put that right this year with a different translation by Breon Mitchell which was authorised for the fiftieth anniversary of this classic of German post-war literature. Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass’ (1927-2015) most famous work.  I said of it “This is an extraordinary novel which at times I loved and at other times felt frustrated or just plain baffled by but it is incredibly powerful and would benefit from countless re-readings.”  As this made my Top 10 I’m allowing myself to hold on to my copy (the books that don’t make this list get culled, unfortunately)  so that re-reading may be sometime within the next 40 years!

9. Dead Man’s Grip – Peter James (Macmillan 2011) – Read and reviewed in February

peterjamesNo stranger to my end of year Top 10, in fact James’ Brighton-set Roy Grace novels have now made it four times from the first seven books in the series.  I felt this was his best yet and yet, because of strong competition he has just crept in the lower reaches of the list.  The other titles to make the list in previous years are the first instalment “Dead Simple” (#3 in 2008), Dead Man’s Footsteps (#10 in 2014) and “Dead Tomorrow” (#3 in 2014).  I also read the 8th book this year “Not Dead Yet”, a four star read but not good enough to do the double for a second time.  Of “Dead Man’s Grip” I said “this really does have everything I look for in a police procedural crime novel.

8. The Water Thief – Claire Hajaj (Oneworld 2018)- Read and reviewed in November

waterthiefI was sent this novel as a potential longlister for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards in their Fiction with a sense of place category and although the location is non-specific Claire Hajaj, in her second novel, creates a vivid picture of African life.  It’s a rich, haunting tale and the author almost brought this tough old reviewer to the verge of tears with superb characterisation and the unfolding of the plot, as gripping as any thriller I have read this year.

7. The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gower (Harvill Secker 2018) – Read and reviewed in May

mrshancockOne of two debut novels to appear in my Top 10 this year. Published early on in 2018 there was a lot of buzz around this book and it made shortlists for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and a National Book Award amongst others and has appeared on a number of best of the year lists but has been eclipsed by some of the big hitters of the year.  I thought it was a terrific read and deserved all the accolades it has got.  I loved the first two thirds best before a little fantasy crept in when it read like a right rollicking modern slant on “Vanity Fair”.  I said “This is an ambitious novel which works beautifully.  It’s the kind of gutsy, spirited writing that I love with rich characterisation and a real feel of a love for history and literature.”

6.Ladder Of Years- Anne Tyler (Vintage 1995) -Read and reviewed in March.

tylerladderI have only read two of Anne Tyler’s 22 novels yet they have both appeared in my end of year Top 10 (“A Spool Of Blue Thread was my #3 in 2015 in the year of its publication).  I’m  not even sure I can explain the appeal of this author to me, I wouldn’t have thought that tales of American family life would really strike that much of a chord but I can tell that as I read more of  her novels she is going to appear more and more in my end of year lists.  Here a middle-aged woman who feels her family is taking her for granted just walks away to start a new life- a selfish act, which nevertheless got this reader willing her to succeed. I said “it is just the quality of the writing and the deftness of characterisation that has me hanging on every word, not wanting it to end and that is what makes it a five star read.”  If you haven’t discovered Anne Tyler yet you have a treat in store.

Next post – My Top 5 reads of 2018

2018 – What I Should Have Read

I am fairly certain that I am now reading my last book of 2018.  This is because I am just mid-way through the massive “Count Of Monte Cristo” which I have never read before and the Penguin edition amounts to 1276 pages of pretty small print.  If I get through these it will end up being perhaps the longest book I have ever read.  I’ll let you know how I get on but that will unlikely be before the new year.

With newspapers, bloggers, websites coming up with their favourite books of the year I thought I would delay my choices until the very end of 2018 but look at some of the books I have missed out on reading this year.  So here is my Top 10 what I should have reads.

Snap – Belinda Bauer (Bantam Press)

snap

The first popular crime novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize but it seems not even the presence of huge fan Val McDermid on the judging panel could get this onto the shortlist.  I read Bauer’s dark debut “Blacklands” in the year it was published and enjoyed it but have not read any of her others.  Luckily, I found a copy of this on the library shelves and have borrowed it so Alexandre Dumas-willing I will get round to it before hoards start reserving it because of its regular appearances on “best of the year lists”

Chalk Man – C J Tudor (Penguin)

chalkman

Another one I have out from the library.  This debut has been compared to Stephen King and is set in 1980’s Britain. Now out in a paperback edition featuring high praise from writers of the calibre of Lee Child, John Boyne, Celia Aherne, Kimberley Chambers, Julia Heaberlin and King himself.  Can’t wait to read this one.

Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton (Raven)

sevendeaths

Another much praised debut.  Val McDermid had it as one of her books of the year.  The little I know about it sounds a bit like Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” in structure (an all-time favourite) within a classic murder mystery frame.  I saw this going cheap one day as a Kindle Daily Deal so it is sitting there waiting for me.  This has been shortlisted for the first novel Costa Awards, a National Book Award and scooped the independent booksellers Books Are My Bag novel award.  Not sure why there is an extra half of a death in the American title.  Suppose I will have to read it to find out.

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail)

washington

A Booker shortlisted roller-coaster of a novel and the only one that made me feel sorry I did not read the shortlisted titles before the winner’s announcement this year as I have done the past couple of years.  I do have this Canadian author’s earlier novel “Half Blood Blues” unread on my bookshelves and I may just have to start to this but I am certainly looking forward to discovering her writing in 2019.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape)

warlight

A book which is certainly popping up on best of the year lists.   It was championed by Kamila Shamsie in “The Guardian’s” look back on the year.  I have never read any of  the Sri-Lankan born Canadian novelist Ondaatje’s 8 novels before, not even “The English Patient” (nor have I seen the film version) but this novel set in London in the aftermath of World War II seems to me to be a tempting place to start.  I had this as one of my 2018 highlights at the start of the year.

From A Low And Quiet Sea – Donal Ryan (Doubleday)

donal

I loved, loved loved this Irish writer’s debut  “The Spinning Heart” and was published in NB magazine citing it as one of the best books of the 21st Century, but since then, amazingly I have not got round to reading any of his three subsequent novels.  This was championed by Jonathan Franzen in The Guardian and is on the shortlist for the Costa novel Award.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)

transcription

This British author’s “A God In Ruins” is well in the running for being named my best read of 2018.  I wanted to read her Jackson Brodie series of novels next but then I borrowed this as a library e-book.  I’ve not noticed it much on end of year lists and a few people I know who have read it have been a bit lukewarm about it but she is one of our greatest living novelists so I really should find out for myself .

Lethal White – Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

lethal

I’ve read all the others so of course I’m going to get round to this but I’m a little put off by the sheer size of the hardback so may need to wait until it arrives in paperback.  It does seem to be generally getting the thumbs up but most seem to mention that it is too long.

Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale (Tinder Press)

gale

Admittedly I’ve got the odd Gale gap in my reading history but he is one of my Top 10 most-read authors.  I would imagine that this is a quieter, understated, less showy novel than some on display here so I might need to get myself into the right mood for that.  He can absolutely blow me away as a writer but this does not happen every time.

My Love Story – Tina Turner (Century)

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My pick of all the non-fiction I’ve missed this year.  I was a little concerned that this autobiography might have been a little air-brushed but reviews seem to say that this is not the case.  This living legend and performer of one of my 100 Essential CDs got huge publicity for this publication as it was her version of what has been an incredible life.  I haven’t rushed to buy this because I did read “I, Tina” written alongside Kurt Loder and I wondered how much of this was a rehash of that.  But I will get round to it.

Anyone looking for a last minute Christmas present for this reviewer could start here….!

 

 

 

House Of Stone – Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Atlantic 2018)

 

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Recently I was asked to help out with reviewing books looking towards a longlist for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards which has a category which focuses on fiction which has a sense of place.  My job was to read three books, of which this is the third to be reviewed on here.  (Reviews for both “The Water Thief” and “Smoke And Ashes” can be found by clicking the links.  All three were books I was unlikely to have encountered otherwise and I think I have saved the best until last.

When teenager Bukhosi vanishes following a rally of the Mthwakazi Secessionist Movement his friend Zamani strives to infiltrate his way into his family aiming to replace him in his parents’ affections by finding out all he can about their “hi-story”. This spans back half a century into the history of Zimbabwe, from the latter days of colonial Rhodesia and Civil War through genocide and atrocities carried out in the name of the new regime. Zimani is a unreliable narrator, planning and manipulating for his own ends hidden in his own hi-story which is linked with his friend’s family. He gleefully exploits weaknesses in his quest to find some form of revenge whilst being inextricably pulled into what he sees as this new family grouping.

This is an extraordinary debut novel from an author who grew up in Zimbabwe. I had a very sketchy knowledge of her homeland before reading this and the complexities which lay behind this African country but her handling of the location has certainly enriched my understanding. And this has been achieved totally through story as the author weaves the events in the lives of Bukhosi’s parents with Zimani’s in a narrative steeped in the development of this nation both before and after independence. Along the way there are some brilliantly memorable characters and writing often outstanding in its vibrancy and power. The horrors are not at all shied away from but there are also moments of great humour and to put at the centre the dark machinations of the narrator is a stroke of genius. It’s a prime example of how a location can be seamlessly embedded into a plot and used to inform and enrich.

True, sometimes I lacked the cultural understanding to pick up on all of the references and there was the odd part where I wasn’t totally sure what was going on but Tshuma was soon able to pull me back in through her use of language. There’s also a liberal smattering of African terms which most will be unfamiliar with but once again I do not feel that this matters. For me this is the sign of the intelligence of the author not wanting to dumb down any of what would seem alien to much of her readership but demonstrating the ability to keep them totally on board.  Because of this I think this is not only a book which reads well but also has the potential to impress more on re-reading.  I am certainly keeping hold of my copy.

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The House Of Stone was published in hardback by Atlantic in June 2018.  Many thanks to Nudge and for the publisher for the review copy.   An edited version of this review can be found on the Nudge Website.  The Shortlist for the 2019 Edward Stanford Travel Awards will be announced in January 2019.

100 Essential Books- A Ladder To The Sky- John Boyne (Doubleday 2018)

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Just occasionally the words I use in these reviews like to come back to bite me. It was only last week when I wrote in a review of Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less”; “Books about writers are often not as good as they think they are.” I excused Greer from this statement and certainly proving me wrong here is John Boyne, author of my 2017 Book Of The Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” who has produced another outstanding novel- this time about writers.

Sometimes reading choices turn up these unintentional patterns. Take the last two books I’ve read, “Less” with its gay writer as lead character and Boyne’s excellent children’s novel “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” with its Nazi Germany setting and then comes along this book which begins with a gay German writer looking back at his youth in Nazi Germany.

It is 1988 and prize-winning author and Cambridge lecturer Erich Ackermann has returned to his Berlin roots for a book event. At the bar of the hotel he meets an ambitious young waiter. Their story spans 30 years to the present day. It is told by a number of different voices and has an enthralling mixture of the purely fictional and real life literary figures (one section is narrated by Gore Vidal whose writing Boyne has certainly re-whetted my appetite for). Running through the narrative are the machinations of a fabulous baddie and I’m not even going to reveal who this is, only to say that John Boyne has created a compelling monster whose antics had me often open-mouthed in horror.

Like “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” this is a beautifully balanced book, another complete package, which offers a tremendous variety for the reader with humour, tragedy, twists, crime and moral dilemmas all present to form a heady brew. I also loved the publishing background even if a week before reading this I was down on it as an idea.

With more literary fiction being spawned from real life and the stories of others this novel raises some thought-provoking points about the creative process and the ownership of ideas in a way which is thoroughly entertaining. When I read “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” back in December 2017 I justified my stinginess (compared with many other reviewers/bloggers) by saying; “If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.” This is the third John Boyne novel I have read and my third 5 star rating for his work. This shows just how highly I think of him as a writer and he’s not even given me the chance to do too much exploring of this back catalogue between his two latest publications. I still think “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is his masterwork (of what I’ve read of his so far) but then it is probably my favourite read of this century but “A Ladder To The Sky” is also very, very good indeed. Be prepared for a real treat of a read and one which I would expect in the upper echelons of my end of year Top 10.

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A Ladder To The Sky will be published in hardback by Doubleday on 9th August 2018. Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Less – Andrew Sean Greer (2018)

 

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American author Andrew Sean Greer is no stranger to my end of year Top 10s.  His 2004 “Confessions of Max Tivoli” impressed me much on the two occasions I have read it.  Its clever conceit of a man getting younger as those age around him may have been used before, but by putting a love interest in for main character Max and having their lives intersecting over the years gave it a fascinating dimension.  My only niggle with the book was the fictional world Greer created did not feel to me much like the turn of the twentieth century America he’d intended.

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 He is sticking with the present with this, his 5th novel which was a surprise winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Praised on the cover by writers such as Armistead Maupin and Ann Patchett  this seemed like a must for me to read.  It has scooped perhaps the top literary prize of all and yet it is a fairly straightforward romantic comedy rather than some heavy tome.  It just shows the world is in need of lightness right now.  But does this book actually deliver this?

 It’s just a few months since the judging panel of the Wodehouse Prize for comic novels took the controversial decision of not awarding this year as they did not consider any of the 62 novels submitted to be funny enough.  I think Greer would have missed the publishing deadline for this year as this comic novel with literary plaudits would surely  have given the judges something to think about. 

My only alarm bells were that this is a book about a writer and the publishing industry.  Is there much comedy mileage in this for the general reader?  Books about writers are often not as good as they think they are.  They can have a tendency to inflated importance and pretentiousness.  Would a comic novel about writers only be funny to those in the know (ie: those who promote and review books and sit on judging panels).  Would it be full of in-jokes?

 Title character Arthur Less is approaching 50 and faces rejection of his latest novel, his age milestone and his ex inviting him to his wedding by planning a world tour of writing-based activities, from taking part in festivals, teaching, attending award ceremonies and attempting to find space to revise his latest work.  The humour is largely in the character of Arthur Less, who did win this reader over (it took a while) by his vanity and self-absorption which actually becomes surprisingly quite endearing.

 Greer’s writing is infused with humour.  There are some of the pratfalls and misunderstandings which are all too common with lead characters in chick-lit but the humour here runs throughout the narrative and this is what works well.  I did laugh out loud a few times but there is a wit and a warmth which heightens this novel’s appeal.  There’s also the irony of the rejected novel being about a middle-aged gay San Franciscan on a journey, questioning the meaning of his life, when this is what “Less” is all about.

 I did find it very enjoyable but I am still surprised by its Pulitzer achievement as it seems very understated compared to the more showy novels which tend to be up for awards.  It just shows what an impression this must have made on the judging panel to garner the prize but I’m still not convinced I liked it more than “Max Tivoli” even though on paper it seems just like the sort of book I would adore.  For those who tend to steer away from prize-winning novels this might be the time to think again and see if Arthur Less can win you over.

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 Less was published in the UK by Abacus in 2018