100 Essential Books – The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021)

I was looking forward to reading this.  It is an extraordinary debut novel from gay black American author Robert Jones which could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.

It is a historical work set in the Halifax family’s cotton plantation in Vicksburg, Mississippi and over the years the slave plantation is a location I have visited quite a few times in fiction but I don’t think that many have made so much of an impression upon me as this.

In a barn live and work two teenagers, Samuel and Isaiah, who have become lovers.  Set apart from both the rest of the slaves and the members of the white household but observed by both they are true outsiders.  The response to these boys searching for happiness in such a grim existence is commented on by other characters, often in sections that relate to Books of the Bible.  They are also observed by a chorus of ancestral voices who powerfully and poetically comment on proceedings. 

The boys, unbeknown to them, have been part of an economic experiment by the white master, Paul Halifax, who has put them in an environment of hard physical work away from the cotton-picking to make studs of them, to provide him with a strong stock of future slaves.  The problem is, the boys are only interested  in one another.  Along comes another slave Amos, granted rights of preaching who uses his sermons to turn the slaves against the boys known to all as “The Two Of Them”.  Others in the plantation cannot comprehend what Amos is against thinking that happiness should be taken wherever it is possible to find it.  Samuel and Isaiah’s combustible situation is exacerbated by the sexually frustrated white mistress and her son returned from a “liberal” education up North.

The plot, in its bare bones here, seems a tad melodramatic, but oh my, how well Jones brings it alive, developing characters quickly and effectively and by having these two young men at the centre of a love story which feels bound to be ultimately tragic.

Amongst this Jones also superbly intersperses tales from previous generations- of the plantation’s ancestors, of plunder, of slave ships encompassing the black American history to this point into one superb novel.

When reading this it was a comment I had seen by Marlon James which kept coming to mind.  He said of this book; “The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel should do, and can do.  That shuffling sound you hear is Morrison, Baldwin and Angelou whooping and hollering both in pride and wonder.” 

What a marvellous thing to say about another author’s book but it is so appropriate.  And this is a debut novel!  At the end Robert Jones Jnr acknowledges hundreds of people by name, those black writers, educators, public figures, musicians, performers, friends who have inspired him, an awe-inspiring roll-call which might have seemed over the top if Jones did not have the goods to deliver.  With this enthralling, heart-breaking, poetic, challenging, very accessible yet difficult novel he certainly has.  The only thing I am not totally on board with is the cover which has a self-published self-help vibe book about it but certainly do not judge this by that. It is possible that I may have already read my Book of The Year.

The Prophets was published by Quercus in the UK in hardback on 5th January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Memorial – Bryan Washington (Atlantic 2021)

And here it is, nice and early this year, my first five star read of 2021.  To be honest I am not all that surprised I loved this book.  I highlighted it as one of the books I wanted to read this year and it’s a book by an author whose collection of short stories “Lot” won the Dylan Thomas Prize and which I rated four stars, acknowledging the potential.

This debut novel is even better.  It is the story of a male couple, Benson, who is black and Mike of Japanese heritage living in Houston.  Their relationship is somewhat rocky and not helped by Mike’s mother arriving from Tokyo for an extended stay on the same day Mike flies to Osaka to connect with the dying father who had deserted the family.  We get two first-person narratives from Benson, sandwiched between is Mike’s experiences in Japan.

Benson is left to forge a relationship with a woman he has never met as they bond over cooking, attempting to find common ground as they share the apartment whilst Mike helps out at his father’s bar, which is his potential inheritance.  The couple’s relationship is tested.

I was drawn in by these characters and their families.  I found children’s day-care worker Benson was especially vividly drawn, Mike seems more elusive which makes some of his actions questionable (including the desertion of his mother which is central to the plot).  It is less spikey than the short-story collection and provoked a real emotional response from me.  It feels modern, is well-written and has provided an early reading highlight for 2021.

Memorial is published in hardback by Atlantic Books in January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2020 – Part One (10-6)

It’s time to begin to put this strange old year to rest by having a look back to see which books made the greatest impression upon me in 2020.  This was a year when more of us turned to reading as a means to escape from what was going on in our everyday lives.  My Top 10 is not just based upon books published this year. (3 out of the 10 were, which is the same proportion as last year), if I read it during 2020 it is up for inclusion.

This year I read 68 books which is certainly up on last year where I slumped down to 56 but mid 60’s is generally the figure so it is not up considerably especially considering the length of lockdown and the time I had to spend working from home this year.  Some of that time I was too pre-occupied to really get into my reading, which is something we have also heard time and time again this year.  I have read more 5* reads this year, 13, in fact, which means that some of my five star reads will miss out on a Top 10 placing, with 36 4* and 19 3*.  Gender-wise, my Top 10 is showing a win for the women as last year’s 60-40 split is reversed.  There are 2 non-fiction titles (both autobiographical) amongst the list and two of the authors have featured in previous year Top 10’s.

Right, here is the first part of the list, numbers 10-6.  If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I’m really prompting you to find out more about) just click on the title.

10. Such A Fun Age- Kiley Reid  (Bloomsbury Circus 2020) (Read and reviewed in December)

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I did say about this book ” I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year” and here is the proof  with this being the only 2020 debut novel in the list.  It is a book which deals with big issues with warmth and humanity and great characterisation.  It has just been issued in paperback in the UK and is currently hovering outside the Top 100 in Amazon’s chart.  I’m still expecting it to be a big seller going into 2021 in this format.  It feels contemporary, commercial and literary which seems to me to be a winning combination.

9. Truth Be Told – Kia Abdullah (HQ 2020) – Read and reviewed in August.

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The best new thriller I read this year.  This novel, which has issues of consent at its centre had me finding places to read away from everyone at work during lunchtimes, so can be seen as a perfect book for self-isolation!  I found I was using my hand to cover up text I hadn’t read on the page in case it gave something away too soon! This is Kia Abdullah’s second novel.  In 2021 I will certainly seek out her 2019 debut “Take It Back”.

8. The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles (Vintage 1969) – Read and reviewed in July

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I treated myself to a new copy of this book which I first read aged 18 and which had a place on my bookshelves ever since when I spent a day in Lyme Regis in the summer of 2019.  Knowing I wasn’t going anywhere in 2020 I treated myself to a re-read just to put myself back into Fowles’ depiction of this Devon town in the nineteenth century.  This was one of those books which I encountered at just the right time of my life for it to make a huge impression.  I have read it a number of times since my teenage years but probably not for a couple of decades.  I said of it this time “It is a very intelligent work which does make demands of the reader and on this re-reading I must admit it does occasionally seem a little too clever for its own good (perhaps that was also true of the me who read this many years ago!) and occasionally a little inaccessible.” It still very much deserves its place in my Top 10 but not right towards the top which I might have expected when I started to re-read it this summer.

7. Mama’s Boy – Dustin Lance Black (John Murray 2019) (Read in August, reviewed in September)

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Screenwriter, Oscar-winner, Activist and husband to Olympic Diver Tom Daley revisits his past focusing on his relationship with his extraordinary mother.  She survived through sheer determination never letting disability and pain from a childhood bout of polio grind her down.  She sought support through the Mormon Church which caused conflict in the young Dustin Lance Black who knew from an early age he would never be accepted by the Church and perhaps by his family because of his sexuality.  I said of it “at times I felt tearful, angry, baffled, delighted the list goes on and this is why this book ticks every box for how a memoir should be written.  Relationships are complex and this illustrates that perfectly.”

6. Hungry – Grace Dent (Mudlark 2020) – Read and reviewed in November

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This was the pick of the 2020 published books I read.  It works brilliantly as a memoir on two levels -firstly, it catalogues the author’s relationship with food growing up and to read about food seems to transport me back there more successfully than a time machine would and like the previous title it’s a beautifully conveyed record of a family relationship, here especially with her father who begins to slip away with dementia.  It is also laugh-out-loud funny throughout.  I said of it “I haven’t enjoyed a food-based memoir as much since Nigel Slater’s “Toast (which has made #3 on my Top 10 list on two occasions) and like that book it is the people fuelled by the food who really are memorable.

Next Post : The Top 5

2020- What I Should Have Read

Here’s my annual post which I face with equal measures of pleasure and guilt (a winning combination I’ve always found!).  I’ve selected 10 titles which I feel I should have got round to reading this year.  Perhaps they slipped under my radar on publication and I’ve only found out about them in round-ups of the year, perhaps I’ve always been aware of them but just haven’t got round to them for one reason or another.  Probably like most people I have read more books this year (although not by a huge amount) but there are still a great number of desired titles that I just have not been able to fit in. 

Looking back on last year’s list I can see that I did eventually get round to reading 50% of the titles that I felt I had missed out on (the same as in 2018) and have 40% of them on my shelves ready to be read, (hopefully in 2021) leaving just one, the YA adult novel “Chinglish” by Sue Cheung, which continues to elude me.  So, without further ado, here in alphabetical order by author  are the titles I felt I missed out in this strange old year, 2020.

No Shame – Tom Allen (Hodder Studio)

It’s been a good year for memoirs and I have read a few of them but haven’t yet got round to comedian Tom Allen’s work. On the cover fellow comic Sarah Millican says it is “wonderfully funny, utterly charming and sharp as all hell” which pretty much sums up how I feel about the man so it makes me look forward to reading his writing. I anticipate that there will be a focus on his feelings as an outsider growing up gay and I wonder how much it can be seen as a kind of companion piece to Will Young’s 2020 publication which focused on gay shame which I did read, “To Be A Gay Man“. I’m very interested in reading Tom’s perspective on this issue. He is one of the few comedians out there now that I have seen live and would certainly pay to see him again. In the meantime there is this book to savour.

Djinn Patrol On Purple Lines – Deepa Annaparra (Chatto & Windus)

This is a debut novel I seem to have been putting on my personal to be read lists all year. It is one I have kept reading about but to be honest haven’t yet come across a copy. I’ve seen it on various best of the year in crime lists and I’m fascinated by its premise of a nine year old detective in modern India . It appeared early on in the year, has a striking cover and made the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. On the cover Ian McEwan describes it as “brilliant” and Anne Enright hits home for me when she says “We care about these characters from the first page and our concern for them is richly repaid”  which is so often something I look for in a novel. It does seem that the pandemic has been particularly hard on debut novelists as they were unable to promote their books in the traditional ways and we as a nation tended to turn in large numbers to authors who we already knew.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (Dialogue Books)

I did read a book about separated twins this year, Edmund White’s “A Saint From Texas” but it seems like the one I should have read is this American writer’s second novel which I have seen described in end of year round ups as “a stunning family saga”. My colleague Louise who continues to put so many good book recommendations my way has this in the running for her book of the year vying for the title with a book which may very well be my own very favourite read of the year so that is a good enough recommendation for me.

The Windsor Knot – S J Bennett (Zaffre 2020)

Whilst everyone was going nuts for Richard Osman’s quirky, cosy crime caper “The Thursday Murder Club” I found myself favouring a secret yearning to read this book which has the potential to be a real guilty pleasure. The premise is nicely set out on the back cover “On a perfect Spring morning at Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II will enjoy a cup of tea, carry out all her royal duties…and solve a murder”. Amanda Craig describes it as a mash-up between Miss Marple and “The Crown” which seems like a potent combination. QEII is no stranger to fiction, think Alan Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader” and it is his depiction of her that I am imagining as the main character in this work. What’s with all these Bennetts that have appeared in this post?

Troubled Blood – Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

One of the few crime writers who I was up to date with until this doorstep of a book arrived in September by J K Rowling’s alter-ego. I am daunted by the size and the long waiting list for a library copy and will probably wait until it appears in paperback. I don’t think I will be disappointed when I eventually get round to it. I have enjoyed all of the Cormoran Strike novels so far (and the BBC TV adaptations) but so far they have never featured in my end of year Top 10. I wonder if this book will be the one to change that situation?

Rainbow Milk – Paul Mendez (Dialogue Books)

As soon as I read a review of this debut novel I knew I wanted to read it. A gay black man escapes his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing to come to London and ends up a sex worker. Adjectives such as “explosive”, “ground-breaking” and “daring” have seemed to follow it round and I was further intrigued by Booker Prize winning Bernardine Evaristo promoting it as her choice on Richard and Judy’s teatime lockdown book club programme. (I hope a large number of those viewers thought “I’d like to give that a go”). I really don’t know why I haven’t got round to purchasing a copy, I have been close to doing so a number of times but it is only a couple of months now until the paperback is scheduled to arrive so I think I will end up waiting until then before discovering a writer who is being described as a major new British talent.

Let’s Do It- Jasper Rees (Trapeze)

Another big book, this time about a really big talent. This is Ree’s authorised biography of my favourite comedian of all time, Victoria Wood. I think Rees is going to be good at separating the performer from the very different real Victoria. I saw her a number of times in her professional guise live in stand-up and of course devoured all of her television shows and am still able to quote whole scenes and also in her personal guise as many years ago her children went to the school I was working at. End of year round-ups have described this as “impeccable” I cannot wait to find out if I agree.

Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador)

I went through a spate of reading the Booker Prize winning novels as soon as possible after their win and for a couple of years worked my way through both short and longlists but the book that put me off this was “Lincoln In The Bardo” by George Saunders, a book I did not see winning one of literature’s most prestigious prizes back in 2017. I know I should have read by now last year’s joint-winning “Girl, Woman, Other” which featured on this list last year but I will do and I hope I won’t hesitate as long before reading this. I have been on the list for a library copy since this made the shortlist but I’m likely to end up buying it before long. It seems a book which is getting both critical and popular acclaim for it’s tale of a tough upbringing in 1980’s Glasgow. The Telegraph was one of a number of publications who had it as their book of the year saying that “it will scramble your heart and expand your mind“.

The Devil And The Dark Water – Stuart Turton (Raven Books)

Aha, Stuart Turton. No stranger to this list. His debut “Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle” featured in my 2018 picks and ended up picking up The First Novel award at the Costas. It has been sitting on my Kindle since then and I just haven’t got round to it. This may be because I’m always asking people who have read it what they thought and their opinions have been a bit more mixed than I was expecting but now he has written something else which seems right up my street. This is a chunky, historical whodunnit set on board ship in the seventeenth century. Chosen by the very watchable TV series “Between The Covers” as a Book of The Week, this got the thumbs-up from the celebrity reviewers and has been described in end of year round-ups as a “fiendish maritime mystery.” The chronological obsessive reader in me is pushing me towards “Evelyn Hardcastle” first, but then that might mean it would take me some time to get to this and I’m not sure if I am prepared to wait.

A Dutiful Boy- Mohsin Zaidi (Square Peg)

I’m finishing my list as I started with another memoir which has attracted a good share of praise. Subtitled ” A memoir of a gay Muslim’s journey to acceptance” this feels like it would have parallels to a couple of other books I have read “Unicorn” by Amrou Al-Kadhi, which this year has gone on to win both a Somerset Maugham and Polari award and a flawed but very enjoyable YA novel “How It All Blew Up” by Arvin Ahmadi. It’s combination of religion and sexuality also brings to mind the “Rainbow Milk” novel I highlighted earlier. Of this Lord Michael Cashman has said it is “A real page-turner that sparks with humanity and hope“. After the year we have all had this would seem like a great reading choice.

What books did you not get around to reading this year?

Such A Fun Age – Kiley Reid (2020)

On the day I finished this it was announced that Philadelphian resident Kelly Reid had won the Best Debut Award at The Goodreads Choice Awards, voted for by readers.  I am not surprised that this book has won a popular vote as I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year.

There are a lot of complex issues in this book presented in a highly readable, involving form.  I found myself holding my breath when reading it, I was so gripped by the turn of events and felt on edge for the characters.  It is very much a book for our age, certainly in keeping with a couple of other books written by women of colour I have read this year which feel so relevant, as well as being very well-written, Kia Abdullah’s stunning legal thriller “Truth Be Told” and Candice Carty-Williams’ British take in “Queenie”.

Reid’s richly drawn main character is Emira, a 25 year old young black woman living in Philadelphia who works part-time as a babysitter for two white children.  One night, whilst at a party, she is called on for emergency child-care in order to remove the toddler Briar from the house for a time.  With limited choices available at that time of night, Emira takes Briar to a supermarket which sets off a whole chain of events.  This makes for a jaw dropping, tense beginning and repercussions and analysis of this event occupies all the main characters.  At the supermarket the proceedings are filmed by a white man, Kelley, who Emira begins a relationship with.  Her white employer, Alix becomes obsessed with this event and with Emira herself.  The multi-layered plot thickens continually until the characters are in a right old stew.  Whose behaviour is without blame?  Who is using who to score points and how far can all of the characters’ actions and justifications be classed as racist? It is especially pertinent (following the publication of this book) with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s non-fiction work “Why I’m Not Talking To White People About Race” (2018) belatedly topping the UK best sellers list but here we have some of these issues within a vibrantly written, involving fiction work which is so impressive.  There is great warmth and humour which also deepens the issues raised.  If we are to class this as an issue-led book it is so rich in character.  I would imagine this could well be a very big bestseller when the paperback is published on 29th December. 

My only reservation is the title and I know it’s ironic but it doesn’t convey the feel of the book and may detract purchasers, especially in the UK, where it has a kind of a “jolly hockey-sticks” air about it but surely this will be compensated by the very good word of mouth and its featuring in end of year lists, including The Daily Telegraph’s Best Books, that Goodreads win, a Booker longlist nod and The Independent calling it “the book of the year.”

“Such A Fun Age” was published in hardback in the UK in 2020 by Bloomsbury Circus.  The paperback edition is scheduled for 29th December.

The Illustrated Child – Polly Crosby (HQ 2020)

Do you remember the Kit Williams book “Masquerade”?  Published in 1979 it was a picture book which sparked a national treasure hunt when it became known that the author had created and buried a gold bejewelled hare and the clues to its whereabouts were hidden in the book.  It became a worldwide bestseller, caused a boom in the sale of metal detectors and led to sudden mounds appearing in the countryside as treasure hunters began digging up public and private property in the belief they had located the hare. The whole thing ended in confusion and a hint of scandal which was documented by ex-University Challenge host Bamber Gascoine (“The Quest For The Golden Hare”).  Both Kit Williams and his most famous work is the undoubted inspiration for Polly Crosby’s debut novel.

Romilly and her father live in a large ramshackle country house with a moat which will bring comparisons to Dodie Smith’s outstanding “I Capture The Castle” (1949).  I wasn’t too disappointed by this as I love that novel and Smith’s main character Cassandra is one of my favourites in fiction so I settled in for a comforting read.  Romilly’s father, an illustrator and craftsman begins a series of best-selling picture books with a promise of treasure featuring Romilly and her kitten, Monty, both of whom become fictional celebrities which attracts groups of treasure seekers to their property.  I felt at this point I knew what type of read this would be but this is a novel of distinctly shifting tones becoming increasingly bleak and at times horrific.  Although I love unpredictability in my fiction it did feel as if the author was a little unclear as to what sort of book she was writing and I wonder if this would alienate readers.  There were times when I really liked it and times when I didn’t.  If you like the father/daughter relationship aspects and the treasure hunt you will find the turn into darker territory disturbing.  If the more bleak supernatural elements appeal you might find the first half overly twee.  There’s definite mixed feelings from me on this occasion.

The Illustrated Child is published in hardback on 29th October 2020 by HQ.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Water Dancer – Ta-Nehesi Coates (Hamish Hamilton 2020)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has built a strong reputation for his non-fiction work, particularly his award-winning “Between The World And Me” from 2015 which was written as a letter to his son encompassing feelings regarding being a black man in the United States, a twenty-first century slant on James Baldwin’s important “The Fire Next Time” (1963). This is his debut novel, a historical work, set in Virginia in the nineteenth century.

Hiram Walker is a slave.  Acknowledged by his master as his son he is spared work in the tobacco fields and used as a servant for his white half-brother Maynard.  Whilst returning the no-good heir from the racetrack Hiram has a vision which leads to a catastrophic accident which puts his future in doubt.

Events lead him to become linked to the Underground Railroad, a group of agents who worked to free slaves and bring them north.  He meets and is inspired by Harriet Tubman, the real-life woman who rescued around 70 slaves on 13 dangerous missions.  Coates here employs a little magic to explain Tubman’s success, magic which Hiram himself discovers he has the potential to utilise, the ability to jaunt through space.

I wasn’t sure about this – feeling it undermined the true life heroine’s contribution but looking at the life of Harriet Tubman afterwards she did seem to experience visions probably caused by an overseer throwing a heavy weight at her head when a child so Coates is using an imaginative next step in using these visions to assist her with her rescues. Also, despite any misgivings the section where Hiram accompanies her on a mission was one of my favourite parts of the novel.  What also is done very well is emphasising the importance of story and their history for the black characters (both aspects often present in the very best Black American literature) and also conveying the sense of loss in their lives here at a time when the good times are drawing to a close for the white plantation owners meaning the slaves are no longer the asset for them they once were, which brings its own particular set of problems.

Comparisons do have to be made, however, to the multi-award winning 2016 best-selling novel by Colson Whitehead “The Underground Railroad” which similarly uses imagination to provide a creative slant on this rescue network.  That is one of my favourite novels in recent years and whereas I was very impressed by Coates’ debut the Whitehead novel has the edge.

The Water Dancer was published in hardback in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in February 2020.  The Penguin paperback is due on 19th November. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Truth Be Told – Kia Abdullah (HQ 2020)

I haven’t read Kia Abdullah’s debut “Take It Back” but I will certainly be on the look-out for it after reading her first-class second novel.  I feel like I have been on a real journey with the author with what is ostensibly a legal thriller- but it is so much more.

I’m not going to say much about the plot other than not one of the twists did I see coming.  Thematically, it is rich.  It’s mainly a tale about consent, but also cultural pressures and entitlement.  We meet 17 year old Kamran, educated at boarding school (which seems alarmingly close to his house I always assume children board some distance from home but here not so)  who one night has too much to drink and changes his life forever and Zara, an ex-lawyer, now working in counselling and support who is coming to terms with an act of violence perpetrated against her.

This was a novel I found difficult to put down.  I was using my finger to cover up the bottom of the page at times as I was reading it, not wanting my eyes to slide down and pick up on events too soon.  I savoured every word and it is well written.  I admittedly had a slight issue with a group of male protesters who do not seem as well thought out as characters and whose presence in part of the narrative caused its only few clunky moments.  I socially distanced myself at work one lunchtime even more than necessary by seeking out a space alone so I could read the court case section of the novel.

I’m not even a huge fan of legal thrillers.  The only one (not including “To Kill A Mockingbird” which is loosely a legal thriller) which has really impressed me is Jodi Picoult’s “Small Great Things” (2016) and this is every bit as thought-provoking and good.

Truth Be Told will be published on September 3rd by HQ Books.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Strange Flowers – Donal Ryan (Doubleday 2020)

When I read Donal Ryan’s debut “The Spinning Heart” in 2013 I was so impressed.  I completed it very early on in the year and it still managed to make the runner up spot in my Books Of The Year (behind Robert Lohr’s 2007 “Secrets Of The Chess Machine”. What an under-rated book that was).  I felt like I was really at the start of something when I was sent Ryan’s debut to review.  My thoughts about it featured alongside an interview with the author in Newbooks (NB) magazine and the novel won the Guardian First Book Award, The Book Of The Year at the Irish Book Awards amongst other accolades and was later voted “Irish Book Of The Decade”.  I made my own claim to the lasting power of this book in 2015 when I put the title forward in the winter edition of NB/Newbooks as my choice for the Best Book Of The 21st Century So Far.

Here’s the strange thing- despite my great love for this title I have not got around to reading anything else by this author who has since published  a short-story collection and three novels (his last “From A Low And Quiet Sea” making the 2018 Costa Novel Shortlist).  I was delighted to be offered a chance to advance review this, his fifth novel, by his publishers to put my previous oversights right.

The thing I have to get over first of all is that it didn’t blow me away like the debut did, so there’s unfortunately already a trickle of disappointment creeping in.  This was added to slightly by the narrative structure chosen, the debut drew the reader in with 21 people telling their tale creating a community with wonderful, economic writing which really brought these characters alive. Here we have a very factual narrative, written like a fable or fairy tale, which makes obviously for good story-telling but holds the reader at arm’s length and delays an emotional attachment with the characters developing.  This is obviously a popular style at the moment as Edmund White has surprisingly utilised something similar in his latest “A Saint From Texas”.

We begin in the early 1970s in Tipperary and the novel focuses on three generations of the Gladney family.  Paddy, a postman who also works on the land of the Jackman family where his cottage is situated and his wife, Kit, are reeling from the disappearance of their daughter Moll.  This can be seen as a novel about returning home and being satisfied with one’s lot as characters seem happiest when they have returned home to live a simpler life in the Tipperary countryside.

For the first half of the novel I was impressed by the quality of the writing but not totally involved but perhaps by two-thirds of the way through the undeniable genius of Donal Ryan had worked its magic and despite writing in a style which was keeping me at a distance I discovered  I really cared for some of these characters (I adored Alexander) and ended up feeling quite misty-eyed by the end.  I’m not sure how the author did this to me.  Once again it is a deceptively simple work which is much richer in characterisation and symbolism than it first appears- perhaps working in that subliminal way in which we as children relate to fantasy and traditional stories which the structure of this ultimately satisfying work echoes.

Strange Flowers was published in hardback by Doubleday on  20th August 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers for selecting me to review an advance copy and to Netgalley for making that available.

Who They Was- Gabriel Krauze (Harper Collins 2020)

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Gabriel Krauze’s debut novel has attracted considerable attention since it was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.  Most of us would probably have not heard of it before the list was announced and even though I have only so far read one other book which has made it onto the list ( C Pam Zhang’s “How Much Of These Fields Is Gold”) I would say this is certainly short-list worthy.

It’s definitely not a comfort read.  It’s being marketed as an autobiographical novel from an author now in his thirties who lived a life of crime from his teenage years, here in this novel, even whilst studying English Lit at University.  Centred around the estates in South Kilburn this is a tale of casual violence, drugs, theft and where wearing an expensive watch is asking for trouble as they get stolen from their original owner and seemingly again and again from the thieves.

To begin with Gabriel, known as Snoopz, fits perfectly into this life and works with those keen to escalate the takings (and the violence).  Following a scholarship at a private school his Polish Dad and especially his mother, with naturally high hopes for her offspring, are dumbfounded but supportive.  Relationships are casual and with men bonded over drug taking and crime plotting and with women just disturbing as any attachment other than physical only seems to occur when they are apart.  University life is important to him but there’s a self-destructive attitude struggling to find prominence over a keen brain.

It’s written in street slang which slows the reader down but gives a vibrant energy to events.  I’ve never read anything quite like this from a British perspective.  The closest I can think of outside of this is Marlon James’s “A Brief History Of Seven Killings” which won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 although I think that book was more multi-layered than this more straightforward narrative.

I’m not going to get round to many more in the Booker list but I would place it above C Pam Zhang’s novel as I feel this is a more striking, relevant work.  I’m not sure what this author would do next but I’m fascinated to find out.

four-star

Who They Was was published as an e-book on 3rd August and will be published on 3rd September 2020 in hardback by Harper Collins.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.