The Language Of Birds – Jill Dawson (2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This is not exactly a crime novel, although a murder is very much at its centre and it focuses on a case most readers would have some sense of familiarity with, that of children’s nanny Sandra Rivett killed by absconding aristocrat Lord Lucan in what was believed to have been a case of mistaken identity (Lucan had intended to kill his estranged wife).

The real life events from 1974 are here turned into fiction with changed names, Dawson’s reasons for this are stated in an Afterword; “The life of a victim is a hard story to tell when there are living descendants (of the Lucan family too) and others who might still be hurt. My solution was to invent new characters whose story you have just read.” I think we as readers will respect the author’s decision here. Since reading this I haven’t gone into what was known about this grubby case other than what Dawson has told us in the Afterword and my vague recollections but she does seem to have followed the framework of events closely.

The narrative switches between a third person retelling and the first-person views of Rosemary, a friend of the doomed nanny. The two meet as voluntary patients in a psychiatric hospital and when a recovered Rosemary finds work as a nanny in London, Mandy follows and finds herself in charge of the two children from the fractured Morven family assisting the fragile and not-coping Lady Katherine who is trying to break free from the enigmatic but charismatic Dickie, wrapped in underhand tactics in a custody case. The two girls waver as to who should get their sympathies.

I think what Jill Dawson does very well here is to get the feel of the mid 1970’s just right not only in its many references but particularly in the attitudes. Mandy and Rosemary feel like two young girls new to the London of 1974. There’s a lot of anger in the novel, rightly so, in a case in which time has tended to lionise the disappearing perpetrator. In many ways just as Hallie Rubenhold aimed to reclaim the victims from the hype of Jack The Ripper in her non-fiction work “The Five” Dawson here has managed to move the focus back to the real-life victim Sandra Rivett perhaps even more effectively, especially as the character of Mandy is so vibrant and well-drawn.

There’s an element of imagery going on in the title and on occasions within the text based upon bird communication. At one point it takes the form of auditory hallucinations by swans and pigeons which caused Rosemary’s mental health episode but I’m not sure that this fits into the feel of the novel or understand why it is there. The relevance of this and of the title of the novel has passed me by.  It is not what I will remember this book for which is the great feel for the period, strong characterisation and the build up of dread as to how what we know is inevitable will pan out and the ramifications for those caught up in the grisly events.

fourstars

The Language Of Birds was published in hardback by Sceptre in April 2019.

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The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2019)

 

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Here’s a book I’ve been looking forward to. I highlighted it as one of my must-reads for 2019 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post in January. At that point August seemed a long time away but here it is and I have managed to get my hands on an advance copy.

Last time around Colson Whitehead ended up as #3 in my 2017 Books Of The Year list with the very impressive “The Underground Railroad” which won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in the US and was a big seller over here. I said at the time “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read”. This is why expectations were so high for this.

“The Nickel Boys” focuses on a boys’ reform school, The Nickel Academy, which the author based on the real life Dozier School for Boys in Florida. Main character Elwood Curtis, an intelligent ambitious teen gets caught up in the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and ends up being sent to the school on ludicrous charges. This school is tough, but particularly on the black inmates, many of whom have found themselves there without just cause. They face segregation, malnutrition, cruelty, indiscriminate beatings and a number disappear without being seen again. Whitehead focuses on the out-of-place Elwood and his more street-savvy friend Turner and their experiences as teens in this hideous place alongside a later narrative of revelations about the place which come to the surface (literally) many years later.

“The Underground Railroad” focused on slavery and veered off in an unpredictable direction which saw it top the Amazon Book charts in its “Metaphysical and Visionary” lists. This book plays things more straightforwardly. In a way, I was pleased by this, because the author has such an important story to tell but also I was a little disappointed that this does not soar in quite the same way as its predecessor with its imaginative elements. As I was reading it, however, I was expecting it to which did affect the way I approached this novel. I was a little wary in case Colson Whitehead took it off into another direction and left me behind.

It is well-written and tales of appalling prejudice still need telling. The ridiculousness of such viewpoints can be seen here in the character of Jaimie, a mixed-race Mexican boy who “ping pongs” between the two sections of the school. As soon as he becomes tanned by working outside in the sun he is sent to the “coloured” half until he is deemed too light-skinned to be there and sent back. Most of the examples of prejudice are, however, far more chilling than this.

In airing these issues from the past to Trump’s America Colson Whitehead has written another book which will enhance his growing reputation as one of the US’s most important novelists.

fourstars

The Nickel Boys was published on August 1 2019 by Fleet. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape 2019) – A Rainbow Read

 

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Thirty-one year old Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese-born poet who moved to Connecticut with his extended family whilst still a toddler. Dyslexic, gay and agoraphobic his first collection of poems which explored some of these areas together with his experience of being from a background influenced by traumatic experiences was entitled “Night Sky With Exit Wounds” and achieved huge critical acclaim including the TS Eliot Prize in 2017.

Vuong has decided to follow this up with an autobiographical novel focusing on his childhood which has the main character exploring his relationship with his mother to whom the narrative is addressed in the form of a letter. Vuong’s gift for language rings clearly throughout as his writing is full of vivid images and episodic snapshots of memory that are clear and powerful. This is obviously a novel written by a poet. In fact, it was the deliciously poetic title that first drew me to this work. Having said that there is enough plot narrative in his tale of the boy known as “Little Dog” to ensure that this works very well as a novel.

Little Dog’s mother is a manicurist who works long hours and can erupt in explosions of violence. His grandmother, Lan, far more uprooted from her Vietnamese life than the other characters is ailing and is very much seen in terms of the damage inflicted on her via years of conflict, becoming increasingly distant to her family, but whose strength of spirit is evident in Little Dog’s memories. Perhaps more than the relationship between mother and son it is with the grandmother and grandson where the heart of this novel really lies.

The bullied, abused Little Dog has to grapple with his sexuality in a tough world of prescription drug addiction and struggling to get by. Alongside the narrative it is the visual images conjured continually by Vuong’s writing which brings this debut to life. Recurring images including butterflies migrating long distances and  herding buffalos plunging off a cliff top feel very appropriate for the fragility, tenacity and bewilderment of these characters’ situations.

This work is less plot-driven than I would normally recommend but its sensitivity and power and linguistic richness would ensure a valuable reading experience.

fourstars

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is published by Jonathan Cape in June 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Bridge Of Clay – Markus Zusak (2018)

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It’s been a long wait.  13 years since the publication of one of my all-time favourite novels “The Book Thief” Australian author Markus Zusak is back.  For a writer of an acknowledged modern classic this book snuck out last year and has recently appeared in paperback.  This relative lack of fanfare and the time between the two novels made me a little anxious but when I saw a copy on the library shelves I knew I just had to rejig my reading schedule to fit it in.

 This is actually Zusak’s 6th novel, those before his major breakthrough being aimed at the young adult market, one of which “I Am The Messenger” (2002) has been sitting on my shelves unread for some time but I have not dared to read it in case my admiration for this author is any way diminished.  In fact both “The Book Thief” and this latest novel could be seen as being appropriate for young adults but both demand a wider audience.

 There are elements of the predecessor in “Bridge Of Clay”, especially in the narrative style.  Here, Matthew Dunbar slowly weaves the tale of his family, jumping backwards and forwards in time, half-revealing events that are explored fully later in much the same way as Death does when he narrates “The Book Thief”.  Here, however, the stakes are not so high, the plot is a family tale without the huge issues that makes “The Book Thief” such an important read.  Books are once again important, a well-thumbed biography of Michelangelo spans the generations and there’s a lot of running which reminded me of Rudy and his Jesse Owens obsession.

 Matthew narrates the story of his parents and his four brothers but especially Clay, a gifted runner who is attracted to his neighbour Carey, an apprentice jockey, and who is torn by the loss of both of his parents and determined to build bridges in every sense when a face from the past shows up.  To start with it does feel all over the place, as did “The Book Thief” (I always advise the many people I have recommended the book to stick with it until they are used to the narrative conceit) as initially some of the events are hard to follow but it all makes sense as we are drip-fed the story of the Dunbars.

 Its chatty, scattered narrative actually masks the emotional depth of the content.  It was only looking back as I neared the end that I realised how much I knew about the characters’ lives and how involved I had become, a testament to a great novel.  Like “The Book Thief” which improves with each re-read I think the events that washed over me on first reading will have a much deeper significance on a revisit.  This is one of those books that when you finish you will be tempted to start all over again.  I’ve got to hand my library copy back but I will be purchasing this so I can read it again.  True, thematically, it is all on a much smaller scale than “The Book Thief” and lacks the power and perhaps some of the lasting resonance of that work but it is high-quality fiction which did everything to me that a very good book should.  After over a decade of waiting my expectations were shaky but really I couldn’t have asked for more from this book.

fivestars

 Bridge Of Clay was published by Doubleday in 2018.  I read the 2019 Black Swan paperback edition.

Lux- Elizabeth Cook (Scribe 2019)

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A deft melding of the biblical and the historical, Elizabeth Cook has as her central figure King David in this novel of three sections.  From the boy hero slaying Goliath against the odds to the successful King who becomes morally wayward when he views, from a distance, one of his subjects Bathsheba, washing herself.   Exercising his right to possess he impregnates the previously barren Bathsheba and either has to get her husband Uriah to take responsibility for her condition or get him permanently out of the way.

 This first section “Ark” is the most successful as far as I was concerned, the biblical retelling largely from the Book of Samuel feels both fresh and familiar and with the miraculous powers of the Ark of The Covenant present in the background it gave the writing a feel of a quality fantasy novel.   

 In the second section whilst Bathsheba cares for her new-born a prophecy from Nathan leads David to contemplate and atone for his wrongdoings in a cave.  The third section “Poet” shifts to Thomas Wyatt, who translated the psalms attributed to King David as he watches his old friend Anne Boleyn adjust to her position as Queen and faces his own spells of contemplation in the Tower of London.

 There is no doubt that the author weaves her tale as beautifully as the tapestries Henry VIII purchases which depict the tale of Bathsheba.  The language has a poetic force which impresses.  I felt it a little lacking as a novel as the subject matter just didn’t engage me consistently.  I didn’t feel an emotional response which I would have hoped for in such a novel so there was a bit of a mis-match here for me.  It is quality writing throughout although I would have appreciated a closer tying in of the third section with the first two.  I felt that I read and absorbed the writing and followed the plot-lines yet the novel just wasn’t for me.  I haven’t really felt this way since I read Ali Smith’s “How To Be Both” which ended up a major award winner so Elizabeth Cook is in very good company here.

threestars

Lux was published in hardback  by Scribe in April 2019.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

This Brutal House – Niven Govinden (Dialogue 2019)

 

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I’ve been itching to read this since I first heard about its impending publication in a number of 2019 previews.  This is the fifth novel for British author Govinden, which was a surprise as I read the novel assuming it was an American work.

Set around the time of the New York vogue balls which had their heyday in the late 80’s/early 90’s this book probably has the documentary film “Paris Is Burning” (1990) as its strongest influence.  (If you haven’t seen this catch it on Netflix- it is outstanding).  Since I read of this book in January we have had the UK transmission of Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” (BBC2) which was also very strong and touches very similar ground.

 The vogue ball scene, although underground, has had a strong cultural link in the decades which have followed it influencing fashion and music particularly Madonna and “Rupaul’s Drag Race”.  Central to the set up were the “houses” who competed in various dance/drag categories to win trophies and who were dominated by the “mothers” who provided support and often food and accommodation for those lost in NYC in return for their participation in the contests in order to raise their particular house to the desired “legendary” status.

 The balls may have shifted into the background in this novel but those who participate in them are paramount.  A group of “mothers” stage a silent protest on the steps of City Hall because of official incompetence at investigating disappearances of their “children”.  Teddy, one of the few characters to be named in the book, is both one of the children made good by education and a City Hall employee placed into the middle of this situation.  And plot-wise that is largely it.

 It’s written with great energy and is direct and forthright throughout becoming at times almost sermon-like, an intense flow of the perceptions of Teddy and the collective group of mothers.  As well as giving this novel its impetus it does also at times cause it to drag as there is not enough variation in the narrative style.  The vogue-caller (think Pray Tell in “Pose”) has his section but it is merely a list of categories and pages of little more than the word “work” which would normally have me hurling the book across the room but which here due to the rhythmic nature of the piece (and because I find the subject matter fascinating) Govinden gets away with it.  I think I would have welcomed another plot thread perhaps based upon the balls themselves in a more naturalistic style which would add greater potency to the elevated language of the narrative.

 This book is not going to be to everyone’s taste but often if I have high expectations of a book before reading it they can be completely dashed but I found myself more or less involved throughout.  It’s a story about outsiders attempting to conform but seeking their own refuge through their own special kind of family grouping and of throwing shade and shapes on the dancefloor.

fourstars

This Brutal House is published by Dialogue in hardback on 6th June.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Seven Or Eight Deaths Of Stella Fortuna – Juliet Grames (Hodder & Stoughton 2019)

 

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Last year’s surprise publishing sensation was the debut novel by American author Stuart Turton “The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle” which won the Costa First Novel Award and climbed up bestseller lists as well as appearing on a considerable number of “Best Of The Year” lists. I haven’t read it yet but anticipate a time-bending novel along the lines of Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” which I loved. We all know that from the very early days of publishing there’s nothing like a surprise success to start off the bandwagon jumping and I couldn’t help but feel that this might be the case when I saw the title of this debut by another American author (even more so when you consider Turton’s US title for his novel is “The Seven and A Half Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle”). This may just all be coincidence but I’m doubtful.

There was, however, something about the description of this novel which appealed and hopefully that potential cash-in of a title will not hinder its chances in the marketplace. Unlike “Life After Life” these are not actual deaths anyway but near-death experiences for the main character, a woman with undoubted survival instincts and these experiences provide the structure of the book. It actually needn’t as this is one of the weakest aspects of the story. Before publication I would have made these near-death encounters less prominent and just titled the novel “Stella Fortuna” allowing it to stand more on its own merit rather than on the coat-tails of another title. It would have also ended up with something which would have felt more self-contained and original.

This novel does not need this hook. It works very well on its own as a tale of the long-living Stella Fortuna and her family from sun-soaked days in a village in Calabria, Italy, to their emigration to the US just before World War II and their experience of life over the decades as an American-Italian immigrant family narrated by her grand-daughter.

The Italian section does feel a little unsure of itself in terms of style. At times it reads almost like a fairy tale with whimsical touches borne out of the superstitions of the simple mountain folk. I quite liked it but I’m a little allergic to anything too whimsical. Once it gets to America it feels more realistic and at times disturbingly hard-hitting, even brutal in its writing. As a result I’m not totally convinced Juliet Grames has found her style consistently with this debut. It did occur to me at one point that it might be a translation into English and that the translator did not quite get the author’s voice quite right, but it’s not.

However, she did keep me reading and that was because of strong characterisation. Stella will undoubtedly frustrate and irritate, she has a stubborn streak and lives her life attempting to avoid what she does not want rather than going after what she actually wants. She is haunted by these near-death experiences and her belief that they are to do with incidents from before she was born. Her parents, her mother taken away from the simple life she loves and her disturbing macho father are equally well drawn as are many of those who come into Stella Fortuna’s life over the generations. As a family story it works very well. I just can’t help thinking that the title might hold it back implying it is something that it’s not and forcing unnecessary comparisons. This is a strong, memorable debut but I do feel with a slightly different emphasis, viewpoint and a more consistent style it could have been first-rate.

fourstars

The Seven Or Eight Deaths Of Stella Fortuna is published by Hodder and Stoughton in hardback on May 7th 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Taking Of Annie Thorne – C J Tudor (2019)

 

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I read C J Tudor’s critically acclaimed debut “The Chalk Man” (2018) earlier this year.  It was a book that became a word of mouth hit and I realised I was missing out when I saw it appearing on a number of “Best Of The Year” lists.   I really liked the tense atmosphere she created throughout and the touches of horror and these aspects are all present and correct in her second novel.

I began this as an exercise in listening.  A free month’s trial for Audible was initiated when I saw this was available so soon after publication.  It is narrated by Richard Armitage who has a very listenable voice and despite me never being successful at committing to audio books (Susan Hill’s slim “The Printer’s Devil Court” being the only one I’ve managed to listen to all the way through) I was determined to let Tudor’s easy approachable style be read to me.  I was enjoying the narration very much but it all just takes too long.  I don’t have ten hours listening time and because audio is new to me I have to really concentrate on it (of course, being male means multi-tasking and doing something else whilst listening is out of the question!).  I was also having to take notes at the end of every chapter, realising how much I must flick back in a physical book to check things.  I did, however, get well over half-way through and then I discovered a hardback copy in the library.  I did try to resist but couldn’t so checked it out and finished it off.  (I’ve also just cancelled my Audible trial- once again I’ve tried and been found wanting.)

The novel is set in the ex-mining village of Arnhill in Nottinghamshire, a location similar to where the author grew up.  Like “The Chalk Man” there are two time zones, a present day narrative and one set in 1992 when the main protagonists were in their teens.

There’s a grisly opening of a discovery of bodies in a cottage (which certainly spooked me listening to it) then it settles into a plot where Joe Thorne returns to Arnhill and engineers himself a teaching post at his old school.  He has come back in an attempt to put to rest trauma in his past- the disappearance and eventual death of his eight year old sister which occurred when he was fifteen.  The combination of the crime novel and horror is not as balanced as it was in “The Chalk Man” with the latter taking precedence.  Horror writing gives the text an openness which the crime novel with its demands to be tied up neatly to provide a satisfactory experience tends not to do.  The unexplainable horror touches comes from the old pit itself which has a history of being involved in disappearance and death and which commands a dark presence over the plot.

 If anything, the tale here is darker than “The Chalk Man”.  There is the odd flash of humour but this is generally black, bitter and barbed.  This has the effect of not making this novel seem as multi-layered nor as rich as its predecessor where the language felt more vibrant and less on one level.  Also readers who need to like their characters will struggle as not even main protagonist Joe comes across as having that many redeeming features.  There are aspects to the plot, particularly with regards to backstory events in Joe’s adulthood that seem underwritten and not as convincing.  As a result I did not feel as drawn into this world as I had with “The Chalk Man” but this is still an involving read, showing once again the author’s skill with tension and building up a creepy atmosphere.

threestars

 

I read the Michael Joseph published hardback version of “The Taking Of Annie Thorne” which was published in February 2019.  In the US it has been published as “The Other People”.  A paperback version is due to be published by Penguin in July 2019.

A Stranger City – Linda Grant (Virago 2019)

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I read and enjoyed Linda Grant’s last novel “The Dark Circle” back in 2o16.  It was set largely in a TB sanatorium in a post-war Britain very much on the cusp of a modern age as the richly drawn characters awaited developments which would cure them and allow them back into the society their illness had removed them from.

 The author’s latest places us into contemporary London where change is also anticipated and it is not good news as the city awaits the effects of Brexit.  It is a disorientating time in the city for the characters and becomes increasingly so as deportation trains begin to rattle through the night, “illegals” are held in prison ships and one sequence set in a dis-located part of London feels like Alice down the rabbit hole.

 This shifting uncertain London shimmers in the background of a plot with a mystery story at its heart.  A suicide off London Bridge by an unidentified woman occurs on the same evening a documentary maker witnesses conflict between a man and an Irish woman on a train.  This woman, a nurse, also disappears but the power of social media ensures she is identified and cannot stay missing for too long.  The contrast between the two in the same location leads the film-maker to produce a television programme in an attempt to uncover the dead woman’s identity.  The people caught up in this story are the main protagonists of the novel.

 As in the last publication characterisation is here a strong point, although the shifts of focus means that the reader is kept on their toes.  Nothing feels totally secure in Grant’s London as the novel shifts, undulates and unsettles throughout.  The real and the fictional blur from a character caught up in a terrorist incident on a London bridge to a nation where the tiniest error on paperwork can lead to expulsion from a country keen to rid itself of those it feels no longer belongs.  Concealing oneself in an attempt to fit in and disguise are themes developed within the novel.

It is very well written and feels more complex than “The Dark Circle” but is every bit as readable.  There is a freshness in the language which makes it feel it is produced  by a writer with a definite finger on the pulse.  It is another solidly impressive, intelligent work from this author whose reputation continues to grow.


fourstars
 

A Stranger City is published by Virago in hardback on  2nd May 2019 .  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

You Will Be Safe Here – Damian Barr (Bloomsbury 2019)

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British writer and journalist Damian Barr’s first novel takes in over a hundred years of South African history beginning with the Boer War where a “scorched earth” policy led to those unwilling to sign a pledge of allegiance to the British Crown being evicted from their homes and into internment camps.  For the first section of the novel we follow Mrs Van Der Witt and her young son Fred through diary entries written in the camp intended for her husband fighting the English in 1901.

 A prologue introduces us to a modern camp which is picked up on again in the second narrative thread when teenager Willem’s parents send him to a conversion camp to make a man out of him.  The two narratives are linked through location and a school history lesson visit to the turn of the century site.

This is a powerful and chilling read and is, on consideration, the best book I have read so far this year ahead of critically acclaimed titles from big-hitters such as Kate Atkinson, Belinda Bauer and Liam McIlvanney.  The history of South Africa is complex but by touching on two time zones Barr manages to get an epic sweep and involves the reader through strong characterisation and an unpredictable and occasionally brutal plot.

 The aspect which stops me giving it five stars, thus keeping it as a book I would certainly like to hang onto to read again rather than a book I couldn’t bear to part with is its narrative structure which makes some significant moments seem a little unresolved and despite some connections makes the early narrative a little distant from the contemporary one.  I think running the two strands a little more side by side could have been more powerful, but probably as many readers would be frustrated by this structure.  Here, I felt the moving forwards through time at critical moments seemed a little jarring as these moments are left to dangle and not always be picked up immediately, which felt a little like producing cliff hangers for cliff hangers sake.  This can be done very successfully as in John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” but here at times I found it slightly grating.

 Minor quibbles, however, for a very strong debut novel written with what I can best describe as a calm powerfulness which will stay with the reader for a considerable time.

fourstars

 You Will Be Safe Here is published in hardback by Bloomsbury on April 4th.  Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.