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.

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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.

A Saint From Texas – Edmund White (Bloomsbury 2020)

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In my review of Edmund White’s memoir “City Boy” (2009) I wrote “I haven’t yet read anything by him which has really blown me away”.  I did really enjoy that book and also highlighted his 2000 novel “A Married Man” as my favourite of his fiction.  I appreciated that he has made an enormous contribution to gay-themed literature but also wrote “he can come across as a little too academic in his writing and lacking warmth, perhaps investing his novels with a richness of technical skills rather than empathy.”  I did qualify this by saying I had not read everything by him but that was how I was feeling back in 2018 when I read “City Boy”.

That does not mean I was not excited by the prospect of a new novel, his 14th, published in the year he turned 80.  It was a surprise and not what I was expecting from him at all.

Last time out I complained he was too academic and technical and yet the reason I struggled to engage with this novel was because it felt trivial and slight.  There’s just no pleasing some people!  I also had my ongoing issue with empathy and really only one of the characters came alive for me.

This is the tale of identical Texan twin sisters Yvonne and Yvette (called Why-vonne and Why-vette by their family).  Born in 1938 and brought up by their recently rich father (Texan oil wells) and money-grasping stepmother the girls go in very separate directions- Yvonne to a life of prestige in Paris where she marries a Baron and Yvette to a convent in Colombia.  From here we encounter Yvette mainly through the letters to her sister (whose first-person narration we are reading) yet it is the nun whose character seems the most richly drawn to me.  A “miracle” in her youth and her piety promotes her as a potential candidate for a sainthood yet she struggles with denying her physical longings.  There’s no self-denial for Yvonne and she is soon taking a lover capitalising on the unlikelihood of divorce amongst the notable families of France.

My main issue is that Yvonne’s narration feels very much on one level.  Reading on a Kindle at one point I accidentally jumped a considerable distance in the book and it was quite some time before I noticed and returned to my original place.

I had hoped that this was the great Edmund White novel which I have been expecting, especially through reading his non-fiction.  I’m sure he has a truly great novel in him but this is not it.  I’m beginning to think that maybe I have missed it, that this greatness is contained in one of the earlier novels I have not got round to yet.  I do have his 1973 debut “Forgetting Elena” on my shelves- I recently bought a copy after hearing very good things about it.  I will let you know….

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A Saint From Texas is published in the UK on August 4th 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Box Hill- Adam Mars- Jones (2020)

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1975- A Bank Holiday weekend and Colin, the narrator, is spending his 18th birthday at Box Hill, near Leatherhead Surrey.  He’s got there on the back of his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s motorbike.  He has been taken out for the day because his mum is in hospital and he has had a row with his Dad.  Box Hill is a meeting place for leather- clad motorcyclists and whilst on a walk Colin trips over the feet of Ray and from that point on his life is changed.

This was a title I highlighted as one I wanted to read in my post which looked forward to 2020 publications (I’m doing rather well with these having now read 50%).  A copy I ordered from Waterstones went astray in the post and so I purchased it on Kindle.  (It was later returned to Waterstones who were very good at reimbursing me).  That did mean I missed out on the physical sensation of the classy blue-covered Fitzcarraldo edition (I had been wanting to read one of this independent publisher’s books for a while because there is something very impressive in their stark appearance).  This is obviously a publishing house who really wants the content of the book to do the talking.  If you are not sure what I am talking about have a look at their website to see what I mean. It is pushing this to call it a novel.  At 128 pages in the paperback edition it is no more than a novella which I read in a couple of sittings.

I’m not sure what I was expecting having never read Mars-Jones before but I was surprised how accessible this work was.  I think I was expecting it to be somewhat literary and impenetrable.  It is written in a highly endearing chatty style which looks back on the events of 1975 from a viewpoint of almost a quarter of a century.  The author has subtitled this “A Story Of Low Self-Esteem” and this is certainly the case as the narrator enters a relationship where he is certainly subservient and has little real knowledge about the life of his partner.  If this might seem far-fetched consider Colin’s youth leading him not knowing what to expect; the age difference between them and the 1975 setting where to live as a gay man was very different to how it is nowadays actually makes it chillingly plausible.

Colin is happy to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor by the side of his lover’s bed and never questions any actions or strange behaviours because he does not know any different.  This is a love story but to our modern eyes it is disturbing especially when  Colin becomes a mascot for the motorcycling group and wholly accepts behaviour which would nowadays be considered abusive but for him it is a great romance.

I really liked how this was written.  I liked the details which cause the narrator to step back from the past.  There’s lots of little asides- an incident with alcohol causes him to look back to childhood Christmases with his parents and their tipple of choice, advocaat.  So as their child is not left out he is given a glass but his is custard.  A small moment which I felt said a lot about this character.

I was never less than intrigued by this story.  My main quibble comes with the novella form.  I end up feeling slightly short-changed and here I would have liked the plot to be fleshed out into greater length.  There was certainly enough material here for this to have happened and especially as I was enjoying the writing so much.  Some of Adam Mars-Jones’ other fiction is quite substantial so now I feel I’ve dipped into his writing and been enthralled that I would benefit from exploring further.

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Box Hill was published by Fitzcarraldo in 2020.

A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom- John Boyne (Doubleday 2020)

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Here is an author who, in my eyes, achieved virtual perfection with his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017), certainly one of my all-time favourite novels. I still have plenty of John Boyne to read, having only read three of his children’s/young adult titles and two of his adult works but I’ve experienced enough to know that his latest is a marked departure from what I’ve read before.

This Irish writer is no stranger to the historical novel but here, in a book which can truly be called epic, he has taken on the whole of world history starting from Palestine in AD1 to the present day and beyond to 2080. This has been done, and here is the conceit of this novel, with ostensibly the same main character, or different manifestations of this character throughout history. It can certainly be seen as a novel of reincarnation with the main character (never named) moving on with his life in different times and different locations. There’s an obvious spiritual element here with its implied growth towards wisdom which initially made me a little nervous as to make this too explicit often results in leaden writing I’ve found (Paolo Coehlo springing to mind). I hoped Boyne would handle this with a lightness of touch to make it work.

He has to a very large extent. The novel reads like a series of interlinked short stories. At one point we move from Sweden in 1133 to China in 1191 and to Greece in 1223 with the narrative thread remaining fairly constant and with easily identifiable characters having regional variations of their names so the reader can pick up from where the plot left off each time adapting to the new setting and the often subtle changes which keep the narrative appropriate. This sounds confusing but it works well and builds an involving plot. Admittedly, there were times when I was enjoying a tale so much that I felt disappointed when it shifted onwards. He really has written 52 mini-novels in one, the amount of historical research must have been phenomenal.

This shifting means Boyne can have us visiting significant places at significant times introducing us to characters such as Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Attila The Hun and Donald Trump (he’s certainly not going to like this book!) This at times does run the risk of feeling laboured, a literary version of the TV series “Quantum Leap”. I actually prefer this novel when the historical figures are in the background and the location imbues the narrative with its sense of time. There are also occasional echoes of former lives through a sense of déjà vu with the Mayan figure Spearthrower Owl periodically creating a presence.

I’ve read books with a similar epic scope in terms of time (Edward Rutherford likes to do this) but nothing as ambitious as this which is extraordinary and I’ve begun to expect nothing less from this man but as a reading experience it is not quite up there with his very best. I think it just falls short of my rarely given five star rating. If you are interested in historical fiction and can’t quite decide what era to read about this is a perfect entry into discovering whole new literary worlds.

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A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom will be published in hardback by Doubleday on    23rd July 2020. Many thanks to the publishers for tracking me down and providing me with an advance review copy.

The Paris Library – Janet Skeslien Charles (Two Roads 2020?)

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Not an author I’d heard of before this and I thought it was due for imminent publication but checking on Amazon it seems to have been pushed back to February 2021 which may mean it is one of the casualties in how the publishing industry is having to deal with COVID-19. If this is the case then this is very advance notification of a book seriously worth your consideration.

Janet Skeslien Charles is the American author of “Moonlight In Odessa” (2011). At one point she worked as programmes manager at The American Library in Paris and it was this institution which is the inspiration for this novel.

Written in two narrative strands, one set during World War II and the other in Montana in the 1980s, both strands feature Odile, who obtains her dream job when she gets to work at The American Library in Paris in 1939. The real-life Library was set up during the previous war from two million American donations with it becoming revolutionary in being one of the first to allow subscribers to browse the open shelves and introducing story-times for children. By 1939 it was a much loved, over-subscribed establishment and its war years are dealt with here very impressively. The author has placed Odile alongside real-life characters who actually did do their utmost to keep the library functioning in Occupied Paris led by the extraordinary Dorothy Reeder (good name for a librarian). Skeslein Charles has turned these staff members into vibrant characters and placed them in a plot which certainly mirrors actual events.

Alongside this we see an older Odile, now living in the US, largely through the eyes of her young neighbour Lucy who is fascinated by the elegance of her neighbour becoming quite the Francophile amidst her small-town American life. I was very involved in both strands and this was a very involving read. I loved Odile’s obsession with the Dewey Decimal System which has her constantly categorising and found the relationship between her older self and the younger Lucy touching and convincing. I loved the whole aspect of the establishment doing what it could to support its subscribers and once again the importance of libraries is brought home as well as in the non-fictional “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean (2019). I also loved the way the fiction was weaved through a fascinating historical situation that I did not know about.

I hope that if this book is to be delayed until the New Year that it can be launched with enough momentum to give it a chance of achieving the sales it deserves.

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The Paris Library is currently scheduled (according to Amazon and I can’t find any information about it yet on the publishers site) to be published in the UK in February 2021. Sorry about confusion here but we might get quite a bit of that over the next few months. Many thanks to Netgalley and John Murray Press/Two Roads for the advance review copy.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold – C Pam Zhang (Faber 2020)

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C Pam Zhang’s striking confident debut places us in the nineteenth century American West in the dying days of the Gold Rush. Prospecting turns to tragedy for one family of Chinese heritage. The novel opens grimly with the father’s corpse and two young siblings Lucy and Sam taking to desperate measures to obtain two silver dollars to close their father’s eyes.

Uprooting themselves once again the children are forced to grow up during their search for a new settlement with the prospect of gold as their salvation. They bring with them their father’s dead body looking for a place to bury him. One section switches from third person narration to allowing the dead father to tell his story which does answer the questions the readers will have about the characters and their predicament.

Main character Lucy is hard to get a grip on. I wasn’t always sure of her motives. I was hoping for something from her viewpoint but this never happened. Her motivation seems to be based on the notion “family is family”. Much easier to read is Sam, thirsting for adventure with the same ideas as their father that gold would provide solutions.

Where I liked this novel most of all is when it slipped into backstory, the father’s narration and the family’s life before the events at the start of the novel where their pregnant mother encourages Lucy to get an education from a man besotted by the family’s exoticness. “Beauty is a weapon” Ma informs her daughter but that’s not always easy to use living hand to mouth in the open air of the American West.

As much as I admired the writing I wasn’t always sure here this novel was heading and once again I find present tense narrative distracting.  Lucy’s “education” is completed in a town called Sweetwater where she settles at one point in a section with a distinct change of tone. Sometimes the writing is feverish which gives the work a haunted, nightmarish quality which puts demands on the reader whilst at other times it reminded me both of Sebastian Barry’s recent novels (perhaps brought more clearly into focus as I have so recently read “A Thousand Moons”(2020) and I did find Zhang’s novel stronger) and of the New Zealand set “The Luminaries” (2013) by Eleanor Catton in more ways than its prospecting for gold themes. That book became a Man Booker Prize-winner so I think Zhang is on very strong ground here to turn heads with this literary debut.

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How Much Of These Hills is Gold is published today (April 9th 2020) by Virago in the UK. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Thousand Moons – Sebastian Barry (Faber 2020)

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Irish author Sebastian Barry’s last novel “Days Without End” (2016) won the Costa Book Of The Year and I read it when it made the 2017 Booker longlist. I enjoyed its unlikely coupling of the two main characters and its “adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America” but was a little put off by the present-tense narrative. I was fascinated to hear that Barry was to revisit his characters in what is loosely a sequel to its predecessor. This was one of the titles I focused in on as wanting to read in my start of year Looking Back Looking Forward post.

The main character here is Native American Winona. I had highlighted her and the relationship with Thomas McNulty and John Cole, her adoptive parents, as one of the strengths of “Days Without End” so I was looking forward to her (not present tense) narrative. After the years of wandering and adapting to their environment in the first novel the main characters have settled as farm workers in Tennessee. Their world has very much shrunk and the two men do fade into the background a little here becoming supporting characters and that is disappointing.

Winona’s life consists of risking the antipathy of the local town population because of her heritage in her trips to assist the local lawyer. A young man who works in the dry-goods store, Jas Jonski, takes a shine to Winona and that is where her troubles begin. It’s far less of an adventure tale but the need for survival and the suffering of injustice are once again present and Winona is a positively vibrant and complex character, who like her adoptive parents challenges stereotypes.

As one would expect of an artist of Barry’s calibre it is very well written but for me it just seems to simmer along and never really takes off in the way the last novel did. I missed the epic sweep of that book.

It may be because it is a much quieter novel anyway but given these characters and what we have had from them in the past this quietness was surprising and on this reading just a little disappointing.

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A Thousand Moons was published by Faber and Faber in hardback on 17th March 2020. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

The Four Symbols – Giacometti & Ravenne (Hodder & Stoughton 2020) – A Running Man Review

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The Adventure genre has calmed down somewhat since its mid noughties peak when Dan Brown and a host of similarly slanted authors dominated best-seller lists.  I read quite a few of these at the time but found they became too samey,  I wearied of reading about symbols of great powers but hidden meanings, Nazis, a myriad of locations and often confusing plot lines.

I was, however, tempted by this title I selected from a list of upcoming publications, the first of a trilogy entitled “The Black Sun”.  I thought its French slant (this is a translation)  might just breathe new life into a genre which was in danger of becoming stale.  Eric Giacometti worked as a journalist and was involved in the uncovering of French medical scandals before teaming up with Jacques Ravenne and writing according to the blurb “over 15 books together” (I really don’t know why this is such a vague statement!).  This was originally published as “La Triomphe Des Tenebres” and has been translated by Mauren Bauchet-Lackner.

Have the authors breathed new life into this genre?  Well, here we have Nazis chasing symbolic artefacts which will give them ultimate power in a novel which switches from location to location just as each section starts to get good.  So, the answer to that is sadly no.

A discovery in a Tibetan cave encourages the outbreak of World War II and leads to a belief by some in power that if similar treasures are tracked down the Third Reich will become unstoppable.  In the way of the Nazis is a French mercenary, Tristan, fresh from his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, a British SOE team and French resistance fighters.  The action feels distinctly stop-start to begin with and there are some examples of Nazi sadism that the authors certainly do not shy away from.

The success of books in this genre lies for me in whether the author makes me care about multiple plot strands and shifting location settings and the secret behind getting me to care is often in characterisation.  To begin with I found everybody cardboardy but by the end I was beginning to be drawn in enough by them to make me interested in the next part of the trilogy, but the characters, good and bad did take a while to establish themselves which may cause readers to fall by the wayside.

This was a very flooded market ten years ago so whether a title which isn’t fundamentally different from what we were reading then will resonate much in the UK today is another matter.  I think it being the first part of a trilogy might help as readers may come to feel invested in the authors’ perceptions of the War Years.

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The Four Symbols will be published by Hodder & Stoughton as an e-book on 14th May 2020 and as a paperback on 3rd September.  Many thanks to the publishers and Secret Readers for the advance review copy.