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.

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….

threestars

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.

four-star

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.

four-star

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.

four-star

 

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.