Little Gods – Anna Richards (2009)

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I remember this book coming out with a big buzz around it (gosh, was that really 11 years ago?) A debut novel with an on-cover recommendation from Ali Smith and comparisons to John Irving and Michael Chabon this British author looked set for very good things.

All too often it doesn’t always go to plan. This book is still in print but there doesn’t appear to have been any further publications by this author in the intervening years.

Right towards the end of the book Anna Richards puts her title into context. “Love makes little gods of us all. It awards the power to shatter the existence of someone who, by loving, has made themselves glass.” There are a lot of emotionally fragile characters in this novel.

I say emotionally because physically main character Jean is a robust giant of a woman whose sheer physical presence unnerves people. An unwanted child, her mother Wisteria is almost a caricature of a neglectful mother and has no redeeming features which makes for some difficult reading early on. Jean is redeemed in the early days of World War II when an explosion destroys her house and allows her to start again with her best pal from the sweet shop, Gloria. Their tale turns in a very unpredictable fashion, unsurprisingly, as it is set in very unpredictable times, which takes the women to new situations in the post-war years. Richards is determined not to allow us to get comfortable with these characters in this well-structured work. Jean, especially, is pushed onwards into these new situations even before she can adapt to her present. Plot-wise this can at times be a little frustrating as it shifts the tone of the novel but Jean is a great character who the reader wills on to succeed.

It’s bold and brash, not always rooted in a sense of location which can give it a kind of fairy-tale feel and this can be both enthralling and distancing. That is, until life deals Jean another bitter blow and we are hurtled back to reality. I enjoyed it and feel it is a highly promising debut which would re-read well, which is often my criteria for a four star rating. I think it would go down well as a reading group choice as there would be so much to discuss.

four-star

 

Little Gods was first published by Picador in the UK in 2009

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

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Not an author I’d heard of before this and I though 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 books 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 outmost 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.

Jack Of Hearts (And Other Parts) – L C Rosen (Penguin 2018) – A Young Adult Fiction Review

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Now this is a tricky one. Many parents flicking through this after finding it on a young teen’s bookshelf would be horrified by its so casual attitude to sex in its many forms. It may indeed reach a new level of frankness in the YA fiction market because it’s not really about anything else. The sex is not integral to the plot the sex is the plot and I can imagine some parents of teens not wanting their offspring to read this. I think if I had read it as an adolescent it might have scared the living daylights out of me- so forthright are the main characters, but, let’s face it, times have moved on enough for Penguin to recognise this American work as worth publishing over here. It cannot hide its American origins and some may be consoled into considering that it’s not like this over here but it does deal with issues that all teens will face at some point.

Whereas a quick flick through may leave some horrified a close read reveals something much more significant between these covers – a work which certainly does not dumb down a myriad of issues and presents them in a very balanced, thoughtful way, which is surely just how we would like our teenagers to be.

Jack is a 17 year old pupil in a NY private school. As a flamboyant gay youth he finds himself at the centre of gossip and rumour amongst a set of children who already seem extremely liberal to British eyes. This encourages his friend Jenna to get him to write a sex advice column for her blog. That puts him into some conflict with the school administration and also results in him being a target for an infatuated schoolmate who begins to leave pink origami love letters in his locker. Jack’s range of experience seems extraordinary for one so young, the advice he gives in his column is reasoned and occasionally balanced by other characters (an ex of Jack’s berates him as he feels his promiscuity is pandering to those who wish to stereotype the gay students in the school) but I think they can strain on plausibility (are teenage high school children concerned about S&M?). This element of the narrative may rankle more if the over-riding message wasn’t that we should all be the type of person that we want to be or as Jack puts it in typical fashion; “It’s about making sure everyone around me sparkles with their own shade of glitter, that they feel as amazing as I do.”

 The author also had initial concerns about his material as he explains the genesis of this work in the Acknowledgements written in “a loud authentic voice that a lot of people don’t want young adult readers to hear.” That voice is Jack’s.

I have no issue with the voice nor characterisation and I’m sure everyone reading this (even the YA market it is meant for) will be occasionally shocked and feeling a tad uncomfortable but I think it’s a shame that the actual narrative drive- who is sending the love notes- feels a little trivial in the company of these characters. What makes me slightly uncomfortable is that Jack, who seems superficially at ease with himself, is at such a loss with this, showing a gulf between his physical and emotional maturity which makes me wonder if he should be giving it all away as freely as he does. If the author is meaning to convey this I wish it was made a little more explicit. It’s also annoying how long the characters take to choose their outfits!

This is a next level up from another YA novel I read not too long ago published 10 years ago “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” by John Green & David Levithan and there are similarities between Jack and the character of Tiny Cooper in that novel, both are positive, unapologetic, larger than life representations but with Jack we certainly feel we have moved on a decade. I personally think I would feel more at home in Tiny Cooper’s world from that novel than I would do in Jack’s. If anyone offers me a chance to relive my teenage years in a present day NY high school I would turn them down flat but it was fascinating spending time in this company. I have L C Rosen’s latest novel “Camp” lined up for a read. I wonder if in his second YA novel he will get a stronger balance between plot and issues. He certainly has the potential and writing skills to do so.

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Jack Of Hearts (And Other Parts) was published by Penguin in the UK in October 2018.

I Am The Messenger – Markus Zusak (2002)

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On the strength of the two novels by Markus Zusak that I have read I would count this Australian author in any list of significant living writers. I waxed lyrical here about his “The Book Thief” (2007) one of my all-time favourite novels and his latest “Bridge Of Clay” (2018) is sat cosily at 8th place in my current end of year Top 10.

This book I have had on my shelves for some time. It is an earlier work aimed at the YA market (although like all Zusak it works well for an adult readership) and my reluctance to read it was because I did not want it to diminish the author’s reputation in my eyes. It does come with a pedigree, although something of a protracted one. Gaining much critical acclaim in his homeland where it is known as “The Messenger” it picked up a Children’s Book Council Of Australia Book Of The Year For Older Readers Award in 2003. Three years after that the US edition won the American Library Association’s Michael L Printz Award for Teenage Fiction and in 2007 it gained a major German children’s literature award. This is a slow burner of a book which has taken its time to get its presence felt.

I don’t think it has diminished Zusak’s reputation but it does feel very much a minor work compared to his others I have read. It is the work of a young author still learning the skills which will allow him to publish an all-time classic five years later. This is not a classic but a less polished entertaining read which shows once again Zusak’s skills as a story teller.

Its quirky opening places the main characters bang in the middle of a bank raid where whilst prostrate on the floor there’s much banter between 19 year old cabdriver Ed Kennedy and his three mates. A surprising act of heroism brings about media attention for Ed who soon afterwards is sent playing cards with cryptic messages for him to work out and deliver.

This is the story of how (not so much the why which I’m still slightly puzzled by) Ed carries out what is asked of him and learns much about himself along the way. Zusak’s writing style is chatty and endearing as Ed, in a first-person narrative, faces some difficult decisions, some disturbing violence and a spattering of praise working out his tasks. Some seem trivial, others life-changing for those involved but from each Ed, whose future had seemed mapped out due to a lack of ambition, a fractured family, unrequited love, a fondness for card games with his friends and caring for his elderly pungent dog, The Doorman, sees his life change.

Plot-wise there’s not the richness and depth I have come to associate with the author but in his creation of Ed as an everyday superhero Zusak is touching on very appealing YA themes. I’m not sure that the resolution was what I was expecting or hoping for but here we have a memorable character in a likeable work.

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I Am The Messenger was first published in 2002. I read an American 2005 paperback edition published by Knopf. In the UK the most readily available version seems to be a paperback published by Definitions in 2015.

The Ultimate Book Of British Comics – Graham Kibble-White (2005) – A Book About Books Review

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Nostalgia for troubled times. A return to a world where things were much simpler, the world of British comic publications and their heyday years. Subtitled “70 Years of mischief, mayhem and mud pies” I took this out of the library a while ago thinking I’d just dip in and out revisiting my personal favourites. Lockdown meant that I found myself reading every word retreating into the world where the prospect of a flimsy free gift was so exciting and the words “Big News For Readers” would mean an amalgamation of titles, slotting a less successful title into whatever had children flocking to the newsagents at the time.

Growing up I read a lot of comics. My elder sisters had pocket money whilst I had comics which my Dad would buy with the evening paper on the way home from work. A pretty hit and miss affair as he’d forget what titles he’d bought and what titles I actually liked. My favourites were the “funnies” and “Beano”, “Sparky” “Whizzer & Chips” “TV Comic” “Cor!” “Topper” and “Beezer” were the big hitters as far as I was concerned. The titles intended for boys with tales of war (so much war) and football I could take or leave but would buy them in rolled-up bundles from jumble sales. I would read my sister’s copies of “Bunty” with the cut out doll on the back and the memorable on-going story of “The Four Marys” and  also “Mandy” which Kibble-White describes (and I don’t remember this) as being chock-full of miserable stories of deprived and abused girls but I was happiest in the land of jokes, slapstick and terrible puns.

Eventually pocket money arrived, the comics from Dad became occasional but I got my fix by selecting my very favourites and having them delivered with the morning newspaper. Around this time game-changer “Look-In” arrived, a trendy mixture of magazine and comic with TV and pop bias. I remember vividly the press-out cardboard TV studio contained in the first issues taking the publishers at their word that it would provide hours of play potential but it didn’t. The best toys were always the paper bangers called many enticing things by various publications from “Whizz Bangs” to the more dubious sounding “Big Crack Bang!” (Thanks “Topper”).

The last new title I can remember buying (although the jury is still out on this one) was “Shiver & Shake” a short-lived spooky-themed affair which came out when I was 11 and was a “double-comic” on the lines of the more successful “Whizzer & Chips” which I was surely still reading at the time and which I loved partly because of its audacious premise of pitching one part of the comic (Whizzer) against the other (Chips) even encouraging readers to bin one part of the comic without reading it (I wonder if anyone did that?). Such inter-comic rivalry was here manufactured but titles did gobble up the least successful, the most voracious of these being “Buster” ( a regular read for me but not every week) which consumed 12 titles during its close to 40 year run including my much loved “Cor!” (still remember the sachet of “Gulp” fruit drink free with the first edition); the ancient “Film Fun”; 1980’s title “Jackpot” and niche funny titles such as “School Fun” and “Monster Fun”.

They are all here in Graham Kibble-White’s entertaining book which examines the rise and sadly inevitable fall of almost 100 titles. In 2015 when this was first published only five remained. The long-running “Dandy” has since perished leaving “2000AD” (since 1977), “The Beano (1938), “Commando” (1961) and Judge Dredd Magazine (monthly since 1990) still going. There have been no girls’ titles for decades (amazingly as these were huge sellers at one time). The world moved on and comics were seem as remnants of Britain’s past but what pleasure these remnants gave to generations of readers.

threestars

The Ultimate Book Of British Comics was published by Allison & Busby in 2005.

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.

threestars

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.

Another Country – James Baldwin (1963)

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I was reminded of James Baldwin recently when I read Polish set novel “Swimming In The Dark” by Tomasz Jedrowski. Here a copy of Baldwin’s second novel “Giovanni’s Room”, a suppressed text, is glued between the pages of another publication and has a significant part to play. Main character Ludwik also goes on to study Baldwin for his doctorate.

I said at the time I should re-explore this American author’s work. I haven’t read him since my final degree dissertation which was on the search for love in his works. A Classics book order I was doing for work in the library saw me adding this title, and, as a little perk, I decided I should be the first to borrow it.

It’s actually one of Baldwin’s titles I remember least yet in the 30+ years since my first reading it has become acknowledged (well, certainly in the introduction by Colm Toibin) as the “essential American drama of the century.” In fact, I had to dig out that dissertation from the loft (plenty of time for rummaging around up there at the moment) to see how much I referred to this in my work and actually I did quite a fair bit as the search for love is certainly a significant driving-force for these characters.

The most powerful of the characterisations on show here is Rufus, an African-American man who cannot fit into society because of his skin colour and sexuality. Attempting to do so leads to an abusive relationship with Leona a white, Southern woman. It’s not a spoiler to say that surprisingly early on in the novel Baldwin dispatches one of these characters in a suicide jump off George Washington Bridge and the rest of the novel explores their group of friends putting their lives back together.

They are an intense lot. Vivaldo, a white man, begins a relationship with Rufus’ sister; Rufus’ ex-love Eric moves back from a stable relationship with a man in France to the melting pot of New York and infiltrates the partnership of writer Richard and his wife Cass. It’s all very introspective with the characters seeming extremely self-centred which feels like it would have seemed more appropriate in the analytical soul-searching years of the early 1960s than it does today but there is great power and richness in Baldwin’s writing which made this a very welcome rediscovery. Toibin in his introduction compares him to Henry James and I can see where he’s coming from but I find Baldwin far more readable. This remains a very balanced, potent read. I will be fascinated to find out if the works which meant more to me than this when I first read them will continue to resonate as strongly.

fourstars

Another Country was first published in 1963. I read the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition.

The Recovery Of Rose Gold- Stephanie Wrobel (Michael Joseph 2020)

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Here’s a debut that has had a big buzz around it pre-publication. Stephanie Wrobel is a Chicago born writer now living in the UK who has ditched her advertising agency copywriting work to concentrate on fiction and the feel is that this could very much be one of the biggest thrillers of the year. I was determined to get in before the hype and find out if this buzz is deserving. I’ve already mentioned it in my Looking Back Looking Forward post so I know I’m adding to that hype but now I’ve read it I’m more than delighted to build up a bit of anticipation for readers. It is very good.

Taking as its theme (although I don’t think it’s actually mentioned by name in the text) Munchausen By Proxy, which is a fascinating idea ripe with dramatic potential the novel opens with Patty Watts being released from her prison sentence for child abuse which was sustained over a number of years treating her daughter as if she was seriously ill. On release she (and this is such a good idea for gripping fiction) goes back to live with the daughter, Rose Gold, now in her twenties with a family of her own. I’m saying little more about the plot but it wouldn’t take too much conjecturing to realise the potential. These two damaged women attempt to put together the pieces of their fractured relationship. Is this going to be a second chance for them or will they not be able to escape the traumas of the past?

The author uses an effective structure of two first-person narratives from the main characters with different time settings. Mother Patty focuses on the time from her release and Rose Gold’s narrative is interspersed moving from the time of the mother’s conviction towards Patty’s present day. Given the context of the plot this works sublimely.

It has an under the surface darkness which I love and it builds beautifully. This is certainly a read to look out for.

fivestars

The Recovery Of Rose Gold is published in hardback by Michael Joseph on  5th March 2020.  Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.

The Animals Of Lockwood Manor – Jane Healey (Mantle 2020)

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With Sarah Waters absent from fiction since 2014’s “The Paying Guest” here comes the latest author who has incorporated the feel and themes of some of her work into their debut novel. This also reminded me slightly of Sara Collins’ 2019 debut “The Confessions Of Frannie Langton” and that as well as selling well was one of the most critically acclaimed titles of last year scoring the Costa First Novel Award. Jane Healey here has produced a commercial literary novel which has the potential to do well.

Set largely in the early years of World War II museum director Hetty Cartwright is evacuated together with a sizeable collection of stuffed mammals to Lockwood Manor where recently widowed Major Lord Lockwood lives with his daughter Lucy. Hetty has much to prove in the male world of museums and she attempts to do this professionally in this large country house populated by a dwindling staff who view the extra work caused by the displays as a nuisance. Someone begins tampering with the collection but is it human or supernatural? The Major’s wife had been turned mad by the house which had proved to be too alien for her Caribbean upbringing (shades of “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca”) and her surviving daughter fears for her own sanity in the stifling atmosphere which proves conducive to nightmares.

Narrated alternately by Hetty and Lucy there is generally a good feel for the period but I think the author could have ramped up the tension of life in the house but as the novel progresses I feel that this is lost a little with the focus moving to the relationship of the two leading female characters (incidentally, I felt exactly the same about “Frannie Langton.”)

I found it easy to read, polished it off quite quickly and was involved throughout and enjoyed the turns of the plot but it never managed to crank up to the higher gear which would have made this more memorable. For me the standout book I’ve read in recent years of this type is still Laura Carlin’s “The Wicked Cometh” and as diverting as this is I don’t think it came up to that debut’s standard.

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The Animals Of Lockwood Manor is published by Mantle on March 5th 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark -Michelle McNamara (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have an uneasy relationship with the true crime genre. I’ve mentioned this before and I think it all boils down to one book which so disturbed me – the account of Muswell Hill killer Dennis Nilsen in Brian Masters’ “Killing For Company” (1985). However, a couple of times in the last week I have held a copy of this in my hands and contemplated buying it and re-reading it. (I lent my copy to someone years ago and it never came back). So far I’ve held back the temptation but the reason for Masters’ book shifting back into my focus is this 2018 true crime publication.

I’ve also been thinking about true crime in relation to author Carol Ann Lee whose five star account of the Bamber killings “Murder At White House Farm” has deservedly ascended the best seller lists since the impressive recent ITV reconstruction of the case. When this book came out nearly five years ago I reviewed it and Carol Ann became an early interviewee in my Author Strikes Back Thread. I asked her for recommendations and I was convinced that reading-wise I would begin a true crime spree but this hasn’t happened. However, the on-paper bizarre mash-up of an arson case and a love letter to the public library system Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book” made it into my current Books Of The Year Top 10 but that’s been about it. I only read “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” because friend Louise whose book opinions I very much value (she put both “Count Of Monte Cristo” and “Sanditon” my way) told me this was her Book Of The Year and I highlighted it in my “Looking Around….” Post.

Michelle McNamara’s obsession (and it was an obsession) was an individual who committed around 50 sexual assaults and at least 10 murders in California in a decade long frenzy (mid 1970’s -mid 80’s). Michelle dubbed him “The Golden State Killer” and he featured heavily in her true crime blog before she began to put this work together. She sadly died aged 46 in 2016 before completing the work.

This, unavoidably, does give the book a haphazard sketchy structure which did mean I kept having to refer back to the list of known victims and crime locations. The sheer number of offences and the lengthy period of time the killer was active also made for at times a stilted and repetitive read and affects the flow but I really can’t just judge this on how I feel it read as a book (I was also very aware of a surprising number of linguistic differences with many terms I was unfamiliar with) but the motives behind the work is what makes this extraordinary.

Michelle McNamara over the years became an expert on the case, came to have access to evidence even investigators did not have and pooled much of this vast amount of material for the first time. The thing I just cannot get out of my head as a British reader in 2020 is how was this man not apprehended at the time? There were a wealth of traits and characteristics that led nowhere. It’s hard I suppose for us looking back to what were largely pre-DNA days to appreciate how much luck was needed to solve cases and luck was certainly not with the many investigators. They could not seem to tap into the extraordinary level of planning that must have foreshadowed many of these crimes and the structure of US state policing at the time means evidence was not shared nor links made. If this was fiction we would deem it unbelievable.

Through her determination to unmask the Golden State Killer it is Michelle McNamara herself who shines through this work and it is this which will see it as an important and perhaps ultimately game-changing addition in the realm of true crime writing.

fourstars

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was published in 2018 in the UK by Faber & Faber.