Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2021)

Colson Whitehead’s reputation as one of the greatest living American writers took off with his last two novels which both won the Pulitzer Prize making him only the 4th writer to win this most prestigious Fiction award twice (alongside William Faulkner, John Updike and Booth Tarkington) and the only Black American to do so to date.

The Underground Railroad”(2016) was the book that took him to the big league- I still cannot understand how it did not win the 2017 Man Booker Prize describing it thus “It ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”.  I still feel aggrieved by the panel awarding the big prize to “Lincoln In The Bardo” with Whitehead failing to make the transition from longlist to shortlist.  I still haven’t watched the adaptation of this currently on Amazon Prime in the UK. 

Pulitzer Prize number 2 came with “The Nickel Boys” (2019) which focused on a boy’s reform school.  This was a more straightforward narrative which managed to both please and slightly disappoint me so I ranked it four stars.

This latest, his 8th novel is more understated than his two big-hitters but he is now at a point of his career where each publication is a big literary event.  Set in late 50’s/early 60’s Harlem it feels what I imagine Chester Himes to read like (I’ve never read him but I did recently buy “A Rage In Harlem” (1957) so it’s only a matter of time) with greater awareness of the history between now and then and the significance of civil rights unrest.  Here this unrest provides a backdrop more than a focus for the novel and in fact is seen at best as an inconvenience by the characters.

Main character Raymond Carney’s focus is furniture, a salesman with his own store. His desire is to become the first black shop-owner allowed to stock branded items previously only available in white-owned stores.  Carney is doing okay, he is employing staff and looking towards expansion but the start-up money derived from wrong-doings from his largely absent now deceased father and that association causes Carney problems.  Fencing stolen goods becomes part of his trade yet (and this will become the most quoted phrase from this novel) “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

The influence of family leads to Carney becoming involved in a heist at a hotel frequented by a black clientele which begins a slippery slope.  What begins as a crime caper becomes darker as Carney becomes obsessed by revenge whist always trying to separate the personal from his business life.

Carney is a great character and he comes up against a number of other memorable creations here but I found plot development a little stop-start and the novel does not flow as well as I would have hoped.  I actually found it hard to retain what had been going on.  There’s a tendency to introduce something then backtrack as to how it happens, but this introduction caused me to feel like I’d missed out on something and started leafing back when there was no need as the author hadn’t got to that bit yet.  The plot seems too content to just simmer along, there were points when the pace accelerated and then the book really takes off. 

There’s nothing wrong with this novel and it’s totally right that an author should be allowed to move back from creating the extraordinary to do something which feels less momentous but it is not up there with his best.  I think my own expectations might have let me down here.  I’d been looking forward to the publication of this since the start of the year when I highlighted as a must-read for 2021 and that is probably the reason why it feels for me just a touch disappointing.

Harlem Shuffle will be published on 14th Sept 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Long Call – Ann Cleeves (2019)

This is the first Ann Cleeves novel I’ve read, despite having watched every episode of “Vera” which features her characters and is adapted from her series of 9 novels and 1 novella featuring Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, beautifully played by Brenda Blethyn.  I also had neither watched any of her other acclaimed tv adaptation, “Shetland” nor read any of those 8 novels, 1 Quick Read and 1 associated non-fiction work, but I have always wanted to.  There’s also two earlier series of novels featuring George and Molly Palmer-Jones (8 titles) and Inspector Ramsay (6 titles) so it is pretty incredible that I hadn’t got round to this prolific British author’s work.

This novel is an obvious staring place- a brand new series, “Two Rivers”, and one which has been recommended to me a number of times.  I’ve also seen it on lists of titles with positive LGBTQ+ representation embodied here in main character Detective Matthew Venn.  Set in coastal North Devon, which Cleeves has conveyed very effectively through her writing, Venn is embarking on married life with husband Jonathan following years of estrangement from his Christian Fundamentalist family who rejected him and his lifestyle.  Ostracised from the community he grew up amongst he has returned to the area to live and work.  Jonathan runs a community arts centre and when a body which turns up on the beach close to their home proves to be a volunteer from The Woodyard, Venn knows he has to tread carefully to avoid conflict of interests.

Matthew and Jonathan are well-established as characters with the policeman’s background giving a depth which could last for many cases.  His team, Jen Rafferty and Ross May also both have lots of potential.

There’s a lot going on in this novel and I very much liked that.  I felt, away from the crime, a community of memorable characters had been created and I felt part of their lives, which is an unusual experience for me within the crime fiction genre where I tend to feel less connected with characters’ lives. 

This is a strong opening title for a new series and with the second “The Heron’s Song” due to arrive on September 2nd 2021 whilst the paperback edition of this is still selling well I’d heartily recommend seeking this out.

The Long Call was published in September 2019 by Macmillan. The Pan paperback edition is also available.

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig (Canongate 2020)

This is one of the biggest selling books of the last year or so and is performing extremely well as a paperback.  It is the 7th adult novel for an author whose reputation continues to grow with each publication and who has been tremendously successful as a children’s author and writer of non-fiction focusing on mental health.

The popularity of his latest is significantly due to it capturing the mood of a nation where the need to personally protect mental health has become essential. We are living in a world of uncertainty, fear and social isolation due to lockdowns and we have probably all had time to re-evaluate our existences.

A central theme here is regret and putting that into perspective within the framework of a parallel universe novel.  The conceit within this work is a place between life and death. For main character Nora, this takes the form of the Midnight Library where there is an opportunity to try on her lives which could have been lived.  It is a fast-paced, quick read which is surprising given its philosophical and quantum physics slant.

I have struggled a little as to how I feel about it as a book.  It is undoubtedly very enjoyable, has an emotional pull and deserves its success.  However, it fell a little short in what I was expecting as it skimmed the surface of so many issues and maybe there’s a slight glibness to its resolution.  I couldn’t help feeling that Nora, plunged into new lives, was helped out tremendously by other characters feeding her information on the life she was living which did jar a little too often.  I think technically it relies too much on exposition which I find surprising.

Ultimately, however, it is a novel with its heart very much in the right place.  My usual criteria for a four star rating is would I want to hold onto a copy to read again and here (hence my struggle) I’m not sure whether I would but I feel this rating is deserved because of its significance in 2021 and because I think the many captivated by it will continue to love this novel and I cannot doubt that it has therapeutic value.  It would be a perfect book for a bibliotherapist to recommend yet it is also, away from its worthiness, a really strong read so I heartily recommend  it despite my own odd personal niggles.

The Midnight Library was published by Canongate in 2020.

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward (2017)

The paperback edition of this has sat on my shelves since it was published when I was so eager to get hold of a copy and I feel bad that it has taken me so long to get round to reading it.  Mississippi resident Jesmyn Ward made history with this book when she became the first Black American writer as well as the first woman to win a second National Book Award for fiction in her home country.  It seems incredible it took until 2017 for this to be achieved.  Her earlier win came with “Salvage The Bones” (2011) which I also haven’t read.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, the title and front cover made me think I would be in similar territory to Robert Jones Jnr’s masterful “The Prophets” (2021) but this is a Southern-set contemporary novel enriched with the rhythms and the sense of folklore, rhythms, spiritual beliefs and history of the community.  This makes it a powerful read. 

At first I was a little resistant.  I thought it might be a novel about bad parenting using thirteen year old Jojo and his neglectful mother, Leonie, to narrate sections and I wasn’t sure I fancied that, despite the quality of the writing.  A road trip (which I can also be ambivalent about in fiction) to collect Jojo’s white Dad from prison surprised me by really drawing me in even as it emphasised the poor parenting skills as the adults focus on getting high .  Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, are forged closer together during this time because of their strong feelings for one another and their mother’s indifference.  They leave at home Jojo’s grandparents, Pop, who is filling the gaps Leonie creates through his care and his stories of the past and Mam, rooted in mysticism and the supernatural but now in terminal decline as cancer ravages her body.  The other side of Jojo’s family is dominated by a racist who wants nothing to do with his son’s choice of partner.  The ghosts we carry around with us become palpable as the narrative progresses leading to an extraordinary last third which so impressed but which wouldn’t have functioned had not the character development in the opening two-thirds been so strong.

It is rare that I am drawn to a book both so lyrical and spiritual and on completion I experienced that shift in my perspective which you get from reading top-quality fiction.  It definitely had some difficult, challenging moments both for the characters and the reader and it cannot be consistently described as enjoyable but it certainly provided a powerful experience and it will stay with me for a long time.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, was published in the UK by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 7 – The Murder At The Vicarage (1930)

This is more like it!  This has the sparkle I was expecting from Agatha Christie which I haven’t always found in some of the other books I’ve read during this Challenge.  This month the book needed to feature a vicar and here we have one in a first-person narrative.  It is set in St. Mary Mead and was the first novel to feature Miss Marple, not in a central role but she certainly knows what’s going on and I’m not surprised that Christie saw her potential as a recurring character.

Clement, the vicar lives with his much younger wife Griselda and his sixteen year old nephew Dennis at The Vicarage.  The Protheroes lives up at the Old Hall.  In the opening lunch scene the vicar announces any would-be murderer of Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world a great service and before long the Colonel turns up dead in the vicar’s study.  It’s investigated by the prickly Inspector Slack who has no time for how things are done in small villages and the more genial Chief Constable Colonel Melchett.  Two people own up to the murder early on but their confessions do not fit into the timeline.  The villagers, especially the group of elderly ladies who don’t miss a trick are keen to unravel the truth behind the murder.

There’s a good range of suspects to consider from an adulterous couple, the future heiress, a handsome artist, a mysterious newcomer and a vengeful poacher and luckily Miss Marple is on hand to sort and analyse as in Christie’s words; “There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

This has been my favourite of the Christie titles I have read for the seven months of the Challenge.  Next month I need to seek out a story set at the seaside.

Murder At The Vicarage was first published in 1930.  I read a Harper Collins e-book edition.

Mrs March- Virginia Feito (4th Estate 2021)

This is a stylish, mannered debut by an American author who has been compared to Shirley Jackson and Ottessa Moshfegh.  I can appreciate these comparisons as it doesn’t take long to realise that underneath the veneer of respectability something dark might just be going on.

Feito drips feeds this to us and this could frustrate some readers.  I felt a little frustrated myself at times but I kept reading and it did draw me in.  Mrs March’s husband has a successful new novel out and his wife is told she resembles his main character.  She hasn’t read the book but knows that Johanna is a hard-to-like prostitute.  This causes shifts in Mrs March’s mental balance and as things go off-kilter she begins to suspect her husband is a killer.  Plot-wise that’s about it, but there’s much more than plot going on here.

Mrs March is self-centred and only sees the world from her point of view.  It’s a third person narrative but the formality holds the reader at bay.  Mrs March is not referred to by her first name.

There’s also the setting – the smart New York apartment, but when is it set?  There’s a 1960’s Jackie Kennedy- as- style- icon vibe, with real furs being worn, the Lawrence Welk show on TV but there’s nothing to cling onto here and there are Rubik’s cubes which only became a thing in the 80’s.  I found myself highlighting every reference to try and pin this down realising that Feito is playing with us, unsettling us throughout which is very effective.  It doesn’t matter when it was set but it feels like it does. 

I felt undertones of the work of Ira Levin, not just “Rosemary’s Baby” but also “Sliver” and “The Stepford Wives” and as I was obsessed with his work when a teenager I experienced quite a nostalgic chill even though Feito’s work is a 2021 publication.

The disorientation the author nicely sets up is enriched by hallucinations, something is definitely not right here.  I was expecting a “Ka-boom!” moment to hit me between the eyes which Ottessa Moshfegh’t “Eileen” did to me, but Feito is content to keep us simmering and questioning what we are reading but not sure of what questions to ask of ourselves.  This makes for a slick, surprisingly emotionally complex debut.

Mrs March is published in the UK by Fourth Estate on 4th August 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Echo Chamber – John Boyne (Doubleday 2021)

Anyone looking for the best, most versatile author of our times?  Here’s a suggestion – John Boyne, and I’m making this claim after only reading 7 of his 21 books.  There’s two timeless classics in his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” and this novel becomes the 5th of his five star reads, alongside “A Ladder To The Sky” and “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain”.  When he has missed out on a 5* rating his work is also extraordinary, the tightly structured stylistically so impressive “A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom” and his 2019 YA novel “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica”, with its focus on the family of a transgender teen which I found “marvellously empathic” but it missed out on 5* because I didn’t feel totally convinced by the main characters’ family set-up and felt it lacked some of the subtlety of his best work.  My reviews for all of these titles can be found by following the links on this site.

What I did not appreciate was the fuss “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica” caused in the months after I read it.  An interview with Boyne in last week’s Guardian (17/07/21) details this with backlash against it leading to online harassment, misrepresentation, death threats and a period of depression for the author.  It also, far more positively, sowed the seeds for this, his latest novel for adults.

I cannot remember laughing out loud so much at a novel since another Irish author Paul Murray’s “The Mark And The Void” from 2015 and like that novel the humour is rooted very much in the present making it a book for 2021.  Already, I’m acknowledging this may not have the longevity of his greatest work but it warrants five stars for the sheer enjoyment it gave me.

And yes, there is going to be some controversy again over this.  At the centre is social media and the effects this has on one notable family, the Cleverleys.  Father George is a BBC light entertainment staple, a chat-show host famous for many years (I’ve already seen Graham Norton praising this work and jokingly wanting to make clear this character is not based on him), his wife Beverley, a best-selling romantic novelist who now provides the ideas which are written up by a ghost-writer, who is herself celebrated enough to be having an affair with her Ukranian “Strictly Come Dancing” partner, a man who has spread his charms amongst the next generation of the Cleverley family; Nelson, in therapy and only able to cope with social interactions whilst wearing a uniform; Elizabeth, an online troll who gave me a great number of laugh out loud moments and Nelson, a teenage extortionist.  They inhabit a world where the number of likes on your social media is what validates you as a person.  Modern life is a minefield for this family and things soon go wrong with attempts to escape situations only making it worse.  John Boyne is happy to tread on everyone’s toes using real-life celebrities to add to the humour. 

This is a work of satirical fiction and is not intended to be factual” states the publisher’s note at the beginning but satire is often not funny (as anyone attempting to watch the Britbox “Spitting Image” reboot will testify) but here it is.  Another trap for the comic novel is that the humour often wanes before the mid-way point but Boyne is able to sustain it for the length of his work (only in a couple of places does the pace falter and that is occasionally due to over-reiteration which the author needs to employ to ensure we, as readers, are keeping up) and too often the humour in books becomes predictable whereas here I had no idea where this book was going which was a joy in itself.

Maybe some people will be upset by this and some people deserve to be upset by this but I think John Boyne has written a great comic novel of our time and which should provide a great tonic for these strange times we live in.

The Echo Chamber will be published by Doubleday on August 5th 2021. Many thanks to Lilly and the team at Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read an advance review copy.

Bond Street Story- Norman Collins (1959)

Reminded of Norman Collins (1907-82) by Christopher Fowler in his “Book Of Forgotten Authors”, last year I rediscovered “London Belongs To Me” (1945) which brought great joy during lockdown and ended up at #2 on my Books Of The Year List.  That is currently available as a Penguin Modern Classic but is seems like nothing else by this British author is in print.

I found a copy of “Bond Street Story” in our library stack of withdrawn out of print books (I’d discovered Willard Price again in the same place earlier this year) in the familiar blue of Collins (the publishers) mid 1960’s Autograph Editions which I can remember from the public library shelves of my youth where there was a healthy Collins (the author) stock.  The copy I took home with me has its pre self-service date label in front and it looks like it didn’t get borrowed at all between 1978 and 2005 (27 years!).  We’ll never know where it was for all this time but thankfully nobody disposed of it as it is clear evidence for me that this is an author who should not have become so forgotten as it has provided another five star read.

“London Belongs To Me” focused on the residents of 10, Dulcimer Street, Kennington in the build up to and the early days of World War II, now we have gone upmarket to Rammells, a family-run Bond Street Department Store, here in a contemporary setting but Collins once again employs his Dickensian talent of carefully creating and exploring a cast of characters and bringing the details of their everyday lives into sharp, convincing detail.  This is done with a delicious sense of irony, which is more prevalent in this work where he is dealing with a wider range of class.  He can be laugh out loud funny and demonstrates a superb grasp of the descriptive to enhance his narrative.

Plot-wise it is thinner than “London Belongs To Me” and admittedly, does not feel such a significant work.  That book is elevated when it takes a darker turn when a crime comes into focus, here the lives feel less complex with its sailing model boats on Highgate Ponds and preparing budgies for competitions which occupy a couple of the main characters.  It is the store that fuses these individuals together.  Three generations of the Rammell family are involved, Sir Harry, inspirational and forceful but all over the place with his ideas as he ages, representing the store’s past, the hard-working dyspeptic current head and his son Tony, reluctant to get involved with the family business but seen as the face of the future.

The shop itself conveys an authentic feel but probably even at the time of publication would have felt somewhat old-fashioned.  Floor walkers navigate customers around the store, exclusive models demonstrate fashion ranges, the fur department has a huge allure and the new-fangled television department give a snapshot of the time.  There are, inevitably, a few places where the attitudes of the time jar the modern reader but this does reflect the feel of a smart London street leaving the austerity of the post-war years behind but for which the cultural, social and economic changes of the 1960’s seem fairly unthinkable.

Once again I loved being in the company of these characters and can even forgive this author’s tendency to write the odd character’s dialogue in their accent (here it is floorwalker Mr Bloot who is given strangulated vowels of the “Ah’ve ‘ad er naccident” variety) because these people and their lives did draw me in.  I’m not sure how representative of the work of Norman Collins these two novels I have read are, Fowler claims his favourite is “The Governor’s Lady” which he describes as “a colonial story of secrets, lies and endless ineptitude among Africans and the English” which seems very different fare from what we have here but unless an enterprising publishing house beings to reprint these works I may never find out. 

Norman Collins was a significant figure in the development of media (especially ITV).  Given the real visual feel of his work this does not surprise, here there’s a soap operaness which would of course soon become the mainstay of British commercial television.  The key to this man’s rediscovery, I feel, is a good TV adaptation, probably of this work with effort spent in recreating the world of Rammells which would undoubtedly create great demand for the original source.

Bond Street Story was first published in 1959.  I read the Collins hardback Autograph Edition from 1966.

Jet- Russell Blake (2012)

This is a very different read for me.  I’ve had it on my Kindle for a long time and can only assume it was a free title I’d picked up at some time.  I thought I would give it a go but didn’t have a lot of positive expectations.  In a “From The Author” at the start, American born now Mexican resident Blake states; “It’s unapologetically over-blown and strives to be a non-stop adrenaline rush, an action thriller that breaks the mold and tramples convention.” He does deliver on that statement.

We start off in Trinidad on Festival evening where hitmen turn up at the internet café Maya is working in.  Dealing with this pretty effectively we learn that Maya had previously been Jet, working as a hitwoman for the Israeli Secret Service, a highly trained killing machine now seeking a quieter life.  Only this doesn’t happen as she realises her identity has been blown and sets off to seek answers.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope with a ruthless assassin as a main character but Blake gradually lets her humanity come through without compromising on her toughness.  I found myself rooting for her when I was expecting to feel distanced from a potentially preposterous narrative.  I was also pleased that it wasn’t exactly a non-stop adrenaline rush aimed at a video-games market but that the author had put in some light and shade and welcomingly varied the pace. 

Wanting to know about Russell Blake I discovered that this was the first in this (so far) 16 book series featuring Jet and he has got it off to a roaring start and has developed the main character enough to get the reader to want to read more.  Whether he can sustain this over another 15 titles is another matter.

He’s not an author I would have thought would have been on my radar.  He has written a lot of titles and a number of series but he has actually got into the top division as co-author of a couple of books with action/adventure legend Clive Cussler in his best-selling Sam and Remi Fargo series.  This was where I had seen his name before, I haven’t read these titles but I have shelved them often enough at work in the library.  So this is an author who can operate at the top levels of his genre.  It wouldn’t be one of my usual reading choices and I felt I might get lost in the globetrotting, weapon hardware and espionage aspects of the novel but I felt well supported and guided by Blake (in the same Author’s Note I quoted earlier he explains there will be flashbacks.  “Don’t be alarmed when it jumps around a bit.  It will all make sense as you get further into the book, I promise” ). I wasn’t and it did.

If you like this kind of title then this is a treat and although it won’t feature in my end of year Top 10 it kept me reading, I did experience tension as it built to a strong plot climax and the author certainly delivered his intentions.  I might need to read more.

Jet was first published in 2012. A paperback edition is available through the Createspace Independent Publishing Platform. I read a Kindle edition.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line- Deepa Anappara (2020)

This debut has been on my radar since pre-publication and it featured on my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” post (this is now the 5th book on this list I’ve since read).  At that time I said I hadn’t actually seen a copy, perhaps it was initially lost amongst the impossible to promote debuts which appeared in the early months of 2020 but this has now become a very visible title (helped by its striking front cover in hardback, less striking in the paperback edition which appeared on 3rd June 2021.)  There is still a good buzz about this book which suggests it should be a strong seller in paperback.

It deserves success.  It’s an impressive book with characters that will linger for a long time and a lightness of touch which belies some very serious issues.  We begin with street children scavenging for survival for a man called Mental in a preface which suggests this may be dark reading but within a few pages we are into a first person narrative from 9 year old Jai, a child living with his child-like concerns of school, friends and TV, poor but happy in the slum-like conditions of his basti with his parents and sister.  When local children start to go missing Jai takes on detective duties with his two friends, the academically successful Pari and Faiz, a Muslim minority within their Hindu environment.

The authorities are not taking the disappearances seriously, they demand bribes for even basic policing and threaten demolition of the basti.  It is up to the children to find out more.  The superstitious Faiz believes it is the work of the supernatural, namely, djinns.  Pari and Jai remain unconvinced but do not recognise the daily dangers they face closer to home.

These three children are the life-blood of this book and it is impossible not to be drawn in by their outward confidence and swagger.  Anaparra worked for years as a journalist amongst such children and seems to have got her portrayals just right.  The fact that there’s a touch of the “cosy crime” novel about this when behind the façade much is horrific actually serves to intensify its power.  This is a strong work.  It will be interesting to see if Anaparra gives us more from these children in future as her reading public might demand or whether this will remain an enthralling stand-alone novel.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line was first published in the UK in hardback in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now published by Vintage.