Shelter In Place – David Leavitt (2020)

David Leavitt is an author I’ve not read for about ten years but who is responsible for one of my all-time favourites “The Lost Language Of Cranes” (1986) which I first read not long after publication (when Leavitt was 25) and last re-read in 2008 to see if it had lost its shine and as a re-read it came 2nd in my Books Of The Year.  His 1998 novel “When England Sleeps” also made it to my end of year Top 5 in 2012.  Two outstanding novels from this American author.  I have also read and fully enjoyed his short story collection as well as books he has edited with Mark Mitchell.  I enjoyed but didn’t love “The Body Of Jonah Boyd” (2004).

“Shelter In Place” is his 10th novel, published seven years after his 9th.  It’s one of those novels where I’m not sure what I think, which certainly suggests it’s not on the same level as my favourites by him.  This is a waspish comedy of manners, peopled by characters it is hard to care about and yet I would still recommend it. 

It is set in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the horrors of this causes New York society doyenne Eva Lindquist to want to relocate to a life of faded grandeur in Venice.  Eva is at the centre of a group of friends, most of whom she doesn’t seem to care very much about and the novel is largely a response to her fears of the Trump administration.

Although American politics is the catalyst for action it is not especially a political novel, the characters’ immediate concerns are dominated by the trivial, will interior designer Jake agree to work on the Venetian apartment?  Will Min rescue her job in magazines by getting a front cover from the apartment? Will husband Bruce allow Eva to buy the apartment?  Will Eva’s Bedlington Terriers do their number ones and twos on their walks with Bruce?

There are a lot of dinner parties, catered by a procession of nondescript (to the rest of them) young gay men and there’s a lot of dialogue with brittle humour.  This makes it a quick fast-moving read even when plot-wise there’s not too much happening.

The author seems fully ensconced in American literary academia as Professor of English at the University of Florida and he obviously feels confident enough in this world as, through the voice of his characters, especially disgruntled book editor, Aaron, he is very sniping of the US literary establishment with Barbara Kingsolver, Paul Auster, Lydia Davis, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Safran Foer amongst those facing his vitriol.  Hopefully, they know Leavitt well enough to take this dismissal of their work.

It is interesting that the cast for this are generally in their fifties or above, which feels unusual for a novel of this sort which tend to be peopled by bright young things.  This gives an added dimension as they are facing change which Trump might bring about at a time when questioning their own positions as less relevant to the modern world.

There’s only one act of kindness in this book and that has to be carried out under the radar with the character responsible constantly questioning their own actions.  Towards the end another character fills in back story in a section which could potentially have been a more impressive novel than the one Leavitt has actually written- I wonder if he is toying with us here, showing us glimpses of what might have been?

My four star criteria is always based on whether I would want to read it again and I think here the answer is yes, despite me not really caring for the characters nor the world they inhabit as they did still very much draw me in.  It was humorous, involving and with a lot more depth than the shallow lives portrayed here which just nudges this book into the four star category.  I can see why some people wouldn’t like it but I can’t see that many would proclaim this Leavitt’s finest work.

Shelter In Place was published in the UK in 2020 by Bloomsbury.

The Manningtree Witches – A. K. Blakemore (2021)

Winner of the 2021 Desmond Elliott Prize which is given to the best debut novel and a book I highlighted in my 2021 round-up of “Books I Should Have Read”.  At the time I mentioned “A quick look at Amazon reviews suggest some readers have not really got it which might make it a bit of a Marmite novel.”  Well, having now read it it’s time to reveal where I am on the love/hate divide and just like the actual yeast extract spread, I love it.

I do have a bias towards historical novels, 7 years of reviewsrevues have taught me this.  This 1640’s setting is going to tick boxes for me.  I also like it when there is a fiction/fact overlap, particularly in the use of characters (most existed here) and documentation.  The author weaves in (but does not overdo) statements from the 1645 Witch Trials.  I have a taste for darkness, and the work of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins certainly brings that but perhaps the main reason I am giving this debut five stars might have been the reason it turned off some readers.  The language is rich, detailed and poetic, just occasionally over-wordy, this award-winning poet certainly came up with a few words I had never heard before.  I actually felt this added to the depth of the novel and enriched the sensory experiences such evocative language conjures up.

This is the narrative of nineteen year old Rebecca West, daughter of Anne, who has her own local nickname, the Beldam West, a good-natured woman who keeps an eye on the less fortunate including the ancient one-legged Old Mother Clarke, but who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  Her occasional clashes with neighbours does not help her when Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins takes over the local inn and begins his puritanical interfering into the lives of these country folk in Manningtree, Essex.

Plot-wise we know what it going to come.  A group of women will be singled out and victimised and manoeuvred into confession.  Rebecca finds herself in this situation because of her mother and others she associates with and not even her blossoming relationship with Hopkins’ Secretary, Matthew Eades will help.

Characters are strong here, some of the women are adept at saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  I felt myself both cringing and full of sympathy for them.  The author has avoided the stereotypical baddie in her creation of Hopkins which we might have expected from horror films (and some of the criticism aimed at this book has been because of this) but her depiction of him as misguided and hypocritical rather than out and out evil makes him seem more rounded as a character.  There is often black humour in the townsfolks dealing with him and the situations he brings about. 

The subject matter was always going to win me over but A.K Blakemore’s poetic recreation of this dangerous world was so rich.  The evidence sought to prove consorting with the Devil is ludicrous and the seventeenth century prejudice, hypocrisy and victimisation still resonates in this world we live in.  The author, in her Afterword, acknowledges areas of the world where individuals are still murdered because of accusations of witchcraft.  This is a potent debut.

The Manningtree Witches was published by Granta in 2021.

Pursuit- Joyce Carol Oates (2019)

My introduction to the work of this prolific American novelist was the five star rated “Blonde” (2000) which just missed out on my Top 10 Books Of The Year when I read it in 2020.  This fictionalised account of the life of Marilyn Monroe may soon see a boost in sales as a film adaptation is currently in post-production and due for release by the end of 2022.

Nineteen years on from “Blonde” and after publishing another 26 novels in her own name (and a few under pseudonyms) came this literary thriller.  Unwordly Abby is hit by a bus the day after her wedding to Willem.  As she slowly recovers questions are asked if this was an accident.  Abby is haunted by dreams from her past, when she was known as Miriam, and her parents had disappeared.  Do these dream have any bearing on her encounter with the bus?

This is a quick read which I polished off in a couple of days.  The whole thing has a nightmarish quality which clouds the characters and left me unsure of what is going on.  Insight into proceedings tends to come and go and this had an almost soporific effect on this reader.  I felt very tired whilst reading it and yet I wasn’t bored, it was caused by the hypnotic effect of the tale Oates weaves here.  It is tantalising as the author pulls us in, moving the plot forward and then holds us back without revealing all the mysteries.  The trouble with this is that despite this manipulation of us as readers it means that I felt it is not particularly memorable.  I don’t think this is a book which will stay with me for long and this is a marked difference to how I felt about “Blonde”.  What is undeniable is that Joyce Carol Oates is a writer unafraid of experimentation with style and genre which has sustained her well during a long career.  Because of this diversity I can’t imagine that many readers would be blown away by her every publication. I feel that on this occasion I wasn’t totally on board but I am sure that I would find other books by her that would enthral me as much as “Blonde”.

Pursuit was published by Head Of Zeus in the UK in 2019.

Theatre Of Marvels- Lianne Dillsworth (Hutchinson Heinemann 2022)

This is a debut I’ve been looking forward to and highlighted as one to watch out for in my start of the year post.  I’m feeling pleased with myself as this is the 9th of the 10 of these titles I’ve read and it’s only April!

Lianne Dillsworth has put her MA in Victorian Studies to very good use in this 1840’s London set tale which is the first person narrative of Zillah, a mixed race twenty year old.  Zillah has escaped the poor dwellings of St Giles to become the lover of a Viscount and the headline attraction of Crillick’s  Variety Theatre.  Cast as a “genuine” African native, The Great Amazonia, her tribal dances and staged sacrifices thrill and horrify the audience.  Yet Zillah is a “gaffed freak”, not at all what the theatre is making her out to be and when the secret is blown her time will be up.  An audience member, the distinguished looking Black grocer, Lucius Winter, is dismayed by this duping of the public and Zillah’s role in this and things take a sinister turn when Crillick aims to introduce more authentic exhibits as part of a new disturbing venture.

Zillah is a sparky character who begins to see the error of her ways and passing as someone you are not is a main theme here as well as the notions behind the government plans for resettlement of the London’s Black poor to Sierra Leone.  But this increasingly becomes a tale of rescue and this is done very effectively due to the author’s good story-telling skills.  I liked the Variety Theatre as a central location and the atmosphere of this is well conveyed.  This is an easy read which contains thought-provoking issues, making it a very good Book group choice.  I do feel that keeping Zillah as the narrator throughout makes it seem a little one-note, I think I might have appreciated the odd shift in narrative style as at times it feels a little “reported”.  There were incidents that I would have loved to have been fleshed out, particularly with regards to Zillah’s back story.  This is a strong debut which feels very commercial and should win the author many fans.

Theatre Of Marvels is published in hardback by Hutchinson Heinemann on April 28th 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential Books- Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2022)

I’m not sure what I was expecting from Booker Prize Winner and current holder of my Book Of The Year Douglas Stuart’s second novel.  The promise of a 1990’s set tale of young love in a working-class Glasgow setting suggested the author was not going to stray too far from “Shuggie Bain” territory and there may be some who claim this to be a re-tread with 15 year old Mungo Hamilton’s relationship with a toxic mother being again a main focus.  This, however, is an outstanding novel and, I certainly wasn’t expecting to write this next bit, because of its greater focus on plot and sublime storytelling it is even better than his multi-award winning debut and perhaps the best book I have read since John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017)

It is another tale of a daily battle of survival here as Mungo battles against his environment, his disturbing older brother, Hamish, who overcompensates for his lack of height and thick glasses by being a ringleader for violence with an obsession for destroying the local Catholic youth and his mother Maureen, (known affectionately by Mungo as Mo-Maw) alcoholic and often absent.  In “Shuggie Bain” the mother character, the monstrous but appealing Agnes is given a central role.  Here, Mungo has to go it alone even more against Maureen’s fewer redeeming characteristics.  His only ally, Jodie, is looking for an out through education, an escape route which proves more flawed than she might expect.

The central narrative thread takes place over a May Bank Holiday weekend in the early 1990s making this a decade or so after the action of “Shuggie Bain”.  Mungo, battered and bruised from some incident is sent on a fishing trip to the Lochs with two of his mother’s friends.  We are plunged into a tragi-comic situation of two alcoholics negotiating a journey completely outside their everyday existence with the naïve Mungo in tow.  We know it is not going to go well.

Alongside this are the events leading up to this expedition.  Mungo’s life shifts from the mundane and the threats of violence when he meets James, a Catholic boy with a dead mother and father who works away on an oil-rig in James’ hand-built doocot (pigeon coop).  The boys find escape in caring for the pigeons (in a way reminiscent of Barry Hines’ “A Kestrel For A Knave” and film adaptation “Kes” of which there are echoes here and we know how well that turned out) and then in one another as love blossoms amongst the religious divide.

Once again, it’s beautifully written, there’s humour and warmth amongst the horrors but BAM! this author can hit you right between the eyes with shocking scenes of physical and psychological violence. Without doubt the mix can at times prove a difficult read.  I never thought I’d feel more sympathy towards a character than Shuggie, but Mungo, with his facial tics, unsuitable attire and devotion to a mother whose actions are consistently poorly-judged tops it.  Stuart does push further with the miseries than he did in the debut really putting his young hero through it and there is the odd moment where he might have been in danger of pushing too far and risking melodrama but such strong characterisations rooted so convincingly stops this from happening.  I did finish this feeling emotionally purged finding moments that I did not really want to read on from but ultimately being totally unable to take my eyes off the book.

I think if you are new to Douglas Stuart I’d suggest starting with the debut as he sets his stall out as a writer so well and then take this on to appreciate the upping of the ante.  I think the many, many readers who hold “Shuggie Bain”, like me, so dear in their hearts are going to be so impressed by this.

Young Mungo is published in the UK by Picador in hardback and as an e-book on 14th April 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Memphis- Tara M. Stringfellow (John Murray 2022)

Tara M. Stringfellow’s debut novel focusing on three generations of a family living in Memphis could only have been written by a poet.  There’s a voluptuousness to her words, a richness in description, an over-ripeness which beautifully conveys Memphis, Tennessee.

In 1995 Miriam returns in her battered car with daughters Joan and Mya and Wolf the dog to the house she grew up in and to her sister August and her son Derek.  Joan’s unexpected reaction to her cousin shows that there is a history to this family.  We jump around a fair bit incorporating Miriam and August’s upbringing and their parents, especially mother Hazel, but the focus is on the eight years after Joan’s return to Memphis. She is given a first-person narrative which is interspersed by third-person narratives which focus on the other characters.  The women are central, the male characters are little under-realised which is no doubt the author’s intention.  It is time to let these impressive women have their say away from the troubles that these men cause for the family.

At times it was hard not to be reminded of another “return home” Southern Black American saga I read recently, the critically acclaimed “The Love Songs Of W E B DuBois” by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers.  Both are debuts by women who have made their name in poetry and whereas I felt that Fanonne Jeffers’ novel was too long “Memphis” is too short.  I wanted more from the lives of these women, especially August, who is a terrific character and who I felt could have been further fleshed out through her own narrative.  But every author knows the importance of leaving their readers wanting more and that is why I would give “Memphis” the slight edge.  The importance of carving out one’s own route is emphasised in both books and this can be found through education.  There’s enough autobiographical clues in the author’s acknowledgements to indicate that Tara M. Stringfellow was really writing what she knows with elements of plot and characterisation overlapping her own life.

This is a very strong contemporary saga which deserves a wide readership.

“Memphis” is published by John Murray in the UK on April 7th 2022.  Many thanks  to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Collector – John Fowles (1963)

Back in 2020 I re-read John Fowles’ most famous work “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1969).  It was a book I’d remembered with great affection but wondered on this re-reading whether “it does occasionally seem a little clever for its own good” and pondered if this might be one of the reasons why Fowles’ reputation has faded somewhat in the twenty-first century.  Nevertheless, it ended up at #8 in my Best Books of 2020 list.  At the same time I mentioned I should get round to re-reading his debut “The Collector” to see how it holds up.

I first came to this via the 1965 film adaptation I remember watching on a Monday night BBC1 9.30 film slot.  It was a school night and I remember my mum saying “don’t tell anyone we let you stay up late to watch it.”  It starred Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar and made a strong enough impression on me to virtually lift the plot for my mock English O-Level.  I don’t remember seeing it since this late 1970s showing.  The book I read during my first term at college and moving house recently unearthed a box from the loft where the extended essay I produced on “The artist is always under the control of his ideas” based on this book, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and the short story collection “The Ebony Tower” saw me sitting pretty much on the fence but gaining an A grade (I didn’t get that many of these).

Basically, the plot of “The Collector” runs along the same lines as a myriad of psychological thrillers produced since but must have seemed extremely disturbing back in 1963.  Frederick Clegg, a lonely lepidopterist wins the football pools and decides to spend his money on a rare specimen- not one of his usual butterflies but an Art student, Miranda, whom he abducts and keeps in a house near Lewes.  Disproving what I said recently about “TFL’sW” and accessibility this is a very accessible (and chilling) work.  Spread over four sections, three being a first-person narrative from the abductor and section 2 Miranda’s hidden diary.  Fowles is doing more than an abduction thriller within Miranda’s section as she explores her relationship with Art and her own obsession for a fairly odious, older, established artist.  Fowles challenges the reader by making his victim seem unsympathetic at times and his pathetic abductor, however heinous his actions, has the ability to pull on the heartstrings somewhat.  I think this makes for a controversial read, perhaps even more so in the twenty first century but as we are dealing with larger themes than a straightforward kidnap caper this novel does still resonate and seems to have a place in our modern world.

I think, nowadays, we will be more gripped by Frederick’s words than Miranda’s diary which feels more time specific and thus dated.  I read a Vintage Classics edition from 2004.  It does still seem to be in print in a 2010 edition suggesting that there is a continuing readership for his work.  I didn’t absolutely love it this time round as I obviously did as a teenager but it kept me with it throughout and I think I might not have finished my rediscovery of the work of John Fowles just yet.

The Collector was first published by Jonathan Cape in 1963.  

7 years of reviewsrevues.com. Let’s celebrate!!

They say that your body cells completely replenish over a 7 year period.  If that is the case (and it seems incomprehensible to my non-scientific mind) then there’s not a lot of me left that sat down and started to write his first blog post exactly 7 years ago.

For today is my 7th anniversary of reviewsrevues and I thought I’d do a little taking stock rather than look at post viewings etc which I tend to do on such occasions.  Never did I think when I wrote the first post that I would still be doing so 7 years later and producing this, which is my 823rd blog posting.

Seven years ago starting something like this was my New Year’s Resolution. I was looking for somewhere to collect together the reviews I had always written for my own use and increasingly on book sites like Amazon which led to some work with poetry magazines and a connection with what was then called New Books Magazine (now NB) which has continued in some form to today. At the time I was running a guest house here on the Isle of Wight and winters were long and quiet as there was never enough business to warrant being open at this time of year. January, however, was the time when there were the most bookings for the summer so there was quite a bit of hanging around waiting for the phone to ring so I felt the blog would occupy some of the spare time. Also working from home I felt that it would me a chance to reach out to the wider world. I did get away from the house some times as I was volunteering at my local library which had turned into a community library following council cut-backs.

Around the same time the blog started my connection with NB magazine was ramped up as I became lead contributor for Literary fiction within the magazine which led to author interviews which I also occasionally carried out for the blog. Reviewsrevues.com also certainly helped with my appointment as a relief library assistant for Isle Of Wight Libraries which evolved into a four day a week senior permanent post. The guest house was sold and after 17 years in the hospitality business the bungalow we bought in the same town no longer had to be full of guests! After getting the Library job, the amount of time I had for the blog did diminish which saw an easing off of the music and TV side of the site with the focus being books. Before then I had completed my 100 Essential CD Countdown which I have been re-reading recently and which represents many, many hours of work.

And that’s how seven years has passed. It does feel like the end of an era, not because I am giving up reviewsrevues.com (far from it) but because of things that have been going on in my personal life. We are planning a move off the island back to the mainland and coastal Dorset. This should be further ahead than it is and it is certainly a nerve-wracking, stressful time as anyone who has bought and sold property in England will know. Not a lot seems to be happening, even though we are surrounded with boxes that we’ve packed (and said goodbye to a lot of books from the shelves) and I have had to hand my resignation in from work and am down to one day a week and a bit of relief work for the next couple of weeks before that all comes to an end. I’m thinking of it as a “phased retirement”.

What that means, once the relocation has taken place, and I am having to keep everything crossed as I write this because it feels like it can go either way, is that it will be a new start both for me and for reviewsrevues.com, which is exciting. But for now, I’m celebrating my 7 years with you today and would like to thank you for reading and re-visiting the site. Here’s to the next 7 years when it will be a completely new me writing to you all.

Looking Around…….

For my last retrospective post, looking back over 2021 I like to have a look around the blogosphere and see the books which have impressed other bloggers during the last twelve months. I always expect that there is going to be a modicum of consensus and that there would be the odd book which appears on Best Of the Year lists time after time, but this is rarely the case and it certainly is not so for this year when there’s a wide range of books being recommended but not often the same book in more than one list.

I can usually find one of my Top 10 books in another blogger’s list but this year I have not been successful in discovering this. I might have thought that it was me, that I was out of touch, or that I’d read the wrong books this year but there are so many lists with no overlaps that I am certainly taking nothing personally!

There’s just a couple of titles I’ve seen appearing more than one list, both feature in the Top 5 of Jen at Books On The 7.47, Yaa Gyasi’s “Transcendent Kingdom” and Torrey Peters’ “Detransition, Baby” . Also on this list is one that I’ve highlighted as wanting to read (on my Looking Forward list for 2020), the Women’s Fiction Prize winning “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke (I do it have sat on my Kindle waiting for me) as well as the non-fiction 2021 publication from an author I read for the first time this year, Bernardine Evaristo. and her “Manifesto: On Never Giving Up”. Megan Hunter’s “The Harpy” (I’m not sure if I’m thrilled or appalled by the front cover of this one) makes up a good-looking Top 5 here.

There have been a couple of nods to books that have made my Top 10’s in the past. Jessica at The Bookworm Chronicles has one of my former Books Of The Year “The Count Of Monte Cristo“, acknowledging that it took her 3 months to read in her Top 10, Jacqui Wine’s Journal has selected my 2016 #3 “Black Narcissus” by Rumer Godden, Bookish Beck has “Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton (#7 in my 2014 list) on her Backlist reads and Kim at “Reading Matters” has “The Memory Police” by Yoko Ogawa my 2020 #4 in her list. She also has a couple of books that I read and enjoyed but which didn’t make my Top 10 this year, the Booker Prize winning “The Promise” by Damon Galgut, and “Mrs March” by Virginia Feito. These two are also on the Top 8 New Books list produced by Cathy at 746 Books who also has Ira Levin’s “A Kiss Before Dying” in her Books on her Shelf list. I really loved that when I read it as a teenager and must give that another go, especially as re-reading his “Rosemary’s Baby” was such a good experience. At “Reading Matters” I was also reminded me once again of a book that I’ve wanted it to read since I highlighted it pre-publication back at the start of 2019, Graham Swift’s Brighton Pier set “Here We Are”. There’s also a book from the 1930’s which I haven’t heard of before but which also is acknowledged at Jacqui Wine’s Journal “The Fortnight In September” by R C Sheriff based on a family holiday to Bognor, which sounds like it might be right up my street and worth investigating in 2022.

Margaret at “Books Please” went for another book I really enjoyed which didn’t quite make my Top 10 cut Ambrose Parry’s “Corruption Of Blood“. Also in her list is one which my very good friend and work colleague and Video Blog partner Louise had been recommending I read all this year, (she is always brimming with excellent recommendations as can be seen on our World Book Night YouTube posting which can be found here), I also know this is by Graham Norton’s favourite author, Mary Lawson, and her Booker longlisted “Town Called Solace”.

Many of the bloggers I’ve looked at seem reluctant to pick out their ultimate book of the year. Those that have include Bookish Beck who has gone for “Living Sea Of Waking Dreams” by Richard Flanagan, who I have still never read, Linda’s Book Bag has “Always In December” by Emily Stone, Andrea Is Reading has gone for the book which was also the Daily Telegraph’s Book Of The Year “Crossroads” by Jonathan Franzen, which seems to have generally split those I know who have read it, so it might be The Marmite Book Of The Year (love it or hate it). Fiction Fan’s Book Review’s Literary Fiction pick is Patrick McGrath’s “Last Days In Cleever Square”. There’s a dead heat at “Novel Deelights” between “Wolf Den” by Elodie Harper and “Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir.

On JacquiWine’s Journal’s aforementioned recommendations there ‘s one from my Books I Should Have Read In 2021 post “Mayflies” by Andrew O’Hagan as well as one I’ve recently bought “Passing” by Nella Larsen which brings back the quandary I am in as to which I should do first, read the 1929 novel or watch the 2021 critically well-received film adaptation which is on Netflix in the UK. Another that is waiting on my Kindle is a book which made Fictionphile’s Top 4, “Last House on Needless Street” by Catriona Ward together with a book the aforementioned Louise has said really gripped her between Xmas and New Year “The Searcher” by Tana French, an author I must certainly investigate this year.

So many links in this post! I think it’s important to link up some of us who are out there promoting great reads at the start of the year. Right, let’s get on with some reading!!

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2021- Part One (10-6)

So, here we go, time to look back on another strange year to see which books made the greatest impression upon me in 2021.  This Top 10 is not just based upon books published this year. (3 out of the 10 were, which seems to be par for the course as that has been the same proportion for the last couple of years). If I read it during 2021 it is up for inclusion.

This year I read 64 books which is a typical figure but a bit down on my Good Reads goal of 70. Like last year 13 books have made the five star rating level, which means once again that some of my five star reads will not make it onto my Top 10 of the Year. There were 28 four star reads and 23 books I rated three stars. Like last year there was nothing I rated below three stars. I think with all this reviewing experience I’m less likely to choose to read duff books. Gender-wise, my Top 10 has a 50-50 split. It is perhaps a more diverse list than previous years with 40% black authors and 30% identifying as LGBT+ Like last year there are two non-fiction titles and like last year they are broadly speaking, autobiographical. Three of the authors have featured in previous year Top 10’s. There are two debut novels.

Right, here is the first part of the list, numbers 10-6.  If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I’m really prompting you to find out more about) just click on the title.

10. Bond Street Story – Norman Collins (Collins 1959) (Read and reviewed in July)

Good luck with finding this one as like nearly all of this British author’s (1907-82) work it seems to be out of print. It’s the second year in a row for Collins and even though this is not quite up there with last year’s #2 read “London Belongs To Me” (which is more readily available as a Penguin Modern Classics) this tale of lives in a London Department store, the family who own it, the staff who work there is still a captivating read. I’m going to be on the look-out for more Collins to read next year. Perhaps some enterprising publisher could commemorate the 40th anniversary of his death by re-publishing more of his work.

9. Goodnight Mister Tom – Michelle Magorian (Puffin 1981) (Read and reviewed in May)

I took advantage of this children’s classic’s 40th anniversary reprint to read this for the first time. I know this is a special book for many people, in my day job at the library we often get adults requesting it to read to their children and I think it is now established as an important book in children’s fiction. I said of it; “It was one of those books where my vague ideas about it had cemented into what I believed was fact but I was often wrong.  I knew it was a tearjerker but what I had always thought occurred never actually happens.  The twists and turns of the plot were quite a revelation for me.” If you’ve never read it I urge you to seek it out, if you have read it you will know you probably want to read it again.

8.The Whites – Richard Price (Bloomsbury 2015) (Read and reviewed in February)

I’ve now read two Richard Price books and both have made it on to the Top 10, this is another under-rated author. His 1974 debut “The Wanderers” was my 2014 Book Of The Year and 41 years later he is still churning out gems. The title refers to those who have got away with murder which obsess a group of NYPD members past and present. It’s hard-boiled American crime, which I don’t always go for but characterisation here is so strong. Stephen King summed it up perfectly when he described this book as “grim, gutsy and impossible to put down.”

7. Dreamgirls: My Life As A Supreme – Mary Wilson (Arrow 1987) (Read in January posted in February)

This was a re-read of a book I have read I have read a couple of times before but not for years. I think it is one of the best showbusiness autobiographies, with just the right balance of career and private life and the career is extraordinary. It was written alongside ghost-writers Patricia Romanowski and Ahrgus Juilliard but benefits because Mary was a keen diarist and that ability to access details is evident. Tragically, on the day I set aside to post this review the news was announced that Mary had suddenly died (authors and publishers, don’t let this put you off asking for books to be reviewed, the two events are not related!) I did wonder whether that would result in this book being given a new lease of life but that has not happened.

6. Sing, Unburied, Sing- Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury 2017) (Read and reviewed in August)

Critically acclaimed in her homeland. 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. This is a powerful, haunting read. I described it as “a Southern-set contemporary novel enriched with the rhythms and the sense of folklore, rhythms, spiritual beliefs and history of the community”. The reason why this had such a powerful effect on me as a reader is due to the quality of the writing and story-telling which really drew an initially resistant me in.

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