A Christmas Memory – Truman Capote (Penguin Classics 2020)

With the reign of my current Book Of The Year “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott coming to an end I have made good my promise to myself to explore further the writings of her central character, Truman Capote.  Penguin Classics have put out for this festive season a collection of six of his short stories around the theme of Christmas.

I read an early review edition which was without any introduction which I would have really appreciated to put these tales in context.  I’m not sure whether this would be put right in the published version but it seems the stories span from 1945 when Capote was a callow youth of 21 to a tale which is copyrighted 1982 so may not have seen the light until a couple of years before his death, but I guess was probably written much earlier.

Capote writes with a sense of nostalgia which is so appropriate for the festive period and I could see some of these stories ending up in my “read yearly” list.  I don’t know enough about him to know how autobiographical they are (again an introduction would have helped).  The first three feature the narrator’s relationship with an elderly yet almost child-like female cousin, Miss Sook, who the young protagonist adores.  “A Christmas Memory” is a wistful tale of seasonal preparations and their relationship is explored further in “A Thanksgiving Visitor” (okay, not quite Xmas) where her role as care-giver and educator is enhanced.  The young boy spends Christmas with an absent father in “One Christmas.” The least successful story “Master Misery” dates from 1949 and is a more brittle New York tale with a female main character which deals in the importance of dreams and will no doubt have some bearing on his later (1958) novel which confirmed his literary superstar status. “Breakfast At Tiffanys”.

My favourite story is also not especially Christmassy, “Children On Their Birthdays” shows strong characterisation and his plot of a new young female arrival in town is highly involving.  It is also characterisation which is the strong point of “Jug Of Silver” but it is not as fully realised as its predecessor in the book. 

This has really whetted my appetite for more Capote.  I like his style.  He handles the short story format well and I’m even beginning to feel a little more joyous towards the coming festival after reading it.

A Christmas memory was published by Penguin Classics on 5th November 2020. Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the review copy.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle – Shirley Jackson (1962)

I’ve always been a bit sniffy about the novella.  As recently as June this year in my review of Adam Mars-Jones’ “Box Hill” I said; “My main quibble comes with the novella form.  I end up feeling slightly short-changed”.  Could this be the book which has at last caused a change of heart?  Over 146 pages in the Penguin Classics paperback edition Shirley Jackson creates a superb, unsettling Gothic tale with an unreliable narrator and a series of beautifully written set-pieces which will forge this book forever in this reader’s memory.

I have never read American author Shirley Jackson (1916-65).  I know her career was established by short-stories and short form novels where a surface respectability hid tales of darkness.  In a superb opening we meet 18 year old Mary Katherine Blackwood (known as “Merricat”) negotiating her twice weekly trip into her local village as a kind of board game where her fate may be decided by a roll of the dice.  She perceives great hostility from those she encounters before returning to her sizeable family home now occupied only by her sister and an ailing uncle who do not leave the premises.  The veneer of respectability is tested when neighbours come to take tea in what is almost a parody of a familiar social situation.  We know something is very awry with this family and that the girls’ parents, brother and aunt all died on the same night within this house.  Merricat herself is happy with the unchanged world of isolation which has become the norm the last six years until a cousin comes to visit which makes things fall further out of kilter.

There’s a menace throughout which is stifling but that runs alongside Merricat’s often simplistic observations.  Even though none of the plot twists are surprising we end up with an extraordinary work where the lines between innocence and guilt are blurred, where the narrator continually disturbs and the horror story and fairy tale lay side by side without either becoming more than subtle.  I thoroughly enjoyed this and feel that I have discovered a writer who will continue to resonate strongly with me.  Length-wise it was perfect and I don’t think I have often said that about a novella before.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle was first published in 1962.  I read the 2009 Penguin Classics paperback edition which has an afterword by Joyce Carol Oates.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day – Winifred Watson (1938)

This is a book I have been aware of but have never read.  I also haven’t seen the film version (but I will soon be putting that right) which was made some 70 years after publication and which starred Frances McDormand and Amy Adams.

Winifred Watson is one of Christopher Fowler’s Forgotten Authors and because I am working through his book rediscovering writers I would have got round to her eventually but was urged to bump her up the list by my friend Louise, whose recommendations are so often spot-on. 

This is a charming little tale of a dowdy middle-aged spinster sent for a job interview for a governess post and who finds herself being brought into a whole set of circumstances involving a sparkling night-club-visiting theatrical social set who accept her totally. It is fast-paced with lots of dialogue, a lively wit and an optimistic kindness which runs throughout and which is very endearing.  Apparently, Winifred Watson, a Newcastle resident who had written a couple of Northern sagas which may or may not have been an influence on Catherine Cookson whose writing mined a similar area, knew nothing about the type of people she was writing about here, the smart theatrical London set, and never in her 95 year life-span went anywhere near a nightclub which provides one of the significant locations in her book.  She made it all up and it does actually have the naïve charm of 9 year old author Daisy Ashford’s “The Young Visiters” another author who because of her youth wrote from sheer imagination and not experience.  The wit is slightly Wodehousian and also reminiscent of E F Benson’s “Mapp and Lucia” novels but you feel that these two characters would have made mincemeat of Miss Pettigrew and however much that is a joy in their novels in this one it would have been to its detriment.  This book illustrates that just occasionally being in the right place at the right time can cause some very special things to happen.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day was first published in 1938 by Methuen.  I read the 2001 Persephone edition.

The Shapeless Unease – Samantha Harvey (2020) – A Real Life Review

Novelist Samantha Harvey endured a year of insomnia and this is her account of that time.  As well as the physical act of not sleeping, the dilemma of whether to stay in bed becoming increasingly anxious or getting up to wander frustratedly or do jigsaws is her inevitable examination of why she had forgotten how to sleep.

I had to time this book carefully into my reading schedule.  I was aware of it during the national lockdown but felt that by reading it then Harvey’s insomnia might be contagious at a time when the balance between sleep and anxious tossing and turning was precarious.  In my head it just seemed to follow nicely after the thriller I have just read “Before I Go To Sleep” where the lead character’s restful nights wipes her memory clean.  There’s a superstitious literary balance going on here.

Samantha Harvey’s lack of sleep causes her to address guilt, loss, death and her past.  She also inserts parts of an unresolved short story.  At 176 pages it can be read in a couple of hours (I made sure they were daylight hours).  Her writing is enthralling and makes me want to seek out her four novels.  After finishing it I felt less convinced as to her motive behind the book than when I started it, it flows in a nebulous way like the dreams she was largely missing out on. I like the story of a man who robs a cash machine which creeps in from time to time but am not sure what it is doing here.  It is the quality of the writing I will remember this book for rather than the work as a whole.  There’s a story from her past regarding a dog which would keep me awake at night and I did enjoy her writing in her accounts of doctors’ appointments where on one occasion, a plea for a blood test led to a rebuke of “This is not a shop”.  I could appreciate her reaction to those people who tried to make helpful suggestions (sleep hygiene?) and her search for answers.  Ultimately, she concludes “This is the cure for insomnia – no things are fixed.  Everything passes, this too”. This seems more potent than prescription remedies and therapy but, boy, did she have to struggle to get to this viewpoint.

The Shapeless Unease was published by Jonathan Cape in 2020.

Before I Go To Sleep- S J Watson (2011)

S J Watson’s thriller debut made a splash on arrival, getting critical acclaim, picking up awards and having a 2014 film made of his book starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, (it’s currently on Amazon Prime in the UK, I haven’t seen it but may watch it this weekend now I have finished the book) not bad for a hospital audiologist writing on evenings and weekends.

The premise is fascinating.  A middle-aged woman wakes up each morning knowing nothing about her life, believing herself to be in bed with a much older stranger.  Shocked by her appearance as much older than she was expecting to see in her bathroom mirror she has to piece together her life since she lost her memory.  Each morning it’s back to square one, no recollections and needing her husband to fill in the gaps.  It seems that this has been going on for years and secret meetings with a doctor provide her with a strategy of getting some of these memories back.  She begins to keep a journal which makes up the bulk of the narrative and through this starts to realise that all is not as it seems.

This is a real-slow burn of a thriller and Watson is great at building up the tension gradually as the reader begins to share Christine’s mistrust.  I was very involved but felt the resolution did not live up to the build-up which had been so very good.  It’s impossible to read about Christine’s predicament without putting yourself in her shoes reflecting how you would react in her circumstances and that is a great way to build empathy for your main character.

This book’s success made it one of the key titles in revitalising the psychological thriller which dominates best-seller list almost ten years on.  Since then Steve Watson has published two more novels, the latest “Final Cut” published in August 2020.

Before  I Go To Sleep was published in 2011.  I read the Black Swan paperback version.

PS: Just watched the film last night. Oh dear! The slow burn and gradual cranking of tension has been abandoned and everything I liked about the book has more or less gone.  Instead we get a creaky standard straight-to-DVD type thriller with an unnecessarily starry cast who do not add much to it.  The film doesn’t limp above a 2* rating.  I wonder if the author was disappointed with the liberties taken to get this end result?

Flowers In The Attic- Virginia Andrews (1979)

Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews – review | Children's books | The  Guardian

I don’t know why I have never read this before.  Back when it came out I really enjoyed schlocky bestsellers and this would have certainly fit the bill.  I remember looking at it in bookshops but never got round to purchasing it.  I have put this right  because Virginia Andrews is one of the writers featured in Christopher Fowler’s “The Book Of Forgotten Authors” from which I like to select reading choices from time to time.  The only copy I could find to borrow was a large print edition from the library- I haven’t read a large print book for many years and it took a bit of getting used to and might actually have affected my response to this. 

The whole Virginia Andrews story is a strange one.  She published a series of best-selling novels, perhaps best described as Southern Gothic, five of these continued on from this novel and then sadly died in 1986.  This was particularly sad for her publishers for whom she was making a lot of money which they didn’t want to give up.  She left behind a collection of unfinished manuscripts and so the publishers turned to ghost writer Andrew Neiderman to complete and then “become” Virginia Andrews.  He has now written around 70 more novels exploring the themes she touched upon in her published work.

In many ways this may have been a shame as it may have diluted the power of the original novels because there is no doubting that when someone is putting out this number of publications things are going to become formulaic.  But here we have the original Virginia Andrews’ most famous work and one most people will recall (even if they haven’t read it or seen either of the filmed versions) that it is about a family of children who get locked up in an attic for years.

The tale builds in its darkness and becomes really quite oppressive.  What lets it down for me is the author’s overly florid style which makes some of the narration by teenager Cathy and especially the dialogue seem unnatural and which from time to time made me cringe. It is not because it is written from a teenage perspective because it is an adult Cathy who is looking back at her time of imprisonment.  I think it has not dated too well but the sense of suffocation, of sin and the domestic horror of  children increasing trapped in a web of adult cruelty is fascinating.  I cannot imagine how Andrews made a series out of this (five books by Mark 1 and another 3 by VA Mark 2) without really watering down the originality of this novel but it does end feeling rather unresolved so I might be tempted to at least read the follow up “Petals In The Wind”.  As to the second Virginia Andrews’ work, I’m not sure.

Flowers In The Attic was first published in 1979.  I read a re-issued 2011 version by Harper Collins.

The Water Dancer – Ta-Nehesi Coates (Hamish Hamilton 2020)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has built a strong reputation for his non-fiction work, particularly his award-winning “Between The World And Me” from 2015 which was written as a letter to his son encompassing feelings regarding being a black man in the United States, a twenty-first century slant on James Baldwin’s important “The Fire Next Time” (1963). This is his debut novel, a historical work, set in Virginia in the nineteenth century.

Hiram Walker is a slave.  Acknowledged by his master as his son he is spared work in the tobacco fields and used as a servant for his white half-brother Maynard.  Whilst returning the no-good heir from the racetrack Hiram has a vision which leads to a catastrophic accident which puts his future in doubt.

Events lead him to become linked to the Underground Railroad, a group of agents who worked to free slaves and bring them north.  He meets and is inspired by Harriet Tubman, the real-life woman who rescued around 70 slaves on 13 dangerous missions.  Coates here employs a little magic to explain Tubman’s success, magic which Hiram himself discovers he has the potential to utilise, the ability to jaunt through space.

I wasn’t sure about this – feeling it undermined the true life heroine’s contribution but looking at the life of Harriet Tubman afterwards she did seem to experience visions probably caused by an overseer throwing a heavy weight at her head when a child so Coates is using an imaginative next step in using these visions to assist her with her rescues. Also, despite any misgivings the section where Hiram accompanies her on a mission was one of my favourite parts of the novel.  What also is done very well is emphasising the importance of story and their history for the black characters (both aspects often present in the very best Black American literature) and also conveying the sense of loss in their lives here at a time when the good times are drawing to a close for the white plantation owners meaning the slaves are no longer the asset for them they once were, which brings its own particular set of problems.

Comparisons do have to be made, however, to the multi-award winning 2016 best-selling novel by Colson Whitehead “The Underground Railroad” which similarly uses imagination to provide a creative slant on this rescue network.  That is one of my favourite novels in recent years and whereas I was very impressed by Coates’ debut the Whitehead novel has the edge.

The Water Dancer was published in hardback in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in February 2020.  The Penguin paperback is due on 19th November. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

100 Unhip Albums That We Should Learn To Love – Ian Moss (2019)

I was seduced by the cover.  Taken in by the 70’s glamour girl posturing which adorned many a budget sound-alike album bearing titles such as “Top Of The Pops” and “Hot Hits” which provided a cheap facsimile of a hit record collection for the cash strapped youngster.  I was both fascinated and appalled by these albums and owned quite a few which got binned quickly once I started to get into record buying.

These albums, although featuring talented session musicians and singers, were the ultimate in unhip and I must admit to feeling slightly misled by Ian Moss’ publishers using this format for the albums on show here which tend to be more undervalued than unhip.  Musical tastes very much align with age, as anyone who can remember watching BBC TV’s “Top Of The Pops” with parents will testify and Moss is a few years older than me and so naturally our tastes differ with him having a bit of a penchant for blues influenced British rockers which have never done anything for me.  However, he is certainly eclectic with his choices here taking in both the obscure and the mainstream and encompassing many musical styles (Rock n’ Roll, Jazz, Soul, Punk, Disco, Northern Soul, Reggae, Folk are amongst the genres represented here).  It’s all written with a great deal of respect (although he really doesn’t like Oasis) as each of the 110 albums (where did the 100 in the title come from?) are valued and re-assessed.

Ian Moss is a Manchester man who says his Top 5 Manchester acts are Roy Harper, 10CC, Buzzcocks, The Fall and The Prick Jaggers (me neither on the last one but Moss is a huge fan) with a collection as described in the foreword  as being in a home which is “a living museum to the music of the last 75 years.” The driving force  behind this book “celebrates musical diversity and encourages wider listening.” Our musical purchases as represented here only match a handful of times (great to see him describe the much under-rated Imagination’s debut as “a near flawless album that owed nothing to the rule book and all to inspiration and imagination.” I wore my vinyl copy of that album out.) One of the joys of reading this sort of book nowadays is (and I know I’ve said this before) that you can instantly go to Spotify and start listening.  Not everything here is available, some is just too obscure but I have highlighted three of his recommendations (David Essex, ELO and Bim Sherman, the last of whom I have never heard of) for future listening.  I enjoyed being allowed a glimpse into Ian Moss’ record collection even though this was not the cheese-fest I imagined (and hoped for) when I saw the book’s cover.

100 Unhip Albums was published by Empire Publications in 2019. I read the Kindle edition.

Real Life – Brandon Taylor (2020) – A Booker Shortlist Novel

Arguably the most significant sentence in this American author’s Booker Prize shortlisted debut is:

“Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty.”

This does seem to be the driving force behind this novel.  Wallace is a black gay student who has achieved against the odds stacked against him and is in the fourth year of a biochemistry degree at a Midwestern University.  He has only one friend within the lab where he works all day with microscopic worms, the rest either question his place on the course or set out to sabotage him.

I’m not really sure what work is going on in the lab or why.  Taylor is unafraid of technical detail and the scientific writing is actually very involving but the main focus of the novel is set over a weekend where Wallace questions his own future and has some leisure time to spend with a set of friends who mostly study on similar courses.

Wallace’s father had died some weeks before, a fact which he has neglected to tell anyone and over the course of this weekend his revelation leads him to grow intimate with a straight white boy in a relationship which seems toxic from the off.  Although this is most definitely a highly detailed contemporary novel this attention to detail and constant internalising gives the characters a closer feel to a Victorian novel- say the works of Henry James or Jane Austen even though it is a modern campus work.  It is superbly written and I was involved throughout but the knife edge these individuals live on where spite and aggression is never too far away occasionally felt tiresome and it was this which stopped me giving the book 5 stars.  I know the author was probably intending to show how these kinds of micro-aggressions can build up and overwhelm but I think a little more lightness and humour would have been appreciated and made this impressive debut superb.  If the college days are the best of their lives I would be fascinated to see how the characters were coping fifteen years on.  The other two Booker longlisted novels I have read this year (also debuts) “Who They Was” and “How Much Of These Hills Is Gold” have not made it onto the shortlist so the author is to be congratulated on achieving this in a very unpredictable awards year.

Real Life was published in 2020 in the UK by Daunt Books.

Never Anyone But You – Rupert Thomson (2018)

I have read one Rupert Thomson novel before, his 2007 publication, the Costa nominated “Death Of A Murderer”, a novelised account featuring an unnamed central character who is Moors Murderer Myra Hindley which to be honest did not do a great deal for me.  This is a much better novel which once again has true life characters as the central protagonists. 

He is helped here by his subject matter.  Two extraordinary women Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe who are true soul mates and adopt the names Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore and in the inter-war years become notable in the literary and artistic worlds of Paris aligning themselves perhaps most closely to the Surrealist movement.  Before war is declared they move to their favourite holiday destination Jersey where, once occupied by Nazis, they begin their own acts of resistance not dissimilar to that in Hans Fallada’s marvellous novel “Alone In Berlin.”

The plot really does come alive in the war years with the continual threat of discovery adding much to the tension but the real strength here is the depiction of the relationship between the two women.  Suzanne narrates a tale which starts off in 1940 where a German attack disrupts her evening swim and then moves back to chronologically depict their lives together in a manner not too far off from established facts about the pair.

Their relationship is beautifully written.  Claude is not always easy to love and has a self-destructive streak which dismays her lover.  Throughout all the drama the tone is one of calm which works extremely well. 

I was seduced by on-cover recommendations from Sarah Waters “…an astonishing accomplishment” and Philip Pullman “..It’s a long time since I read a love story quite as convincing or truthful”, both writers I much admire but it was Thomson’s weaving of the tale and vibrant assured prose which really drew me in.

Never Anyone But You was published in 2018 by Corsair.