Hot Stew- Fiona Mozley (John Murray 2021)

Fiona Mozley’s debut “Elmet” was my pick from the shortlist for the 2017 Booker Prize which I described as a “traditional, poetic, literary novel which packs a good punch”.  I found it haunting with a sense of timelessness about it all and that “plot and characterisation gives it a commercial pull”.  It lost out to George Sanders’ “Lincoln In The Bardo” which in my opinion fell short of Mozley’s achievement.

Here comes her second novel and it is very different from the first showing an author with real versatility.  The rural lyricism is replaced with an episodic, very urban tale.  I was impressed enough by this prospect to make this book one of my potential highlights of 2021 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  First things first, I did very much enjoy it.  It’s written in the present tense which is something I don’t always warm to but here it is very readable.  It’s been picking up very good reviews but I don’t think there’s anything within it which will remain with me in the way “Elmet” did.  I liked the feel of a harsher world in the debut which gave it, I felt, a 1970’s air, here, although the setting is also contemporary it has an 80’s feel as redevelopers threaten the traditional ways of life in Soho.  The echoes I felt here stirring in my subconscious was of Nell Dunn’s 1981 play “Steaming” where a group of women stand up against eviction.

Fiona Mozley introduces us to a range of characters, perhaps the central is Agatha, aiming to redevelop the investments of a father she never knew.  Of all of the characters she feels a little cartoony.  Pitched against the pretensions of big business is the oldest profession in town represented by sex workers Precious and Tabitha who lead the resistance against eviction.  A group of homeless people residing in a cellar under the brothel and regulars of a local pub add to this hot stew of characters.  Not all characters contribute much to the central plot and so exist as vignettes of their lives in and around Central London.  It’s all likeable and in a way I can appreciate those that are seeing this as modern day Dickens but it all feels a little unresolved which Dickens would not be.  I am certainly applauding an author prepared to go off in a very different direction for a second novel and her publishers who have supported her in this.

Hot Stew is published by John Murray in the UK on 18th March.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Double Falsehood – Vaughn Entwistle (2020)

Vaughn Entwistle has featured here before.  I have read and enjoyed two of his books and in 2016 he agreed to an interview in my Author Strikes Back thread.  My favourite of his books to date has been his 2015 publication “The Angel Of Highgate” which I described as a “splendid romp, fast-paced and very readable with extremely memorable characters”.  The same description applies here in a very different feeling historical novel.

One of the most impressive aspects of this author’s work is that he writes with such great relish.  I wasn’t sure whether an Elizabethan-set “Shakespearean Thriller” as this novel is described would perhaps be a little dry.  I’d obviously forgotten his writing style because this certainly is a vibrant tale bringing history to life.

William Shakespeare is travelling with the rest of his acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to Marlborough because the London theatres have been closed down amidst cries of sedition.  En-route they discover a corpse and an apparition in the woods and flee to a nearby inn.

Fast-forward to the present day and a first-person narrative from Harvey Braithwaite, recent owner at the now fairly down-at-heel ancient pub “The White Hart” who makes a discovery which could change his fortunes but threaten his life.

The Elizabethan characters have the bulk of the action and it is an explosive mix of murder, treason, religious persecution and a lust for life with underground passages, deception, disguise and sex having their part to play.  Both sections are full of a bawdy energy.  Braithwaite has a lot in common with these lusty Elizabethans- at time it can border on a “Carry On Film” script but here that works very well and Entwistle does not let the humour get in the way of him telling a good yarn and having it present in both parts of the narrative gives the whole thing balance and symmetry which I very much approve of.

The history is incorporated well, the author does not feel the need to bombard us with his research and in many ways it does not matter if he has veered away from historical fact as the energy wins the reader over.  The title itself refers to a play controversially attributed to Shakespeare which also feels appropriate to the action here.  I got a lot about the dangers of not towing the line, on an everyday basis, religion-wise through the characters of the Pursuivants hunting out Jesuits and the fear instilled by the Queen’s odious torturer Topcliffe, probably picking up more history on the way than in many more serious (dare I say drier) works.

Once again Vaughn Entwistle has given me a lot of enjoyment, there’s a good balance of darkness and light in a well-structured pacy tale which all in all leaves me to conclude he may have written his finest novel yet.

Double Falsehood was published by Masque Publishing in August 2020.  For more about the author and his books visit https.//vaughnentwistle.com/

The Lost Brother – Susanna Beard (Joffe 2021)

I have saluted the UK publishers Joffe here before for the sterling work they have been doing in lockdown to provide very affordable good quality commercial fiction.  This new publication which they invited me to review is the fourth novel by Susanna Beard.

It begins in the summer of 1987 when it is decided that 12 year old Ricky should, in the New Year, attend the same boarding school as his father did – in South Africa.  This fills Ricky with horror, he does not want to leave the UK and does not feel he is the right sort of person for boarding school but is particularly unhappy because of his close relationship with his 10 year old sister Leonora, and the thought of leaving her with his cold, cruel father and emotionally distant mother.  No amount of cajoling on the children’s part can stop the inevitable and once Ricky has left their father is determined to drive as big a wedge as possible between the boy and Leonora.

This novel is about the damage families can do to one another alongside the lasting bond of a positive sibling relationship.  Characterisation is solid and the sense of desolation endured by the separated pair is conveyed very effectively.  Leonora has always experienced synaesthesia, in her case letters are represented by colours, which is an unusual device on the part of the author but one which I wish had been made more of as it feels slightly under-realised.

The plot is always involving.  As the years pass the brother and sister are unable to forget how much they mean to one another as circumstances continue, through twists, to keep them apart.  Although I did not feel the ending was as “electrifying” as the cover suggests it all added up to a very satisfactory reading experience.

The Lost Brother is published on 11th February 2021 by Joffe Books.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.  

Eurovision! – Chris West (2020)

This is an updated version of Chris West’s 2017 study of the Eurovision Song Contest and how it fits in with the history of modern Europe.  It takes us up to (but doesn’t mention) the 2020 Competition that never was.  I love Eurovision, some of my earliest memories are of being allowed to stay up late to watch it.  A UK entrant marked the first time I went into a record shop alone and purchased a single (my older sister was stood at the door) and that was Lulu’s “Boom Bang A Bang”.  I reviewed the 2016 semi-finals here where I called the eventual winner Ukraine “not particularly listenable”, showing once again it’s the annual festival of the impossible-to-predict and I’ve read a couple of Eurovision themed books before – “The Official History” by John Kennedy O’ Connor and “The Complete Companion” co-written by amongst others Paul Gambaccini and Tim Rice.  This book is where we stash our Eurovision score cards each year, now going back to 1999. 

If it looks like I might be a bit of an obsessive, let me tell you there are many millions more so than me, people who actually travel to the now massive stadiums each year, knowing all the songs before the shows and can recall instantly who came third in 1984 (well, actually I do know that, because just writing it made me want to look it up- the answer is Spain, but maybe some of you already knew that!)

Chris West, however, is offering here a very different slant.  There is the obsessive fan lurking under there but really he’s in it here for the history.  He sees it as a very political institution which reflects Europe’s historical patterns.  (We’re not talking voting for your neighbours here, which he does not think is as prevalent as its detractors claim).  He takes a wider view than the other books I have mentioned, in fact, the UK gets fairly scant attention because here it is not taken seriously enough and does not tap into what’s going on, as a number of the best winners and Chris’ personal favourites have tended to do.

Each year is given a few pages and pretty equal amount of attention is given to the competition itself and events and trends in Europe during those twelve months, with some of the concerns, triumphs and failures being reflected by the entrants or represented by the results.  To take an example, the UK seems to have got it right on only a couple of occasions which led to victory each time, Sandie Shaw, who, (the artist rather than the song) conveyed Swinging London of 1967 and Katrina & The Wave’s anthemic “Love Shine A Light” which caught the mood of Europe and so won impressively. 

To be honest, the songs West tends to focus on are the ones that passed me by.  It seems I’m watching for the spectacle rather than the politics but his view was fascinating backed up by the history (which, admittedly, when we are dealing with the workings of the EU at times I felt a little dry).

In a conclusion the author explains why Europe should perhaps be more like the Eurovision Song Contest which I found myself agreeing with.  This is an interesting read which brought the contest right up to date.  I think I’ll still continue to stuff my score sheets in the more trivial “Companion” but I welcomed this look at the more serious side which attempts to stick true to the reasons why the contest came into being in 1956.

The paperback edition of Eurovision! I read was published in 2020 by Melville House.

Now We Are Six…..

We may have to cancel the parties but today reviewsrevues.com is celebrating six years of posts! That’s six years and 750 posts. I thought it would be fun to mark the day with some quick 6 of the bests. I’m using today to highlight some of those authors, books, musicians, TV programmes and films who have had their part to play over the last 6 years. I’ve chosen 14 categories and six things which are “of the best” rather than the actual “best” which would create far too much pondering and anguish on my part! A couple have sneaked into more than one category and I’m not apologising for that ! I’ve linked to any relevant reviews/info.

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Six Of The Best – 21st Century Novels : Atonement- Ian McEwan (2001) ; The Book Of Human Skin – Michele Lovric (2010) ; The Book Thief- Markus Zusak (2007); The Crimson Petal And The White- Michel Faber (2002); The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018); The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017)

Six Of The Best – 20th Century NovelsAlone In Berlin – Hans Fallada (1947); The Grapes Of Wrath- John Steinbeck (1939) ; Sacred Hunger- Barry Unsworth (1992) ;The Swimming Pool Library – Alan Hollinghurst (1988); To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee (1960); The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974)

Six Of The Best – 19th Century Novels – Bleak House – Charles Dickens (1853); The Count Of Monte Cristo- Alexandre Dumas (1844); Jane Eyre- Charlotte Bronte (1847); Mary Barton – Mrs Gaskell (1848); Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens (1859), Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte (1847)

Six Of The Best – Classic Children’s Books The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne (2006); Krindlekrax- Philip Ridley (1991); The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe- CS Lewis(1950); Northern Lights – Philip Pullman(1995), Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here- Michael Rosen (1983) ; Winnie The Pooh – A A Milne (1926)

Six Of The Best – Translated FictionAlone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (1947) (German- 2010 translation by Michael Hofmann) ; Count Of Monte Cristo- Alexandre Dumas (1844) (French -1996 translation by Robin Buss); Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Dutch- translation by Sam Garrett); The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (2019) (Japanese- translation by Stephen Synder) ; Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007)(German- translation by Anthea Bell) ; Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky (2007)(French- translation by Sandra Smith)

Six Of The Best – Diaries and Memoirs– Babycham Night – Philip Norman (2003); Few Eggs And No Oranges – Vere Hodgson (1999); The Kenneth Williams Diaries (Ed: Russell Davies) (1994); The Noel Coward Diaries (Ed:Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley) (1982) ; The Orton Diaries (Ed: John Lahr) (1986); Toast – Nigel Slater (2003)

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Six Of The Best – Netflix Shows to ease the stress of Lockdown – Call My Agent (I’m only on season 1) ; Dynasty (I’m towards the end of Season 3 – this is now a five star show) ; Elite (love this, just about to start Season 3- am trying to ration myself ); Riverdale (have been watching this since 2017- I’m up to Season 3, Season 5 has just launched); Schitt’s Creek (it was a sad day in our household when we watched the final episode) ; Toyboy (ditto “Schitt’s Creek comment, but “Elite” has filled this Spanish drama hole)

Six Of The Best – TV Shows I’m Currently Watching – The Bay; The Great Pottery Showdown; It’s A Sin; Junior Bakeoff; Rupaul’s Drag Race UK; The Serpent

Six Of The Best Films from the last Six Years– Dunkirk (2017); God’s Own Country (2017); Green Book (2018); The Guernsey Literary & Potato Pie Society (2018); Ladybird (2018), The Personal History Of David Copperfield (2020)

Six Of The Best Animated Movies of 21st Century – Arthur Christmas(2011); Despicable Me(2010); Frankenweenie(2012); Monsters Inc (2002); Toy Story 3 (2010);Up (2009)

Six Of The Best 80’s Movies– ET (1982); Gremlins (1984); My Life As A Dog (1985); Prick Up Your Ears (1987); Room With A View (1986); Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

Six Of The Best 60’s Movies – Carry On Camping (1969); The Damned (1969); Gypsy (1962);Midnight Cowboy (1969); Rosemary’s Baby (1968); To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

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Six Of The Best Songs with “Love” in The Title – Greatest Love Of All- Whitney Houston (1986); I’m Ready For Love – Martha Reeves & The Vandellas (1966); Love Hangover – Diana Ross (1976); Love To Love You Baby- Donna Summer (1975); Love’s Just A Broken Heart- Cilla Black (1966); When You’re Young And In Love – The Marvelettes (1967)

Six Of The Best Motown Songs – Easy- Commodores (1977); He’s My Man – The Supremes (1975); I Want You Back – Jackson 5 (1969); It’s Bad For Me To See You – Yvonne Fair (1975); Love Hangover – Diana Ross (1976); What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted – Jimmy Ruffin(1966).

I’m stopping now……..I’m arguing with myself too much as to what should be in each list. Thanks for reading and here’s to the next six years!

100 Essential Books – The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021)

I was looking forward to reading this.  It is an extraordinary debut novel from gay black American author Robert Jones which could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.

It is a historical work set in the Halifax family’s cotton plantation in Vicksburg, Mississippi and over the years the slave plantation is a location I have visited quite a few times in fiction but I don’t think that many have made so much of an impression upon me as this.

In a barn live and work two teenagers, Samuel and Isaiah, who have become lovers.  Set apart from both the rest of the slaves and the members of the white household but observed by both they are true outsiders.  The response to these boys searching for happiness in such a grim existence is commented on by other characters, often in sections that relate to Books of the Bible.  They are also observed by a chorus of ancestral voices who powerfully and poetically comment on proceedings. 

The boys, unbeknown to them, have been part of an economic experiment by the white master, Paul Halifax, who has put them in an environment of hard physical work away from the cotton-picking to make studs of them, to provide him with a strong stock of future slaves.  The problem is, the boys are only interested  in one another.  Along comes another slave Amos, granted rights of preaching who uses his sermons to turn the slaves against the boys known to all as “The Two Of Them”.  Others in the plantation cannot comprehend what Amos is against thinking that happiness should be taken wherever it is possible to find it.  Samuel and Isaiah’s combustible situation is exacerbated by the sexually frustrated white mistress and her son returned from a “liberal” education up North.

The plot, in its bare bones here, seems a tad melodramatic, but oh my, how well Jones brings it alive, developing characters quickly and effectively and by having these two young men at the centre of a love story which feels bound to be ultimately tragic.

Amongst this Jones also superbly intersperses tales from previous generations- of the plantation’s ancestors, of plunder, of slave ships encompassing the black American history to this point into one superb novel.

When reading this it was a comment I had seen by Marlon James which kept coming to mind.  He said of this book; “The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel should do, and can do.  That shuffling sound you hear is Morrison, Baldwin and Angelou whooping and hollering both in pride and wonder.” 

What a marvellous thing to say about another author’s book but it is so appropriate.  And this is a debut novel!  At the end Robert Jones Jnr acknowledges hundreds of people by name, those black writers, educators, public figures, musicians, performers, friends who have inspired him, an awe-inspiring roll-call which might have seemed over the top if Jones did not have the goods to deliver.  With this enthralling, heart-breaking, poetic, challenging, very accessible yet difficult novel he certainly has.  The only thing I am not totally on board with is the cover which has a self-published self-help book vibe about it but certainly do not judge this by that. It is possible that I may have already read my Book of The Year.

The Prophets was published by Quercus in the UK in hardback on 5th January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Looking Around….

It’s time for my final retrospective of the year where, as I have done the last couple of years, I take a look at other bloggers end of year posts to see what books have really caught their imagination. There seems to be an acknowledgement that reading habits changed this year – some went through spates of not reading much at all and had periods of time when they whizzed through books. Some read less new fiction than normal and re-read more, but that might have had something to do with bookshops being closed for part of the year. There seems to be a much wider range of recommended books, with very few cropping up on more than a couple of lists.

One book which is making regular appearances is the winner of the 2020 Women’s Fiction prize, a title which I highlighted as one of the books I wanted to read but never got round to and that is Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet” which nets the runner-up place at Random Book Reviews, third place at A Little Book Problem and also amongst the favourites of Booker Talk– enough recommendations to inch this up my to-be-read list.

One of the things I look for are common ground seeing who has enjoyed the same books as me. The only one I found from my 2020 Top 10 was Kiley Read’s Such A Fun Age which Cathy at 746 Books also highlights it saying “not what I was expecting at all….incredibly smart and funny“. She also has me adding a couple of books to my reading list – one I was aware of anyway and one which was new to me. “Tyll”, by Daniel Keldmann, in a translation by Ross Benjamin, was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize and in its original German was reputedly the second best-selling novel in the world in 2006. It’s taken a long time to get over here and Cathy’s observation that it is a joyous mix of fact and bawdy fiction makes it seem an even more tempting prospect. Her book of the year is “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson, a book which when she finished it, immediately started from the beginning again. It’s a novella, which I have been sniffy about in the past, maybe this could be the book to warm me to this format .

A book which just missed out on my Top 10, although the author has featured on it before is Chris Whitaker’s “We Begin At The End” . It is the choice of best book for Eva at Novel Deelights. I interviewed Chris a couple of times after his debut novel “Tall Oaks” was published and I really loved his second “All The Wicked Girls“. I said that I felt that British author Chris could have a crack at producing the Great American Novel, there are some this year, perhaps Eva included, who would say that he has already done this with his third book. Also on Novel Deelights list is the author who, probably more than other, people suggest I should read and that is Frederick Backman. Here it is his latest “Anxious People” which is being recommended and that did appear in a few other lists. I do have a copy of “Bear Town” on my Kindle, which is the one people say I should start with, so maybe in 2021 I will develop my own admiration for this author. Other titles that I have in common with bloggers include the gripping (but I think the follow-up was better) “Nine Elms” by Robert Bryndza which is on Fictionphile’s separate crime list, “A Thousand Moons” by Sebastian Barry highlighted by Margaret at Books Please (here I preferred his previous novel) and the book which gave a voice to the victims of Jack The Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold’s “The Five” recommended by Lou at Random Book Reviews.

Bookish Beck had the Booker Prize shortlisted “Real Life” by Brandon Taylor at number 5 on her list. This also impressed me and just missed out on my Top 10, Beck makes comparisons thematically and linguistically to Virginia Woolf which I must admit passed me by although I was moving towards that direction looking back at my review as I said “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.” So I was on the right lines, maybe this is a book which would benefit from a re-read at some point. Bookish Beck also had another strong contender for the Top 10, “Memorial Drive” by Natasha Trethewey in her runners up list and her number one choice was another author who has been recommended to me, Evie Wyld. “Bass Rock” is the choice here and its coastal setting and “elegant time-blending structure” haunted the imagination.

As always there were recommendations I had to add to my wants list- Jen at Books On The 7.47 captured my imagination with Cathy Rentzenbrink “Dear Reader” – a book about books which gave her loads of recommendations and was like “having a great chat with a bookish friend”.

Booker Talk’s recommendation of Lemn Sissay’s “My Name Is Why” and A Little Book Problem’s runner-up “Where The Crawdads Sing” have both been on my radar since publication and I just might give another go to Joseph Conrad whose “Nostromo” was Fiction Fan’s Book Of The Year, when I read Conrad I was much younger and couldn’t get on with him at all, maybe age and experience would change that.

A book from my “What I Should Have Read in 2020” list has been confirmed as a book I have so far really missed out with Books On The 7.47 saying it was “almost impossible to stop reading” and in the runners-up list from Bookish Beck, but I must admit it was one that I thought I would see on a lot more end-of-year lists and that is “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett. Perhaps its inevitable arrival in paperback this year and people like me who recently managed to pick up as a Kindle read for 99p will spread the word and it may appear on more (and perhaps my own) best books read in 2021 choices.

Looking Back….Looking Forward

This is my end of year report, looking back at the 10 titles I had eagerly anticipated last year and seeing how many of them I actually got around to reading as well as picking ten more choices for 2021. I managed three out of the ten in 2019, four of ten the year before, let’s see how I did in 2020.

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Swimming In The Dark – Tomasz Jedrowski  (Bloomsbury) – I read this pre-publication in January and rated it four stars. I found it “an impressively written tale of the relationship between two young men set in Poland during the late 70’s/early 80’s at a time of great unrest.” A strong debut novel which attracted good reviews.

Here We Are – Graham Swift (Scribner)- I didn’t get around to this one but I’m still fascinated by its late 1950’s Brighton Pier setting so I am looking forward to giving it a go.

Actress – Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)- There’s been reservations on this at the libraries I work in since publication so will either wait for the excitement to calm down or for the paperback. I said of it: “This sounds just the sort of book that makes it into my end of year Top 10.” Perhaps it will in 2021.

Animals Of Lockwood Manor – Jane Healey (Mantle)- A debut which I read just before it was published in March. My response was a bit more muted than I was expecting and I gave it three stars. A World War II set country house novel with a touch of the supernatural. I said I “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. “

The Recovery Of Rose Gold – Stephanie Wrobel – (Michael Joseph)- I gave this a five star review in March and it just missed out on a Top 10 placing in my end of year list. I think coming out when it did it was one of the debuts that suffered because of the closure of bookshops because it didn’t make it presence felt over here in the way it was expected pre-publicaction when it was predicted to be one of the biggest selling thrillers of the year. There is still time for the paperback to change things when it appears this February.

Box Hill – Adam Mars-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions) – I got round to this novella in June and rated it four stars. I hadn’t read Adam Mars-Jones before and it was not really what I was expecting; “It is written in a highly endearing chatty style which looks back on events of 1975 from a viewpoint of almost a quarter of a century.” My quibble was about it being so short – I felt it could have worked even better if the plot was fleshed out for greater length. I’m a big believer of quality over quantity but felt here that there was a much longer novel trying to escape.

A Thousand Moons – Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber) A sequel of sorts to Barry’s Costa-winning “Days Without End” . I described it as  “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“. I missed the epic sweep of the first novel and was a little disappointed by it. I rated it three stars.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder)- One of the big titles of the year which has featured on many awards list and scooped the 2020 Women’s Prize For Fiction yet is one of the titles I did not get around to. Maggie O’Farrell should be one of the authors I catch up a bit on in 2021, I loved the one book of hers that I have read.

Everyday Magic – Jess Kidd (Canongate) – 2020 was a year for rescheduling, in the publication industry as much as anywhere else. This book was due out in June but has been put back until February, so I have obviously not had a chance to see how this author, who seems to be getting better with each book, fares with her first Junior Fiction publication.

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)- Details of this book were a bit vague in January, unsurprisingly as it was not due until September. It attracted good publicity when it arrived probably because of the sixteen year gap between this and Clarke’s outstanding “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell”. I’m not actually sure how much this book will appeal for me despite it being shortlisted for Best Novel at The Costas and on many end of year lists, but I am still prepared to give it a go.

That’s five out of the ten read which is a pretty good result for me. Here are ten more titles which have attracted my attention pre-publication and I will certainly be looking out for in 2021.

Memorial – Bryan Washington (Atlantic Books) (due out on 7th Jan). This American author’s collection of short stories was the Dylan Thomas Prize winner, a big favourite of Barack Obama and made me feel a bit warmer towards the short story format than I normally do. I have high hopes for his debut novel which is about a male couple, one black, one of Japanese heritage whose relationship is tested when one’s mother flies in from Japan to stay at the same time he goes off back to spend time with his estranged, very sick father in Osaka. The Times has said; “Funny and moving… Memorial confirms Washington as a writer not just to watch, but to read now“. Sounds good to me.

The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (riverrun books) (due out on 5th Jan). Another debut which has attracted a lot of pre-publication praise. A historical novel , it is apparently a rich evocation of the Deep South plantations with a bond between two slaves leading to suspicion and tragedy. Comparisons are being made to Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. Writer Marlon James describes it as “Epic in scale, intimate in its force, and lyrical in its beauty. The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel is, should do and can be.”

Girl In The Walls – A J Gnuse (4th Estate) (due out on 4th March) – Another debut, we are promised here a Gothic, spooky house novel which “plays equally well as sinister thriller and poignant meditation”. Gnuse (a man) lives in Texas and comparisons are being made to Shirley Jackson, I love a bit of Gothic, if well-done and hopefully this will live up to expectations.

Lamplighters – Emma Stonex (Picador) (due out on 4th March)- After what was a difficult year for debut authors it is great to see publishers are still green-lighting first works as this is another debut novel I am spotlighting (appropriate) here. (Although Stonex has published novels under a pseudonym, this is her first in her own name). More atmospheric mystery in a tale of disappearing Cornish lighthouse keepers in 1972. We are promised a gripping page-turner and I am sure we will all welcome a bit of that come March.

Hot Stew – Fiona Mozley (John Murray) (due out 18th March). First time round Mozley was Booker shortlisted for “Elmet” which was my favourite of those I read in line for the 2017 prize. That had a naturalistic, elemental feel but here she has changed direction with a very urban novel centred on a Soho novel. It is described as “rumbustious” which her first novel certainly wasn’t so this could end up very much further enhancing her reputation.

Many Different Kinds Of Love – Michael Rosen (Ebury Press) (due out on 18th March) – Regular readers to reviewsrevues.com will know of my great affection for Michael Rosen and we almost lost him in 2020 when he was struck down by coronavirus. Subtitled “a story of life, death and the NHS this is a book of poems, reflections and nurses’ medical diaries. it is said to celebrate “the power of community and the indomitable spirits of the people who keep us well” which sounds like a pretty essential read to me.

Kitchenly 434 – Alan Warner (White Rabbit) (due out 18th March, which is looking like a great day for quality publications) I loved this British author’s “The Sopranos”. It has featured on my Book Of The Year Top 3 on two occasions but amazingly I have never got round to reading anything else by him. This may very well change that. It is about a butler of a rock star and publication blurb suggests it is like “Remains Of The Day with cocaine and amplifiers!”

Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead (Fleet) (due September) – After the stunning “Underground Railroad” and the Pulitzer Prize winning “Nickel Boys” we get a 1960’s New York setting and a lively heist crime.

People Person – Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze) (due September) – There will be a lot of focus on this book in the early autumn following the critical and commercial breakthrough of “Queenie“. We don’t know much about it yet other than it is about estranged half-siblings coming together.

Diary Of A Suburban Lady – Lucy Mangan (Souvenir) (due October) – I knew she had a novel in her! TV columnist and writer of “Bookworm” the best ever book about children’s fiction will put out her debut novel, described as a comedy, and if it is anything like the rest of her work it will be laugh-out-loud funny, inspired by EM Delafield’s “Diary Of A Provincial Lady.”

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There you have it, ten books spread fairly well throughout the year from ten different publishers. Will these big the big titles of the year or will I be revisiting them at the start of 2021 saying “What happened to this one?” In the world of books you never know ………


What You Have Been Reading – The Top 10 posts of 2020

One positive aspect of this very strange year as far as I am concerned is the much greater volume of readers visiting me here at reviewsrevues.com. The figures show well over double what I have had in previous years, so I’m starting off with a big thank you to all of you who have continued to stop off at reviewsrevues.com and to those of you who first stumbled on the site at some point during lockdown.

Here is my annual list of what you have been reading, the 10 posts this year that have attracted the most attention. Don’t ask me to explain why certain posts end up being more popular than others – after nearly 6 years of doing this I don’t have the faintest idea. You now have 741 posts to choose from, so these have done very well in rising to the top. Over the years the most popular posts have been fairly consistent but this year there are 7 new entries onto the top 10, but only one was first published in 2020. Once again. I have no idea why this is all how it is but I thought it would be fun to just run down the 10 posts with links to the original review should you wish to find out more (just click the title). The figure in the bracket refers to the posts position in What You Have Been Reading 2019 post.

10 (-) 20 Of The Best – Shirley Bassey – Number 80 in my Essential CD countdown. This year saw the great Dame Shirley Bassey getting a Top 5 album chart placing with what is reputed to be her final recording setting an Official Charts record of being the first female recording artist to get a Top 40 chart placing in seven consecutive decades. That is an extraordinary achievement and the new album gave her the highest chart position she had attained for 42 years. Perhaps it is statistics like these that made people want to find out about her back catalogue. This budget CD from the Music For Pleasure label spans from 1960-73 and has most of the big hits. In the UK it can be bought new for £9.63 from Amazon, or used for £0.01.

9(-) Very – Pet Shop Boys – This 1993 Parlophone album made it to number 45 on my Essential CD countdown and was their (to date) only UK number 1 album. It is the one with the orange bubbly cover which contained such gems as their cover of “Go West”, “Yesterday When I Was Mad” and “Can You Forgive Her?” In 2018 it was reissued with a bonus disc of remixes entitled “Very; Further Listening 1992-4. It seems to be easier to find this than the original CD which I own.

8(-) Behaviour – Pet Shop Boys – I’m delighted that people are working their way through my Pet Shop Boys reviews. I had this 1990 Parlophone release at number 91 in my Top 100 listing. Perhaps their most rounded pop album it contains “My October Symphony” and “Nervously” two of their very best non-single tracks together with the big hits “So Hard” and “Being Boring”. This was also reissued as a Further Listening Double CD package but the original can be currently bought on Amazon for £13.74 and used from £7.43.

7(-) A Natural – Ross Raisin – A four star 2017 novel which I read and reviewed in 2018. It’s a tale of a young gay football player with more soccer between its covers than in anything I have read before. I said of it; “this is a very claustrophobic piece, generally grim and paints a fairly depressing hostile environment inhabited by the characters.” I did acknowledge the story telling and the sheer skill of the writer and was very impressed by it. In fact, it is a book which does quite often come to mind so it did resonate with me. It could be read as aversion therapy for anyone considering a career as a professional footballer!

6(-) Lets Groove: The Best Of Earth Wind & Fire– This is really a re-entry as my number 30 in my Essential CD list has been bouncing around my most read lists since I first published it in October 2015. On last year’s Five From Five post to celebrate 5 years of the blog I counted down the five most read posts of all time and this was at number 5 with the highest total of visits of any my 100 Essential CD list. A 17 track 1996 compilation which would prove an excellent introduction for this group for the very bargain price currently at Amazon of £3.08 and from £0.60 for a used copy.

5(6) Diary Of Two Nobodies – Giles Wood & Mary Killen – This was posted in 2018 and has hovered around the Top 5 most read posts for most of the time since. Giles and Mary from “Gogglebox” should maybe consider putting pen to paper again as the interest in them in still there.

4(-) Sanditon – Jane Austen & Another Lady – I gave this a five star review for this 1975 publication when I read it in 2019 where it ended up at number 3 in my end of year list. Australian-born author Marie Dobbs was extremely successful in carrying on from the fragment of the novel Jane Austen left when she died in 1817. I read this because of the Andrew Davies TV adaptation which I also enjoyed, a significant number of you have wanted to find out more about this book and/or the TV series this year.

3(7) Once Upon A Time – Donna Summer – First posted in March 2018 when I placed the late, great Donna ‘s 1977 release at number 85 on my 100 Essential CD lists. For the second year running this has been my most read of the reviews on that list. Despite its slightly awkward “Cinderella” concept this double album resulted in a much broader scope than ever before with some great tracks from the Moroder/Bellotte/Summer team. It is well worth the £7.15 price currently on Amazon (used from £5.52)

2(-) A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom – John Boyne – A 2020 publication which I read and reviewed just as it came out. This was a high-concept work which I described as 52 mini-novels requiring a vast amount of historical research. I gave this book 4 stars, which pained me a little as Boyne is a huge favourite of mine and his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is one of my favourite books of this century. It’s still a very good read and is extrarodinarily ambitious.

1(4) Scott And Bailey – I have no answers. In January last year when I looked at my five most read posts of all time this was sat at number 3. It is a review from the beginning of the final fifth series which began on ITV in April 2016. It just shows how well-loved this much-missed TV series starring Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp was. Over four years on and it has reached the summit for this year.

Where Are You Reading From?

The Top 10 countries for visitors of reviewsrevues.com

  1. UK
  2. US
  3. Belgium
  4. Germany
  5. Netherlands
  6. Canada
  7. Australia
  8. Brazil
  9. Singapore
  10. Argentina

Wherever you are reading from I hope you have found something to entertain you during a year which has been difficult for all of us. I look forward to your continued support in 2021.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2020 – The Top 5

Continuing my countdown of my top 10 Books I read this year.  For numbers 10-6 click here and to see the full review just click on the highlighted title.

5. The Glass Of Time – Michael Cox (John Murray 2008) Read and reviewed in December

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This is the second year running that Michael Cox has been at number 5.   Last year a re-reading of “The Meaning Of Night” (a former Book Of The Year) was also in this position.  This is the sequel that I didn’t even know existed and although it might not be quite as good it does form an exceptional two books series, and sadly, novel-wise, that was it for Michael Cox who passed away within a year of this publication.  It can be read as a stand-alone but would be so much better tackled soon after the debut.  The author was excellent at getting an authentic Victorian feel and a kind of shadowy, elusive atmosphere pervades his work which I find really impressive.

4. The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (Harvill Secker 2019) (Read and reviewed in January)

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I finished reading this on New Year’s Day 2020 and it left an impression on me which has lasted throughout the year.  Of course, I didn’t know when reading it how its dystopian flavour would resonate with me through our world events.  This is an English translation by Stephen Snyder which originally appeared in Japan in 1994. I said of it;  “It’s a fascinating set-up. An unspecified island location where from time to time things completely disappear, the memory of the object, be it a hat, a rose, birds completely goes and the people feel compelled to destroy any left hanging around. If they don’t do this pressure will be exerted by the sinister authoritarian Memory Police who remove all the forgotten objects as well as those people who can still remember.” It’s also a rare thing of a dystopian novel where people are actually nice to one another as ” here there is warmth and friendship which makes the underlying terror within their lives hit home more powerfully. And all this is written in a deceptively simple, straight-forward style which makes Ogawa’s extraordinary concepts enthralling.

3. Case Histories – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday 2004) – Read and reviewed in April.

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Kate Atkinson is an author who just seems to miss out on my end of year Top 10 (apart from 2016 when she got the runner-up position with “Life After Life“).  I thoroughly enjoyed the other three books I’ve read of hers and I thought I’d give this previously 4* rated book another go.  The whole of this year’s Top 3 was read in the sunny first lockdown outside in the sunshine which may have just influenced my decisions a little or more likely show how appreciative I was of good fiction at that time.  Second time round for this book I absolutely loved it and I can’t think why 15 years ago I didn’t give this a five star rating.  Still, I’ve put that right now and it marks a second appearance for this author in my end of year Top 3.  I said;  “What stands this novel above much crime fiction is the sheer quality of the writing, a richness of cultural references which makes the events feel totally real. There’s so much in Atkinson’s writing, an ability to turn from humour to tragedy in a couple of sentences in a way which feels so plausible and convincing. ” I re-read this because I wanted to get cracking on the Jackson Brodie series but to date I still haven’t got round to reading more.  I should make that a reading goal for 2021.

2. London Belongs To Me – Norman Collins (Penguin Modern Classics 1945) (Read and reviewed in June)

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This was another re-read,  but not since I was a teenager.  It was one like “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” that made a big impression on me at the time, but unlike that novel hasn’t sat awaiting re-reads on my shelves for decades.  I read a library copy at the time and memories flooded back when I saw this Penguin Modern classics edition on a Book Bus bookshop during the Ventnor festival in those innocent festival-going days of 2019.  I described it as a real warm hug of a book which made it a very valuable book in a year when hugs were pretty non-existent.  True, it has a soap-opera feel and there is the odd expression and viewpoint which would jar with the modern reader but this account of a group of residents of 10, Dulcimer Street, Kennington from December 1938- December 1940 brought me a lot of pleasure this year.

1. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (Fleet 2018) (Read and reviewed in April)

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For the second year running it is an American woman who takes the top prize.  What was I thinking of reading this during the most tense part of lockdown?  I read a book about a cruel disease which decimated communities in the midst of a pandemic!  Perhaps not the best reading choice I could have made but perhaps it intensified what I read and what I read was superb.  Two parallel narratives with one set in mid/late 1980’s Chicago and the other in Paris in 2015 with a handful of characters who feature in both. Excellent characterisation and I said of this book:  “The AIDS crisis is pushing them together as much as it is tearing them apart and the repercussions of this are ever-present in the later narrative and that is why this is such an excellent work.” The investment I had with the characters was very powerful; “you will laugh with them, be totally frustrated by their actions as well as egging them on and will cry with them and for them and for all that to happen convincingly as far as I am concerned everything needs to be top-notch and here it is.” A very deserved Book Of The Year win for Rebecca Makkai.  I must seek out her three previous novels in 2021.

As I enter her name into my special Hall of Fame, here are the other books which have made the top spot going back to 2008.

2020 – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018) (USA)

2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

This year there were more five star reads than I could fit into my Top 10 so special mentions go to the three books who missed out on the list – “The Recovery Of Rose Gold” by Stephanie Wrobel (2020), “Blonde” – Joyce Carol Oates (2000) and “We Have Always Lived In The Castle” – Shirley Jackson (1962)

Happy New Year to you all, let’s hope for a less challenging year and that there will be lots of great reading in 2021!