Before The Darkness – Michael Dean (2015)

The other day I was wondering what had become of the author Michael Dean.  I was reminded of his excellent novel “I, Hogarth” (2012) which was one of the first books I reviewed for NB magazine.  It was runner up in my Books Of The Year (to Michelle Lovric’s dastardly “The Book Of Human Skin” (2010)) and I revisited it here on the Blog site in 2015 in my 100 Essential Books Strand.  His depiction of the life of artist William Hogarth, I stated, “ feels like it dates from the eighteenth century and this can only be achieved through immaculate research which plunges us seamlessly into Hogarth’s London.” I haven’t read any more Dean since although I was aware of a book called “The Crooked Cross.”

These reminiscences led to a bit of research and I discovered post-Hogarth Michael Dean has been involved with a five book series sometimes known as “Darkness Into Light” and also as “The Rise And Fall Of The Nazis” of which the aforementioned “The Crooked Cross” is Book 2.

I found it as a cheap 5 volume e-book edition from Sharpe Books and remembering the excellence of “I, Hogarth” gave the first book a go.  This is an account of the events leading up to the assassination in 1922 of Weimar Republic Foreign Minister, Walter Rathenau, who was Jewish.  It is debatable whether Hitler’s rise to power would have happened without this event as Rathenau was on the verge of bringing about the renegotiation of the Treaty Of Versailles, which was one of the main causes, as we no doubt remember from school history lessons of Hitler’s ascendancy and World War II.

Story-wise this is gripping stuff. I knew nothing about Rathenau and the build-up to his demise is genuinely grim.  However, and this entailed quite a bit of double-checking to see whether this was in fact the same Michael Dean whose handling of historical fiction I had so loved before, the style is bizarre, making it one of the oddest books I have read in a while.

Dean is here very factual, outlining the events as in a non-fiction work.  There’s a messy prologue which I had to read a couple of times to make sense of and even in the main text his style seems like notes or an outline for what could have been a tremendous novel.  Occasionally, scenes are developed, particularly here in terms of Rathenau’s homosexuality which left him vulnerable to blackmail and this together with increasing hatred of his religion amongst parts of German society gives the man a very strong personal dimension to write about.  But Dean could have done so much more with this material.  The research is impeccable, but unlike in “I, Hogarth” he does not consistently do the next step of merging that research into the fiction.  This seems to be an odd stylistic choice here as this is an author who can really bring history to life.  Here his telling rather than showing his audience is off balance which feels ultimately unsatisfactory.  When the facts are developed it’s good but it is not done to an extent that I would have hoped for in this short novel.  I’m wondering if this was a kind of tacked-on prequel as it was the second in the series “The Crooked Cross” that I knew about prior to this.  All is certainly not lost and I remain interested in the series but I think that the potential to develop the life of this significant man into a superb slab of fiction has been slightly missed.

Before The Darkness was published by Sharpe Books in 2015.  It is published as a stand-alone but it is better value at the moment to buy the five book “Darkness Into Light” collection.

The Governor’s Lady – Norman Collins (1968)

Books by British author Norman Collins (1907-82) are now hard to find, which is a great shame as the two I have read by him, “London Belongs To Me” (1945) and “Bond Street Story” (1958) have both ended up in my end of year Top 10s.  I was delighted to spot a hardback Book Club edition from around the time of publication in a vintage book section of a charity shop.  Doubly delighted because Christopher Fowler in his “Book Of Forgotten Authors” (2017) who reminded me of this author said this was his favourite describing it as “ a colonial story of secrets, lies and endless ineptitude among Africans and the English.”

Although I was thrilled to find this to be honest I wasn’t convinced I was going to like it when I began it.  Largely set in the 1930s in the fictional colonial nation of Amimbo my hackles were very much raised as to how this would read in 2022.  It begins and ends with an epilogue set probably close to the time when it was published but travels back to the early 1930s for the bulk of the narrative.

It is the tale of Harold Stebbs who begins working as part of the Governor Sir Gardnor Hackforth’s team.  The Governor is a man tolerated by the locals but holding out for the Viceroy of India post.  His wife, of the title, is bored, drinks heavily and seeks lovers to pass the time and to get away from her companion Sybil who is unhealthily devoted to her.  The action moves to a safari trip, where Hackforth becomes obsessed with hunting a leopard, in a section which I was also sure I wasn’t going to like but tragedy strikes more than once which takes the book into an unexpected direction.

There was something about reading this matt covered hardback from a Book Club of the late 60’s that I found reassuringly nostalgic and that probably had me more invested than if I had read an e-book edition.  There’s definitely something about Collins’ writing style which I find so appealing.  The richness of detail, as I have mentioned in reviews of his other books, can be almost Dickensian but there’s a delicious irony in the narrative voice which suggests he isn’t always taking things too seriously.  This book which I wasn’t expecting to enjoy that much due to its settings and what I perceived its values would be ended up being thoroughly enjoyable and kept me involved until the end.  Collins was a man very involved with the early days of commercial television and there’s a very visual, observational element to his work which is also quite splendid.  That’s three out of three five star ratings for him and now I am going to have to do some hunting around to source other out of print titles.  (He wrote 16 novels in a long career which spanned from 1932-81).

The Governor’s Lady was first published in 1968 by Collins in the UK.  I read a hardbook Book Club edition.

Other Names For Love – Taymour Soomro (Harvill Secker 2022)

Pakistani author Taymour Soomro’s debut sees teenage Fahad very reluctantly accompanying his father to his upcountry farm estate in Abad, an area developed largely from jungle as his power-hungry father is keen to tell everyone.  Fahad would rather spend his summer with his mother in London or Karachi but Rafik wants to toughen him up, show off his own power and influence in the area and present Fahad as the next generation.

Fahad is unable to fit into his father’s image of him.  Things seem to improve when ex-London resident and Rafik’s cousin Mousey returns home but his motives challenge Rafik’s plans.  A young man, Ali, is introduced to Fahad as a role model but Fahad finds himself attracted to him.

Tradition and the importance of family are two unsurprising themes here with those unable to sustain those values being swept aside.  The characters are unable to express their feelings to one another causing long lasting frustration and resentment.  Rafik’s need for power and prestige cannot allow anyone to stand in his way.

The story is well told and there are some lovely moments especially in the interactions between characters, Fahad with the “young thug” Ali and also with his aging father in the latter stages of the novel but for me it did not have the resonance I was expecting.

The author switches from father to son’s perspective within the third person narrative and there are jumps in time which gives a jerky, disjointed feel at times which sometimes I can actually appreciate in novels but here I think it affects the reader’s relationships with the characters.

I didn’t feel that I knew the characters well enough.  There is so much potential within the cast here, Rafik, Fahad, the mother, father’s cousin Mousey and Ali have all potential to blend into something outstanding but I felt the author was only allowing me to have a superficial understanding of them as if something was being held back.  I felt this particularly with main character Fahad, on this occasion leaving the reader to fill in the gaps influences the reader’s response to him.  I felt I wasn’t being pulled in to the novel as consistently as I could have been.

I do feel however that Taymour Soomro has provided us with a very visual work and there are considerable poignant, subtle scenes.  A TV/film adaptation could work very well indeed incorporating these beautiful small moments within the novel into a visual narrative.

Other Names For Love is published by Harvill Secker on 7th July 2022.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Rainbow Milk- Paul Mendez (2020)

I have at last got round to a book I highlighted in my annual “What I Should Have Read” post back at the end of 2020.  Excellent reviews on publication and fulsome praise by Bernardine Evaristo on the teatime Richard & Judy Bookclub during lockdown had me eagerly anticipating and I bought the paperback the day it was published.  That was February 2021 and inexplicably it just stayed on the shelf.  I was beginning to think it might not live up to my long-held expectations and that may have been the reason I was choosing other titles.  The recent series of BBC’s book show “Between The Covers” saw more praise from author and comedian Deborah Frances-White who described it as “so beautiful, so literary” when selecting it as her favourite book pick.  This made me realise I had procrastinated for too long.

I knew the outline for this book, Jesse, a young black male from the Midlands who has grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness is disfellowshipped because of rumours about his sexuality and flees to London and becomes a sex worker.  I knew it would be edgy, explicit, and that debut author Paul Mendez enjoyed  proclamations that an important new British voice had arrived with his writing which was said to have a strong autobiographical element.

This only goes someway.  It actually begins in the 1950s with recent immigrants Norman and Claudette and their two small children discovering the British dream they’d been tempted by wasn’t quite true and with Norman becoming unwell Charlotte was having to hold down two jobs while he looked after the children.  Jesse’s story begins 50 pages in and it is not clear for a considerable time how the two strands connect.

Despite Deborah Frances-White’s TV recommendation I was still surprised by how well rounded and literary this debut is.  It increasingly reminded me of the best work of Booker Prize winning Alan Hollinghurst.  Yes, it is explicit and I hope that the details of how the young Jesse makes his money to survive in London will not deter readers because this is just one element of a story which amazingly given the subject matter is full of hope and life-affirming.

Mendez handles language very well and there is a multi-sensory richness to his work.  He uses two potential pitfalls well.  He’s not afraid of dialect, especially in the early scenes where Jamaica meets Black Country.  At one point a French character is introduced and whilst reading a lengthy explanation from her I wondered if Mendez was just pushing this a little too far but her role in the novel is brief.  The other thing which he does well which is not always a success in fiction is rooting in its time through the use of many music references.  The sound of the Sugababes, turn of the Millennium R&B and hiphop and earlier bands such as Joy Division permeate and enhance this novel. This is a very strong, confident debut and I hope that given the two years since publication that Paul Mendez will soon be ready with something else to further boost his reputation. 

Rainbow Milk was published in 2020 by Dialogue Books   

The Black- Eyed Stranger – Charlotte Armstrong (1955)

I encountered US novelist Charlotte Armstrong (1905-69) within the pages of Christopher Fowler’s “The Book Of Forgotten Authors”.  With some 29 novels under her own name and as Jo Valentine her speciality was “to portray women locked in psychological warfare with the members of their extended families and male-dominated workforces” which sounds as if her work should still be commercial and relevant today.

The title I chose to read feels more like she is following a male style of writing and so not typical of what might be expected from her. I associate the clipped dry tones with the hardboiled crime fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and the type of film that might have starred Humphrey Bogart but she does do it with a lighter touch and many of her turns of phrase are appealing; “But it would be better if he took the car.  It couldn’t answer questions three days later.” “It was like watching a petal spin on the skin of a wave, a pretty petal that could never sink.”

There’s a lot of dialogue and it is a fast-paced novel that can be polished off in a couple of sittings.  I can’t help but think it could be faster-paced if characters said what they actually meant rather than talking in riddles to one another.  Kay Salisbury meets this black-eyed stranger at a party.  He is crime reporter Sam Lynch, who mixes with certain undesirables including the vengeful Ambielli and his muscle-mountain henchman Baby Hohenbaum.  When Lynch hears of a plan to hold Kay to ransom he takes matter into his own hands.

All the characters here become confused as to each other’s motives.  It really isn’t that deep in terms of characterisation, plot or themes but Armstrong weaves an involving enough tale.  From what Christopher Fowler says of her I would imagine that the more typical work would have more resonant characters and relationships but this is an example of a technically proficient, tightly-written short novel.

The Black-Eyed Stranger was first published in the UK in 1955.  I read the Head Of Zeus ebook edition from 2012.  

The Whalebone Theatre- Joanna Quinn (Penguin 2022)

Dorset author Joanna Quinn has produced a very strong debut here.  Her depiction of the Seagrave family between 1919 and 1945 is full of wonderful moments.  The manor house at Chilcombe, a village which actually exists 10 miles from Dorchester (last estimated population in 2013 was 10!) is lovingly created and provides the central focus although the action splinters to other locations during the war years this house is the lifeblood for this novel.

A great favourite of mine is Dodie Smith’s “I Capture The Castle” (1949) and I am regularly tempted by works which aim to get the feel of that novel, with its memorable characters, excellent set-pieces and its superb balance of being heart-warming, funny and poignant within a family setting.  Get this balance slightly off and it shows and I tend to end up not really responding positively but Joanna Quinn, whether this is an explicit aim or not, gets the feel of this type of novel beautifully and the first half was a thing of sheer of joy which I loved reading.  At the mid-way point I thought I’d got a strong contender for my Book of The Year.  From the outbreak of war, when the characters inevitably leave to play their part, I felt it slipped into more standard fare, which I still very much enjoyed but for me the real magic of the first half was not sustained.

Playing a part is an important theme of this novel.  Fish out of water Christabel is a toddler when her father arrives at Chilcombe with a new wife and the family dynamics further change in time leaving Christabel very much an outsider.  Her life changes when the corpse of an errant whale washes up on the beach.  With younger siblings and others originally encountered on the beach where the whale lies dead Christabel develops a theatre on Seagrave land using the whale bones in its construction.  The theatre where friends and family all have a part to play brings Christabel into the fold.  This “Swish Of The Curtain” aspect gives this novel  a vitality and the notion of the theatre simmers away in Christabel’s heart when war takes her far away from Chilcombe.

The war sees these memorable characters involved at home and overseas- some slip away at this point and have little part to play in future proceedings but others develop a stronger focus. Looking at my review of “I Capture The Castle” I also say that it is a book of two halves, with the first half more captivating for me than the second.  I’d actually forgotten about that when I read “The Whalebone Theatre” and even when I began writing this review but it’s interesting (for me anyway) that I felt the same way about a book I just can’t help comparing this to.

It is a splendid debut and this was enriched for me by the Dorset location, as a newcomer to the County myself I loved the references to places I have so recently visited and the mentions of my new home town in an earlier part of its history.  This book will charm and thrill many readers and could be a very pleasing commercial as well as critical success.

The Whalebone Theatre is published in the UK by Penguin on June 9th. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

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.  The 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 works 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.