A Thousand Moons – Sebastian Barry (Faber 2020)

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Irish author Sebastian Barry’s last novel “Days Without End” (2016) won the Costa Book Of The Year and I read it when it made the 2017 Booker longlist. I enjoyed its unlikely coupling of the two main characters and its “adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America” but was a little put off by the present-tense narrative. I was fascinated to hear that Barry was to revisit his characters in what is loosely a sequel to its predecessor. This was one of the titles I focused in on as wanting to read in my start of year Looking Back Looking Forward post.

The main character here is Native American Winona. I had highlighted her and the relationship with Thomas McNulty and John Cole, her adoptive parents, as one of the strengths of “Days Without End” so I was looking forward to her (not present tense) narrative. After the years of wandering and adapting to their environment in the first novel the main characters have settled as farm workers in Tennessee. Their world has very much shrunk and the two men do fade into the background a little here becoming supporting characters and that is disappointing.

Winona’s life consists of risking the antipathy of the local town population because of her heritage in her trips to assist the local lawyer. A young man who works in the dry-goods store, Jas Jonski, takes a shine to Winona and that is where her troubles begin. It’s 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.

As one would expect of an artist of Barry’s calibre it is very well written but for me it just seems to simmer along and never really takes off in the way the last novel did. I missed the epic sweep of that book.

It may be because it is a much quieter novel anyway but given these characters and what we have had from them in the past this quietness was surprising and on this reading just a little disappointing.

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A Thousand Moons was published by Faber and Faber in hardback on 17th March 2020. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Another Country – James Baldwin (1963)

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I was reminded of James Baldwin recently when I read Polish set novel “Swimming In The Dark” by Tomasz Jedrowski. Here a copy of Baldwin’s second novel “Giovanni’s Room”, a suppressed text, is glued between the pages of another publication and has a significant part to play. Main character Ludwik also goes on to study Baldwin for his doctorate.

I said at the time I should re-explore this American author’s work. I haven’t read him since my final degree dissertation which was on the search for love in his works. A Classics book order I was doing for work in the library saw me adding this title, and, as a little perk, I decided I should be the first to borrow it.

It’s actually one of Baldwin’s titles I remember least yet in the 30+ years since my first reading it has become acknowledged (well, certainly in the introduction by Colm Toibin) as the “essential American drama of the century.” In fact, I had to dig out that dissertation from the loft (plenty of time for rummaging around up there at the moment) to see how much I referred to this in my work and actually I did quite a fair bit as the search for love is certainly a significant driving-force for these characters.

The most powerful of the characterisations on show here is Rufus, an African-American man who cannot fit into society because of his skin colour and sexuality. Attempting to do so leads to an abusive relationship with Leona a white, Southern woman. It’s not a spoiler to say that surprisingly early on in the novel Baldwin dispatches one of these characters in a suicide jump off George Washington Bridge and the rest of the novel explores their group of friends putting their lives back together.

They are an intense lot. Vivaldo, a white man, begins a relationship with Rufus’ sister; Rufus’ ex-love Eric moves back from a stable relationship with a man in France to the melting pot of New York and infiltrates the partnership of writer Richard and his wife Cass. It’s all very introspective with the characters seeming extremely self-centred which feels like it would have seemed more appropriate in the analytical soul-searching years of the early 1960s than it does today but there is great power and richness in Baldwin’s writing which made this a very welcome rediscovery. Toibin in his introduction compares him to Henry James and I can see where he’s coming from but I find Baldwin far more readable. This remains a very balanced, potent read. I will be fascinated to find out if the works which meant more to me than this when I first read them will continue to resonate as strongly.

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Another Country was first published in 1963. I read the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition.

The Recovery Of Rose Gold- Stephanie Wrobel (Michael Joseph 2020)

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Here’s a debut that has had a big buzz around it pre-publication. Stephanie Wrobel is a Chicago born writer now living in the UK who has ditched her advertising agency copywriting work to concentrate on fiction and the feel is that this could very much be one of the biggest thrillers of the year. I was determined to get in before the hype and find out if this buzz is deserving. I’ve already mentioned it in my Looking Back Looking Forward post so I know I’m adding to that hype but now I’ve read it I’m more than delighted to build up a bit of anticipation for readers. It is very good.

Taking as its theme (although I don’t think it’s actually mentioned by name in the text) Munchausen By Proxy, which is a fascinating idea ripe with dramatic potential the novel opens with Patty Watts being released from her prison sentence for child abuse which was sustained over a number of years treating her daughter as if she was seriously ill. On release she (and this is such a good idea for gripping fiction) goes back to live with the daughter, Rose Gold, now in her twenties with a family of her own. I’m saying little more about the plot but it wouldn’t take too much conjecturing to realise the potential. These two damaged women attempt to put together the pieces of their fractured relationship. Is this going to be a second chance for them or will they not be able to escape the traumas of the past?

The author uses an effective structure of two first-person narratives from the main characters with different time settings. Mother Patty focuses on the time from her release and Rose Gold’s narrative is interspersed moving from the time of the mother’s conviction towards Patty’s present day. Given the context of the plot this works sublimely.

It has an under the surface darkness which I love and it builds beautifully. This is certainly a read to look out for.

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The Recovery Of Rose Gold is published in hardback by Michael Joseph on  5th March 2020.  Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.

The Animals Of Lockwood Manor – Jane Healey (Mantle 2020)

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With Sarah Waters absent from fiction since 2014’s “The Paying Guest” here comes the latest author who has incorporated the feel and themes of some of her work into their debut novel. This also reminded me slightly of Sara Collins’ 2019 debut “The Confessions Of Frannie Langton” and that as well as selling well was one of the most critically acclaimed titles of last year scoring the Costa First Novel Award. Jane Healey here has produced a commercial literary novel which has the potential to do well.

Set largely in the early years of World War II museum director Hetty Cartwright is evacuated together with a sizeable collection of stuffed mammals to Lockwood Manor where recently widowed Major Lord Lockwood lives with his daughter Lucy. Hetty has much to prove in the male world of museums and she attempts to do this professionally in this large country house populated by a dwindling staff who view the extra work caused by the displays as a nuisance. Someone begins tampering with the collection but is it human or supernatural? The Major’s wife had been turned mad by the house which had proved to be too alien for her Caribbean upbringing (shades of “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca”) and her surviving daughter fears for her own sanity in the stifling atmosphere which proves conducive to nightmares.

Narrated alternately by Hetty and Lucy there is generally a good feel for the period but I think the author could have ramped up the tension of life in the house but as the novel progresses I feel that this is lost a little with the focus moving to the relationship of the two leading female characters (incidentally, I felt exactly the same about “Frannie Langton.”)

I found it easy to read, polished it off quite quickly and 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. For me the standout book I’ve read in recent years of this type is still Laura Carlin’s “The Wicked Cometh” and as diverting as this is I don’t think it came up to that debut’s standard.

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The Animals Of Lockwood Manor is published by Mantle on March 5th 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark -Michelle McNamara (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have an uneasy relationship with the true crime genre. I’ve mentioned this before and I think it all boils down to one book which so disturbed me – the account of Muswell Hill killer Dennis Nilsen in Brian Masters’ “Killing For Company” (1985). However, a couple of times in the last week I have held a copy of this in my hands and contemplated buying it and re-reading it. (I lent my copy to someone years ago and it never came back). So far I’ve held back the temptation but the reason for Masters’ book shifting back into my focus is this 2018 true crime publication.

I’ve also been thinking about true crime in relation to author Carol Ann Lee whose five star account of the Bamber killings “Murder At White House Farm” has deservedly ascended the best seller lists since the impressive recent ITV reconstruction of the case. When this book came out nearly five years ago I reviewed it and Carol Ann became an early interviewee in my Author Strikes Back Thread. I asked her for recommendations and I was convinced that reading-wise I would begin a true crime spree but this hasn’t happened. However, the on-paper bizarre mash-up of an arson case and a love letter to the public library system Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book” made it into my current Books Of The Year Top 10 but that’s been about it. I only read “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” because friend Louise whose book opinions I very much value (she put both “Count Of Monte Cristo” and “Sanditon” my way) told me this was her Book Of The Year and I highlighted it in my “Looking Around….” Post.

Michelle McNamara’s obsession (and it was an obsession) was an individual who committed around 50 sexual assaults and at least 10 murders in California in a decade long frenzy (mid 1970’s -mid 80’s). Michelle dubbed him “The Golden State Killer” and he featured heavily in her true crime blog before she began to put this work together. She sadly died aged 46 in 2016 before completing the work.

This, unavoidably, does give the book a haphazard sketchy structure which did mean I kept having to refer back to the list of known victims and crime locations. The sheer number of offences and the lengthy period of time the killer was active also made for at times a stilted and repetitive read and affects the flow but I really can’t just judge this on how I feel it read as a book (I was also very aware of a surprising number of linguistic differences with many terms I was unfamiliar with) but the motives behind the work is what makes this extraordinary.

Michelle McNamara over the years became an expert on the case, came to have access to evidence even investigators did not have and pooled much of this vast amount of material for the first time. The thing I just cannot get out of my head as a British reader in 2020 is how was this man not apprehended at the time? There were a wealth of traits and characteristics that led nowhere. It’s hard I suppose for us looking back to what were largely pre-DNA days to appreciate how much luck was needed to solve cases and luck was certainly not with the many investigators. They could not seem to tap into the extraordinary level of planning that must have foreshadowed many of these crimes and the structure of US state policing at the time means evidence was not shared nor links made. If this was fiction we would deem it unbelievable.

Through her determination to unmask the Golden State Killer it is Michelle McNamara herself who shines through this work and it is this which will see it as an important and perhaps ultimately game-changing addition in the realm of true crime writing.

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I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was published in 2018 in the UK by Faber & Faber.

Blonde – Joyce Carol Oates (2000)

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Prolific American author Joyce Carol Oates writes across many styles and genres and back in 2000 published what can very easily be seen as her contribution to The Great American Novel. “Great” in that it comes in at 939 pages in the paperback edition and with its concerns of a woman conquering and then being destroyed by that most American of institutions the Hollywood film industry it surely fulfils all the criteria for consideration of being up there amongst the ultimate American epic. For this is the fictionalised story of Marilyn Monroe.

But, perhaps word didn’t get round because this remained under the radar for me really until I was casting around for other fictional biographies having enjoyed my current Book of The Year the Truman Capote led “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. I’ve never read Joyce Carol Oates but know that with a writing career spanning well over 50 years and 58 novels that she is one of America’s most significant living writers. “Blonde” was shortlisted for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction but it was beaten by another “Great American Novel” consideration “The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon which breezed into my end of year Top 3 when I read it in 2006.

On paper I was pretty sure I was going to love “Blonde”. Fiction featuring real life characters is something I do have a predilection for . Hollywood always has an appeal in my non-fiction choices (less so with fiction) and the air of tragic glamour which would inevitably permeate this novel was always going to get my attention. I think I was anticipating a kind of literary Jackie Collins! I was, however, daunted by the length. Anything over 600 pages brings me out in a sweat and I knew it would mean giving over at least a couple of weeks to this one work (it took me 19 days to read but I have been busy and struggling to allocate as much time to reading as I wanted).

First things first, this is fiction. I don’t know enough about the life of Marilyn Monroe to ascertain just how much was from the mind of Joyce Carol Oates but it has certainly whetted my appetite for a biography but it would need to be extremely thorough and well-written to match this and I’m not sure that such a work even exists. Oates has an interesting (if inconsistent) way of distancing us from the central character. Men that we do know that she married such as Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller are just referred to as the Ex-Athlete and The Playwright with her adopting the role of the Blond Actress for the duration of their relationship. However, with a long-lasting and somewhat scandalous menage a trois set up with the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G Robinson names are revealed . Some characters are referred to by a single letter, C is Tony Curtis (who here dislikes Marilyn) W is Billy Wilder and H John Huston who both had the (mis?) fortune of directing Monroe in more than one of her movies. I was a little perturbed by this haphazard naming (or not) but it does give the effect of making the reader a spectator to the action rather than feeling part of it, which seeing the theme is the mirage of Hollywood may very well be appropriate.

One aspect which I certainly appreciated was how much the actress tried to put between herself, Norma Jeane and the studio’s creation. I don’t think this was anything I’d really considered before. Norma Jeane was not Marilyn but fame dictated that Marilyn take over in almost a parasitical way which certainly doomed the host.

Of course, the character of MM is always going to draw in the reader just as she drew in a generation of movie-goers. Oates certainly keeps us on our toes with a range of narrative styles and techniques which considering the length of this novel is no bad idea. At times I did feel frustrated and challenged but I also loved it and applaud it as a major achievement and probably one of the best fictional deconstructions of “celebrity” I have read.

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Blonde was published in 2000. I read the Fourth Estate paperback edition.

The Lost Child – Caryl Phillips (2015)

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Caryl Phillips’ 11th novel was published in hardback in 2015 and was reissued as a Vintage paperback in 2019 which is the edition I have just read. I know of but had not read St Kitts born Phillips’ work and was recently reminded of him by his valuable contributions to the BBC TV series “The Novels That Shaped Our World”.

It was the cover of this book that convinced me, a photograph from 1957 entitled “Southam Street, London” by Roger Mayne of a lone child which seems full of pathos and would have been part of the photographer’s documenting the changing face of London with the arrival of West Indian immigrants to British cities.

“The Lost Child” is based largely in a slightly later period than the photo around the Leeds area where Phillips grew up and London. It is, most successfully, a family tale of Monica Johnson who, when at Oxford University, meets a man described as a “foreigner”, of her relationship with her parents (who she deems more disapproving than they appear to be) and her two mixed-race children. It is the oldest boy Ben who I found myself really responding to and there is a middle section, where, in a first-person narrative he uses pop songs of the 1970s to frame his experience which is just excellent.

Alongside this thread of the Johnson family Phillips shifts back in time to Emily Bronte and the origins of her most famous character Heathcliff. As much as I love “Wuthering Heights” this is where unfortunately things fell down for me. The novel begins with a short section focusing on Heathcliff’s mother then onto the Johnsons for the bulk of the book with an interlude at Haworth and an ailing Emily and returning to her fictional characters right at the end. It doesn’t hang together properly and I wouldn’t have minded dispensing with the Bronte elements altogether because as it is (and I did find the idea initially appealing when I read the back cover) it seems a little tacked on and under-realised and it’s just not clear why it’s there.

Otherwise so much is strong. Phillips is very good at creating complex characters, especially here with Monica whose motives and actions are often questionable. He is also very good at understating events, some dramatic turns take place between sections but this is done so well I didn’t feel cheated. He gets the sense of period over very well and as a coming of age tale of a boy in the 1970’s this is pretty terrific. But, I sense the author’s vision was obviously a little different from this and that unsettles me.

I’ve pondered whether I am just making a minor quibble about a book I’d found moving and involving but I don’t think I am because it certainly left me feeling a little deflated on completion and the Brontes have certainly never done that to me before. I think the Earnshaws and the Johnsons just do not seem to mesh together here and giving the final sections to Heathcliff and co was certainly behind this sense of a let- down.

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The Lost Child was first published in 2015. I read the 2019 Vintage paperback edition.

Five From Five!

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Time for some cake for today reviewsrevues .com is five years old!  To mark this momentous celebration I thought I’d take a look back at the five most visited and read posts of the last five years.  If you would like to read the whole post just click on the links.

5. Let’s Groove – The Best Of Earth Wind & Fire

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The most read of my 100 Essential CD listings which I took almost five years to complete, finishing it off just before Christmas is this 17 track 1996 compilation which I placed at number 30 in my rundown.  Since publishing this back in October 2015 the founding member and lynchpin of the group Maurice White has passed away (an event I commemorated in my “After The Love Has Gone” post in February 2016).  A quick click on the group’s website has shown me that they have a series of live dates lined up in Las Vegas which would seem to be a fitting location for a group who revelled in spectacle even back in the day when such visual extravagance was very unusual.

4. Jamestown 

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A Sky One series which (and I’m still a little embarrassed by this considering the number of people who have read this review over the years) I gave up on after one episode. My three star rating obviously did not deter viewers as it obviously established itself a good fanbase and ran for three series of eight episodes each before winding up in June 2019.  Mostly filmed in Hungary with the village of Vertesascsa posing as the Virginia Settlement I certainly remember that it was very visually appealing so maybe it would be a good series for me to revisit while the weather is so gloomy outside.

3.Scott and Bailey 

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My review was for the first episode of Series 5 which became the last series of this much-missed ITV show.  Surrane Jones’ career went up another level after this with award-winning “Doctor Foster” and much-acclaimed historical drama “Gentle Jack” but this would also feature amongst her all-time best roles as far as I am concerned and the great strength of this was how much of an ensemble piece it was with some very strong female characterisations significantly from performers who had made their mark in “Coronation Street” including Amelia Bulmore, Sally Lindsay and Tracie Bennett as well of course Lesley Sharp as Janet Scott.

2. Last Laugh In Vegas

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I was never totally convinced about the motivation behind this show.  It felt slightly exploitational taking a group of performers out in the twilight of their careers to perform at venues they probably would have struggled at in their heyday.  It felt as if it was exploiting both the artistes and our memories of them.  On the other hand, however, it was filled with a sense of pathos which I wasn’t exactly expecting which made you will the participants on during what was largely one performance probably in front of a specially invited audience.  If the whole premise was to manipulate us as viewers the personalities involved gave it a different spin and it was this which made it worth watching and must have kept people wanting to know what it was all about considering the number of visits this review has had since the five week series aired in April 2018.  I don’t think it was the kick-start to a later phase of their careers as the stars were hoping and sadly in December 2019 we lost the great Kenny Lynch who did look very frail here.  This was almost certainly a one-off series I can’t see ITV resurrecting this idea in the near future.

1. The Level

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I’m still to learn five years into this  blogging lark what it is which really drives up the traffic towards a particular post.  If I knew I’d probably employ it more often.  I certainly do not know why this has become by far my most visited post with over double the numbers of the review in 2nd place.  A six part ITV series which began in September 2016 and which got me viewing because of its Brighton location and casting which included Rob James-Collier, Lindsey Coulson, Noel Clark and Amanda Burton.  The central figure in the series was played by Karla Crome more recently seen in the 2019 BBC series “The Victim” which I didn’t watch.  Director Andy Goddard’s most recent work has been on the fascinating sounding forthcoming film “Six Minutes To Midnight” a British set WWII film starring Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench.

I’m going off to celebrate these five years but my special thanks to all of the readers and visitors to reviewsrevues.com since 2015.  Keep visiting and I’ll keep posting!

Swimming In The Dark – Tomasz Jedrowski (2020)

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The first of the books I highlighted as those I wanted to look out for in 2020 is this debut written in English by a German born author with Polish heritage. It is 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.

The pair meet at a summer work camp picking beetroots and the development of this blossoming connection is handled very effectively. Behind much of this lies another book, “Giovanni’s Room” by black American author James Baldwin,  a suppressed text which main character and narrator Ludwik glues between the covers of another publication becoming the link which forges he and Janusz closer together. (Incidentally in a recent Guardian interview with Sara Collins of Costa winning “Confessions Of Frannie Langton” fame she praises Baldwin’s work as her choice for most under-rated novel calling it a “perfect love story.” I’ve been thinking for a time that I should re-read this and this book has further convinced me that I should do so.) In the novel Ludwik is researching the author for his doctorate and in fact just a couple of years after this novel was set I was doing the same for my degree dissertation. Ludwik faces the additional difficulties of a system where who you know is important in his quest to get his academic work off the ground.

The relationship is threatened by the atmosphere in Poland and the political differences between the two men. The whole narrative is directed towards Janusz as an explanation behind the actions and feelings Ludwik had at the time which he could not express to him face to face. The difficulties of dealing with same sex attraction at different times and places appears in many novels I have read but I feel that these stories need telling and retelling and this literary work is a very welcome addition to this.

My slight quibble is to do with the number of chance encounters the two men seem to have but maybe when attraction is that strong they can’t avoid the pull of fate that places them in similar locations at the same time. Well written and a strong debut, it had the feel of Andre Aciman’s “Call Me By Your Name” which became an Oscar winning film, especially stylistically in this book’s more languid moments but I think I may have enjoyed Tomasz Jedrowski’s novel slightly more.

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Swimming In The Dark is published by Bloomsbury on February 6th 2020. Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (2019)

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Yoko Ogawa is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists. Written in 1994 this has taken 25 years to arrive in an English translation by Stephen Snyder. The buzz about it has been so positive that I included it in my 2019- Books I Should Have Read post and now I have done so it is my first five star read of the decade.

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. They create an air of menace throughout.

It’s a first-person narrative by an unnamed woman who works as a novelist and extracts of her latest work appears within the text. The other two significant characters are an elderly family friend, good with his hands, and R., the woman’s publisher who is one of those who can still remember what should be forgotten.

It may work very well as a disturbing allegory on power and loss but it is also a compelling read. I’ve never read a Japanese novel before and wondered if I would struggle with the cultural differences but this is a story for Everywhere and has been translated to convey something original and atmospheric. I can find dystopian novels bleak and depressing because usually people are not very nice to one another in their battle to survive but 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.

This is the fifth translation Snyder has completed of Ogawa’s work. I will certainly be seeking out the rest after this.

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The Memory Police was printed in hardback by Harvill Secker in 2019. A Vintage paperback edition is due in August 2020.