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!

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2020 – Part One (10-6)

It’s time to begin to put this strange old year to rest by having a look back to see which books made the greatest impression upon me in 2020.  This was a year when more of us turned to reading as a means to escape from what was going on in our everyday lives.  My Top 10 is not just based upon books published this year. (3 out of the 10 were, which is the same proportion as last year), if I read it during 2020 it is up for inclusion.

This year I read 68 books which is certainly up on last year where I slumped down to 56 but mid 60’s is generally the figure so it is not up considerably especially considering the length of lockdown and the time I had to spend working from home this year.  Some of that time I was too pre-occupied to really get into my reading, which is something we have also heard time and time again this year.  I have read more 5* reads this year, 13, in fact, which means that some of my five star reads will miss out on a Top 10 placing, with 36 4* and 19 3*.  Gender-wise, my Top 10 is showing a win for the women as last year’s 60-40 split is reversed.  There are 2 non-fiction titles (both autobiographical) amongst the list and two of the authors have featured in previous year Top 10’s.

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

10. Such A Fun Age- Kiley Reid  (Bloomsbury Circus 2020) (Read and reviewed in December)

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I did say about this book ” I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year” and here is the proof  with this being the only 2020 debut novel in the list.  It is a book which deals with big issues with warmth and humanity and great characterisation.  It has just been issued in paperback in the UK and is currently hovering outside the Top 100 in Amazon’s chart.  I’m still expecting it to be a big seller going into 2021 in this format.  It feels contemporary, commercial and literary which seems to me to be a winning combination.

9. Truth Be Told – Kia Abdullah (HQ 2020) – Read and reviewed in August.

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The best new thriller I read this year.  This novel, which has issues of consent at its centre had me finding places to read away from everyone at work during lunchtimes, so can be seen as a perfect book for self-isolation!  I found I was using my hand to cover up text I hadn’t read on the page in case it gave something away too soon! This is Kia Abdullah’s second novel.  In 2021 I will certainly seek out her 2019 debut “Take It Back”.

8. The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles (Vintage 1969) – Read and reviewed in July

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I treated myself to a new copy of this book which I first read aged 18 and which had a place on my bookshelves ever since when I spent a day in Lyme Regis in the summer of 2019.  Knowing I wasn’t going anywhere in 2020 I treated myself to a re-read just to put myself back into Fowles’ depiction of this Devon town in the nineteenth century.  This was one of those books which I encountered at just the right time of my life for it to make a huge impression.  I have read it a number of times since my teenage years but probably not for a couple of decades.  I said of it this time “It is a very intelligent work which does make demands of the reader and on this re-reading I must admit it does occasionally seem a little too clever for its own good (perhaps that was also true of the me who read this many years ago!) and occasionally a little inaccessible.” It still very much deserves its place in my Top 10 but not right towards the top which I might have expected when I started to re-read it this summer.

7. Mama’s Boy – Dustin Lance Black (John Murray 2019) (Read in August, reviewed in September)

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Screenwriter, Oscar-winner, Activist and husband to Olympic Diver Tom Daley revisits his past focusing on his relationship with his extraordinary mother.  She survived through sheer determination never letting disability and pain from a childhood bout of polio grind her down.  She sought support through the Mormon Church which caused conflict in the young Dustin Lance Black who knew from an early age he would never be accepted by the Church and perhaps by his family because of his sexuality.  I said of it “at times I felt tearful, angry, baffled, delighted the list goes on and this is why this book ticks every box for how a memoir should be written.  Relationships are complex and this illustrates that perfectly.”

6. Hungry – Grace Dent (Mudlark 2020) – Read and reviewed in November

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This was the pick of the 2020 published books I read.  It works brilliantly as a memoir on two levels -firstly, it catalogues the author’s relationship with food growing up and to read about food seems to transport me back there more successfully than a time machine would and like the previous title it’s a beautifully conveyed record of a family relationship, here especially with her father who begins to slip away with dementia.  It is also laugh-out-loud funny throughout.  I said of it “I haven’t enjoyed a food-based memoir as much since Nigel Slater’s “Toast (which has made #3 on my Top 10 list on two occasions) and like that book it is the people fuelled by the food who really are memorable.

Next Post : The Top 5

The Glass Of Time – Michael Cox (2008)

This is the lesser known sequel to “The Meaning Of Night”, a former Book Of The Year which last year on re-read I placed at number 5 in my end of year Top 10.  It is a book born from tragic circumstances – Victorian academic Michael Cox spent decades toiling over its predecessor, his debut novel, until, reputedly, steroids for an ultimately fatal condition gave him a significant burst of energy which led to the completion of two novels.  This was published two years after the debut with the author passing away in 2009.

I actually didn’t know about this sequel until my re-read last year and my wanting to know what had become of an author whose debut showed so much talent and then discovering both the existence of this book and the author’s tragic demise the year after publication.  Although the debut was more satisfying the two books together prove an extraordinary tribute.

“The Meaning Of Night” probably has the edge because of its stronger sense of the Gothic which I loved with an evocative conjuring up of the streets of Victorian London.  The sequel is set twenty years later largely on the Evenwood estate which is also a significant location in the first book.  Esperanza Gorst, brought up by a guardian in France, engineers a place as lady’s maid for Baroness Tansor, known in the first book as Miss Emily Carteret.  Esperanza, renamed Alice by her new boss does not know the reason why she has been sent here, other than it is part of a “Great Task” set up by her guardian and her tutor and that she should record her observations of Evenwood. The details are gradually drip-fed to Esperanza in the form of letters and diaries which form part of her account.

As in the previous novel this is a first-person narrative which actually would work well as a stand-alone but enriches the first as themes and plot strands are developed.  It is a long book, rich in authentic historical detail (although you do not get as much of a feel of the wider Victorian society as in the debut) and once again comparisons to Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens are appropriate.

I found it a very rich read and it might have just solved the problem which I have mentioned before of the details of “The Meaning Of Night” slipping away from me once I read it.  Here the twists to the plot seem more vivid as the past and present reveal their secrets.  As the main character observes towards the end of the novel; “I stare constantly into the Glass of Time, that magic mirror in which the shifting shadows of lost days pass back and forth in dumb show before the eye of memory.” Michael Cox is brilliant at creating these shifting shadows coming and  going in the Glass Of Time.  Both of his novels come highly recommended.

The Glass Of Time was published in 2008 by John Murray.

2020- What I Should Have Read

Here’s my annual post which I face with equal measures of pleasure and guilt (a winning combination I’ve always found!).  I’ve selected 10 titles which I feel I should have got round to reading this year.  Perhaps they slipped under my radar on publication and I’ve only found out about them in round-ups of the year, perhaps I’ve always been aware of them but just haven’t got round to them for one reason or another.  Probably like most people I have read more books this year (although not by a huge amount) but there are still a great number of desired titles that I just have not been able to fit in. 

Looking back on last year’s list I can see that I did eventually get round to reading 50% of the titles that I felt I had missed out on (the same as in 2018) and have 40% of them on my shelves ready to be read, (hopefully in 2021) leaving just one, the YA adult novel “Chinglish” by Sue Cheung, which continues to elude me.  So, without further ado, here in alphabetical order by author  are the titles I felt I missed out in this strange old year, 2020.

No Shame – Tom Allen (Hodder Studio)

It’s been a good year for memoirs and I have read a few of them but haven’t yet got round to comedian Tom Allen’s work. On the cover fellow comic Sarah Millican says it is “wonderfully funny, utterly charming and sharp as all hell” which pretty much sums up how I feel about the man so it makes me look forward to reading his writing. I anticipate that there will be a focus on his feelings as an outsider growing up gay and I wonder how much it can be seen as a kind of companion piece to Will Young’s 2020 publication which focused on gay shame which I did read, “To Be A Gay Man“. I’m very interested in reading Tom’s perspective on this issue. He is one of the few comedians out there now that I have seen live and would certainly pay to see him again. In the meantime there is this book to savour.

Djinn Patrol On Purple Lines – Deepa Annaparra (Chatto & Windus)

This is a debut novel I seem to have been putting on my personal to be read lists all year. It is one I have kept reading about but to be honest haven’t yet come across a copy. I’ve seen it on various best of the year in crime lists and I’m fascinated by its premise of a nine year old detective in modern India . It appeared early on in the year, has a striking cover and made the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. On the cover Ian McEwan describes it as “brilliant” and Anne Enright hits home for me when she says “We care about these characters from the first page and our concern for them is richly repaid”  which is so often something I look for in a novel. It does seem that the pandemic has been particularly hard on debut novelists as they were unable to promote their books in the traditional ways and we as a nation tended to turn in large numbers to authors who we already knew.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (Dialogue Books)

I did read a book about separated twins this year, Edmund White’s “A Saint From Texas” but it seems like the one I should have read is this American writer’s second novel which I have seen described in end of year round ups as “a stunning family saga”. My colleague Louise who continues to put so many good book recommendations my way has this in the running for her book of the year vying for the title with a book which may very well be my own very favourite read of the year so that is a good enough recommendation for me.

The Windsor Knot – S J Bennett (Zaffre 2020)

Whilst everyone was going nuts for Richard Osman’s quirky, cosy crime caper “The Thursday Murder Club” I found myself favouring a secret yearning to read this book which has the potential to be a real guilty pleasure. The premise is nicely set out on the back cover “On a perfect Spring morning at Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II will enjoy a cup of tea, carry out all her royal duties…and solve a murder”. Amanda Craig describes it as a mash-up between Miss Marple and “The Crown” which seems like a potent combination. QEII is no stranger to fiction, think Alan Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader” and it is his depiction of her that I am imagining as the main character in this work. What’s with all these Bennetts that have appeared in this post?

Troubled Blood – Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

One of the few crime writers who I was up to date with until this doorstep of a book arrived in September by J K Rowling’s alter-ego. I am daunted by the size and the long waiting list for a library copy and will probably wait until it appears in paperback. I don’t think I will be disappointed when I eventually get round to it. I have enjoyed all of the Cormoran Strike novels so far (and the BBC TV adaptations) but so far they have never featured in my end of year Top 10. I wonder if this book will be the one to change that situation?

Rainbow Milk – Paul Mendez (Dialogue Books)

As soon as I read a review of this debut novel I knew I wanted to read it. A gay black man escapes his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing to come to London and ends up a sex worker. Adjectives such as “explosive”, “ground-breaking” and “daring” have seemed to follow it round and I was further intrigued by Booker Prize winning Bernardine Evaristo promoting it as her choice on Richard and Judy’s teatime lockdown book club programme. (I hope a large number of those viewers thought “I’d like to give that a go”). I really don’t know why I haven’t got round to purchasing a copy, I have been close to doing so a number of times but it is only a couple of months now until the paperback is scheduled to arrive so I think I will end up waiting until then before discovering a writer who is being described as a major new British talent.

Let’s Do It- Jasper Rees (Trapeze)

Another big book, this time about a really big talent. This is Ree’s authorised biography of my favourite comedian of all time, Victoria Wood. I think Rees is going to be good at separating the performer from the very different real Victoria. I saw her a number of times in her professional guise live in stand-up and of course devoured all of her television shows and am still able to quote whole scenes and also in her personal guise as many years ago her children went to the school I was working at. End of year round-ups have described this as “impeccable” I cannot wait to find out if I agree.

Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador)

I went through a spate of reading the Booker Prize winning novels as soon as possible after their win and for a couple of years worked my way through both short and longlists but the book that put me off this was “Lincoln In The Bardo” by George Saunders, a book I did not see winning one of literature’s most prestigious prizes back in 2017. I know I should have read by now last year’s joint-winning “Girl, Woman, Other” which featured on this list last year but I will do and I hope I won’t hesitate as long before reading this. I have been on the list for a library copy since this made the shortlist but I’m likely to end up buying it before long. It seems a book which is getting both critical and popular acclaim for it’s tale of a tough upbringing in 1980’s Glasgow. The Telegraph was one of a number of publications who had it as their book of the year saying that “it will scramble your heart and expand your mind“.

The Devil And The Dark Water – Stuart Turton (Raven Books)

Aha, Stuart Turton. No stranger to this list. His debut “Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle” featured in my 2018 picks and ended up picking up The First Novel award at the Costas. It has been sitting on my Kindle since then and I just haven’t got round to it. This may be because I’m always asking people who have read it what they thought and their opinions have been a bit more mixed than I was expecting but now he has written something else which seems right up my street. This is a chunky, historical whodunnit set on board ship in the seventeenth century. Chosen by the very watchable TV series “Between The Covers” as a Book of The Week, this got the thumbs-up from the celebrity reviewers and has been described in end of year round-ups as a “fiendish maritime mystery.” The chronological obsessive reader in me is pushing me towards “Evelyn Hardcastle” first, but then that might mean it would take me some time to get to this and I’m not sure if I am prepared to wait.

A Dutiful Boy- Mohsin Zaidi (Square Peg)

I’m finishing my list as I started with another memoir which has attracted a good share of praise. Subtitled ” A memoir of a gay Muslim’s journey to acceptance” this feels like it would have parallels to a couple of other books I have read “Unicorn” by Amrou Al-Kadhi, which this year has gone on to win both a Somerset Maugham and Polari award and a flawed but very enjoyable YA novel “How It All Blew Up” by Arvin Ahmadi. It’s combination of religion and sexuality also brings to mind the “Rainbow Milk” novel I highlighted earlier. Of this Lord Michael Cashman has said it is “A real page-turner that sparks with humanity and hope“. After the year we have all had this would seem like a great reading choice.

What books did you not get around to reading this year?

The Lottery And Other Stories – Shirley Jackson

I started the work of American author Shirley Jackson the wrong way round.  My recent introduction to her was via her last novel, published in 1962, “We Have Always Lived In The Castle” which I loved.  Thirteen years earlier this collection of short stories appeared with the title work really establishing her reputation. It is here as the final story alongside 25 others and a poem linked to one of the tales which rounds things off.

Having not read many short story collections for years I have read three in fairly rapid succession; Truman Capote’s festive themed compendium “A Christmas Memory”, bringing together tales of his from throughout his career and Bryan Washington’s award-winning collection of themed stories in “Lot”.  I can’t get out of my head that this format can feel inconsequential and somewhat unimportant compared to a writer’s longer works.  Capote and Washington went a little way to changing my viewpoint on this, but Jackson’s collection, on the whole, doesn’t.

There is no doubt that she can write and is a major American twentieth century literary figure.  The stories are beautifully set up, often they deal with a newcomer whose arrival changes dynamics, often they have a character named Harris in them (not the same character but this is obviously a name the writer liked to use).  In the space of a couple of pages a situation and characters are vividly drawn but too often for me the ending comes without the story feeling fully realised.

Shirley Jackson was a prolific short story writer publishing over 200 and this was early on in her career where she may still be finding her voice to some extent.  She has become famed for tales where a veneer of respectability hides a layer of darkness and this is something which really appeals to me and this was certainly evident in the novel I read but not so fully established with these earlier stories.  It is certainly present in the title piece “The Lottery”.  This is where I experienced the most dread and it had a satisfactory twist and works best as the most complete of the tales here.

A number of the others reminded me of one of USA’s most celebrated short story writers (perhaps now out of fashion) O Henry (1862-1910), naturally with a more contemporary feel, but with his richness of language and scene setting if not with the clever endings which made his name.

I did enjoy these stories, at no point did Shirley Jackson bore me by going on too long but she did regularly leave me wanting a bit more, which now and again is a very good strategy but over the whole collection I must admit to finding it a little frustrating.

The Lottery And Other Stories was first published in 1949.  I read the Penguin Modern Classics  paperback edition.

Such A Fun Age – Kiley Reid (2020)

On the day I finished this it was announced that Philadelphian resident Kelly Reid had won the Best Debut Award at The Goodreads Choice Awards, voted for by readers.  I am not surprised that this book has won a popular vote as I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year.

There are a lot of complex issues in this book presented in a highly readable, involving form.  I found myself holding my breath when reading it, I was so gripped by the turn of events and felt on edge for the characters.  It is very much a book for our age, certainly in keeping with a couple of other books written by women of colour I have read this year which feel so relevant, as well as being very well-written, Kia Abdullah’s stunning legal thriller “Truth Be Told” and Candice Carty-Williams’ British take in “Queenie”.

Reid’s richly drawn main character is Emira, a 25 year old young black woman living in Philadelphia who works part-time as a babysitter for two white children.  One night, whilst at a party, she is called on for emergency child-care in order to remove the toddler Briar from the house for a time.  With limited choices available at that time of night, Emira takes Briar to a supermarket which sets off a whole chain of events.  This makes for a jaw dropping, tense beginning and repercussions and analysis of this event occupies all the main characters.  At the supermarket the proceedings are filmed by a white man, Kelley, who Emira begins a relationship with.  Her white employer, Alix becomes obsessed with this event and with Emira herself.  The multi-layered plot thickens continually until the characters are in a right old stew.  Whose behaviour is without blame?  Who is using who to score points and how far can all of the characters’ actions and justifications be classed as racist? It is especially pertinent (following the publication of this book) with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s non-fiction work “Why I’m Not Talking To White People About Race” (2018) belatedly topping the UK best sellers list but here we have some of these issues within a vibrantly written, involving fiction work which is so impressive.  There is great warmth and humour which also deepens the issues raised.  If we are to class this as an issue-led book it is so rich in character.  I would imagine this could well be a very big bestseller when the paperback is published on 29th December. 

My only reservation is the title and I know it’s ironic but it doesn’t convey the feel of the book and may detract purchasers, especially in the UK, where it has a kind of a “jolly hockey-sticks” air about it but surely this will be compensated by the very good word of mouth and its featuring in end of year lists, including The Daily Telegraph’s Best Books, that Goodreads win, a Booker longlist nod and The Independent calling it “the book of the year.”

“Such A Fun Age” was published in hardback in the UK in 2020 by Bloomsbury Circus.  The paperback edition is scheduled for 29th December.