Keeping On Keeping On – Alan Bennett (2016) – A Real Life Review

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Alan Bennett’s autobiographical and diary collections are no strangers to my end of year Top 3’s with his earlier volume of TV plays “Objects Of Affection” (1982) also being one of my favourite books the year I read it (2005).

Perhaps Britain’s best-loved and most recognised living playwright whose work also encompasses the extraordinary screenplay adaptation based on the biography of Joe Orton “Prick Up Your Ears” perhaps in decades to come Bennett will be best remembered for his occasional sizeable publications of a mixture of diaries and other writings which have really established him at the top of best seller lists and are highly critically acclaimed. This is the third such collection following “Writing Home” (1994) – my 3rd best read of 1996 and “Untold Stories” (2005) my 2nd best read of 2006.

I was put off from buying this in hardback because of its size, waited for the paperback and bought it in the first few days after publication, put it on the shelf and forgot about it until I decided last week it was the perfect coming-to-the-end-of-lockdown (hopefully!) reading treat. It fitted the bill and is every much as enjoyable as the preceding volumes.

Diary-wise this encompasses the years 2005-2015 and inevitably reflects the slowing down of a man in his 70’s/80’s (although I’m sure Alan Bennett would be the first to say he was never exactly speedy). Here we get a lovely domestic life in London, regular trips to Yorkshire and the professional demands which continue to push him more to the forefront than he would naturally want to be. There is the filming of “The Lady In The Van” (which, to be honest, I didn’t love) and “The History Boys” (which I thought was a much better film) which is contained in its own separate diary found after the main one. There is also his work on his Benjamin Britten/WH Auden themed play “The Habit Of Art” which I don’t know much about probably because the subject matter does not appeal.

More than the professional it is the domestic side of life which I find most enthralling here. There’s always the feeling, perhaps more than anybody in his field, that we, the readers, know Alan Bennett and are comfortable in his company. I am sure this must infuriate this private man as much as it fascinates him. Of course, the vast majority of us will live our lives having never met him, it is the quality and style of his writing that fools us into thinking otherwise.

The diaries are definitely the star turn here (lots of eating of sandwiches and visits to old churches) but the collection of other writings once again flesh out what we know about him. Whereas his diaries are never going to be as showy or as unputdownable as the diary superstars (the posthumous collections of Noel Coward, Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams immediately springing to mind) they illuminate the man and go a long way to explaining why Alan Bennett is a British national treasure.

four-star

 

Keeping On Keeping On was published by Faber & Faber in 2016. I read the 2017 paperback edition.

The Greenway – Jane Adams (1995) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have recently become aware of and pretty fascinated by independent UK publishers Joffe. They seem to be rewriting the rules of publishing and as a result are doing extremely well with 2.2 million books sold in 2019 from 116 books published in e-book editions with big plans to launch paperbacks this year. They develop a fan-base for their authors by drawing readers in with free and low-price offers. Proof this works is suggested by the latest title from one of their biggest authors Faith Martin (2 million books sold and rising) which is currently sitting atop the Bookseller monthly E-Book ranking with another of their authors (Joy Ellis) at number 4.

I picked up ten free titles recently on an excellent one-day offer many of which are debut crime novels. I’ve sung the company’s praises now all I have to do is read one of their books, which up to now I haven’t done. They have also purchased a number of backlist titles and relaunched them and this which was first published by Macmillan in 1995 has been revised by Joffe in 2019. It is the first of a series of four novels published by them featuring detective Mike Croft.

Set in a small town about 15 miles from Norwich, it opens with a dream sequence (which is not my favourite way to open a novel and there are actually quite a few dreams in this) but then settles into introducing Cassie returning with her husband and friends for a break in a place that 20 years before as a child she’d visit frequently to stay with an aunt. This ended abruptly when her cousin disappeared from a wooded passage known as The Greenway. Cassie returns to deal with demons from the time and when another child disappears under similar circumstances we have a case for recent arrival Mike Croft.

The tension is especially well cranked up at the beginning but that dissipates somewhat once we get into the police procedural aspect. The rural location has a history of supernatural legend which Adams touches on nicely from time to time and I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Croft and Tynan, the retired detective from the earlier case. I hope that this is something developed in the future novels. I found this a satisfactory crime thriller experience and will certainly look out for further titles by this author. Fans of the psychological thriller genre will find lots to enjoy and I like it that Joffe are giving their readers opportunities to discover their authors on their publishing list for little or no cost. If you haven’t read a Joffe title perhaps it is time to explore these innovative publishers who have certainly been doing their bit to keep readers occupied during lockdown.

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The Greenway was originally published in 1995. I read the 2019 Joffe e-book edition.

The Poisoned Chalice – Bernard Knight (1998) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I should really crack on with this series.  I  read  the first one “The Sanctuary Seeker” (1998) back in 2017 and it has taken me this long to get round to the second.  I have another 8 of them on my shelves and at this rate I’m not going to complete them until 2032 and then there are the other five Bernard Knight has written that I do not currently own.

My experience with this one was much the same as the previous which introduced us to medieval coroner Sir John De Wolfe.  I found it took me quite a while to get into it and never felt totally immersed in Knight’s vision of late twelfth century Exeter.  Set a month or so after its predecessor this tale begins with an inspection of a shipwreck then moves back to largely within the city walls as a local silversmith finds himself implicated in two crimes involving daughters of notable families.  Relationships between the characters are further established.  We know that the coroner is going to continue to be pitched professionally against his brother-in-law, the sheriff, an inevitable consequence of the redefining of legal boundaries at the time and is also going to experience a fair amount of conflict with his wife Matilda, preferring the more welcoming arms of his mistress, pub landlady Nesta.

Knight packs quite a lot of history into his text which initially makes it a dense read as the historical significance of events require backtracking and a glossary of medieval terms needs to be frequently consulted but once the plot hits its stride around mid-way through this becomes less of an issue as the events in Exeter are brought to a satisfying conclusion.  I think, on reflection, I did enjoy this more than “The Sanctuary Seeker” which bodes well for the series.threestars

The Poisoned Chalice was first published in 1998.  I read a Pocket Books paperback edition.

 

The Paris Library – Janet Skeslien Charles (Two Roads 2020?)

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Not an author I’d heard of before this and I thought it was due for imminent publication but checking on Amazon it seems to have been pushed back to February 2021 which may mean it is one of the casualties in how the publishing industry is having to deal with COVID-19. If this is the case then this is very advance notification of a book seriously worth your consideration.

Janet Skeslien Charles is the American author of “Moonlight In Odessa” (2011). At one point she worked as programmes manager at The American Library in Paris and it was this institution which is the inspiration for this novel.

Written in two narrative strands, one set during World War II and the other in Montana in the 1980s, both strands feature Odile, who obtains her dream job when she gets to work at The American Library in Paris in 1939. The real-life Library was set up during the previous war from two million American donations with it becoming revolutionary in being one of the first to allow subscribers to browse the open shelves and introducing story-times for children. By 1939 it was a much loved, over-subscribed establishment and its war years are dealt with here very impressively. The author has placed Odile alongside real-life characters who actually did do their utmost to keep the library functioning in Occupied Paris led by the extraordinary Dorothy Reeder (good name for a librarian). Skeslein Charles has turned these staff members into vibrant characters and placed them in a plot which certainly mirrors actual events.

Alongside this we see an older Odile, now living in the US, largely through the eyes of her young neighbour Lucy who is fascinated by the elegance of her neighbour becoming quite the Francophile amidst her small-town American life. I was very involved in both strands and this was a very involving read. I loved Odile’s obsession with the Dewey Decimal System which has her constantly categorising and found the relationship between her older self and the younger Lucy touching and convincing. I loved the whole aspect of the establishment doing what it could to support its subscribers and once again the importance of libraries is brought home as well as in the non-fictional “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean (2019). I also loved the way the fiction was weaved through a fascinating historical situation that I did not know about.

I hope that if this book is to be delayed until the New Year that it can be launched with enough momentum to give it a chance of achieving the sales it deserves.

four-star

 

The Paris Library is currently scheduled (according to Amazon and I can’t find any information about it yet on the publishers site) to be published in the UK in February 2021. Sorry about confusion here but we might get quite a bit of that over the next few months. Many thanks to Netgalley and John Murray Press/Two Roads for the advance review copy.

Camp- L C Rosen (Penguin 2020) – A Young Adult Fiction Review

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A quick return to the world of L C Rosen. I read “Jack Of Hearts (And Other Parts)” because I had this lined up for a pre-publication review. I did enjoy his YA debut but I had reservations. I felt a mismatch between the characters and important issues they raise with the plot which felt a little lacklustre in comparison. I think because of this and the focus on sex that it came across as somewhat brittle and what I felt was lacking was, on reflection, warmth. I mentioned at the end of my review that I felt Rosen had the writing talent to redress the balance a bit and that he has certainly done with his latest which is full of warmth and has a big, pounding romantic heart at its centre.

It’s summer camp for a group of LGBTQ+ teens, a time when they can be themselves, only this year main character Randy is going to be someone else, all in the pursuit of love. Since last year he has reinvented himself as Del, a sporty outgoing guy, to attract Hudson, a boy he has been besotted with for years who hasn’t given as much as a second look to musical theatre loving, nail polish wearing, fan snapping Randy. Del gets his friends in on the plan and decides to skip theatre for outdoor pursuits and attempts to reel Hudson in by being someone he’s not. It’s not going to go smoothly.

Why I’m giving this novel a bigger thumbs up than the celebrated “Jack Of Hearts” is here there are issues that all teens would need to consider but they more naturally evolve from the mix of characters. I felt last time having Jack as a sex advice blogger meant the issues came from outside through his column. I think it works better here and as a result I found myself really caring for this group of teens. There is a bit of an obsession with nail polish as a means of expression (is that a thing teens feel?) but this does shift away from the sex obsessions in the last novel which occasionally felt like it was teetering towards a dark place. Not that there isn’t sex here, it just feels more natural and considered in this environment. And I did love the environment. Last time round I said I’d turn down any offers to relive my teenage years in a NY high school like Jack’s but I’d certainly be happy spending time at Camp Outland. It is a pleasure to read YA novels of this quality and L C Rosen should certainly widen his readership with this.

four-star

Camp is published in the UK by Penguin on May 28th. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Case Histories – Kate Atkinson (2004) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I always find re-reading a book fascinating. In the last few years with so many good books out there (and also sat on my shelves) waiting to be read the first time I haven’t re-read nearly as much as I’d like to. It’s always reassuring to find a book which is as good the second time around as it was the first. It makes me feel like I’ve got in touch and am still in agreement with an earlier me. Occasionally, on second read the book doesn’t quite match the memories but it’s always a delightful surprise when on a re-read the book turns out to be even better than you remember and that is what has happened with this.

My records say I read this in 2005 and really enjoyed it rating it 4 stars. It did not make my end of year Top 10 that year in a list topped by “Middlesex” by Jeffery Eugenides and including real favourite authors of mine; a John Steinbeck, Alan Hollinghurst, Alan Bennett and Andrea Levy (I’m actually very impressed with what I read in 2005!) I had read Atkinson’s debut “Behind The Scenes At The Museum” (1995) some years before and had enjoyed that- another 4 star read. My relationship with this author changed when I read her stunning “Life After Life” (2013) and its five star associated novel “A God In Ruins” (2015). I decided I wanted to get back into her Jackson Brodie series of novels when the announcement was made that she was to publish “Big Sky” in 2019 but realised I could remember nothing at all about “Case Histories” and that I should start this series with a re-read of this title, especially as I hadn’t got round to reading any of the subsequent novels in this series.

I can see from my Book Journal that I first read this in August, at the height of the summer and it took me what seems like an astonishingly long time of 14 days to read (this time, perhaps thanks to lockdown I polished it off in four). I thought that this might have been the key to me not adoring it. Perhaps something was going on I was preoccupied with in 2005. That got me trawling through the loft to find 2005’s diary and discovering that I thought it was “a well-written, nicely plotted and tied up detective story”. This seems like faint praise for a novel which 15 years later I thought was excellent. That’s the magic of re-reads….

I actually didn’t have any of the plot recall that I would normally expect (even with a 15 year gap). It read like a book I hadn’t read before which does make me wonder what was going on in the summer of 2005! The novel starts in the summer of 1970, in a period of hot, unbroken weather and introduces us to the Land family, four girls, a distracted mother and a disinterested father. This forms the first of three historic cases which feature one after the other, one from 1994 and one 1979 which are brought to the attention of Jackson Brodie, an ex-policeman now working as a private detective. These cases make a marked change from Brodie’s usual trailing of suspected adulterous spouses and take his mind, temporarily, off his own fractured personal situation.

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. She really does take the reader on a ride and this may very well be why a re-read works so well. There is so much to take in, so much that seems incidental to the plot but which adds to the wealth and richness of the novel. I’m really liking Jackson Brodie and hope it won’t be that long before I move onto the second of the five books in this celebrated series which has got off to an excellent start (even if it has taken me 15 years to recognise this).

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Case Histories was published in 2005. I read a hardback edition but it is easily available as a Black Swan paperback in the UK.

Jack Of Hearts (And Other Parts) – L C Rosen (Penguin 2018) – A Young Adult Fiction Review

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Now this is a tricky one. Many parents flicking through this after finding it on a young teen’s bookshelf would be horrified by its so casual attitude to sex in its many forms. It may indeed reach a new level of frankness in the YA fiction market because it’s not really about anything else. The sex is not integral to the plot the sex is the plot and I can imagine some parents of teens not wanting their offspring to read this. I think if I had read it as an adolescent it might have scared the living daylights out of me- so forthright are the main characters, but, let’s face it, times have moved on enough for Penguin to recognise this American work as worth publishing over here. It cannot hide its American origins and some may be consoled into considering that it’s not like this over here but it does deal with issues that all teens will face at some point.

Whereas a quick flick through may leave some horrified a close read reveals something much more significant between these covers – a work which certainly does not dumb down a myriad of issues and presents them in a very balanced, thoughtful way, which is surely just how we would like our teenagers to be.

Jack is a 17 year old pupil in a NY private school. As a flamboyant gay youth he finds himself at the centre of gossip and rumour amongst a set of children who already seem extremely liberal to British eyes. This encourages his friend Jenna to get him to write a sex advice column for her blog. That puts him into some conflict with the school administration and also results in him being a target for an infatuated schoolmate who begins to leave pink origami love letters in his locker. Jack’s range of experience seems extraordinary for one so young, the advice he gives in his column is reasoned and occasionally balanced by other characters (an ex of Jack’s berates him as he feels his promiscuity is pandering to those who wish to stereotype the gay students in the school) but I think they can strain on plausibility (are teenage high school children concerned about S&M?). This element of the narrative may rankle more if the over-riding message wasn’t that we should all be the type of person that we want to be or as Jack puts it in typical fashion; “It’s about making sure everyone around me sparkles with their own shade of glitter, that they feel as amazing as I do.”

 The author also had initial concerns about his material as he explains the genesis of this work in the Acknowledgements written in “a loud authentic voice that a lot of people don’t want young adult readers to hear.” That voice is Jack’s.

I have no issue with the voice nor characterisation and I’m sure everyone reading this (even the YA market it is meant for) will be occasionally shocked and feeling a tad uncomfortable but I think it’s a shame that the actual narrative drive- who is sending the love notes- feels a little trivial in the company of these characters. What makes me slightly uncomfortable is that Jack, who seems superficially at ease with himself, is at such a loss with this, showing a gulf between his physical and emotional maturity which makes me wonder if he should be giving it all away as freely as he does. If the author is meaning to convey this I wish it was made a little more explicit. It’s also annoying how long the characters take to choose their outfits!

This is a next level up from another YA novel I read not too long ago published 10 years ago “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” by John Green & David Levithan and there are similarities between Jack and the character of Tiny Cooper in that novel, both are positive, unapologetic, larger than life representations but with Jack we certainly feel we have moved on a decade. I personally think I would feel more at home in Tiny Cooper’s world from that novel than I would do in Jack’s. If anyone offers me a chance to relive my teenage years in a present day NY high school I would turn them down flat but it was fascinating spending time in this company. I have L C Rosen’s latest novel “Camp” lined up for a read. I wonder if in his second YA novel he will get a stronger balance between plot and issues. He certainly has the potential and writing skills to do so.

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Jack Of Hearts (And Other Parts) was published by Penguin in the UK in October 2018.

I Am The Messenger – Markus Zusak (2002)

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On the strength of the two novels by Markus Zusak that I have read I would count this Australian author in any list of significant living writers. I waxed lyrical here about his “The Book Thief” (2007) one of my all-time favourite novels and his latest “Bridge Of Clay” (2018) is sat cosily at 8th place in my current end of year Top 10.

This book I have had on my shelves for some time. It is an earlier work aimed at the YA market (although like all Zusak it works well for an adult readership) and my reluctance to read it was because I did not want it to diminish the author’s reputation in my eyes. It does come with a pedigree, although something of a protracted one. Gaining much critical acclaim in his homeland where it is known as “The Messenger” it picked up a Children’s Book Council Of Australia Book Of The Year For Older Readers Award in 2003. Three years after that the US edition won the American Library Association’s Michael L Printz Award for Teenage Fiction and in 2007 it gained a major German children’s literature award. This is a slow burner of a book which has taken its time to get its presence felt.

I don’t think it has diminished Zusak’s reputation but it does feel very much a minor work compared to his others I have read. It is the work of a young author still learning the skills which will allow him to publish an all-time classic five years later. This is not a classic but a less polished entertaining read which shows once again Zusak’s skills as a story teller.

Its quirky opening places the main characters bang in the middle of a bank raid where whilst prostrate on the floor there’s much banter between 19 year old cabdriver Ed Kennedy and his three mates. A surprising act of heroism brings about media attention for Ed who soon afterwards is sent playing cards with cryptic messages for him to work out and deliver.

This is the story of how (not so much the why which I’m still slightly puzzled by) Ed carries out what is asked of him and learns much about himself along the way. Zusak’s writing style is chatty and endearing as Ed, in a first-person narrative, faces some difficult decisions, some disturbing violence and a spattering of praise working out his tasks. Some seem trivial, others life-changing for those involved but from each Ed, whose future had seemed mapped out due to a lack of ambition, a fractured family, unrequited love, a fondness for card games with his friends and caring for his elderly pungent dog, The Doorman, sees his life change.

Plot-wise there’s not the richness and depth I have come to associate with the author but in his creation of Ed as an everyday superhero Zusak is touching on very appealing YA themes. I’m not sure that the resolution was what I was expecting or hoping for but here we have a memorable character in a likeable work.

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I Am The Messenger was first published in 2002. I read an American 2005 paperback edition published by Knopf. In the UK the most readily available version seems to be a paperback published by Definitions in 2015.

100 Essential Books – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018)

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I’ve got round to another of the books I highlighted in my 2019 What I Should Have Read Post. This is a major prize-winner picking up the Carnegie Medal for Outstanding Adult Fiction, also the Stonewall Prize and gained prestigious shortlist nods for the Pulitzer Prize and US National Book Award. In the UK it has remained fairly under the radar, the paperback (which I read) was published in 2019 but that still didn’t lift this book to the commercial recognition it deserves. (Amazon currently has it as #2727 in Literary Fiction with a 4.4 rating from 509 reviews).

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. In the Chicago section the Boystown area is being decimated by the AIDS virus and Fiona is losing those she loved. The novel begins with the memorial for her brother Nico whose lifestyle was rejected by his family causing an irreparable rift between Fiona and her parents as she cannot cope with his lover and friends being excluded from saying goodbye.

In 2015, Fiona, now a mother herself, is searching for her missing daughter last known to be a member of a religious cult in the US before a sighting of her is flagged up in Paris. The Fiona in the later narrative is still clinging to the events of thirty years before which has affected her ability to parent. She is a flawed yet very real character.

In the eighties narrative it is her friend Yale who is central. In a relationship with activist and magazine publisher Charlie. Yale is far more conservative, working in funding for art and following a tip off from Fiona regarding her great-aunt’s collection seeks the acquisition which would make both Yale and the gallery he works for names.

I really enjoyed both plot lines (with a preference for the earlier narrative) which are superbly handled but the strength is really the relationships between the characters. 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.

You will find yourself invested in these characters, 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. Expect me to be recalling this book in my end of the year round-ups. I thoroughly recommend it.

Rebecca Makkai is a straight woman and there could have been potential criticism in this current climate of her immersing herself in a story which is not hers to tell, which should be the province of a gay male writer, especially with so much talk about appropriation but the fact that this has won a major LGBTQ literary award with The Stonewall Prize shows that this is not an issue. This is a novel for everyone, for those whose lives were touched by the events of the time where they will be brought back with chilling clarity, for those aware of them in some degree and perhaps even more importantly for those who were not even born then. It wasn’t easy reading about a killer virus whilst in lockdown due to another killer virus and I really did feel quite purged by the end but with the sense that I had received a tremendous reading experience. Rebecca Makkai has published three novels before this. I would certainly imagine this to be her masterwork to date but I will definitely be looking out for her other titles.

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The Great Believers was published in the UK by Fleet in 2018. I read the 2019 paperback edition.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold – C Pam Zhang (Faber 2020)

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C Pam Zhang’s striking confident debut places us in the nineteenth century American West in the dying days of the Gold Rush. Prospecting turns to tragedy for one family of Chinese heritage. The novel opens grimly with the father’s corpse and two young siblings Lucy and Sam taking to desperate measures to obtain two silver dollars to close their father’s eyes.

Uprooting themselves once again the children are forced to grow up during their search for a new settlement with the prospect of gold as their salvation. They bring with them their father’s dead body looking for a place to bury him. One section switches from third person narration to allowing the dead father to tell his story which does answer the questions the readers will have about the characters and their predicament.

Main character Lucy is hard to get a grip on. I wasn’t always sure of her motives. I was hoping for something from her viewpoint but this never happened. Her motivation seems to be based on the notion “family is family”. Much easier to read is Sam, thirsting for adventure with the same ideas as their father that gold would provide solutions.

Where I liked this novel most of all is when it slipped into backstory, the father’s narration and the family’s life before the events at the start of the novel where their pregnant mother encourages Lucy to get an education from a man besotted by the family’s exoticness. “Beauty is a weapon” Ma informs her daughter but that’s not always easy to use living hand to mouth in the open air of the American West.

As much as I admired the writing I wasn’t always sure here this novel was heading and once again I find present tense narrative distracting.  Lucy’s “education” is completed in a town called Sweetwater where she settles at one point in a section with a distinct change of tone. Sometimes the writing is feverish which gives the work a haunted, nightmarish quality which puts demands on the reader whilst at other times it reminded me both of Sebastian Barry’s recent novels (perhaps brought more clearly into focus as I have so recently read “A Thousand Moons”(2020) and I did find Zhang’s novel stronger) and of the New Zealand set “The Luminaries” (2013) by Eleanor Catton in more ways than its prospecting for gold themes. That book became a Man Booker Prize-winner so I think Zhang is on very strong ground here to turn heads with this literary debut.

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How Much Of These Hills is Gold is published today (April 9th 2020) by Virago in the UK. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.