Top 10 Books Of The Year 2022 – Part One (10-6)

I read 61 books this year which is a bit down on the last couple of years and short of my Good Reads goal of 70.  I retired from paid employment in 2022 and I thought that would mean I would have more time for reading – that obviously hasn’t proved to be the case.  Out of these 61 books, 15 got five star ratings which I think is the highest figure for top ratings I’ve ever given, which made picking the Top 10 from these very worthy books very difficult.  As always, if I’ve read it this year it is included, even if it was published in a previous year, or in the case of one of the titles below, due to be published in 2023.  There are 3 books on the list which were published in 2022, which seems to be the typical figure in these Top 10s. 

So, 61 books, 15 five star ratings, 31 four star reads and also 15 three stars.  59 of these have already been reviewed on the site and they can be found by scrolling through or using one of the two indexes – two titles, including one of the top 10 have not yet had their full reviews appear as I am holding out to nearer to the publication date in January 2023.  I spent quite a considerable time thinking about the books I’d  read this year in forming my Top 10 and once I had assigned positions I felt a little uneasy.  Last year I had a diverse list with a 50-50 gender split, 40% black authors and 30% identifying as LGBT+.  Although the latter figure stays the same there is a drop in both female and black writers (and no black female writers).  In fact, I thought the gender imbalance was unprecedented but this list matches my 2014 choices with which I launched reviewsrevues.com.  I’m not sure whether this is just a blip this year, I must admit some of the big female authored titles did not appeal to me, for example Bonnie Garmus’ “Lessons In Chemistry” was a title I’d had recommended to me and I know it’s one which will feature in many end of year lists but I couldn’t get beyond the very female orientated cover (nor the title actually).  I like to read a balance of books, fiction, non-fiction, newly published and backlisted titles written by a diverse range of authors and this will continue in 2023.  Three of the Top 10 are non-fiction and there are two debut novels and a chunky 50% of the authors have previously featured in my end of year best of lists, which may illustrate that in a year when I have had a lot of upheaval, moving house, relocating to a new area and leaving work I have been more likely to choose authors who have impressed me in the past. 

Here is the first part of the list 10-6.  Don’t be too shocked by the lack of female authors, there is more of a balance in the Top 5.  If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I want to clamber onto rooftops and shout about) just click on the title.

10. The Queen Of Dirt Island – Donal Ryan (Doubleday 2022)

(Read in July, reviewed in August)

This is Irish author Donal Ryan’s second appearance in my Top 10.  His debut “The Spinning Heart” was my runner-up in 2013.  He has a real skill with characterisation.  In both the books of his which have blown me away he brings a whole community to life.  He is able to establish rich characters in a short space of time and he certainly does this here with his tale of four generations of a family from rural Tipperary.  It is set in the same location and with some of the same characters as “Strange Flowers” which won the Novel Of The Year Awards at the Irish Book Awards.  This was also shortlisted for the same award in 2022 but lost to “Trespasses” by Louise Kennedy.  I think it is a superior companion piece to “Strange Flowers” (and also works fine as a stand-alone).

9. My Revolutions – Hari Kunzru (Penguin 2007)

(Read and reviewed in December)

This is also British writer’s Hari Kunzru’s second appearance in my end of year Top 10, with his 2004 novel “Transmission” making it to number 3 in 2010.  This was perhaps my biggest reading surprise as I wouldn’t have thought this tale of radicalism in late 60’s/ early 70’s England would have appealed.  I was totally captivated by the story-telling and thought it was so rich a novel.  It skipped around in time, which I know some readers do not like but I think it worked really well here and each time-frame was as interesting as the others.  I described it as a book which explores “fighting for what you believe in and how easily idealism can become tainted so that the brave new world once thought possible goes increasingly out of reach.” In terms of scope I felt echoes of Ian McEwan’s 2022 publication “Lessons” but I think this is the stronger novel.

8. Let’s Do It – Jasper Rees (Trapeze 2020)

(Read and reviewed in April)

The authorised biography of Victoria Wood- this is a big book which I knew I was going to like, enough to get me forking out for a hardback edition.  Rees gets the split between the private and public person across so well and this was a big thing for Victoria, who privately was far removed from the bubbly confidence of perhaps the greatest British comedian of all time.  Rees celebrates her as a pioneer, which she undoubtedly was.  I described this as “the definitive biography of Victoria Wood, no one else need bother.

7. Dickens- Peter Ackroyd (Sinclair Stevenson 1990)

(Read and reviewed in March)

And talking of big books, this was my only 1000+ page read of the year, so thank goodness I loved it.  I suspected I was onto a winner as Ackroyd is my third most read author of all time and has made 6 previous appearances on my End of Year list (although not since 2010).  In fact, I had read this before in an edited edition but this full account of the life of Dickens is the real deal and made a greater impression.  It is just so thorough and really got me wanting to revisit the work of Dickens (as well as more Ackroyd).  It’s not actually the author’s best book- I’ll still give that to “London: The Biography” which was my book of the year in 2002 but it is extremely impressive and in the lengthy time it will take you to read this book (five weeks for me) you will be in the hands of a master biographer.

6. The New Life – Tom Crewe (Chatto & Windus 2023)

(Read in December. To be reviewed)

Advance warning for this outstanding debut which will be published in the UK on 12th January.  The author is a former editor of the London Review Of Books and he puts his literary awareness into play with this Victorian set novel which is described as “a daring new novel about desire and the search for freedom in Victorian England.”  My full review of this will follow in the New Year.  Expect comparisons to  “The Crimson Petal & The White” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”- two of my all-time favourites.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for my next post – The Top 5

What I Should Have Read In 2022

It’s time for the annual namecheck for 10 books which I didn’t get round to reading in 2022 but I think I should.  Perhaps they are books I’ve intended to read since publication or titles that passed me by and which I’ve only found out about recently in end of year lists.  Since publishing last year’s list I’ve got round to reading 30% of them, which is a lot lower than I would have expected.  I do have 5 of them on my bookshelves or on my Kindle so hopefully I will get round to them in 2023.  Here are the ten titles in alphabetical order of author’s surname.

Too Much – Tom Allen  (Hodder Studio)

This is the second time comedian and TV presenter Tom has made this list.  I did read his debut autobiography “No Shame” (2020) early on in 2021 which I described as “well-written, funny, significant”. This second work has his response to the death of his father as the central theme.  Graham Norton’s three words to describe this are “Funny, candid and measured.”  It’s a very British thing to process feelings about grief through humour and it is something which fascinates me.  I look forward to seeing how Tom has achieved this. 

A Tidy Ending – Joanna Cannon (Borough Press)

When am I going to get round to reading this author?  I don’t know how many times I have had “The Trouble With Goats And Sheep” recommended to me and I have had it on my shelves for years.  I’m not sure I fancy “Three Things About Elsie” but this 2022 novel seems up my street and I have bought a Kindle copy.  It’s described as “dark comedy” which is something I approve of.  The Mail On Sunday said “Cannon’s shrewd characterisation, sparky observations and subtly menacing plot makes this a darkly funny and delightfully sinister read.” Whereas I rarely believe what The Mail On Sunday say I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one because reviews are consistently good.  It made the Times Thrillers Of The Year list. Right, next year is going to be the year I catch up with Joanna Cannon.

Without Warning And Only Sometimes – Kit De Waal (Tinder Press)

I haven’t read anything by Kit De Waal’s, although “My Name Is Leon” has been on my radar since publication and there is no reason why I would not get round to this,  especially once I have read this memoir which made it to number 39 on the Telegraph Books Of The Year list.  The only book in her house when growing up was a Bible, the possession of her Irish, Jehovah’s Witness mother.  Of her childhood in 1960’s/70’s Birmingham, Kit has said; “We were the only black children at the Irish Community Centre and the only ones with a white mother at the West Indian Social Club.” Cathy Rentzenbrink has said of it “I loved it and couldn’t put it down.  Both joyous and heart-breaking, it captures an era and is also a beautiful tribute to sibling love, and a completely compelling story of how one girl became a reader.”  This just sounds like the perfect memoir to me. 

Exit Stage Left- Nick Duerden (Headline)

I’m fascinated by the subject of this non-fiction work.  Fame in the entertainment business can be intense and also fleeting.  This book looks at what happens when the adulation disappears.  Nick Duerden interviews a whole range of artist across the music business in a book which featured on Sunday Times, Guardian & Telegraph best books of the year list and according to Surrey Life Magazine “… is a candid and at times, laugh-out-loud look at the curious afterlife of pop stars.”

The Trees – Percival Everett (Influx Press)  

It was only a few years ago that I made a determined effort with the Booker Prize to read as many as the shortlisted titles as possible before the winner was announced.  In order to fit them in I had to actually read from the longlist trying to make an educated guess as to what would stay in the running.  This has dwindled over the last couple of years to just reading the winner.  This year I didn’t even fancy that but this was the title from the shortlist which piqued my interest.  I already have an unread Percival Everett title on my bookshelves “Erasure” from 2001 but this new title promises much.  The Telegraph called it “grotesquely entertaining” and the NY Times applauded its combination of “unspeakable terror and knock out comedy”.  It deals  with racism and police violence and yet it is funny.  I’m fascinated to see how the author pulls this off.  I think it would be a powerful impressive read.

In Perfect Harmony – Will Hodgkinson (Nine Eight Books)  

Another music-based non-fiction title this time examining how in the grimy industrial strife of the 1970s we became awash with sunshiny pop music.  Punk, disco and reggae may have been more cool but it was this more mainstream music which dominated  record sales and radio playlists.  This promises to be both a social and popular cultural history which appeals in the same way that Bob Stanley’s “Let’s Do It” did this year.  It also made a number of best of lists in the British press.  Suzi Quatro describes it as “A colourful picture of the entire 70s in Great Britain” which sounds right up my street. 

Vladimir – Julia May Jonas (Picador)

This American debut fiction title made it to number 40 in the Telegraph Books Of The Year and caused quite a stir on publication.  It’s a tale of obsession and has been talked about as “Lolita” in reverse as a female academic in her 50s falls for a young male novelist.  The Boston Globe described it thus; “Vladimir goes into such outrageous territory that my jaw literally dropped at moments while I was reading it.  There’s a rare blend here of depth of character, mesmerizing prose, and fast-paced action.”  I think this is a book which sounds like it will cause a much greater impact in the UK when the paperback arrives (scheduled for Feb 2023).  It sounds like a page-turning and head-turning debut.

Mercury Pictures Presents – Anthony Marra (John Murray)

This historical novel also attracted plaudits this year and was a Book Of The Year in both the Sunday Times and The Observer.  It’s a tale of a woman who moves from Italy under Mussolini to Hollywood where she becomes an associate producer at a movie studio.  The blurb describes it as “an epic story of love, deceit and reinvention”.  Ann Patchett says it is “full of history, comedy and horror.  It’s a great literary read.” Sounds good enough to me. I don’t know of American author Marra but he has been compared to literary greats such as George Orwell, Nabokov and Kafka, which does seem a very broad comparison but suggests that there’s a bit of a genius at work.

The Guncle- Stephen Rowley (GP Putnam’s)

I’ve got a bit confused by this book as to its availability over the year.  I just wasn’t seeing it around like I had expected to. It looks like it was published in the UK in April but I’m sure I knew about it long before then.  I’m assuming that this was because it was a big American title which gained a lot of attention in the US in 2021, reaching the shortlist in the reader chosen Goodreads awards but took a while to appear over here.  I think when I was looking for it only a US edition was available. It’s a feel-good, funny novel and we can all do with some of those this winter about a once-famous gay sitcom star having to take over the care of his niece and nephew (hence the title).  Author Timothy Schaffert describes it as “Delightful, sharp, and very funny.  The Guncle is the cocktail equivalent of the fourth sip of your martini while you sit poolside at sunset.”  We might have to swap that for a cup of tea and sitting with a blanket over your knees deciding whether to put the heating on but I think you’ll get his point!

Portable Magic – Emma Smith (Penguin)

Subtitled “A History Of Books and their Readers” from the critical appreciation being heaped on this non-fiction work it looks like Emma Smith has done what she set out to do.  Colin Burrow in The Guardian described it as “Thought-provoking …fizzing with jokes…Smith does it all with such a light touch you barely notice how much you’re learning.”  Lynne Truss says “Emma Smith’s terrifically knowledgeable and thoughtful Portable Magic helps us understand every aspect of what our beloved books stand for.  I for one am very grateful.  What a delight this book is.” Books about books, I’m know I’m probably preaching to the converted if you are reading this but I’m sure you will agree with me that this is worth seeking out. 

My Revolutions – Hari Kunzru (2007)

I really loved the first novel I read by British writer Hari Kunzru, the 2004 comic novel “Transmission” which when I discovered it 6 years later it ended up in my Top 3 of the year.  Spurred on by this I’ve read another couple by him which didn’t quite make the same impact.  By reading his 2017 record-buying obsessives themed “White Tears” I bypassed this earlier novel, which was his third, now 15 years old.  Putting that right I have discovered his second five star work.

Thematically, it doesn’t sound that appealing to me which might have been why I didn’t seek it out at the time.  I don’t read many serious, political novels and so any description of this tale of radical activists in the late 1960s/early 70s might very well have left me cold.  But this is the man who made writing about a computer virus in “Transmission” laugh out loud funny so I was tempted to explore outside my usual comfort zone.

I’m so glad I did because away from the activism there is so much going on in terms of story-telling.  It all feels authentic.  It follows along a number of time-lines which are all equally involving and strong characterisation and a carefully structured plot just adds to the joys.  This is a serious work and yet the writing is not without humour and empathy.

Mike Frame is approaching his 50th birthday when he bails out on his partner and step-daughter.  We know that this is linked to an earlier chance meeting of a woman from his past in France.  We begin to realise that he has had a secret life and that his name is not even Mike.  When his secrets begin to unravel he has to take drastic action.

Within this first-person narrative he explores his past- of confrontations against the establishment, communes and squats and fighting for what you believe in and how easily idealism can become tainted so that the brave new world once thought possible goes increasingly out of reach.

As a child at the time “My Revolutions” is set I was aware slightly of some of the issues raised here but it would have been through the then media’s pre-occupation with “long-haired layabouts” and the fear of youth challenging established views.  I found this filling in of many of the gaps in my knowledge of this time in British social history fascinating and well -told enough to keep me captivated.  This is a book so rich in events and ideas, there’s enough here for a whole bookshelf of novels.  I really wasn’t expecting to love it- but I did.

My Revolutions was published in 2007.  I read a 2008 Penguin paperback edition. 

The Twyford Code – Janice Hallett (2022)

One of the great finds for me this year is Janice Hallett.  Expect “The Appeal” to feature in my Top 10 Books of the year.  I was a little behind only getting to this 2021 publication in January this year when I was fulsome in my praise. I said, “If we are considering this debut in the “cosy crime” genre then this is the best “cosy crime” book I have ever read.”  At the time this second novel was imminent and I did ponder “It will be interesting to see if she gets away with it twice or whether this book works so well as it is a fresh, original one-off.”

I decided, seeing this is now out in paperback that it was time to find out.  The bulk of the book is transcripts from audio tapes recorded by Steve Smith, an ex-prisoner whose literary skills demand this type of communication.  It is intended as a record for his probation officer and involves a teacher who inspired Steve as a youngster, Miss Isles, or missiles as the not always reliable transcript puts it, and her disappearance from his school.  Not long before Steve had found a copy of an Enid Blytonesque book by once popular author Edith Twyford on a bus and he, his teacher and school friends are drawn into a mystery of whether Twyford used her books to communicate in code.  A mystery which Steve aims to solve 40 years later.

That’s enough about plot but once again this is so tightly structured which is disguised by her gimmicky-appearing layouts.  Flicking through the book, as with “The Appeal” it looks like a quick read but it’s not because this reader in particular got really into it, looking back, referring to other places in the book, with plot and structure both much denser than they originally appear.  I think with this, compared to the debut, the readability is a little more compromised. In “The Appeal” we were drip-fed more clues which kept the interest up alongside its excellent characterisation.  Here, all the clues the reader might need are there but you might have to wait for them.  There was the odd moment when the image of Dusty Bin from the nonsensical 1970s game show “3-2-1” sprung into my mind (if you were around at the time you will see what I am getting at with references to clues within clues and misdirection which was the show’s ultimately very frustrating gimmick).  Also, it might seem that a glib statement of “Dan Brown meets Enid Blyton” might initially seem fitting but does a disservice to the sheer skill of this story-teller. 

I think a copy of “The Appeal” and this would make an ideal Christmas gift for crime/mystery fans as the puzzling, enigmatic style would be superb for the armchair detective in that period between Christmas and New Year.  It would also look very stylish (I love the UK cover art of both books).  It is like umpteen games of Cluedo, murder mysteries, classy seasonal TV crime adaptations and Christmas Cracker puzzles all rolled into literary joy.  Third book from Janice Hallett “The Case Of The Alperton Angels” is out in January and I can’t wait.

The Twyford Code was published by Viper in 2022.  The paperback edition is now available.  

100 Essential Books – Great Expectations- Charles Dickens (1861)

It’s been a good few years since I’ve read any Dickens novels (15 to be exact when I stumbled through “The Mystery Of Edwin Drood”) but I was certainly keen to do so after reading Peter Ackroyd’s majestic biography earlier this year.  I hadn’t read “Great Expectations” since I was at college and rediscovering this now has put Dickens back up into my Top 3 most-read authors (ironically leap-frogging over his biographer Peter Ackroyd). 

I have had a copy of this on my shelves for decades.  When I was 18 an Aunt bought me the introductory offer for a Charles Dickens book club from Heron Books.  I bought a few more myself over the next few months but became miffed that some of the bigger books were printed in two volumes and thus cost twice as much and so cancelled my subscription.  My aunt had thought it sensible that I should buy books that would last rather than paperbacks and she was right as my one chunky volume of “Great Expectations” has certainly lasted.

Once again my feelings about this, Dickens’ 13th and penultimate finished novel have been confirmed.  In the first part, really up until Pip goes to London, we not only have Dickens’ best writing and story-telling but one of the greatest opening sections of any novel ever.  (Ditto the 1946 film version which scared the living daylights out of me as child and may be one of the reasons why my response feels so entrenched).  The encounter on the marshes, the Christmas meal, the capture, Miss Havisham and Estella are all exceptional moments.  When Pip moves to London with his Great Expectations intact (or when John Mills becomes Pip in the film) the disappointment  begins to creep in.  His relationship with the Pocket family, Wemmick and his aged parent, Drummle and Startop would probably  involve me more in other of Dickens’ novels but here it feels like he is treading water, in reality, keeping the monthly editions churning.  Admittedly, as the plot thickens when Pip is faced with the truth about his fortunes things certainly pick up if not quite to the level of the sheer magnificence of the opening.

This does, however, taken as a whole, remain one of Dickens’ greatest works and deserves a lofty place in the canon of English Literature.  It is one of the great first-person narratives.  There is the controversy of the three endings which Dickens wrote, which I can vaguely recall but always find myself having to look up the information about that because I can’t seem to retain how they are different (although I do know how this aspect influenced John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”).  The version I read favoured the third ending, although this is apparently not always the case in the published editions available.  I think, being of a cynical nature, I might have approved of the less happy ending which Wilkie Collins persuaded Dickens to revise- I’m not sure Estella could ever be trusted.

First published in 1861.  “Great Expectations” is available in many versions in all formats.

The Secret Adversary – Agatha Christie (1922)

Last year I took part in the Agatha Christie Challenge- twelve books in twelve months which put this most famous of British crime writers up to number 2 in my most read authors list (just behind Christopher Fowler).  I haven’t read anything by her up to this point in 2022 so I’ve put that right with an early title which is celebrating its centenary this year.

Two years after she introduced Hercule Poirot she began what became a five novel series featuring Tommy and Tuppence.  My only experience of these two to date had been a copy of “N or M?” which I had out from my secondary school library for months and months, just renewing it without reading it.  (I think this must have been because we were expected to have a book from the library whereas by this time I was reading more salacious fare- “Jaws”, “The Godfather” and James Herbert- none of which would have had a place on the school bookshelves).

Tommy and Tuppence are old chums who meet again towards the end of World War I, when Tommy has injuries and Tuppence is working in the hospital.   By the early 1920s they are both somewhat rootless and a chance meeting has them agreeing to set up “The Young Adventurers” to recapture some of the excitement of their pasts and to earn some money.  They are recruited by a shadowy government figure to discover what has happened to some shadowy documents which seem important to British security (although this is somewhat vague) which had disappeared following the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.

Thrilled by a salary and expense account which leads them to booking rooms at The Ritz, Tommy and Tuppence begin investigating.  I like these two, especially Tuppence who is a vibrant creation and the will-they-won’t- they aspect of their relationship feels more modern than I was expecting.  For some reason I always associate Christie with being rather backward-looking but this would have felt contemporary on publication.  The political aspects seem a tad ludicrous and why these two inexperienced adventurers are trusted with matters of national security feels questionable but characterisation is stronger than in many later novels.

I don’t know why I’ve never read her Tommy and Tuppence novels before.  It was seven years (by which time Poirot had really taken off) before the author gave them their second outing in “Partners In Crime.”

 “The Secret Adversary” was first published in 1922.  I read it in the “Agatha Christie 1920’s Omnibus” published by Harper Collins in 2006 and which also includes “The Man In The Brown Suit”, “The Secret Of Chimneys” and “The Seven Dials Mystery” (that’s the first Colonel Race and the first two Superintendent Battle novels).

Darkness Falls – Robert Bryndza (2021)

This is the third book in Robert Bryndza’s Kate Marshall series.  Last time round I praised what I saw developing into a high-quality crime series.  This standard has been maintained.

I do feel, however, that there is a distinct change of tone in this book.  First in the series, “Nine Elms” was (too?) grisly and I felt the author’s reining in on this a little for “Shadow Sands” made it stronger than the debut.  Third book in and we have a fairly standard mainstream crime work with little of what made the first two so unsettling.  Perhaps the author feels he has put Kate Marshall through the wringer enough and here places the focus on a well-structured highly readable whodunnit.

At the end of “Shadow Sands” Kate and colleague Tristan were contemplating starting a private detective agency.  This has come to pass but with jobs few and far between they are also running a camp site in their Devon location, assisted by Kate’s teenage son Jake.  A missing female journalist cold case could be their saviour and help her distraught mother get some closure.  It soon becomes clear that the journalist was working on a story which might have caused her demise and this may be linked to a serial killer preying on young gay men.

As in the previous novels the relationship between Kate and Tristan is very strong and the author is right to bring the young gay male research assistant into clearer focus in this.  There were a couple of questionable motives here which grated just slightly but the pace builds nicely for an exciting last third.

I liked the change of tone in this book, it makes both the author and the series unpredictable – we soon tire of series which become formulaic.  Maybe some who found the first novel too dark to get through might like to revisit this series at this point.  I don’t mind whether the author goes back along the darker routes of the predecessors for the 4th novel.  I just know I will be wanting to read it.

Darkness Falls was published in December 2021 by Sphere and will be published in paperback on 29th December 2022.  The next in the series “Devils Way” is due to be published in hardback/ebook editions on 12th January 2023.

Slow Horses-Mick Herron (2010)

It’s been quite a while since I started an established series.  Mick Herron’s “Slough House” spy novels now total 8 full length titles and four novellas, the latest, a Christmas themed short story “Standing By The Wall” was published this month.  With each full- length publication Herron’s reputation seems to grow and he is a regular on end of year best books lists.

Spy novels are not a genre I read often, a couple of Graham Greene’s in my teenage years, no John Le Carre’s.  I loved Helen Dunmore’s “Exposure” (2016) which dabbled with that world.  I always enjoyed BBC TV’s “Spooks” and this is what Herron’s series is often compared to.

Slough House is the nondescript looking workplace for the “Slow Horses”, ex MI5 staff who have somehow been found lacking and redeployed to less urgent duties.  Central to the novel is 29 year old River Cartwright who makes a serious mistake in a tube station bomb situation.  Head of this group of misfits is the unappealing Jackson Lamb who runs down his team to anyone who will listen but whose actions suggest he might think otherwise.  

We are introduced to the rest of the Slough House team and instantly the reader can tell there’s a lot of mileage in this series.  I was also surprised by the depth of this novel.  The characters, their motives, the language they use is so well-rounded and feels authentic but you cannot rush through this book.  It’s a slow, steady read which may frustrate those crime fans who want to get through their books quickly.

Plot-wise, a seemingly random youth is kidnapped and is being held hostage with an online video stream proclaiming he will have his head chopped off.  The Slough House team’s role is to remain in the background but circumstances change this dynamic.  I did enjoy this and recognise it as a strong start to a series which I will hopefully be reading more of soon.

Slow Horses was originally published by Constable in 2010.  I read a 2017 paperback edition published by John Murray.

Fire Island – Jack Parlett (2022)

In the nineteenth century it provided poetic inspiration for Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde reputedly visited.  In the 1930s it became the summer home for a trio of artists who some describe as “The Fire Island School Of Painting.”  Literary and artistic giants saw it as an escape to write or to party- Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward stayed here.  American poet Frank O’Hara was killed on the beach here.  Patricia Highsmith got drunk here.  David Hockney looked pale here, Derek Jarman made a short film, James Baldwin came to write (and felt out of place).  Perhaps the first example of gay pornography to filter into the mainstream was filmed here in 1971.  It developed into a symbol of hedonism where the landscape and fantastic views felt slightly at odds with the loud disco music from tea dances and cruising.  The Village People sang about it offering us a “funky weekend” as long as we “don’t go in the bushes.” Edmund White and Andrew Holleran used it as a setting to enrich their fiction.  AIDS decimated it, for a while it became a ghostly memorial with ashes of those taken sprinkled into the sea.  It became a film location in that first-wave of AIDS related films like “Parting Glances” (1986) and “Longtime Companion”(1989)- important movies which proved so difficult to watch.  It became once again part of the well-heeled gay circuit with accusations of elitism and poor inclusiveness and it has recently been the location in the available on Disney+ in the UK bright and brash gay rom-com “Fire Island” (2022).  I’ve always been fascinated by the contradictions of this place – Utopia for some, Hell for others.

This thin strip of land some 32 miles in length off the Long Island coast is perhaps the second most recognised gay location after The Stonewall Inn.  Its cultural and literary significance has lasted for decades and alongside the thousands that adored it there are detractors with very valid objections as well as confusingly detractors who also adored it- this is the enigma of Fire Island.

And the person who has decided to record this cultural and literary history in this new publication from Granta is a 30 year old British man.  This is a good idea, it gives a fresh perspective on an area bogged down in its own history and inconsistencies.  Jack Parlett visited first whilst researching the poet Frank O’ Hara who wrote, partied and died here.  Parlett experienced the same feelings of alienation and belonging which has affected so many of its visitors over the years and in this work subtitled “Love, loss and liberation in an American Paradise” he incorporates memoir to explain why.

From the relaxed development of Cherry Grove with its communal mix of renters including families and lesbians and gay men to the growth of the more hedonistic, wealthy white gay male dominated area of The Pines (together with its cruising area The Meat Rack) Parlett effectively tracks developments and their significance in gay history and sensibilities.  There’s a potent mix of the literary and academic, the political and the positives and contradictions of this location.  It’s imbued with a nostalgia for past times – I found myself thinking I would have liked to have visited at that point in time, oh and at that point in time….which makes it an intoxicating subject for a historical examination.

I loved the idea of this book, I loved the British perspective which added another layer and Jack Parlett has handled his material well.  I might have liked visual representations for some of his references but a few seconds on Google will find things and no doubt saved the publishers from forking out for reproduction rights.

Fire Island was published in 2022 by Granta in the UK.

Miss Hargreaves- Frank Baker (1939)

Another author I hadn’t heard of introduced to me via Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors”.  He became a little less forgotten when Bloomsbury republished his most celebrated novel as part of a Bloomsbury Group Series of 6 titles including works by Wolf Mankowitz, Ada Leverson, D E Stevenson, Rachel Ferguson and Joyce Dennys.

The whimsical novel is something I can often take or leave but I loved this.  I can’t see why it isn’t celebrated as one of the great twentieth century comic novels.  It made me laugh (and, this is where the comic/whimsical can fall flat) it sustained my interest for the duration.  A film version was planned but check the publication date and you’ll see why that fell by the wayside but there was a successful stage version in the early 1950s starring a beautifully cast Margaret Rutherford.

And maybe that where part of the appeal lies for me imagining the marvellous Ms. Rutherford in the title role.  Two young men on a trip to Ireland invent a woman whilst sightseeing in a church – pretending to a guide that she was a friend of an old vicar there.  They elaborate about her more and more, getting carried away with their invention in subsequent days so much that they write her a letter at a hotel they imagined she would stay at.  They get a reply and then the formidable Miss Hargreaves arrives embodying everything they’d made up.  You have to go with it- no explanation is given but there’s a lot here on individuality and the motto that runs through the novel is “Creative thought creates.”  In this case, it’s a living, breathing person and in a style reminiscent of EF Benson’s Lucia novels (which I also love) she begins to take over the community in which her inventors live.  P G Wodehouse also springs to mind but I enjoyed this more than any Jeeves novels I’ve read to date. The baffled Norman Huntley gives a first-person narrative and there’s some more splendid characterisation in his musician/bookshop owning father.

There’s great energy and vigour but it can also hover on the edge of a darker side as explanations for Miss Hargreaves are explored.  The only time pace slackens is in the details of cathedral services and organ-playing (Norman is a church organist as was the author) but there’s still charm here amongst the flue work, pedal bombards and diapasons. 

Frank Baker added a postscript in 1965, obviously for a republished edition and reproduced a few of Miss Hargreaves’ poems in full (in truth they work better as odd lines in the narrative which demonstrate her unique talents as a poet).  The author lived 1908-82 and was also an actor and musician who worked as a pianist in the celebrated Player’s Theatre in Charing Cross.

I’m finding much joy in British novels of 1930s, 40s and 50s with EF Benson, Norman Collins, Barbara Pym etc.  I can add Frank Baker to this for this delightfully quirky work. 

Miss Hargreaves was first published in 1939.  I read the Bloomsbury Publishing edition from 2009.