The Collector – John Fowles (1963)

Back in 2020 I re-read John Fowles’ most famous work “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1969).  It was a book I’d remembered with great affection but wondered on this re-reading whether “it does occasionally seem a little clever for its own good” and pondered if this might be one of the reasons why Fowles’ reputation has faded somewhat in the twenty-first century.  Nevertheless, it ended up at #8 in my Best Books of 2020 list.  At the same time I mentioned I should get round to re-reading his debut “The Collector” to see how it holds up.

I first came to this via the 1965 film adaptation I remember watching on a Monday night BBC1 9.30 film slot.  It was a school night and I remember my mum saying “don’t tell anyone we let you stay up late to watch it.”  It starred Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar and made a strong enough impression on me to virtually lift the plot for my mock English O-Level.  I don’t remember seeing it since this late 1970s showing.  The book I read during my first term at college and moving house recently unearthed a box from the loft where the extended essay I produced on “The artist is always under the control of his ideas” based on this book, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and the short story collection “The Ebony Tower” saw me sitting pretty much on the fence but gaining an A grade (I didn’t get that many of these).

Basically, the plot of “The Collector” runs along the same lines as a myriad of psychological thrillers produced since but must have seemed extremely disturbing back in 1963.  Frederick Clegg, a lonely lepidopterist wins the football pools and decides to spend his money on a rare specimen- not one of his usual butterflies but an Art student, Miranda, whom he abducts and keeps in a house near Lewes.  Disproving what I said recently about “TFL’sW” and accessibility this is a very accessible (and chilling) work.  Spread over four sections, three being a first-person narrative from the abductor and section 2 Miranda’s hidden diary.  Fowles is doing more than an abduction thriller within Miranda’s section as she explores her relationship with Art and her own obsession for a fairly odious, older, established artist.  Fowles challenges the reader by making his victim seem unsympathetic at times and his pathetic abductor, however heinous his actions, has the ability to pull on the heartstrings somewhat.  I think this makes for a controversial read, perhaps even more so in the twenty first century but as we are dealing with larger themes than a straightforward kidnap caper this novel does still resonate and seems to have a place in our modern world.

I think, nowadays, we will be more gripped by Frederick’s words than Miranda’s diary which feels more time specific and thus dated.  I read a Vintage Classics edition from 2004.  It does still seem to be in print in a 2010 edition suggesting that there is a continuing readership for his work.  I didn’t absolutely love it this time round as I obviously did as a teenager but it kept me with it throughout and I think I might not have finished my rediscovery of the work of John Fowles just yet.

The Collector was first published by Jonathan Cape in 1963.  

Dickens – Peter Ackroyd (1990)

It’s been a longer than usual interval between blog posts and this has been for two reasons.  Firstly, I have moved home from the Isle Of Wight to Weymouth, Dorset and have spent the last couple of weeks unpacking boxes and getting to know a new unfamiliar area.  Secondly, I have been reading for the last five weeks this beast of a book which comes in at 1195 pages in this edition.

It was always a bit of a no-brainer for me to get round to this eventually as Peter Ackroyd is my 3rd most read author of all time and Charles Dickens my 4th with between them 10 titles in my yearly Book Of The Year lists and here we have Ackroyd writing about Dickens – at great length!

In 2002 a condensed version appeared but I always had a hankering to read the original and seeing it in a second hand bookshop I could not resist.  And so I have spent the last five weeks lugging around this very heavy volume, keeping it away from removal boxes.  I started it stressed, not knowing whether the move would go ahead at all, it has been a companion through many sleepless nights, I carried on reading during the move which was also stressful to a more calm, settled time when I am beginning to recognise this strange new home I’ve moved to as my own.  It felt appropriate that Dickens who has always been a part of my reading life should have been there for me during this time.

I’d got a little way through and checking my records discovered I had actually read the shorter version of this book in 2007.  I had no memory of this, so this is in fact, a re-read although there is a lot of extra material here.

This is no doubt a labour of love for the author, the research seems meticulous, it is so detailed and you really get to know the subject.  Even though I have read Dickens’ biographies before (surprisingly even Ackroyd’s) I’m not sure how much I had retained about his life, especially as so much seems to bleed into his fiction.  Ackroyd has read everything Dickens wrote including he believes, all surviving correspondence, an extraordinary task in itself.  I’ve read all the novels once, although for some it would be 40 years ago and I haven’t read any of this author for 15 years since I struggled through the unfinished “Mystery Of Edwin Drood” and reading this made me really want to go back through all the novels again and surely that is a sign of a good biography.

Ackroyd stresses the importance of the background of the author in playing its part in the man he was to become.  From the child working in a blacking factory (this was not known by most family and friends until after his death and tainted his relationship with his mother as when he left this hideous working environment she was keen for him to go back to it) and his spendthrift father forming the son into a workaholic driven by his writing and later by his public performances which completely burnt him out and which some saw as his raison d’etre whilst others believed drove him to an early grave. There are occasional fictional interludes from Ackroyd himself bonding the biographer with the author.  These are quirky and change the pace but I am not sure what they add (I don’t recall if these were dispensed with in the shorter version, I suspect not).  The notes are well presented in a very readable commentary form and didn’t slow me down in the way that too many references and footnotes often do.

Back in 2007 I rated the shorter version four stars but this is a five star read, despite and also because of its sheer length.  It certainly has made me want to read more on this subject even though I may have just finished the definitive biography.  Also, lugging this book around at such a significant time in my own life has given it additional resonance.  I will not forget the time spent reading this book and for that it deserves my top rating.

Dickens was first published by Sinclair-Stevenson in 1990.  The abridged version (640 pages) was published by Vintage in 2002

This Might Hurt – Stephanie Wrobel (Michael Joseph 2022)

Stephanie Wrobel’s 2020 debut known in the UK as “The Recovery Of Rose Gold” was a 5 star little gem of a novel.  Its Munchausen By Proxy theme (although never actually specified in the book) fascinated me and it had an “under the surface darkness” which I loved.  It just missed out on my Top 10 Books Of The Year.

So, naturally, I was keen to read the author’s second novel although I must admit that when I heard the main setting was an island retreat for those who want to be fearless I didn’t experience the same anticipation as I did for the debut but I was keen to add the name of Stephanie Wrobel to my list of authors with two or more 5* reviews on this site (and because I am so stingy with my top rating she would have been only the 10th author to achieve this).

However, and as the title states, “this might hurt”, for me this book fell quite a bit short of my top rating and compared to her last book I felt so disappointed that I contemplated a two star but then appreciated that I had set the bar so high in my mind for this particular author and that 3 stars was the most fitting for this work.

Firstly, I found the narrative structure confusing.  I read enough books not to be confused by characters, but here I was, I thought maybe I was being misdirected on purpose and expected some big reveal but it never happened, I had just got characters confused.  I also love a bit of darkness but here I couldn’t get to grips with the sadistic nature of fearlessness or why these particular characters saw it as desirable.

There’s a number of first-person narratives here.  A child is being bullied into her father’s vision of reaching her full potential, being made to score “positive” and “negative” achievements and facing punishment if her score does not make his grade.  A young woman is at an island retreat getting her life back together when her sister receives a “I know what you did” type email and she goes to the island to confess a family secret.

The plot did not have enough to really hold me and unfortunately and surprisingly, considering how I felt about “Rose Gold”, the characters did not come alive  for me.

There are pluses, however, I liked the sense of isolation on the island and the not knowing whether anything was what it seemed was done very well.  It is another accessible, commercial read.  It is in comparison with Stephanie Wrobel’s previous work that this, for me, feels a little flat.

This Might Hurt is published in the UK by Michael Joseph on 3rd March 2022.  Many thanks to the author and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Mouth To Mouth – Antoine Wilson (Atlantic 2022)

Here’s a title I flagged up as one of the potential highlights of 2022 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  The narrator, a writer en-route to Berlin is delayed at JFK Airport and meets a man he vaguely knew twenty years before.  They share drinks in the lounge and this man, Jeff, regales the narrator with what has happened to him in the intervening time. 

It centres around an occasion when he reluctantly saved a man from drowning and his interest in the man he saved verges on the obsessive as he inveigles his way into his life.  This theme reminded me slightly of Ian McEwan’s impressive “Enduring Love” but the subject matter is handled differently here.

There’s an element of suspension of disbelief required for Jeff’s story forms virtually the whole of the book suggesting this is one long flight delay, for his account is so detailed, our narrator must hardly have got a word in.  It is a recounting of a tale told second-hand which seems a brave narrative style for a whole novel as that distance means characters are not fleshed out in the way that they could have been.

It is an interesting conceit but to be honest it didn’t really blow me away and whilst involved, and it is undeniably well-handled by Wilson, I didn’t feel that once-remove really pulled me into the actual narrative.

I can see why some readers would really like this book and I can also see why it might leave some unconvinced.  Unusually for me, I’m somewhat stuck in the middle.  I wonder if it might just be one of those books that do not completely win me over but leaves an impression which lingers hauntingly, lasting longer in my imagination than books which I had a stronger immediate response to.  Time will tell….

Mouth To Mouth is published in the UK by Atlantic Books on March 3rd 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Good Day To Die – Amen Alonge (Quercus 2022)

Here is a series debut I highlighted as one I wanted to read this year and a title which has appeared on at least a couple of forthcoming publications recommended reads lists.  Lagos born trainee London solicitor Amen Alonge has written a very commercial novel which may attract those who do not regularly read fiction.  It’s a day in the life of a young black man known only as “Pretty Boy” by some other characters who arrives back in London with a clear desire for revenge but who, by accepting a piece of jewellery as part payment for a debt provokes a lot of unforeseen circumstances.

It’s violent, it’s brash and unsentimental and both visually and aurally strong, as the author soundtracks many scenes by mentioning what music is being listened to.  It is branded well, especially with regards to cars and weaponry and at times is gripping and always involving.

It’s not easy to write violence and Alonge does a good job focusing on the details leading up to an attack and then dispatching characters quickly.  A couple of scenes are overwritten which gives a cartoonish quality and that is one of the inherent dangers of reading such scenes as compared to watching them on-screen.

It is hard to get into the mindset of these characters which can make them seem inconsistent.  The author uses a mixture of first-person narrative from “Pretty Boy” (which is strong) and a third person narrative which at times I felt slightly confusing.  There is a need to give the main character a back story which features mainly in a chunk in the last quarter of the book but I don’t know whether it helped in fully fleshing him out. 

Indeed, this may not matter as this is Book 1 of a projected series so there is plenty of time for “Pretty Boy” to grow as a character.  There is a freshness to this which I find invigorating but I don’t think the comparisons I’d seen to “The Wire” US TV series are helpful as that is one of TV’s modern greats and a masterclass in writing and crafting a narrative and these comparisons may have built up expectations for me which I do not feel were fully delivered.

Amen Alonge is a vibrant new voice in crime fiction and I would be interested to see where he goes with this character next.

A Good Day To Die is published by Quercus on 17th February 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Love Marriage- Monica Ali (Virago 2022)

I haven’t read Monica Ali for 18 years since her outstanding debut “Brick Lane” which was my runner up Book Of The Year back in 2004.

This is her fifth novel which shows once again her great skill at creating characters who will really resonate with the reader.  In this book this is particularly the case away from the two main protagonists as she gives us an extremely memorable supporting cast. 

Doctors Yasmin and Joe are planning their wedding.  Yasmin’s father is a straight-laced Indian GP, who keeps himself to himself and likes nothing better than diagnosing case studies with his daughter.  Her mother wears mis-matched charity shop clothes and handles each situation through cooking.  Joe’s mother is a feminist writer and intellectual, infamous because of a naked photo which Yasmin’s brother Arif takes great delight in.

Ongoing preparations for the wedding causes both families to implode, Joe to seek therapy and Yasmin to act completely out of character.  There is a delicious lightness of touch which makes it an enjoyable read and yet there is darkness in each of the lives which gradually become revealed to Yasmin who is a self-declared maker of “all sorts of misjudgements and assumptions” which is only too common when dealing with all of our responses to family.

I enjoyed the obviously well-researched medical setting; the lives in the hospital compared to the lives in the two very different family settings.

It doesn’t feel as essential a book as “Brick Lane” which felt so right at its time of publication and has since become a modern day classic but this is a strong, highly satisfactory read.

Love Marriage is published in the UK by Virago on February 3rd 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. 

The Love Songs Of W E B Du Bois – Honoree Fanonne Jeffers

Attracting much critical acclaim in the US and an Oprah Book Club pick which ensures high sales this is a big book in terms of size and themes, coming in at just under 800 pages and an extraordinary debut from an award-winning poet.

It is both an epic saga taking in generations of an African American family from Chicasetta, Georgia and in a parallel first-person narrative an intimate, unflinching study of the youngest member Ailey, focusing in very close detail on her upbringing and academic studies.  A family tree at the front of the book is vital as one narrative begins with the Native American inhabitants of the land moving to the rise of the plantation and slavery moving through the generations slowly slotting things into place as Ailey begins her own studies of her family history.

The historical narrative is powerful, beautifully written and impressive.  This is a long book, however, and it does at time sprawl which can place demands on the reader.  This author loves detail and this is most evident in Ailey’s account which is so closely observed and meticulous in its detail.  It was here that I felt the odd twinge of frustration, especially in Ailey’s college years and her response to American academia.  However, this is a book which will leave the reader feeling changed, this long time spent in the company of Ailey’s family (you can’t rush through this book) will provide the reader with a change of perspective in terms of American history, race and feminism.

It never gets any easier reading about slavery and it is important that it doesn’t.  Ailey’s contemporary account highlights the more subtle forms of racism, including what is referred to here as “Black Tax” where the African-American has to work harder to achieve the same results.

I know I am not the intended audience for what the author unapologetically describes in her Coda as “a black feminist novel” and “undoubtedly a woman’s novel” but I was very impressed.

The Love Songs Of W E B Du Bois was published on 20th January 2022 by 4th Estate in the UK. Many thanks to the publishers and NB magazine for the review copy. This review, along with many others of recently published books can be found at the Review Centre on the NB website.

7 years of reviewsrevues.com. Let’s celebrate!!

They say that your body cells completely replenish over a 7 year period.  If that is the case (and it seems incomprehensible to my non-scientific mind) then there’s not a lot of me left that sat down and started to write his first blog post exactly 7 years ago.

For today is my 7th anniversary of reviewsrevues and I thought I’d do a little taking stock rather than look at post viewings etc which I tend to do on such occasions.  Never did I think when I wrote the first post that I would still be doing so 7 years later and producing this, which is my 823rd blog posting.

Seven years ago starting something like this was my New Year’s Resolution. I was looking for somewhere to collect together the reviews I had always written for my own use and increasingly on book sites like Amazon which led to some work with poetry magazines and a connection with what was then called New Books Magazine (now NB) which has continued in some form to today. At the time I was running a guest house here on the Isle of Wight and winters were long and quiet as there was never enough business to warrant being open at this time of year. January, however, was the time when there were the most bookings for the summer so there was quite a bit of hanging around waiting for the phone to ring so I felt the blog would occupy some of the spare time. Also working from home I felt that it would me a chance to reach out to the wider world. I did get away from the house some times as I was volunteering at my local library which had turned into a community library following council cut-backs.

Around the same time the blog started my connection with NB magazine was ramped up as I became lead contributor for Literary fiction within the magazine which led to author interviews which I also occasionally carried out for the blog. Reviewsrevues.com also certainly helped with my appointment as a relief library assistant for Isle Of Wight Libraries which evolved into a four day a week senior permanent post. The guest house was sold and after 17 years in the hospitality business the bungalow we bought in the same town no longer had to be full of guests! After getting the Library job, the amount of time I had for the blog did diminish which saw an easing off of the music and TV side of the site with the focus being books. Before then I had completed my 100 Essential CD Countdown which I have been re-reading recently and which represents many, many hours of work.

And that’s how seven years has passed. It does feel like the end of an era, not because I am giving up reviewsrevues.com (far from it) but because of things that have been going on in my personal life. We are planning a move off the island back to the mainland and coastal Dorset. This should be further ahead than it is and it is certainly a nerve-wracking, stressful time as anyone who has bought and sold property in England will know. Not a lot seems to be happening, even though we are surrounded with boxes that we’ve packed (and said goodbye to a lot of books from the shelves) and I have had to hand my resignation in from work and am down to one day a week and a bit of relief work for the next couple of weeks before that all comes to an end. I’m thinking of it as a “phased retirement”.

What that means, once the relocation has taken place, and I am having to keep everything crossed as I write this because it feels like it can go either way, is that it will be a new start both for me and for reviewsrevues.com, which is exciting. But for now, I’m celebrating my 7 years with you today and would like to thank you for reading and re-visiting the site. Here’s to the next 7 years when it will be a completely new me writing to you all.

A Flicker In The Dark – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins 2022)

I highlighted this debut in my “Looking Back Looking Forward post”, a Louisiana set thriller described by top crime writer Jeffery Deaver as “an unstoppable journey through the psychology of evil, and of courage (in many senses), all told in a pitch-perfect literary style.”

I don’t read many psychological thrillers nowadays, the market seems flooded with them and I find them a little samey but here we have a strong example.

Psychologist Chloe Davis is our damaged first-person narrator.  Keeping herself well-dosed with prescription medication she is facing the twentieth anniversary of a case she helped to crack as a 12 year old when, horrifically, her father was imprisoned for the abduction and suspected murder of 6 teenage girls.  All this happened in Breaux Bridge, “the Crawfish capital of the world”, a small-town environment Chloe had to escape from after the disintegration of her family.

Now in Baton Rouge and on the verge of marriage her world crumbles again when it looks like a copycat killer is murdering in her local area.

Chloe is implicated, needs to clear her name and takes too long to involve the police (which is so often the case in this sort of book).  Three quarters of the way through the tension is ramped up by unforeseen (by me) twists which continues to impress to its conclusion.  It was a resolution I saw coming early on, then didn’t, then forgot all about as Willingham skilfully misdirects with careful plotting.  It reads well, the Louisiana setting effectively makes its presence known and I am not surprised that options for a TV adaptation have reputedly been picked up.

Flicker In The Dark is published on 3rd February 2022 by Harper Collins in the UK.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Devotion- Hannah Kent (Picador 2022)

That’s 3 out of 3 novels I’ve read now by Australian author Hannah Kent, a prospect I’d so anticipated that I highlighted this new title in my “Looking Back, Looking Forward” post.

Her 2013 debut “Burial Rites” recreated nineteenth century Iceland, incorporating Icelandic sagas into the narrative and a use of documents and reports which really impressed me but I gave the slight edge to 2017’s “The Good People” set in a nineteenth century Irish village entrenched with folklore and fairies in a dark, foreboding read.  It’s three good four star reads in a row as far as I am concerned but maybe if forced to rank them “Devotion” would be at number three.

We are still in the nineteenth century but we begin in Kay, a Prussian village and a small community of Old Lutherans facing persecution for their beliefs.  Amongst them is narrator Hanne, an adolescent who sees herself as “forever nature’s child” and as an outsider to the rest of the community content with adhering to the traditions of the forefathers.  Into this mix comes a new family, the Eichenwalds with mother Anna Maria, a midwife from outside the region, whose unconventional  treatments arouse suspicion and daughter Thea who recognises Hanne as a kindred spirit.

So far this feels like we are on typical Kent territory with her doing what she does so well evoking a small community battling with tradition and a fear of new ideas but this is very much a book of three parts, with a marked tonal shift in each.

The second part ramps up the adventure stakes with the community’s response to persecution and the third, with what happens afterwards becomes more lyrical, spiritual and poetic. Compared to her other novels this has the same focused intensity but here the plot events bring about a sense of space which gives contrast to the pressures of small space living

This is very much a love story between Hanne and Thea as suggested by the “Devotion” of the title and this is the unifying strength between the three parts.  This is touching, often heart-breaking and effectively conveyed throughout. 

There seems to be a 4-5 year gap between Hannah Kent’s novels, which always feel thoroughly researched and may explain this but her third novel should cement her reputation as a very good historical writer and will give new readers who come to her via this publication a chance to catch up with her work so far whilst waiting for her next book to appear.

Devotion is published in the UK on February 3rd by Picador.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.