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

Donal Ryan’s last novel “Strange Flowers” (2020) was voted Novel Of The Year at the Irish Book Awards.  Do not be surprised if he does it again with this which I think is even better.

I absolutely loved his debut “The Spinning Heart” (2012) a book voted “Irish Book Of The Decade”.  By the winter 2015 edition of NB magazine I was putting it forward as my choice for “Best Book Of The Twenty-First Century So Far”.

“Strange Flowers” took a while for me to get into.  I felt the narrative style chosen with its very matter of fact fable or fairy story feel initially held me at bay and it wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through that I realised the extent this canny author had immersed me into the book.  Here, in what is very much a companion piece to “Strange Flowers” (although it works fine as a stand-alone) I was with him right from the start.

It is set in the same location with some of the same characters in a more supporting role this time but moving on a generation as we meet four generations of a family from rural Tipperary.  Main character Saoirse is brought up by her mother with daily visits from her grandmother who supports her daughter-in-law widowed at the very beginnings of motherhood.  Nana and Mother are the lifeblood of this novel, squabbling yet totally supportive, both have been let down by families in their past but they are not going to do that to the current generation.  The last novel was dominated by the superb characterisation of Alexander, who I loved, here it is the relationship between the two strong women who pull the others through the ups and downs of life.

And what I really like about this book is that life just goes on, the community faces some quite shocking events and keeps going.  Towards the end two characters who were central in the last book give their perspective to Saoirse in a way in which she thinks they might break out into the old Doris Day hit “Que Sera Sera” but this viewpoint does permeate the lives here.  So much is subtle and underplayed and you don’t expect that from what is ostensibly a family saga. Nothing is laboured.  Most of the characters would not even understand the relevance of the title, relating to a piece of land held by Mother’s family which has little part to play for most of the novel, other than it informs her personality.  The narrative style gives a lightness of touch I wasn’t as aware of in the previous novel.

Characterisation is so rich, Donal Ryan has created a set of characters who are so well developed within a short space of time.  He brings a whole community to life.  In a way (although the characterisations and location are completely different) it felt to me just a tad reminiscent of what Armistead Maupin was trying to achieve in his “Tales Of The City” series, but I think Donal Ryan’s handling of this is stronger.  He carried this off brilliantly in the talking heads approach of “The Spinning Heart” and has achieved it here within a very different narrative style.  It is totally involving and very impressive writing.

The Queen Of Dirt Island is published by Transworld Digital as an ebook and Doubleday as a hardback on 18th August 2022  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Take It Back – Kia Abdullah (2019)

I came into Kia Abdullah’s legal thrillers at Book 2 with “Truth Be Told” (2020) which blew me away and ended up in my Books Of The Year.  Stand-alone novel “Next Of Kin” (2021) made it two five star reads elevating Kia Abdullah, in my opinion, into the Premier League of contemporary crime-writers.

With a new novel not due until to the start of 2023 I thought I’d catch up with the one I missed out on which introduces Zara Kaleel, a Muslim woman who has given up her six figure lawyer’s post to work in counselling and support at Artemis House- a sexual assault referral centre.  Zara is struggling to adapt to all the changes in her life and one day Jodie arrives at the centre, 16 years old with the disfiguring disability of neurofibromatosis and tells Zara she has been raped by a group of four Muslim teenage boys.  This is a case which can only be explosive- with disability, faith and consent being the triggers and is one which places Zara into great conflict with the Muslim community and her family.  Justice for Jodie takes over Zara’s life but doesn’t reduce any of her demons.

The case does not feel quite as central stage as it is in the other two books.  The author takes time to establish Zara’s character as a strong determined woman who has defied expectations in terms of her career, faith and relationships which adds fuel to the fires of the rape case.  This focus does actually make it feel a little less intense than the subsequent novels but you can really appreciate the author is here honing the skills to knock readers for six in the future.

There’s twists and turns, some anticipated and some I certainly didn’t see coming and the court case is as engrossing as always.  I’m not sure if it felt totally resolved this time round which may grate on some crime readers.  I notice in my reviews of the other two books of hers I’ve read I cannot even bring myself to reveal any details of the cases and I have here because just the bare bones would open up a raft of ramifications whereas the cases in the follow-up books are more complex and you need to be within the narrative to get the full horrors of the implications.

So, whereas this is a really impressive legal thriller I think this author upped a level with Books 2, where Zara supports another case and Book 3, a stand-alone.  Here she is learning to write the crime novel masterpiece which she hits home with next time round.

Take It Back was published by HQ in 2019.

The Night Ship- Jess Kidd (Canongate 2022)

I’m up to date with Jess Kidd’s four adult titles.  Two strong four star works, “Himself” (2016) and “The Hoarder” (2018) paved the way for her triumphant five star Victorian London-set work “Things In Jars” (2019) which ended up in my Top 10 Books Of The Year for 2019.  I also had the pleasure of interviewing her for Issue 90 of NB magazine when her debut was published so I was very pleased to receive this pre-publication copy of her latest.

We have a dual time setting, firstly the 1628 voyage of a Dutch boat, The Batavia, setting sail towards the place it was named after (now Jakarta) with young Mayken on board accompanied by her nursemaid Imke.  The ultimate destination is a father Mayken does not know, following the death of her mother.  Running alongside this is a strand from 1989 where Gil arrives at Beacon Island on the Australian West Coast to live with a grandfather he barely knows following the death of his mother.  These characters are mirrored beautifully in the early stages and it is not long before we discover Beacon Island is where the survivors of the Batavia shipwreck ended up.  Ghosts always have a part to play in Jess Kidd’s novels, here their influence is quite subtle with the echoes of the events of the past constantly just nudging the twentieth century Australians.  Both Mayken and Gil are great characters and both become touched by supernatural elements and the folklore of sea monsters.

Jess Kidd is using the real events and people of the ill-fated Batavia voyage.  What I really love about this author’s work is how the history sparks her into imaginative realms.  This was especially so in “Things In Jars” where the developments in medicine were seamlessly incorporated into a gripping mystery novel.   I think here her desire to follow the events of what actually happened as a tribute to those who perished in the seventeenth century have stopped this from taking flight in quite the same way.  The child’s imaginations of a sea monster being present for Mayken feels a little stodgy for Gil who comes across the story of the Bunyip in a discarded book.

These are minor gripes about what is, if not an Essential five star read like “Things In Jars”, a strong novel which shows how well Jess Kidd  is  developing  as a storyteller and historian.  This is my second favourite of her four novels and should continue to enhance her reputation as one of our most effervescent writers.

The Night Ship will be published by Canongate on 11th August 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Before The Darkness – Michael Dean (2015)

The other day I was wondering what had become of the author Michael Dean.  I was reminded of his excellent novel “I, Hogarth” (2012) which was one of the first books I reviewed for NB magazine.  It was runner up in my Books Of The Year (to Michelle Lovric’s dastardly “The Book Of Human Skin” (2010)) and I revisited it here on the Blog site in 2015 in my 100 Essential Books Strand.  His depiction of the life of artist William Hogarth, I stated, “ feels like it dates from the eighteenth century and this can only be achieved through immaculate research which plunges us seamlessly into Hogarth’s London.” I haven’t read any more Dean since although I was aware of a book called “The Crooked Cross.”

These reminiscences led to a bit of research and I discovered post-Hogarth Michael Dean has been involved with a five book series sometimes known as “Darkness Into Light” and also as “The Rise And Fall Of The Nazis” of which the aforementioned “The Crooked Cross” is Book 2.

I found it as a cheap 5 volume e-book edition from Sharpe Books and remembering the excellence of “I, Hogarth” gave the first book a go.  This is an account of the events leading up to the assassination in 1922 of Weimar Republic Foreign Minister, Walter Rathenau, who was Jewish.  It is debatable whether Hitler’s rise to power would have happened without this event as Rathenau was on the verge of bringing about the renegotiation of the Treaty Of Versailles, which was one of the main causes, as we no doubt remember from school history lessons of Hitler’s ascendancy and World War II.

Story-wise this is gripping stuff. I knew nothing about Rathenau and the build-up to his demise is genuinely grim.  However, and this entailed quite a bit of double-checking to see whether this was in fact the same Michael Dean whose handling of historical fiction I had so loved before, the style is bizarre, making it one of the oddest books I have read in a while.

Dean is here very factual, outlining the events as in a non-fiction work.  There’s a messy prologue which I had to read a couple of times to make sense of and even in the main text his style seems like notes or an outline for what could have been a tremendous novel.  Occasionally, scenes are developed, particularly here in terms of Rathenau’s homosexuality which left him vulnerable to blackmail and this together with increasing hatred of his religion amongst parts of German society gives the man a very strong personal dimension to write about.  But Dean could have done so much more with this material.  The research is impeccable, but unlike in “I, Hogarth” he does not consistently do the next step of merging that research into the fiction.  This seems to be an odd stylistic choice here as this is an author who can really bring history to life.  Here his telling rather than showing his audience is off balance which feels ultimately unsatisfactory.  When the facts are developed it’s good but it is not done to an extent that I would have hoped for in this short novel.  I’m wondering if this was a kind of tacked-on prequel as it was the second in the series “The Crooked Cross” that I knew about prior to this.  All is certainly not lost and I remain interested in the series but I think that the potential to develop the life of this significant man into a superb slab of fiction has been slightly missed.

Before The Darkness was published by Sharpe Books in 2015.  It is published as a stand-alone but it is better value at the moment to buy the five book “Darkness Into Light” collection.

The Sea The Sea – Iris Murdoch (1978)

Does anyone still read Iris Murdoch these days?  She seems to have gone out of fashion.  I haven’t read her since 1997 when “The Green Knight” (1993), one of her later novels, really did nothing for me but back in the early-mid 80’s I read quite a few and one of my favourites was this 1978 Booker Prize winning title. I couldn’t actually remember any details of what it was about but I have over the years experienced occasional echoes of what I recalled as a very atmospheric piece which has the sea central to the characters and plot.

Actually, on re-read the sea wasn’t quite as omnipresent as I thought I remembered.  This is the tale of Charles Arrowby, a notable aging thespian, who retires to a simple life in a pretty ropey house close to the sea in order to escape London life.  The novel starts off as his memoir, a record of the women in his life, until the people he is writing about appear back in his isolated existence.  At first it seems almost as if he is hallucinating, early on he spots what he believes to be a sea monster in the waves and with people from his past re-appearing the reader suspects he is losing his grip on his mental faculties.  But, however implausible their reasons for being back in his life they are there and this coming and going at one point resembles a theatrical farce.  When he re- encounters the person he saw as the love of his life the novel shifts into a record of obsession.

Mid-way through I was finding it quite magnificent with the always fairly obnoxious Charles out of control, misjudging situations and behaving inappropriately.  It feels like it has come to a conclusion in a couple of places but Murdoch continues the tale using her love of analysis and philosophy which is both characteristic of her as a writer and occasionally a little wearying which might explain why she is not read as much as she used to be. She is not an easy read, her references make the text quite dense and there is much navel-gazing from her characters.  I remembered why I liked her so much and why I also found her frustrating but I was left with the general impression that I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did the first time round decades ago. The world she creates seems more alien now, it is not always easy to get what is motivating the characters and particularly here why Charles Arrowby is considered an attractive proposition when he is so hard to like. I did very much like the magnetic pull of the sea which she describes brilliantly throughout.

I’m not sure whether the Iris Murdoch revival is imminent but I was glad to revisit as she is one of those people whose demise has overshadowed her work.  The accounts of her heart-breaking dementia in her final years have been famously portrayed by her husband in writing and film adaptation and the image I have had stuck in my mind is this fervently intellectual mind ending up devouring episodes of “Teletubbies”.  Reading a work from when she was in her prime has rebalanced this for me.

The Sea The Sea was first published in 1978.  I read a Vintage Classics paperback edition.

The Governor’s Lady – Norman Collins (1968)

Books by British author Norman Collins (1907-82) are now hard to find, which is a great shame as the two I have read by him, “London Belongs To Me” (1945) and “Bond Street Story” (1958) have both ended up in my end of year Top 10s.  I was delighted to spot a hardback Book Club edition from around the time of publication in a vintage book section of a charity shop.  Doubly delighted because Christopher Fowler in his “Book Of Forgotten Authors” (2017) who reminded me of this author said this was his favourite describing it as “ a colonial story of secrets, lies and endless ineptitude among Africans and the English.”

Although I was thrilled to find this to be honest I wasn’t convinced I was going to like it when I began it.  Largely set in the 1930s in the fictional colonial nation of Amimbo my hackles were very much raised as to how this would read in 2022.  It begins and ends with an epilogue set probably close to the time when it was published but travels back to the early 1930s for the bulk of the narrative.

It is the tale of Harold Stebbs who begins working as part of the Governor Sir Gardnor Hackforth’s team.  The Governor is a man tolerated by the locals but holding out for the Viceroy of India post.  His wife, of the title, is bored, drinks heavily and seeks lovers to pass the time and to get away from her companion Sybil who is unhealthily devoted to her.  The action moves to a safari trip, where Hackforth becomes obsessed with hunting a leopard, in a section which I was also sure I wasn’t going to like but tragedy strikes more than once which takes the book into an unexpected direction.

There was something about reading this matt covered hardback from a Book Club of the late 60’s that I found reassuringly nostalgic and that probably had me more invested than if I had read an e-book edition.  There’s definitely something about Collins’ writing style which I find so appealing.  The richness of detail, as I have mentioned in reviews of his other books, can be almost Dickensian but there’s a delicious irony in the narrative voice which suggests he isn’t always taking things too seriously.  This book which I wasn’t expecting to enjoy that much due to its settings and what I perceived its values would be ended up being thoroughly enjoyable and kept me involved until the end.  Collins was a man very involved with the early days of commercial television and there’s a very visual, observational element to his work which is also quite splendid.  That’s three out of three five star ratings for him and now I am going to have to do some hunting around to source other out of print titles.  (He wrote 16 novels in a long career which spanned from 1932-81).

The Governor’s Lady was first published in 1968 by Collins in the UK.  I read a hardbook Book Club edition.

Other Names For Love – Taymour Soomro (Harvill Secker 2022)

Pakistani author Taymour Soomro’s debut sees teenage Fahad very reluctantly accompanying his father to his upcountry farm estate in Abad, an area developed largely from jungle as his power-hungry father is keen to tell everyone.  Fahad would rather spend his summer with his mother in London or Karachi but Rafik wants to toughen him up, show off his own power and influence in the area and present Fahad as the next generation.

Fahad is unable to fit into his father’s image of him.  Things seem to improve when ex-London resident and Rafik’s cousin Mousey returns home but his motives challenge Rafik’s plans.  A young man, Ali, is introduced to Fahad as a role model but Fahad finds himself attracted to him.

Tradition and the importance of family are two unsurprising themes here with those unable to sustain those values being swept aside.  The characters are unable to express their feelings to one another causing long lasting frustration and resentment.  Rafik’s need for power and prestige cannot allow anyone to stand in his way.

The story is well told and there are some lovely moments especially in the interactions between characters, Fahad with the “young thug” Ali and also with his aging father in the latter stages of the novel but for me it did not have the resonance I was expecting.

The author switches from father to son’s perspective within the third person narrative and there are jumps in time which gives a jerky, disjointed feel at times which sometimes I can actually appreciate in novels but here I think it affects the reader’s relationships with the characters.

I didn’t feel that I knew the characters well enough.  There is so much potential within the cast here, Rafik, Fahad, the mother, father’s cousin Mousey and Ali have all potential to blend into something outstanding but I felt the author was only allowing me to have a superficial understanding of them as if something was being held back.  I felt this particularly with main character Fahad, on this occasion leaving the reader to fill in the gaps influences the reader’s response to him.  I felt I wasn’t being pulled in to the novel as consistently as I could have been.

I do feel however that Taymour Soomro has provided us with a very visual work and there are considerable poignant, subtle scenes.  A TV/film adaptation could work very well indeed incorporating these beautiful small moments within the novel into a visual narrative.

Other Names For Love is published by Harvill Secker on 7th July 2022.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Rainbow Milk- Paul Mendez (2020)

I have at last got round to a book I highlighted in my annual “What I Should Have Read” post back at the end of 2020.  Excellent reviews on publication and fulsome praise by Bernardine Evaristo on the teatime Richard & Judy Bookclub during lockdown had me eagerly anticipating and I bought the paperback the day it was published.  That was February 2021 and inexplicably it just stayed on the shelf.  I was beginning to think it might not live up to my long-held expectations and that may have been the reason I was choosing other titles.  The recent series of BBC’s book show “Between The Covers” saw more praise from author and comedian Deborah Frances-White who described it as “so beautiful, so literary” when selecting it as her favourite book pick.  This made me realise I had procrastinated for too long.

I knew the outline for this book, Jesse, a young black male from the Midlands who has grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness is disfellowshipped because of rumours about his sexuality and flees to London and becomes a sex worker.  I knew it would be edgy, explicit, and that debut author Paul Mendez enjoyed  proclamations that an important new British voice had arrived with his writing which was said to have a strong autobiographical element.

This only goes someway.  It actually begins in the 1950s with recent immigrants Norman and Claudette and their two small children discovering the British dream they’d been tempted by wasn’t quite true and with Norman becoming unwell Charlotte was having to hold down two jobs while he looked after the children.  Jesse’s story begins 50 pages in and it is not clear for a considerable time how the two strands connect.

Despite Deborah Frances-White’s TV recommendation I was still surprised by how well rounded and literary this debut is.  It increasingly reminded me of the best work of Booker Prize winning Alan Hollinghurst.  Yes, it is explicit and I hope that the details of how the young Jesse makes his money to survive in London will not deter readers because this is just one element of a story which amazingly given the subject matter is full of hope and life-affirming.

Mendez handles language very well and there is a multi-sensory richness to his work.  He uses two potential pitfalls well.  He’s not afraid of dialect, especially in the early scenes where Jamaica meets Black Country.  At one point a French character is introduced and whilst reading a lengthy explanation from her I wondered if Mendez was just pushing this a little too far but her role in the novel is brief.  The other thing which he does well which is not always a success in fiction is rooting in its time through the use of many music references.  The sound of the Sugababes, turn of the Millennium R&B and hiphop and earlier bands such as Joy Division permeate and enhance this novel. This is a very strong, confident debut and I hope that given the two years since publication that Paul Mendez will soon be ready with something else to further boost his reputation. 

Rainbow Milk was published in 2020 by Dialogue Books   

The Kingdom Of Sand – Andrew Holleran (Jonathan Cape 2022)

Andrew Holleran’s 1978 debut “Dancer From The Dance” was amongst the first prominent novels written from the gay male experience which infiltrated the mainstream.  I read it probably before I was ready for it and it’s a novel I thought I would revisit one day as it is now established within the gay writing canon and is pretty rare as it was both written and set in the hedonistic post-Stonewall pre-AIDS era.   

In a career where publications have been sporadic I was surprised by the news of this his 5th novel and was very interested to explore this writer’s perspectives 44 years on from that debut.  I cannot fault the quality of the writing but from my personal standpoint this is one of the most depressing books I have ever read.

It is a raw, brutally honest study of gay men, loneliness and death.  This is the generation who survived the epidemic which emerged a few years after Holleran’s debut and here they are decades on being snuffed out one by one in barren, lonely lives in small town America.

The starting point is the narrator’s invitation from his sister to spend Christmas with her.  This would mean a departure from his rituals and routines he carries out in his dead parents’ house to which he has returned and cannot move on from.  The novel is a meditation on getting old, of still not being able to fit in, of loneliness and a paranoid fear of the future for that can only involve greater isolation, sickness and death.  Much of it features the slow demise of the narrator’s friend, Earl, ten years his senior and surviving to get through his pile of old movie DVDs whilst being observed closely by the narrator for parallels to his own situation and what this would mean for him in the not too distant future.

There’s no real physical decline in the narrator.  His home environment has shrunk him to a fearful shadow roaming the streets at night, even though he has friends, seems to regularly travel to Washington and still functions as a sexual being but for him his outlook is totally bleak.

Such nihilistic writing might have really appealed were I not on the wrong side of 50.  There’s too many nerves being touched and too much triggering going on for this to be anything but a difficult read. There’s also the issue of lightness and shade.  There’s little lightness here, where there is humour it is so black it actually drags the reader down further rather than providing relief.  Writers like Douglas Stuart have very successfully shown huge ability recently in making difficult subjects not only readable but very entertaining.  There’s a balance to be struck, I feel, but Holleran does not permit this here.  I’m wondering if this could at least be partly down to the difference between American and British viewpoints where we have a tendency to seek for humour in the darkest times.  I can’t just say this book is not for me and leave it at that because this book is exactly for me, but like when I read “Dancer From The Dance” all those years ago, I’m not sure I’m ready for it.

However, all this being said there are very important issues Holleran raises here and he is doing so in a style which will linger on in the reader’s mind and his writing is engrossing and actually really quite seductive (okay, it can be repetitive but I’m putting this down to emphasis).  It is no way a disappointment and has the potential to garner much critical praise and win awards but it is just very difficult to see things laid so bare and I felt quite relieved when I finished this book.

The Kingdom Of Sand is published on 9th June 2022 in the UK by Jonathan Cape.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Village That Died For England -Patrick Wright (1995)

December 1943- The sleepy coastal Dorset village, Tyneham, is taken over by the British Military for use as a firing range, incorporating it into neighbouring areas such as Lulworth and Bovington, already being used for manoeuvres and tanks.  The village, which included a school, church and post office is emptied of its residents who are relocated to other parts of Dorset.  They are told they can come back when the war is over.  They never return.

These are the bare bones.  It’s certainly not as simple as this idyllic bit of lost England being subsumed by officialdom suggests and Patrick Wright is on hand to tell this story which feels as British as an Ealing film comedy.

Having recently moved to Dorset after only ever holidaying here decades ago I’m finding myself stirred by long distant memories and back in the early 1980s I could recall a visit to a lost, abandoned village.  I hadn’t thought about it for years but moving here I began to wonder about it, I couldn’t even recall its name.  I saw this in Dorchester’s Waterstones and realised this was just the book to fill in the memory gaps.

I read the 1995 hardback edition from the library but it was reissued in paperback in 2021 by Repeater Books with a new introduction which brings the story up to date.

This is an unusual non-fiction choice for me and I wasn’t totally at ease with the author’s style, initially.  I found it slightly wandering to begin with and he didn’t bring me in  as a newcomer to his subject- I felt he assumed I’d know things I didn’t and with the passage of time there will be fewer of us who remember the national controversy over Tyneham which simmered from the war years onwards so a new edition would seem a good idea.

It is far less about the good, dislocated people of Tyneham than the reasons for the decisions made for them and the development of this part of the Dorset coast in National Defence.  There’s some memorable characters who made their home in this area before the war, including Rolf Gardiner, who promoted youth work camps and of whom there’s quite a bit here; the literary set of the Powys family as well as the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner and her same-sex partner Valentine Ackland; the fiery squire of the Lulworth Castle who may or may not have been tainted by the Curse of Tutankhamun and who sat and watched  his castle burn down in 1929 (I’ve just found out it was restored and is now an English Heritage site).  In his bringing these people back to life Wright’s account shines brightest.

There’s some mileage to be had in the rival associations aiming to repopulate Tyneham in the late 1960s-70s where hippy idealism both works with and clashes against the established order with young firebrand Rodney Legg taking central stage.

It is more than a story of lost England as within Tyneham’s takeover and the decades spent in trying to get it back for the residents there’s really a pocket guide to the shifts in values and priorities of the nation.  Class, unsubstantiated fears and prejudices and relationships with authority all play their fascinating part in this tale which is equally complex and straightforward.  A measure of the success of this type of book is whether it makes me want to read more about the subject and although I feel that most of the texts would be bucolic reminiscences from those who lived thereabouts at the time Wright has certainly piqued my interest.  I also think a visit to Tyneham might be on the cards.

I read the Jonathan Cape 1995 hardback edition but it would probably be easier to find the 2021 Repeater paperback reissue.