The Glass Of Time – Michael Cox (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020- What I Should Have Read

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

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

No Shame – Tom Allen (Hodder Studio)

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

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

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

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (Dialogue Books)

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

The Windsor Knot – S J Bennett (Zaffre 2020)

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

Troubled Blood – Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

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

Rainbow Milk – Paul Mendez (Dialogue Books)

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

Let’s Do It- Jasper Rees (Trapeze)

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

Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador)

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

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

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

A Dutiful Boy- Mohsin Zaidi (Square Peg)

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

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

The Lottery And Other Stories – Shirley Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such A Fun Age – Kiley Reid (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

Lot- Bryan Washington (2019)

This critically acclaimed collection of linked short stories is the winner of the 2020 Dylan Thomas Prize (given to the best work by a writer under the age of forty), was a New York Times Top 10 Book Of The Year and was publicly lauded by Barack Obama.  I don’t often seek out the short story format in my reading choices but I do have Washington’s debut novel “Memorial” due out in the UK in early 2021 on my reading schedule and I was interested in finding out more about this writer before I begin his novel and short stories are often a good way to get to know a writer.

In “Lot” we have 13 stories ranging from 3 pages in length to around 30 pages for the collection’s closer “Elgin”.  All are set in regions of urban Houston, which is where the author resides.  The majority of them feature the same characters at different parts of their lives, a narrator Nicolas, his brother Javi and sister Jan and their parents, a Latino father and Black mother. The family run a restaurant and the young Nicolas is coming to terms with his sexuality in a very macho culture. 

Occasionally the stories stray away from this family grouping.  One I found very involving was the more mystical “Bayou” where a couple of teens discover a creature of legend – the Chupacabra and see it as a potential means of escape from their existence and also the equally impressive “Waugh” where a young street hustler finds his own way out and attempts to save a recently diagnosed HIV+ friend.  Looking for escape is a common theme but most often the characters are so embroiled in their everyday existence that they do not take it.

This is a selection of powerful, often brutal stories which certainly have me looking forward to reading Washington’s debut novel.

“Lot” was published in 2019.  I read the 2020 Atlantic paperback edition.

Madam – Phoebe Wynne (Quercus 2021)

Here is advance notification of a title scheduled to appear in February 2021,  a debut novel set largely in the early 1990s.  Twenty-six year old Classics teacher Rose is offered a job at a prestigious private girls’ school in coastal North East Scotland.  Caldonbrae is offering a Head of Department job and more money which will enable continued care for her mother in a residential home.  It doesn’t take Rose that long to realise the school is not all that it seems.

This modern Gothic tinged tale is good at establishing atmosphere especially at the beginning when Rose becomes aware that she is an outsider to events going on around her in a way which felt reminiscent of horror classic “Rosemary’s Baby”.  The school is keeping secrets from her and she is being manipulated by them but just how dark are these secrets? 

It takes the best part of a school year for Rose to fully cotton on to what is happening and this gives it the feel of a modern-day school-based slant on “Rebecca”.  Rose struggles to keep up normality, we find out much about the content of the curriculum and classic and mythological women are introduced to the students with Rose increasingly using these as teaching aids to help convey her concerns to the extraordinarily educationally passive girls.

I do think the book is a little too long, a little tweaking would have intensified the atmosphere, I think we linger a little too long in the classrooms and this slow build up isn’t quite justified by the final revelations and the working out of the plot’s climax.  Nevertheless, it is very readable and I enjoyed the feminist slant to the modern gothic novel.  It also has the potential to make a very good film/tv adaptation.

Madam is scheduled to be published by Quercus on 18th February 2021.

A Rising Man – Abir Mukherjee (2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

This is a book which often appears in best crime series debuts and mystery/thriller recommendations lists.  I did the unusual thing (for me) of reading the third in this series “Smoke And Ashes” when it came out in 2018 and with the recent publication of the fourth in paperback I thought I’d start off at the proper place – the beginning- especially as I enjoyed very much the book I did read.

“A Rising Man” introduces Police Captain Sam Wyndham, recently arrived in Calcutta in 1919 and billeted in a British run guest-house where the food he is served up puts him at greater risk from illness than if he took his chances on the streets of Calcutta.

He is called to a street murder of a senior Civil Servant and he meets up with Surendranath Banerjee, nicknamed “Surrender-not” by British officers unwilling to learn the correct pronunciation of his name, who becomes Wyndham’s sidekick in this series.  The pair set out to uncover the murderer amongst growing unrest in the local population which comes to a head when news of a massacre by British troops in Amritsar travels to Calcutta.

This novel won the 2107 Historical Dagger at the Crime Writers Awards so I was expecting big things.  I was impressed by it but I think I just slightly preferred “Smoke And Ashes” which felt a little pacier and by which time Abir Mukherjee had confidently established the characters.  Wyndham’s flaw is a predilection for opium as a result of the trauma of the war years and the loss of his wife in the flu epidemic straight afterwards, an addiction which he will certainly have the opportunity to explore in early Twentieth Century Calcutta.

This is a strong debut with a satisfactory conclusion and has set the series up appealingly and I am keen to seek out the other titles.

A Rising Man was published by Harvill Secker in 2016.  I read the 2017 Vintage paperback edition.

A Christmas Memory – Truman Capote (Penguin Classics 2020)

With the reign of my current Book Of The Year “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott coming to an end I have made good my promise to myself to explore further the writings of her central character, Truman Capote.  Penguin Classics have put out for this festive season a collection of six of his short stories around the theme of Christmas.

I read an early review edition which was without any introduction which I would have really appreciated to put these tales in context.  I’m not sure whether this would be put right in the published version but it seems the stories span from 1945 when Capote was a callow youth of 21 to a tale which is copyrighted 1982 so may not have seen the light until a couple of years before his death, but I guess was probably written much earlier.

Capote writes with a sense of nostalgia which is so appropriate for the festive period and I could see some of these stories ending up in my “read yearly” list.  I don’t know enough about him to know how autobiographical they are (again an introduction would have helped).  The first three feature the narrator’s relationship with an elderly yet almost child-like female cousin, Miss Sook, who the young protagonist adores.  “A Christmas Memory” is a wistful tale of seasonal preparations and their relationship is explored further in “A Thanksgiving Visitor” (okay, not quite Xmas) where her role as care-giver and educator is enhanced.  The young boy spends Christmas with an absent father in “One Christmas.” The least successful story “Master Misery” dates from 1949 and is a more brittle New York tale with a female main character which deals in the importance of dreams and will no doubt have some bearing on his later (1958) novel which confirmed his literary superstar status, “Breakfast At Tiffanys”.

My favourite story is also not especially Christmassy, “Children On Their Birthdays” shows strong characterisation and his plot of a new young female arrival in town is highly involving.  It is also characterisation which is the strong point of “Jug Of Silver” but it is not as fully realised as its predecessor in the book. 

This has really whetted my appetite for more Capote.  I like his style.  He handles the short story format well and I’m even beginning to feel a little more joyous towards the coming festival after reading it.

A Christmas memory was published by Penguin Classics on 5th November 2020. Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the review copy.

Hungry – Grace Dent (Mudlark 2020) – A Real Life Review

I know who Grace Dent is.  I occasionally read her restaurant reviews in The Guardian and in other publications over the years and she generally makes me laugh.  I know her as a talking head on nostalgia programmes reminiscing about a biscuit or forgotten gem of Children’s TV. I don’t know much more than that about her but my interest was certainly piqued by the arrival of this work.  Subtitled “A memoir of wanting more”, when I finished it I was the one who was certainly wanting more.

Grace won me over from the Epigraph which conveys the wisdom of Coronation Street’s Ena Sharples circa 1965; “When I was a little lass, the world was half a dozen streets, an’ a bit of waste land, an’ the rest was all talk.”  Grace’s all talk is an upbringing in Carlisle and the importance food played in her working class Cumbrian home runs throughout as she develops a palate from the tinned Fray Bentos pie to unimaginably posh food at top London restaurants.  As Grace moves into a world of journalism, London magazines, working with Piers Morgan (life’s not always a bowl of cherries, I suppose) she remains the girl who swung around lampposts waiting to be called in for her tea.

Her relationship with family is beautifully conveyed, especially her parents and particularly her Dad as he begins to slip away from them with dementia which as the book moves towards the present day has a potent pull on Grace’s priorities. 

It is full of superb observations on life and the recalling of the 80’s and 90’s is palpable.  I relished her reflections, such as the most significant person in eighties Cumbria being the woman who worked in the big Asda in Carlisle with the price reduction gun.  I like a memoir where the writer carries you along establishing points of common contact and yet telling their own story and I think Grace Dent does this brilliantly here. 

I haven’t enjoyed a food-based memoir as much since Nigel Slater’s “Toast” (2003) and like that book it is the people fuelled by the food who really are memorable.

Hungry was published by Mudlark on 29th October 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle – Shirley Jackson (1962)

I’ve always been a bit sniffy about the novella.  As recently as June this year in my review of Adam Mars-Jones’ “Box Hill” I said; “My main quibble comes with the novella form.  I end up feeling slightly short-changed”.  Could this be the book which has at last caused a change of heart?  Over 146 pages in the Penguin Classics paperback edition Shirley Jackson creates a superb, unsettling Gothic tale with an unreliable narrator and a series of beautifully written set-pieces which will forge this book forever in this reader’s memory.

I have never read American author Shirley Jackson (1916-65).  I know her career was established by short-stories and short form novels where a surface respectability hid tales of darkness.  In a superb opening we meet 18 year old Mary Katherine Blackwood (known as “Merricat”) negotiating her twice weekly trip into her local village as a kind of board game where her fate may be decided by a roll of the dice.  She perceives great hostility from those she encounters before returning to her sizeable family home now occupied only by her sister and an ailing uncle who do not leave the premises.  The veneer of respectability is tested when neighbours come to take tea in what is almost a parody of a familiar social situation.  We know something is very awry with this family and that the girls’ parents, brother and aunt all died on the same night within this house.  Merricat herself is happy with the unchanged world of isolation which has become the norm the last six years until a cousin comes to visit which makes things fall further out of kilter.

There’s a menace throughout which is stifling but that runs alongside Merricat’s often simplistic observations.  Even though none of the plot twists are surprising we end up with an extraordinary work where the lines between innocence and guilt are blurred, where the narrator continually disturbs and the horror story and fairy tale lay side by side without either becoming more than subtle.  I thoroughly enjoyed this and feel that I have discovered a writer who will continue to resonate strongly with me.  Length-wise it was perfect and I don’t think I have often said that about a novella before.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle was first published in 1962.  I read the 2009 Penguin Classics paperback edition which has an afterword by Joyce Carol Oates.