The Song Collector – Natasha Solomons (Sceptre 2015)

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Natasha Solomon’s fourth novel provides my introduction to her work.  It is a novel about music, which can be a hit or miss affair in fiction but here it works extremely well.  Central to the plot is Hartgrove Hall, a country house, which at the earliest chronological spot of the story, November 1946, is being reclaimed by the Fox-Talbot family after being requisitioned by the military during the war.  This has left it neglected, beginning a decline which will see the next generation striving to turn back.

The youngest of the three Fox-Talbot sons, Harry, is a “song collector”, a music fanatic determined to catalogue every folk song he encounters.  The house becomes a springboard for his musical achievements when he composes a symphony in tribute to it which establishes his career.  The narrative follows two timeframes, the second being Harry’s attempts to get his life back on track following the death of his wife, Edie, a wartime singer of great repute, who we first meet as his older brother’s girlfriend.  The earlier strand is a love story as to how Harry and Edie got together and their attempts to save Hartgrove Hall. It is also very much a love-song to music itself.  This provides Harry’s redemption, his means of keeping hopes of retaining his home alive and also with his musically-gifted grandson it provides his chance to celebrate Edie and to pick up some of the pieces following her demise.

Solomons is a gifted writer.  This is a confident, mature piece with both music and the old house conjuring up an air of yearning which is strong throughout.  There was a point when I noted the unusual occurrence for me of favouring the modern narrative strand rather than the post-war years. (Normally with this type of book I relish the earlier years and tolerate the more modern strand).  I did become engrossed in the relationship between grandfather and grandson and felt a little disappointed when it switched back to Harry and Edie’s earlier love triangle.  Having said this all aspects of the novel are highly satisfactory.  It is very close to a five star read, but it does look like in 2017 I’m going to be just as stingy at giving them out.  A five star book is assured of a permanent place on my bookshelves so with space limited has to really blow me away.  I do sense that Natasha Solomons has a five star book within her (perhaps in her back catalogue, “Mr Rosenblaum’s List” seems highly appraised) or with her next work but for me it just misses out on the ultimate accolade this time round.

“The Song Collector” has been shortlisted for the Bookhugger Book Of The Year over at Nudge books.  Take a look to see the other nominations and if this is your favourite read of the year vote for Natasha Solomons You have until  10th February to register your vote.

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The Song Collector was published in hardback in 2015 and in paperback by Sceptre in March 2016.

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His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet (2016)- A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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“To put to death an individual with the sensibility and intelligence to produce an extended literary work, would I strongly aver, be a cruel and uncivilised act.”

As far as I am concerned one of the best things about Book Awards is when they introduce me to something that I would never have otherwise discovered.  This is how I feel about “His Bloody Project”.  Emanating from Scottish independent publishers, Saraband,  this is Burnet’ s second novel.  Subtitled “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae”, Burnet takes us to the crofting community of the Scottish highlands in 1869 where 17 year old Macrae commits three murders.  Macrae kept a prison journal and this forms the basis of these documents together with transcripts from the trial, witness statements and reports from contemporary experts in criminal psychology.  If this reads like true crime masquerading as fiction then it is testament as to how spot on Burnet’s recreation of Macrae and his environment is.

This is impressive, superbly researched historical fiction with the author bringing in a couple of real life characters in the form of Macrae’s solicitor and the psychologist employed to assess the killer’s sanity.  Were Macrae’s actions a result of insanity or was he pushed to act because of a campaign of harassment against his family?  Macrae, deemed to be very bright by those who taught him but unable to escape his circumstances is not a totally reliable narrator.  There are a couple of very relevant points he omits from his journal which we discover during  the trial.

Compared to true crime accounts such as Kate Summerscale’s “The Wicked Boy” the fictional approach obviously allows for added depth in the documentation which makes this a very rich and rewarding read.  This is a book which will be strongly competing for my Book Of The Year and will hopefully win over the Man Booker judges much in the same way as it has won me over.  There is a potential large audience for this book as it will satisfy historical and crime writing fans and there’s also lots for reading groups to discuss.

Update – Sept 13th –  Huge Congratulations to Graeme McRae Burnet  for making the shortlist.

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His Bloody Project was published by Contraband, an imprint of Saraband in November 2015.

Mainlander – Will Smith (Fourth Estate 2015)

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Will Smith is a TV comedy writer, actor and stand-up. He has won the Time Out Comedy Award for his solo comedy shows and is perhaps now best known for his political satire writing, especially on “The Thick Of It” in the UK and as writer and exectutive producer of “Veep” in the US.  Amongst his other awards he has won an Emmy, two Writers Guild Of America awards and has been Golden Globe nominated.  This is his first novel.  It’s certainly a departure from what he has been noted for.  It’s not a comic novel, by any means.  The Independent described it as “John Le Carre meets Middlemarch”.  I’m wondering whether I have read the same book.

Smith grew up in Jersey and you can certainly tell this as a real sense of the location is one of the most impressive aspects in this debut.  True, it may not be that hard to know every inch of an island only approximately nine miles by five but you get the sense that Smith certainly does.  Set over an eleven day period in October 1987 this explores the oddness of living on an island where everyone really does know everyone else and the loneliness and sense of dislocation that can entail.  As an “overner” living on an island myself (although somewhat larger) I can identify with some of this.

The problem with the novel for me is that Smith’s characters are not particularly likeable and their misfortunes are largely because of their own actions but they are secondary to the character of Jersey itself.  It is a place where secrets cannot last, where the need to maintain tourism can threaten common sense and where the beauty of the location (which comes across very well) has to be balanced against a resistance to change, a hostility to mainlanders and where the unpleasant aspect of the 80’s lust for wealth and success is magnified.

There’s considerable potential for reading groups to discuss the role the location has to play in the novel.  I must admit I ended up considerably fascinated about life on Jersey with plot and characters not quite as memorable.

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Mainlander was published by Fourth Estate in 2015

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George (Abacus 2015)

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This is the second German novel about bookshops I have read recently (the other being Thomas Montasser’s “A Very Special Year”).  Translated by Simon Pare this has been a big European seller and perhaps unsurprisingly given the title from an author who lives in Brittany and Hamburg it is far more Gallic than Germanic.

It is a novel about moving on and is one that might provoke more response at times in our lives when this feels relevant.  Jean Perdu’s bookshop is on a restored barge and it seems to be a fabulous place.  The owner sees it as his “literary apothecary” and loves to prescribe books for his customers depending on their needs.  I relished this aspect of the story but George is quick to move on and let the books take more of a back seat than I was expecting (certainly more than in the Montasser novel).  Perdu (appropriately French for “lost”) is stuck in his own life from a relationship that ended suddenly twenty years ago.  An attempt to get back into the romance game leads to a discovery and a setting sail for the barge on a canal journey south.  He is joined by Max, a young author struggling with celebrity and a couple of cats together with others with their own issues who they meet along the way.

The experience of the voyage rather than the books themselves provide the stimulus for lives to be put back in order- the books are used as currency and occasional free gifts.  There’s a lot of French food (recipes at the back) and those Francophiles who relish the attitude and way of life of the French (admittedly from a German point of view) will lap this up.  As far as I was concerned it did not hang together consistently.  I was involved, then frustrated, involved then frustrated.  The fact that I did not get wholly dragged into the story did make me feel like a cynical curmudgeon and that’s not the best self-image to be left with after completing the book.

Perhaps if I had read it another point in my life Nina George’s gentle tale of facing up to things which freeze us might have really won me over.  As it is, like the restored barge, it just drifted along.  I wanted the book boat to have a more central role.  I did very much enjoy the main character’s prescription of an Emergency Literary Pharmacy of book titles at the end.

It’s hard not to compare it with the Montasser novel as both are recently published, are on similar themes and translated from German.  I think the Montasser just has it for me, although it is a slighter read.  I think both choices, however, would be good for reading groups or book clubs.

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The Little Paris Bookshop was published by Abacus in 2015.

Rembrandt’s Mirror – Kim Devereux (Atlantic 2015)

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You can tell this debut novel has been a labour of love.  It is thoroughly researched, deftly handled and interestingly structured using some of the artist’s works as a way into his life and loves.  At the beginning of the novel Rembrandt’s much loved wife Saskia dies of tuberculosis.  His housekeeper Geertje is on hand to offer care for his young son, Titus, and before long a more physical support for Rembrandt.  This arrangement changes, with long-standing legal ramifications when central character Hendrickje enters the household.

At first Hendrickje is enchanted by Rembrandt’s pupil, Samuel, a friendship which sparkles with romantic potential but the magnetism of the master cannot be ignored.  Much of the tale is told by Hendrickje with occasional switches to a more detached omniscient narration.  These switches did jar with me a little but I can see that, at times, it was important to distance ourselves slightly from events.  The novel did have me regularly wanting to seek out Rembrandt’s artwork and helpfully the author’s website has links to the pictures referenced.

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Rembrandt by Rembrandt

Rembrandt was an artist who produced many self-portraits in his lifetime holding up a mirror to his world.  Was this because he was self-obsessed, a cheap and easy model or because they actually sold so well?  This was a man of great allure whose genius allowed him to charm women, pacify creditors and this Devereux conveys this magnetism well, as an aspect of the genius of the artist.  Personally, if I were Hendrickje I might have opted for the pupil, Samuel, but Rembrandt’s intensity, his frustrating personality and charm won out.

I very much enjoyed being immersed in Seventeenth Century Netherlands.  The struggle for survival and the threats to health are excellently depicted.  I think this novel would be a great reading group choice for an effective combination of art appreciation and very good quality fiction.

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Rembrandt’s Mirror was published in hardback by Atlantic in 2015 and  is now available in paperback (red cover) in June 2016.  Rumour has it that an interview I carried out with Kim Devereux for newbooks magazine will be published in their summer issue (July 2016)

Wolfhound Century – Peter Higgins (Gollancz 2015)

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Every so often I feel the need to give fantasy fiction a go.  I know there are books of this genre that do have the potential to blow me away, but they seem to be few and far between.  I was keen to read the first part of Peter Higgins’ trilogy which also incorporates “Truth and Fear “ and “Radiant State”.  With all three novels in Peter Higgins’ trilogy now published, Gollancz has re-issued in a new edition the first volume, which originally appeared in 2013.

There is no doubt that this is a richly imagined world.  A war amongst angels has caused a number of them to crash down to earth and become embedded in the ground, turning to stone on impact.  Angel stone has properties used to control individuals and to form Mudjhik, giant stone creatures used in warfare.  When an Archangel secretly falls to earth without dying, his embedded body slowly poisons the surroundings, controls and invades minds and causes the odd seismic interference.  If you are with me so far then it is likely that you will enjoy this book.

Policeman Lom is seconded  by a Government Department to track down a terrorist and is drawn into a complex scenario of intrigue and violence.  I did find that I had to read the first half very slowly to take on board Higgins’ vivid imagination but once we’re  in the realm of fight or flight things begin to slot into place.  It reminded me of writers such as China Meiville, whose “Kraken” I read and really didn’t get on with but I did find this more accessible and enjoyed it more.  I am still looking for writers to provide me with a good point of entry into this genre, so if anyone has any ideas please let me know.  I’m not convinced that this would be a good introduction to fantasy fiction as there are considerable demands made on the reader but there is no denying the vividness of the language and the quality of Peter Higgins’  imagination.

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The Wolfhound Century was published in this new edition by Gollancz in 2015.  It was previously published in 2013.

The Angel Of Highgate – Vaughn Entwistle (Titan 2015)

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The publishers claim this book is a prequel to Entwistle’s “Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”.  The eminent Victorian is not present in this tale but his sense of mystery, adventure and great storytelling certainly runs through this highly enjoyable novel.  All the elements for a popular Victorian melodrama are here – a raffish hero, dastardly baddies, opium dens, prostitutes, duels, disguise, séances, pea-soupers – you can tick all the boxes but it’s written with such relish that everything seems fresh.

A startling occurrence in Highgate Cemetery opens proceedings and the hero will certainly begin by shocking his readers.  I once lived very near this cemetery and it fascinated me almost as much as it does lead character Lord Geoffrey Thraxton in this novel (Audrey Niffenegger’s “Her Fearful Symmetry” from 2009 is also memorably set there).  I applied to be  a volunteer but they were keen to enrol me on a night patrol which I didn’t fancy.  Apparently there were strange nocturnal goings on at this time.  This seems, however, no different from the Victorian times as suggested by opening events in this novel.  Lord Thraxton’s philandering does give way to more appropriately heroic behaviour.  As the novel proceeds he becomes less of a cad, especially when he discovers romance amongst the gravestones.  The way he deals, however, with a critic who savages his poetry should make all of us reviewers wince.

This is a splendid romp, fast-paced and very readable with extremely memorable characters.  Thraxton’s friend Algernon Hyde- Davies combines being a man about town with head botanist at Kew Gardens and is extremely likeable and the villains have suitably Dickensian monikers such as Walter Crynge, Barnabus Snudge and Mordecai Fowler.  I haven’t had so much fun in Victorian London since James Benmore’s “Dodger” series.  I’m not sure how this book relates to Entwistle’s other novels but I am confident it would be great to find out.

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The Angel Of Highgate was published by Titan Books in 2015

 

New Books from newbooks

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Unashamed plug now – the new edition of newbooks magazine (issue 87) – the UK magazine for readers and reading groups is out now.  It can be purchased as an individual copy or by subscription at the nudge store here .This is one of the few and undoubtedly the best UK magazine that deals with books.  From this issue I have been given a greater role and have been recruited as the “Community Voice” for Literary Fiction.  This means a regular column and a greater presence over on the Bookhugger section on the associated website Nudge Books .  Just click on the Bookhugger tab on the site for a disarmingly large photo of me!  I am thrilled to now be working for a magazine I have loved for so long and have been contributing to as a reviewer for the last few years,

So what do you get in this issue of newbooks?  Well, as you can see the cuddly Bill Bryson is on the front cover and is the main interview feature.  There are also features on film adaptations of novels, a special feature on recently published debut novelists and articles/interviews on the writers of the four Recommended reads – To stop you squinting at the picture these are:

The Trouble With Goats And Sheep- Joanna Cannon

The Life And Death Of Sophie Stark – Anna North (See my review of this book here)

A Reunion Of Ghosts – Judith Claire Mitchell (this is on my To Be Read list)

The Queen’s Choice – Anne O’Brien

The featured books are all available free (just p&p to pay) for those purchasing the magazine – see the link to the nudge bookshop above for more information on this

As a rounding off to 2015 newbooks readers have been voting for their Book of The Year.  Voting has now closed and the winner will be announced in the next edition due in the spring (I’ll let you know when).  The shortlist for the books in my category – The Bookhugger were as follows:

A God In Ruins- Kate Atkinson

The Blue Guitar – John Banville (Reviewed on reviewsrevues here)

Noonday – Pat Barker

Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Reviewed on reviewsrevues here)

The Green Road – Anne Enright (Reviewed on reviewsrevues here) (Have you seen the paperback edition?  How much more appropriate is that cover?)

Purity – Jonathan Franzen

Fates And Furies – Lauren Groff

The Crossing – Andrew Miller

A Spool Of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler (Reviewed on reviewsrevues here)

These Are The Names – Tommy Wieringa (Reviewed on reviewrevues here)

Anyone who has read my Top 10 Reads of 2015 would be able to work out which one I voted for.  But has it won?  My lips are sealed ………………

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Which would be your favourites from the shortlist?

But what can I find by our esteemed reviewsrevues writer I hear you ask?!  Well, in this edition you will find my overview of the Bookhuggers year, another recommendation for my Book of the 21st Century, reviews of a couple of books from the Costa Award shortlist and a review of Garth Risk Hallberg’s “City On Fire”.  Surely that’s worth the subscription fee alone!!

 

 

 

 

What You’ve Been Reading – The 5 most popular posts of 2015

To finish off my round-up of 2015 and to celebrate what will be at the end of the month my first year of blogging I thought I’d revisit my 100th post – “A Review Retrospective” .  Published in July it looked at the reviews that had been attracting the most attention.  Has the last five months brought about any change, or is it the same posts getting the visitors?  Here is my 2015 most popular reviewsrevues posts Top 5.

5.The Secrets To Ruling School – Neil Swaab (Published 2015.  Reviewed in June)

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The only book in the 5 which didn’t appear in my most read chart back in July, this has attracted a steady stream of visitors for the last half of the year and is the most popular children’s book review on the site.  Neil and I were in contact via Twitter where he thanked me for the review and confessed he had never heard of  the St Custard’s books featuring Molesworth (eg: “Down With Skool” by Geoffrey Wilans) which so entertained British schoolchildren of an earlier generation (perhaps these books didn’t make it over to the USA).  I hope he has managed to track these down as I am sure he would enjoy them…

4. Murder! Hollywood Style- Carol Branston (Published 2015.  Reviewed in May)

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With delightfully trashy characters this recreates nicely the golden days of best sellers by the likes of Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins.  It was great that Carol got in touch with me about the review and agreed to be the very first of my author interviews in my Author Strikes Back strand.  This boosted the traffic to the book and hopefully got the author a lot of sales.  Since then I’ve had a visit from a friend of Carol’s who turned up on my doorstep to pass on Carol’s best wishes.  Who says it’s a lonely life blogging?!!

3. Bell’s A Poppin’ – Madeline Bell (A 2004 CD release of a 1967 album.  Reviewed in March)

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The most read of my CD reviews which has attracted a strong following throughout the year.  Looking at trends there’s a  marked difference between book review readers and CD readers.  It is the newest books that tends to attract the most visitors but it is the older, more obscure music releases that draw the crowds.  It’s great to see that this highly under-rated American performer who recorded this album over here in the UK has not been forgotten.

2. The Mark And The Void – Paul Murray (Published in 2015.  Reviewed in June)

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A case of ever the bridesmaid?  Having just been pipped to the post in my reviewsrevues Book Of the Year rundown by one of the last books I read in 2015 this book which was at the top of the most read pile when I published the 100th post has slipped down to the runner-up position.  Shortlisted at the Irish Book Awards where it would have been a very deserving winner it lost out to Anne Enright’s “The Green Road“.  For me it was the best book published last year and a great achievement.

The most read review in 2015 was…………………………….(fanfare!) (drum rolls)

1.The Murders At White House Farm- Carol Ann Lee (Published in 2015.  Reviewed in June)

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Made number 6 in my Best Books Of The Year and my favourite slab of non-fiction I read in 2015.  This book fascinated and unnerved me and over the last six months the review has managed to surge ahead of its rivals.  This bodes well for the paperback edition which is due in (I think) April.  It was great that Carol Ann got in touch and agreed to my rigorous interviewing technique (!) in my author strikes back strand.  Congratulations to Carol Ann Lee- your book has proved to be the one on reviewsrevues that most readers wanted to find out about!

So it’s now 2016 and time to reset the counters back to zero.  I’ll revisit these statistics for my 200th post (probably not that far away now).

I’ve finished all my year-end retrospectives now – It’s time to get on with 2016!!

My Top Re-Reads of 2015

I re-read 8 books in 2015.  My Top three I have read at least three times- they are books I keep coming back to, so deserve a mention in my round-up of the year.  Just click on the titles to be taken to the full reviews.

3. Krindlekrax – Philip Ridley (Red Fox 1991) (Read in September. Reviewed in October)krindlekrax2  One of my all time favourite children’s book and superb to read aloud.

2. The Crimson Petal And The White – Michel Faber  (Canongate 2002)(Read in March.  Reviewed in September)

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Set in Victorian times this book is a monumental achievement. Unflinching and often explicit with excellent characterisation.

  1. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak  (Black Swan 2007) (Read in January.  Reviewed in April)

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The more I read this book the more I love it.  Just don’t make me watch the film!