People Person – Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze 2022)

This book has been on my radar since the start of 2021 when I had it as one of my most anticipated books of the year.  It was one of only two I didn’t get round to reading in 2021 from that list and this was because publication was delayed until April 2022.

This does suggest it might have been a troublesome second novel for the author who faced the daunting task of following up her commercial and critical smash “Queenie” which won Book Of The Year at The British Book Awards.

“People Person” focuses on the five children of Cyril Pennington a decidedly absent parent who one day takes his adolescent offspring out to introduce them for the first time to one another so that they will not accidently pair off in the future.  The five, with four different mothers have very infrequent meetings after that until the thirty-year old main character Dimple calls on her older sister when an emergency occurs.  Sister Nikisha rallies the rest who become embroiled in a situation which forges their relationship. 

There is a wider cast of characters in this book and this budding association of half-siblings create a greater warmth and heart than I felt in “Queenie”.  With that book, however much I enjoyed it, I was very aware that I did not fit in with the intended market for it, so felt a bit of an outsider, I did not experience this feeling this time around.

Dimple is good at getting herself in deeper messes and it is heartening that this newly discovered family are prepared to stand by her.  The notion of family is so strong here- this group are beginning to see similarities and differences in each other for the first time in response to the situations Dimple gets herself into.  Father Cyril’s periodic interferences in their lives are amongst the novel’s high spots.  He is seen as the obvious “People Person” of the title but then again he is not because of his fractured family relationships and as a character he provides very good value.  This is a second strong title from Candice Carty-Williams.

People Person was published by Trapeze on 28th April 2022. 

The Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho – Paterson Joseph (Dialogue 2022)

Paterson Joseph is a noted British actor of stage and screen.  I saw him most recently in the Suranne Jones starring BBC TV Drama “Vigil” playing the Commanding Officer of the beleaguered submarine.  He has now joined the sphere of actors turning to fiction writing with very worthy intentions to fill some of the gaps of pre-Windrush Black British history by giving us a fictional account of the life of this notable 18th Century character, who became the first African man to vote in a British election.  The author has been researching this life for twenty years, and has written and performed a one-man play. He has now rightly decided (if not only because of the gaps in what is actually known) to recreate the man known as Sancho as Historical Fiction.

What is done really well here is in the feel of the piece. Paterson Joseph has obviously submerged himself in the fiction of the time and without doubt in “Tristram Shandy”, the author of which, Laurence Sterne makes a brief appearance here. With a combination of a memoir intended for the main character’s son, diary entries and letters to and from his betrothed we get a real sense of Sancho and the world he inhabits.

Initially, as a child, a dress up doll/valet for three spinsters Sancho finds an entrée into society under the eye of the Duke of Montagu.  It is a precarious arrangement and there are many turns of fortune for this black man in 18th Century London.  Deemed at various times a novelty, a creative talent, a threat and a runaway slave Sancho has to wrestle with his own inconsistencies and this makes for fascinating reading.  In the eyes of some he is seen as deserving of a place in high society for others he is the lowest of the low.  How does a man come to terms with his own self-worth in such circumstances?

The early sections of this book are just splendid, as Sancho ages it grows more reflective, the tale shifts significantly to his wife-to-be Anne’s experiences in an epistolary section of the book which serves to contrast experiences outside of Britain but doesn’t work as well as the London-based writings.  Throughout there is a feel of authenticity, even when the structure (as in all actual eighteenth-century novels I have read) feels jerky.  There were areas of the life of Charles Ignatius Sancho which I felt could have been fleshed out more but I welcome the opportunity of getting to know this man through this novel.  I am thinking this could be the best actor-turned-writer novel I’ve read since 1960’s icon and model Marsha Hunt’s “Joy” from 1990.

The Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho is published by Dialogue Books on 6th October 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers 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   

Theatre Of Marvels- Lianne Dillsworth (Hutchinson Heinemann 2022)

This is a debut I’ve been looking forward to and highlighted as one to watch out for in my start of the year post.  I’m feeling pleased with myself as this is the 9th of the 10 of these titles I’ve read and it’s only April!

Lianne Dillsworth has put her MA in Victorian Studies to very good use in this 1840’s London set tale which is the first person narrative of Zillah, a mixed race twenty year old.  Zillah has escaped the poor dwellings of St Giles to become the lover of a Viscount and the headline attraction of Crillick’s  Variety Theatre.  Cast as a “genuine” African native, The Great Amazonia, her tribal dances and staged sacrifices thrill and horrify the audience.  Yet Zillah is a “gaffed freak”, not at all what the theatre is making her out to be and when the secret is blown her time will be up.  An audience member, the distinguished looking Black grocer, Lucius Winter, is dismayed by this duping of the public and Zillah’s role in this and things take a sinister turn when Crillick aims to introduce more authentic exhibits as part of a new disturbing venture.

Zillah is a sparky character who begins to see the error of her ways and passing as someone you are not is a main theme here as well as the notions behind the government plans for resettlement of the London’s Black poor to Sierra Leone.  But this increasingly becomes a tale of rescue and this is done very effectively due to the author’s good story-telling skills.  I liked the Variety Theatre as a central location and the atmosphere of this is well conveyed.  This is an easy read which contains thought-provoking issues, making it a very good Book group choice.  I do feel that keeping Zillah as the narrator throughout makes it seem a little one-note, I think I might have appreciated the odd shift in narrative style as at times it feels a little “reported”.  There were incidents that I would have loved to have been fleshed out, particularly with regards to Zillah’s back story.  This is a strong debut which feels very commercial and should win the author many fans.

Theatre Of Marvels is published in hardback by Hutchinson Heinemann on April 28th 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Mr Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo (2013)

I’ve had a copy of Bernadine Evaristo’s joint Man Booker winning “Girl, Woman, Other” unread on my shelves for some time now.  I’ve never read her before and felt I needed another book rather than the prizewinner to be my introduction to her and I thought this would fit the bill.  My hesitancy is because I’ve found responses from people I’ve asked about “Girl, Woman, Other” to be a little mixed and some people just don’t seem to get it.  I thought this would offer a more traditional narrative style and would perhaps be stronger on plot which would enable me to really get into Evaristo as a writer.

It has succeeded.  I really enjoyed this and I’m now sure it won’t be long before I read something else by her.  This is a very character-led piece, a tale of a rogue, Antiguan born Barrington Walker who emigrated to London in 1960 in the early days of his marriage to Carmel, but unbeknownst to her he was following his male lover, Morris, with whom he continues a secret relationship until the 2010 setting of the story when they are both in their seventies.

Barrington in his first-person narrative has seen much change and believes that social acceptance of his love for Morris is now more likely but acknowledges that this would not be the case from his church-going wife nor one of his two daughters.  His narrative is clearly structured and very much from his own point of view.  Running alongside this is a second narrative which reflects the thoughts of Carmel, looser in tone, which gradually reveals her responses to her marriage.

I loved the characterisation, I love the way the author gets the characters to play off one another with real authenticity.  I love the relationship between these two men who have found it necessary to hide their love for decades.  I love the vibrancy of Barrington’s narrative even though he is undoubtedly exasperating.

This was Bernardine Evaristo’s second novel which has had a new lease of life following her Man Booker success.  I’ve seen it appearing on recommended lists in recent times although at time of publication it passed me by.  I think it would be an ideal reading group book as the viewpoints of the characters would provide much discussion.  This is a very strong four star read.

Mr Loverman was first published by Penguin in 2013.