Smoke And Ashes – Abir Mukherjee (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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It’s very unusual for me to read a mid-series book but circumstances caused me to pick up Abir Mukherjee’s third novel in his critically acclaimed Sam Wyndham series without having read the other two. Wyndham is a Captain in the Calcutta Police Force in the years after the First World War. It certainly kicks off with a pacy punch with the drug-addled Calcutta Police force Captain coming round during a raid on an opium den. In his bid to escape detection he encounters a mutilated corpse. The novel is set in the run up to Christmas 1921, with Wyndham, hiding his addiction caused by trauma from the Great War, and his Indian Sergeant known as “Surrender-not” Bannerjee investigating some strangely linked murders during the build up to a Royal visit from the Prince Of Wales.

What lifts this novel above standard adventure-fiction fare is both the strong sense of location and the historical setting of a Calcutta preoccupied with the non-violent, non-co-operation policies advocated by Gandhi which is causing serious malfunctions in the running of the Empire. The political situation creates dilemmas for both British and Indian characters which adds to the richness of the plot.

Mukherjee’s two main characters have been obviously well established in the first two novels allowing him to focus on the historical detail and in bringing 1920’s Calcutta to life. It is a fascinating time in the history of India as Imperialism looks increasingly inappropriate in the aftermath of the War and the events here are based on actual happenings married with the thriller writer’s licence for creating an involving and plausible tale out of these. It works well as a stand-alone novel but for those who, like me, find chronology important in reading books from a series are probably advised to start with Mukherjee’s debut “A Rising Man” which won the Historical Dagger at the 2017 Crime Writer’s Awards. The second in the series was shortlisted for the same award this year but ultimately lost out to “Nucleus” by Rory Clements. This is quality adventure fiction.

fourstars

Smoke And Ashes was published in hardback in June 2018 by Harvill Secker. Many thanks to Nudge and the publishers for the review copy.  An edited version of this review can be found on the Nudge website.

 

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The Dry- Jane Harper (2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Here’s a book with extremely good word of mouth from readers returning one of our library copies.  It has people itching to tell others how much they enjoyed it.  Since the paperback edition arrived at the end of last year it has become one of our most borrowed books, so I’ve been patiently waiting for my turn.

 Jane Harper’s debut also gained much critical acclaim from reviewers and from her crime writer peers. (“One of the most stunning debuts I’ve ever read- David Baldacci; “Stunningly atmospheric- Val McDermid; “Enthrals from the very first page – CJ Box).  Writers of great repute were queuing up to say good things about this.  Needless to say, I had extremely high expectations.

 Aaron Falk, a policeman who specialises in financial crime, returns to the small Australian country town where he grew up to attend a funeral.  His closest childhood friend has apparently shot his wife and son and turned the gun on himself.  As the small community are shocked and outraged the dead man’s parents want answers.  Tensions are compounded by a lengthy drought which has brought this rural town to its knees and also by Falk’s return itself.  This is his first visit since a tragic incident which had rocked the community years before.  Everyone has secrets and it may be these which have just triggered the present-day tragedy.

This is a well thought out and carefully handled whodunnit with the additional tensions of a community in crisis.  Harper is a British author who has lived in Australia for the last decade and her sense of location is strong but also with a clear understanding of being an outsider.  In many ways and I’m not sure why the author it brought to mind was another Brit who has set his first two novels in small town America, Chris Whitaker. However, “The Dry” did not win me over as much as Whitaker’s excellent “All The Wicked Girls” (2017).  I have this year read another book which on publication was very much compared to “The Dry” and marketed to the same audience, “Retribution” written by Aussie farmer and ex-miner Richard Anderson.  I think in terms of plot handling and character development Harper’s novel is considerably stronger.

 What I would have liked a little more ramped up is the intensity of this lengthy drought (two years without water) and the heat playing a stronger part in the dynamics of these people rather than their present actions being motivated by the events of their past but I’m niggling here.  This is a very readable, strong debut which might not have matched those too high expectations I’d built up over the past year or so but it certainly fooled me with twists, was always involving and so highly satisfactory in the way the plot threads were all so well pulled together.

 fourstars 

The Dry was published by Little, Brown in 2016 in the UK.  I read the 2017 Abacus paperback version.

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett (2016)

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American author Ann Patchett is a former winner of the UK Orange Prize for fiction for 2002’s “Bel Canto”.  Her family-themed novels have seen her compared to two other Queen Annes, prize-winning titans of modern fiction both, Ms. Tyler and Ms. Enright.  With this, her seventh novel she gives them a good run for their money but doesn’t quite eclipse them in the quality fiction stakes.

 I have never read Ann Patchett before but this book I had earmarked to read since publication because of its impressive initial reviews (“Outstanding” (The Observer)/”Dazzling” (The Sunday Times).  When I pulled out “Read a book by an author whose surname begins with a P” from the Reading Challenge box at Sandown Library this seemed an obvious choice.

 I always think I’m going to feel alienated by the Americanness of tales about family life but Anne Tyler has really drawn me in with hers on more than one occasion.  It’s the quality of her writing that does it and this is necessary to convey the complexities of family relationships in a way which feels both honest and convincing.  With “Commonwealth” Ann Patchett also succeeds with this.

 We begin in 1964 at a Christening Party for Los Angeles Cop Fix Keating’s daughter Franny.  One of the guests falls for Franny’s mother and lives shift from this point.  Two families of step-children meet each summer including Franny and her sister Caroline and a tragedy further complicates family relations.  Fast forward to 1988 when Franny is working a waitress in Chicago and she meets a writer who takes her family’s story to use in his own work, also called “Commonwealth”.  Although Franny is probably the central character her parents’ generation of family together with her sister and step-siblings are all well fleshed out.

 Plot-wise there are not too many surprises, which is why, just on the showing of this novel I will put Anne Tyler slightly ahead but anyone who has enjoyed novels such as the bestselling “Spool of Blue Thread” (one of my essential reads) should certainly seek “Commonwealth” out.

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“Commonwealth” was published by Bloomsbury in 2016.

Top 10 Books Of The Year- Part 2 (The Top 5)

I’m continuing my count-down of the best books I read in 2017.

5. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven – Chris Cleave (Sceptre 2016) (Read and reviewed in April)

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It’s been a good year for writers called Chris, as there are two of them in my Top 10. This British novelist’s fourth novel spanned the years 1939-1942 and centred on war-torn London and Malta, gripped by a blockade which threatens starvation for civilians and soldiers. I said “this is an excellent novel from a great story-teller who deserves his position amongst the best of the novelists who have written about this time in our history.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 10,968 in Books (has been much higher!)

4. The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018) (Read and reviewed in November)

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Feel like I’m cheating a bit here as this hasn’t even been published yet (according to latest info the hardback is due on 1st Feb.) I was really drawn into the world of this debut novel set in Victorian London.  I said “I think she has got everything more or less spot on here and has written an authentic historical novel and a really good thrilling page-turner.” Still expecting this to achieve very healthy sales in 2018.

Current Amazon sales rating: 68,464 in Books (based on pre-orders).

3. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2016) (Read and reviewed in September)

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I read this when it appeared on the Man Booker longlist and felt it had to be in with a great chance of scooping the Prize.  In the US it had taken both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.  Here, it shockingly failed to make the shortlist, probably overshadowed by British author Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” which touched on similar themes.  It was the best American novel I read this year.  I  felt “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 81 in Books (this has been a big seller)

2. Owl Song At Dawn – Emma Claire Sweeney (Legend 2016) (Read and reviewed in February)

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Pipped at the post by the very last book I read in 2017 this came very close to being the first British novel to be my book of the year since 2012 (also incidentally the last time a female author was at the top).  The fact that this is a debut novel makes it all the more outstanding.  I first heard of this when it was shortlisted by Nudge and newbooks for the BookHugger book of the year.  It went on to win beating a set of books from a very good list which also included my year end Top 10ers by Jodi Picoult and Helen Dunmore.  Dull February days were enlivened by this heartwarming novel.  An unsentimental, humorous tale of a Morecambe guest house which is being used as a holiday home for guests with disabilities and their carers.  Great central character, Maeve who is pushing 80 and has to come to terms with regrets in her past.  It wasn’t a typical read for me but it works so well on so many levels.

Current Amazon sales rating: 328, 095 in Books

And the reviewsrevues Book of The Year is………….

1.The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017) (Read and Reviewed in December)

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It just had to be this book.  It is Irish author John Boyne’s 10th adult novel (and there are 5 for younger readers). I haven’t read him before but I was blown away by the whole thing right from the first few pages.  I wrote a lengthy review (click on the title to read it) just to justify why it impressed me so much.  “I said It may very well be my favourite books of this decade.” I think this is a book which has a reputation which will grow and grow. Perhaps the only thing I wasn’t totally convinced by is the front cover of the paperback edition, but that’s probably nothing to do with the author.

Current Amazon sales rating: 743 in Books

John Boyne joins a select bunch of authors.  Here are my favourites from the last ten years, which probably tells you a considerable amount about me as a reader.

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2018!

 

 

 

 

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2017- Part 1 (10-6)

In 2017 I managed to read 67 books which is thirteen down on my record breaking score last year but exactly the same number as I read in 2015.  Everything I’ve read has been reviewed on this site and this year I’ve awarded 10 books the maximum five stars, 31 four stars and 26 three stars, which seems to be to be a good spread.  I’ve not read anything which disappointed me enough to get a two star or one star read. I’ve read a lot more books as they are published or  soon after and looking at my Top 10 it is the first year ever where all the books have either been published in 2016 (with the paperback appearing this year), 2017 and in one not-yet-published case 2018.  I think that shows how good writing is at the moment.  I’ve not narrowed the list down to only those which appeared this year.  If I read it this year, then it’s eligible.  (The earliest dated book I read this year was 1931 and Margery Allingham’s “Police At The Funeral” but she hasn’t made the list).

What I haven’t done this year at all is re-read any books (I used to re-read about 10 books a year).  With publishers sending me books and with Netgalley pressures the re-reads have been pushed out, which is a shame as I love re-reading favourites and this is something I’ll need to rebalance in 2018.  Choosing the books for my Top 10 has actually been easier this year because of those 10 five star reads, so all I needed to do was allocate positions for my annual review of my year in books .  Anything that doesn’t make the top 10 gets culled from the bookshelves or off the Kindle, which means this year I’m losing a lot of very good books (but you can’t keep them all, I know I’ve tried in the past!)

Although I’ve read books before by two authors on my Top 10 list for all of them it is their first appearance on the list, so as far as I am concerned, these are likely to be the authors’ best books.  Those also a couple of debut novelists there.  The books are all fiction for the second year running and last year I had a fifty-fifty gender split this year the women have the edge with a 60/40 domination.  All of the titles have been  reviewed on this site- click on the titles to link to the full review.

10. Exposure- Helen Dunmore ( Windmill 2016) (Read and reviewed in January)

exposureThis was the second of Helen Dunmore’s novels I have read but her first appearance on my Best Of The Year list.  Set in 1960 in an England paranoid about the Cold War and high profile spy cases this is a thrillingly written thriller which focuses on this paranoia affecting a family when a secret file goes missing.  Helen Dunmore sadly passed away in June this year, aged 64, not long after the publication of her last book “Birdcage Walk” which I am yet to read.  She has left a legacy of 15 novels which demand to be discovered.

Current Amazon sales rating: #4592 in Books

9. The Golden Age – Joan London ( Europa 2016)  (Read in March, reviewed here in May)

goldenageAustralian author Joan London won awards in her homeland with her third novel and here was longlisted for the Wellcome Prize which focuses on books having an emphasis on health.  This was set in a polio hospital in the early 1950’s.  I described it as  “a beautifully observed, quiet novel which belies its grim subject matter and becomes a life-affirming testament to hope and love.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 202,593 in Books.

8. Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult (Hodder & Stoughton 2016) (Read and reviewed in January)

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The first of this American author’s 23 novels I have read.  Her fans have told me it’s not quite like her other books but there seems to be a general consensus that this is her best.  Picoult is a superb storyteller and I thought this “feels relevant, up to the minute and especially with the America their electorate has recently chosen for them, totally convincing.  There are so many layers to the conversations that readers could have about this book.  I cannot imagine a more ideal reading group book has been published in the last few years.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 136 in Books (probably the biggest commercial hit on my list- this was a big seller when it arrived in hardback and then again in paperback).

7. All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2017) (Read in June, reviewed in July)

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Chris Whitaker is great and you should all be buying his books.  He just missed out on my Top 10 last year with his debut “Tall Oaks” and when his latest American set crime novel arrived I was convinced he would be topping best-seller lists.  He impressed me here with “how authentic the author’s creation of small town America feels, in terms  of speech, the environment, their cultural references and lives.  The prejudices and obsessions of  a small community is so effectively conveyed and I found the whole thing totally involving.”  Chris is a great friend to us bloggers.  I have interviewed him twice and he is the only author this year to make a comment on my review.  I have been told by other bloggers how enthusiastic he is about us all when appearing at book talks.  Oh, and his comment to me, just in case you haven’t seen it : “I love you, Phil. (I worry I don’t tell you that enough)”.  It wasn’t his flattery I succumbed to but the quality of his novel!The best crime novel I read this year.

Current Amazon sales rating: 61,735 in Books (it’s great commercial fiction which should be in Amazon’s best sellers).

6. Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus 2017)  (Read and reviewed in September)

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Honestly, it is unlikely that I would have read Kamila Shamsie’s modern retelling of the Antigone myth had it not been longlisted for the Man Booker prize.  I was amazed it did not make the shortlist as I ask everyone who returns a library book copy whether they have enjoyed it and it universally gets the thumbs up.  The author, in this, her seventh novel has recast the ancient Greek characters as a Muslim family from Wembley. I said of this “Shamsie is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.  This feels like a very important novel for our times and yet has an age-old story as its framework.” A bag of M&Ms has a lot to answer for in this book.

Current Amazon sales rating: 2,197 in books

Next post – My Top 5 reads from 2017

Days Without End- Sebastian Barry (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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Sebastian Barry has already been one of this year’s big literary prizewinners with the Costa Novel and Book Of The Year Awards for this.  I very much liked the story-line and it is impressively written, is selling well and will give the Man Booker judges much food for thought.

 Beginning in the mid nineteenth century Irish emigrant Thomas McNulty, aged around 15, meets the younger John Cole, a boy with Native American heritage.  With tough experiences in their young pasts, poor and road-weary with “the same look of the arse out of his trousers that I had too” the pair strike up a friendship in the difficult adult male environment of Missouri; “We were two woodshavings of humanity in a rough world.”  The boys become female impersonators entertaining miners in a saloon in Daggsville where women are in short supply before enlisting in the military.  Initially hunting down Native Americans they later become caught up in the Civil War.

Written as a present tense account (which is something I’ve grumbled about in the past) this is McNulty’s tale of a relationship which blossoms into love in the most unlikely of circumstances.  This love is at the heart of the book and is portrayed positively and despite these unlikely circumstances, plausibly.  There is a touch of the “Brokebank Mountains” here but the love is underplayed and feels more real as a result.  Mostly, however, this is an adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America.

It’s a personal taste thing but I preferred the sections of the book away from the battlefield with the boys in the business of “entertaining” and functioning as a family with their adopted daughter.  In the army sections I found, yet again, that the present tense narrative style put it a little all on one level, and I wearied at times.  I am niggling a little because I did very much enjoy it and the novel is certainly shortlist worthy but I’m not sure that I would be pushing this big literary prizewinner to scoop the actual award.

Irish novelist Sebastian Barry has won the Costa Book Of The Year on two occasions (also “Secret Scripture” in 2008) and has been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker.  “Days Without End” is his ninth novel, could this be the one to “do the double”?

 fourstars

 

Days Without End was published in paperback by Faber & Faber in February 2017.  The hardback edition was first published in October 2016.

Autumn- Ali Smith (2016) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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Ali Smith is attempting to make her 4th appearance on the Man Booker Shortlist with this longlisted title, her first novel since winning the Baileys Prize and the Costa Novel Of The Year with “How To Be Both” (2014).  That was the only novel I have read by her to date and although I applauded its technical expertise I caught a whiff of style over substance and found it ultimately a little disappointing because I lacked a consistent emotional attachment, which is what I’m always on the lookout for when reading.  Smith is a brave writer whose non-linear narratives can lead to a distancing and if slightly off-balance risks becoming a tad pretentious and ending up with a book of segments of writing (in her case often superb) rather than a coherently flowing piece.

 With that in mind, theories based purely on “How To Be Both”, I hasten to add, I was a little bit unsure about beginning my Man Booker longlist reading with this book.  Coincidentally for the last couple of years the first book I’ve read off the list has ended up scooping the prize, (I’m sure the judges are not bearing this in mind!) so I wanted this to be good.

 And it is.  For me, it is considerably better than the award-laden “How To Be Both”.  The reason?  I got that emotional attachment towards the relationship between the two main characters very early on and this relationship is a thread which runs throughout the novel.

 It’s not going to be easy summing this up in a few words.  A young girl befriends an elderly male neighbour who educates and stimulates moulding her into the adult she becomes.  Now a woman, Elisabeth visits him in his care home where he resides as a semi-comatose centenarian.  From the stories he has told her about the Art world she realises he knew Pauline Boty, a 1960’s female pop artist who Elisabeth bases her dissertation upon.  The time of these care home visits coincides with the Brexit vote and the uncertainty and tensions which fills the country comes across superbly.  Meanwhile Elisabeth’s mother has her own life changes ahead of her when she takes part in a TV antiques programme.

 The writing is often sumptuous, occasionally powerfully poetic as in a section about the mood of the country in the days following the vote and incredibly realistic as the characters grapple with the frustrations of modern life.  A section early on in the novel where Elisabeth attempts to use the Post Office Check and Send Service for a passport is a joy to read and is the section which really pulled me into the narrative, where I remained for most of the novel.  It is also highly visual, not least by its encompassing of art and story into the narrative.

 Smith is both a poet and a storyteller and her sheer unpredictability is both impressive and challenging.  The reader needs to yield to her skills as there is no way to ascertain how the novel will pan out.  There are digressions, plot twists, memories and dreams which make it a narcotic experience in more ways than one.  On this occasion I found her writing addictive and read it quite quickly, it will repay re-reading.  There’s the whole “Autumn” theme which I haven’t touched on which is part of the novel’s life-blood.  If this is the standard of the longlist it is going to be a good few weeks for me and a tough choice for the judges.  This is so close to being a five star read (How To Be Both I rated three stars) and is certainly shortlist worthy.

fourstars Autumn was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2016

The House Of Birds -Morgan McCarthy (Tinder Press 2016)

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A couple of reviews recently have had me agonising over my star ratings and as this is one of the culprits I thought I’d lay out, for the first time, I believe, the thinking behind those five stars.

A five star novel is one that will stay with me for a very long time. It’s a book I would not want to part with which has made a significant impression. Usually, I would say I read just a very small number of these each year. Examples of five star books recently reviewed here are: “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” by Chris Cleve, “The Golden Age” by Joan London and “Owl Song At Dawn” by Emma Claire Sweeney. I’m not usually alone with my praise in these books. Just these three titles here have gained awards and plaudits. It’s not just me who rate them so highly.

A four star novel is one which I really enjoyed and which I would very much like to remain on my bookshelves. It is one I can certainly see myself enjoying as much on a re-read. It might not be an all-time classic but it certainly gave me considerable pleasure. Examples of four star books reviewed here recently are “Queer City” by Peter Ackroyd, “The Mayfly” by James Hazel and “Crimson & Bone” by Marina Fiorato.

A lot of what I read I would consider three star. This is the “default” rating when I start to read a book. This is the largest category in terms of breadth. It’s a good book that I enjoyed but probably wouldn’t need to keep to read again. These are the books I tend to pass on, often recommending them to their new owner. As I don’t give half star marks (too confusing) this is quite a big category, from books which I didn’t quite feel got into top gear, to perfectly satisfactory genre-type fiction, to books which are really quite good but didn’t blow me away. Examples of three star books reviewed here recently are “Don’t Wake Up” by Liz Lawler, “Next” by Michael Crichton and “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith.

Two star books have disappointed me in some way or I’m a long way from the intended audience and it hasn’t really worked for me. I won’t give up on the author but on this occasion there have been issues. Examples of two star books reviewed here (and they are thinner on the ground are “There Once Lived A Lady Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby” by Ludmilla Petrusheskaya, “The Evenings” by Gerard Reve (and I admit these two might both be translation issues) and “Being Elizabeth Bennet” by Emma Campbell Webster.

One star books don’t usually get to the review stage and it’s unlikely that I will read anything else by the author. I’m better at weeding books out now so I don’t get to read too many of these. The book is just not for me………

Just occasionally I feel these divisions let me down and some books do not fit neatly into the ratings and I end up feeling stingy. This is one of those occasions.

Morgan McCarthy’s fourth novel (the first I’ve read by her) starts off a little slowly but then starts to weave its magic and at times I believed I was reading a book with four or five star potential but on completion it just didn’t end up doing anything which either surprised or thrilled me so much that I would want to keep it to re-read it, so given that and my above criteria, it ends up as a three star novel but if asked did I enjoy it and would I recommend it the answer would be a definite yes to both.

I thought I was being brave choosing to read a book with this title. A simmering ornithophobia (particularly indoors) would leave me going into a cold sweat over a “house of birds”. If just one comes into the house I’m off like a rocket (especially in a cat’s mouth), but no worries, this refers to a bird-embossed wallpaper which I can certainly cope with. Kate inherits a house under contested circumstances and boyfriend Oliver, who has quit his high-pressured London job, moves back to the Oxford of his childhood to project manage renovations. He finds sections of a diary which relates to the house’s past in a dual narrative which moves from the 1920’s to the present day. The most effective relationship in the novel is that between Oliver and the long-dead Sophia who causes the young man to question his life and its lack of direction. His involvement in the legal aspects tying up the house threatens his current relationship.

Morgan McCarthy does absolutely nothing wrong in terms of plot or characterisation. I just felt it was all a little tightly controlled and careful to really get me frothing at the mouth. As in the majority of these dual-narrative different time-zone novels I found myself responding more to the older strand but I did find Oliver a vibrant, worthwhile character who did come alive and whose male perspective to Sophia’s 1920’s quandaries was refreshing. Some of the other characters did not feel as real.

In many ways this is a treasure trail which leads towards the truth and is involving for most of its duration and effectively handled. I will certainly be seeking out this author’s earlier novels.

threestars

The House Of Birds was published by Tinder Press in 2016. Many thanks to Bookbridgr and the publishers for the review copy.

100 Essential Books – The Golden Age- Joan London (Europa 2016)

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London’s third novel has already won several  prestigious awards in her native Australia and it’s very easy to see why.  It is a tale which begins with short chapters and beautifully drawn characterisation which draws the reader in right from the start.  The title is the name of (an actual) convalescent hospital for children with polio, giving them the chance to relearn how to walk.  It is set in the early 50’s in an Australia fascinated by their new Queen.

Main character, 13 year old Frank Gold, the oldest child at the hospital, is struck down with polio after emigrating from a difficult war as a Hungarian Jew.  Both parents are with him but their attempts at a new life are interrupted by this sudden and cruel illness.  It is a beautifully observed, quiet novel which belies its grim subject matter and becomes a life-affirming testament to hope and love.  Frank has aspirations to become a poet and in Elsa, another patient, he has found his muse.  The care for the children, their struggles and triumphs and the effects this stigmatizing disease has on their families is superbly handled.  At times it reminded me of the critically acclaimed TB hospital set “Dark Circle” by Linda Grant but here I found myself caring more making “The Golden Age” an even more satisfactory novel.

Written with a real flair for language it picks up on the perceptiveness of adolescents unable to move on with their own lives but absorbing everything around them.  This is a real treat- a poetic, warm, involving, even elegant novel based upon a hideous disease.

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An Australian multi-award winning novel

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The Golden Age was published in 2016 by Europa.  Many thanks to the publishers and Nudge-books for the review copy.

 

 

A Life Discarded – Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate 2016) – A Real Life Review

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Biographer Alexander Master’s latest highly unusual subject following his acclaimed 2006 “Stuart: A Life Backwards” (excellent TV adaptation starring Tom Hardy in 2007) and “Simon: The Genius In My Basement” (2012) made its presence known following a discovery in a skip.  A friend found 148 diaries abandoned in Cambridge.  He passed them on to another friend and when she became ill Alexander became the keeper of this extraordinary find, a vast number of diaries and notebooks filled with great intensity over a period of decades by person unknown.

What Masters had in his home was the work of the most prolific diarist of all time (Guinness Book of Records had recognised “newspaperman” Edward Robb Ellis’ 22 million words but here is something like 40 million words ) a record of one life and found in a skip.

It took Masters five years to discover the identity of the diarist.  The words became something of an obsession for him.  He pored over the writing looking for clues, at writing which became smaller as the writer aged becoming miniscule in later volumes.  A life which had begun with hope and optimism with many potential avenues became frustrated, disturbed even close to madness as the sequence continued.

I’m purposely giving little away about Masters’ subject because the gradual uncovering of the biographical details is one of the great strengths of this book.  Biographers obviously begin with research and getting to know and understand their subject before putting pen to paper, here we get a fascinating alternative process of nothing being known and everything having to be deduced from a personal monologue.  Diaries are not the best way to discover some things, even the basic biographical details such as gender, name, description are rare in this type of personal writing (why would you write about the things you know already?) and remained very much hidden amongst the millions of words.  The very nature of diaries is their tendency to be outlets for outpourings of the irrational and unanalysed.  So how much of a person’s life is actually revealed in this way?

This is certainly a real life with a difference and it is the process rather than the life itself which becomes gripping.  Extracts from the diary are not as prevalent as might be expected and are more used to put together a picture of the writer and why their life’s work ended up in a skip.  It reminded me occasionally of Alan Bennett’s “Lady In a Van” but instead of the physical presence of Miss Shepherd  turning up outside in her old van here we have the presence of the 148 volumes which takes over Master’s existence in much the same way as  Miss Shepherd did.

Another strength is how Masters’ biography has to shift gears as details are uncovered.  We have seen this recently in Kate Summerscale’s “The Wicked Boy” which changes track when research brings something astonishing about her subject to light but Masters is doing this all the time as assumptions are proved incorrect often built from passing remarks and gut feelings.  The twists and turns in the development of his narrative are really quite thrilling.

There, I think I’ve completed this without giving much away.  This book is best approached as a blank slate to really get maximum enjoyment from it.  Read it before you find out too much about it.

fourstars

A Life Discarded was published by Fourth Estate in hardback in May 2016 and in paperback in February 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.