Crimson & Bone- Marina Fiorato (Hodder & Stoughton 2017)

CRIMSON AND BONE

I really enjoyed Marina Fiorato’s last novel “The Double Life Of Kit Kavanagh” which was a vibrant account of an extraordinary gender-challenging woman who, away from the author’s fictional account of her life, became the first female Chelsea Pensioner in tribute to her distinguished military service.  Here Marina Fiorato returns to purely imaginative historical fiction, taking for her inspiration for her main character the young woman portrayed in John Everett Millais’ painting “The Bridesmaid”.

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Fiorato recasts this woman as Annie Stride, a prostitute whom we encounter at the beginning about to recreate the recent suicide of her only friend by jumping off Waterloo Bridge.  She is stopped by a passer-by, Francis Maybrick Gill a Pre-Raphaelite artist who nutures Annie as his model and muse.  There is a simmering tension throughout as Annie attempts to put her miserable past behind her whilst something is askew with her relationship with the artist.

The plot moves from Central London to Florence as Gill takes Annie with him for further inspiration.  His main theme is the fallen woman throughout history and Annie finds herself his Mary Magdalene.  There’s admittedly a slight dip in interest when the novel first moves to Italy but the author makes up for that with an excellently handled last third.

When I moved into my new house I was delighted to find a Camelia in the garden, but after this I’m not so sure as the flower here plays a slightly menacing role, becoming overly dominant in Annie’s new life, from its cloying smell to the artist’s obsession with Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame Aux Camelias”.

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Plot, characterisation and atmosphere are handled here so well that this book confirms Marina Fiorato’s reputation as a strong historical story-teller.  She gets across the darkness and obsession present throughout the novel very well indeed and never overplays her hand, avoiding the melodrama it could so easily have become.  Like the best historical fiction, the history is incorporated seamlessly creating a seductive yet chilling tale.

fourstars

Crimson and Bone is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 18th May 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

Ginny Moon – Benjamin Ludwig (HQ 2017)

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I tend to steer clear of child neglect and abuse in my fiction choices yet there was something about this American author’s debut that had me interested right from the blurb.  It begins four years after the neglect of autistic teenager Ginny who has now settled with a “Forever” family .  With adopted mum having her first baby and Ginny discovering the whereabouts of her birth mother the uneasy balance topples.

Narrated by Ginny over nearly four months with exact timings (an obsession with time being part of her condition) this is certainly a novel of an outsider attempting to make sense of a world where people are unreliable and use expressions which confuse and bewilder.  Ginny, very much the life-breath of Ludwig’s tale, finds herself having to misbehave, adapt the truth and steal in order to put what she believes to be wrong, right. It’s a tale which is both heartwarming and alienating, funny and sad.  Ludwig whose motivation was his own adopted autistic teenager clearly shows how the best intentions can be wrongly interpreted with potentially tragic results.

I was captivated by Ginny and her tale, but that does not mean that the reader will not experience frustration nor not be shocked by her challenging behaviour.  She does make a superb, flawed narrator.  I’m not sure how Harper Collins would want to market this.  A Young adult/teen market seems plausible yet like Mark Haddon’s crossover “Curious Incident Of The Dog..” it could work better with our adult experience looking back at what for us all are the bewildering adolescent years, let alone for someone with Ginny’s challenges.  This is a strong debut.

fourstars

Ginny Moon is published in May 2017 by HQ.  Many thanks to Real Readers and the publishers for the advance review copy.

The Lost Book Of The Grail – Charlie Lovett (Alma 2017)

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I recently read Charlie Lovett’s 2013 debut “The Bookman’s Tale” and was impressed by his successful combination of a passion for books with an adventure genre novel.  His latest, his third, is a much quieter work but once again this ex-antiquarian bookseller makes a love for old books a central theme and ends up with a novel every bit as entertaining.

He has taken the brave step of setting it in the cathedral town of Barchester, a fictional location familiar to Trollope fans but by bringing it to the present day there are merely echoes of those classic novels.  Central character Arthur Prescott is the main reason I enjoyed this.  A frustrated English lecturer at the University, with a penchant of PG Wodehouse he is a man without religious beliefs who attends church services a number of times a day.  From a child he has been obsessed with Arthurian myths and the legend of the Holy Grail and his grandfather suggested there could be links with these and their home town.  Arthur’s life changes when another Grail devotee, an American woman, arrives to digitize the cathedral’s manuscripts.  The dilemma over the future of our important works is a fascinating theme of the novel and would create much discussion for reading groups.

In many ways this book is the antidote to the Dan Brown-type adventure novel suggested by the title. There’s no globe-trotting, the puzzles are intellectual and carried out in the Cathedral library.  We are teased throughout with moments in history where the keepers of Barchester’s secrets overlap and with sections from a Guide Book Arthur is writing about the cathedral.

If this sounds a little too restrained there’s the delights of Arthur, at odds with changes in modern academia and his group of code-busting pals, the Barchester Bibliophiles who keep the momentum going in this inaction action quest novel.  I ended up enjoying this even more than his slightly more genre-aware debut.  Reading about a genuine love for books is always a delight.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Charlie Lovett about this book for nb magazine (now retitled as nudge books rather than new books).  This can be found in the edition which is out now (nb 92).  This can be ordered by following this link.

fourstars

The Lost Book Of The Grail was published by Alma Books in March 2017.  Many thanks for nudge for allowing me to interview the author and the publishers for the review copy.

White Tears – Hari Kunzru (Hamish Hamilton 2017)

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I was introduced to British born New York resident Kunzru via his 2004 novel “Transmission” which I loved.  That was a laugh-out-loud work with good line after good line and probably the funniest novel about a computer virus that you could ever imagine reading.  Excited by what I believed to be a major talent I went back to his 2002 debut “The Impressionist” which did not impress me as much.  I felt it ran out of steam and it was written largely in the present tense, which does not always work for me.  When I heard his latest was about record-buying obsessives I was very keen to find out more.

Seth meets rich boy Carter Wallace, a record collector prepared to splash the cash if he feels the music is authentic.  Seth, an audiophile himself, who records his day to day movements in the streets, becomes drawn into this obsession as it begins to be dominated by old shellac 78 rpm Blues records.  This becomes one record in particular, “Graveyard Blues” by Charlie Shaw- a record so steeped in authenticity that no-one is sure that it ever even existed.  This hunt for Shaw becomes part crime story, part ghost story, part road story and part love story all infused (for the first half at least) with the wry humour that made “Transmission” so enjoyable.

And then, about two thirds of the way through the whole thing begins to unravel.  Has obsession turned to madness or is something more supernatural on the loose? Is this recompense for white men dabbling in Black American culture in order to manipulate,   exploit, possess and obsess?  Sometimes, when a gear is changed and the author appears to veer off in a different direction it can prove exhilarating for the reader but at other times it can feel as if we have been left behind.  And on this occasion, unfortunately, I did feel Hari Kunzru did leave me behind and I didn’t really get what was going on.  The whole thing begins to feel feverish and we seem to be presented with alternate endings as what was going on felt blurred.  It reminded me in the way this made me feel, rather than the size and scale of 2015’s “City On Fire” by Garth Risk Hallberg, which I also had reservations about.  Ultimately, my very high hopes were a little disappointed.  Perhaps I was too consciously looking for more of what I got from “Transmission” but here I didn’t quite find it.

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White Tears was published by Penguin/Hamish Hamilton on April 6th 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Possessions- Sara Flannery Murphy (Scribe 2017)

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Edie works for the Elysian Society, an organisation which channels the deceased for relatives and friends.  By taking a pill (a lotus) the employees can “become” the dead person until the effects wear off.  It’s a fascinating premise, developed nicely as the boundaries as to what is acceptable for the lotus takers to do are pushed as the plot builds.  Edie becomes attracted to a man who has lost his wife in a drowning accident and becomes obsessed with him- but is this as herself or as his dead wife?

This is an intelligent, subtle ghost story and comparisons have been made to both Margaret Attwood and Daphne Du Maurier but ultimately I think it lacks the depth and richness of their work.  Edie’s behaviour is often questionable even if explained away as possession by the dead wife and Patrick really does not seem worthy of her intentions.  It’s set up well but the tension for me fizzled out in the last third.  A murdered girl sub-plot works nicely alongside the relationship between Edie and Patrick but I think the promise of the ramifications of the work of the Elysian Society, which is the novel’s most fascinating aspect is not sustained throughout as  the Edie/Patrick/Dead Wife love triangle becomes the emphasis.

This is American author Sara Flannery Murphy’s debut novel and shows a writer confident with exploring obsession and loss.  For those looking for a romantic ghost story with a subtle science fiction edge this is worth considering.

threestars

The Possessions was published by Scribe in March 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

The Good People- Hannah Kent (Picador 2017)

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Having only very recently read another Picador publication “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue it is easy to see parallels between that and this book,  Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel.

Both are set in nineteenth century Irish villages and feature the highly questionable treatment of a child as central.  In both novels belief overshadows rational thought.  In “The Wonder” it is religious fervour which proclaims a child not eating as a sign of the miraculous, in “The Good People” religion is itself at odds with the lore of fairies and the superstition of deeply entrenched folklore.  The local priest can only speak out about this, his influence upon it is limited.  In many ways this makes for a book that is darker than Donoghue’s but both are equally effective.

When the son of Nora Leahy’s recently deceased daughter fails to develop in the way he should the locals believe that he is a changeling and that the real Michael has been swept away by the fairies (the “good people” of the title). It is when Nora seeks the help of the isolated local wise woman Nance (described by some as the “herb-hag”) that Nora begins to believe they can get the real Michael back.

The evocation of life in this Irish valley a day’s walk form Killarney, Co. Kerry, is very strong.  Is there currently some masterclass about recreating the hardships of nineteenth century rural life dominated by peat, mud and potatoes that both Kent and Donoghue attended as they both manage to get this over very convincingly.  It is a tough existence where the survival of the community is so much to the fore that superstition provides a strong grounding for luck or lack of it.  Kent has used a real incident as her starting point and has developed believable characters and highly plausible situations. At times this can make for difficult reading as misery is heaped on the unfortunate child “to put the fairy out of it.”

Anyone expecting tweeness so close to the realm of the fairies would be wrong.  What you get from this book is the real sense of how important folklore was to this village’s everyday existence.  This suggests seamless research as the book is saturated with the feel of the times.  It is dark, has a strong sense of foreboding, with inevitable tragedies and is a very involving read.

fourstars

 

The Good People is published in the UK hardback by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan  on the 9th February.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for an advance review copy.