The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Picador 2017)

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A novel full of poignant moments and a sense of yearning at a time of great change.  Austrian born Seethaler’s novel is quietly impressive.  It begins in 1937 when 17 year old Franz is sent by his mother from their Austrian Lake District home to Vienna to work in a small tobacconist’s shop.

Here Franz begins to learn about life from the merchandise and the shop’s aromas, from the newspapers he reads each day and from the customers.  These include an aging Sigmund Freud with whom Franz strikes up an unlikely friendship.

But the times are a changing and anti-semitism makes a bond with the Jewish Freud increasingly difficult and the one-legged tobacconist who Franz works for seems a threat to the authorities.  Franz, initially bewildered by the mysteries of love and an obsession for a worldly Bohemian girl finds he has more difficult things to contemplate.

The very likeable Franz is the heart of this novel.  Everything is underplayed, there are few big dramatic scenes yet the drama and turmoil of the times is palpable.  It is clear that for the people in Franz’ circle things can never be the same again.

I like novels where young characters attempt to make sense of the adult world and in Franz’s Vienna there is little that makes sense.  His retreats to analysing his dreams is both as a result of his meetings with Freud and an attempt to fathom out his existence where neither the real nor dream world seem quite right.

Robert Seethaler has written five novels.  His last “The Whole Life” was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.  This, translated by Charlotte Collins, with its quiet tenderness may slip under the awards radar but it is of lasting appeal.

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The Tobacconist was published by Picador in 2017.

100 Essential Books – All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2107)

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Chris Whitaker’s debut “Tall Oaks” was highly enjoyable and received considerable critical acclaim.  It also gained him an interview on reviewsrevues.com on my Author Strikes Back thread.  His off-kilter tale set in small town America seemed an audacious beginning for a British writer yet worked well due to Whitaker’s skilful characterisations and humour amidst the dark deeds.  Whitaker’s character Manny made the novel with his mix of bravado and teenage angst.  There’s more of this in his latest novel set in the small town of Grace, Alabama in 1995.  This is the novel Chris referred to as “The Summer Cloud” in our interview.  Now, with a title change, I was looking forward to reading it.

People in Grace are dominated by their back stories and when church-going teenage girls start going missing old grudges and prejudices come to the surface.  The narration is split between events and the words of the missing girl, Summer, the first to be taken from Grace itself.  The people of the town implode with the tension as an unmoving grey cloud gathers over their heads.

I was reminded of the best of Stephen King in Whitaker’s story-telling and of a 1997 American novel “The Church Of Dead Girls” by Stephen Dobyns which I loved and which should be due for a re-read yet I think Chris’ work is even better and this is once again due to his characterisation.   Those missing Manny will warm to wannabe teenage policeman Noah, his sidekick Purv and Summer’s sister Raine who take the search into their hands with black humour and laugh out loud moments as well as real poignancy.  There is a great bond which develops between these three damaged outsiders.  Also damaged and addictive is Police Chief Black who shows the author is great at adult characters too.  The plot is darker than “Tall Oaks” and religion and good and evil have a strong part to play.  I marvel at 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.

“Tall Oaks” showed the potential but this is the real deal…………………….”

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All The Wicked Girls is published by Zaffre on the 24th August 2017.  Make a note of the title for a perfect late summer read.  Many thanks to nudge and the publishers for the advance review copy.

Queer City – Peter Ackroyd (2017) – A Real Life Review

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With this book Peter Ackroyd eases himself into my Top 3 most read authors from the last 22 years that I’ve been keeping count. This is the 11th book of his I have read (plus there’s a couple I’ve read twice). The crowning glory of his 30+ year writing career (so far) is his monumental “London: The Biography” (2000), the best history of a geographical location I have ever read and my Book of The Year in the year I read it. Some of his London-based fiction has also been first-class.

So you can probably tell I would be excited to read this publication. I had anticipated another large volume but when I saw it in a bookshop I was surprised that it looked rather slim (232 pages + bibliography and index). That made me a little concerned and I was hoping that it wasn’t made up of material taken from “London: The Biography”. It isn’t; it’s a completely new history subtitled “Gay London from the Romans to the present day”. What I like about Ackroyd’s historical non-fiction is how it feels learned and academic and yet how very readable it all is. “London”, given its size might be a book a reader might just dip in and out of but I read it like a thriller and relished every word.

Well, here, I’m going to start with a personal gripe. I’m not thrilled by the title. Ackroyd defends his use of the term “Queer” as the word now commonly used by academics and “Queer Studies” appears in universities. A recent exhibition (and book) celebrating “Queer British Art” appeared at around the time of this book’s publication at Tate Britain and the word also appears now as the Q in the abbreviated LGBTQIA (although some will say it’s for “questioning”). The word rankles with its association of dodgy men in raincoats but I’m going to let it go and find out just what is in between the covers.

Ackroyd encompasses the raison d’etre behind the book with his final words: “This book is a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation and affliction. It represents the ultimate triumph of London.”

What was it about this city which led to its being, throughout time, a magnet for its sexually curious residents? According to Ackroyd; “The city was known to be both a jungle and a labyrinth where gay life could flourish, each street leading to another and then another; there was no end to the possibilities or to the adventures. It provoked the restless need to explore.”

He takes a chronological view of these Gay Londoners. For a good chunk of early history there were no terms for “homosexuality” and people just did pretty much what they did without labels. There is also a marked difference between genders. Lesbianism was never made illegal (Queen Victoria reputedly refusing to acknowledge its existence) and over the centuries Ackroyd makes mention of a number of instances where female partnerships caused little storm and they were occasionally even married by confused clergymen, sometimes by one impersonating a male in a ruse which might not be discovered until after her death. There have also been times when homosexuality was more ignored than tolerated, especially at Court (there’s been more than one gay royal) and within the Church but generally the plight of the gay man has not been especially happy. Obviously the nature of using existing evidence means that Ackroyd’s research will tend to be on incidents which moved over into public knowledge and these will most likely be court cases when something has gone wrong. There’s the odd surprising fact, however. He states that in terms of population, there were probably as many “gay bars” in 17th Century as in 21st Century London.

For many gay men, as we know, their sexual identity led to ruin and shame, punishment or their murder. Many faced public wrath at pillories and public hangings and Britain was slower than most to adopt change. By the eighteenth century much of Europe had abandoned execution for the “crime” of being gay. Britain, alarmed by the Continent and especially by France clamped down further in a bid to establish its separation from Europe (given events over the last year can’t stop the hairs rising on back of my head just a little here). Homosexuality was seen as “a foreign vice. It was un-English” (never mind that the French referred to certain sexual practices as “anglais”). The last two men hanged in England died in 1835 but the death sentence was not actually abolished until 1861.

After this date you might not hang for it but; “It is arguable that in the first half of the twentieth century, however, gays of both sexes were subject to a level of prejudice and intolerance not seen before in Western history, entrapment, imprisonment and sudden police raids became familiar characteristics of London life.”

So not especially a joyful celebration here then. I think Ackroyd does rush through the twentieth century somewhat in his race towards equality. I think I was expecting a little more focus on those places that had real history and importance for gay people. (Coincidentally, this was catered for, to some extent, by Channel 4’s “Britain’s Great Gay Buildings” first shown on 24th June 2017). Ackroyd seems more confident with dealing with the academic evidence than the popular culture which steeped places like Heaven, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern and The Black Cap. He does look to the future at what equality and gay marriage will end up meaning to the more subversive “underground” aspects of London (the “twilight world” that the News Of The World and Sunday People used to refer to) which is rapidly disappearing as we all settle down to domestic environments.

This is often a very readable, undeniably racy account of our capital city and its more diverse residents. There’s some wonderful characters along the way and far too many meet unhappy ends. It’s a good read but do not expect it to have either the magnitude or scope of “London: The Biography”,

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Queer City was published by Chatto and Windus in a hardback edition in May 2017.

Don’t Wake Up- Liz Lawler (Twenty Seven 2017)- A Murder They Wrote Review

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Liz Lawler was obviously paying full attention when told that a debut novel needs to grab readers right from the start as the opening chapters of this novel certainly pack a punch. As an ex-nurse Lawler is totally convincing at setting the scene in her thriller set largely in a Bristol hospital.

Twenty-eight year old Doctor Alex Taylor is good at her job and well respected by colleagues. She has a handsome vet as her boyfriend but her life changes the moment she wakes up on an operating theatre table. Why she is there and what will happen to her provides those opening chills.

I think Lawler has made a brave move in opting to write a “nobody believes me” novel because these are often on a fine line. It’s easy to stretch plausibility and readers can lose sympathy with the character not being taken seriously as their actions, which often lead them down deeper holes and further suspicion can be perceived as them being stupid. Liz Lawler does largely avoid this although at times Alex is frustrating and not always likeable, but then she is in some predicament. It certainly kept me reading but personally I wasn’t completely won over. The author puts her main character through scenes of torture which made me feel a little grubby after reading them. I wasn’t totally convinced by her male characters in particular Detective Inspector Greg Turner who is assigned to Dr Taylor’s case. After such a tremendous beginning I did not feel that the novel always flowed smoothly.

I don’t often read this kind of commercial misery-thriller and I would admit that it would have to be fairly extraordinary to blow me away so perhaps it wasn’t the greatest match for me but if I haven’t put you off with this and you like being chilled right from the start this debut is well worth seeking out.

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Available now in a Kindle edition. “Don’t Wake Up” will be published as a paperback in October 2017. Many thanks to Twenty Seven and Pigeonhole for the opportunity to read a review copy.

The Brazilian – Rosie Millard (Legend Press 2017) – A Chick-Lit From A Male Point Of View Review

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In a Victoria Wood tribute I watched recently I saw for the umpteenth time “The Shoe Shop Sketch” and I laughed at every single line, as always, feeling almost overwhelmed by laughter at the end.  Such a clever writer.  It got me wondering what would have happened if Victoria had followed the lead of chums Celia Imrie and Julie Walters and written a novel.  Would she have gone for comedy and would it even have worked?  Would it have been possible to sustain her brand of humour (which I find very funny) over the entire length of a novel.  To do this is notoriously difficult……

 

Legend Press invited me to read Rosie Millard’s second comic novel “The Brazilian”.  Rosie is a journalist and as BBC Arts correspondent has been on the TV herself a fair few times so eases herself into that group of women novelists that includes Dawn French,  Fern Britton, Celia Imrie,  Meera Syal and Helen Lederer who we feel we know something about already due to a public persona and “celebrity status”.  So long as they are written by the person named on the cover (not Katie Price then), I’m really quite interested in reading them.  In fact, it was a celebrity moment, a television appearance on the fairly ghastly sounding “Celebrity Five Go To Lanzarotte” in which Rosie took part which provided the inspiration for this novel.

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Rosie Millard

Rosie has cleverly incorporated the characters from her first novel about North London neighbours in “The Square” (2015) into a holiday setting, rather in the way that comedy classic “Are You Being Served?” did when it was expanded into a movie, but here with much better results.  I read and reviewed “The Square” and enjoyed it as a North London comedy of (bad) manners which evolved from the location so I initially felt that uprooting some of these upmarket existences felt like a bit of a risk.  I said of the first novel; “Most of the women are ghastly and the men not worthy of any of the female lustful attentions” but that certainly doesn’t diminish its comic potential and by opening it all out into a relaxed holiday setting the women can become more ghastly and the men less worthy.  Over the years much situation comedy has indeed focused on ghastly women and inept men.

The location for all this is Ibiza.  A couple of The Square residents have been chosen to take part in a daytime reality show “Ibiza (Or Bust)”; there’s a holiday for Jayne, Patrick and their son where a babysitter is needed and with boyfriends and wives making their way over to the island it takes about eight characters out of “The Square”.  I’m sorry that recently rich lottery winner Tracey has only a bit part to play here.  Central character this time round is Jayne who during her family holiday becomes more monstrous, self-centred and devious than in the previous novel.

The title refers to both a character from the Reality Show and a certain waxing Jayne has in preparation for her holiday.  The TV show aspect gives it more structure and ensures it builds towards a climax rather than lose momentum (which I feel “The Square” was a little guilty of).  There’s some new characters to spice things up.  I must admit I like my humour a little warmer than what is on display here but the prickly comic situations are enjoyable enough although I didn’t laugh out loud.

The cover compares Rosie Millard to Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen and Arnold Bennett but that’s more fitting of the socially mannered “The Square”.  If we’re looking for a classic comic comparison I’d be more likely to go with E F Benson and his monstrous characters Mapp and Lucia who gave him enough comic potential and staying power to last six novels.  I think there’s still potential for the author to go further with these characters.  Taking them back to “The Square” with their Ibiza experience behind them could pay dividends.  All in all, although I preferred the set-up of the first novel I think that “The Brazilian” is better structured, the humour is more sustained and therefore a more satisfying sequel.

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The Brazilian is published on 14th June 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

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

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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