The Visitors – Catherine Burns (Legend Press 2017)

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There’s something down in brother and sister John and Marion Zetland’s cellar and we get to find out really early on what it is in this gripping, compulsive debut.

 I’m not spoiling things by saying it’s Eastern European girls tricked into the country by John and kept as prisoners and sex slaves.  This novel focuses, however, on Marion, now in her late fifties, dominated by her brother and almost in complete denial as to what is going on in their house.  Marion has done little with her life and looks back on a past filled with regrets whilst not functioning in the horrific reality of the present.  This makes for incredibly tense reading.  It is a tale of loneliness (charity shop toys fill the role of friends) and neglect in an environment where evil lurks down the cellar steps.

 If this sounds a little too sordid the author has a masterful hand with characterisation and her depiction of Marion will remain long in my mind.  There’s dark humour amongst the dark themes which I appreciated and which kept me reading to the point where I found it very difficult to put the book down.  This is a very accomplished debut, a combination of crime and horror with a strong literary fiction feel which should make it appeal to more than those who make their reading choices from the darker areas of genre fiction.  Publishers Legend Press seem to be building up a great reputation with high quality first-time authors.  I will be fascinated to see what the author comes up with next.

vistors2Catherine Burns

 

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The Visitors was published in hardback by Legend Press in 2017 and the paperback is due to appear on 1st June 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

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The Diary Of Two Nobodies – Giles Wood & Mary Killen (2017) – A Real Life Review

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I love Channel 4’s “Googlebox” and always enjoy the contributions of Giles and Mary (or Nutty and Nutty as they call each other) from their thatched Wiltshire cottage. I wasn’t absolutely convinced I needed to read a book written by them, fearing that it might be a cash-in for the Christmas market with little merit which would vanish after the present-buying was over, but someone whose opinion I valued recommended it and I thought I’d give it a go. I was pleased I did.

gilesandmary2Giles and Mary have become recognisable enough for French and Saunders to parody them in undoubtedly the most successful sections of their most recent show with Dawn playing Giles with the right level of Alan Bennett-ness and Jennifer as Mary becoming gradually absorbed by the fabric of her armchair.

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We’ve taken to this couple because they seem to know each other so well. We can sense the long-suffering of Mary towards Giles’ ability to wind her up, often with a twinkle in his eye with her keen to put him back on the right track. In a preamble they say that Gogglebox has saved their 30 year marriage as all that TV watching has got them to sit down together and communicate as well as giving us all a chance to see how frustrating Giles can be! Both having a background in writing and creating they agreed to the diary format of this book as it offered the chance to produce (in Giles’ words “anecdotal accounts of the various hurdles life and marriage throws up at a couple in a bid to try and see what, in the dread words of the politicians lessons can be learned”. For Mary, someone who admits to recording their disagreements and typing up a transcript, this format would also seem to be ideal.

Much of this is based on the problems of Giles – a procrastinating artist “stranded in the Seventies”, a fledgling eco-warrior and keen gardener who relishes opportunities to be annoying and Mary’s constant busyness, rooting around to locate lost objects and attempting to fit too much into each day whose ideal times of her married life have been when she has had a live-in assistant to act as buffer between her and her husband.

It is these differences between them that work so well. It’s consistently amusing, occasionally laugh-out loud funny and interspersed with illustrations from Giles which adds to the text. I’m hoping and believing here that we are getting the real Giles and Mary and not some representation dreamt up in a marketing office. Much of the joy is in recognising our own traits in this couple’s interactions with one another. I think most of us would come off as a combination of Giles and Mary and would certainly appreciate each of their frustrations with one another. It provides a good, plausible picture of a long-term relationship in action. I don’t think you even need to be familiar with them to enjoy this book as the whole thing feels like we have been invited into their world and it is fun spending time with them.

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The Diary Of Two Nobodies was published by Virgin in 2017

 

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

100 Essential Books – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017)

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2017 seems to have, as far as my reading choices are concerned, kept the best till last.  The following review might sound as if I’ve been knocking back the sherries and become overly-infused with Christmas goodwill, but no, it’s just that I’ve spent the last few days in the company of this book which is undoubtedly the best book I’ve read (excluding re-reads) since I started this blog.  It may very well be my favourite book of this decade.

I suppose we are all on the look-out for what we would consider to be “the perfect book”, the book that exactly matches the reader, the book which represents all that we are looking for in our reading and this, for me, may very well be it.  Too often I’ve chosen a novel wondering if it could be “the one” and it hasn’t lived up to my expectations, or the hype, or it is unable to sustain the potential throughout the course of its pages.  This, I think, has managed to pull together all that I look for in my fiction into one tidy volume.

The odd thing is that I’ve never actually read anything by Irish writer John Boyne before.  I have had a copy of “The Boy With Striped Pyjamas” on my shelves for some time, but  I don’t think I’ve yet g0t over seeing the very good film adaptation.  My partner, who has read it, said it was one of the best books he has read, so perhaps the writing was on the wall.  “Pyjamas” is aimed at the older child/YA market and that is where, up to now, Boyne has perhaps been most celebrated.  I have picked up his books in shops and on library shelves and thought “I must get round to reading that”, but so far I haven’t.  It feels like there’s almost been a kind of courtship before I committed myself to this author.  So why has this worked so well for me?  Why is there such a match?

It’s a possibility that nationality has something to do with it.  As far as I know I haven’t got a drop of Irish blood in me but I’m often attracted by the work of Irish authors.  In recent years novels by Paul Murray, Donal Ryan and Sara Baume have appeared near the top of my end of year lists and there have been a number more who have written books that have really impressed me, including  Anne Enright, Nick Laird, Sebastian Barry, Jess Kidd and Graham Norton.  I have found myself favouring Irish and Irish-set novels (Hannah Kent’s “The Good People) and Emma Donoghue’s “The Wonder” both springing to mind) on this very blog.

Is it also because it has a gay central character and the novel explores a life-long battle with his own sexuality dominated by the repression of mid twentieth century Ireland.  Gay themed novels are likely to resonate and Allan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, Armistead Maupin, Michael Carson and David Leavitt have written such novels which are amongst my all-time favourites.  This book has pushed itself to the front of such esteemed company.

I’m also looking for characters to emotionally respond to and, boy, do I here, not just with the main characters but with a superbly drawn supporting cast which creates a novel of depth and feeling.  I also like a book which is going to make me laugh, as so few do, and even fewer do so consistently.  Paul Murray (another Irish author) with his tale of Irish financial institutions “The Mark & The Void” was the last to make me laugh as much as this.

I’m also a sucker for an epic sweep and this novel spans from 1945 to the present day.  There is a potential pitfall here, which I’ve highlighted often and that is I can be reading a book and loving the narrative flow then the section ends and it’s twenty years later and you’re left trying to re-establish who is who and what’s going on.  The danger being, of course, if you don’t like the new time-frame as much you find yourself yearning for a return to the earlier section.  This is also a trap faced by multi-narrative novels.  Here, I did feel occasionally saddened that a section I was so much into had ended but what came next was just as involving or even better.  At over 700 pages it is not the longest novel I have read this year but avoids all of the potential pitfalls of the fuller-figured work and becomes a rare thing – a long novel that I just did not want to end.

Boyne keeps to the one first-person narrative and that person is Cyril Avery who begins his tale with his pregnant mother being denounced as a whore by the parish priest in the midst of the Mass, leading her to having to flee her village and deal with Cyril’s inevitable arrival in a Dublin where a single mother with child is not a good option for survival.  Cyril is moved on and this is the tale of his life.  I’m not giving much away in order to maximise your reading pleasure.  I knew nothing about this book when I started it which heightened the experience and made the unpredictable turn of events throughout an absolute joy.  I did spot that Rachel Joyce had enthused on the cover “Invest in this journey because it will pay you back forever” and I can’t remember agreeing with on-cover blurb more.  Finishing it today (and I really slowed down on purpose, another great sign) I’m feeling quite bereft and am almost tempted to start the whole thing again, but recalling the recent memory of the Xmas tin of “Celebrations”, to gorge myself again so soon might be too much of a good thing.

Looking back over this I don’t know why I’ve spent the last few hundred words justifying why I’m praising this novel so much.  Just get over it!  It’s a superb book! I know that I’m stingier with my star ratings and with words of praise than many of the bloggers I follow and read but for me this book is exactly what the five star rating was made for.  If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies was published as a Black Swan Paperback in December 2017.  Many thanks to Netgalley and to the publishers for the review copy.

 

Wildest Of All – P K Lynch (Legend Press 2017)

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Scottish author PK Lynch has followed up an award-winning debut “Armadillos” (2016) with this thoughtful, family novel.  It commences with the death of family lynchpin Peter Donnelly and the effects this has on those left behind.

Main character Sissy is 17 and adores her Dad.  The suddenness of his demise has deprived her of the chance to say goodbye and her attempts to do this her own way are thwarted by her staunch Catholic grandmother, Anne.  Sissy’s mother Jude is crumbling without her partner and the rest of the family seem not to know what to do about this.

The first half of this novel carefully and precisely examines the effects of bereavement on the family and it is grandmother Anne, befuddled by the death of the son she idolised, with her own secrets about her marriage and frustration at Jude’s inability to function as well as her need to control potentially wayward teenager Sissy, who comes across as the strongest drawn and most rounded character.  The dynamics between the three are strong, felt authentic and kept me involved.

Circumstances take Sissy away from Glasgow and the novel shifts to become a young-girl-surviving-in- London tale which loses some of the depths of the novel as the characters here are not so well-drawn.  Sissy, herself, is not terribly likeable and becomes less so once she moves down South.  Anne and Jude take more of a back seat and this change of emphasis alters the balance of the novel from something potentially excellent to following along more predictable lines.

Those interested in novels which focus on family and friendship at times of duress would find much to become involved with but I felt a little disappointed that it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the opening chapters.

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Wildest Of All was published in September 2017 by Legend Press.  Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Modern Gods – Nick Laird (4th Estate 2017)

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This novel opens with a shocking, violent prologue and then settles into a family drama reminiscent of the best of Anne Enright.  Set in the small town of Ballygrass, Northern Ireland, Alison is preparing for her second marriage and hoping to put behind her an abusive first marriage.  Her mother is fearful that a serious illness has made a comeback and her father has been left slightly confused after bouts of ill-health, and is no longer the man he once was.  Her sister, Liz, the main character, is coming to terms with the break-up of yet another relationship and their brother has secrets of his own.

The author pitches these family dynamics perfectly.  They are well-rounded characters and feel like a real family with its own issues and  tensions of a lifetime’s making.  It feels very modern, there are well-observed references throughout and certainly the first part of the novel is an unpredictable joy.

In Part Two we get a split narrative away from Alison’s wedding as Liz travels to New Ulster Island off Papua New Guinea to film a BBC documentary about a new religion.  The author opened up my eyes  here to Cargo Cults which is something I knew nothing about yet in making this shift in the novel I felt that some of the power and vivacity of what had gone before was diluted.  This is always a risk (I felt exactly the same recently about Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time”) as there is a danger that the reader will favour one strand over the other and want the author “to get on with it”. Although I enjoyed reading about Liz’s experience and it makes for chilling reading as the disastrous repercussions of western intervention begins to unfold I was itching to get back to Ireland where there were equally difficult situations regarding fanaticism to resolve.

The sections do link together and I can see what the author is trying to convey.  The whole thing ends up as a very good novel whereas for the first half I thought it was going to be an exceptional one. 

This is Irish writer Laird’s third novel.  He has also published collections of poetry and this is not surprising as his use of language is rich and precise.  He currently teaches creative writing at New York University.  I will certainly be seeking out his earlier works.   

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Modern Gods was published by 4th Estate in June 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers and to the folks at Nudge for the review copy.

The End Of Eddy – Edouard Louis (Harvill Secker 2017)

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This debut novel packs quite a punch.  An autobiographical work which caused something of a sensation when it was published in France.  There was considerable outcry as the French life depicted here is certainly not the live-and-let-live philosophy which the rest of Europe considers France to have.  It is a depiction of recent working-class culture which is chilling and harrowing.  In fact, I was I very surprised to discover that French author Edouard Louis is only in his mid-twenties.  The tale he is telling seems to be of older generations.  I would have hoped that even French village life might have moved on from the events depicted here, but it would seem not. 

This translation, by Michael Lucey, a winner of an English PEN Award is an account of a difficult and intense childhood.  Set in a village in Picardy from the late 1990s where a tough working-class culture dominates and it is virtually impossible for anyone to be different.  The youths follow in their parent’s footsteps of either hard, monotonous work or no work at all, heavy drinking, machismo and make the same mistakes as the previous generation.  It is hard to escape this way of life and many just survive underneath the poverty line. 

Eddy does not fit in.  He questions his sexuality from an early age and his gentler behaviour causes him to be labelled by homophobic family members, fellow pupils and other villagers.  He is told what he is before he himself has come to any decision.  This leads to lack of self-esteem and a victim mentality which causes him to seek out on a daily basis a couple of youths who will beat him up in a lonely school corridor away from the eyes of others who would want to follow suit.  It is a heart-breaking and harrowing account of a childhood.

It is, however, a novel, although one largely based on fact.  That may make things slightly easier for the reader but then again there isn’t the same sense of completion that we would get from reading a memoir.  Louis is quite prepared as a novelist to leave us hanging and it is only through reading between the lines that we deduce that things must have got better.  It’s written very much as a memoir, it flows well and although I read it quickly the appalling treatment meted out to Eddy will certainly not quickly leave my mind. 

Often this type of “misery-lit” leaves a bitter taste in my mouth and I question whether I should be reading it at all.  I found myself caring and being very concerned about Eddy throughout.  It’s written with such honesty that I would imagine all readers would find some parallels with times of doubt in their own childhood.  The skewed logic of an immature mind is heartbreaking, yet as a piece of literature it works both beautifully and brutally.

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The End Of Eddy is published in the UK in February 2017.  Many thanks to the folks at Nudge and to the publishers for the review copy.

The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst (2017)

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I’ve been really looking forward to the publication of this, Hollinghurst’s sixth novel in 29 years.  This highly talented British author is one of the few novelists whom I’ve read everything by.  I read his debut “The Swimming Pool Library” (1988) not long after it first came out and it is one of my all-time favourites.  The standard was every bit maintained for “The Folding Star” (1994) and both of these were my Books of The Year from when I first read them and have been re-read and much enjoyed since.  His Booker Award Winning “The Line Of Beauty” (2004) may very well be my favourite Booker winner.  This is an author I hold in very high esteem. 

But it is not all roses.  He has let me down in the past.  His third novel “The Spell” was nothing special and his last from five years ago “The Stranger’s Child” was good but didn’t make it onto my end of year Top 10 (and thus ended up at the charity shop).  I couldn’t shake off a slight disappointment over it.  His characters were strong but largely unlikeable and although I admired the epic sweep of British life from World War I to the present day I felt his “moments in time” structure a little artificial and felt that it led to him not following through with his characters.  It was undoubtedly haunting, but I also described it as “mannered and often dry.”

There has been five years between novels and I’ve been certainly eagerly anticipating the latest since the title was being bandied around in notifications of forthcoming releases at the start of the year.  I’ve changed a lot in the 29 years I’ve been reading Hollinghurst, but I’m not totally convinced that he has nearly as much.  He’s found his groove and has stuck to it.  Unfortunately, this means that the criticism that I aired for the last novel largely still applies, but this time more so. 

Once again he’s gone for a saga format with two generations of family and friends.  We move from Oxford during World War II to present day (ish) London.  A group of artistic friends notice another student working out which sparks an interest in him as a potential friend, lover or artist’s model (or some combination of the three).  We meet this athletic young man, David Sparsholt, at other times in his and his son’s life.

The most successful section features a tale of unrequited love.  David’s teenage son, Johnny, had a fling with Bastien on a trip to France.  A year later Bastien is with the Sparsholts in England and Johnny is keen to rekindle things but Bastien’s interest is now firmly in girls.  This is handled perfectly.  Once again, though, I found it to be too dry and mannered (which the first two novels are definitely not) and that I felt indifferent to many of the characters.  I think it’s that they take everything too seriously and there’s no humour in their relationships, which just doesn’t ring true with family and friends, where most of us need the humour to survive!  Also, a lot of the action in the lives, including the central “Sparsholt Affair” and most birth, marriages and deaths take place between the sections.  This reminded me of a production of “Madame Butterfly” I once saw where much of the action seemed to take place off-stage.  It leads to me feeling a bit cheated.  On that occasion I threw off Opera as being not for me, but I don’t wish to throw off Alan Hollinghurst, we go back such a long way!  I thought his early novels spoke to me directly as a reader in a way few novels of the time did.  As we have both got older this no longer seems to be the case.  The worlds he depicts, both in the distant and recent past and in the present feels somewhat alien and aloof. 

There are memorable sections and it is carefully plotted and so elegantly written and put together but there doesn’t seem to be much development from the last novel and it felt like I’d read it before, which after a five year wait and a nearly thirty years devotion to previous work made me feel somewhat disappointed on this occasion.  I’m sure that this is just a rocky patch between us but I hope I don’t have to wait another five years to find out.

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The Sparsholt Affair was published in hardback by Picador in October 2017.

 

She Be Damned – M J Tjia (Legend Press 2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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tjia

I have a big old soft spot for novels set in Victorian London.  I love the mix of classes, the hypocrisy of the wealthy and the poor struggling to get by through any means.  From Dickens to “Fingersmith” to Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White” this kind of fiction has the tendency to end up amongst my all-time favourites, especially when there is a strong female lead to stand against the patriarchal society.

Enter Heloise Chancey, main character in the first of a proposed historical crime series by Australian author Tjia.  This is the first full-length novel for a Brisbane-based novelist much lauded for her short stories and novellas.  Heloise is a strong, complex character- a well off courtesan with a background on the stage and as a celebrated beauty, posing as a widow, who helps out an aristocratic private detective with his cases.  Heloise is able to move fairly effortlessly thorough the ranks of society from the upper echelons who may have used her courtesan services, their wives who cannot imagine these services and to those who have remained in the less respectable strata of society, the “renters” in the brothel houses where Heloise passed through in what is evidently a very rich back story.  As such she is a character who has been carefully thought out for a series of novels.

In “She Be Damned” she is asked to investigate a missing girl who has left home after revealing her pregnancy to her family and where her only option is to sink towards harder times.  Prostitutes are being mutilated and murdered around the Waterloo area and Heloise gets caught up with all of this.

Interspersed with the narrative are the back-story experiences of Amah Li Leen, Heloise’s oriental maid and this is done in such a way that we know she will be a supporting character in subsequent mysteries.  Tjia keeps a lot up her sleeve about both characters, good for the future but not without risks as by holding back too much in an introductory novel these characters may end up not as well-rounded as we’d like.  I think the author just gets away with this, but only just in the case of Amah.

There’s a fair evocation of nineteenth century London.  It’s not as drenched in atmosphere as I might have wanted but there can be a tendency to over-egg this leading to cliché and melodrama, both of which are avoided here. 

All in all it’s a very readable introduction to a series and I would certainly seek out follow-ups.  I don’t think Heloise Chancey is going to challenge my favourite investigators but I certainly enjoyed spending time in her company.

threestars

She Be Damned was published in the UK in August 2017.  Many thanks to Legend Press for the review copy.