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 without 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.

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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.   

fourstars

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.

fourstars

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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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.

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

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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Mohsin Hamid made his first appearance on the Booker shortlist ten years ago with “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” in a year when Anne Enright took the prize.

“Exit West” is a slim, sparse novel with big themes which centres on a love affair amidst turmoil and conflict.  Hamid can be precise in his vagueness and we never learn for sure the country of Nadia and Saeed’s birth but it is, like many others, a nation of escalating conflict. 

They meet at an evening class but their freedoms and opportunities become increasingly diminished as militants take over.  Nadia wears dark robes to cover herself fully as a way of distancing male interest but is actually far less religious and traditional as Saeed who prays regularly and cannot contemplate sex before marriage.  The situation in their homeland worsens and they hear of a fantastical means of escape.  Here I could certainly see parallels with “The Underground Railroad” both with its forced migration and the means to achieve this.  Whereas Whitehead is masterful in drawing us into his tale Hamid keeps us purposely at a distance with a detached documentary style which actually makes some of the terrible events seem even more terrible.

Whereas Colson Whitehead’s book really took off from the escape onwards  I felt that this novel reached its peak before the escape and that the attempts to relocate in a London which is becoming increasingly as tense as their homeland and then to the USA didn’t captivate me as much.  Like Whitehead these locations feel highly fictionalised and have a nightmarish quality which is magnified by the pared down nature of Hamid’s writing.

Like a number of the Booker shortlist novels there were moments that were absolutely first class but although I can see its relevance and importance to our modern world I wasn’t totally enraptured throughout.

fourstars

Exit West was published as a Hamish Hamilton hardback in March 2017

Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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saundersI’m feeling a little discombobulated.  Firstly, congratulations are due to highly esteemed American author Saunders who comes onto the shortlist much praised for his previous published works which includes essays, short stories and novellas. This is his first full-length novel and its arrival was much anticipated.

I’m disturbed firstly because it is distinctly odd. The whole thing is written as observations, either as quotes from books or character statements. These are often in short sections and in common with first-hand sources can be contradictory so you get different opinions of the same event. This does make it quick to read but the short length of these breaks up any real flow. It does on occasion lead you in almost addictively when there’s a barrage of different views on an event, but generally, although it is undoubtedly cleverly done, it feels a little too much like style over substance to me.
The subject matter also disturbs. It’s very much an account of grief. President Abraham Lincoln’s young son dies of a fever. The “Bardo” is a graveyard-set half-life where spirits who have not yet resolved themselves to their demise drift in a shape-shifting existence and are joined by the spirit of Willie Lincoln. This disparate group of beings from the cemetery and mass graves beyond attempt to reconcile the boy to his death. At times these sections reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s “Graveyard Book” and what I couldn’t get out of my head was a manic, adult version of “Rentaghost”.

The whole thing just feels a little off-kilter. Anyone actually experiencing grief or recent bereavement would be advised to steer clear. This was the bookies’ early favourite to win the Man Booker Prize. Do I think that this should get the prize for the best work published in English this year? No, I don’t and perhaps I might have enjoyed the whole thing more if I wasn’t aware the whole time if this wasn’t stirring around in my mind and that the judges favoured this over longlisters “The Underground Railroad” and “Home Fire”. I will give it points for cleverness and originality but the style and theme are just too unsettling for me to really get behind this one.

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Lincoln In The Bardo was published in March 2017 by Bloomsbury

History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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It’s always great to see debut novelists on the Man Booker lists. It feels like we have been given a privileged opportunity to be there right from the beginning. The work a debut novelist has to do to see their book in print is often tremendous and all too often first novels vanish making barely a ripple. So I welcome American author Fridlund’s book onto the longlist.

We are in the backwoods of Northern Minnesota, the home of fourteen year old main character Madeline, known as “Linda” but to some at school as “Freak”. She lives with her parents in the remains of a commune, without a great deal of parental intervention and with mainly the tethered dogs for company.

Two things change for Linda. A new teacher invites her to participate in a Schools Challenge for which she chooses the “history of wolves” and a family move opposite her across the lake with Paul, a young child for who Linda begins to babysit. These events provide Linda’s entry into an adult world as she becomes drawn towards both the teacher and the new family’s life. We learn very early on that this leads to the death of a child.

The tale meanders around different times in Linda’s life but it is the main thread of the teenager’s search for belonging and an end to her aching loneliness that is by far the most involving. The warped values of the world she inhabits also very much motivates the adult Linda. It is a very calm book, perhaps surprisingly with its distressing emotive themes but it lacks a little of the build I would look for in a book of this kind. I felt it petering out before the end. Linda’s existence is evocatively created, however, and a number of scenes will stick in my mind for some time but it never fully realised the potential I thought it had in the first few chapters.

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History of Wolves was published by Wiedenfeld & Nicolson in February 2017

 

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (2017) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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The seventh novel by Pakistan-born London resident Kamila Shamsie, a former Granta Best Of Young British novelist, feels particularly relevant to our world today.  Perhaps more than the other Man Booker longlisted novels I’ve read so far this feels especially for our times, with the most relevance to our modern lives.  Strange then, that this is based upon one of the oldest recorded stories, the Greek myth of Antigone, most famously written as a tragic play by Sophocles in about 442 BC.

I didn’t know the myth beforehand and I’m actually rather glad I didn’t, although it did make me want to seek it out once I’d finished Shamsie’s adaptation.  I went with one of her recommended versions and listened on spoken word CD to another 2017 Man Booker longlisted author Ali Smith who narrates her children’s book “The Story Of Antigone” (2013).  In an interview following the story she says of this source material;

“It’s the kind of story that will always be relevant for all sorts of reasons because some things never change no matter what century we’re in and no matter where we are in history and it is a story about what matters to human beings and how human beings make things meaningful and how we act towards one another and what power is, what it makes us do and how much or how little power human beings really have.”

 I’m not actually going to tell you more about the myth as it will give too much information as to where Shamsie’s plot-line will go.  If you know it, you know it.  If not I don’t want to spoil things for you as developments certainly took me by surprise.  It does involve a chilling attempt to stand up against the authorities.

Shamsie has recast the main characters as a Muslim family from Wembley.  Isma, the oldest daughter begins the novel by travelling to the US to commence a long-delayed Sociology PHD leaving her younger law student sister Aneeka at home and Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz removed from the family.  Isma had been a mother figure to the twins after they were orphaned.  We learn early on that their father had died whilst being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

Isma is attempting to pick up the pieces after family tragedies and the shame and distrust caused.  She has a chance encounter with a family acquaintance, Eammon, son of a British Muslim politician whose career, after setbacks, is in the ascendancy.  On Eamonn’s return to the UK he offers to take a bag of M&M’s to Aneeka setting up a catalogue of events which will lead to tragedy and a startling international incident.

I read very few books as explicitly political as this and did find it difficult to hone in as to what my feelings were or the author’s stance on incidents.  This is because the issues are extremely complex and involves the prejudices of nations, the power of religions and the media.  Shamsie is certainly to be applauded for her bravery in tackling these themes head-on.  The fact that she does it pitch-perfectly in a tale which is brilliantly realised, both unpredictable and chillingly inevitable borders on the extraordinary.  I found it totally compelling to read but harder to always gauge my responses.  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.  Although I wasn’t aware of the relevance to Antigone as I was  reading, it does give the work resonance and great authority.  So here we have it, my first 5 star Man Booker longlist read.  The battle is on…………..

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Home Fire was published by Bloomsbury Circus in August 2017

 

 

Mama Tandoori – Ernest Van Der Kwast (Scribe 2017)

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Dutch author Ernest Van Der Kwast made his breakthrough with this 2010 Netherlands and Italian best-seller translated now into English by Laura Vroomen.  Publishers Scribe have done a great job in the recent past bringing Dutch authors to wider attention- their 2006 publication of Tommy Wieringa’s “Joe Speedboat” is the current Reviewsrevues Book of The Year and here is another strong title.

“Mama Tandoori” is a study of a family with Dutch and Indian parents.  An autobiographical novel which focuses on Ernest’s mother whose outrageous behaviour verges on the monstrous.  She is a woman determined to get her own way as cheaply as possible.  I was initially quite resilient to Van Der Kwast’s fictional account of his childhood whilst reading of a trip to Lourdes with his disabled brother but the novel really began to draw me in when other adult characters were added to the mix. I found myself fascinated by Uncle Sharma who came from a dirt-poor background and was transported by a visiting outdoor cinema into dreams of becoming a movie star, which came to be realised. From here things all fall into place and I seemed to appreciate more the wider family dynamics.  Mother herself became a more rounded character in my mind when running alongside her competing son on the athletics track and proving to be too nervous to pin on his race number.

There is no doubt that this character can be mean but this meanness does become more appealing in a tragi-comic way.  Her ploy to get a fitted kitchen out of her husband’s dying grandmother is shocking but you cannot help but admire the gall of this character.  The humour is ramped up by the contrast between the narrator’s unemotionally “wooden-hipped” Dutch relatives and the fiery passion and determination of the Indian women.  His mother will both shock you and win you over in laugh-out-loud moments.

Van Der Kwast writes in a likeable, easy style which makes the book feel highly visual and enjoyable.  It has certainly made me keen to read his take on the Italians in his Dolomites-set family saga “The Ice Cream Makers” also published as a Scribe paperback.

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Mama Tandoori is published on 10th August 2017  by Scribe.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.