Bluebird Bluebird- Attica Locke (2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

Attica Locke is an American author I’ve been meaning to read for some time.  I chose to start with the 4th of her 5 novels, the first in her so far two novel series “Highway 59” which features black Texan Ranger Darren Matthews.

In this novel Darren uses a temporary suspension from duties to visit the small East Texan town of Lark where two bodies have been fished out of the Bayou in rapid succession; a black man visiting the area followed a few days later by a young mother who lived locally.  This is not the usual order for murder victims in a location where the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas still operates, historically, too often a black man has been killed in retaliation for a white woman killing so the Ranger’s interest and his local knowledge of both the black and white local communities leads him to risk his fragile marriage and stay to unravel the case, meeting up with the dead man’s widow in the process.

Tensions simmer and occasionally bubble to the surface in this oppressive atmosphere which the author very effectively conveys.  Her main character is flawed but driven by a background brought up by two uncles, one himself a Texan Ranger, the other a lawyer, and a strong sense to do the right thing.  The story behind his suspension adds another layer to the plot and feels like it will carry over to the next in the series.  Richly written, strong characterisation and subtle plot twists made this very enjoyable and I would certainly want to catch up with this author’s other novels.

Bluebird Bluebird was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2017.

Little Me: My Autobiography – Matt Lucas (2017)- A Real Life Review

realives

littleme

There were elements of the life story of comedy actor Matt Lucas in the 2006 publication “Inside Little Britain” written by Boyd Hilton with input from Lucas and then comedy partner David Walliams. At this point they were probably the top comedy duo around and I really loved this book placing it in the Top 5 of my best books of 2006.

A lot has happened in the 11 years between then and this, particularly for Walliams who has become a phenomenally successful and extremely wealthy children’s author publishing his own autobiography “Camp David” (which I haven’t read) in 2012. Lucas’ work is a less showy affair than either of these two aforementioned books and is an honest, at times raw account in which the author’s voice comes across so clearly it’s like having an audiobook in your head.

Lucas has eschewed the chronological approach to go alphabetically writing sections such as E is for eating, G is for Gay, J is for Jewish which gives him a chance to focus in on certain areas and leave others undeveloped. He has a right to do this, one of the shorter sections K is for Kevin focuses on his ex-civil partner who died 18 months after their split. Lucas has already told us at the outset that he will largely leave this subject alone because of the pain it causes him but because it has had such a significant effect on his life he can’t help but touch on it, especially in T is for Tardis where work on “Dr Who” became overwhelmed with Kevin’s (a huge Dr Who fan) passing. The K is for Kevin section is largely taken up with colour photos of the man who was Lucas’ love of his life and this provides a fitting, touching and thorough tribute.

There is no doubt that this event has influenced Lucas’ life and work since. He has moved to the US to escape memories and rebuild his life in a country where he is less well known. If this sounds depressing it’s not, he handles this appropriately and sensitively but much of the rest is written with his undeniable enthusiasm and vivacity. (There’s even a song with music and lyrics at the mid-way point).

The structure allows us to piece together the events in Lucas’ life and go off with him at tangents. This must be the first autobiography to rate the chocolates in a box of Celebrations in eating order (I’d get round to polishing off those Bountys for you eventually, Matt, but you’d have to do the Galaxy Caramels for me and we’d fight over the Malteser one.) It made for an unpredictable, entertaining read. There’s none of the gloss many autobiographies have which will the reader to like the subject, Lucas is happy to put in things which will no doubt rub us up the wrong way. He has a section I is for Idiot to explain some of his behaviour and often cross-references us back to this section of the text.

“Little Britain” and “Come Fly With Me”, the works most associated with Lucas and Walliams were very much of their time and he admits some elements have not dated that well and he has been accused of racism, trans and homophobia because of some characterisations and the way these were interpreted by viewers and he acknowledges that he would do things differently today. I don’t think he needs to beat himself up over this, the same could be said for his contemporary comedy heroes The League Of Gentlemen and Vic and Bob, who were central to Lucas’ early professional career but at the time we really laughed and we’d also laugh a lot today. In fact, Matt had me if not laughing then smiling throughout from the warmth within this book as well as misting up my eyes on quite a few occasions.

fourstars

Little Me was published by Canongate in 2017. I read the 2018 paperback edition.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

renieddo

This was our focus text for Black History Month at Sandown Library here on the Isle Of Wight where a number of copies were purchased and a special display created which reflected some of the impact this book had on publication. It has stimulated some discussion from people who have borrowed the book so I thought I’d better get round to reading it.

Reni Eddo-Lodge, an award-winning journalist, was shrewd enough for her first full-length publication to use a striking, emotive, even provocative title, which certainly makes an impact. In her Aftermath, an extra chapter provided for the expanded paperback edition I read she acknowledges that this was the case and quite a bit of the criticism she faced was from people responding to the title rather than what she actually has to say. I have no issue whatsoever with any of the points she makes in this assured and accurate assessment of racism in Britain. She states facts with the evidence to back them up.

She begins with a concise history of blackness in Britain and how that has led to structural racism which is deep-rooted in society. As a child she was told that in order to achieve she needed to work twice as hard as a white child and that tenet proved to be extremely valuable as evidence is clear that hurdles faced by black infants continues through childhood, higher education, in the employment market and parenthood. History and society has allowed this to be.

She explores difficult areas such as white privilege, feminism and class and is powerfully convincing throughout. Liberal-minded individuals may claim that racism is largely now in the past but the global right-wing shift over the last few years says otherwise. I think this makes for a powerful read which each individual needs to internalise and make their own sense from it depending on their own background. It’s not actually something I feel I want to particularly discuss myself. It reinforced a lot of what I suspected had and was happening and does so in a way which saw this book get shortlisted for awards and win prizes. This is not political correctness- it is an important thought-provoking British work.

fourstars

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race was published by Bloomsbury in 2017. I read the 2018 expanded paperback version.

The Book Of Dust: Volume 1 – La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman (2017) – A Kid Lit Review

imagesYC433BKV

pullman

The three volumes of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy have a permanent place on my bookshelves.  All three have featured in my end of year Top 10s with “Northern Lights” (1995) being my second favourite book of the year both times I’ve read it (1998 and 2001).  I last read the whole trilogy 18 years ago but I know I’ll be revisiting them again.

From this you might have thought that I would have snapped up “The Book Of Dust” when it was published in 2017.  I didn’t, not even when it  came out in paperback.  The copy I’ve just read I borrowed from the library.  My selection was motivated by two things- the publication of the second volume this month and the impending and much heralded BBC adaptation of “His Dark Materials” which begins this weekend.

But why was I put off from reading this before now?  I think it’s because it’s a prequel to the main series.  Prequels- they are never that great are they?  Immediately coming to mind was CS Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew” published five years after “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” which certainly, I feel, if read before the more famous book diminishes the reader’s introduction to Narnia because it is greatly inferior.  It’s more common for a different author to write a prequel (as in Jean Rhys’ 1966 “Wide Sargasso Sea” linked to “Jane Eyre” which is an acknowledged modern classic but also left me cold).  Because this is by a different author, however, it doesn’t influence my view of the Bronte novel which I love.   When you look at prequels to movies you’re in the realms of “Psycho IV – The Beginning” and “Oz; The Great & Powerful”, I’m not at all sold on this prequel idea.

In this first volume main trilogy character Lyra is a baby who is being cared for by nuns.  She becomes a source of fascination for 11 year old Malcolm Polstead who helps out at his parent’s pub and spends free time in his canoe (La Belle Sauvage) mainly bridging the watery gap between The Trout pub and the priory on the opposite bank.  When he observes a strange occurrence on the riverside a chain of events opens in which he has to take direct action to ensure Lyra’s safety.  The Oxford area is threatened by heavy rain and broken river banks making a proficient canoeist significant.  His interest in Lyra leads to his introduction to a couple of shadowy organisations.  Plot-wise this is all good, I love the presence of individual’s daemons, an idea which so enhances the trilogy.  This time around, however, I did find the pace slow in places as if Pullman is fully prepared to take his time over his narrative thread and stretch it out over a sequence of novels.  Malcolm is a very good central character and there is no doubt that this pre-teen protagonist would appeal to a quite young audience as would the structure of the adventure story which harks back to a modern take on children’s classics such as “Swallows And Amazons”, yet a couple of scenes, the language (there is the odd outburst of swearing by one particular character when pushed to the edge, which even despite this context still feels unsettling within the framework of the novel) and certainly the scientific principles demand greater maturity.  It’s probably a case of the reader taking from it what they can and letting the rest wash over, which, let’s face it, is how many of us read Victorian classics.

I did enjoy this book and will read the next volume more quickly than I got round to this one (I have already reserved a library copy) but it is unlikely to make my Year End Top 10 and that fact alone makes me feel a little disappointed by it, and I would very much urge readers discovering Philip Pullman for the first time to read “His Dark Materials” and approach this as a separate introductory and related series.

fourstars

The Book Of Dust: Volume 1 – La Belle Sauvage was published by David Fickling Books in 2017.

 

 

McGlue -Ottessa Moshfegh (2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

imagesN8KPZ1YT

mcglue

I first encountered the fabulously-monikered Ottessa Moshfegh when I read her 2016 Man Booker shortlisted “Eileen”, a dark tale, with a fairly unforgettable title character who manages to do the difficult thing of both revolting the reader and eliciting sympathy. This novella is an earlier work which first appeared in the US in 2014 and made its UK debut three years later following the success of “Eileen”.

In 2018 Moshfegh brought out her new novel “My Year Of Rest And Relaxation” which also attracted considerable attention but I thought before I read that I’d give this short novel a go.

I’m never totally convinced by the novella as a literary from (here coming in at 118 pages), fitting mid-way between the short-story and full-length novel can mean that it can fail to have the best qualities of both. Too long to be tied up succinctly and not long enough to be fully realised they can tend to waver along “experimental” lines.
This isn’t quite stream of consciousness but it is writing that feels very open to interpretation and which can seem reluctant to give up its meaning. Critics often really like these types of book. In fact, the last I read with a similar feel was the 2017 Man Booker winning “Lincoln In The Bardo” by George Saunders, a novel I certainly didn’t love, and I feel the same way about this, which is not as good as “Eileen”.

I can appreciate it as writing but it does not satisfy me in the way that I feel a novel should. Basically, here its mid-nineteenth century America (although I don’t think I picked the date up from the text, the back of the book informs me it is set in 1851) and title character McGlue, a drunken sailor, is accused of murdering his friend/lover Johnson during an alcoholic spree. McGlue is held on the ship unti he can be handed over to the authorities and sent for trial in Salem. He has a severe long-standing head injury which together with his alcohol addiction makes for feverish, hallucinatory observations throughout his narrative and that’s basically why I wasn’t always totally sure what was going on. And well-written in vibrant, powerful and earthy language it may be, but I found that I didn’t care that much. McGlue, despite his constant state of confusion, comes across as fairly one-dimensional, especially compared to the enigmatic Eileen whose characterisation was the strength of Moshfegh’s subsequent novel. Part of me wishes that it could have been expanded by perhaps adding another narrative alongside McGlue’s to add variety but then the other part of me was probably glad it didn’t go on for too long, because as it stands I think Moshfegh just gets away with producing a text which is impressive rather than entertaining. It may just be me, but I think I can really struggle with this type of American fiction.

threestars

McGlue was published in the UK by Vintage in 2017.

This Is Going To Hurt – Adam Kay (2017)- a Real Life Review

realives

adamkay

….And it very probably will. This book certainly had me squirming (Top Tip: it’s not the best book to read during your lunch break!).  I haven’t read anything before with so much bodily fluids sloshing around (Top Tip 2: you might not want to read this it if you are pregnant).  Adam Kay has written one of the best-selling non-fiction paperbacks of the year and at long last it seems to be dawning on people what being an NHS doctor in a hospital is actually like.

Kay wrote diaries which span over six years (2004-10) from the very first day of his appointment as a House Officer, enthusiastic but terrified, to an incident which eventually led him to hanging up his stethoscope as a Senior Registrar.  It is an extraordinary and ultimately chilling catalogue.  Since giving up the medical profession Kay has turned to comedy and it was obviously his ability to pick out the funny side of his work that kept him (more or less) sane.  Long hours, patient demands, inserted foreign objects, inexplicable IT systems, patient misunderstandings, long hours, fractious home lives caused by long hours, medical misunderstanding, oh, did I mention the long hours are all present here.  Kay’s decision to focus on obstetrics and gynaecology provides many fraught moments, quite a lot of those body fluids, and will make for difficult reading at times for the squeamish.

But apart from this his account serves as a testament to just how bloody marvellous people who choose to work in the NHS are.  In recent years (and remember Kay left 7 or 8 years ago, I don’t things have got any better) the government has seen fit to try and squeeze the NHS into a corset of implausible targets, an over-emphasis on accountability, uninformed choice and poor funding so that it is only through the sheer dedication of its workers that it survives.

The expectations of people to continually deliver their best in life and death situations after incredibly long shifts and with little back-up support or care for them as individuals can only bring about stress, trauma, an exodus out of the service and in alarming statistics suicide in order to escape the never ending responsibility in an increasing litigious society.

Anyone who starts to have a flicker of hesitancy when they hear a government minister or certain sections of the press claim a medic’s life is a cushy one should be forced to read this book.  And did I mention it is also very funny….

fourstars

This Is Going To Hurt was published in the UK by Picador in 2017

 

A Natural- Ross Raisin (2017)

 

rossraisin

Published in paperback in 2018 this is Ross Raisin’s third novel in a career which has already seen considerable acclaim including the Sunday Times Young Writer Of The Year Award following the appearance of his debut “God’s Own Country.” The publication date is significant here as this book became my choice for the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge “Read a book published in 2017”.

 I’ve not read Ross Raisin before but was drawn to this by some excellent reviews.  It has been compared to Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” (1997) but here it’s not cowboys but the world of British professional football.  Like Proulx’s short story  which became the basis for an Oscar winning film (2005) this is a very claustrophobic piece, generally grim and paints a fairly depressing hostile environment inhabited by the characters.

 It did make me wonder who would want to be a footballer and brought home clearly the uncertainty and fear in their working lives in the world outside of the top divisions.  This in itself made for fascinating reading but the conflicted sexuality of main character Tom added another layer of misery.  It has been many years since Justin Fashanu was forced out of the closet and had a time so dire that those involved in sport chose not to follow in his footsteps for a considerable period.  Since then there have been initiatives from the FA and of course changing attitudes in the rest of society but from this novel not a lot seems to have changed in the attitudes of the other players, the fans and the clubs themselves.  It would be great to think that a book like this could change things but it all seems so entrenched and those who need to read it wouldn’t.  It gets to the point where the central relationship doesn’t seem worth it for all of those involved.

 I found the lack of joy rather grinding and I felt the same way about “Brokeback Mountain”.  Perhaps there’s some consolation in that none of the characters, whatever their sexuality, seemed happy.

 There’s a lot of football in this book.  I cannot remember reading sport-based fiction where the sport features so heavily.  I’m not a football fan (my secondary school education saw to that) so I did find myself struggling to get enthused about Tom’s world around a third of the way through.  The section of the novel between football seasons came as quite a relief.

 So then, I found it overly negative and with too much football but I actually did find myself getting really involved and this is due to Raisin’s really quite subtle skills as a story-teller and his ability to bridge the distance between what this particular reader would find interesting and draw him right in.  That is an impressive achievement gained by the sheer skill of this writer.  I cannot say I totally enjoyed this book but I was thoroughly impressed.

 fourstars

 A Natural was first published in 2017.  I read the 2018 Vintage Paperback edition.

The Visitors – Catherine Burns (Legend Press 2017)

visitors

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

 

fourstars 

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.

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

realives

gilesandmary

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.

gilesandmary3Not Giles and Mary

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.

threestars

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)

chriscleave

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)

lauracarlin

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)

whitehead

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)

owlsong

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)

johnboyne

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!