Ruin Beach -Kate Rhodes (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Kate Rhodes launched her Scilly Isles based crime series at the beginning of this year with “Hell Bay”.  I was particularly impressed by the intensity she managed to build up around the location of Bryher, the smallest inhabited island with less than one hundred permanent residents.  The ramifications of murder on such a close-knit isolated community were fascinating.  Perhaps, understandably, the author has widened her net a little here (she couldn’t keep bumping off those poor Bryher residents) and focused the action on the neighbouring island of Trescoe with double the population and a more touristy feel.

 This population begins to decline when a diver is found dead in a cave.  An object found jammed in her mouth suggests that this was no accident.  D I Benesek Kitto, who grew up on and has now returned to the Scillys, together with Czechoslovakian Wolfhound Shadow (in the course of two novels already up there amongst the best dogs in fiction) are on hand to investigate.  We get a first-person narrative from Kitto interspersed with some short third person sections which drive the plot forwards.

 It becomes apparent that Jude Trellon, the diver, has been killed because of what she knows about shipwrecks around the coasts of the islands and secrets kept means others are in peril.  Kate Rhodes does characterisation very well and as well as developing her human (and canine) characters she is also able to convey the sea convincingly as a main character in the novel, which is like some of the island residents, calm and co-operative one minute and destructive and deadly the next.  Atmosphere-wise, however, I do not feel that this has that edgy intensity I enjoyed so much in “Hell Bay” and the plot here did not feel as impressively tight, there did seem to be quite a lot of recapping which affected pace at times but this is a very satisfying crime series and with the next novel “Burnt Island” planned I will certainly be looking out for it.

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 Ruin Beach was published by Simon & Schuster in hardback in November 2018.  The paperback is due in February 2019.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

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House Of Stone – Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Atlantic 2018)

 

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Recently I was asked to help out with reviewing books looking towards a longlist for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards which has a category which focuses on fiction which has a sense of place.  My job was to read three books, of which this is the third to be reviewed on here.  (Reviews for both “The Water Thief” and “Smoke And Ashes” can be found by clicking the links.  All three were books I was unlikely to have encountered otherwise and I think I have saved the best until last.

When teenager Bukhosi vanishes following a rally of the Mthwakazi Secessionist Movement his friend Zamani strives to infiltrate his way into his family aiming to replace him in his parents’ affections by finding out all he can about their “hi-story”. This spans back half a century into the history of Zimbabwe, from the latter days of colonial Rhodesia and Civil War through genocide and atrocities carried out in the name of the new regime. Zimani is a unreliable narrator, planning and manipulating for his own ends hidden in his own hi-story which is linked with his friend’s family. He gleefully exploits weaknesses in his quest to find some form of revenge whilst being inextricably pulled into what he sees as this new family grouping.

This is an extraordinary debut novel from an author who grew up in Zimbabwe. I had a very sketchy knowledge of her homeland before reading this and the complexities which lay behind this African country but her handling of the location has certainly enriched my understanding. And this has been achieved totally through story as the author weaves the events in the lives of Bukhosi’s parents with Zimani’s in a narrative steeped in the development of this nation both before and after independence. Along the way there are some brilliantly memorable characters and writing often outstanding in its vibrancy and power. The horrors are not at all shied away from but there are also moments of great humour and to put at the centre the dark machinations of the narrator is a stroke of genius. It’s a prime example of how a location can be seamlessly embedded into a plot and used to inform and enrich.

True, sometimes I lacked the cultural understanding to pick up on all of the references and there was the odd part where I wasn’t totally sure what was going on but Tshuma was soon able to pull me back in through her use of language. There’s also a liberal smattering of African terms which most will be unfamiliar with but once again I do not feel that this matters. For me this is the sign of the intelligence of the author not wanting to dumb down any of what would seem alien to much of her readership but demonstrating the ability to keep them totally on board.  Because of this I think this is not only a book which reads well but also has the potential to impress more on re-reading.  I am certainly keeping hold of my copy.

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The House Of Stone was published in hardback by Atlantic in June 2018.  Many thanks to Nudge and for the publisher for the review copy.   An edited version of this review can be found on the Nudge Website.  The Shortlist for the 2019 Edward Stanford Travel Awards will be announced in January 2019.

The Water Thief – Claire Hajaj (2018)

 

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This is Claire Hajaj’s second novel and it is a masterful work up there with the best books I have read this year.  Main character Nick, an architect, abandons preparations for his wedding to travel to Africa to assist with the building of a hospital and to atone for a tragedy in his past.  We know from the outset that things will go wrong but then the author backtracks to tell a rich, haunting tale which works on so many levels.  The location is non-specific and yet created so evocatively, an area hit by drought where the villagers struggle to survive and water supplies have to be bought from an unscrupulous governor.  It is he who is behind the showpiece of the hospital but the people have more basic needs which demand to be met.  The struggles of the villagers, the heat and corruption feel so authentic and are incorporated seamlessly into the unfolding plot as we see Nick getting further into situations which cannot end well. 

There is very strong characterisation.  Nick goes to lodge with a local doctor and his family, which includes JoJo who acts as narrator for sections of the novel.  He is a twelve year old who brings to mind event in the Englishman’s past.  Claire Hajaj is a great-story teller and received critical acclaim for her first novel “Ishmael’s Oranges”.  She has a background working in international aid and conflict resolution for the United Nations and she uses this to weave a story which is as gripping as a thriller as well as being beautifully written.  Even though the opening gives plot developments away to an extent I was totally involved throughout and felt a strong emotional response to the unfolding of her tale.  This is very highly recommended.
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The Water Thief was published in hardback by Oneworld in July 2018.  Many thanks to Nudge and the publishers for the review copy.  An edited version of this review can be found on the Bookhugger section of the Nudge website.

The Madonna Of Bolton – Matt Cain (2018) – A Rainbow Read

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A nine year old boy living in Bolton in the mid 1980s becomes obsessed with Madonna when given a copy of her single “Lucky Star” for his birthday.  This is the story of his next twenty years with the music of Madonna always very much a focus in his life.  Need I say any more, you are going to know already whether this book is for you.

 Madonna provides an opportunity for the young Charlie to escape into himself to avoid the anxieties of knowing he is growing up different, magnified by living in an unsophisticated, football-orientated working-class environment.  Later her talent for reinvention guides him as he makes life choices.

 Matt Cain writes well (this is his third novel and he has considerable journalistic experience) and has produced a very readable, entertaining book.  He has chosen to head each chapter with an appropriate Madonna song title which is a nifty enough idea, although at times can feel a little forced.  Over twenty years Charlie faces situations that every gay man will recognise as will every family member or friend of a gay man.  There’s virtually the whole gamut of experience in these 416 pages and it may very well be this which stops this good book from becoming a great one.

 By covering all bases Cain doesn’t allow himself to write with the depth which will provide a different viewpoint for the reader other than recognition.  Charlie himself can be somewhat shallow as a character but by narrowing the focus down and exploring certain of his issues with a greater depth I think could have proved an even more satisfactory experience.  Getting all those song titles to fit the structure and all of the stages of Charlie’s development has made the book overlong.  There were quite  few places (I read a Kindle version so my reading experience was influenced by this) where I thought it had reached a natural end and turned the page to find it hadn’t.

 I feel like I am being churlish because I would very much like people to read this book, but I can’t help feeling that with this subject matter and with the author’s accessibility and energy that there’s an even better book lurking inside.  Its episodic nature means that chapters build and end and then are followed with something which occurs months afterwards when occasionally it is the parts that fall in the gaps between chapters which would have been the most interesting to read.  This is always the danger with this type of structure and I don’t think Cain fully avoids it.  But then again, I did enjoy it.  My three star rating might seem mean and if I was reviewing this book, say, for Attitude or Gay Times magazine I would award it an extra star because I think that the readership of these titles would get much from it.  But for the more general reader….

 My current Book Of The Year, John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” covered  some of the same ground and also used this risky episodic structure and was hugely successful because as I noted then “but what comes next was just as involving or even better.”  Boyne’s book is far stronger, which in itself justifies the two star difference between them but Matt Cain certainly has a story to tell and does it well.  I will be certainly keen to read his previous novels.

 This book has been published by “Unbound” and has been funded by pledges from potential readers.  This is an idea from centuries ago given an up to date twist by using the internet to develop a fan base for a title.  The names of those who subscribed are listed at the back of the book.  This type of active participation from readers is a fascinating proposition.  I had not heard of “Unbound” before this but a visit to their website provides opportunities to find out about future projects and to sign up for their newsletter, which I have done . 

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 The Madonna Of Bolton was published by Unbound in 2018

The Way Of All Flesh – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This Edinburgh set Victorian crime novel (not to be confused with the classic novel by Samuel Butler with the same title which was very much a reaction against Victorianism) is the first collaboration between husband and wife anaesthesia expert Marisa Haetzman and crime novelist Chris Brookmyre, (he has some 23 novels to date none of which I have read) written under the pen name Ambrose Parry. 

Chris has never before written a novel set in the past but with Marisa’s knowledge of the history of medicine and especially the development of anaesthetics which has a significant part to play in this they have produced a thoroughly entertaining joint effort, a good slab of historical crime fiction, the first in a proposed new series.

 There are two very good main characters here.  Will Raven has a background from the tougher parts of Edinburgh Old Town and the night before he begins an apprenticeship with esteemed childbirth specialist Dr Simpson he encounters a corpse and is beaten and badly cut up giving him both a disreputable appearance and rendering him a marked man in his new environment of the respectable New Town.  Simpson’s housemaid Sarah, fascinated by the medical goings on in the house is held back because of Victorian society’s view of women and the two are forced by circumstances to come together to investigate agonising deaths of young women from both sides of town.

 Alongside the involving plot we have the growth of the use of ether in routine procedures and the search for more effective and safer methods to sedate patients.  The medical history aspect is inserted seamlessly into the plot and adds much to the enjoyment of the novel.

 I felt that the Edinburgh location with its split personality of the poverty- stricken Old Town and the comparative grandeur of the New is very effective, especially with childbirth happening in both areas causing the medical men to adapt to all kinds of patient.  Plot-wise I thought I had worked out what was going on but I hadn’t. The twists did surprise me.   I would certainly be on the lookout for future collaborations as well as digging into the sizeable Brookmyre back catalogue.

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The Way Of All Flesh was published by Canongate in August 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Barracoon- Zora Neale Hurston (2018) – A Real Life Review

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I first encountered African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel “Their Eyes Are Watching God” back in 2011 where it became one of my Top 10 reads of the year.  This is a book which has grown steadily in reputation, particularly this century and now is a recognised American classic.  Hurston produced three other novels and was a significant folklorist of tales of black America as well as a short story writer, playwright and essayist.  This book caused quite a stir when it was published for the first time earlier this year, 58 years after the author’s death.  I’d highlighted it back in January in my Looking Back, Looking Forward post as one of nine titles I was looking forward to reading this year and now I have.  (I couldn’t resist a peep back at that post- I’ve read just two of these so far although a number have to still to be published).

Subtitled “The Story Of The Last Slave” this came about as a result of a series of interviews in 1927/8 with Oluale Kossula who had been snatched, aged nineteen, from his West African home and brought over on the last slave ship “The Clotilda” in 1860, an illegal act carried out long after the abolition of the trans-Atlantic trade.  The group of men responsible for this escaped any charges of piracy and trafficking by destroying the evidence by scuppering the ship on its landing on American soil.

By 1927 Kossula was the last known survivor of this crossing and thus the last known first-generation slave.  Renamed Cudjo Lewis he spent over five years as a slave in Alabama for one of the men responsible for his capture and following emancipation was instrumental in the setting up of Africatown- a settlement of former slaves.

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Hurston visited Kossula, by then widowed and lonely and brought him peaches, melon and ham to get him to open up and used his words to take down his life story.  It is a heart-breaking tale which demands to be read.

That Hurston never found a publisher for this work in her lifetime seems extraordinary.  Cudjo Lewis had been previously interviewed by others (in fact even by Hurston herself) and was known as the last voice of this previous era.  There’s a hint of the suggestion that Hurston’s reputation in her early years had been dented by prior claims of plagiarism which could have rendered her account as untrustworthy.  That this account was put together by an African-American woman would have also limited its publication appeal.  There was also some contemporary nervousness about what Cudjo Lewis had to say.  His most disturbing revelation being that he was trafficked by neighbouring tribes rather than white traders.

Kossulu began his journey into slavery in a barracoon, a shoreside prison where captured men, women and children were stored until deals could be made with the white traders.

Hurston lets Kossulu speak in his own dialect which might seem initially off-putting to the modern reader but as with her later celebrated novel meaning soon becomes clear and the reader is likely to be captivated by the rhythm and poetry of the language.  The actual text of the interviews moves along quickly and is supplemented by probably an equal amount of accompanying material including a Foreword by Alice Walker and an Afterword by Deborah G. Plant and a number of Ossulu’s stories that Hurston, as folklorist and anthropologist took down verbatim.  This is a work which manages to be spine-chilling and endearing and is a thought provoking, always relevant read.

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Barracoon was first published in the UK as in 2018 by HQ.  It is available in paperback.

 

Retribution – Richard Anderson (Scribe 2018)

 

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With Jane Harper’s rural Australian crime dramas doing very good business in the UK, Scribe Publications are claiming a similar feel for this novel. I haven’t yet read Harper’s “The Dry” (with its excellent word of mouth) nor “Force Of Nature” but I know enough about them to want to give this book a try.

This is author Anderson’s second novel and with 25 years of experience of running a beef cattle farm in New South Wales and also working as a miner he is sure to give an authentic edge to this novel. Sweetapple is just getting by on his land, rustling steers to add to his profits, when he encounters a car accident and is given an explosive device to hide. He pals up with store-worker Carson, fed up with sexual harassment from some of her customers and Luke, who has been paid to infiltrate a protest group at the local mine. Their antipathy to businessman Bob Statham, a somewhat underdrawn shadowy figure is supported by his wife and a desire for revenge builds.

I love the dark edge at the start of this novel but this does seem to lighten as it progresses. Clear motives become a little vague and there is not the build that I would have expected. I think some elements have been under-used by the writer with some aspects of character not realising their full potential but he does provide a highly satisfactory slab of crime and revenge. I enjoyed the setting and the feel of these somewhat lost souls pitched against the vastness of the location. It is certainly worth seeking out.

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Retribution is published by Scribe UK in paperback today (9th August). Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

Murmuration- Robert Lock (Legend Press 2018)

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I have a thing about piers. As soon as I step onto one with all that planking where the sea is visible through the slats I always get a rush of the sense of history of the place far more than I would with a building. I remember very clearly standing on the beach whilst a burning Brighton Pier blazed in an incredibly sombre recollection. I spent many late afternoons in Brighton watching the swallows swoop and swirl around the ruins of the structure. The pier in Shanklin where I now live was destroyed in the big storm of 1987, washed into the sea taking with it generations of history and memories. All this, the sense of history and the growth and decline Robert Lock has incorporated into this debut novel. And the swooping of the swallows has given this book its title and its starting point. This is why I was delighted that Legend Press sent me a review copy.

The swallows’ movements recall a number of historical points of the life of the pier and its inhabitants at an unspecified seaside resort. We begin magnificently in 1863 with the recent erection (pun intended) becoming the home of bawdy music hall comic Georgie Parr, an evocative characterisation and a life more than tinged with tragedy. We move to 1941 where the pier is used as an observational outpost and the swallows become involved in a wartime miracle. There’s a less successful mid-60’s section with the pier coming to the end of its golden era and onwards to the 1980’s where local archivist Colin Draper seeks to solve a pier-based mystery whilst coping with the declining health of his mother in a painfully sensitive, touching section and then on again to present day where loose ends are tied (perhaps a little too tightly).

The undeniable quality of this book lies in its great sense of time with the pier standing as a central focus to these very human lives. The writing is of a high quality and Robert Lock shows he has what it takes to become a significant writer of historical fiction. Plot-wise the combination of detective story with the odd touch of magical realism doesn’t quite flow quite as masterfully as other elements in the book but this is a strong debut and would be a thought-provoking quality holiday read. I polished off a chunk of it on the seafront in front of Ryde Pier and it felt very fitting to Robert Lock’s vision of the British seaside, past and present.

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Murmuration was published by Legend Press on 12th July 2018 . Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

Blog Tour Post Special – A Necessary Murder – M J Tjia (Legend Press 2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I came across Australian author’s debut series novel “She Be Damned” in October last year.  It introduced sleuth Heloise Chancey, a well-off courtesan in Victorian London who first time round helped out an aristocratic private detective with a case.  I was very much struck by Heloise’s potential to lead a series.  She is a strong, complex character with the ability, because of her background, to move fairly effortlessly through the strata of Victorian society.  The debut was highly readable and I’ve had good feedback from readers since both from my review and at the library where I work. 

 Legend Press have just published the second novel in the series.  There’s some grisly throat-cutting of a child found in an outhouse of her family home in Stoke Newington and later and much closer to home to Heloise with the weapon likely to have been stolen from her property.  Circumstances suggest that these could be linked to Heloise’s origins and that her maid, Amah Li Leen’s past may hold the key.

 There are two main plot strands here and things for me notched up a gear when Heloise goes undercover on the Lovejoy family estate, with its distinct echoes of the real life 1860 case of the Kent family from Somerset, the subject of Kate Summerscale’s “The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher” (2008).  I do think, however, that compared to last time round Heloise feels more subdued as a character.  This case does not allow her to sparkle in the same way and there is less of a feel for the times.

 Second novel in and I’m not still not totally convinced by Amah Li Leen, an enigmatic character with much back story.  I think I know why this is and it’s due to the changes in narrative style.  Heloise’s narration is first person yet for Amah’s contribution to the plot M J Tjia chooses to switch to third-person, often mid-chapter, which disrupts the flow.  I found myself having to re-read sections where Amah was central and this was not happening when Heloise was in charge.  In future novels I’d love to see a strengthening of the dynamics between these two characters.  At the end of this novel a trip to Venice is proposed which could forge these bonds away from the restrictions of London society. 

 I thought that whereas the last novel felt quite Dickensian in its influence that here we have more of a Wilkie Collins vibe.  In fact it had more of a different feel to its predecessor than I was expecting.  I still think there is a lot of potential in this series to continue with lots of facets of both lead characters to be explored.  It is establishing itself nicely and those who like a historical feel to their crime should seek it out.

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Thanks to Legend Press who sent me a review copy and have included me into the book’s blog tour.  For other opinions on MJ Tjia and related info, take a look at the other sites in the tour.

 A Necessary Murder blog tour

How To Make Children Laugh – Michael Rosen (2018)

 

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Here’s a quick and diverting lunch hour read. Quercus have produced a series of hardbacks entitled “Little Ways To Live A Big Life”. We may not all aspire to some of the other titles (How To Land A Plane/ How To Count To Infinity) but they’ve enlisted Michael Rosen on an admirable mission to get children laughing and that’s something that’s likely to be appealing to almost all of us.

I’ve always had a huge soft spot for former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen. From the early days of my teaching career I discovered his collection of poems “Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here” and carried it around with me in my bag for as long as I was teaching. It was an invaluable resource, it filled the odd moment, it enriched whole school assemblies, it calmed things down and it livened things up. As a young inexperienced teacher fresh from training I became known as the kind of teacher who liked Michael Rosen and from that children understood I loved playing with words, with humour and reading children’s books. This really did forge my identity as a teacher which lasted throughout my career and for which I will always be extremely grateful. And yes, I did manipulate this, at the end of the summer term when I would meet my new class after the where you put your lunchbox and what days do we have PE I would always introduce them to my favourites (usually the poem “Chocolate Cake” was enough to win them over). For this I will always think highly of this poet.

Later on as a senior teacher and Head Teacher I was delighted to bring Michael Rosen in to meet the whole school on a couple of occasions. This man wins children over right away, he actually looks funny. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I remember using a Schools TV series he was involved in with a class of 7 year olds who didn’t know who he was but laughed as soon as his face appeared on-screen, which I was initially unsettled by, thinking I’d put the wrong videotape in, but it was him winning them over from the word go.

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And as a live performer. Wow! I’ve never seen anyone command a whole school group of Primary children from the wriggling youngest to the too-cool-to-listen oldest with such aplomb and for so long. They would hang on to his every word and the laughter was infectious and totally genuine.

So how does he do this? This book tells us how. He studies and totally understands his audience. He’s done the research, he knows what it is in the wider world that is currently making children laugh and he can pinpoint the rudiments of humour of children, which are, basically, building on anxiety, surprise, absurdity and language-play. If the first one seems a little odd you’ll need to read the book to see how he is able to deconstruct humour to these elements. It’s a convincing argument, used with examples of his and others work.

Nowadays, I don’t personally need to make children laugh but this book has relevance for performers and writers especially, as it is to these it is angled but those who work with children in whatever capacity and even parents would benefit from taking a look. I just enjoyed feeling as if Michael Rosen was talking to me once again- his voice comes through strongly in this. Due to its brevity this series is really only offering a taster so I don’t feel able to shower it in stars, rating-wise but it does exactly what it says on the cover in an entertaining way.

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How To Make Children Laugh was published by Quercus in 2018