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

imagesN8KPZ1YT

ambroseparry

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.

 fourstars

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

Advertisements

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

realives

barracoon

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.

barracoon2

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.

fourstars

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

 

Retribution – Richard Anderson (Scribe 2018)

 

retribution

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.

threestars

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)

robertlock

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.

fourstars

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

imagesN8KPZ1YT

A Necessary Murder

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.

threestars

 

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)

 

michaelrosen

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.

michaelrosen2

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.

threestars

How To Make Children Laugh was published by Quercus in 2018

100 Essential Books- A Ladder To The Sky- John Boyne (Doubleday 2018)

images

boyneladder

Just occasionally the words I use in these reviews like to come back to bite me. It was only last week when I wrote in a review of Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less”; “Books about writers are often not as good as they think they are.” I excused Greer from this statement and certainly proving me wrong here is John Boyne, author of my 2017 Book Of The Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” who has produced another outstanding novel- this time about writers.

Sometimes reading choices turn up these unintentional patterns. Take the last two books I’ve read, “Less” with its gay writer as lead character and Boyne’s excellent children’s novel “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” with its Nazi Germany setting and then comes along this book which begins with a gay German writer looking back at his youth in Nazi Germany.

It is 1988 and prize-winning author and Cambridge lecturer Erich Ackermann has returned to his Berlin roots for a book event. At the bar of the hotel he meets an ambitious young waiter. Their story spans 30 years to the present day. It is told by a number of different voices and has an enthralling mixture of the purely fictional and real life literary figures (one section is narrated by Gore Vidal whose writing Boyne has certainly re-whetted my appetite for). Running through the narrative are the machinations of a fabulous baddie and I’m not even going to reveal who this is, only to say that John Boyne has created a compelling monster whose antics had me often open-mouthed in horror.

Like “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” this is a beautifully balanced book, another complete package, which offers a tremendous variety for the reader with humour, tragedy, twists, crime and moral dilemmas all present to form a heady brew. I also loved the publishing background even if a week before reading this I was down on it as an idea.

With more literary fiction being spawned from real life and the stories of others this novel raises some thought-provoking points about the creative process and the ownership of ideas in a way which is thoroughly entertaining. When I read “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” back in December 2017 I justified my stinginess (compared with many other reviewers/bloggers) by saying; “If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.” This is the third John Boyne novel I have read and my third 5 star rating for his work. This shows just how highly I think of him as a writer and he’s not even given me the chance to do too much exploring of this back catalogue between his two latest publications. I still think “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is his masterwork (of what I’ve read of his so far) but then it is probably my favourite read of this century but “A Ladder To The Sky” is also very, very good indeed. Be prepared for a real treat of a read and one which I would expect in the upper echelons of my end of year Top 10.

fivestars

A Ladder To The Sky will be published in hardback by Doubleday on 9th August 2018. Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Less – Andrew Sean Greer (2018)

 

less1

American author Andrew Sean Greer is no stranger to my end of year Top 10s.  His 2004 “Confessions of Max Tivoli” impressed me much on the two occasions I have read it.  Its clever conceit of a man getting younger as those age around him may have been used before, but by putting a love interest in for main character Max and having their lives intersecting over the years gave it a fascinating dimension.  My only niggle with the book was the fictional world Greer created did not feel to me much like the turn of the twentieth century America he’d intended.

less2

 He is sticking with the present with this, his 5th novel which was a surprise winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Praised on the cover by writers such as Armistead Maupin and Ann Patchett  this seemed like a must for me to read.  It has scooped perhaps the top literary prize of all and yet it is a fairly straightforward romantic comedy rather than some heavy tome.  It just shows the world is in need of lightness right now.  But does this book actually deliver this?

 It’s just a few months since the judging panel of the Wodehouse Prize for comic novels took the controversial decision of not awarding this year as they did not consider any of the 62 novels submitted to be funny enough.  I think Greer would have missed the publishing deadline for this year as this comic novel with literary plaudits would surely  have given the judges something to think about. 

My only alarm bells were that this is a book about a writer and the publishing industry.  Is there much comedy mileage in this for the general reader?  Books about writers are often not as good as they think they are.  They can have a tendency to inflated importance and pretentiousness.  Would a comic novel about writers only be funny to those in the know (ie: those who promote and review books and sit on judging panels).  Would it be full of in-jokes?

 Title character Arthur Less is approaching 50 and faces rejection of his latest novel, his age milestone and his ex inviting him to his wedding by planning a world tour of writing-based activities, from taking part in festivals, teaching, attending award ceremonies and attempting to find space to revise his latest work.  The humour is largely in the character of Arthur Less, who did win this reader over (it took a while) by his vanity and self-absorption which actually becomes surprisingly quite endearing.

 Greer’s writing is infused with humour.  There are some of the pratfalls and misunderstandings which are all too common with lead characters in chick-lit but the humour here runs throughout the narrative and this is what works well.  I did laugh out loud a few times but there is a wit and a warmth which heightens this novel’s appeal.  There’s also the irony of the rejected novel being about a middle-aged gay San Franciscan on a journey, questioning the meaning of his life, when this is what “Less” is all about.

 I did find it very enjoyable but I am still surprised by its Pulitzer achievement as it seems very understated compared to the more showy novels which tend to be up for awards.  It just shows what an impression this must have made on the judging panel to garner the prize but I’m still not convinced I liked it more than “Max Tivoli” even though on paper it seems just like the sort of book I would adore.  For those who tend to steer away from prize-winning novels this might be the time to think again and see if Arthur Less can win you over.

fourstars

 Less was published in the UK by Abacus in 2018

The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar (2018)

mrshancock

The second book I have read to make it onto the shortlist for the 2018 Women’s Prize For Fiction.  I was very impressed with Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire” with it making number 6 on last year’s Top 10 books.  Expect this one also to be in my end of year best read countdown.

 Here we have a debut novel for ex-Museum worker Imogen Hermes Gowar and with her background of archaeology, anthropology and Art History she has certainly followed the perennial advice to write about what you know and seamlessly incorporated aspects of her experience into a right rollicking novel.

 Set in London of the 1780’s I had slight concerns that it might be overly twee, as perhaps implied by the title.  I actually chose to read it, however, because of this title, as it brought back echoes of “The Ghost And Mrs Muir” a delightful 1947 movie starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney.  This, however, is no tale of a transparent salty sea dog and actually feels closer to a modern slant on WM Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”.

 It is no plot spoiler to say that for much of the novel Mrs Hancock is Angelica Neal, a high class prostitute whose protector has died leading her to face re-entry into society in order to find the next potential wealthy man who will support her.  Angelica is fabulous and has to face the realisation that she might not be the attraction she once was and may end up once again in the “nunnery” of another great character, Mrs Chappell.  Meanwhile, merchant Jonah Hancock is presented with a withered object, claimed to be the remains of a mermaid in compensation for a lost ship.  This exhibit becomes, for a short time, the toast of London and draws the attentions of both Mrs Chappell and Angelica.

 This is all done so well and Mr Hancock’s ascendancy because of his mermaid is an absolute joy to read.  What is slightly less successful for me is when a little fantasy element creeps in during the final third.  I know why the author does this but it doesn’t work quite as well when we lose the very real feel of eighteenth century London society with all its hypocrisies and limited attention spans cooing over Mr Hancock’s desiccated piece of exotica.

 This is an ambitious novel which works beautifully.  It’s the kind of gutsy, spirited writing that I love with rich characterisation and a real feel of a love for history and literature.  It is an extremely impressive debut.

fivestarsThe Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was published by Harvill Secker in 2018

The Hoarder – Jess Kidd (2018)

hoarder

Jess Kidd’s 2016 debut “Himself” attracted a lot of attention and was shortlisted for awards.  I was of the opinion that it introduced us to an impressive new voice and I was delighted to interview her and have my review published alongside the interview in NB magazine Issue #90 when “Himself” was one of the featured titles.  I thought the book fizzled with life, with its setting of an Irish village in the mid-1970s where the author introduced us to memorable characters in a mystery tale which seamlessly took in elements of magic and the supernatural.

 With “The Hoarder” she has largely done it again and produced her second strong read.  This time we are in present day West London where main character Maud Drennan has started work as an agency care-worker for Cathal Flood, a difficult elderly man and the hoarder of the title.  It’s not just him thwarting Maud’s plans to put things in order as the supernatural draws the care-worker into a mystery involving a disappearance and a possible murder hidden deep within the secrets of the house.

 As in “Himself” main character Maud is able to see ghosts but here they are a host of Saints who act as her spirit guides and I must admit that this aspect does not work as well for me as it did last time round.  In “Himself” main character Mahoney was also aided and abetted by an unlikely side-kick, the wig-wearing Mrs Causley who memorably sees herself as “Miss Marple.  With balls”.  In this novel this role is taken by another unlikely candidate the wig-wearing, agoraphobic, transsexual Renata, who for me did not sparkle quite as much as her predecessor (but who could also fit Mrs Causley’s description!)

 This time around, however, I did find the mystery element of the novel more satisfying yet I did miss that great sense of the outsider coming into a tight-knit community theme which worked so well in “Himself”.  I suppose there is a danger when an author’s second novel has a similar feel to the first that comparisons will be made.  There is no doubt that if you enjoyed the debut then you will get much out of this and if you enjoy this as the stand-alone novel it is then I urge you to seek out her first book where everything feels just a little fresher and where her imagination gleams just a little more brightly.

 fourstars

The Hoarder was published in hardback by Canongate in February 2018