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

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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

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The Hoarder – Jess Kidd (2018)

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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.

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The Hoarder was published in hardback by Canongate in February 2018

100 Essential Books – Bookworm: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg 2018)

 

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Thank you, Lucy Mangan. This book has brought me so much pleasure. I have relished every word, laughed out loud and been bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow which has made me late back from tea breaks and almost missing bus stops. I found myself yearning for a “snow day” so I could just stay at home and fully immerse myself in the author’s childhood.

Lucy Mangan truly deserves the title “Bookworm”. Reading, as a child, at every opportunity, eschewing social situations and getting through vast numbers of books makes her a true authority on children’s literature from a child’s perspective. I didn’t think I read as much when I was young as I do now but I realised I must have done as a sizeable number of books Lucy devoured I had also read. She is a few years younger than me but the world of juvenile publishing did not move as fast as it does today and many of the books in our libraries and schools in the 70’s had been published a generation before. I didn’t come from a home with a lot of books and whereas Lucy’s Dad provided her with a regular supply from when she was quite young, my Dad tended to do the same for me with comics. I have two older sisters so much of their abandoned reading material became mine, because as Lucy rightly points out as a child the bookworm will read whatever is available, so my knowledge of books involving characters such as “My Naughty Little Sister“, or set in girls boarding schools or about girls with ponies (the last being my sister Val’s staple reading diet) is probably greater than most of the men who will read this book.

Lucy is lucky enough to still possess her childhood books. She obviously didn’t have a mother so keen to donate “treasures” to jumble sales to either be sold for a few paltry pennies or occasionally bought back by myself.

Her memoir reinforces the importance of libraries. I can still remember the very first library book I borrowed, (it was a picture book version of “Peter And The Wolf” with a yellow cover. I took it out many times) so that experience obviously firmly imprinted itself in my West London mind as much as it did for Lucy on the South of the River in Catford.

Some of the titles alone brought back great memories – “Family From One End Street”, “Tom’s Midnight Garden”, “The Saturdays” “The Phantom Tollbooth”, “The Secret Garden”, “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”, “Lion Witch & The Wardrobe”, The “William” novels were all great favourites with both Lucy and myself. (No mention of a couple of others I was obsessed by “Emil & The Detectives” and “Dr Doolittle”, maybe they were moving out of public favour by Lucy’s time).  She shares her strength of feelings against certain things, she had a limited tolerance of talking animals and fantasy (which saw off both “Babar The Elephant” and Tolkien) and does so in a way which is both stimulating and very funny.

Through the books she read we learn much about her family life which brings in a whole new level of richness into the work. I’m also totally with her on the subject of re-reading, which in my teaching days was often a bugbear for some parents who wanted their children to forge ever onwards to “harder” books. She puts this over masterfully;

“The beauty of a book is that it remains the same for as long as you need it. It’s like being able to ask a teacher or parent to repeat again and again some piece of information or point of fact you haven’t understood with the absolute security of knowing that he/she will do so infinitely. You can’t wear out a book’s patience.”

As well as examining the past she looks to the future and to her own young son, not yet so fussed about reading and announces: “It is my hope that our son will read our amalgamated collection and become the world’s first fully rounded person.” I love that!

Expect perceptive insights on all the major players and books from the period – from the still very popular Enid Blyton (“She was national comfort reading at a time when mental and emotional resources were too depleted to deal with anything more complex”), the religious elements (which also completely passed me by as a child) of CS Lewis (“no child ever has or will be converted to Christianity by reading about Cair Paravel, Aslan, naiads, dryads, hamadryads, fauns and all the rest. If they notice it at all, they are far more likely to be narked than anything else. And they probably won’t notice it at all.”), the development of the first person narrative dating from E Nesbit’s “Story Of The Treasure Seekers” to her 80’s obsession with “Sweet Valley High” (that whole publishing phenomenon passed me by as I was no longer a child by then).  Her thoughts on the joys of reading pile up one after another in this book. I cannot imagine enjoying a book about children’s literature more. It is an essential read for all of us who like to look back and who like to feel we are still young at heart!

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Bookworm was published as a hardback by Square Peg in March 2018 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Looking Back, Looking Forward…..

Well, that’s another year of reading and blogging behind us.  At the end of the year I’m always tempted to have a look back and see which of the 459 posts now on reviewsrevues.com have been attracting the most attention. It never fails to surprise me.  The counters were turned back to zero at the start of the year yet it does seem that those posts that got the highest traffic in 2017 were also those who attracted readers in 2016 – so indulge me in  a quick look back towards the most read posts before looking ahead to what 2018 might have in store.  Here are the category winners! (Click on the titles to find the full reviews)

Books – Recent PublicationsDon’t Wake Up – Liz Lawler (TwentySeven 2017)

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I posted this in June 2017.  I actually read it in instalments from Pigeonhole who send you a daily section to read before publication and this hospital-based thriller was the ideal book to read in this format .  If this book doesn’t grab you in the first few pages, it never will. A debut novel from an ex-nurse which might not be the best choice if you have an operation pending but certainly a lot of people were interested in reading about it.

Books – The Back CatalogueMotown – The History – Sharon Davis (Guinness Books 1988)

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First posted way back in November 2015, this is the real slow burner of the reviews.  I’ve had this book on my shelves for nearly thirty years so it’s good that my enthusiasm for it has been matched by people wanting to seek this review out.  A British journalist’s view of the incredible Motown story adds a fascinating perspective and there’s a rigorous obsession at work here in the author’s comprehensive discography of all releases of Singles and Albums which sorts out the output of  founder Berry Gordy’s different labels in the US as well as a list of all British releases to the mid 80’s.

CD Reviews- Let’s Groove: The Best Of – Earth Wind & Fire (Columbia 1996)

Posted even earlier in October 2015, this review started off slowly but took off following the passing of EWF mastermind Maurice White in February 2016.  Since then it continues to be the most read of the CD reviews on the site.  Thing is, it’s not even my favourite Earth Wind & Fire album (that would be the 1977 studio album “All N’ All).  Proof that people are still looking to find their “Boogie Wonderland” !

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TV ReviewsThe Level (ITV 2016)

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And here we go again…..! I wrote about this at the start of October 2016 after watching the first episode of this six parter that really hooked me because of its casting and its Brighton location.  It felt like it arrived and disappeared on ITV without a great deal of fanfare but even though the counters went back to 0 on Jan 1st 2106 this is without doubt once again the most read review on here by some distance, as it has been from within a couple of months of it appearing on the site.  Perhaps it’s worth ITV contemplating another series, the interest in certainly there! Will it still be at the top at the end of 2018? Proof that we are not only using the internet to search for the very latest thing!

So looking forward….Yesterday The Guardian published it’s Literary Calendar as a taster for what we can expect book-wise in 2018.  I think it provides a good starting point for the year, obviously a bit sketchy as the year goes on, for the last couple of years I’ve been noting down what appeals.  I actually forgot all about last year’s list until recently and I noticed that out of the ten I’d highlighted as being books I wanted to look out for I had read four.  The titles that had piqued my interest and ended up being read were The Good People- Hannah Kent, White Tears – Hari Kunzru, Queer City – Peter Ackroyd and The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst.  In fact, what is interesting is that a couple of the titles predicted to be big hitters in 2017 came out without much fanfare.  I actually had to look on Amazon for a couple on my list to see if they had even been published.  Armistead Maupin had a memoir out in October which had completely passed me by and I had also missed completely satirist Armando Iannuci’s introduction to classical music “Hear Me Out”.  I was also miffed by publishers  turning me down for a preview copy of Sara Baume’s “A Line Made Walking”  on Netgalley as I felt I’d done a good job promoting her debut novel so consciously haven’t got round to reading that yet.  (Don’t cross me, ha ha!)

So from this year’s list here are nine titles that appeal.  I’ll see how many I’ll get round to during the year.

The Only Story – Julian Barnes (Cape) – Due in February – A look back at an ill-fated relationship which according to the Guardian “darkens into the tragedy of a destroyed life.”

Bookwork: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg) – Due in March

Barracoon- Zora Neale Hurston (Harper Collins – Due in May) – Recently discovered non-fiction account of the last survivor of the Atlantic Slave Trade.  I loved Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) , a novel which is still growing in reputation in the UK where it is emerging from the status of a lost classic.  Hurston died in 1960, hopefully the first publication of this work will put her further into the spotlight.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje (Cape) – Due in June – London after the Blitz tale of two abandoned children seems right up my street . Canadian writer  Ondaatje’s seventh adult novel.

My Year of Rest And Relaxation- Ottessa Moshfegh (Cape)- Enjoyed Moshfegh’s 2016 Man Booker shortlisted “Eileen” enough to look forward to this novel appearing in July.

Playtime – Andrew McMillan (Cape) – Due in August.  Hopefully I will read more poetry in 2018.  This collection reputedly focuses on what it is like to feel different as a child.

The Lost Magician -Piers Torday (Quercus) – Due in August.  Pick of the bunch of children fiction is set in 1945 and concerns a magical world entered through a library door.  Shades of a modern Narnia?

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) – Due in September which will give me a chance to catch up with this author’s output since being so impressed with her 5 star rated Costa winning “Life After Life“.

Melmoth — Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) – Due in October.  I was slightly guilty of putting too high expectations on the Waterstones Book Of The Year “Essex Serpent” and when it did not quite live up to the hype as far as I was concerned I felt more disappointed than I should otherwise have been.  So I won’t build this time-travelling gothic tale up too much in my mind so as to get the maximum enjoyment from it.

This is just a smattering of titles expected to appear in 2018.  The great thing about the publishing world is that no-one can be absolutely sure what is going to generate the most interest.  I mentioned the four titles on the Guardian list that I was really looking forward to this time last year and got around to reading and yet none of those four made it onto my End of Year list.  It’s that unpredictability that makes our book choices exciting! I wonder if we will be talking about any of these books in twelve months time.

 

Top 10 Books Of The Year- Part 2 (The Top 5)

I’m continuing my count-down of the best books I read in 2017.

5. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven – Chris Cleave (Sceptre 2016) (Read and reviewed in April)

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It’s been a good year for writers called Chris, as there are two of them in my Top 10. This British novelist’s fourth novel spanned the years 1939-1942 and centred on war-torn London and Malta, gripped by a blockade which threatens starvation for civilians and soldiers. I said “this is an excellent novel from a great story-teller who deserves his position amongst the best of the novelists who have written about this time in our history.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 10,968 in Books (has been much higher!)

4. The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018) (Read and reviewed in November)

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Feel like I’m cheating a bit here as this hasn’t even been published yet (according to latest info the hardback is due on 1st Feb.) I was really drawn into the world of this debut novel set in Victorian London.  I said “I think she has got everything more or less spot on here and has written an authentic historical novel and a really good thrilling page-turner.” Still expecting this to achieve very healthy sales in 2018.

Current Amazon sales rating: 68,464 in Books (based on pre-orders).

3. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2016) (Read and reviewed in September)

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I read this when it appeared on the Man Booker longlist and felt it had to be in with a great chance of scooping the Prize.  In the US it had taken both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.  Here, it shockingly failed to make the shortlist, probably overshadowed by British author Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” which touched on similar themes.  It was the best American novel I read this year.  I  felt “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 81 in Books (this has been a big seller)

2. Owl Song At Dawn – Emma Claire Sweeney (Legend 2016) (Read and reviewed in February)

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Pipped at the post by the very last book I read in 2017 this came very close to being the first British novel to be my book of the year since 2012 (also incidentally the last time a female author was at the top).  The fact that this is a debut novel makes it all the more outstanding.  I first heard of this when it was shortlisted by Nudge and newbooks for the BookHugger book of the year.  It went on to win beating a set of books from a very good list which also included my year end Top 10ers by Jodi Picoult and Helen Dunmore.  Dull February days were enlivened by this heartwarming novel.  An unsentimental, humorous tale of a Morecambe guest house which is being used as a holiday home for guests with disabilities and their carers.  Great central character, Maeve who is pushing 80 and has to come to terms with regrets in her past.  It wasn’t a typical read for me but it works so well on so many levels.

Current Amazon sales rating: 328, 095 in Books

And the reviewsrevues Book of The Year is………….

1.The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017) (Read and Reviewed in December)

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It just had to be this book.  It is Irish author John Boyne’s 10th adult novel (and there are 5 for younger readers). I haven’t read him before but I was blown away by the whole thing right from the first few pages.  I wrote a lengthy review (click on the title to read it) just to justify why it impressed me so much.  “I said It may very well be my favourite books of this decade.” I think this is a book which has a reputation which will grow and grow. Perhaps the only thing I wasn’t totally convinced by is the front cover of the paperback edition, but that’s probably nothing to do with the author.

Current Amazon sales rating: 743 in Books

John Boyne joins a select bunch of authors.  Here are my favourites from the last ten years, which probably tells you a considerable amount about me as a reader.

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2018!

 

 

 

 

Hell Bay- Kate Rhodes (Simon & Schuster 2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I’ve not read any Kate Rhodes before but do know that she is both a celebrated poet and that her five crime novels featuring psychologist Alice Quentin are highly thought of and I get good feedback about her from readers returning library books.

With “Hell Bay” Rhodes is launching a new series featuring Detective Inspector Benesek Kitto and will be setting them in the Scilly Isles.  The exact location of “Hell Bay” is Bryher, an island just to the west of the better known Tresco.  Bryher is actually the smallest inhabited island with, we are told, 98 permanent residents and measures 1.5 miles with a width of half a mile at its widest point.  As someone who lives on a bigger island I know exactly what that means in terms of people knowing everything that is going on and Rhodes is able to put this across brilliantly.  I’m not sure how far she is intending to go with this series- the second novel is scheduled for 2019 but plausibly Bryher and the whole of the Scilly Isles are not going to have much mileage as a hot-bed of crime.  In this novel alone Kate Rhodes has reduced the number of residents!

Ben Kitto was born and grew up on Bryher and returns as a retreat from difficult situations in London, which has caused him to question his future in the police force. His parents are both dead but family remains with his boat-building Uncle and his godmother who runs the pub.  He knows virtually everyone on the island from his formative years there.  In fact, the one person he doesn’t know draws him like a magnet.

A time of retreat and reflection with his inherited Czechoslovakian Wolfdog, Shadow, (a good canine character) is shattered by the suspicious death of a teenage girl.  As Kitto is on the island already he is given the green light to investigate.

The size of the island ensures an intensity of emotions and the decision to stop people leaving without permission whilst the investigation is ongoing turns this who-dunnit into a variation of the classic country-house mystery set-up, substituting the small isolated island for the large isolated house.  This works extremely well, it is always engrossing and builds nicely.  I didn’t work out who the killer was (I actually rarely do) so that’s also satisfying.  I really enjoyed reading this and it has confirmed  what I already suspected that Kate Rhodes is a highly promising crime writer whose back catalogue I really need to discover.

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Hell Bay is published by Simon & Schuster in the UK in May 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential Books – The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018)

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“If I have learnt one thing from my life in London, it is that sometimes it is necessary to descend to deceit, and that those who survive have the wit to know that.”

This novel is not due to be published until February 2018 but I’m giving you plenty of warning as you should be adding it to your to-be-read-lists for it is an absolute gem of a novel.  Regular readers will know that I have a huge soft spot for big, Dickensian style Victorian-set novels like Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith” and Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White”.  I’ve been a little disappointed by some offerings in this area over the last year so (particularly the much-acclaimed “The Essex Serpent”) and others including Australian author M J Tjia’s crime series debut “She Be Damned”(2017) and Canadian Steven Price’s doorstep sized “By Gaslight” (2016) showed promise but neither quite pulled off the authentic feel of London in the nineteenth century.  If they did not live up to my expectations this debut from Derbyshire resident Laura Carlin certainly does.  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.

Young people have been going missing from the London streets for some time and eighteen year old Hester, the narrator of the novel, has fallen on hard times.  An incident in Smithfield Market leads her to an association with a family who could provide her with a future or who may bring about further downfall.  The story builds beautifully, and although the situations and characters may feel familiar for Dickens fans Carlin puts it all together in a way which is inventive, thrilling and feels new.  It is rich in atmosphere throughout.

At the heart is a relationship between Hester and the daughter of the family, Rebekah Brock, who has been persuaded Pygmalion-like to educate Hester in a plan arranged by her brother Calder, a leading light of The London Society for the Suppression of Mendicity and it is this connection between the two women which will attract all Sarah Waters fans to this novel. 

Like Dickens, secrets are revealed gradually by characters brought in to move the plot along and Hester’s account turns into a quite extraordinary tale of grim London existences underneath the cloak of the respectable and socially acceptable. The last third sees the plot move up a gear considerably as revelations follow one after another and the danger Hester puts herself into had me holding my breath.  The plot twists keep coming giving the real feel of a Dickens serialisation

This novel is proof alone that Carlin is a major new talent and her brand of literary historical fiction should provide her with big sales.  I absolutely loved it. 

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The Wicked Cometh is due to be published by Hodder and Stoughton on 1st February 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.