2018 – What I Should Have Read

I am fairly certain that I am now reading my last book of 2018.  This is because I am just mid-way through the massive “Count Of Monte Cristo” which I have never read before and the Penguin edition amounts to 1276 pages of pretty small print.  If I get through these it will end up being perhaps the longest book I have ever read.  I’ll let you know how I get on but that will unlikely be before the new year.

With newspapers, bloggers, websites coming up with their favourite books of the year I thought I would delay my choices until the very end of 2018 but look at some of the books I have missed out on reading this year.  So here is my Top 10 what I should have reads.

Snap – Belinda Bauer (Bantam Press)

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The first popular crime novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize but it seems not even the presence of huge fan Val McDermid on the judging panel could get this onto the shortlist.  I read Bauer’s dark debut “Blacklands” in the year it was published and enjoyed it but have not read any of her others.  Luckily, I found a copy of this on the library shelves and have borrowed it so Alexandre Dumas-willing I will get round to it before hoards start reserving it because of its regular appearances on “best of the year lists”

Chalk Man – C J Tudor (Penguin)

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Another one I have out from the library.  This debut has been compared to Stephen King and is set in 1980’s Britain. Now out in a paperback edition featuring high praise from writers of the calibre of Lee Child, John Boyne, Celia Aherne, Kimberley Chambers, Julia Heaberlin and King himself.  Can’t wait to read this one.

Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton (Raven)

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Another much praised debut.  Val McDermid had it as one of her books of the year.  The little I know about it sounds a bit like Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” in structure (an all-time favourite) within a classic murder mystery frame.  I saw this going cheap one day as a Kindle Daily Deal so it is sitting there waiting for me.  This has been shortlisted for the first novel Costa Awards, a National Book Award and scooped the independent booksellers Books Are My Bag novel award.  Not sure why there is an extra half of a death in the American title.  Suppose I will have to read it to find out.

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail)

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A Booker shortlisted roller-coaster of a novel and the only one that made me feel sorry I did not read the shortlisted titles before the winner’s announcement this year as I have done the past couple of years.  I do have this Canadian author’s earlier novel “Half Blood Blues” unread on my bookshelves and I may just have to start to this but I am certainly looking forward to discovering her writing in 2019.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape)

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A book which is certainly popping up on best of the year lists.   It was championed by Kamila Shamsie in “The Guardian’s” look back on the year.  I have never read any of  the Sri-Lankan born Canadian novelist Ondaatje’s 8 novels before, not even “The English Patient” (nor have I seen the film version) but this novel set in London in the aftermath of World War II seems to me to be a tempting place to start.  I had this as one of my 2018 highlights at the start of the year.

From A Low And Quiet Sea – Donal Ryan (Doubleday)

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I loved, loved loved this Irish writer’s debut  “The Spinning Heart” and was published in NB magazine citing it as one of the best books of the 21st Century, but since then, amazingly I have not got round to reading any of his three subsequent novels.  This was championed by Jonathan Franzen in The Guardian and is on the shortlist for the Costa novel Award.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)

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This British author’s “A God In Ruins” is well in the running for being named my best read of 2018.  I wanted to read her Jackson Brodie series of novels next but then I borrowed this as a library e-book.  I’ve not noticed it much on end of year lists and a few people I know who have read it have been a bit lukewarm about it but she is one of our greatest living novelists so I really should find out for myself .

Lethal White – Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

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I’ve read all the others so of course I’m going to get round to this but I’m a little put off by the sheer size of the hardback so may need to wait until it arrives in paperback.  It does seem to be generally getting the thumbs up but most seem to mention that it is too long.

Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale (Tinder Press)

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Admittedly I’ve got the odd Gale gap in my reading history but he is one of my Top 10 most-read authors.  I would imagine that this is a quieter, understated, less showy novel than some on display here so I might need to get myself into the right mood for that.  He can absolutely blow me away as a writer but this does not happen every time.

My Love Story – Tina Turner (Century)

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My pick of all the non-fiction I’ve missed this year.  I was a little concerned that this autobiography might have been a little air-brushed but reviews seem to say that this is not the case.  This living legend and performer of one of my 100 Essential CDs got huge publicity for this publication as it was her version of what has been an incredible life.  I haven’t rushed to buy this because I did read “I, Tina” written alongside Kurt Loder and I wondered how much of this was a rehash of that.  But I will get round to it.

Anyone looking for a last minute Christmas present for this reviewer could start here….!

 

 

 

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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.

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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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.

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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