100 Essential Books – Things In Jars – Jess Kidd (Canongate 2019)

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I have read both of Jess Kidd’s previous novels and I was delighted to interview her for NB issue #90 following the publication of her debut. It was this book “Himself” (2016) that I expressed a slight preference for – a novel set in 1970s Ireland which absolutely fizzled throughout although both books have been very strong. “The Hoarder” (2018) had a modern West London setting and like its predecessor combined a good mystery with vibrant language, colourful characterisation and a supernatural element.

All of these factors are present in her third novel, with its setting always of particular interest to me, Victorian England, yet it is not just for this reason that I think that Jess Kidd has written her best novel to date and all that potential she has shown up until now has come into fruition with this hugely entertaining novel.

Like all of Kidd’s main characters to date Bridie Devine can see ghosts but here it’s just one, a half-naked ex-boxer she encounters in a churchyard who remembers her from her past. This supernatural touch is something which obviously means a lot to the author and I felt in “The Hoarder” it did not work as well as it had in “Himself” but the pugilist Ruby is a great character and becomes Bridie’s sidekick on some private detective work.

A child has been kidnapped from a country house in Sussex but it is soon apparent that this is no ordinary child and a gallery of rogues, richly-drawn characterisations worthy of the best of Dickens, seem to be involved in her disappearance. Bridie enlists the help of her seven-foot maid Cora, the spectral Ruby and crossing-sweeper Jem to locate the child.

I do read quite a few of these gutsy Victorian set novels and I’m aware that when they are done well they are likely to feature in my end of year Top 10. The actual case within  the novel recalled for me another female amateur detective Heloise Chancey in MJ Tjia’s series of novels but here with greater depth and the sheer vivacity of the language reminded me of Michel Faber’s “The Crimson Petal And The White” and (although set in late eighteenth century London) within its themes of “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” by Imogen Hermes Gower- both great favourites of mine, but this novel certainly has a life of its own.

I particularly like it when the history of a historical novel is incorporated seamlessly. Here we have the Victorian love of the unusual and freakish and the developments in medicine which attracted the honourable and the disreputable sitting beautifully in with what becomes a gripping mystery peopled with characters about whom I wanted to know so much more. I hope this novel will be the making of Jess Kidd and will get readers discovering both her other publications. The effervescence of her writing will stay with me for some time.

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Things In Jars is published in hardback by Canongate on April 4th 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

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You Will Be Safe Here – Damian Barr (Bloomsbury 2019)

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British writer and journalist Damian Barr’s first novel takes in over a hundred years of South African history beginning with the Boer War where a “scorched earth” policy led to those unwilling to sign a pledge of allegiance to the British Crown being evicted from their homes and into internment camps.  For the first section of the novel we follow Mrs Van Der Witt and her young son Fred through diary entries written in the camp intended for her husband fighting the English in 1901.

 A prologue introduces us to a modern camp which is picked up on again in the second narrative thread when teenager Willem’s parents send him to a conversion camp to make a man out of him.  The two narratives are linked through location and a school history lesson visit to the turn of the century site.

This is a powerful and chilling read and is, on consideration, the best book I have read so far this year ahead of critically acclaimed titles from big-hitters such as Kate Atkinson, Belinda Bauer and Liam McIlvanney.  The history of South Africa is complex but by touching on two time zones Barr manages to get an epic sweep and involves the reader through strong characterisation and an unpredictable and occasionally brutal plot.

 The aspect which stops me giving it five stars, thus keeping it as a book I would certainly like to hang onto to read again rather than a book I couldn’t bear to part with is its narrative structure which makes some significant moments seem a little unresolved and despite some connections makes the early narrative a little distant from the contemporary one.  I think running the two strands a little more side by side could have been more powerful, but probably as many readers would be frustrated by this structure.  Here, I felt the moving forwards through time at critical moments seemed a little jarring as these moments are left to dangle and not always be picked up immediately, which felt a little like producing cliff hangers for cliff hangers sake.  This can be done very successfully as in John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” but here at times I found it slightly grating.

 Minor quibbles, however, for a very strong debut novel written with what I can best describe as a calm powerfulness which will stay with the reader for a considerable time.

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 You Will Be Safe Here is published in hardback by Bloomsbury on April 4th.  Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Confessions Of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins (Viking 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Here’s a debut out in April with a big buzz about it which appeared in many highlights of 2019 listings (including my very own Looking Back Looking Forward … blog post) so I was delighted to get the chance to read an advance review copy.

 This is Frannie Langton’s account of how she got away from being a slave at a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the first quarter of the nineteenth century and ended up in London on trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of her employers.

 It is very much a novel of two parts.  Although we know from the outset of Frannie’s predicament, the first half is set in Jamaica where as a child she was taken up from the plantation shacks to be a house girl, and then, after being taught to read and write by her bored mistress becomes a scribe and assistant for her master, Langton.  He is involved in disturbing experimentation to discover the difference between the anatomies of whites and blacks.

 Damaged by what she has experienced she turns up in London joining the household of one of Langton’s academic rivals where she is drawn by the attention paid to her by his French wife.

 Through a first- person confessional interspersed with extracts from the court case we begin to piece together what has happened, but very slowly, as Sara Collins certainly keeps us dangling.  This might actually frustrate some readers who’ll think they missed out on something important as part of the Jamaican narrative seems underwritten and only becomes significant much later on.  All is eventually explained.  Characterisation is rich and gutsy with some strongly developed minor roles.  Pace is generally good although for me it dipped in the early London sequence when the relationship between Frannie and Marguerite takes a prominent role.

 Readers loving Sarah Waters’ novels such as “Fingersmith”, “Affinity” and “Tipping The Velvet” should certainly be made aware of this novel and with Waters  moving towards more modern history in her novels in recent years there seems to be a gap which authors are keen to fill.  Two debuts from last year spring to mind Imogen Hermes Gower’s splendid “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” and Laura Carlin’s deliciously Gothic “The Wicked Cometh” which also has a female-female relationship as its focus.  I don’t think Sara Collins’ work is quite as good as either of these top-notch novels but it is a close-run thing with the Jamaican slave dimension adding another level of complexity and richness.  All in all, this is a superior historical crime novel that does live up to pre-publication expectations and should end up selling well.


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The Confessions Of Frannie Langton is published on April 4th 2019 by Viking.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Devil Aspect – Craig Russell (Constable 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have not read Craig Russell before. Hailing from Scotland he has published five novels in his post-war Glaswegian series “Lennox” and seven set in Hamburg with his detective Jan Fabel taking centre stage. This is a stand-alone which could, especially with Hollywood interest in the film rights, be a big-selling title.

Set in Czechoslovakia in 1935 and it wasn’t long before I could appreciate Russell as a real story-teller with his fiction enriched by cultural stories, myths, urban tales and localised legends. Main character Viktor Kosarek begins work at the Hrad Orlu Asylum For the Criminally Insane housed in a foreboding castle. The Asylum houses just six inmates, the most dangerous and criminally insane of the lot. Dr Kosarek has a theory that pure evil lurks in an obscure part of the psyche and this “Devil Aspect” can be brought to the surface during therapy and then exorcised. Meanwhile, there is a killer stalking the streets of Prague viciously dismembering whilst clad in a blood- stained leather apron.

Russell is very good at cranking up the fear factor and tying it back to the darkness in our pasts. There’s even a scary clown, for goodness sake! The technique of the main character dealing with the six prisoners in turn and getting their backstories through the guise of therapy starts off extremely effectively but perhaps six were a little too many as it was here I found myself losing a little interest amongst their catalogue of hideous crimes.

Apart from this minor gripe the plot is handled well. I never saw what was coming with any of the twists in the tale. It is extremely dark and occupies the space where crime and horror blend which would make it a potent and highly commercial brew for a film adaptation.

Although at times some of the revelations seem audacious and over-the-top, Russell certainly gets away with it.  This is because of his seamless research, a good feel for the period and that enrichment of legends from the past juxtaposed with the psychological theories in his novel’s present which all builds up the spine-chilling elements.  This is a gory read, but a gripping one.

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The Devil’s Aspect is published in March 2019 by Constable in hardback.

Looking Back Looking Forward…..

 

Some I read, some I didn’t ………….

This time last year in my “looking back looking forward ” post I highlighted nine titles which I would be looking out for during the year.  I thought I’d take a look back at these.  In 2017 I managed to read four of the ten titles I’d focused on then, how did I do last year.  Just as a reminder here are the titles and how I’ve got on.

The Only Story – Julian Barnes (Cape) – Came out in February.  After mentioning this here I seemed to forget all about it.  Didn’t read it and it hasn’t even really been on my radar.

Bookwork: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg) – Read it, loved it.  Was number 3 on my Books Of The Year list.

Barracoon- Zora Neale Hurston (Harper Collins) Read it in September.  Based on interviews with the last known slave in 1927, Hurston’s non-fiction work remained unpublished to this year.  I said “This is a work which manages to be spine-chilling and endearing and is a thought-provoking and always relevant read.”  My four star review can be read here.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje – Didn’t read it and I do think I have missed out because it appeared regularly on “Best Of The Year” lists.  I did highlight it again recently in my “What I Should Have Read” post and I will get round to it sometime.

My Year of Rest And Relaxation- Ottessa Moshfegh – Didn’t read this when it arrived in July but did read her earlier novella “McGlue” which was published in the UK following the success of her “Eileen”.  I said of that “I can appreciate it as writing but it does not satisfy me in the way that I feel a novel should.”  Therefore, I did not rush to seek her latest title out.

Playtime – Andrew McMillan (Cape) – I said “Hopefully I will read more poetry in 2018.”  Unfortunately I did not read any.

The Lost Magician -Piers Torday (Quercus) – I also didn’t read as much children’s fiction as I had anticipated .  Due out in paperback in March so perhaps I will get around to it then.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) – This one I have scheduled as I have borrowed it in e-book form from the library.

Melmoth — Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) – I forgot I had this on this list.  I’ve toyed with the idea of reading it a few times when I’ve encountered it but haven’t done so yet.  Once again I am sure I will.  Got slightly mixed reviews (and I was a little disappointed I couldn’t buy into the hype of “The Essex Serpent”) but readers seem to think it is certainly worth giving a go.

 

Some potential highlights from 2019

Well that’s my excuses for these books done.  Reading takes a different direction than planned and that is what is exciting.  20 of the books I read this year were as part of the Sandown Library Reading Challenge which I was certainly thrilled to take part in as it introduced me to authors such as Susan Hill, Elizabeth Taylor and, especially, my book of the Year “The Count Of Monte Cristo” which I would never have got round to reading.

On so onto the forthcoming titles that have piqued my fancy for this year.

The Library Book – Susan Orlean (Atlantic) – just published in last couple of days.  This non-fiction work examines a 1986 fire at the New York Public Library and becomes a love letter to libraries and how essential and relevant they are to modern societies.

What Hell Is Not – Alessandro D’Avenia (Oneworld) – Due Jan 24th- From one of my favourite publishers, a translation from the Italian of a best-selling novel set in the mafia run slums of Palermo

Out Of The Woods – Luke Turner (W&N) – Due Jan 24th – A memoir with Epping Forest at its centre which according to Olivia Laing is “electrifying on sex and nature, religion and love.”  There’s quite a buzz about this book

Black Leopard, Red Wolf – Marlon James (Hamish Hamilton) – Due in Feb – How do you follow a Booker Prize winning novel about an attempted assassination of Bob Marley?  I know, begin a fantasy trilogy set in mythical Africa.  There are “Game Of Thrones” comparisons being bandied about and I’m not a huge lover of fantasy novels but this seems such a brave (and potentially foolhardy) move that I’m certainly going to be looking out for it

Zuleikha – Guzel Yahkina (Oneworld) – Due in Feb – Books in translation seem to well in my end of year Top 10.  This one is translated from Russian and is apparently a stunning debut set in a Siberian camp in 1930.  A tale of survival and conquering terrible conditions can be a life-affirming read.

Narrow Land – Christine Dwyer-Hickey (Atlantic) – Due in March – I really liked this author’s “Tatty” published back in 2004 and this new title set in Cape Cod in 1950 looks stylish and highly promising .  We are promised a novel which takes in loneliness, regret and the myth of the American Dream

New Daughters Of Africa – Edited by Margaret Busby (Myriad) – Due in March- An anthology which takes in different types of writing from 200 women writers of African descent.

Confessions Of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins (Viking) – Due in April- This is a big buzz debut which sounds right up my street.  A nineteenth century tale with a good feel of the Gothic about a Jamaican slave girl ending up at the Old Bailey in London.

Big Sky – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) -Due in  June – A new Jackson Brodie novel after a nine year wait.  Hopefully I can read those I still have outstanding before June.  I’ve been promising myself this for some time and I have most of them on my shelves so maybe this new arrival will be the impetus I need.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Fleet) – Due in August.  In his first publication since the five star rated, Top 3 Book Of The Year “The Underground Railroad” we are promised a tale of a 1960’s set novel of two black boys sent to a reform school, based on a hideous real-life institution which operated in Florida for over a century.

I think it’s going to be good year….Happy reading!