The Familiars – Stacey Halls (Zaffre 2019)

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This is a good quality debut historical novel rich in detail and with a good air of authenticity. Set in 1612 around what is now Lancashire and Cumbria this takes the case of the Pendle witches as its inspiration. Using the names of real life residents of Gawthorpe Hall and those accused of witchcraft at the Lancaster Assizes the author effectively conveys the paranoia and suspicion towards those who associated themselves with traditional remedies, paranoia which led to the accused naming names of others they believed were following witchcraft.

Fleetwood Shuttleworth is in her teens and has been married for a number of years already to Richard, Master of Gawthorpe Hall. She has endured miscarriages and while desperate to give her husband an heir is well aware of the precariousness of childbirth and fears for her own life. She encounters Alice whilst on a walk in their wood and Alice’s keen understanding of the properties of herbs leads Fleetwood to appoint her as her midwife. Meanwhile a local landowner has been accusing women of crimes associated with witchcraft, possibly in an attempt to curry favour with King James I, who is encouraging a national purge against “Daemonologie”. Is Alice a witch? Does she associate with those who follow witchcraft, who reputedly have animal familiars, and will she even be around by the time Fleetwood is due to give birth?

Narrated in first-person by the Mistress of Gawthorpe so we know that she survives her childbirth ordeal but nothing else is assured as suspicion, injustice and prejudice begins to sweep the locality. Stacey Halls gets this over very well, making you care for the main character and weaves a convincing tale. I will certainly be looking out for her next novel “The Foundling” due in February 2020.

fourstars

The Familiars was published in 2019. I read the Zaffre paperback.

Isle Of Wight Literary Festival – Part Two

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The second session at the IWLF I attended was with Jill Dawson whose latest novel “The Language Of Birds” I very much enjoyed this summer. I’m particularly glad I saw her (not only because at work when we tweeted what we were reading whilst I was half-way through it led very quickly to Jill following us at Sandown Library) but because she was able to clear up certain aspects which had not lain easily with me.

In my review, obviously, not knowing at the time that I would be seeing the author and in a way giving her a right to reply I picked up on the imagery that was going on in the title and within the text where there are references to bird communications, occasionally in human voices. I said “the relevance of this and the title of the novel has passed me by. It is not what I will remember this book for..” and then I went on to say what I would remember it for (read the review!) so I am delighted that Jill dealt with this very early on.

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Jill Dawson

I might just have been trying to read too much into the character Rosemary hearing birds speaking to her. It’s being used here as a symptom of schizophrenia. I’m more annoyed at myself at not picking up on the title. I suppose it shows what a well-adjusted twenty-first century man I am, forgetting that this novel is set in the 1970’s. “Birds” here is also being used in its context of the day referring to young girls and the “language of birds” the chat and perceptions of the two main female characters which was actually one of the aspects of the books which I had highlighted as really liking; “Mandy and Rosemary feel like two young girls new to the London of 1974.

This novel is a fictionalised account based upon the murder of nanny Sandra Rivett by Lord Lucan (with names changed). Although never formally charged because of his disappearance apparently we can legally say that he was the murderer as an inquest, in an unusual situation, deemed him to be so.

Jill Dawson, a patron of a charity supporting those suffering from domestic violence wanted in this novel to bring the focus back to the victim. Of the many reams of newspaper accounts on the absconding toff the woman he killed got short shrift. The statistics on domestic violence are still chilling. They work out that in 2017 a woman was killed by a partner or ex-partner every four days. Mandy was never a partner of the killer (nor was Sandra Rivett) it was a case of them being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The intended victim was Lardy Morven (or Lady Lucan in the real life case) who had endured domestic violence.

In the extract she chose to read aloud Jill Dawson focused on the class divide of the time where Mandy with no actual experience of being a nanny attends an interview and gets the job because it was assumed that young working-class women would just be able to do a job like that. Lady Morven herself couldn’t, she was falling apart at the seams. I must admit I’m not great at listening to extracts I tune in and out if they are out of context (I don’t read extracts at all) even if I am familiar where it comes in the plot, unless perhaps it’s the opening of a novel but I did like the extract the author chose because given the grimness of the case and the motives behind the book it did give a feel for those who had not read it of its lightness of touch, its real feel of the period and the vivacity of the main character which had all appealed to me.

There was an interesting discussion as to whether Jill Dawson felt things would improve in the future. She saw men’s greater participation in fatherhood as a plus (Dickie in the novel obviously feels strongly towards his children but they are viewed as possessions and the children are distant because that was what their relationship was- as indeed were many of our relationships with our fathers in the 70’s). What concerns here is an attempt to shift the culture towards women doing horrible acts, an example of which is “Killing Eve” and many recent novels and films which have posited women as assassins, which is not based on anything but may eventually lead to an acceptance by girls of violence as a solution just as boys can accept violence from their choice of playthings from early years. Jill said of the 99,000 people in UK prisons, 4,000 were women and only a minority of these have been convicted of violent crime. Our media and popular culture would suggest otherwise.

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I spent a couple of fascinating hours at the IWLF this year. It was the fact that I had already read and enjoyed the books featured that led me just the few miles to the venue, but I like to think I’d be back again next year as it seems to be going from strength to strength, probably once again avoiding the big names and focusing on the gems behind the headliners.

Unicorn – Amrou Al-Kadhi (4th Estate 2019) – A Real Life Review

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Subtitled “The Memoir Of A Muslim Drag Queen” this book will be unlike anything that you’ve read before. It’s an extraordinarily unflinching account of a search for acceptance from an individual hunting for answers at odds with practically all aspects of life and the crushing need to find a place to fit in.

The title refers to a tattoo Amrou Al-Kadhi had inked because “ they are the ultimate outsiders, destined to gallop alone. They share the body of a horse and are similar in form, but are of a different nature, almost able to belong in an equine herd, but utterly conspicuous and irrefutably other.” This fits in with the author’s self- perceptions exactly as well as the unicorn being “also a symbol of pride, of a creative flaunting its difference without shame.” I’d be hard put to think of a more fitting image in any book this year.

I’ve read a lot of coming out tales and accounts of individuals feeling out of sync with society. Amrou Al-Kadhi has battled with issues of sexuality, gender (preferring to be referred to as “they”), family, religion, drugs, mental health issues and OCD and I’ve probably not covered all of them. If this sounds depressing, wrong, the result is an uplifting extraordinary read.

As a young boy in Dubai and then Bahrain Amrou was totally obsessed with his mother and would do literally anything to keep her attention, which provides the first of the book’s many jaw-dropping moments. His behaviour, perceived as feminine, damaged the relationship with his father and an early declaration of his sexuality cemented that sense of rejection as it was so at odds with the family’s view of Islam. A move to the UK saw Amrou obsessively adopting the new Western culture and a determination to succeed in a manner which could only reinforce his sense of isolation.

This desperate striving for academic achievement led to time at Eton (which was equally miserable) and Cambridge University where the formation of a drag night and then a troupe of performers provided both a reason for being as well as bringing all the underlying tensions up to the surface.

This is Amrou’s first book but there is a background in writing and direction in film work, unsurprisingly, as Amrou is a born story-teller who can vividly recreate events that are often painfully honest in every muscle-clenching detail. It’s a journey towards accepting the self and also beginning to acknowledge situations from other’s points of view. At one point this is likened to quantum physics and parallel events which is a little over my head but allows the author to make some sense from the life story. As a writer, there is definite talent and the emotional intelligence with which difficult issues are conveyed shows great potential for future work. It’s touching, very powerful, outrageous, laugh out loud funny and extremely sad. As a read it both shocked and entertained. Whatever Amrou might have felt at the time the life experiences are almost certainly not unique but they have never been aired in this way before. The search for love, especially within the family and the potential catastrophic pitfalls when this is not forthcoming are expertly expressed. The subtitle, appropriate as it is, might suggest something different but this is a thoughtful, learned, literary work.

fourstars

Unicorn was published by 4th Estate on 3rd October 2019 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

No One’s Home – D M Pulley (2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Every month Amazon Prime subscribers are offered a free “First Read” of an e-publication. I generally take them up on the offer but until now haven’t actually read any of them. I chose this from the August selection.

It’s American author D M Pulley’s 4th novel. Her debut “The Dead Key” won an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2014.  Her latest is a creepy house novel with an acknowledged nod towards Shirley Jackson’s horror classic “The Haunting Of Hill House” and there’s references also to the movie “Poltergeist” within the text. It also brought to mind the first season of “American Horror Story” known as “Murder House”, the residence within Pulley’s novel also very much fits this description.

Everything we would expect from a haunted house tale is here, beginning with the house being for sale and being purchased by a not particularly likeable family before the odd things start to happen. In this case there’s a lot of individual members of the Spielman family spooking themselves by wandering around the house when alone. Obviously, to begin with this new family to the house, Myron, Margot and awkward teenager Hunter know little about the history of the place other than it was a bargain buy. We get to know about previous owners through parallel narratives and for most, things do not end up well. The house has been built on the remains of a Shaker community and from the Rawlings family who lived there in the late 1920’s lives have been steeped in tragedy. In many cases the presence of ghosts are fuelled by characters’ inability to communicate with one another, making it a tale of outsiders haunted by their pasts which influences how they deal with the present.

These parallel narratives make this novel seem less formulaic with echoes of one generation touching others. I can’t say I was particularly chilled at any point but I was intrigued by the interweaving of the past with the present. At times plausibility is strained which is not uncommon with tales dealing with the supernatural. Anyone looking for a creepy (ish) read in the run up to Halloween might wish to consider this.

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I read a Kindle edition of No One’s Home which was published in 2019 by Thomas and Mercer.

The Language Of Birds – Jill Dawson (2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This is not exactly a crime novel, although a murder is very much at its centre and it focuses on a case most readers would have some sense of familiarity with, that of children’s nanny Sandra Rivett killed by absconding aristocrat Lord Lucan in what was believed to have been a case of mistaken identity (Lucan had intended to kill his estranged wife).

The real life events from 1974 are here turned into fiction with changed names, Dawson’s reasons for this are stated in an Afterword; “The life of a victim is a hard story to tell when there are living descendants (of the Lucan family too) and others who might still be hurt. My solution was to invent new characters whose story you have just read.” I think we as readers will respect the author’s decision here. Since reading this I haven’t gone into what was known about this grubby case other than what Dawson has told us in the Afterword and my vague recollections but she does seem to have followed the framework of events closely.

The narrative switches between a third person retelling and the first-person views of Rosemary, a friend of the doomed nanny. The two meet as voluntary patients in a psychiatric hospital and when a recovered Rosemary finds work as a nanny in London, Mandy follows and finds herself in charge of the two children from the fractured Morven family assisting the fragile and not-coping Lady Katherine who is trying to break free from the enigmatic but charismatic Dickie, wrapped in underhand tactics in a custody case. The two girls waver as to who should get their sympathies.

I think what Jill Dawson does very well here is to get the feel of the mid 1970’s just right not only in its many references but particularly in the attitudes. Mandy and Rosemary feel like two young girls new to the London of 1974. There’s a lot of anger in the novel, rightly so, in a case in which time has tended to lionise the disappearing perpetrator. In many ways just as Hallie Rubenhold aimed to reclaim the victims from the hype of Jack The Ripper in her non-fiction work “The Five” Dawson here has managed to move the focus back to the real-life victim Sandra Rivett perhaps even more effectively, especially as the character of Mandy is so vibrant and well-drawn.

There’s an element of imagery going on in the title and on occasions within the text based upon bird communication. At one point it takes the form of auditory hallucinations by swans and pigeons which caused Rosemary’s mental health episode but I’m not sure that this fits into the feel of the novel or understand why it is there. The relevance of this and of the title of the novel has passed me by.  It is not what I will remember this book for which is the great feel for the period, strong characterisation and the build up of dread as to how what we know is inevitable will pan out and the ramifications for those caught up in the grisly events.

fourstars

The Language Of Birds was published in hardback by Sceptre in April 2019.

Oct 19 Update – Read about Jill Dawson at the Isle Of Wight Literary festival here.

The Library Book – Susan Orlean (2019) – A Real-Life Review

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Here’s a non-fiction work I highlighted as one of the books I wanted to read in 2019 in January’s “Looking Back, Looking Forward” post. Susan Orleans is a writer for New Yorker magazine and has now published five books on disparate subjects, her most celebrated to date being “The Orchid Thief” about those obsessed with the acquisition of the delicate and often very valuable flowers. Here she turns her attention to the Los Angeles Public Library service and in doing so broadens her scope to explore the worldwide importance of libraries, in the past, present and future.

Her main location is the Los Angeles Central Library which, Orlean discovers early on in her research, suffered a devastating fire in 1986 which destroyed much of the building and over a million books not to mention stacks of non-book materials such as photos and microfilm. Orlean, a keen bibliophile, was astounded that an event of such magnitude passed her by and deviates from her plan to celebrate libraries by exploring this in detail and focusing on the young man believed to have deliberately started the fire. This gives the book an element of true crime running throughout it which alongside the more sedate world of the public library works really quite well.

It’s all interspersed in the text, the current administration of the library, the history of libraries in LA with its cast of very memorable characters and this strange and disturbing case of arson which almost definitely got out of hand within a building which was basically a tinderbox. Throughout is the emphasis on how important libraries are to people, past and present and this all (especially budget-cutting politicians) should take note of. A decade or so ago people worldwide were keen to predict the total demise of libraries in the wake of the e-book but this is no longer so as across the globe things are on the up. What might surprise the British reader is how well funded the American service is compared to the UK. There are more public libraries in the USA than there are branches of McDonalds (I wonder if the same applies over here where so many have been closed due to budgetary restrictions) and there are double the number of libraries to retail bookshops. These are just two of the facts I learnt from this book.

All of this celebratory pot-pourri is introduced within short chapters by lists of relevant books titles and their Dewey references which I initially felt gimmicky from a gifted writer but actually won me over as a nice touch which gives some idea where the author is going in each section. The book itself was inspired by Orlean’s memories of going to a public library with her mother when she was a child and them bonding over their piles of chosen books. This seems to me a valuable inspiration for a fascinating work. And as I am employed within public libraries I couldn’t agree more with the author as to their continued importance in the 21st Century.

fourstars

The Library Book was published as a hardback by Atlantic Books in 2019.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2019)

 

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Here’s a book I’ve been looking forward to. I highlighted it as one of my must-reads for 2019 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post in January. At that point August seemed a long time away but here it is and I have managed to get my hands on an advance copy.

Last time around Colson Whitehead ended up as #3 in my 2017 Books Of The Year list with the very impressive “The Underground Railroad” which won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in the US and was a big seller over here. I said at the time “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read”. This is why expectations were so high for this.

“The Nickel Boys” focuses on a boys’ reform school, The Nickel Academy, which the author based on the real life Dozier School for Boys in Florida. Main character Elwood Curtis, an intelligent ambitious teen gets caught up in the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and ends up being sent to the school on ludicrous charges. This school is tough, but particularly on the black inmates, many of whom have found themselves there without just cause. They face segregation, malnutrition, cruelty, indiscriminate beatings and a number disappear without being seen again. Whitehead focuses on the out-of-place Elwood and his more street-savvy friend Turner and their experiences as teens in this hideous place alongside a later narrative of revelations about the place which come to the surface (literally) many years later.

“The Underground Railroad” focused on slavery and veered off in an unpredictable direction which saw it top the Amazon Book charts in its “Metaphysical and Visionary” lists. This book plays things more straightforwardly. In a way, I was pleased by this, because the author has such an important story to tell but also I was a little disappointed that this does not soar in quite the same way as its predecessor with its imaginative elements. As I was reading it, however, I was expecting it to which did affect the way I approached this novel. I was a little wary in case Colson Whitehead took it off into another direction and left me behind.

It is well-written and tales of appalling prejudice still need telling. The ridiculousness of such viewpoints can be seen here in the character of Jaimie, a mixed-race Mexican boy who “ping pongs” between the two sections of the school. As soon as he becomes tanned by working outside in the sun he is sent to the “coloured” half until he is deemed too light-skinned to be there and sent back. Most of the examples of prejudice are, however, far more chilling than this.

In airing these issues from the past to Trump’s America Colson Whitehead has written another book which will enhance his growing reputation as one of the US’s most important novelists.

fourstars

The Nickel Boys was published on August 1 2019 by Fleet. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape 2019) – A Rainbow Read

 

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Thirty-one year old Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese-born poet who moved to Connecticut with his extended family whilst still a toddler. Dyslexic, gay and agoraphobic his first collection of poems which explored some of these areas together with his experience of being from a background influenced by traumatic experiences was entitled “Night Sky With Exit Wounds” and achieved huge critical acclaim including the TS Eliot Prize in 2017.

Vuong has decided to follow this up with an autobiographical novel focusing on his childhood which has the main character exploring his relationship with his mother to whom the narrative is addressed in the form of a letter. Vuong’s gift for language rings clearly throughout as his writing is full of vivid images and episodic snapshots of memory that are clear and powerful. This is obviously a novel written by a poet. In fact, it was the deliciously poetic title that first drew me to this work. Having said that there is enough plot narrative in his tale of the boy known as “Little Dog” to ensure that this works very well as a novel.

Little Dog’s mother is a manicurist who works long hours and can erupt in explosions of violence. His grandmother, Lan, far more uprooted from her Vietnamese life than the other characters is ailing and is very much seen in terms of the damage inflicted on her via years of conflict, becoming increasingly distant to her family, but whose strength of spirit is evident in Little Dog’s memories. Perhaps more than the relationship between mother and son it is with the grandmother and grandson where the heart of this novel really lies.

The bullied, abused Little Dog has to grapple with his sexuality in a tough world of prescription drug addiction and struggling to get by. Alongside the narrative it is the visual images conjured continually by Vuong’s writing which brings this debut to life. Recurring images including butterflies migrating long distances and  herding buffalos plunging off a cliff top feel very appropriate for the fragility, tenacity and bewilderment of these characters’ situations.

This work is less plot-driven than I would normally recommend but its sensitivity and power and linguistic richness would ensure a valuable reading experience.

fourstars

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is published by Jonathan Cape in June 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Pen In Hand- Tim Parks (Alma Books 2019) – A Books About Books Review

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Tim Parks’ latest non-fiction work is very much a companion piece to “Where I’m Reading From” which I read and reviewed last year. Subtitled “Reading, re-reading and other mysteries” it is a collection of articles written either for the New York Review Of Books or the New York Times between 2014 and 2017.

 These articles are linked by a Foreword in which Parks encourages us, in a bid to make us more active readers to always have a pen in hand whilst reading and not to be afraid to annotate and highlight the book and note down our thoughts on what we are reading whilst things are still fresh.  Needless to say, my overwhelming desire to finish a book with it looking as pristine as when I started it means that I could not do this with Parks’ work but I certainly can see where he is coming from.  I don’t think I would ever be able to borrow a book from him as he says; “These days, going back to reading the novels and poetry that have been on my shelves since university days, I see three or four layers of comments, perhaps in different coloured pens.”

What he is getting here is a rich resource on his observations upon the work and how  they might have changed over time.  For those of you like me who would find writing on a book difficult,  the E-Book, where markings can be erased and altered so easily may be the answer.  I do often highlight when reading on my Kindle but do not always go back to those highlights and never provide the running commentary on the text which Parks deems so beneficial.

 Elsewhere he covers a lot of fascinating ground on how to read and what it is to be a reader.  He admits that the same sources do tend to come up as examples and that is probably only to be expected – Primo Levi, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Elena Ferrante are amongst those who come under scrutiny and an author I found my interest piqued by – Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has to date passed me by and who in the articles evolves from someone who Parks feels everybody seems to be reading to one who is assumed to be a best-seller by those in the business but whose sales outside his Norwegian homeland do not reflect this.  I found myself considering taking out his “Death In The Family” from the library as a result of Parks’ focus, but then decided to leave it until another time. 

Parks does have a very Euro-centric view having lived much of his adult life in Italy and working as a translator and as in “Where I’m Coming From” I found his views on translated fiction the most fascinating.  In fact, the section on translations which comprises of articles on retranslations of existing translated work, comparing the work of translators on the same text and whether translators should be paid royalties made me wish I had kept up with languages and had been a translator of the written word myself.  A French A-level 30+ years ago would probably not cut it these days- so I think I’ve missed my chance!

 Despite this work being formed from articles I found that it did read well as a whole more cohesively than his 2014 collection.  I found many of Tim Parks’ ideas stimulating and some challenging (but still withheld and temptation to scrawl my objections in the margin as he would have wanted me to do).  What I haven’t done yet, and this is with a shimmer of guilt as I mentioned this last time round is to read any of his novels to see how this feelings about the world of fiction and the needs of the reader has been incorporated into his own work. But I will.

fourstars

 

Pen In Hand was published in hardback by Alma Books in May 2019.  I would very much like to thank the publishers for doing their homework and finding out that I had read and enjoyed Tim Parks in the past and sending me a copy of this to review.

Lux- Elizabeth Cook (Scribe 2019)

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A deft melding of the biblical and the historical, Elizabeth Cook has as her central figure King David in this novel of three sections.  From the boy hero slaying Goliath against the odds to the successful King who becomes morally wayward when he views, from a distance, one of his subjects Bathsheba, washing herself.   Exercising his right to possess he impregnates the previously barren Bathsheba and either has to get her husband Uriah to take responsibility for her condition or get him permanently out of the way.

 This first section “Ark” is the most successful as far as I was concerned, the biblical retelling largely from the Book of Samuel feels both fresh and familiar and with the miraculous powers of the Ark of The Covenant present in the background it gave the writing a feel of a quality fantasy novel.   

 In the second section whilst Bathsheba cares for her new-born a prophecy from Nathan leads David to contemplate and atone for his wrongdoings in a cave.  The third section “Poet” shifts to Thomas Wyatt, who translated the psalms attributed to King David as he watches his old friend Anne Boleyn adjust to her position as Queen and faces his own spells of contemplation in the Tower of London.

 There is no doubt that the author weaves her tale as beautifully as the tapestries Henry VIII purchases which depict the tale of Bathsheba.  The language has a poetic force which impresses.  I felt it a little lacking as a novel as the subject matter just didn’t engage me consistently.  I didn’t feel an emotional response which I would have hoped for in such a novel so there was a bit of a mis-match here for me.  It is quality writing throughout although I would have appreciated a closer tying in of the third section with the first two.  I felt that I read and absorbed the writing and followed the plot-lines yet the novel just wasn’t for me.  I haven’t really felt this way since I read Ali Smith’s “How To Be Both” which ended up a major award winner so Elizabeth Cook is in very good company here.

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Lux was published in hardback  by Scribe in April 2019.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.