The Long Call – Ann Cleeves (2019)

This is the first Ann Cleeves novel I’ve read, despite having watched every episode of “Vera” which features her characters and is adapted from her series of 9 novels and 1 novella featuring Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, beautifully played by Brenda Blethyn.  I also had neither watched any of her other acclaimed tv adaptation, “Shetland” nor read any of those 8 novels, 1 Quick Read and 1 associated non-fiction work, but I have always wanted to.  There’s also two earlier series of novels featuring George and Molly Palmer-Jones (8 titles) and Inspector Ramsay (6 titles) so it is pretty incredible that I hadn’t got round to this prolific British author’s work.

This novel is an obvious staring place- a brand new series, “Two Rivers”, and one which has been recommended to me a number of times.  I’ve also seen it on lists of titles with positive LGBTQ+ representation embodied here in main character Detective Matthew Venn.  Set in coastal North Devon, which Cleeves has conveyed very effectively through her writing, Venn is embarking on married life with husband Jonathan following years of estrangement from his Christian Fundamentalist family who rejected him and his lifestyle.  Ostracised from the community he grew up amongst he has returned to the area to live and work.  Jonathan runs a community arts centre and when a body which turns up on the beach close to their home proves to be a volunteer from The Woodyard, Venn knows he has to tread carefully to avoid conflict of interests.

Matthew and Jonathan are well-established as characters with the policeman’s background giving a depth which could last for many cases.  His team, Jen Rafferty and Ross May also both have lots of potential.

There’s a lot going on in this novel and I very much liked that.  I felt, away from the crime, a community of memorable characters had been created and I felt part of their lives, which is an unusual experience for me within the crime fiction genre where I tend to feel less connected with characters’ lives. 

This is a strong opening title for a new series and with the second “The Heron’s Song” due to arrive on September 2nd 2021 whilst the paperback edition of this is still selling well I’d heartily recommend seeking this out.

The Long Call was published in September 2019 by Macmillan. The Pan paperback edition is also available.

The Black Flamingo – Dean Atta (2019) – A Rainbow Read

This is another welcome addition to the canon of LGBT+ literature for young adults which feels like it is meant to last for more than the current generation discovering it.  The author’s unique selling point here is that he has produced a verse novel, now this might sound off-putting, but actually makes the work really accessible.  It’s written plainly, no meanings hidden behind poetic language, in fact, many readers might not realise they are reading verse at all, but will be drawn in by the movement and rhythm of the piece. The varied lay-out of the book is also impressive.

This is the fictional tale of Michael, who with his Black Jamaican/Greek-Cypriot heritage feels that he is a different person for different members of the family.  This is a boy who yearns for a Barbie for his 6th birthday and as a teenager adopts another persona, The Black Flamingo, to reinforce his sense of identity in a sheen of fabulousness.  Within Atta’s vibrant language we have the tale of a boy growing up, his London childhood, his school days and a move to Brighton University exploring aspects of himself; his black culture, his Greek-Cypriot identity, his sexuality and finding answers through the medium of drag.

To read this is also to become involved in the history which has helped Michael accept himself and at one point he thanks the performers and activists who mean much to him.  This is the second time I’ve seen this done recently- Robert Jones Jnr in his outstanding “The Prophets” has hundreds of acknowledgements but Michael’s list has a British bias and I would hope that those reading this would find out more about the names they are not familiar with.

Dean Atta has published critically acclaimed adult poetry with themes of race, gender and self-development which are all relevant here.  The Independent On Sunday featured him amongst their list of the most influential LGBT+ people in the UK.  This feels a highly significant work from him which will continue to enhance his reputation.  It should feature prominently in YA reading lists.  I really enjoyed being drawn into Michael’s world.

The Black Flamingo was published  in hardback by Hodder and Stoughton in 2019 and in paperback in March 2020.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2020 – Part One (10-6)

It’s time to begin to put this strange old year to rest by having a look back to see which books made the greatest impression upon me in 2020.  This was a year when more of us turned to reading as a means to escape from what was going on in our everyday lives.  My Top 10 is not just based upon books published this year. (3 out of the 10 were, which is the same proportion as last year), if I read it during 2020 it is up for inclusion.

This year I read 68 books which is certainly up on last year where I slumped down to 56 but mid 60’s is generally the figure so it is not up considerably especially considering the length of lockdown and the time I had to spend working from home this year.  Some of that time I was too pre-occupied to really get into my reading, which is something we have also heard time and time again this year.  I have read more 5* reads this year, 13, in fact, which means that some of my five star reads will miss out on a Top 10 placing, with 36 4* and 19 3*.  Gender-wise, my Top 10 is showing a win for the women as last year’s 60-40 split is reversed.  There are 2 non-fiction titles (both autobiographical) amongst the list and two of the authors have featured in previous year Top 10’s.

Right, here is the first part of the list, numbers 10-6.  If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I’m really prompting you to find out more about) just click on the title.

10. Such A Fun Age- Kiley Reid  (Bloomsbury Circus 2020) (Read and reviewed in December)

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I did say about this book ” I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year” and here is the proof  with this being the only 2020 debut novel in the list.  It is a book which deals with big issues with warmth and humanity and great characterisation.  It has just been issued in paperback in the UK and is currently hovering outside the Top 100 in Amazon’s chart.  I’m still expecting it to be a big seller going into 2021 in this format.  It feels contemporary, commercial and literary which seems to me to be a winning combination.

9. Truth Be Told – Kia Abdullah (HQ 2020) – Read and reviewed in August.

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The best new thriller I read this year.  This novel, which has issues of consent at its centre had me finding places to read away from everyone at work during lunchtimes, so can be seen as a perfect book for self-isolation!  I found I was using my hand to cover up text I hadn’t read on the page in case it gave something away too soon! This is Kia Abdullah’s second novel.  In 2021 I will certainly seek out her 2019 debut “Take It Back”.

8. The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles (Vintage 1969) – Read and reviewed in July

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I treated myself to a new copy of this book which I first read aged 18 and which had a place on my bookshelves ever since when I spent a day in Lyme Regis in the summer of 2019.  Knowing I wasn’t going anywhere in 2020 I treated myself to a re-read just to put myself back into Fowles’ depiction of this Devon town in the nineteenth century.  This was one of those books which I encountered at just the right time of my life for it to make a huge impression.  I have read it a number of times since my teenage years but probably not for a couple of decades.  I said of it this time “It is a very intelligent work which does make demands of the reader and on this re-reading I must admit it does occasionally seem a little too clever for its own good (perhaps that was also true of the me who read this many years ago!) and occasionally a little inaccessible.” It still very much deserves its place in my Top 10 but not right towards the top which I might have expected when I started to re-read it this summer.

7. Mama’s Boy – Dustin Lance Black (John Murray 2019) (Read in August, reviewed in September)

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Screenwriter, Oscar-winner, Activist and husband to Olympic Diver Tom Daley revisits his past focusing on his relationship with his extraordinary mother.  She survived through sheer determination never letting disability and pain from a childhood bout of polio grind her down.  She sought support through the Mormon Church which caused conflict in the young Dustin Lance Black who knew from an early age he would never be accepted by the Church and perhaps by his family because of his sexuality.  I said of it “at times I felt tearful, angry, baffled, delighted the list goes on and this is why this book ticks every box for how a memoir should be written.  Relationships are complex and this illustrates that perfectly.”

6. Hungry – Grace Dent (Mudlark 2020) – Read and reviewed in November

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This was the pick of the 2020 published books I read.  It works brilliantly as a memoir on two levels -firstly, it catalogues the author’s relationship with food growing up and to read about food seems to transport me back there more successfully than a time machine would and like the previous title it’s a beautifully conveyed record of a family relationship, here especially with her father who begins to slip away with dementia.  It is also laugh-out-loud funny throughout.  I said of it “I haven’t enjoyed a food-based memoir as much since Nigel Slater’s “Toast (which has made #3 on my Top 10 list on two occasions) and like that book it is the people fuelled by the food who really are memorable.

Next Post : The Top 5

Lot- Bryan Washington (2019)

This critically acclaimed collection of linked short stories is the winner of the 2020 Dylan Thomas Prize (given to the best work by a writer under the age of forty), was a New York Times Top 10 Book Of The Year and was publicly lauded by Barack Obama.  I don’t often seek out the short story format in my reading choices but I do have Washington’s debut novel “Memorial” due out in the UK in early 2021 on my reading schedule and I was interested in finding out more about this writer before I begin his novel and short stories are often a good way to get to know a writer.

In “Lot” we have 13 stories ranging from 3 pages in length to around 30 pages for the collection’s closer “Elgin”.  All are set in regions of urban Houston, which is where the author resides.  The majority of them feature the same characters at different parts of their lives, a narrator Nicolas, his brother Javi and sister Jan and their parents, a Latino father and Black mother. The family run a restaurant and the young Nicolas is coming to terms with his sexuality in a very macho culture. 

Occasionally the stories stray away from this family grouping.  One I found very involving was the more mystical “Bayou” where a couple of teens discover a creature of legend – the Chupacabra and see it as a potential means of escape from their existence and also the equally impressive “Waugh” where a young street hustler finds his own way out and attempts to save a recently diagnosed HIV+ friend.  Looking for escape is a common theme but most often the characters are so embroiled in their everyday existence that they do not take it.

This is a selection of powerful, often brutal stories which certainly have me looking forward to reading Washington’s debut novel.

“Lot” was published in 2019.  I read the 2020 Atlantic paperback edition.

100 Unhip Albums That We Should Learn To Love – Ian Moss (2019)

I was seduced by the cover.  Taken in by the 70’s glamour girl posturing which adorned many a budget sound-alike album bearing titles such as “Top Of The Pops” and “Hot Hits” which provided a cheap facsimile of a hit record collection for the cash strapped youngster.  I was both fascinated and appalled by these albums and owned quite a few which got binned quickly once I started to get into record buying.

These albums, although featuring talented session musicians and singers, were the ultimate in unhip and I must admit to feeling slightly misled by Ian Moss’ publishers using this format for the albums on show here which tend to be more undervalued than unhip.  Musical tastes very much align with age, as anyone who can remember watching BBC TV’s “Top Of The Pops” with parents will testify and Moss is a few years older than me and so naturally our tastes differ with him having a bit of a penchant for blues influenced British rockers which have never done anything for me.  However, he is certainly eclectic with his choices here taking in both the obscure and the mainstream and encompassing many musical styles (Rock n’ Roll, Jazz, Soul, Punk, Disco, Northern Soul, Reggae, Folk are amongst the genres represented here).  It’s all written with a great deal of respect (although he really doesn’t like Oasis) as each of the 110 albums (where did the 100 in the title come from?) are valued and re-assessed.

Ian Moss is a Manchester man who says his Top 5 Manchester acts are Roy Harper, 10CC, Buzzcocks, The Fall and The Prick Jaggers (me neither on the last one but Moss is a huge fan) with a collection as described in the foreword  as being in a home which is “a living museum to the music of the last 75 years.” The driving force  behind this book “celebrates musical diversity and encourages wider listening.” Our musical purchases as represented here only match a handful of times (great to see him describe the much under-rated Imagination’s debut as “a near flawless album that owed nothing to the rule book and all to inspiration and imagination.” I wore my vinyl copy of that album out.) One of the joys of reading this sort of book nowadays is (and I know I’ve said this before) that you can instantly go to Spotify and start listening.  Not everything here is available, some is just too obscure but I have highlighted three of his recommendations (David Essex, ELO and Bim Sherman, the last of whom I have never heard of) for future listening.  I enjoyed being allowed a glimpse into Ian Moss’ record collection even though this was not the cheese-fest I imagined (and hoped for) when I saw the book’s cover.

100 Unhip Albums was published by Empire Publications in 2019. I read the Kindle edition.

Mama’s Boy – Dustin Lance Black (2019) – A Real Life Review

In the UK Dustin Lance Black is best known for being the husband of Olympic diver and national treasure Tom Daley but anyone expecting this memoir to be an examination of their relationship is going to be disappointed.  Tom barely features (although his importance in Black’s life is both acknowledged and shines through).  The author who won an Oscar for his screenplay “Milk” in 2009 even pushes himself and his career left of centre as this memoir has a different principal character- his mother Rose Anne.

Hers is a story of survival through sheer determination.  She contracted polio as an infant and spent her whole childhood in hospitals, away from home, defying doctors and not allowing anything to limit her life choices.  Medical opinion said childbirth would kill her yet she had three sons and Dustin (Lance to friends and family) certainly inherited similar drive.  Mother found support in the strong community of the Mormon Church but by the age of six, young Lance knew his sexuality would cause a major conflict which he truly believed their relationship would never recover from.

The author’s drive led him to a highly promising film career and that Oscar for “Milk” (If you have never seen this film it is magnificent) yet he eschews this to devote time to activism, becoming one of the leading players in overturning California’s discriminatory gay marriage ruling, developing from a chronically shy, almost mute introverted child to speaking on huge public platforms and dealing with threats and bigotry.

But it is the relationship between mother and son which sparked a whole range of emotions in me – at times I felt tearful, angry, baffled, delighted the list goes on and this is why this book ticks every box for how a memoir should be written.  Relationships are complex and this illustrates that perfectly.  Time moves on and the boy turns into a man but there’s still the pull of family and mother and it is recorded in a strikingly honest way.  If this was a novel I’d really be praising the author in his skill at getting us to really know the characters.  I have read some memoirs with no great sense of even the person writing it but this is certainly not the case here.

I think it is hard for us Brits to understand the pull of religions like The Church Of The Latter Day Saints in parts of America and some of the workings of the US legal system seem bewildering but the rest of the world is now well used to being bewildered by America.

I thought this was a marvellous book, a little intense and very thorough but I would imagine that would match the nature of the author pretty well.  It is written with great sensitivity and his desire to introduce his mother to the world demands a large readership.  I don’t think this book has yet got the attention it deserves.  Its nature suggests a lasting classic which should continue to inspire generations.  It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize (as have a number of the books I have read “”Life As A Unicorn” (retitled since I read it) and “The Confessions of Frannie Langton for first book awards and “This Brutal House” in the main category alongside this book).  This is an award to celebrate the best in LGBTQ+ writings and “Mama’s Boy” would be a very deserving winner.

Mama’s Boy was published in 2019 by John Murray.

Me – Elton John (2019) – A Real Life Review

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One of my should have read in2019 choices  was this long-awaited autobiography which appeared in many Christmas stockings over the festive period. It also appeared on lots of “best of” year lists with both The Guardian and The Daily Mail heralding it as the celebrity memoir of the decade.

None of this is surprising given Elton John’s stature and celebrity. The focus of many biographies over the years 2019 also saw the well-received “Rocketman” film so this book from Elton’s perspective is very timely. I wickedly cannot resist the observation that the title is short of a few words and that “Me Me Me Me” might have been more fitting!

In the dedication Elton thanks Alexis Petridis, rock music journalist, who has obviously ghost-written the work. I don’t know what the share of the work was between them but Elton must have done enough to be acknowledged as the sole author on the cover and for copyright purposes.

We all know quite a bit about Elton John although the worldwide level of success he has enjoyed makes for staggering reading. I like that he is a chart nerd who knows the positions his records have achieved and lots of statistics about his career. But, also, with Elton it is the things we don’t know that appeals. This, together with his celebrated frankness and fondness for gossip is what made this such a tantalising prospect. I was a bit disappointed that since publication so much of this has been shared within the media and in his TV interview with Graham Norton that it has lost a lot of its power to surprise. I wasn’t quite able to hold with The Telegraph’s opinion that it was “as eye-popping as his wardrobe.”

Where I do agree with The Telegraph’s verdict is how “self-aware” it is and that is pretty amazing for someone who has lived in a mad celebrity world for close to 50 years where you would imagine all sense of reality would be strained. Perhaps much of this sensitive reflection has come about through therapy and treatment for his much reported-on addictions. The great appeal is that Elton knows everyone and has done everything someone in his world can do and luckily he is able to convey much of this to his readers.

The only area of his life he purposely plays down is his inexplicable first marriage to Renate which seems so out of character. Here he respects his ex-wife’s continued determination never to publicly discuss matters to do the same. Other relationships are more thoroughly explored, the “open secret” of his relationship with manager John Reid, at a time when an admission of homosexuality could have damaged his career, with husband David Furnish and their children and perhaps most fascinatingly with his mother who famously hired an Elton John tribute act for her 90th birthday party because she knew the real thing would not turn up. Now, here is a complex, difficult woman who Elton himself could never fathom. Both she and his father were prone to the same explosive temperament as the singer which has made Elton something of a figure of fun in the past as tales of his petulancy became commonplace. Another complex relationship is the one with lyricist Bernie Taupin. I never knew they were as close as they were, at one point, before fame kicked in sharing bunk beds in a bedroom in Elton’s mum’s house. I did know about the long-distance writing partnership this evolved into. This was for me, most memorably lampooned by Matt Lucas and David Walliams in one of their “Rock Profiles” where Matt as Elton turns lyrics Taupin has just faxed over into a song incorporating the “PS: Can you tape “Lovejoy” for me tonight?” That, joking aside, is pretty close as to how this legendary partnership came to function.

I’m no huge Elton John fan, if I was I think I would find this book pretty amazing. For the general music/celebrity bio fan it is a highly memorable, rich, entertaining read and it  livened the early days of the New Year.

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Me was published in hardback by Macmillan in October 2019

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (2019)

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Yoko Ogawa is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists. Written in 1994 this has taken 25 years to arrive in an English translation by Stephen Snyder. The buzz about it has been so positive that I included it in my 2019- Books I Should Have Read post and now I have done so it is my first five star read of the decade.

It’s a fascinating set-up. An unspecified island location where from time to time things completely disappear, the memory of the object, be it a hat, a rose, birds completely goes and the people feel compelled to destroy any left hanging around. If they don’t do this pressure will be exerted by the sinister authoritarian Memory Police who remove all the forgotten objects as well as those people who can still remember. They create an air of menace throughout.

It’s a first-person narrative by an unnamed woman who works as a novelist and extracts of her latest work appears within the text. The other two significant characters are an elderly family friend, good with his hands, and R., the woman’s publisher who is one of those who can still remember what should be forgotten.

It may work very well as a disturbing allegory on power and loss but it is also a compelling read. I’ve never read a Japanese novel before and wondered if I would struggle with the cultural differences but this is a story for Everywhere and has been translated to convey something original and atmospheric. I can find dystopian novels bleak and depressing because usually people are not very nice to one another in their battle to survive but here there is warmth and friendship which makes the underlying terror within their lives hit home more powerfully. And all this is written in a deceptively simple, straight-forward style which makes Ogawa’s extraordinary concepts enthralling.

This is the fifth translation Snyder has completed of Ogawa’s work. I will certainly be seeking out the rest after this.

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The Memory Police was printed in hardback by Harvill Secker in 2019. A Vintage paperback edition is due in August 2020.

We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff – Isabel Waidner (2019)

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Fewer novelists have chosen to set their novels on the Isle Of Wight than might be expected. Perhaps the first that comes to mind is “England, England” by Julian Barnes (1998) where the whole island is transformed into a theme park. Isabel Waidner’s novel is set largely in Ryde with Shanklin and Sandown Zoo getting a mention.

Despite living on the island I did not know anything about this publication until I saw it at #39 in the Daily Telegraph’s Top 50 Books Of The Year. Its description as a “garrulous, magical realist and Brexit-tinged comedy set in a “no star” hotel on the Isle Of Wight” soon got me searching it out on Amazon. Published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe, an experimental company, which explores different modes of publishing, Waidner’s book is printed on demand and as it’s getting good critical reviews this demand should be there for it.

Waidner’s Isle Of Wight is not one I actually recognise, in fact, I can identify more with the cut-price Disneyland model of Barnes’ satirical novel but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. I can’t imagine, however, it will feature highly on the island’s tourist promotions and can’t see it being for sale at Sandown Zoo, which is somewhat savaged through a series of Trip Advisor Reviews at the end of the novel.

The author focuses on the higher than average levels of unemployment and the very lowest end of the tourism industry exploiting migrant workers to tell the story of Shae and the narrator, two non-binary workers concerned with life post-Brexit, citizenship, keeping the hotel guests from leaving without paying and gutting squid to use the ink in the kitchens. They are also concerned about polar bears, space travel and literary leopards in paranoid, trippy sequences which lead them to bizarre actions, such as covering the hotel carpet with grey paint.

I wanted Waidner’s forthright prose style to win me over but I do think the reader needs to know what is going on and sadly for much of this I didn’t. Boosted with references from books such as Jasbir Puar’s 2006 work “Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism In Queer Times” the whole thing felt like an in-joke which this reader was being excluded from. I did think, when reading the Telegraph thumbs-up that I would be representative of the market for this book, but I’m not. It didn’t leave me cold because Isabel Waidner can write, I found the prose seductive and at just over 100 pages it’s a short, fast read but unfortunately, and surprisingly, given what I expected when I clicked the “Buy It Now” button on Amazon it is not for me.

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We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff was published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe in 2019.

Shadow Play – Joseph O’ Connor (2019)

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One of my selections of books I  highlighted in my  2019 What I Should Have Read post which I just managed to fit in before the end of the year where it ended up in 4th place in my  Books Of The Year.  Short-listed for a Costa Award (losing in the final judgement to Jonathan Coe) but victorious in the Irish Book Awards Eason Novel of the year this is Irish writer Joseph O’Connor’s 9th novel. I’ve not read his celebrated work “Star Of The Sea” (nor anything else by him) but I will be looking out for this to read this year as I feel I’ve made a real discovery here.

This is a beautifully written historical work which represents pretty much a love triangle between actor and impresario Sir Henry Irving, founder of the Lyceum Theatre, hugely popular actress Ellen Terry and “Dracula” author Bram Stoker. As well as his using various narrative techniques as in Stoker’s most famous work O’Connor drops seeds of inspiration throughout showing how Stoker came up with his iconic creation. Largely unknown as a writer in his lifetime, Stoker earnt his living as general manager and dogsbody in Irving’s theatre, attempting to find time to write against his employer’s wishes. All three characters are a little obsessed with one another and this proves fascinating reading.

Also fascinating is spotting the allusions to “Dracula”, some obvious (characters called Mina and Harker) and some more subtle and beautifully interwoven into the text.

It is the quality of the writing that makes this book a joy. O’Connor is good with multi-sensory lists which build such evocative pictures of the time. The narrative touches in at different parts of their lives and an undercurrent to all are the crimes of Jack The Ripper.

The main narrative thrust ends with the death of Irving but then there is a Coda which I initially didn’t warm to feeling it unnecessary but this change of atmosphere achieved here really drew me in and was so beautifully written that I felt close to tears at the end. For an author to change the pace and mood of the piece feels brave, for it to work so well is a real achievement.

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Shadow Play was published in hardback by Harvill Secker in 2019. The paperback is due in May 2020.