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.

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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.

threestars

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

This Brutal House – Niven Govinden (Dialogue 2019)

 

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I’ve been itching to read this since I first heard about its impending publication in a number of 2019 previews.  This is the fifth novel for British author Govinden, which was a surprise as I read the novel assuming it was an American work.

Set around the time of the New York vogue balls which had their heyday in the late 80’s/early 90’s this book probably has the documentary film “Paris Is Burning” (1990) as its strongest influence.  (If you haven’t seen this catch it on Netflix- it is outstanding).  Since I read of this book in January we have had the UK transmission of Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” (BBC2) which was also very strong and touches very similar ground.

 The vogue ball scene, although underground, has had a strong cultural link in the decades which have followed it influencing fashion and music particularly Madonna and “Rupaul’s Drag Race”.  Central to the set up were the “houses” who competed in various dance/drag categories to win trophies and who were dominated by the “mothers” who provided support and often food and accommodation for those lost in NYC in return for their participation in the contests in order to raise their particular house to the desired “legendary” status.

 The balls may have shifted into the background in this novel but those who participate in them are paramount.  A group of “mothers” stage a silent protest on the steps of City Hall because of official incompetence at investigating disappearances of their “children”.  Teddy, one of the few characters to be named in the book, is both one of the children made good by education and a City Hall employee placed into the middle of this situation.  And plot-wise that is largely it.

 It’s written with great energy and is direct and forthright throughout becoming at times almost sermon-like, an intense flow of the perceptions of Teddy and the collective group of mothers.  As well as giving this novel its impetus it does also at times cause it to drag as there is not enough variation in the narrative style.  The vogue-caller (think Pray Tell in “Pose”) has his section but it is merely a list of categories and pages of little more than the word “work” which would normally have me hurling the book across the room but which here due to the rhythmic nature of the piece (and because I find the subject matter fascinating) Govinden gets away with it.  I think I would have welcomed another plot thread perhaps based upon the balls themselves in a more naturalistic style which would add greater potency to the elevated language of the narrative.

 This book is not going to be to everyone’s taste but often if I have high expectations of a book before reading it they can be completely dashed but I found myself more or less involved throughout.  It’s a story about outsiders attempting to conform but seeking their own refuge through their own special kind of family grouping and of throwing shade and shapes on the dancefloor.

fourstars

This Brutal House is published by Dialogue in hardback on 6th June.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

My Brother’s Name Is Jessica – John Boyne (2019) – A Kids-Lit Review

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On the strength of the four novels by Irish writer John Boyne that I have read to date (2 for adults and 2 for children) he is one of my very favourite writers, scoring four five star reads and appearing in my 100 Essential Books strand. Both his children’s novels “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” and “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” are subtly complex, emotionally charged novels where a child outsider is thrown into extraordinary circumstances and where their lack of communication with the world of adults lead to misunderstandings and confusion which only make things worse for them. In neither of these (nor in the two adult books I’ve read) do you know what you are going to get from the title. Boyne, as a writer, is excellent at leading the reader into a journey which he/she is initially unprepared for. With his latest title for the older children/young teenage market you pretty much know what is in store from the title.

In a contemporary setting Boyne tackles the issue of the transgender child, here facing mid-teens knowing he was born into the wrong body. This seems to be very much an issue for out times which we all should know more about but it is not Jason/Jessica’s path we follow here. Boyne has given the first- person narrative to younger brother Sam. This gives everything a new perspective as the emphasis shifts onto the effects of such a situation on the family.

Issues are compounded by the Wavers being in the public eye. Mum is a senior politician with an eye on the big job, Dad her secretary and there are the views of the electorate, press and colleagues to consider. Jason makes his announcement very early on in the proceedings but the parents want it all suppressed. I can see what Boyne is doing here. Mum has achieved in what is a male dominated field and Dad has the more passive role already challenging traditional gender stereotypes. But they cannot accept this new challenge. Mum seeks to lead the country yet cannot offer support to her own child. This adds dramatic layers to the narrative but it does feel a lot less subtle than his best work.

I very much like the focus on younger brother Sam who reaches his already insecure early teens with his family history uprooted. His brother is the school star football player (nice touch Mr Boyne), Sam has always been the dyslexic not popular younger sibling and discovers that his brother’s announcement turns all that he has had in his past upside down and makes him vulnerable to bullying and tension both at home and at school.

Reading through the bare bones of the story it might seem that the author is box-ticking sensitive areas and producing an issue-laden work (and he certainly would not be the first writer of young adult fiction to do this by any means) were he not so good with character, dialogue and the day-to-day communication situations which feel universal and a step away from a mother angling to be Prime Minister, which is the aspect of the novel I’m not totally convinced by.

So no five stars this time but this is a valuable resource for those questioning identity or anyone who wants to know more about how these kind of issues would pan out. It is a marvellously empathic work and a very involving read.

fourstars

My Brother’s Name Is Jessica was published in hardback by Puffin in April 2019.

The Seven Or Eight Deaths Of Stella Fortuna – Juliet Grames (Hodder & Stoughton 2019)

 

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Last year’s surprise publishing sensation was the debut novel by American author Stuart Turton “The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle” which won the Costa First Novel Award and climbed up bestseller lists as well as appearing on a considerable number of “Best Of The Year” lists. I haven’t read it yet but anticipate a time-bending novel along the lines of Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” which I loved. We all know that from the very early days of publishing there’s nothing like a surprise success to start off the bandwagon jumping and I couldn’t help but feel that this might be the case when I saw the title of this debut by another American author (even more so when you consider Turton’s US title for his novel is “The Seven and A Half Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle”). This may just all be coincidence but I’m doubtful.

There was, however, something about the description of this novel which appealed and hopefully that potential cash-in of a title will not hinder its chances in the marketplace. Unlike “Life After Life” these are not actual deaths anyway but near-death experiences for the main character, a woman with undoubted survival instincts and these experiences provide the structure of the book. It actually needn’t as this is one of the weakest aspects of the story. Before publication I would have made these near-death encounters less prominent and just titled the novel “Stella Fortuna” allowing it to stand more on its own merit rather than on the coat-tails of another title. It would have also ended up with something which would have felt more self-contained and original.

This novel does not need this hook. It works very well on its own as a tale of the long-living Stella Fortuna and her family from sun-soaked days in a village in Calabria, Italy, to their emigration to the US just before World War II and their experience of life over the decades as an American-Italian immigrant family narrated by her grand-daughter.

The Italian section does feel a little unsure of itself in terms of style. At times it reads almost like a fairy tale with whimsical touches borne out of the superstitions of the simple mountain folk. I quite liked it but I’m a little allergic to anything too whimsical. Once it gets to America it feels more realistic and at times disturbingly hard-hitting, even brutal in its writing. As a result I’m not totally convinced Juliet Grames has found her style consistently with this debut. It did occur to me at one point that it might be a translation into English and that the translator did not quite get the author’s voice quite right, but it’s not.

However, she did keep me reading and that was because of strong characterisation. Stella will undoubtedly frustrate and irritate, she has a stubborn streak and lives her life attempting to avoid what she does not want rather than going after what she actually wants. She is haunted by these near-death experiences and her belief that they are to do with incidents from before she was born. Her parents, her mother taken away from the simple life she loves and her disturbing macho father are equally well drawn as are many of those who come into Stella Fortuna’s life over the generations. As a family story it works very well. I just can’t help thinking that the title might hold it back implying it is something that it’s not and forcing unnecessary comparisons. This is a strong, memorable debut but I do feel with a slightly different emphasis, viewpoint and a more consistent style it could have been first-rate.

fourstars

The Seven Or Eight Deaths Of Stella Fortuna is published by Hodder and Stoughton in hardback on May 7th 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Taking Of Annie Thorne – C J Tudor (2019)

 

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I read C J Tudor’s critically acclaimed debut “The Chalk Man” (2018) earlier this year.  It was a book that became a word of mouth hit and I realised I was missing out when I saw it appearing on a number of “Best Of The Year” lists.   I really liked the tense atmosphere she created throughout and the touches of horror and these aspects are all present and correct in her second novel.

I began this as an exercise in listening.  A free month’s trial for Audible was initiated when I saw this was available so soon after publication.  It is narrated by Richard Armitage who has a very listenable voice and despite me never being successful at committing to audio books (Susan Hill’s slim “The Printer’s Devil Court” being the only one I’ve managed to listen to all the way through) I was determined to let Tudor’s easy approachable style be read to me.  I was enjoying the narration very much but it all just takes too long.  I don’t have ten hours listening time and because audio is new to me I have to really concentrate on it (of course, being male means multi-tasking and doing something else whilst listening is out of the question!).  I was also having to take notes at the end of every chapter, realising how much I must flick back in a physical book to check things.  I did, however, get well over half-way through and then I discovered a hardback copy in the library.  I did try to resist but couldn’t so checked it out and finished it off.  (I’ve also just cancelled my Audible trial- once again I’ve tried and been found wanting.)

The novel is set in the ex-mining village of Arnhill in Nottinghamshire, a location similar to where the author grew up.  Like “The Chalk Man” there are two time zones, a present day narrative and one set in 1992 when the main protagonists were in their teens.

There’s a grisly opening of a discovery of bodies in a cottage (which certainly spooked me listening to it) then it settles into a plot where Joe Thorne returns to Arnhill and engineers himself a teaching post at his old school.  He has come back in an attempt to put to rest trauma in his past- the disappearance and eventual death of his eight year old sister which occurred when he was fifteen.  The combination of the crime novel and horror is not as balanced as it was in “The Chalk Man” with the latter taking precedence.  Horror writing gives the text an openness which the crime novel with its demands to be tied up neatly to provide a satisfactory experience tends not to do.  The unexplainable horror touches comes from the old pit itself which has a history of being involved in disappearance and death and which commands a dark presence over the plot.

 If anything, the tale here is darker than “The Chalk Man”.  There is the odd flash of humour but this is generally black, bitter and barbed.  This has the effect of not making this novel seem as multi-layered nor as rich as its predecessor where the language felt more vibrant and less on one level.  Also readers who need to like their characters will struggle as not even main protagonist Joe comes across as having that many redeeming features.  There are aspects to the plot, particularly with regards to backstory events in Joe’s adulthood that seem underwritten and not as convincing.  As a result I did not feel as drawn into this world as I had with “The Chalk Man” but this is still an involving read, showing once again the author’s skill with tension and building up a creepy atmosphere.

threestars

 

I read the Michael Joseph published hardback version of “The Taking Of Annie Thorne” which was published in February 2019.  In the US it has been published as “The Other People”.  A paperback version is due to be published by Penguin in July 2019.

A Stranger City – Linda Grant (Virago 2019)

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I read and enjoyed Linda Grant’s last novel “The Dark Circle” back in 2o16.  It was set largely in a TB sanatorium in a post-war Britain very much on the cusp of a modern age as the richly drawn characters awaited developments which would cure them and allow them back into the society their illness had removed them from.

 The author’s latest places us into contemporary London where change is also anticipated and it is not good news as the city awaits the effects of Brexit.  It is a disorientating time in the city for the characters and becomes increasingly so as deportation trains begin to rattle through the night, “illegals” are held in prison ships and one sequence set in a dis-located part of London feels like Alice down the rabbit hole.

 This shifting uncertain London shimmers in the background of a plot with a mystery story at its heart.  A suicide off London Bridge by an unidentified woman occurs on the same evening a documentary maker witnesses conflict between a man and an Irish woman on a train.  This woman, a nurse, also disappears but the power of social media ensures she is identified and cannot stay missing for too long.  The contrast between the two in the same location leads the film-maker to produce a television programme in an attempt to uncover the dead woman’s identity.  The people caught up in this story are the main protagonists of the novel.

 As in the last publication characterisation is here a strong point, although the shifts of focus means that the reader is kept on their toes.  Nothing feels totally secure in Grant’s London as the novel shifts, undulates and unsettles throughout.  The real and the fictional blur from a character caught up in a terrorist incident on a London bridge to a nation where the tiniest error on paperwork can lead to expulsion from a country keen to rid itself of those it feels no longer belongs.  Concealing oneself in an attempt to fit in and disguise are themes developed within the novel.

It is very well written and feels more complex than “The Dark Circle” but is every bit as readable.  There is a freshness in the language which makes it feel it is produced  by a writer with a definite finger on the pulse.  It is another solidly impressive, intelligent work from this author whose reputation continues to grow.


fourstars
 

A Stranger City is published by Virago in hardback on  2nd May 2019 .  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

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.

fivestars

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.

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.

fourstars

 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.