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.

Looking Around…….

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Something I very much enjoyed doing last year, was, for my final retrospective of the year to take a look at what other bloggers have been choosing as their favourite books so I thought I’d give it another go keeping a look out for similarities and adding a number of titles to my To Be Read list because of their lavish recommendations.

I was delighted, especially with so many books out there, to see some common ground with Lou at Random Book Reviews as indeed there was last year, especially as she, like me does not restrict her list to books published in 2019 but counts any books she reads as eligible.  In her Top 10 list was my Book Of The Year “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott and within her top 10 was another that I really wanted to read this year (also featured on Books On The 7.47’s list) “My Sister, The Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite.  At number 4 she had a book I’ve actually got out now from the library which I’ve had to renew a couple of times because I haven’t got round to it and that is Joyce Carol Oates’ novelisation of the life of Marilyn Monroe “Blonde”.  Lou mentions that this has been made into a film due to be released soon which will increase the demand for this book so I better get on with reading it soon before other library users begin to reserve it.  Incidentally, Random Book Reviews top pick was a non-fiction choice “Chernobyl: History Of A Tragedy” by Serhil Plokhy which might just be a little too traumatic for me.

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Another Lou, who I work with and who has urged me to read so many good books in the past including last year’s Book Of The Year “The Count Of Monte Cristo” and runner-up this year “Sanditon” has decided her top read of 2019 was a non-fiction choice which  combined true crime with a woman’s obsession to find the truth in Michelle McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark”.  She has lent me her copy and I’ve added it to my list so hopefully I’ll be able to let you know what I think of this in due course.

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It does seem that 2019 was a great year for non-fiction with Bookish Beck actually highlighting this in her end of year retrospective in which her top choice was “Irreplaceable- The Fight To Save Our Wild Places” by Julian Hoffman with Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Again” as her top fiction pick.

Going back to Jen at Books On The 7.47’s list which she did not place in any order it was great to see another of my Top 10 choices “Things In Jars” by Jess Kidd together with another one I know I’m going to like Laura Purcell’s spooky Victorian set slab of Gothic “The Corset” which Jen feels is her best yet.

Australian blogger Kim at “Reading Matters” placed another of my Top tenners “Shadowplay” by Joseph O’Connor in her top selection together with one of my choices from last year John Boyne’s “Ladder To The Sky“.  “Shadowplay” also made it into the Top 5 Irish books from Cathy at 746 Books who continues to do a great job in highlighting the excellent works coming out of Ireland.  Also on her list was “The Narrow Land” by Christine Dwyer-Hickey which I’d placed in my 2019 “Looking Forward” post but never got round to reading, further evidence that I should.  Also in her selections was joint runner-up to the Booker Prize “Girl, Woman Other” by Bernardine Evaristo which appeared on my 2019 Should Have Read list and it does seem that if the decision was left to us bloggers there would not have been a tie as I saw this recommended quite a few times and didn’t actually come across any mentions of joint winner “The Testaments” by Margaret Attwood.  In fact, the title that should have given Evaristo a run for her money seems to have been “10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World” by Elif Shafek which was a top choice from among others Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews.

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As 2019 turned to 2020 some bloggers took the opportunity to look at their Books of the Decade.  I certainly would not argue with Margaret at Books Please selection of “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson and “The Grapes Of Wrath” by John Steinbeck which would probably both be on my Books Of My Lifetime list.  I also very much appreciate the great variety on some lists, it was great to see Colin at Colingarrow recommend the chilling “Blacklands” by Belinda Bauer which gave me a few disturbed nights sleep when I read it and Nina Bawden’s children’s classic “Carrie’s War”.

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Other titles I’ve added to my to be read list includes “Fleishman Is In Trouble” by Taffy Brodesseser-Akner (top recommendation of Canadian blogger Anne at I’ve Read This who like me used her end of year report to mention the passing of  her muse to her blog, her cat Smokey.  I know exactly how that loss feels (if you don’t know what I’m talking about see here).  Also added is “Dear Mrs Bird” by A J Pearce (the choice of Julie at A Little Book Problem, “Night Theatre” by Vikram Paralkar the choice of Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews and another Canadian choice Fictionphile’s “Where The Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens which is due to be published in the UK next week.

So that’s just a taster of what delighted some of us bookbloggers last year.  Now, let’s get on with 2020!!

 

 

 

Looking Back….Looking Forward

I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, early on in the year I post ten titles that I am looking forward to being published and at the beginning of the next year I see how many I have read.  I’ve discovered that other things take priority and these titles often go on the back burner, my best score for this was in 2017 when I read four of the ten.  Let’s see how I got on this year.

The Library Book – Susan Orlean (Atlantic) – Read it and really enjoyed it.  Made it into the Top 10 of my Books Of 2019.

What Hell Is Not – Alessandro D’Avenia (Oneworld) – Some books seem to have a big pre-publication buzz and then you never actually come across them again.  This was certainly the case with this a translation of an Italian best-seller which I didn’t even encounter again during the year.

Out Of The Woods – Luke Turner (W&N) – I know this sounds petty but the publishers turned me down for a review copy of this via Netgalley which immediately puts my hackles up and made me decide not to bother with it.  So beware publishers!  This also happened this year with “Queenie” by Candice Carty-Williams and I’m still holding out from reading that one too.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf – Marlon James (Hamish Hamilton) – I keep picking this up in the library but it’s such a big book and I do struggle with fantasy that I’ve never got round to borrowing it, but I could very easily one day get round to reading it.

Zuleikha – Guzel Yahkina (Oneworld) – This is a debut that I think I have probably missed out on by not reading.

Narrow Land – Christine Dwyer-Hickey (Atlantic) – This was shortlisted in the An Post Irish Book Awards Eason novel of the year which was won by another of my Top 10 Book choices “Shadowplay” by Joseph O’ Connor.  I’ll still be looking out for this.

New Daughters Of Africa – Edited by Margaret Busby (Myriad) – I think I should try and read more anthologies in 2020 especially as I missed out on this in 2019.

Confessions Of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins (Viking) – Read it.  I enjoyed it and rated it a four star read.  There was good publicity for this book and I think it would have received very healthy sales for a debut.

Big Sky – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) – I knew I would be taking on a bit challenge to get to this stage in the Jackson Brodie series having only read one and needing to read books in order.  I do have the first of this series “Case Histories” lined up as my next re-read so maybe I will get round to this one day.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Fleet) – Read it and rated it four stars.  Didn’t impress me quite as much as his terrific  “The Underground Railroad” as a novel but it is still a chilling, impressive read 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.

Well, three out of ten, that’s 10% better than last year and only 10% behind my all time best.

2019 had its highs and lows.  I’ve been promoted at work which might have a slight influence on how much time I have for reading and reviewsrevues.com.  I started the new job today.   The low certainly came on the very last day of the year when my lovely cat Tara, aged 11, was put to sleep after the vet discovered a large tumour in her intestines.  I feel that Tara has been a part of reviewsrevues as she has so often been by my side when I have been on the computer putting the reviews together and she features sat on my lap whilst I am reading in the photo on the introductory post.  I do have another cat, Archie, who is Tara’s son, who was obsessed with his mum and is just a little bewildered by her absence.  It was not a very nice way to round off 2019.

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But looking forward to 2020.  Here are the titles that I have highlighted that will be out in the coming months which hopefully I will get to read during the year:

Swimming In The Dark – Tomasz Jedrowski (Bloomsbury) Due 6th Feb. Written in English by a Polish author described as a major literary debut about the forbidden love between two young men on opposite sides of the political divide receiving much praise from Edmund White and Sebastian Barry.

Here We Are – Graham Swift (Scribner) Due 27th Feb. I’ve not read Booker winner Graham Swift before but I will be very tempted by his latest set in 1959 on Brighton Pier.  I like the idea of books set on piers, I was impressed by “Murmuration” by Robert Lock (2018) which featured a seaside pier in different points of time.  Here we are promised “a masterly piece of literary magicianship which pulls back the curtain on the human condition.”

Actress – Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape) Due 20th Feb- Another Booker Prize winner.  I’ve read and really enjoyed  this Irish author’s “The Green Road” (2015).  This, her 10th novel focuses on a mother/daughter relationship where the mother is a famous actress.  The blurb has completely won me over “Brilliantly capturing the glamour of post-war American and the shabbiness of 1970s Dublin, Actress is an intensely moving, disturbing novel about mothers and daughters and the men in the lives.  A scintillating examination of the corrosive nature of celebrity“.  This sounds just the sort of book that makes it into my end of year Top 10.

Animals Of Lockwood Manor – Jane Healey (Mantle) Due 5th March.  Another debut which sounds quirky enough to get me interested.  A World War 2 setting in a country house where a museum’s collection of mammals has to be stored for safe-keeping.  This is described as a “gripping and atmospheric tale of family madness, long-buried secrets and hidden desires.”

The Recovery Of Rose Gold – Stephanie Wrobel – (Michael Joseph) Due 5th March.  This is a debut with a big buzz around it from a US born author now living in the UK.  At its centre is Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy.  Some are predicting it will be the year’s biggest thriller and I’m determined to read it early on.

Box Hill – Adam Mars-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions) Due 18th March.  I’m surprised I’ve never read Adam Mars-Jones before but I feel that this his first novel in a decade will be a good place to start and at only 160 pages may be a good entry point.  In “Box Hill” we are promised “a sizzling, sometimes shocking, and strangely tragic love story between two men, set in the gay biker community of the late 1970s. ”

Thousand Moons – Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber) Due 19th March.  The sequel to Barry’s very impressive “Days Without End” (2006) which won both the Costa Novel and Book Of The Year award.  This puts the focus on the previous novel’s main protagonists’ adopted daughter set in nineteenth century Tennessee.  It is described as “a powerful, moving study of one woman’s journey, of her determination to write her own future, and of the enduring human capacity for love.”

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder) Due 31st March.  I still only have read one Maggie O’Farrell novel and that was “The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox” (2006)which was a five star read included in my 100 Essential Books thread and which ended up in my 2016 end of year Top 10.  Here she delves back to the late sixteenth century with this novel based on Shakespeare’s son.

Everyday Magic – Jess Kidd (Canongate) Due in June.  An author who is getting better with every publication and who found herself in my Top 10 this year for “Things In Jars” has decided to write her first children’s book in which according to The Guardian a young orphan discovers his aunts are witches.  Expect mystery, magic and perhaps the odd touch of the supernatural if her adult novels are anything to go by

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury) Due in September.  Struck big with the stunning “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” but that was sixteen years ago.  I may even have time for a re-read of that modern classic before embarking on what is described as “a new otherworldly fantasy”.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2019 – The Top 5

Right, let’s crack on with this.  Here is the rest of the countdown.

5. The Meaning Of Night – Michael Cox (2006) (Read and reviewed in July)

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Amazingly the only book I re-read this year, just a couple of years ago I had read enough re-reads to give them their own separate Top 10 but I cannot ignore this book and so my Book Of The Year from 2007 makes it into the Top 5 for this year.  It is a strange one, I read it and totally love it but after I finished it the events in the novel seem to rapidly fade from my memory and I struggle to remember what it was about even when I can remember books I enjoyed much less in greater detail.  This has happened twice which makes me think there is some kind of ethereal quality to this which causes it to dissipate once finished.  It’s a great Victorian revenge novel and I said of it “On completion the feeling was of total satisfaction for a high quality reading experience. This novel does seem to have faded from public consciousness but I can’t help feeling that a sensitive tv or film adaptation could bring it back to the top of bestsellers lists.” Maybe that will happen in 2020.

4. Shadowplay – Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker 2019) (Read in December not yet reviewed)

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I highlighted this in my earlier 2019- What I Should Have Read post and managed to squeeze it in before the end of the year.  A full review of this will follow but this is a splendid historical novel, shortlisted for Best Novel at the Costas, with Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula the main character and here part of a long-lasting love triangle with actress Ellen Terry and actor and theatre impresario Sir Henry Irving.

3. Sanditon – Jane Austen and Another Lady (Corgi 1975) (Read and reviewed in December)

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I can’t say I’ve ever been tempted to read a novel which has been finished by someone else after the original author had died before completion, particularly one that was completed 150 years later.  This was all changed by the ITV adaptation which was one of this year’s television highlights as far as I was concerned and a recommendation from my friend and colleague Louise who felt I should read how it should have ended (well how “another lady” wanted it to end anyway).  I always thought the joins between the two authors would be obvious but I thought this was done seamlessly and ended up enjoying this more than when I re-read “Pride And Prejudice” a couple of years back.

2. Little – Edward Carey (Gallic 2018) (Read and Reviewed in June)

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Another splendid historical novel with that added bit of quirkiness which I so often find appealing.  This is a fictionalised account of the early life of Madame Tussaud.  Punctuated throughout with little pencil drawings which adds much to the experience.  I said of this “Through a first-person narrative Carey has created an enthralling character I will probably remember forever.  Written with gusto and an eccentric energy “Little” will not be beaten down however bad circumstances get.  There’s a naivety and optimism which fuels this novel- she is certainly no “Little Nell” yet the skill of storytelling here will suggest comparisons to Charles Dickens.”

1.Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (Hutchinson 2018) (Read and reviewed in April)

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This sublime account of the later years of Truman Capote and an act of literary betrayal towards his friends was always going to be in with a strong shot of being at the summit this year.  Debut author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s position was further cemented when I went to see her talk about this book at this year’s Isle Of Wight Literary Festival following its publication in paperback.  I said of it “I was hooked from the moment I saw printed on the back cover; “They told him everything.  He told everybody else.”  It is a novel fuelled by gossip which makes it sound tacky but it is so beautifully written and every word seems considered and measured.”  I can’t remember ever falling for a book written in the third person (by a chorus of the betrayed women) but here it worked just brilliantly.

So Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott joins my Hall Of Fame for producing the book which has given me the most pleasure this year.  She becomes the first American author to do since 2014.   Here is my list of my favourite books going back to 2008.

2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2020!

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2019- Part One (10-6)

Even though we’re not quite at the end of the year I now know that I am unlikely to finish the book I am currently reading so it’s time to look back again to the 10 books which made the most impression on me during the year.  These are not necessarily published this year (just 3 out of the 10 were) if I read it this year then it was up for inclusion.  The total number of books I finished in 2019 is 56, which is down on previous years where I usually hit the mid to late 60’s mark, apart from the golden year of 2016 when I read 80.  I’m not sure why this figure is down so this year probably due to a change of commitments.  Out of those 56 nine of them I classed as five star reads which nicely fills up most of my Top 10 places, the spread of the other star ratings is 28 at 4*,15 3* and 4 at 2* (didn’t have any two star reads last year where the spread was (12/32/22)- I must have been feeling a bit stingier this year.

It does seem like quite a bit of my reading has been books which I missed out in 2018, obviously a bit of a vintage year as 50% of the titles were published then.  Gender wise the men have pushed ahead with a 60-40 split putting an end to last year’s perfect balance.  Nobody makes the list more than once this year and there are two authors who are no strangers to my end of year Top 10.  It does seem, however, and perhaps it is no surprise given the state of the world currently, that for much of 2018 I have been rooted in the past as all of the fiction choices are set in earlier times with a significant chunk (4) being set in the Victorian era or earlier.  Right, let’s get on with the list.  The full reviews for each title can be found be clicking on the link.

10. The Library Book -Susan Orlean (Atlantic 2019)  (Read and reviewed in August)

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My non-fiction pick of the year is this extremely memorable book which works both as a love letter towards libraries and their continued importance and as a true crime work where the author explores the fire which destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986.  It wasn’t just because I work in libraries that I found this work so inspirational although it was one of the reasons behind me applying for (and getting) a promotion.  Susan Orlean reinforces everything I believe about libraries although the systems in place in the UK seem decidedly impoverished compared to the USA.  I said “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.”

9.Things In Jars – Jess Kidd (Canongate 2019) (Read and reviewed in March)

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I’m up to date with Jess Kidd having read all three of her novels and this marks her first time in my end of year Top 10 with her best book yet.  This built on the supernatural elements which have been present in all her works yet with its nineteenth century setting it seemed to work better here than it has in the past.  I said of this “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.”

8. Bridge Of Clay – Markus Zusak (Doubleday 2018) (Read and reviewed in July)

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We had to wait years for it to arrive but Australian author Zusak manages to get his follow up publication to my 2008 Book of The Year, “The Book Thief” into my Top 10.  I would have thought that a publication from an author of a modern classic after a lengthy wait would have been a major literary event but it seemed to creep under the radar somewhat when it arrived in hardback last year and this year in paperback.  That made me initially a little anxious but I needn’t have been.  I said “Its chatty, scattered narrative actually masks the emotional depth of the content.  It was only looking back as I neared the end that I realised how much I knew about the characters’ lives and how involved I had become, a testament to a great novel.” I read a library copy and then had to go out and buy it to have it readily on hand for a re-read.

7.The House Of Impossible Beauties – Joseph Cassara (Oneworld 2018) (Read in July, reviewed in August)

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2018 was the year when the New York Drag Balls of the late 70’s and 80’s went mainstream in the UK thanks to TV series such as “Pose” and “Rupaul’s Drag Race” and at least a couple of novels of which this was the best.  In my review I compared it to what else was out there (as well as the documentary “Paris Is Burning”, available on Netflix, from where Cassara’s characterisations are developed) and concluded “Perhaps more than “Pose” it shows the struggles in terms of coping with discrimination, poverty, prostitution and mortality but like the television series it is all done with great humanity and compassion and more than a fair share of glitter.”

6. Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale  (Tinder 2018) (Read in February, reviewed in March)

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This marks British author Patrick Gale’s fourth appearance in my end of year Top 10’s out of the nine books of his I have read which must mean that he has settled into being one of my most favourite authors.  Previous end of year positions have been 4th for “Facts Of Life” (1995) in 1996, 9th for “Rough Music” (2000) in 2001 and 6th for “A Perfectly Good Man” (2012) in 2013.  His latest matches this position and I can’t help but note that the books of his I really like I miss out on at the time and catch up with in the following year.  This has the most modern setting of any of the books on this year’s list with one narrative strand actually being set in the present (gulp!) with the main character contemplating his past whilst receiving treatment for cancer, but it was the past that Gale really drew me into with his story of Eustace, the young gifted cellist.  I said “I fell in love with the boy growing up in his parents’ old people’s home in Weston-Super-Mare in the 1970s with ambitions to be a musical great if only his mother and father and society will let him realise his dreams. It is haunting, nostalgic and sensitive and has all the qualities to make it an essential read.”

Find out the Top 5 in my next post.

2019 – What I Should Have Read

Here’s something that I did last year which I feel is worth revisiting.  My post 2018 – What I Should Have Read  highlighted ten publications that I felt I had missed out on by not reading.  Looking back on these now I see I actually read 5 out of those 10 this year which was a pretty good success rate.  Here are this year’s 10 books which I just haven’t got round to but feel as if I should and which I will hopefully put right in the first few months of 2020.

We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff – Louise Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe)

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Completely passed  me by until I saw it placed at number 39 in the Telegraph’s Top 50 Books Of The Year.  I was fascinated by the description of it as ” a garrulous, magical-realist and Brexit-tinged comedy about a pair of trans migrants working at a “no star” hotel on the Isle Of Wight”.  Being an ex-hotel owner on the Isle Of Wight myself this sounded a perfect match (although we had plenty of stars, thank you) so found myself clicking the Buy It Now button on Amazon to get this book from a small publishing company I had also not heard of until now.

Shadow Play – Joseph O’Connor   (Harvill Secker)

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I haven’t read any Joseph O’Connor to date although I’m a little surprised that I have never got round to his most celebrated “Star Of The Sea” but this book has also got a good smattering of critical acclaim this year and has been shortlisted for Best Novel at The Costa Book Awards where the judges have praised it as exploring “the danger and complexity of unconventional love, the restlessness of creativity, and the experiences that led to the creation of the most iconic supernatural tale of all time.”  That tale is “Dracula” as this novel features Bram Stoker alongside actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.  This kind of rich, historical novel is right up my street and often features on my end of Best of Year lists.  I have a copy out from the library so should get round to finding out if this will be the case.

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (Harvill Secker)

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I’ve been reading about this book for some time now, in pieces about translations it gets a mention because it is a big Japanese seller that is making its English language debut this year after 25 years.  Translated by Stephen Snyder, The Guardian describes it as “the story of an island where both objects and memories are “disappeared” by shadowy totalitarian forces” and that “this timeless fable of control and loss feels more timely than ever.”  Not the sort of thing I read often (I have never read a translated Japanese novel) I was  fascinated enough to also pick up a library copy the other day and am waiting to begin this.

The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (Fleet)

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Another book I hadn’t heard of until my workmate Louise mentioned that she had bought it for herself for Christmas hoping it was going to be this year’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies“.  You don’t need to be that regular a visitor to this site to know how much I love that book and after about five seconds perusing her copy I ordered this for myself.  It has made more of a splash so far in the US where it won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Outstanding Adult Fiction beating strong finalists Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black” (how many times am I going to mention this title before reading it!) and Tommy Orange’s “There There”, it has been a New York Times Top 10 Bestseller and scooped The Stonewall Prize as well as being shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and a US National Book Award.  Although it first appeared in 2018 the paperback came out this summer and it has been picking up 2019 awards so thought I should include this tale set in Chicago and Paris at the time of the first years of the AIDS crisis.  I know I’m going to need tissues for this one.  Can’t tell you more about it as my copy is in my Amazon parcel which I’m not opening until Christmas Day.

Leading Men – Christopher Castellani (W&N)

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Also in that Amazon parcel is this book described by Celeste Ng as “a timeless and heart-breaking love story”, a fictional account of the relationship between Tennesee Williams and his long term partner Frank Merlo, this sounds like it can be 2019’s “Swan Song”.  Reviewers are talking about Castellani’s recreation of the glamour of 1950’s Italy, which sounds ideal for discovering  during the post-New Year slump when short days and short-lived diets feel as if they will go on forever!

Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan 

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I’ve also got a copy of this already sat on my shelves and feel like I should have read it.  I can absolutely love Ian McEwan “Atonement“, his early short story collections, and “Enduring Love” have all embedded themselves in my psyche.  I can also just really enjoy him as in “Innocent” “Saturday” and his most recent pre 2019 publication, the clever “Nutshell“.  He can also leave me unimpressed as in his Booker Prize winning “Amsterdam”.  He put out two books this year and this seems to be the one worth bothering with, but with its themes of Artificial Intelligence I’m not absolutely convinced I am going to love it- but I do hope to get round to finding out.

The Secret Commonwealth – Philip Pullman (David Fickling Books)

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This year I caught up with Lyra’s adventures in “La Belle Sauvage” just as this second in the “Book Of Dust” sequence was published.  I reserved a copy from the library but the reservation list grew too long and I doubted whether I’d be able to finish it within three weeks so I cancelled my reservation until the demand dropped.  But with the TV adaptation of “His Dark Materials” (which I started off loving, then wasn’t sure but am enjoying again now) doing so well I’m sure I’m going to have to wait some time for the demand to drop.  The Guardian in their round up of the year describes it as a “huge, challenging novel (which) asks the reader more questions than it answers”.  Am I ready for this yet?

Me- Elton John (Macmillan)

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I’m not a massive Elton fan but he has been around so long that you just can’t ignore him.  I have seen him perform live (with George Michael) although I think his glory days as a performer are probably now behind him.  This year I watched “Rocketman” which I felt was okay as a film, although did very much admire Taron Egerton’s portrayal (more so than the Oscar winning Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody”) but Elton knows everything about everybody so this autobiography seems like a must.  The Guardian felt that it might very well be the celebrity memoir of the decade and the Telegraph had it at number 8 in their books of the year describing it as “gossipy”, “self-aware” and “as eye-popping as his wardrobe”.  I enjoyed his interview with Graham Norton on TV recently and want to read his revelations before they become common knowledge.

Chinglish – Sue Cheung (Andersen)

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I seem to make this reading resolution every year.  I must read more Young Adult Fiction.  I have missed out this year on this 1980’s Coventry set account of a teen living over her parent’s Chinese takeaway restaurant.  The Guardian feels that “it will resonate with any teenage reader who feels alien or left out.”  Apparently funny and moving in equal measures this is a title I am determined to seek out.

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton)

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One of the big hitters of the year which made headlines when jointly awarded the Booker Prize.  In the furore of the judges not being able to make up their minds between this and Margaret Attwood’s best-selling follow-up to “The Handmaid’s Tale” “The Testaments” it was this title which seemed to be winning the hearts of critics.  Described as “innovative”, “fresh”, “life-affirming”, brimming with “heart and humour”, it’s the title on what felt like an underwhelming shortlist that I would have been most likely to have wanted to read.  I’m a bit put off by it being a verse poem which explains why I’ve not placed it higher on this list but I do very often read the Booker winning titles so feel I should at least give it a go.

Which books did you not get round to reading this year?

 

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.

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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.

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