How Much Of These Hills Is Gold – C Pam Zhang (Faber 2020)

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C Pam Zhang’s striking confident debut places us in the nineteenth century American West in the dying days of the Gold Rush. Prospecting turns to tragedy for one family of Chinese heritage. The novel opens grimly with the father’s corpse and two young siblings Lucy and Sam taking to desperate measures to obtain two silver dollars to close their father’s eyes.

Uprooting themselves once again the children are forced to grow up during their search for a new settlement with the prospect of gold as their salvation. They bring with them their father’s dead body looking for a place to bury him. One section switches from third person narration to allowing the dead father to tell his story which does answer the questions the readers will have about the characters and their predicament.

Main character Lucy is hard to get a grip on. I wasn’t always sure of her motives. I was hoping for something from her viewpoint but this never happened. Her motivation seems to be based on the notion “family is family”. Much easier to read is Sam, thirsting for adventure with the same ideas as their father that gold would provide solutions.

Where I liked this novel most of all is when it slipped into backstory, the father’s narration and the family’s life before the events at the start of the novel where their pregnant mother encourages Lucy to get an education from a man besotted by the family’s exoticness. “Beauty is a weapon” Ma informs her daughter but that’s not always easy to use living hand to mouth in the open air of the American West.

As much as I admired the writing I wasn’t always sure here this novel was heading and once again I find present tense narrative distracting.  Lucy’s “education” is completed in a town called Sweetwater where she settles at one point in a section with a distinct change of tone. Sometimes the writing is feverish which gives the work a haunted, nightmarish quality which puts demands on the reader whilst at other times it reminded me both of Sebastian Barry’s recent novels (perhaps brought more clearly into focus as I have so recently read “A Thousand Moons”(2020) and I did find Zhang’s novel stronger) and of the New Zealand set “The Luminaries” (2013) by Eleanor Catton in more ways than its prospecting for gold themes. That book became a Man Booker Prize-winner so I think Zhang is on very strong ground here to turn heads with this literary debut.

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How Much Of These Hills is Gold is published today (April 9th 2020) by Virago in the UK. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Thousand Moons – Sebastian Barry (Faber 2020)

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Irish author Sebastian Barry’s last novel “Days Without End” (2016) won the Costa Book Of The Year and I read it when it made the 2017 Booker longlist. I enjoyed its unlikely coupling of the two main characters and its “adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America” but was a little put off by the present-tense narrative. I was fascinated to hear that Barry was to revisit his characters in what is loosely a sequel to its predecessor. This was one of the titles I focused in on as wanting to read in my start of year Looking Back Looking Forward post.

The main character here is Native American Winona. I had highlighted her and the relationship with Thomas McNulty and John Cole, her adoptive parents, as one of the strengths of “Days Without End” so I was looking forward to her (not present tense) narrative. After the years of wandering and adapting to their environment in the first novel the main characters have settled as farm workers in Tennessee. Their world has very much shrunk and the two men do fade into the background a little here becoming supporting characters and that is disappointing.

Winona’s life consists of risking the antipathy of the local town population because of her heritage in her trips to assist the local lawyer. A young man who works in the dry-goods store, Jas Jonski, takes a shine to Winona and that is where her troubles begin. It’s far less of an adventure tale but the need for survival and the suffering of injustice are once again present and Winona is a positively vibrant and complex character, who like her adoptive parents challenges stereotypes.

As one would expect of an artist of Barry’s calibre it is very well written but for me it just seems to simmer along and never really takes off in the way the last novel did. I missed the epic sweep of that book.

It may be because it is a much quieter novel anyway but given these characters and what we have had from them in the past this quietness was surprising and on this reading just a little disappointing.

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A Thousand Moons was published by Faber and Faber in hardback on 17th March 2020. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

The Four Symbols – Giacometti & Ravenne (Hodder & Stoughton 2020) – A Running Man Review

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The Adventure genre has calmed down somewhat since its mid noughties peak when Dan Brown and a host of similarly slanted authors dominated best-seller lists.  I read quite a few of these at the time but found they became too samey,  I wearied of reading about symbols of great powers but hidden meanings, Nazis, a myriad of locations and often confusing plot lines.

I was, however, tempted by this title I selected from a list of upcoming publications, the first of a trilogy entitled “The Black Sun”.  I thought its French slant (this is a translation)  might just breathe new life into a genre which was in danger of becoming stale.  Eric Giacometti worked as a journalist and was involved in the uncovering of French medical scandals before teaming up with Jacques Ravenne and writing according to the blurb “over 15 books together” (I really don’t know why this is such a vague statement!).  This was originally published as “La Triomphe Des Tenebres” and has been translated by Mauren Bauchet-Lackner.

Have the authors breathed new life into this genre?  Well, here we have Nazis chasing symbolic artefacts which will give them ultimate power in a novel which switches from location to location just as each section starts to get good.  So, the answer to that is sadly no.

A discovery in a Tibetan cave encourages the outbreak of World War II and leads to a belief by some in power that if similar treasures are tracked down the Third Reich will become unstoppable.  In the way of the Nazis is a French mercenary, Tristan, fresh from his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, a British SOE team and French resistance fighters.  The action feels distinctly stop-start to begin with and there are some examples of Nazi sadism that the authors certainly do not shy away from.

The success of books in this genre lies for me in whether the author makes me care about multiple plot strands and shifting location settings and the secret behind getting me to care is often in characterisation.  To begin with I found everybody cardboardy but by the end I was beginning to be drawn in enough by them to make me interested in the next part of the trilogy, but the characters, good and bad did take a while to establish themselves which may cause readers to fall by the wayside.

This was a very flooded market ten years ago so whether a title which isn’t fundamentally different from what we were reading then will resonate much in the UK today is another matter.  I think it being the first part of a trilogy might help as readers may come to feel invested in the authors’ perceptions of the War Years.

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The Four Symbols will be published by Hodder & Stoughton as an e-book on 14th May 2020 and as a paperback on 3rd September.  Many thanks to the publishers and Secret Readers for the advance review copy.

We Begin At The End – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A reviewsrevues.com favourite and former author interviewee is back with his third novel.  Chris Whitaker’s 2016 debut “Tall Oaks” was very strong and critically applauded but I think he got even better with his 5* 2017 offering “All The Wicked Girls“.  With this, his third novel Whitaker proves there’s few better at creating small town America all done with vivid and vibrant characterisation.  Thing is, Chris Whitaker is British.

In Cape Haven the impending release of a prisoner whose crime tore the community apart is causing much anxiety for those directly involved including ailing Police Chief Walker, a troubled mother, Star, and her two children Duchess and Robin.  A solid plot develops as the historic crime overlaps into a present day one but once again what Whitaker does best is characterisation, especially with quirky youngsters.  In “Tall Oaks” we had gangster wannabe Manny, a great comic creation, who really made the debut sparkle, in “Wicked Girls” it was teenage crime-solver Noah and his crew.  Here we have a choice of two with main character Duchess who copes with a miserable life by adopting the guise of an outlaw (I think the author could have made more of this perhaps even referencing it in the book’s title) and maybe even more so the adorably loyal Thomas Noble, a short-sighted black boy with a withered hand whose devotion to the not always appealing Duchess is unquestionable.

I found myself really caring for the characters and enjoying the book most when it focused on these and took a step back from the crime plot.

It feels like a more substantial novel than what has gone before and there is no doubt that Whitaker has matured as a writer.  For sheer reading pleasure I would give “All The Wicked Girls” the edge and I’m still not sure why it wasn’t amongst the big sellers of 2017 but this is still very good and should further enhance his reputation.  He is one of those writers that I am absolutely fascinated to see what he will do next.  Will he continue to recreate the intensity, prejudices and obsessions of small town America or have a go at setting fiction in  his homeland?  Will the crime aspect take more of  a back seat?  I feel that Chris Whitaker could, should he desire, have a good crack at producing The Great American Novel but I would also like to know how his writing would work within a British framework.

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We Begin At The End will be published in hardback by Zaffre on 2nd April 2020.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Recovery Of Rose Gold- Stephanie Wrobel (Michael Joseph 2020)

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Here’s a debut that has had a big buzz around it pre-publication. Stephanie Wrobel is a Chicago born writer now living in the UK who has ditched her advertising agency copywriting work to concentrate on fiction and the feel is that this could very much be one of the biggest thrillers of the year. I was determined to get in before the hype and find out if this buzz is deserving. I’ve already mentioned it in my Looking Back Looking Forward post so I know I’m adding to that hype but now I’ve read it I’m more than delighted to build up a bit of anticipation for readers. It is very good.

Taking as its theme (although I don’t think it’s actually mentioned by name in the text) Munchausen By Proxy, which is a fascinating idea ripe with dramatic potential the novel opens with Patty Watts being released from her prison sentence for child abuse which was sustained over a number of years treating her daughter as if she was seriously ill. On release she (and this is such a good idea for gripping fiction) goes back to live with the daughter, Rose Gold, now in her twenties with a family of her own. I’m saying little more about the plot but it wouldn’t take too much conjecturing to realise the potential. These two damaged women attempt to put together the pieces of their fractured relationship. Is this going to be a second chance for them or will they not be able to escape the traumas of the past?

The author uses an effective structure of two first-person narratives from the main characters with different time settings. Mother Patty focuses on the time from her release and Rose Gold’s narrative is interspersed moving from the time of the mother’s conviction towards Patty’s present day. Given the context of the plot this works sublimely.

It has an under the surface darkness which I love and it builds beautifully. This is certainly a read to look out for.

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The Recovery Of Rose Gold is published in hardback by Michael Joseph on  5th March 2020.  Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.

The Animals Of Lockwood Manor – Jane Healey (Mantle 2020)

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With Sarah Waters absent from fiction since 2014’s “The Paying Guest” here comes the latest author who has incorporated the feel and themes of some of her work into their debut novel. This also reminded me slightly of Sara Collins’ 2019 debut “The Confessions Of Frannie Langton” and that as well as selling well was one of the most critically acclaimed titles of last year scoring the Costa First Novel Award. Jane Healey here has produced a commercial literary novel which has the potential to do well.

Set largely in the early years of World War II museum director Hetty Cartwright is evacuated together with a sizeable collection of stuffed mammals to Lockwood Manor where recently widowed Major Lord Lockwood lives with his daughter Lucy. Hetty has much to prove in the male world of museums and she attempts to do this professionally in this large country house populated by a dwindling staff who view the extra work caused by the displays as a nuisance. Someone begins tampering with the collection but is it human or supernatural? The Major’s wife had been turned mad by the house which had proved to be too alien for her Caribbean upbringing (shades of “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca”) and her surviving daughter fears for her own sanity in the stifling atmosphere which proves conducive to nightmares.

Narrated alternately by Hetty and Lucy there is generally a good feel for the period but I think the author could have ramped up the tension of life in the house but as the novel progresses I feel that this is lost a little with the focus moving to the relationship of the two leading female characters (incidentally, I felt exactly the same about “Frannie Langton.”)

I found it easy to read, polished it off quite quickly and was involved throughout and enjoyed the turns of the plot but it never managed to crank up to the higher gear which would have made this more memorable. For me the standout book I’ve read in recent years of this type is still Laura Carlin’s “The Wicked Cometh” and as diverting as this is I don’t think it came up to that debut’s standard.

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The Animals Of Lockwood Manor is published by Mantle on March 5th 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Knock At The Door – T W Ellis (Sphere 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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British writer Tom Hinshelwood has written 7 novels and 2 short story collections as crime novelist Tom Wood creating the Victor The Assassin series. Here he is writing his first thriller as T W Ellis locating it in an American suburb where the Chief of Police is an overweight demotivated marijuana smoking woman, Rusty, who blows up at her team if they make her coffee incorrectly.

Living in this town is Jem whose husband leaves her one morning for a business trip whilst she is breakfasting on avocado on toast. Jem is a yoga teacher with anxiety issues which are certainly exacerbated when she responds to a knock at her front door and finds two FBI agents on her step. Not only is Jem placing herself in danger when she lets them in but she begins to realise that she does not know her husband as well as she thinks she does.

Set largely within a twenty-four hour period with a couple of flashbacks Jem’s worst day ever plays out proving you can certainly pack a lot into a day if your very existence is threatened. Much is Jem’s first-person narrative as she tries to come to grips with what she is informed is the truth and has to deal with whom she can trust. There’s also a third-person narrative focusing on Rusty and her attempts to make sense of sudden events happening in her sleepy jurisdiction.

It was hard not to find Jem annoying at times and there was really only one character I warmed to, the elderly Trevor, who attempts to live a quiet life and is suspicious of all authority and the minute by minute breakdown of the action perhaps made it too thorough leading to a number of empty conversations but there’s plenty of action and twists which I’m still kicking myself for not spotting.

The style of the novel does make it a quick read and as most people coming to this will know the type of popular thriller it is they will not be disappointed. This is a good choice for a holiday read.

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A Knock At The Door will be published as an e-book in May 2020 and in hardback on July 9th. Many thanks to the publishers and Secret Readers for the advance review copy.

 

Swimming In The Dark – Tomasz Jedrowski (2020)

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The first of the books I highlighted as those I wanted to look out for in 2020 is this debut written in English by a German born author with Polish heritage. It is an impressively written tale of the relationship between two young men set in Poland during the late 70’s/early 80’s at a time of great unrest.

The pair meet at a summer work camp picking beetroots and the development of this blossoming connection is handled very effectively. Behind much of this lies another book, “Giovanni’s Room” by black American author James Baldwin,  a suppressed text which main character and narrator Ludwik glues between the covers of another publication becoming the link which forges he and Janusz closer together. (Incidentally in a recent Guardian interview with Sara Collins of Costa winning “Confessions Of Frannie Langton” fame she praises Baldwin’s work as her choice for most under-rated novel calling it a “perfect love story.” I’ve been thinking for a time that I should re-read this and this book has further convinced me that I should do so.) In the novel Ludwik is researching the author for his doctorate and in fact just a couple of years after this novel was set I was doing the same for my degree dissertation. Ludwik faces the additional difficulties of a system where who you know is important in his quest to get his academic work off the ground.

The relationship is threatened by the atmosphere in Poland and the political differences between the two men. The whole narrative is directed towards Janusz as an explanation behind the actions and feelings Ludwik had at the time which he could not express to him face to face. The difficulties of dealing with same sex attraction at different times and places appears in many novels I have read but I feel that these stories need telling and retelling and this literary work is a very welcome addition to this.

My slight quibble is to do with the number of chance encounters the two men seem to have but maybe when attraction is that strong they can’t avoid the pull of fate that places them in similar locations at the same time. Well written and a strong debut, it had the feel of Andre Aciman’s “Call Me By Your Name” which became an Oscar winning film, especially stylistically in this book’s more languid moments but I think I may have enjoyed Tomasz Jedrowski’s novel slightly more.

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Swimming In The Dark is published by Bloomsbury on February 6th 2020. Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.

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”.