Let’s Do It – Jasper Rees (2020)

Here’s a big book, the authorised biography of Victoria Wood that I’ve only just got round to despite it being one of my books I’d wished I’d read in 2020 (still only up to 70% of this list).  I think I’ve been a little nervous of this really hoping that Rees gets the balance right between the career and public persona and the very different private person and juggling also the humour of her work and zest for life with the inevitable sadness at reading of a life which ended too soon.

I don’t know of the author, but as a journalist, he seemed to have a professional but not close relationship with Victoria Wood in her latter years.  I was heartened by this book appearing on a number of Best Book Of The Year lists and one description of it was that it was “impeccable”.  It certainly is thorough.  This is the definitive biography of Victoria Wood, no one else need bother.  Rees has had access to all the right people and material and herein is included really all we would need to know.

He does indicate at the start that Victoria Wood was collecting material for a memoir, making audio tapes which he had access to.  It would have been fascinating to see how such a private person would have approached such a publication but it is unlikely that it would have been as thorough and probing as this biography.

It was so important to me that Rees got this right as Victoria Wood (1953-2016) is, in my opinion, the greatest British comedian.  I don’t think a single day goes by without at least one of her lines coming into my head.  Whilst reading this book I dug out a DVD of her award-winning “As Seen On TV” and was staggered to see how many of these were almost low-key asides in their original setting rather than fanfared jokes; often said by characters who were not central in the sketch.  This shows how good her writing was on every level.  And, despite this genius, not everything she did hit home, the same viewing showed that some of the early songs at piano have not dated well and yet, for many years, this was her bread and butter and the first flush of fame came when she performed comedy songs on 70’s TV talent show “New Faces” and topical songs on “That’s Life”.

As a shy, private person it must have been difficult for Victoria as fans felt that they had such a personal bond with her.  She tried to keep a brave face on in public but people could find her prickly and taciturn away from the limelight and even when in it.  I lived in Highgate when she did, would often see her around and was one time rendered speechless by her when teaching as she appeared in my classroom on a school visit for prospective parents (both of her children attended the Primary School I worked at).  This was a school which had more than its fair share of notable parents but this was the first time I felt myself floundering in presence of celebrity.  With someone as good as she was at analysing speech I felt my words being analysed as I spoke to the class, when, in reality, even if she was listening, she was just a mum looking around.

Rees gets this private/public person split very well.  She was demanding to work for, rewriting and striving for perfection and insisting on actors being word-perfect and not deviating from her script.  She was driven, as indeed she had to be, at the time there was no woman writing comedy in this way, there was much resistance to female led female written comedy on British television (“As Seen On TV” predated the first French & Saunders TV series by three years).  She was a pioneer, who achieved so many firsts in her career.  Jasper Rees is also strong in celebrating this, it made me want to go back and experience her work again, always a good marker for a biography.  What I don’t think I need to do is read any more about her life as it is all here- the years of struggling after the New Faces appearance, her marriage, the children, divorce and final illness set alongside the comedy magic she produced. This book deserves my five star rating.

Let’s Do It: Authorised Biography Of Victoria Wood was published by Trapeze in hardback in 2020 and paperback in 2021. Since then Jasper Rees has put together a collection of unseen sketches, songs and other memorabilia in his November 2021 publication “Victoria Wood Unseen On TV” which I am adding to my To Be Read list.

The Heron’s Cry – Ann Cleeves (2021)

The first of my “What I Should Have Read In 2021” that I’ve got round to reading.  In that post I mentioned I was kicking myself because I saw a copy on the library shelves and was too slow off the mark but a couple of days later it was back again (must have been borrowed by a quick reader) and this time I didn’t hesitate.

This is only the second Ann Cleeves I’ve read but it is really evident that this is an author who knows exactly what to do with a crime series.  “The Long Call” had a murder which had great personal and professional implications for the protagonists which would have had long lasting repercussions (and this case is referred to a number of times in this book).  Here, things are scaled down a little with some echoes of what had been obstacles before, especially as regards to Detective Matthew Venn and his relationship with his local community arts centre manager husband, Jonathan, and the overlap between the private and professional within a small community.

The rest of Venn’s team, Jen Rafferty and Ross May have their roles beefed up a little but Cleeves’ handling of this ensures there’s not too much given too soon.  Jen, however, does find herself more central than she would like when a party she attend.s and gets somewhat inebriated at, is also one of the last sightings of a man who she thinks was chatting her up and is afterwards found murdered in an art studio.

This complex of art buildings, farm and large house, Westacombe, becomes the focus of an investigation which develops very nicely throughout to a conclusion I certainly hadn’t foressen.  It’s exactly the sort of follow-up I would have both expected and hoped for.  Cleeves handles the characterisation, subject matter and twists in the plot with consummate skill.

“The Long Call” did feel fresher and more rooted in its location and I would give it the edge but I felt that became more entrenched in my mind by reading the book and watching the TV adaptation (good but not exceptional) quite soon after one another.  The quality of this “Two Rivers” series is maintained and there’s loads of potential for more cases.

The Heron’s Cry was published in hardback in the UK by Macmillan in September 2021.  The paperback is scheduled to appear in February 2022.

Love After Love – Ingrid Persaud (2020)

This debut novel arrived last year with much critical acclaim and won the author the Best First Novel at The Costa Book Awards.  Set in Trinidad and New York it features the interspersed narratives of three characters- Betty, a school admin assistant who takes on teacher Mr Chetan as her lodger and her son Solo.  Spanning Solo’s adolescence and young manhood this contemporary novel focuses on the relationships between the three and the themes of love and forgiveness.

All of the characters have secrets, Betty was involved in the demise of her abusive husband; Mr Chetan is hiding his sexuality and Betty’s secret causes Solo to develop self-destructive, disturbing habits.  The tone is conversational from all three narrators with the use of dialect, potentially off-putting for some readers, giving it a real vitality with the layout of these narratives making it easy to read.  Perhaps an author with more experience might have been able to more strongly differentiate between the three voices but I didn’t feel this affected the quality of the writing here. Trinidad-born Ingrid Persaud excellently conveys life in a country I know very little about and is keen to illuminate the positives and negatives of this island life. 

I will admit that it took me a while to really get into this book but then at one point I realised I really cared for the characters and this built as the book drew to its conclusion with some shocking turns of events along the way, which had me reeling because of the emotions I was investing into these characters.  I then knew that the author had really drawn me in.  The sun-drenched cover implies a more idyllic read than it actually was, there are some dark moments to be faced here which I wasn’t expecting.  There is also much humour and beauty.

I felt quite purged by the end of the book and felt I had gone a long way with these characters and that they will remain with me.  That’s an achievement and I’m not surprised that Ingrid Persaud found herself being shortlisted for and winning prestigious awards for this debut.

Love After Love was published by Faber in 2020.

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig (Canongate 2020)

This is one of the biggest selling books of the last year or so and is performing extremely well as a paperback.  It is the 7th adult novel for an author whose reputation continues to grow with each publication and who has been tremendously successful as a children’s author and writer of non-fiction focusing on mental health.

The popularity of his latest is significantly due to it capturing the mood of a nation where the need to personally protect mental health has become essential. We are living in a world of uncertainty, fear and social isolation due to lockdowns and we have probably all had time to re-evaluate our existences.

A central theme here is regret and putting that into perspective within the framework of a parallel universe novel.  The conceit within this work is a place between life and death. For main character Nora, this takes the form of the Midnight Library where there is an opportunity to try on her lives which could have been lived.  It is a fast-paced, quick read which is surprising given its philosophical and quantum physics slant.

I have struggled a little as to how I feel about it as a book.  It is undoubtedly very enjoyable, has an emotional pull and deserves its success.  However, it fell a little short in what I was expecting as it skimmed the surface of so many issues and maybe there’s a slight glibness to its resolution.  I couldn’t help feeling that Nora, plunged into new lives, was helped out tremendously by other characters feeding her information on the life she was living which did jar a little too often.  I think technically it relies too much on exposition which I find surprising.

Ultimately, however, it is a novel with its heart very much in the right place.  My usual criteria for a four star rating is would I want to hold onto a copy to read again and here (hence my struggle) I’m not sure whether I would but I feel this rating is deserved because of its significance in 2021 and because I think the many captivated by it will continue to love this novel and I cannot doubt that it has therapeutic value.  It would be a perfect book for a bibliotherapist to recommend yet it is also, away from its worthiness, a really strong read so I heartily recommend  it despite my own odd personal niggles.

The Midnight Library was published by Canongate in 2020.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (2020)

Another book from my What I Should Have Read In 2020 post (I’ve now managed to get through 60% of these).  Here was one I suspected  that I would really like but I enjoyed it even more than I imagined.  This is American author Brit Bennett’s second novel and after this I would certainly be keen on seeking out her 2016 debut “The Mothers”.

This, however, is the book that has established her breakthrough into the big time, appearing on so many Best Of The Year lists and has been shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for fiction.  The hype has built up which is often a dangerous thing for me and my expectations, but I’ll emphasise this, my expectations were exceeded here.

I came to it knowing roughly what it was about but there was so much more to it . Two light-skinned black twin sisters disappear from their small-town home and head for the excitement of New Orleans.  One, Desiree, eventually pairs up with an abusive, dark skinned man and has Jude, whose blue-black darkness of her skin shocks the residents of her home town, Mallard (where its black residents generally have a much lighter tone) on her return whereas her twin, Stella, ditches Desiree to disappear once again and decides to “pass” and live her life as a white woman.  In a decades spanning time frame we have as our starting point 1968 when Desiree returns to Mallard with her young daughter. 

There are so many discussion points in this novel regarding identity that one might expect it to feel issue-driven but no, plot and characterisation are both very strong and that together with its immersive readability provides an extremely impressive rounded work.  Those plot lines and unpredictable turns do drive the reader forward.  It’s not without a healthy dollop of melodrama and on a few occasions the authors use of cliff-hangers resembles the soap operas that one of the characters makes a name for herself on, but this is also a good thing, making it feel highly commercial, this together with its relevance where its publication alongside the media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement created publicity at a time when lockdown ensured the usual avenues of publicising their work were not open to most authors.  This book deserved the exposure, however, not because it was of the moment but because of the sheer quality of the handling of all areas of the book.

Performance has a major part to play.  Many of the characters are donning a disguise and playing a part, some professionally and some within their lives and even within their closest relationships.  I found the implications and repercussions of this fascinating.  It has the unusual advantages of being both a thought-provoking important novel and a great holiday read and I hope many more people will discover this work over the summer.  My only criticism of a book I found very difficult to put down is that perhaps the ending felt a little flat and less defined than I would have hoped but that may have been because it was the end of the novel and there was no more to read about these characters. 

The Vanishing Half was published in the UK by Dialogue Books in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line- Deepa Anappara (2020)

This debut has been on my radar since pre-publication and it featured on my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” post (this is now the 5th book on this list I’ve since read).  At that time I said I hadn’t actually seen a copy, perhaps it was initially lost amongst the impossible to promote debuts which appeared in the early months of 2020 but this has now become a very visible title (helped by its striking front cover in hardback, less striking in the paperback edition which appeared on 3rd June 2021.)  There is still a good buzz about this book which suggests it should be a strong seller in paperback.

It deserves success.  It’s an impressive book with characters that will linger for a long time and a lightness of touch which belies some very serious issues.  We begin with street children scavenging for survival for a man called Mental in a preface which suggests this may be dark reading but within a few pages we are into a first person narrative from 9 year old Jai, a child living with his child-like concerns of school, friends and TV, poor but happy in the slum-like conditions of his basti with his parents and sister.  When local children start to go missing Jai takes on detective duties with his two friends, the academically successful Pari and Faiz, a Muslim minority within their Hindu environment.

The authorities are not taking the disappearances seriously, they demand bribes for even basic policing and threaten demolition of the basti.  It is up to the children to find out more.  The superstitious Faiz believes it is the work of the supernatural, namely, djinns.  Pari and Jai remain unconvinced but do not recognise the daily dangers they face closer to home.

These three children are the life-blood of this book and it is impossible not to be drawn in by their outward confidence and swagger.  Anaparra worked for years as a journalist amongst such children and seems to have got her portrayals just right.  The fact that there’s a touch of the “cosy crime” novel about this when behind the façade much is horrific actually serves to intensify its power.  This is a strong work.  It will be interesting to see if Anaparra gives us more from these children in future as her reading public might demand or whether this will remain an enthralling stand-alone novel.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line was first published in the UK in hardback in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now published by Vintage.

100 Essential Books – Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2020)

This account of a troubled Glasgow childhood in the 1980s blew away the judges of the 2020 Booker Prize and is certainly one of the greatest debut novels of the twenty-first century.  It has an incredible emotional pull.

Shuggie is devoted to his mother Agnes, who, in 1981, is attempting to hold things together to keep her man, a taxi driver, and to eventually escape from the oppressive atmosphere of her parents’ home in a Sighthill tower block with her three children Catherine, Leek and Shuggie.  Her youngest is regularly referred to by other characters as “a funny wee bastard”, out of step with what is expected from a boy living close to poverty in his environment and totally dedicated to his mother.

When that escape is not quite how Agnes planned she resorts increasingly to alcohol and opportunities diminish for her and the family.   Agnes is a superb creation, equally monstrous and appealing, living an Elizabeth Taylor fantasy in an impoverished, tough world.  It is Shuggie, however, who the reader will root for.  His childhood makes often for grim and heart-breaking reading but humour is never far away and Stuart relates the tribulations of this family and those around them with such verve and energy that the reader is allowed to rise above the misery and see this extraordinary work for what it is- a tremendous achievement. 

It is rich in detail and beautifully observed throughout, the characterisation is so strong and there is often sympathy for the most alarming of occurrences.  It’s gritty and raw but at its heart is an incredible beauty and humanity which even when the reader is dabbing away tears of sadness, frustration or laughter is life-affirming.  There are very strong autobiographical elements in this fiction as the author grew up in Sighthill with an alcoholic mother.  He did manage to escape his environment and became a leading designer for Banana Republic, holds dual British-American citizenship and lives in New York with his art curator husband which is light years away from the world of Shuggie Bain.  It is probably this distance and the ability to look back on these years which gives this book its quality and power.  I haven’t enjoyed a Booker Prize winning novel as much since 2004 when Alan Hollinghurst won with “Line Of Beauty”.  The paperback is to be published in the UK next week and this would be one very good way of celebrating the reopening of bookshops after months of lockdown by purchasing a copy.

Shuggie Bain was published in hardback by Picador in the UK in February 2020. The paperback is available from 15th April 2021.

A Dutiful Boy- Mohsin Zaidi (2020) – A Rainbow Read

With February being LGBT+ History Month in the UK it is still important that stories are being heard.  Coming out tales and the path to self-acceptance still have a fairly essential part to play for each new generation and in recent years we have seen accounts from those under-represented whose lives and backgrounds add a different dimension.  Some very welcome additions to this genre of writing have come from the Muslim community with 2019’s award winning “Unicorn” by Amrou Al-Kadhi and now this account subtitled “A memoir of a gay Muslim’s journey to acceptance” by LGBT+ activist and top criminal barrister Mohsin Zaidi. This is another of the titles that I have now got round to from my What I Should Have Read In 2020 post.

The most striking thing about the author is his tenacity and ability to never give up when the odds are very much stacked against him.  From a devout Shia Islam background with Pakistani parents and growing up in Walthamstow he showed early educational promise. As his family was unable to navigate the private school system he found himself in a secondary school where achievement was denigrated by his peers but somehow ended up as the first person from his school to go to Oxford University, studying Law.  There this East London Pakistani boy floundered amongst the rich and privileged before finding his own tribe – a group of friends who had some idea of where he had come from and who he was but they did not know the secret that he thought he would never be able to reveal, that he was gay.

For Mohsin, having the family find out would bring shame and probable disowning with his family’s disgrace spreading out into their wider community even affecting his younger brothers’ marriage prospects.  In order to function he has to shift away from his family’s values and religious beliefs to find his true self before opening himself back up to the cataclysm he believed was waiting for him should his sexuality be revealed.

It’s an incredibly difficult option, especially given the closeness of the relationship with his family which he at one point describes in a really effective metaphor. “Baby carriers provide the option of placing the infant so that he or she faces the parent or looks out, facing the world.  I imagined that most parents would choose to let their child see the world, whereas mine preferred I see only them.”

We know from the subtitle that there will be some movement towards resolution but it takes years and when it does come in some powerful scenes which signpost the way I found myself misting up.

I do feel that Mohsin Zaidi has fitted so much into his 35 years that there is a tendency at time to skim over the surface.  There are points in the book where I wanted more detail which would help us to really connect with the man/boy behind the situations.  I could tell here was a logical brain used to laying out the facts as befitting his professional status and his is a very welcome voice in British gay writing.

At times he can really hit home with a couple of sentences and I am going to leave the last words to him which makes for sobering reading and explains once again why our stories and LGBT+ History Month are so important.  Commenting on reports that the perpetrator of the 2016 Orlando gay bar shootings which killed 49 had pledged allegiance to ISIS prior to the event and was motivated by his disgust of his own sexual urges Mohsin says: “I had felt this hatred once.  Maybe if we weren’t raised to hate ourselves it would be easier not to hate the world.”

A Dutiful Boy was published in hardback by Square Peg in 2020.

Double Falsehood – Vaughn Entwistle (2020)

Vaughn Entwistle has featured here before.  I have read and enjoyed two of his books and in 2016 he agreed to an interview in my Author Strikes Back thread.  My favourite of his books to date has been his 2015 publication “The Angel Of Highgate” which I described as a “splendid romp, fast-paced and very readable with extremely memorable characters”.  The same description applies here in a very different feeling historical novel.

One of the most impressive aspects of this author’s work is that he writes with such great relish.  I wasn’t sure whether an Elizabethan-set “Shakespearean Thriller” as this novel is described would perhaps be a little dry.  I’d obviously forgotten his writing style because this certainly is a vibrant tale bringing history to life.

William Shakespeare is travelling with the rest of his acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to Marlborough because the London theatres have been closed down amidst cries of sedition.  En-route they discover a corpse and an apparition in the woods and flee to a nearby inn.

Fast-forward to the present day and a first-person narrative from Harvey Braithwaite, recent owner at the now fairly down-at-heel ancient pub “The White Hart” who makes a discovery which could change his fortunes but threaten his life.

The Elizabethan characters have the bulk of the action and it is an explosive mix of murder, treason, religious persecution and a lust for life with underground passages, deception, disguise and sex having their part to play.  Both sections are full of a bawdy energy.  Braithwaite has a lot in common with these lusty Elizabethans- at time it can border on a “Carry On Film” script but here that works very well and Entwistle does not let the humour get in the way of him telling a good yarn and having it present in both parts of the narrative gives the whole thing balance and symmetry which I very much approve of.

The history is incorporated well, the author does not feel the need to bombard us with his research and in many ways it does not matter if he has veered away from historical fact as the energy wins the reader over.  The title itself refers to a play controversially attributed to Shakespeare which also feels appropriate to the action here.  I got a lot about the dangers of not towing the line, on an everyday basis, religion-wise through the characters of the Pursuivants hunting out Jesuits and the fear instilled by the Queen’s odious torturer Topcliffe, probably picking up more history on the way than in many more serious (dare I say drier) works.

Once again Vaughn Entwistle has given me a lot of enjoyment, there’s a good balance of darkness and light in a well-structured pacy tale which all in all leaves me to conclude he may have written his finest novel yet.

Double Falsehood was published by Masque Publishing in August 2020.  For more about the author and his books visit https.//vaughnentwistle.com/

Eurovision! – Chris West (2020)

This is an updated version of Chris West’s 2017 study of the Eurovision Song Contest and how it fits in with the history of modern Europe.  It takes us up to (but doesn’t mention) the 2020 Competition that never was.  I love Eurovision, some of my earliest memories are of being allowed to stay up late to watch it.  A UK entrant marked the first time I went into a record shop alone and purchased a single (my older sister was stood at the door) and that was Lulu’s “Boom Bang A Bang”.  I reviewed the 2016 semi-finals here where I called the eventual winner Ukraine “not particularly listenable”, showing once again it’s the annual festival of the impossible-to-predict and I’ve read a couple of Eurovision themed books before – “The Official History” by John Kennedy O’ Connor and “The Complete Companion” co-written by amongst others Paul Gambaccini and Tim Rice.  This book is where we stash our Eurovision score cards each year, now going back to 1999. 

If it looks like I might be a bit of an obsessive, let me tell you there are many millions more so than me, people who actually travel to the now massive stadiums each year, knowing all the songs before the shows and can recall instantly who came third in 1984 (well, actually I do know that, because just writing it made me want to look it up- the answer is Spain, but maybe some of you already knew that!)

Chris West, however, is offering here a very different slant.  There is the obsessive fan lurking under there but really he’s in it here for the history.  He sees it as a very political institution which reflects Europe’s historical patterns.  (We’re not talking voting for your neighbours here, which he does not think is as prevalent as its detractors claim).  He takes a wider view than the other books I have mentioned, in fact, the UK gets fairly scant attention because here it is not taken seriously enough and does not tap into what’s going on, as a number of the best winners and Chris’ personal favourites have tended to do.

Each year is given a few pages and pretty equal amount of attention is given to the competition itself and events and trends in Europe during those twelve months, with some of the concerns, triumphs and failures being reflected by the entrants or represented by the results.  To take an example, the UK seems to have got it right on only a couple of occasions which led to victory each time, Sandie Shaw, who, (the artist rather than the song) conveyed Swinging London of 1967 and Katrina & The Wave’s anthemic “Love Shine A Light” which caught the mood of Europe and so won impressively. 

To be honest, the songs West tends to focus on are the ones that passed me by.  It seems I’m watching for the spectacle rather than the politics but his view was fascinating backed up by the history (which, admittedly, when we are dealing with the workings of the EU at times I felt a little dry).

In a conclusion the author explains why Europe should perhaps be more like the Eurovision Song Contest which I found myself agreeing with.  This is an interesting read which brought the contest right up to date.  I think I’ll still continue to stuff my score sheets in the more trivial “Companion” but I welcomed this look at the more serious side which attempts to stick true to the reasons why the contest came into being in 1956.

The paperback edition of Eurovision! I read was published in 2020 by Melville House.