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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/
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.
I’ve always been very impressed by Tom Allen. A couple of years back he performed locally at what we thought was an absolute bargain price compared to many comedians who show up at our local theatre. Having really enjoyed the show my partner posted positive comments on social media whilst sat in the pub afterwards. By the time we got home he’d had a personal message from Tom thanking him for coming and for saying he’d enjoyed it- how nice was that!
Since then Tom has become a more regular face on TV. I particularly enjoy him on “Bake Off’s Extra Slice” and “Bake Off: The Professionals”. Over the Christmas period there was a new Channel 4 show “Tom Allen Goes To Town”, was one of three comedians locked overnight in Hamleys and co-presented a festive Bake Off.
He has written a memoir which is of a much higher quality than many celebrity biographies. The reason for this is partly his natural wit and aptitude at handling his material but also the focus he places on shame, which does influence his stand-up work and has had a significant effect on his life and mental health. This gives his writing a sense of purpose and development.
Like Will Young in his “To Be A Gay Man” also published in 2020 much of this shame is linked to sexuality but it is also about the fear of standing out. His upbringing in Bromley, South East London where nobody seems to want to stand out holds an influence here, but, as so often happens, not wanting to stand out is what causes him to stand out. His well-spoken, clear diction is at odds with his family and his neighbourhood, nobody seems to know where that has come from; as a teenager he dresses as a Victorian dandy and there is a wonderful story as to how he opts to deal with homophobic name-calling by doing something theatrical for a PTA event at school in Year 8 which he hopes will make him seem more cool but chooses an Alan Bennett monologue as famously performed by Julie Walters playing an actress on a porn set which becomes even more inappropriate when he does it in a ballgown.
Tom is so good at recreating these “shameful” moments of his life that you laugh with him, never at him. If you have seen his stand-up routine some of the material will be familiar, for example, his childhood experiences at Bromley Leisure Centre was a highly memorable part of the stand-up show I’ve seen performed but it is great to have it again here and the familiarity had me laughing in anticipation as much as at the events.
This is thoroughly entertaining with serious points to make. Tom is a product of an educational system tainted by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government Section 28 ruling and as a youth grappling with sexuality his sense of being an outsider was reinforced directly because of this. It takes years for Tom to begin to accept himself and this growth is catalogued in a well-written, funny, significant text.
No Shame was published in 2020 in hardback in the UK by Hodder Studio.
This was a title from my “What I Should Have Read in 2020” post. I liked the idea of this but recognised it could go either way. Get it wrong and it could be embarrassing but I was spurred on to read it by positive reviews and Amanda Craig’s on-cover observation “Miss Marple meets The Crown.”
It has been done very well. S J Bennett introduces us to a new sleuth for her series (with second title due November 2021) but it is someone we all feel we know well – The Queen. From Windsor Castle, Elizabeth II indulges in something, we are assured, she has done from time to time during her reign, some amateur detective work.
Here, following a rather lively dine and sleep at the Castle a young Russian pianist is found dead in his room in circumstances nobody wants to share with the Queen. Unfazed by the position the corpse was found in but distressed by what looks like a murder in one of the Royal bedrooms the Queen begins her investigations alongside those of the official channels of the Metropolitan Police and MI5.
The problem with Elizabeth II as a sleuth is that she can’t do very much. She has to rely on others to do the door to door investigating and report back to her. Here it is Rozie, a recently appointed assistant Private Secretary, who is taken into the Queen’s confidence and secretly begins to find things out for her. This does tend to shift the emphasis away mid-way through the book where the main character’s role becomes passive. This might become an issue in later instalments of the series but I forgive it this time around.
It works because it is convincing. S J Bennett obviously knows her Royals and doesn’t overcomplicate things by putting in the whole family. It is merely the Queen with Prince Philip in a supportive role yet it feels like we are being given titbits on their lives and life in the palace whereas it is just a work of fiction. The author could have just made everything up but it feels authentic and imbued with a British charm which I very much enjoyed.
This would not normally be the sort of book I would read that often, if fitting it into a genre it is light-hearted cosy crime but I think that this is something which has an impressive amount of sparkle to it. If the publishers Zaffre could get this book out there it could end up a very big seller, especially if continued lockdowns means we will be looking for something which is both reassuring and different.
The Windsor Knot was published in hardback in 2020 by Zaffre.
It’s time for my final retrospective of the year where, as I have done the last couple of years, I take a look at other bloggers end of year posts to see what books have really caught their imagination. There seems to be an acknowledgement that reading habits changed this year – some went through spates of not reading much at all and had periods of time when they whizzed through books. Some read less new fiction than normal and re-read more, but that might have had something to do with bookshops being closed for part of the year. There seems to be a much wider range of recommended books, with very few cropping up on more than a couple of lists.
One of the things I look for are common ground seeing who has enjoyed the same books as me. The only one I found from my 2020 Top 10 was Kiley Read’s Such A Fun Age which Cathy at 746 Books also highlights it saying “not what I was expecting at all….incredibly smart and funny“. She also has me adding a couple of books to my reading list – one I was aware of anyway and one which was new to me. “Tyll”, by Daniel Keldmann, in a translation by Ross Benjamin, was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize and in its original German was reputedly the second best-selling novel in the world in 2006. It’s taken a long time to get over here and Cathy’s observation that it is a joyous mix of fact and bawdy fiction makes it seem an even more tempting prospect. Her book of the year is “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson, a book which when she finished it, immediately started from the beginning again. It’s a novella, which I have been sniffy about in the past, maybe this could be the book to warm me to this format .
A book which just missed out on my Top 10, although the author has featured on it before is Chris Whitaker’s “We Begin At The End” . It is the choice of best book for Eva at Novel Deelights. I interviewed Chris a couple of times after his debut novel “Tall Oaks” was published and I really loved his second “All The Wicked Girls“. I said that I felt that British author Chris could have a crack at producing the Great American Novel, there are some this year, perhaps Eva included, who would say that he has already done this with his third book. Also on Novel Deelights list is the author who, probably more than other, people suggest I should read and that is Frederick Backman. Here it is his latest “Anxious People” which is being recommended and that did appear in a few other lists. I do have a copy of “Bear Town” on my Kindle, which is the one people say I should start with, so maybe in 2021 I will develop my own admiration for this author. Other titles that I have in common with bloggers include the gripping (but I think the follow-up was better) “Nine Elms” by Robert Bryndza which is on Fictionphile’s separate crime list, “A Thousand Moons” by Sebastian Barry highlighted by Margaret at Books Please (here I preferred his previous novel) and the book which gave a voice to the victims of Jack The Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold’s “The Five” recommended by Lou at Random Book Reviews.
Bookish Beck had the Booker Prize shortlisted “Real Life” by Brandon Taylor at number 5 on her list. This also impressed me and just missed out on my Top 10, Beck makes comparisons thematically and linguistically to Virginia Woolf which I must admit passed me by although I was moving towards that direction looking back at my review as I said “Although this is most definitely a highly detailed contemporary novel this attention to detail and constant internalising gives the characters a closer feel to a Victorian novel- say the works of Henry James or Jane Austen even though it is a modern campus work.” So I was on the right lines, maybe this is a book which would benefit from a re-read at some point. Bookish Beck also had another strong contender for the Top 10, “Memorial Drive” by Natasha Trethewey in her runners up list and her number one choice was another author who has been recommended to me, Evie Wyld. “Bass Rock” is the choice here and its coastal setting and “elegant time-blending structure” haunted the imagination.
As always there were recommendations I had to add to my wants list- Jen at Books On The 7.47 captured my imagination with Cathy Rentzenbrink “Dear Reader” – a book about books which gave her loads of recommendations and was like “having a great chat with a bookish friend”.
Booker Talk’s recommendation of Lemn Sissay’s “My Name Is Why” and A Little Book Problem’s runner-up “Where The Crawdads Sing” have both been on my radar since publication and I just might give another go to Joseph Conrad whose “Nostromo” was Fiction Fan’s Book Of The Year, when I read Conrad I was much younger and couldn’t get on with him at all, maybe age and experience would change that.
A book from my “What I Should Have Read in 2020” list has been confirmed as a book I have so far really missed out with Books On The 7.47 saying it was “almost impossible to stop reading” and in the runners-up list from Bookish Beck, but I must admit it was one that I thought I would see on a lot more end-of-year lists and that is “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett. Perhaps its inevitable arrival in paperback this year and people like me who recently managed to pick up as a Kindle read for 99p will spread the word and it may appear on more (and perhaps my own) best books read in 2021 choices.