Rainbow Milk- Paul Mendez (2020)

I have at last got round to a book I highlighted in my annual “What I Should Have Read” post back at the end of 2020.  Excellent reviews on publication and fulsome praise by Bernardine Evaristo on the teatime Richard & Judy Bookclub during lockdown had me eagerly anticipating and I bought the paperback the day it was published.  That was February 2021 and inexplicably it just stayed on the shelf.  I was beginning to think it might not live up to my long-held expectations and that may have been the reason I was choosing other titles.  The recent series of BBC’s book show “Between The Covers” saw more praise from author and comedian Deborah Frances-White who described it as “so beautiful, so literary” when selecting it as her favourite book pick.  This made me realise I had procrastinated for too long.

I knew the outline for this book, Jesse, a young black male from the Midlands who has grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness is disfellowshipped because of rumours about his sexuality and flees to London and becomes a sex worker.  I knew it would be edgy, explicit, and that debut author Paul Mendez enjoyed  proclamations that an important new British voice had arrived with his writing which was said to have a strong autobiographical element.

This only goes someway.  It actually begins in the 1950s with recent immigrants Norman and Claudette and their two small children discovering the British dream they’d been tempted by wasn’t quite true and with Norman becoming unwell Charlotte was having to hold down two jobs while he looked after the children.  Jesse’s story begins 50 pages in and it is not clear for a considerable time how the two strands connect.

Despite Deborah Frances-White’s TV recommendation I was still surprised by how well rounded and literary this debut is.  It increasingly reminded me of the best work of Booker Prize winning Alan Hollinghurst.  Yes, it is explicit and I hope that the details of how the young Jesse makes his money to survive in London will not deter readers because this is just one element of a story which amazingly given the subject matter is full of hope and life-affirming.

Mendez handles language very well and there is a multi-sensory richness to his work.  He uses two potential pitfalls well.  He’s not afraid of dialect, especially in the early scenes where Jamaica meets Black Country.  At one point a French character is introduced and whilst reading a lengthy explanation from her I wondered if Mendez was just pushing this a little too far but her role in the novel is brief.  The other thing which he does well which is not always a success in fiction is rooting in its time through the use of many music references.  The sound of the Sugababes, turn of the Millennium R&B and hiphop and earlier bands such as Joy Division permeate and enhance this novel. This is a very strong, confident debut and I hope that given the two years since publication that Paul Mendez will soon be ready with something else to further boost his reputation. 

Rainbow Milk was published in 2020 by Dialogue Books   

Shelter In Place – David Leavitt (2020)

David Leavitt is an author I’ve not read for about ten years but who is responsible for one of my all-time favourites “The Lost Language Of Cranes” (1986) which I first read not long after publication (when Leavitt was 25) and last re-read in 2008 to see if it had lost its shine and as a re-read it came 2nd in my Books Of The Year.  His 1998 novel “When England Sleeps” also made it to my end of year Top 5 in 2012.  Two outstanding novels from this American author.  I have also read and fully enjoyed his short story collection as well as books he has edited with Mark Mitchell.  I enjoyed but didn’t love “The Body Of Jonah Boyd” (2004).

“Shelter In Place” is his 10th novel, published seven years after his 9th.  It’s one of those novels where I’m not sure what I think, which certainly suggests it’s not on the same level as my favourites by him.  This is a waspish comedy of manners, peopled by characters it is hard to care about and yet I would still recommend it. 

It is set in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the horrors of this causes New York society doyenne Eva Lindquist to want to relocate to a life of faded grandeur in Venice.  Eva is at the centre of a group of friends, most of whom she doesn’t seem to care very much about and the novel is largely a response to her fears of the Trump administration.

Although American politics is the catalyst for action it is not especially a political novel, the characters’ immediate concerns are dominated by the trivial, will interior designer Jake agree to work on the Venetian apartment?  Will Min rescue her job in magazines by getting a front cover from the apartment? Will husband Bruce allow Eva to buy the apartment?  Will Eva’s Bedlington Terriers do their number ones and twos on their walks with Bruce?

There are a lot of dinner parties, catered by a procession of nondescript (to the rest of them) young gay men and there’s a lot of dialogue with brittle humour.  This makes it a quick fast-moving read even when plot-wise there’s not too much happening.

The author seems fully ensconced in American literary academia as Professor of English at the University of Florida and he obviously feels confident enough in this world as, through the voice of his characters, especially disgruntled book editor, Aaron, he is very sniping of the US literary establishment with Barbara Kingsolver, Paul Auster, Lydia Davis, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Safran Foer amongst those facing his vitriol.  Hopefully, they know Leavitt well enough to take this dismissal of their work.

It is interesting that the cast for this are generally in their fifties or above, which feels unusual for a novel of this sort which tend to be peopled by bright young things.  This gives an added dimension as they are facing change which Trump might bring about at a time when questioning their own positions as less relevant to the modern world.

There’s only one act of kindness in this book and that has to be carried out under the radar with the character responsible constantly questioning their own actions.  Towards the end another character fills in back story in a section which could potentially have been a more impressive novel than the one Leavitt has actually written- I wonder if he is toying with us here, showing us glimpses of what might have been?

My four star criteria is always based on whether I would want to read it again and I think here the answer is yes, despite me not really caring for the characters nor the world they inhabit as they did still very much draw me in.  It was humorous, involving and with a lot more depth than the shallow lives portrayed here which just nudges this book into the four star category.  I can see why some people wouldn’t like it but I can’t see that many would proclaim this Leavitt’s finest work.

Shelter In Place was published in the UK in 2020 by Bloomsbury.

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.