The Illustrated Child – Polly Crosby (HQ 2020)

Do you remember the Kit Williams book “Masquerade”?  Published in 1979 it was a picture book which sparked a national treasure hunt when it became known that the author had created and buried a gold bejewelled hare and the clues to its whereabouts were hidden in the book.  It became a worldwide bestseller, caused a boom in the sale of metal detectors and led to sudden mounds appearing in the countryside as treasure hunters began digging up public and private property in the belief they had located the hare. The whole thing ended in confusion and a hint of scandal which was documented by ex-University Challenge host Bamber Gascoine (“The Quest For The Golden Hare”).  Both Kit Williams and his most famous work is the undoubted inspiration for Polly Crosby’s debut novel.

Romilly and her father live in a large ramshackle country house with a moat which will bring comparisons to Dodie Smith’s outstanding “I Capture The Castle” (1949).  I wasn’t too disappointed by this as I love that novel and Smith’s main character Cassandra is one of my favourites in fiction so I settled in for a comforting read.  Romilly’s father, an illustrator and craftsman begins a series of best-selling picture books with a promise of treasure featuring Romilly and her kitten, Monty, both of whom become fictional celebrities which attracts groups of treasure seekers to their property.  I felt at this point I knew what type of read this would be but this is a novel of distinctly shifting tones becoming increasingly bleak and at times horrific.  Although I love unpredictability in my fiction it did feel as if the author was a little unclear as to what sort of book she was writing and I wonder if this would alienate readers.  There were times when I really liked it and times when I didn’t.  If you like the father/daughter relationship aspects and the treasure hunt you will find the turn into darker territory disturbing.  If the more bleak supernatural elements appeal you might find the first half overly twee.  There’s definite mixed feelings from me on this occasion.

The Illustrated Child is published in hardback on 29th October 2020 by HQ.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Shapeless Unease – Samantha Harvey (2020) – A Real Life Review

Novelist Samantha Harvey endured a year of insomnia and this is her account of that time.  As well as the physical act of not sleeping, the dilemma of whether to stay in bed becoming increasingly anxious or getting up to wander frustratedly or do jigsaws is her inevitable examination of why she had forgotten how to sleep.

I had to time this book carefully into my reading schedule.  I was aware of it during the national lockdown but felt that by reading it then Harvey’s insomnia might be contagious at a time when the balance between sleep and anxious tossing and turning was precarious.  In my head it just seemed to follow nicely after the thriller I have just read “Before I Go To Sleep” where the lead character’s restful nights wipes her memory clean.  There’s a superstitious literary balance going on here.

Samantha Harvey’s lack of sleep causes her to address guilt, loss, death and her past.  She also inserts parts of an unresolved short story.  At 176 pages it can be read in a couple of hours (I made sure they were daylight hours).  Her writing is enthralling and makes me want to seek out her four novels.  After finishing it I felt less convinced as to her motive behind the book than when I started it, it flows in a nebulous way like the dreams she was largely missing out on. I like the story of a man who robs a cash machine which creeps in from time to time but am not sure what it is doing here.  It is the quality of the writing I will remember this book for rather than the work as a whole.  There’s a story from her past regarding a dog which would keep me awake at night and I did enjoy her writing in her accounts of doctors’ appointments where on one occasion, a plea for a blood test led to a rebuke of “This is not a shop”.  I could appreciate her reaction to those people who tried to make helpful suggestions (sleep hygiene?) and her search for answers.  Ultimately, she concludes “This is the cure for insomnia – no things are fixed.  Everything passes, this too”. This seems more potent than prescription remedies and therapy but, boy, did she have to struggle to get to this viewpoint.

The Shapeless Unease was published by Jonathan Cape in 2020.

The Water Dancer – Ta-Nehesi Coates (Hamish Hamilton 2020)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has built a strong reputation for his non-fiction work, particularly his award-winning “Between The World And Me” from 2015 which was written as a letter to his son encompassing feelings regarding being a black man in the United States, a twenty-first century slant on James Baldwin’s important “The Fire Next Time” (1963). This is his debut novel, a historical work, set in Virginia in the nineteenth century.

Hiram Walker is a slave.  Acknowledged by his master as his son he is spared work in the tobacco fields and used as a servant for his white half-brother Maynard.  Whilst returning the no-good heir from the racetrack Hiram has a vision which leads to a catastrophic accident which puts his future in doubt.

Events lead him to become linked to the Underground Railroad, a group of agents who worked to free slaves and bring them north.  He meets and is inspired by Harriet Tubman, the real-life woman who rescued around 70 slaves on 13 dangerous missions.  Coates here employs a little magic to explain Tubman’s success, magic which Hiram himself discovers he has the potential to utilise, the ability to jaunt through space.

I wasn’t sure about this – feeling it undermined the true life heroine’s contribution but looking at the life of Harriet Tubman afterwards she did seem to experience visions probably caused by an overseer throwing a heavy weight at her head when a child so Coates is using an imaginative next step in using these visions to assist her with her rescues. Also, despite any misgivings the section where Hiram accompanies her on a mission was one of my favourite parts of the novel.  What also is done very well is emphasising the importance of story and their history for the black characters (both aspects often present in the very best Black American literature) and also conveying the sense of loss in their lives here at a time when the good times are drawing to a close for the white plantation owners meaning the slaves are no longer the asset for them they once were, which brings its own particular set of problems.

Comparisons do have to be made, however, to the multi-award winning 2016 best-selling novel by Colson Whitehead “The Underground Railroad” which similarly uses imagination to provide a creative slant on this rescue network.  That is one of my favourite novels in recent years and whereas I was very impressed by Coates’ debut the Whitehead novel has the edge.

The Water Dancer was published in hardback in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in February 2020.  The Penguin paperback is due on 19th November. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Real Life – Brandon Taylor (2020) – A Booker Shortlist Novel

Arguably the most significant sentence in this American author’s Booker Prize shortlisted debut is:

“Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty.”

This does seem to be the driving force behind this novel.  Wallace is a black gay student who has achieved against the odds stacked against him and is in the fourth year of a biochemistry degree at a Midwestern University.  He has only one friend within the lab where he works all day with microscopic worms, the rest either question his place on the course or set out to sabotage him.

I’m not really sure what work is going on in the lab or why.  Taylor is unafraid of technical detail and the scientific writing is actually very involving but the main focus of the novel is set over a weekend where Wallace questions his own future and has some leisure time to spend with a set of friends who mostly study on similar courses.

Wallace’s father had died some weeks before, a fact which he has neglected to tell anyone and over the course of this weekend his revelation leads him to grow intimate with a straight white boy in a relationship which seems toxic from the off.  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.  It is superbly written and I was involved throughout but the knife edge these individuals live on where spite and aggression is never too far away occasionally felt tiresome and it was this which stopped me giving the book 5 stars.  I know the author was probably intending to show how these kinds of micro-aggressions can build up and overwhelm but I think a little more lightness and humour would have been appreciated and made this impressive debut superb.  If the college days are the best of their lives I would be fascinated to see how the characters were coping fifteen years on.  The other two Booker longlisted novels I have read this year (also debuts) “Who They Was” and “How Much Of These Hills Is Gold” have not made it onto the shortlist so the author is to be congratulated on achieving this in a very unpredictable awards year.

Real Life was published in 2020 in the UK by Daunt Books.

Truth Be Told – Kia Abdullah (HQ 2020)

I haven’t read Kia Abdullah’s debut “Take It Back” but I will certainly be on the look-out for it after reading her first-class second novel.  I feel like I have been on a real journey with the author with what is ostensibly a legal thriller- but it is so much more.

I’m not going to say much about the plot other than not one of the twists did I see coming.  Thematically, it is rich.  It’s mainly a tale about consent, but also cultural pressures and entitlement.  We meet 17 year old Kamran, educated at boarding school (which seems alarmingly close to his house I always assume children board some distance from home but here not so)  who one night has too much to drink and changes his life forever and Zara, an ex-lawyer, now working in counselling and support who is coming to terms with an act of violence perpetrated against her.

This was a novel I found difficult to put down.  I was using my finger to cover up the bottom of the page at times as I was reading it, not wanting my eyes to slide down and pick up on events too soon.  I savoured every word and it is well written.  I admittedly had a slight issue with a group of male protesters who do not seem as well thought out as characters and whose presence in part of the narrative caused its only few clunky moments.  I socially distanced myself at work one lunchtime even more than necessary by seeking out a space alone so I could read the court case section of the novel.

I’m not even a huge fan of legal thrillers.  The only one (not including “To Kill A Mockingbird” which is loosely a legal thriller) which has really impressed me is Jodi Picoult’s “Small Great Things” (2016) and this is every bit as thought-provoking and good.

Truth Be Told will be published on September 3rd by HQ Books.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Strange Flowers – Donal Ryan (Doubleday 2020)

When I read Donal Ryan’s debut “The Spinning Heart” in 2013 I was so impressed.  I completed it very early on in the year and it still managed to make the runner up spot in my Books Of The Year (behind Robert Lohr’s 2007 “Secrets Of The Chess Machine”. What an under-rated book that was).  I felt like I was really at the start of something when I was sent Ryan’s debut to review.  My thoughts about it featured alongside an interview with the author in Newbooks (NB) magazine and the novel won the Guardian First Book Award, The Book Of The Year at the Irish Book Awards amongst other accolades and was later voted “Irish Book Of The Decade”.  I made my own claim to the lasting power of this book in 2015 when I put the title forward in the winter edition of NB/Newbooks as my choice for the Best Book Of The 21st Century So Far.

Here’s the strange thing- despite my great love for this title I have not got around to reading anything else by this author who has since published  a short-story collection and three novels (his last “From A Low And Quiet Sea” making the 2018 Costa Novel Shortlist).  I was delighted to be offered a chance to advance review this, his fifth novel, by his publishers to put my previous oversights right.

The thing I have to get over first of all is that it didn’t blow me away like the debut did, so there’s unfortunately already a trickle of disappointment creeping in.  This was added to slightly by the narrative structure chosen, the debut drew the reader in with 21 people telling their tale creating a community with wonderful, economic writing which really brought these characters alive. Here we have a very factual narrative, written like a fable or fairy tale, which makes obviously for good story-telling but holds the reader at arm’s length and delays an emotional attachment with the characters developing.  This is obviously a popular style at the moment as Edmund White has surprisingly utilised something similar in his latest “A Saint From Texas”.

We begin in the early 1970s in Tipperary and the novel focuses on three generations of the Gladney family.  Paddy, a postman who also works on the land of the Jackman family where his cottage is situated and his wife, Kit, are reeling from the disappearance of their daughter Moll.  This can be seen as a novel about returning home and being satisfied with one’s lot as characters seem happiest when they have returned home to live a simpler life in the Tipperary countryside.

For the first half of the novel I was impressed by the quality of the writing but not totally involved but perhaps by two-thirds of the way through the undeniable genius of Donal Ryan had worked its magic and despite writing in a style which was keeping me at a distance I discovered  I really cared for some of these characters (I adored Alexander) and ended up feeling quite misty-eyed by the end.  I’m not sure how the author did this to me.  Once again it is a deceptively simple work which is much richer in characterisation and symbolism than it first appears- perhaps working in that subliminal way in which we as children relate to fantasy and traditional stories which the structure of this ultimately satisfying work echoes.

Strange Flowers was published in hardback by Doubleday on  20th August 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers for selecting me to review an advance copy and to Netgalley for making that available.

Who They Was- Gabriel Krauze (Harper Collins 2020)

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Gabriel Krauze’s debut novel has attracted considerable attention since it was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.  Most of us would probably have not heard of it before the list was announced and even though I have only so far read one other book which has made it onto the list ( C Pam Zhang’s “How Much Of These Fields Is Gold”) I would say this is certainly short-list worthy.

It’s definitely not a comfort read.  It’s being marketed as an autobiographical novel from an author now in his thirties who lived a life of crime from his teenage years, here in this novel, even whilst studying English Lit at University.  Centred around the estates in South Kilburn this is a tale of casual violence, drugs, theft and where wearing an expensive watch is asking for trouble as they get stolen from their original owner and seemingly again and again from the thieves.

To begin with Gabriel, known as Snoopz, fits perfectly into this life and works with those keen to escalate the takings (and the violence).  Following a scholarship at a private school his Polish Dad and especially his mother, with naturally high hopes for her offspring, are dumbfounded but supportive.  Relationships are casual and with men bonded over drug taking and crime plotting and with women just disturbing as any attachment other than physical only seems to occur when they are apart.  University life is important to him but there’s a self-destructive attitude struggling to find prominence over a keen brain.

It’s written in street slang which slows the reader down but gives a vibrant energy to events.  I’ve never read anything quite like this from a British perspective.  The closest I can think of outside of this is Marlon James’s “A Brief History Of Seven Killings” which won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 although I think that book was more multi-layered than this more straightforward narrative.

I’m not going to get round to many more in the Booker list but I would place it above C Pam Zhang’s novel as I feel this is a more striking, relevant work.  I’m not sure what this author would do next but I’m fascinated to find out.

four-star

Who They Was was published as an e-book on 3rd August and will be published on 3rd September 2020 in hardback by Harper Collins.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Memorial Drive – Natasha Trethewey (Harper Collins 2020) –  A Real Life Review

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Subtitled “A Daughter’s Memoir” this is an account which needed to be shared by ex US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winning Natasha Trethewey.  In 1985, when Natasha was nineteen her mother, Gwen Grimmette, was murdered by her ex-husband after ten years of domestic abuse and a period of extremely chilling stalking and threats.

This is Natasha’s attempts to both celebrate her mother and come to terms with her demise.  Towards the end she states: “The whole time I have been working to tell this story, I have done so incrementally, parsing it so that I could bear it; neat, compartmentalized segments that have allowed me to carry on these three decades without falling apart.” This is also the approach she takes in her writing of it, a not totally chronological account which moves from dreams to observations to moments of their lives but at the backbone there is a story of a girl brought up in Mississippi, a mixed race child, loved by her mother’s family with whom she lives amongst with her white Canadian University Professor father gradually drifting away from her.

In the early 1970’s Mum makes a break from the supportive family and moves to Atlanta where she meets the wrong guy.  Part of the account is a physical revisiting thirty years after the event, there’s a fascinating visit to a medium and a chance encounter which leads Trethewey to possessing the case notes.

Throughout the work there is the inevitable build-up to the murder, brought home shockingly for the reader through complete transcriptions of telephone calls.  The police were monitoring the situation aware of the step-father’s threats but acted too slowly to save her mum.

The sense of loss and ongoing pain is evident throughout and any real sense of celebration of her mother’s life is dampened by her eventual fate.  There’s an extraordinary calmness which both distances the reader from the events and drives them on through the text.  It is a hauntingly tragic read but it is ultimately inspiring in the author’s quest to move on some way from this inexplicable crime.

four-star

Memorial Drive was published in July 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

A Saint From Texas – Edmund White (Bloomsbury 2020)

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In my review of Edmund White’s memoir “City Boy” (2009) I wrote “I haven’t yet read anything by him which has really blown me away”.  I did really enjoy that book and also highlighted his 2000 novel “A Married Man” as my favourite of his fiction.  I appreciated that he has made an enormous contribution to gay-themed literature but also wrote “he can come across as a little too academic in his writing and lacking warmth, perhaps investing his novels with a richness of technical skills rather than empathy.”  I did qualify this by saying I had not read everything by him but that was how I was feeling back in 2018 when I read “City Boy”.

That does not mean I was not excited by the prospect of a new novel, his 14th, published in the year he turned 80.  It was a surprise and not what I was expecting from him at all.

Last time out I complained he was too academic and technical and yet the reason I struggled to engage with this novel was because it felt trivial and slight.  There’s just no pleasing some people!  I also had my ongoing issue with empathy and really only one of the characters came alive for me.

This is the tale of identical Texan twin sisters Yvonne and Yvette (called Why-vonne and Why-vette by their family).  Born in 1938 and brought up by their recently rich father (Texan oil wells) and money-grasping stepmother the girls go in very separate directions- Yvonne to a life of prestige in Paris where she marries a Baron and Yvette to a convent in Colombia.  From here we encounter Yvette mainly through the letters to her sister (whose first-person narration we are reading) yet it is the nun whose character seems the most richly drawn to me.  A “miracle” in her youth and her piety promotes her as a potential candidate for a sainthood yet she struggles with denying her physical longings.  There’s no self-denial for Yvonne and she is soon taking a lover capitalising on the unlikelihood of divorce amongst the notable families of France.

My main issue is that Yvonne’s narration feels very much on one level.  Reading on a Kindle at one point I accidentally jumped a considerable distance in the book and it was quite some time before I noticed and returned to my original place.

I had hoped that this was the great Edmund White novel which I have been expecting, especially through reading his non-fiction.  I’m sure he has a truly great novel in him but this is not it.  I’m beginning to think that maybe I have missed it, that this greatness is contained in one of the earlier novels I have not got round to yet.  I do have his 1973 debut “Forgetting Elena” on my shelves- I recently bought a copy after hearing very good things about it.  I will let you know….

threestars

A Saint From Texas is published in the UK on August 4th 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Broken Greek- Pete Paphides (2020) – A Real Life Review

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Music Journalist Pete Paphides has taken me off into a time machine with this memoir of his childhood.  It felt like I was back in the 70’s and early 80’s as he recreates the Acocks Green area of Birmingham so vividly and with excellent recall.  Running alongside his memories (and no doubt enhancing them greatly as there is nothing like music to recreate past times) is what is amounts to a soundtrack of his young life.

Paphides was the second son of Greek-Cypriot parents who had come over to Birmingham and soon found themselves running chip shops.  His father never lost the intense yearning to go back to Cyprus and only listened to music from his homeland which the young Takis found intense and mournful.  (His father shifted a little when Abba and Boney M came along).  His son attempted to make sense of his position in a culture different to his parents but struggled and became an elective mute speaking only to parents, his brothers and the occasional teacher when no other children were around.  His brother introduced him to the telephone Dial-A-Disc service which became a bit of an early obsession with him not quite able to process the magic of hearing The Rubettes’ “Sugar Baby Love” through the phone line.  Lack of self-esteem led him to think his parents didn’t want him and that they would return to Cyprus without him leading him to select Eurovision winners The Brotherhood Of Man as his substitute family.

Eventually Takis starts speaking, calls himself Peter in order to feel more of a part of school life and thus begins his struggle to be accepted by a father too busy with the demands of his business and also by those at school. He used music constantly as his crutch becoming obsessed with Top Of The Pops, chart positions (I can identify with this) and Abba and eventually seeing the gang of outsiders who were Dexy’s Midnight Runners as possible salvation.

I really enjoyed this.  It is enhanced by Paphides’ almost total recall of the era which gets so detailed (I don’t know if this is just memory, heaps of research or a bit of embroidering but it feels totally authentic). A lot of it will resonate to anyone growing up at the time but the author’s cultural and racial background gives it a fascinating slant.  Like all the best memoirs it feels both tragic and funny and oh so honest.  Many works of this era feel like wannabe memoirs, adopting what are now with hindsight seen as highlights of the culture.  You can’t get better than the young Pete’s obsession with pop comedy group The Barron Knights (until he gets to see them live) a section which is so realistic and so touchingly written and says volumes about the times in which we were living.  I have talked to people more about this book whilst reading it than I would usually do which is a good sign of the impression it has made upon me.  Definitely recommended.

four-star

Broken Greek was published in hardback by Quercus in March 2020.