A Little Devil in America – Hanif Abdurraqib (2021)

Ohio resident Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and music critic and is both critically acclaimed and a good commercial proposition in his homeland.  This non-fiction work is something we’ve been seeing a fair bit of recently- a mash-up of memoir and analysis.  At times it feels like a collection of essays but I don’t think it is.  Linking the pieces together is the theme of the black performer in America and coming from that is the significance of dance.  Saying it like this, however, is very much simplifying matters.  Abdurraqib, being a poet sees things in terms of metaphor and the notion of dance and performance is used to touch on many aspects of the American experience, and especially the African-American experience.

Also, being a poet Abdurraqib does not see things the way many of us do, he has the ability to zoom in on a detail and expand out from that.  It’s often a moment in a life he finds fascinating and what it tells us about that particular life and the environment in which it was lived and that in itself is intriguing.  In terms of the performers examined there is a very good range and I find much of his writing illuminating.  With Aretha Franklin, he examines her funeral, and what the “sending home” of the ritual says of a life and then moves backwards to the filmed version of her live gospel recording “Amazing Grace”- the biggest selling gospel live album of all time.  With Whitney Houston he focuses on the response of the black audience and how that changed.  There’s a lively section about the antagonism between two demonstrative performers, Joe Tex and James Brown.  The issue of “blackface” is dealt with through William Lane known as Master Juba who Charles Dickens saw perform and how casual racism caused a latter day TV tribute by Ben Vereen to this black minstrel who performed in blackface to become meaningless because his performance was cut inappropriately. 

People who have not fitted in to what was expected of them are examined including Sammy Davis Jnr, Michael Jackson and the always amazing to read about Josephine Baker.

This is where this book is the strongest for me, a white British reader, I can see the common threads and follow the arguments.  When the author veers away from this central theme I miss the tightness of the structure although I am still impressed by the writing.

And the writing is impassioned, creative, energetic and very often enthralling.  Culturally, very few will get all the references initially because of the broad timescale Abdurraqib employs in this work.  If this looseness of structure and digressive style which I have mentioned before (most recently in “Gay Bar” by Jeremy Atherton Lin) is going to become commonplace I’m just going to have to get used to it because to ignore it would mean missing out on impressive, quality writing.

A Little Devil in America was published in the UK by Allen Lane on 30th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Many Different Kinds Of Love – Michael Rosen (2021)

I’ve mentioned here before that Michael Rosen is one of my literary heroes, especially for his work with children.  On a number of occasions I have been lucky enough to experience how this man can totally captivate a school hall full of children who hang on his every word.  His “Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here” collection is one of my favourite children’s books ever.  And last year we almost lost him, hospitalised with Covid just around the time the first lockdown started, his illness made everything seem more grim and even more scary.

After 13 days in bed with what was diagnosed as just a viral illness the writer was hospitalised when a GP friend witnessed his blood oxygen reading of 58, the lowest she had ever seen on a conscious person. Following time in intensive care he was put in an induced coma on a ventilator remaining in the ICU ward for 46 days before beginning rehabilitation and having to relearn basic functions the disease had stripped from him like standing up and walking.

This collection is subtitled “A Story Of Life, Death & The NHS”.  In a sequence of prose poems Rosen catalogues his illness and recovery.  Alongside this is the extraordinary response from the staff who cared for him who maintained a diary throughout to boost his recovery.  These people were exhausted, often redeployed from their usual job and no doubt stressed beyond belief but they made the time to communicate with this comatose man in this way and these diary entries form an extremely moving section of the book.  Above the bed they placed a copy of his “These Are The Hands” poem produced for the 60th anniversary of the NHS.

I really always enjoy Michael Rosen’s poetic style, direct, closely observed and dealing here with painful honesty the effects this cruel virus has had on him.  When we are moaning about lockdown restrictions and posing conspiracy theories it’s important to feel the voice of those affected and Michael Rosen’s experience speaks for the thousands who have been similarly affected and for those thousands we have lost.

He always has the ability to find humour in the ridiculous even in the darkest moments.

“They’ve been worried

about my low blood pressure

but they’ve brought me the Daily Mail

so it’ll be fine in a moment.”

I read this on the anniversary of the first lockdown and there was no better way to get me to reflect on the year’s events and how it has hit this very special person.  This is a magnificent work which has been beautifully put together by the author and Penguin Books.  It will prove to be a lasting testament to the talent and tenacity of this man and of a reminder of the strange times we have been living in.

Many Different Types Of Love was published by Ebury Press, a division of Penguin Random House 18th March 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Hot Stew- Fiona Mozley (John Murray 2021)

Fiona Mozley’s debut “Elmet” was my pick from the shortlist for the 2017 Booker Prize which I described as a “traditional, poetic, literary novel which packs a good punch”.  I found it haunting with a sense of timelessness about it all and that “plot and characterisation gives it a commercial pull”.  It lost out to George Sanders’ “Lincoln In The Bardo” which in my opinion fell short of Mozley’s achievement.

Here comes her second novel and it is very different from the first showing an author with real versatility.  The rural lyricism is replaced with an episodic, very urban tale.  I was impressed enough by this prospect to make this book one of my potential highlights of 2021 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  First things first, I did very much enjoy it.  It’s written in the present tense which is something I don’t always warm to but here it is very readable.  It’s been picking up very good reviews but I don’t think there’s anything within it which will remain with me in the way “Elmet” did.  I liked the feel of a harsher world in the debut which gave it, I felt, a 1970’s air, here, although the setting is also contemporary it has an 80’s feel as redevelopers threaten the traditional ways of life in Soho.  The echoes I felt here stirring in my subconscious was of Nell Dunn’s 1981 play “Steaming” where a group of women stand up against eviction.

Fiona Mozley introduces us to a range of characters, perhaps the central is Agatha, aiming to redevelop the investments of a father she never knew.  Of all of the characters she feels a little cartoony.  Pitched against the pretensions of big business is the oldest profession in town represented by sex workers Precious and Tabitha who lead the resistance against eviction.  A group of homeless people residing in a cellar under the brothel and regulars of a local pub add to this hot stew of characters.  Not all characters contribute much to the central plot and so exist as vignettes of their lives in and around Central London.  It’s all likeable and in a way I can appreciate those that are seeing this as modern day Dickens but it all feels a little unresolved which Dickens would not be.  I am certainly applauding an author prepared to go off in a very different direction for a second novel and her publishers who have supported her in this.

Hot Stew is published by John Murray in the UK on 18th March.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Girl In The Walls -A J Gnuse (4th Estate 2021)

This debut is an unusual and highly effective thriller.  There’s been good buzz about it pre-publication.  This was one of the titles I highlighted to watch out for in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  We were promised a Gothic spooky house novel with comparisons made to Shirley Jackson.  I’m not sure I am on board with the comparison although it was this which attracted me to the title.  It is, however, highly enjoyable with a more original feel than the comparison might suggest.

Set in 2005 (judging by songs mentioned playing on the radio) just south of New Orleans, main character 11 year old Elise, having lost both her parents in an accident, escapes from her foster carers to return to a house her family formerly lived in now owned by the Mason family with two teenage boys.  There, unbeknownst to them she resides in the house, within gaps between walls, in hidden chutes and in the attic emerging when the family are not around or otherwise occupied.  This is working chillingly well until a younger boy turns up unannounced at the house and the teenagers in the family begin to have suspicions about the things going bump in the night.

I found the premise fascinating but did struggle with the geography of the house which would allow such a thing to be possible.  The tension is cranked up incredibly well when the boys begin to act on their suspicions and then environmental factors, particular to the region, begin to play a part.

As I was reading it I was aware of an easy option Texan author Gnuse could have taken and I was hoping he wouldn’t (he doesn’t) which means the story-telling is satisfactory throughout.  There are lots of unusual touches, including Elise’s fondness for Norse mythology and the characters of the neighbourhood boy and Eddie, the younger of the teenagers both give the novel a quirky feel (as does one character I don’t even want to talk about here in the interest of not revealing too much plot).  I was pulled in to the story, rather like Elise being pulled into the walls, found some section breath-takingly tense and all in all this ends up a quality commercial thriller with good literary touches which could also work splendidly as a TV or film adaptation.

Girl In The Walls will be published by 4th Estate in the UK on 18th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out – Jeremy Atherton Lin (Granta 2021)- A Rainbow Read

I really liked the premise of this non-fiction work.  Jeremy Atherton Lin explores, largely via memoir, the significance of the gay bar in the forging of the LGBTQ+ community, bringing with it a sense of belonging.  At a time when bars and pubs and nightclubs have greatly diminished in number and where the survival of those left is threatened by extended lockdowns and coronavirus restrictions it is important that we recognise these venues as part of our LGBTQ+ history, our present and hopefully, our future.

The author focuses on those places he knows well beginning in more or less present day South London, moving to the Los Angeles of his college days, back to London where he meets his long-term partner, referred to as Famous Blue Raincoat, to San Francisco where the two set up home together returning to London once civil partnerships becomes legal here, with a brief sojourn to the bars of Blackpool.

This book is strongest when it is dealing with history.  Initially, we are plunged graphically into the sleaze of the cruising bars in Vauxhall and then on to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, an institution for generations, which does deserve its own thorough examination and the author does well to bring this extraordinary venue to life.  I used to frequent it regularly over 30 years ago and memories and the unique feel of the place is evoked by Jeremy Atherton Lin’s writing.

The focus on all the bars is great, I enjoyed the author’s perception of them at the time when he was frequenting them.  It is no fault of his, obviously, but you often get the sense that he has missed the boat, time-wise.  The LA of his college days is a pale shadow of its heyday, ravaged by the decimation of the gay population through AIDS and in most of the other areas he is visiting places past their prime.  This is due to chronology but in many ways it feels typical of the gay bar set-up, on a quiet night there will always be someone to tell you how busy it was the night before!

The author broadens his focus to encompass, well everything, and this is where the book slips for me.  He has much to say about the gay experience and it is extremely worth saying but it’s a scattergun approach of digressions and the books loses the structure I was enjoying so much initially.  It becomes a mish-mash of history, of gay culture, of memoir, of essay.  I would have got more out of the memoir aspect if I felt I knew more about the author and Famous but I was kept very much at arm’s length, which for biography doesn’t work that well for me.

 I do think that there is a tremendous book hidden in here with some extremely quotable passages which sum up the gay nightlife experience better than I’ve ever read.  Here are a couple of examples:

“It dawned on me that many of the people we used to know to say hello to we never really knew.  We just enjoyed recognizing faces.”

“Gays can relax in a gay bar, people will say, but I went out for the tension in the room.

“We once flattered ourselves that all popular culture was subversively designed to amuse gay men.  It’s become apparent gay men are there to make popular culture amusing to everybody else”.

And with February’s LGBT+ History Month just behind us he quotes Michael Warner from “The Trouble With Normal” (1999), which is another reminder why our stories still need to be told;

“In the queer world memory is very fragile.  You don’t learn from your parents how the gay world is structured.  So there’s not a whole lot of intergenerational transfer.”

I think that this is a significant work but for me it was a little overpowering in its structure, the many elements did not mesh as well as I had hoped, so it just misses out on being a book I would want to keep on my bookshelves.  Just occasionally I wonder if I am too harsh in my judgements and that time will see a book linger in my memory, displaying a lasting power that I had not anticipated.  This might be one such book where I could become convinced to revise my opinion.  The audience for it is niche but that audience would certainly be drawn in by Jeremy Atherton Lin’s attack and relish of his subject.

Gay Bar was published by Granta on 4th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex (Picador 2021)

This entertaining novel sees Emma Stonex (her first written under her own name)  taking as her inspiration the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in the Outer Hebrides in 1900.  She moves the action 72 years forward relocating it to the Maiden Lighthouse in Cornwall and within her fictional account attempts to unravel this mystery.

In many ways it is a classic locked room thriller.  The men are found missing from the lighthouse which is bolted on the inside with food preparations on the table and clocks stopped at the same time. 

Alongside this narrative the author focuses on twenty years later and the wives and girlfriend of the three missing men as they are approached by a novelist wanting answers for his latest book.

What I feel is done very well is the 70’s set lighthouse sections which conveys the intensity and boredom of the three men cooped up together.  I felt that the more modern sections did not establish the characters as well, although, obviously, it is within these parts that the secrets of the past are revealed in first and third person narrative and through letters.

I was most intrigued by the almost romantic allure that the lighthouse had for the keepers whilst also acknowledging the reality of spending their working lives in a small inescapable space cooped up with others.  The book both builds up the appeal of this work as well as illustrating the downsides.  After months of lockdown I think we are all in a better position to appreciate better Stonex’s writing and have stronger ideas of these lives than we would have done a year or two ago, making this a very commercially apposite proposition.

The author makes no assumptions as to what happened during the real-life disappearance in 1900 but comes to a conclusion as to her characters.  At times I felt this might go in some outlandish direction but it all feels plausible and in some ways that felt a little anti-climatic, I almost wish she had left things a little more open-ended, which was an unusual response because surely the motive behind reading the book would be to find out what happened..

This was one of the titles that I highlighted for 2021 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post . I enjoyed Emma Stonex’s writing and look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

The Lamplighters is published by Picador in the UK on Thursday 4th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Lost Brother – Susanna Beard (Joffe 2021)

I have saluted the UK publishers Joffe here before for the sterling work they have been doing in lockdown to provide very affordable good quality commercial fiction.  This new publication which they invited me to review is the fourth novel by Susanna Beard.

It begins in the summer of 1987 when it is decided that 12 year old Ricky should, in the New Year, attend the same boarding school as his father did – in South Africa.  This fills Ricky with horror, he does not want to leave the UK and does not feel he is the right sort of person for boarding school but is particularly unhappy because of his close relationship with his 10 year old sister Leonora, and the thought of leaving her with his cold, cruel father and emotionally distant mother.  No amount of cajoling on the children’s part can stop the inevitable and once Ricky has left their father is determined to drive as big a wedge as possible between the boy and Leonora.

This novel is about the damage families can do to one another alongside the lasting bond of a positive sibling relationship.  Characterisation is solid and the sense of desolation endured by the separated pair is conveyed very effectively.  Leonora has always experienced synaesthesia, in her case letters are represented by colours, which is an unusual device on the part of the author but one which I wish had been made more of as it feels slightly under-realised.

The plot is always involving.  As the years pass the brother and sister are unable to forget how much they mean to one another as circumstances continue, through twists, to keep them apart.  Although I did not feel the ending was as “electrifying” as the cover suggests it all added up to a very satisfactory reading experience.

The Lost Brother is published on 11th February 2021 by Joffe Books.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.  

The Rag And Bone Shop – Veronica O’Keane (Allen Lane 2021)

I was taken in by the subtitle “How We Make Memories and Memories Make Us” as well as the image suggested by the title (which itself is derived from a poem by WB Yeats).  Like most of us, I’m fascinated by the workings of memory and Veronica O’Keane with a full and varied career in neuroscience is an ideal guide.

The book falls soundly between an exploration for the general reader and those who are able to absorb all the science.  I did try really hard to grasp the wonders of brain chemistry and function but there were too many amazing bits of brain doing amazing things.  I could follow the gist but struggled to take it all in, having to go back over bits when I picked up the book again, my memory itself perhaps letting me down.

What is fascinating are the case studies from the author’s career and I also particularly liked her bridging of science with art, especially literature, where she credits some writers, amongst them Samuel Beckett and the oft-cited Proust of finding ways of conveying the workings of memory and memory disorders before science had a chance to explore these gut feelings and turn them into scientific fact.

I also very much liked O’Keane’s ability to get us to grasp concepts with examples from her own life – the “prescient memory”, described broadly as the past merging with the present, depicted here as a succession of visual memories as her son left home to go to college and “meta-consciousness” as the experience of her fondness of year-round sea swimming and that transcendent feeling of being at one with the environment which when reading her description becomes fully comprehended.

It’s not intended as a book to help boost memory but there is a little fillip for those of us well into middle age- knowing that you have forgotten something is itself a form of memory, it is when you start not knowing you have forgotten something that could flag concerns.

If there is a star of the show it is the hippocampus, the mysterious sea-horse shaped part of the brain which, like plastic, is fairly adaptable.  London Taxi drivers who have studied The Knowledge have been found to have larger right side hippocampi because this is where the brain has its memory of place.  The left side is for biographical memory which can shrink when a person is depressed leading to potential amnesia, but it is able to reactivate itself.  I found out a lot about this part of the brain and it was fascinating.

As well as the correct workings there’s plenty of examination of when things go wrong and misfires occur (obviously these are the aspects which teach professionals so much about the brain), there’s the history of neuroscience, what happens to our memories and emotions at different parts of our lives and the whole concept of “false” memories is examined as well as a little look into the future of this relatively recent discipline. 

I think it’s a book with parts that will stay with me, memory-wise, and I may want to revisit certain sections but as a whole it is a little overwhelming but that’s to do with me and a lack of basic scientific education rather than the quality of the work here.

The Rag And Bone Shop is published in the UK by Allen Lane on 4th February 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential Books – The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021)

I was looking forward to reading this.  It is an extraordinary debut novel from gay black American author Robert Jones which could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.

It is a historical work set in the Halifax family’s cotton plantation in Vicksburg, Mississippi and over the years the slave plantation is a location I have visited quite a few times in fiction but I don’t think that many have made so much of an impression upon me as this.

In a barn live and work two teenagers, Samuel and Isaiah, who have become lovers.  Set apart from both the rest of the slaves and the members of the white household but observed by both they are true outsiders.  The response to these boys searching for happiness in such a grim existence is commented on by other characters, often in sections that relate to Books of the Bible.  They are also observed by a chorus of ancestral voices who powerfully and poetically comment on proceedings. 

The boys, unbeknown to them, have been part of an economic experiment by the white master, Paul Halifax, who has put them in an environment of hard physical work away from the cotton-picking to make studs of them, to provide him with a strong stock of future slaves.  The problem is, the boys are only interested  in one another.  Along comes another slave Amos, granted rights of preaching who uses his sermons to turn the slaves against the boys known to all as “The Two Of Them”.  Others in the plantation cannot comprehend what Amos is against thinking that happiness should be taken wherever it is possible to find it.  Samuel and Isaiah’s combustible situation is exacerbated by the sexually frustrated white mistress and her son returned from a “liberal” education up North.

The plot, in its bare bones here, seems a tad melodramatic, but oh my, how well Jones brings it alive, developing characters quickly and effectively and by having these two young men at the centre of a love story which feels bound to be ultimately tragic.

Amongst this Jones also superbly intersperses tales from previous generations- of the plantation’s ancestors, of plunder, of slave ships encompassing the black American history to this point into one superb novel.

When reading this it was a comment I had seen by Marlon James which kept coming to mind.  He said of this book; “The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel should do, and can do.  That shuffling sound you hear is Morrison, Baldwin and Angelou whooping and hollering both in pride and wonder.” 

What a marvellous thing to say about another author’s book but it is so appropriate.  And this is a debut novel!  At the end Robert Jones Jnr acknowledges hundreds of people by name, those black writers, educators, public figures, musicians, performers, friends who have inspired him, an awe-inspiring roll-call which might have seemed over the top if Jones did not have the goods to deliver.  With this enthralling, heart-breaking, poetic, challenging, very accessible yet difficult novel he certainly has.  The only thing I am not totally on board with is the cover which has a self-published self-help book vibe about it but certainly do not judge this by that. It is possible that I may have already read my Book of The Year.

The Prophets was published by Quercus in the UK in hardback on 5th January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Memorial – Bryan Washington (Atlantic 2021)

And here it is, nice and early this year, my first five star read of 2021.  To be honest I am not all that surprised I loved this book.  I highlighted it as one of the books I wanted to read this year and it’s a book by an author whose collection of short stories “Lot” won the Dylan Thomas Prize and which I rated four stars, acknowledging the potential.

This debut novel is even better.  It is the story of a male couple, Benson, who is black and Mike of Japanese heritage living in Houston.  Their relationship is somewhat rocky and not helped by Mike’s mother arriving from Tokyo for an extended stay on the same day Mike flies to Osaka to connect with the dying father who had deserted the family.  We get two first-person narratives from Benson, sandwiched between is Mike’s experiences in Japan.

Benson is left to forge a relationship with a woman he has never met as they bond over cooking, attempting to find common ground as they share the apartment whilst Mike helps out at his father’s bar, which is his potential inheritance.  The couple’s relationship is tested.

I was drawn in by these characters and their families.  I found children’s day-care worker Benson was especially vividly drawn, Mike seems more elusive which makes some of his actions questionable (including the desertion of his mother which is central to the plot).  It is less spikey than the short-story collection and provoked a real emotional response from me.  It feels modern, is well-written and has provided an early reading highlight for 2021.

Memorial is published in hardback by Atlantic Books in January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.