Black Drop – Leonora Nattrass (Viper 2021)

It’s London in 1794 and those with power are nervous. A fragile treaty with America is being attempted, relations with France have become further rattled by events following the French Revolution, and their own subjects fill the pungent air with talk of sedition and treason. This provides the starting point for Leonora Nattrass’ historical  debut novel.

Nattrass has combined fictional characters with those really around at the time and provides us with a useful cast list at the beginning (I consulted this a number of times).  Largely the confession of Foreign Office clerk Laurence Jago, who is hiding his French ancestry and offering information to a shadowy female spy (an underdeveloped character I felt here and perhaps the only one the author does not bring fully to life).  Jago becomes implicated in leaking information which would hurt the British army in France but he is innocent and the house of cards he had built up around himself begins to fall.

This is Jago’s narrative throughout and he meets some lively characters, most notably Philpott, a loyalist journalist who the author states she based upon William Cobbett, who brings a lot of life to the scenes he is in, including one set in a menagerie.  There’s much political intrigue in this well-researched novel but I found it most gripping away from the main plot to uncover spies when it deals with the human cost and the changing loyalties of the volatile mobs.  A trial for treason follows closely along historical facts and involves the Prime Minister William Pitt and provides a high point of the novel.  The title refers to a laudanam type medicine Jago becomes addicted to but this is somewhat underplayed.  This is a strong debut from a promising author.  There were, admittedly, times when my attention wandered but I was pulled back in and found myself caring about the outcome for these characters.

Black Drop is published by Viper on October 14th 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Desire: A Memoir- Jonathan Dollimore (Rowman & Littlefield 2021)

This is a revised and expanded edition of a memoir which first appeared in 2017.  Then it was around 192 pages long, now it comes in at 232 so there’s a significant amount of new material.

On first publication it was critically very well received.  Jonathan Dollimore has a background in academia and is a leading light in gender studies and queer theory.  He has also packed a lot of social life into his time on earth, has suffered periods of depression and is a gay man who later on in life had a fifteen year relationship with a woman and is a father of two daughters.

His memoir is a combination of the academic and autobiographical elements interspersed with his journal writings at the time.  I’m not sure which of these areas has been the most expanded.  It’s all loosely hinged around a study of desire in all its forms including risk, a desire to live dangerously, lust and romantic desire, to occasional desires for death.  The writing is forthright and pulls no punches but it this linking the memoir to this theme which doesn’t always work for me.  I would have liked this to have been tighter or abandoned.

I was more attracted to the autobiographical elements here- the motorbike loving teen whose life changed direction following a serious accident who becomes a significant figure in higher education (there’s little of this part of his life here) and becomes immersed in gay subculture in London, Brighton, New York and Australia at a time before, during and after HIV changed everything.  Modern autobiographical writing seems to have developed a distinct style over the last few years and its one where we can be offered intimate details yet held back at some distance at other points.  I’ve mentioned this quite a bit recently with Jeremy Atherton Lin’s “Gay Bar: Why We Went Out ” and Armistead Maupin’s “Logical Family” immediately springing to mind.  I’m not convinced it should be possible to read a memoir and end up not feeling that you know very much about the person writing it.  I prefer the writer to really let us into their lives which is why I was so bowled over by Dustin Lance Black and Grace Dent who both made my 2020 Books Of The Year list. Having said all this, Dollimore’s writing is seductive and kept me interested even when I was not totally following the points being made.

My criteria is a 4 star rating is appropriate if I feel the book is worthy of revisiting and I think this is a book which will both remain with me and repay re-reading at some point so this fulfils this criteria.  Dollimore has a good publishing team which will ensure this book gets seen.  I was invited to read this probably because of the other similarly slanted autobiographical works I’ve read and had difficulty accessing a digital copy.  They continued to maintain a conversation with me and sent me a physical copy.  I like it when publishers go out of their way to recognise us bloggers and I was rewarded with a read which often resonated strongly with me.

Desire: A Memoir was published in May 2021 by Rowman and Littlefield.  Many thanks to the publishers especially Tim in the Marketing Department for going over and beyond in ensuring I had a review copy.

Are We Having Fun Yet? – Lucy Mangan (Souvenir Press 2021)

Here’s a title from my picks for 2021 I nominated in a post at the start of the year (I’m doing extremely well with these having so far read 80%).  Back then it was provisionally titled “Diary Of A Suburban Lady” with an acknowledged E.M Delafield’s “Diary Of A Provincial Lady” as its inspiration.

It’s now got a snappier title and the Delafield connection would not be apparent to most readers.  What we have here is a year in the life of a harassed mum of two presented in a diary form.

I always enjoy reading diaries.  In fiction they can make a quick read, which is a good thing when humour is the key goal.  It’s a day-to-day battle of juggling child-care arrangements, balancing work-load between the spouses (husband Richard not doing as well as he thinks here), negotiating the school run and drop-offs and bringing up placid 7 year old Thomas and precocious set-to-rule-the-world five year old Evie.

Thematically, there are parallels with the BBC TV Comedy “Motherland” which I love, especially with the parent outsiders having to fit in with the expectations of those in the PTA.  As the year progresses the characters form stronger identities and I felt sorry leaving them at the end of the year.  It is on occasions laugh out loud funny but a good level of smile-along humour is maintained throughout.

Lucy Mangan, columnist and TV reviewer from “The Guardian” made my end of year Top 10 last time out with her sublime non-fiction account of her childhood reading habits, “Bookworm“, (I included it here within my Essential 100 Books thread), making number 3 in my 2018 Books Of The Year, so I obviously had very high expectations.  It is a very commercial work, written in a genre where fans will be loyal and supportive, it feels fresh and contemporary, so it’s a shrewd move which could sell very well indeed.  I’m aware I’m not the intended audience for this book but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It would make an excellent Christmas present for those too busy coping with family life to spend time browsing in Waterstones, or for those now with the strength to look back on how they coped as well as those contemplating raising a family.

Are We Having Fun Yet will be published by Souvenir Press on 14th October 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2021)

Colson Whitehead’s reputation as one of the greatest living American writers took off with his last two novels which both won the Pulitzer Prize making him only the 4th writer to win this most prestigious Fiction award twice (alongside William Faulkner, John Updike and Booth Tarkington) and the only Black American to do so to date.

The Underground Railroad”(2016) was the book that took him to the big league- I still cannot understand how it did not win the 2017 Man Booker Prize describing it thus “It ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”.  I still feel aggrieved by the panel awarding the big prize to “Lincoln In The Bardo” with Whitehead failing to make the transition from longlist to shortlist.  I still haven’t watched the adaptation of this currently on Amazon Prime in the UK. 

Pulitzer Prize number 2 came with “The Nickel Boys” (2019) which focused on a boy’s reform school.  This was a more straightforward narrative which managed to both please and slightly disappoint me so I ranked it four stars.

This latest, his 8th novel is more understated than his two big-hitters but he is now at a point of his career where each publication is a big literary event.  Set in late 50’s/early 60’s Harlem it feels what I imagine Chester Himes to read like (I’ve never read him but I did recently buy “A Rage In Harlem” (1957) so it’s only a matter of time) with greater awareness of the history between now and then and the significance of civil rights unrest.  Here this unrest provides a backdrop more than a focus for the novel and in fact is seen at best as an inconvenience by the characters.

Main character Raymond Carney’s focus is furniture, a salesman with his own store. His desire is to become the first black shop-owner allowed to stock branded items previously only available in white-owned stores.  Carney is doing okay, he is employing staff and looking towards expansion but the start-up money derived from wrong-doings from his largely absent now deceased father and that association causes Carney problems.  Fencing stolen goods becomes part of his trade yet (and this will become the most quoted phrase from this novel) “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

The influence of family leads to Carney becoming involved in a heist at a hotel frequented by a black clientele which begins a slippery slope.  What begins as a crime caper becomes darker as Carney becomes obsessed by revenge whilst always trying to separate the personal from his business life.

Carney is a great character and he comes up against a number of other memorable creations here but I found plot development a little stop-start and the novel does not flow as well as I would have hoped.  I actually found it hard to retain what had been going on.  There’s a tendency to introduce something then backtrack as to how it happens, but this introduction caused me to feel like I’d missed out on something and started leafing back when there was no need as the author hadn’t got to that bit yet.  The plot seems too content to just simmer along, there were points when the pace accelerated and then the book really takes off. 

There’s nothing wrong with this novel and it’s totally right that an author should be allowed to move back from creating the extraordinary to do something which feels less momentous but it is not up there with his best.  I think my own expectations might have let me down here.  I’d been looking forward to the publication of this since the start of the year when I highlighted it as a must-read for 2021 and that is probably the reason why it feels for me just a touch disappointing.

Harlem Shuffle will be published on 14th Sept 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Dust Off The Bones – Paul Howarth (One 2021)

Have you ever been away on holiday, had bad weather and had to put up with everyone saying how glorious it was the week before?  Well, that’s a little bit how I felt reading this book.  And that is my fault.

This is the sequel to the very well received “Only Killers And Thieves”, a historical tale of early Queensland, Australia by British-Australian author and former lawyer Paul Howarth.  I haven’t read that book and when Paul’s publishers got in touch to see if I would be prepared to read and review his latest I was intrigued enough to say yes – to a sequel.  I was hopeful it would work as a stand-alone and I’m sure for many it would.  Unfortunately, I’m not that kind of reader I’ve realised.  I’m happiest when working chronologically through a writer’s oeuvre and for me to read a sequel to a book I didn’t know is pretty much unheard of.

On its own “Dust Off The Bones” is a very good novel but I suspect that “Only Killers And Thieves” is even better and read as a pair might just be something pretty extraordinary.  The action which the sequel hinges on has taken place in the first book and this is largely the repercussions of those actions which affect a family throughout their lifetime.  There are enough references back to the first book to let the reader know what was going on (and thus it can work as a stand-alone) but some of the references seemed so good that I felt like I was missing out.

None of this is Paul Howarth’s fault.  He has focused on a fictional account of one of the many real-life atrocities carried out by the Native Police in Victorian Queensland where treatment of the native population was both obscene and went unpunished.  The McBride brothers have been split up by the traumatic events from the first book and are stalked by the truly evil Noone, who heads a division of the Native Police.  When a lawyer tries to get justice for terrible crimes the poison these characters carry with them takes hold again.

Anyone who has ever enjoyed a Western would love this with the Australian setting giving it a different feel.  It is violent and the existence can be harsh but family bonds, however strained, cannot be broken by such harshness.

Those that have read “Only Killers And Thieves” will no doubt be chomping at the bit to read this book.  For maximum reading pleasure I would suggest reading that first to allow this recommended read to create an even greater impression.

Dust Off The Bones was published by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press which promises “compelling writing, unique voices, great stories” on August 26th 2021. Many thanks to the publishers, particularly Tara from the Press Office for the review copy.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 8 – Midsummer Mysteries (2021)

The theme for this month’s challenge was a story set at the seaside and the recommended title at agathachristie.com was this recently published collection of 12 stories and 1 autobiographical extract.  It’s an unsurprising companion piece to “Midwinter Murders” which appeared at the end of last year.  I think maybe the fireside and a winter evening feels more appropriate for Christie.  I wasn’t exactly thrilled to purchase this book but certainly wasn’t giving up on the Challenge at this point and I can see why the official website is promoting this collection.

Discounting the introductory fragment here called “Summer In The Pyrenees” which came from the 1977 “An Autobiography” most of these stories herald from the 1920s with just one first published in 1933.  I was disappointed that they did not feel unified by the theme- summer is strong in a couple of the tales but otherwise the selection seems somewhat random.  Two I’ve also read this year in the challenge as they were taken from “Parker Pyne Investigates”.  I think they do make more of an impression, however, in this collection.

Poirot gets the lion’s share of stories with four and the strongest is the longest which closes the collection, “The Incredible Theft” which adds a touch of political intrigue to the country house tale.  Two Marple stories come from “The Thirteen Problems” which I assume follows the format of mysteries being told by different individuals in a group with Marple providing the solution.  She doesn’t really exist as a character here.  That said, the summer flavour of “The Blood Stained Pavement” was strong and this would end up in my Top 3 from this collection.

I’ve not read the five Tommy and Tuppence novels and I don’t think “The Adventure Of The Sinister Stranger” would spur me on to do so.  Out of context from its appearance in “The Mysterious Mr Quin”, “Harlequin’s Lane” is just odd and I found it hard to like. 

My favourite and one that best fits with the theme is the stand-alone “The Rajah’s Emerald” in which the crime is backstage leaving us with a highly likeable character study of James Bond (no, not that one, Christie is using the name long before Ian Fleming) attempting to impress his girlfriend on the beach, but unable to compete with her wealthier, more entertaining friends.

This is definitely a mixed bag of tales and I can’t help feeling that most would work better in their original collections.  I’m not sure that if this was my introduction to Agatha Christie (and theoretically a new publication would lure new readers in) whether I would have a strong urge to read on.  I think, because of the stronger variety, I’d put it just ahead of Month 2’s “Parker Pyne Investigates” as my 7th favourite from the Challenge.  Next month I’m to read a novel featuring a school.  I think I will be back in Poirot territory.

Midsummer Mysteries was published by Harper Collins on 22nd July   2021.

Next Of Kin – Kia Abdullah (HQ 2021)

Kia Abdullah’s last novel, the terrific “Truth Be Told” (2020) made it onto my End Of Year Top 10 and was my favourite new novel of the year slipping in just ahead of Kiley Reid’s “Such A Fun Age”.  I pledged to read this author’s debut and I do have it waiting for me on Kindle but she is ahead of me and exactly one year later her third novel is ready for publication.

On the evidence of these two novels she has a format.  After getting to know the characters a shocking event takes place which leads to a court case and its aftermath.  It’s an effective format and she handles it superbly.  She drip feeds us information, taking us on wrong turnings and just like last time when you think it you have it sorted we’re off in a different direction.  This author is so good at manipulating her readers and I for one, love it. Also like last time I found myself covering the bottom half of pages as I didn’t want to know of various outcomes until the exact moment Abdullah intended me to.

Plot-wise I’m giving nothing away, but once again it is disturbing and thought-provoking and so set in the everyday that it would make most readers blood run cold.  I’ll just introduce the characters- Leila Syed is a successful businesswoman who has achieved much having escaped poverty when her mother died when she was 18 leaving her to bring up her 11 year old sister Yasmin.  Both are now married, Leila to Will, a journalist and Yasmin to Andrew who works in IT.  Three year old Max completes the younger sister’s family and that is all you are getting from me.

At times sympathies towards these characters will be strained but there will be much empathy.  There are moments which are difficult to read because of the misery heaped onto these people (and because of this I might just give the slightly more restrained “Truth Be Told” the edge) but the events and the plot will drive the reader on.  With two out of two five star novels, this is a writer I am thrilled to have discovered.

Next Of Kin is published by HQ on 2nd September 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Corruption Of Blood – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2021)

This is the third in a very solid historical crime series written by husband and wife Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman.  The combination of their professional backgrounds, Brookmyre, an established best-selling crime author and Haetzman, an expert on anaesthesia, is tailor-made for this mid-nineteenth century series set in Edinburgh featuring two fictional characters working for Dr Simpson, a real-life medical pioneer who developed the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic.

Good groundwork has already been laid in the first two novels “The Way Of All Flesh” (2018), a book I often recommend to our library users, and “The Art Of Dying” (2019).  Firstly, the will-they-won’t-they relationship between main characters Will Raven and Sarah Fisher is enthralling as are the ongoing obstacles for a nineteenth century woman attempting to prove herself as anything other than a wife and mother.  At the start of this novel, in 1850, Sarah has set off to meet with another real life figure, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain a medical degree and be registered with the UK General Medical Council for advice, but she is not encouraging.

In fact, the malaise experienced by Sarah as she returns to Edinburgh following this encounter seems to infiltrate the novel as the first half feels a little flat compared to its predecessors.  Raven should be in celebratory mood as he has developed an understanding with a doctor’s daughter, Eugenie, but she feels under-drawn here (purposely so?) making it hard to appreciate why Raven would choose her over Sarah.  However, the Victorian Era is full of contradiction and hypocrisy and the victim of one of the crimes, which occupies Raven’s time, is an advocate for ill-treatment of prostitutes who may have been poisoned by his son.  The title refers to the term for total disinheritance should the heir be convicted of such a crime.

Sarah, at the same time, is engaged on locating the whereabouts of an unfortunate housemaid’s baby, given away at birth. It’s not until the two main characters come together that the pace picks up enhanced by the chemistry between them.  The last quarter of the novel is very strong indeed which lifts this book back up onto a par with the other two.  Further crimes are revealed, some particularly horrific, and careful plotting leads to an impressive exciting climax and resolution.

There is plenty of mileage left in this series and I look forward to finding out what the writers have in store for these characters.

A Corruption Of Blood is published in the UK in hardback by Canongate on 19th August 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. 

Mrs March- Virginia Feito (4th Estate 2021)

This is a stylish, mannered debut by an American author who has been compared to Shirley Jackson and Ottessa Moshfegh.  I can appreciate these comparisons as it doesn’t take long to realise that underneath the veneer of respectability something dark might just be going on.

Feito drips feeds this to us and this could frustrate some readers.  I felt a little frustrated myself at times but I kept reading and it did draw me in.  Mrs March’s husband has a successful new novel out and his wife is told she resembles his main character.  She hasn’t read the book but knows that Johanna is a hard-to-like prostitute.  This causes shifts in Mrs March’s mental balance and as things go off-kilter she begins to suspect her husband is a killer.  Plot-wise that’s about it, but there’s much more than plot going on here.

Mrs March is self-centred and only sees the world from her point of view.  It’s a third person narrative but the formality holds the reader at bay.  Mrs March is not referred to by her first name.

There’s also the setting – the smart New York apartment, but when is it set?  There’s a 1960’s Jackie Kennedy- as- style- icon vibe, with real furs being worn, the Lawrence Welk show on TV but there’s nothing to cling onto here and there are Rubik’s cubes which only became a thing in the 80’s.  I found myself highlighting every reference to try and pin this down realising that Feito is playing with us, unsettling us throughout which is very effective.  It doesn’t matter when it was set but it feels like it does. 

I felt undertones of the work of Ira Levin, not just “Rosemary’s Baby” but also “Sliver” and “The Stepford Wives” and as I was obsessed with his work when a teenager I experienced quite a nostalgic chill even though Feito’s work is a 2021 publication.

The disorientation the author nicely sets up is enriched by hallucinations, something is definitely not right here.  I was expecting a “Ka-boom!” moment to hit me between the eyes which Ottessa Moshfegh’t “Eileen” did to me, but Feito is content to keep us simmering and questioning what we are reading but not sure of what questions to ask of ourselves.  This makes for a slick, surprisingly emotionally complex debut.

Mrs March is published in the UK by Fourth Estate on 4th August 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Echo Chamber – John Boyne (Doubleday 2021)

Anyone looking for the best, most versatile author of our times?  Here’s a suggestion – John Boyne, and I’m making this claim after only reading 7 of his 21 books.  There’s two timeless classics in his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” and this novel becomes the 5th of his five star reads, alongside “A Ladder To The Sky” and “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain”.  When he has missed out on a 5* rating his work is also extraordinary, the tightly structured stylistically so impressive “A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom” and his 2019 YA novel “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica”, with its focus on the family of a transgender teen which I found “marvellously empathic” but it missed out on 5* because I didn’t feel totally convinced by the main characters’ family set-up and felt it lacked some of the subtlety of his best work.  My reviews for all of these titles can be found by following the links on this site.

What I did not appreciate was the fuss “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica” caused in the months after I read it.  An interview with Boyne in last week’s Guardian (17/07/21) details this with backlash against it leading to online harassment, misrepresentation, death threats and a period of depression for the author.  It also, far more positively, sowed the seeds for this, his latest novel for adults.

I cannot remember laughing out loud so much at a novel since another Irish author Paul Murray’s “The Mark And The Void” from 2015 and like that novel the humour is rooted very much in the present making it a book for 2021.  Already, I’m acknowledging this may not have the longevity of his greatest work but it warrants five stars for the sheer enjoyment it gave me.

And yes, there is going to be some controversy again over this.  At the centre is social media and the effects this has on one notable family, the Cleverleys.  Father George is a BBC light entertainment staple, a chat-show host famous for many years (I’ve already seen Graham Norton praising this work and jokingly wanting to make clear this character is not based on him), his wife Beverley, a best-selling romantic novelist who now provides the ideas which are written up by a ghost-writer, who is herself celebrated enough to be having an affair with her Ukranian “Strictly Come Dancing” partner, a man who has spread his charms amongst the next generation of the Cleverley family; Nelson, in therapy and only able to cope with social interactions whilst wearing a uniform; Elizabeth, an online troll who gave me a great number of laugh out loud moments and Nelson, a teenage extortionist.  They inhabit a world where the number of likes on your social media is what validates you as a person.  Modern life is a minefield for this family and things soon go wrong with attempts to escape situations only making it worse.  John Boyne is happy to tread on everyone’s toes using real-life celebrities to add to the humour. 

This is a work of satirical fiction and is not intended to be factual” states the publisher’s note at the beginning but satire is often not funny (as anyone attempting to watch the Britbox “Spitting Image” reboot will testify) but here it is.  Another trap for the comic novel is that the humour often wanes before the mid-way point but Boyne is able to sustain it for the length of his work (only in a couple of places does the pace falter and that is occasionally due to over-reiteration which the author needs to employ to ensure we, as readers, are keeping up) and too often the humour in books becomes predictable whereas here I had no idea where this book was going which was a joy in itself.

Maybe some people will be upset by this and some people deserve to be upset by this but I think John Boyne has written a great comic novel of our time and which should provide a great tonic for these strange times we live in.

The Echo Chamber will be published by Doubleday on August 5th 2021. Many thanks to Lilly and the team at Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read an advance review copy.