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 become 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 subtletly 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.

Dog Rose Dirt- Jen Williams (Harper Collins 2021)

This marks a complete change of direction for award-winning British author Jen Williams whose published works to date have included two Fantasy trilogies.  Here, she has poured herself into crime writing which offers hovers close to horror.  It’s all imbued with a sense of dark folklore which has the effect of making the implausible seem possible and it simmers throughout with an edge of nastiness which makes even the lighter moments seem tense.

Heather has returned to her family home after the suicide of her mother with whom she has always had a difficult relationship.  Whilst sorting the house she discovers she does not know her mother as well as she thinks she did, opening a veritable Pandora’s Box of serial killers, dark fairy tales, copycat murders and a barghest, a legendary phantom dog around the setting of a commune where her mother lived when she was younger.

Heather is a journalist who has made bad decisions in her past and quite frankly continues to make them as she keeps things quiet which she should be sharing with the police whilst giving out too much information to others.  There are reasons for this which are posited by the turn of events but it is difficult to relax with her as a main character.

I think personally I could have done with a little more light amongst all this shade but there is no doubt that this is atmospheric with the rural environment demonstrating its power running alongside the depressing banality of clearing up after a lost life.  There are incidents in this book I found particularly difficult which made me feel I was reading it at the wrong time for me but there is no doubt that Jen Williams here makes a powerful entrance into the world of crime writing.

Dog Rose Dirt is published in the UK by Harper Collins on July 22nd. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. 

The Promise – Damon Galgut (Chatto & Windus 2021)

The me of 16 years ago read this South African author’s breakthrough novel which had been shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize.  I had to check back through my records to see that in the winter of 2005 I quite enjoyed “The Good Doctor”, his tale of a remote rural hospital and thought it well-written but I felt it had failed to draw me in and my verdict was that it was unexceptional.  To be honest, I had forgotten all about this opinion when I was invited by the publishers to review his latest title.  I was assured a novel “confident, deft and quietly powerful” and “literary fiction at its finest”.  I was intrigued.

If “The Good Doctor” failed to draw me in 16 years ago then things were soon put right with this.  I was very involved early on and it is the self-assurance of the writing and his handling of life-changing events which kept me hooked.  The Swart family live on a farm outside Pretoria and we visit them at various moments in their lives.  It is the tale of four deaths and the coming together of those left. Linking these occasions is a promise 13 year old Amor believes she has heard her father making to her dying mother, a promise which is denied, ignored or postponed for decades due to circumstances within the country and within the family.  The strength is in the characterisation and interactions between the family members. The tragic trigger points which cause the reunions roll back the preceding years with great economy and truth by the author.  I loved the structure of this novel, some demises are tragic, some violent, some tragi-comic but all imbued with a sense of South African history which is extremely effective.  There is an appealing calmness which runs alongside the tragedies.  It makes me think that the older me might have a greater appreciation of  “The Good Doctor” and I would be very interested in discovering more work (Galgut’s published oeuvre consists of novels, short story collections and plays) by this author.

The Promise will be published in the UK by  Chatto & Windus on 17th June 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. The Kindle/ebook edition is published by Vintage Digital.

Yes, Daddy – Jonathan Parks-Ramage (HMH Books 2021)

I’m a sucker for any title marketed as “Modern Gothic” and I was also tempted into reading this book as the author and I share an unusual surname.  He is no relation, however, this is an intriguing debut from an author from Los Angeles.  At times I thought it was stunningly powerful and gripping but for me it ran out of steam meaning I finished the book feeling a little flat from an author with so much potential.

This is the tale of Jonah, an aspiring playwright who sets his sights on seducing an older, successful dramatist who then finds he gets considerably more than he bargained for.  As a character his motives are often very questionable which is no bad thing (see John Boyne’s “Ladder To The Sky”, for example, for another ruthless lead ) but some readers’ responses to this book may be affected by his limited likeability.

We begin at a trial so we know from the start that something has gone awry in their relationship, there’s an early twist and then a shuffle back in time to relate the whole story in a first-person narrative by the ambitious, emotionally damaged younger man.  It’s not that long before it gets really good, at a point where Jonah feels woozy at a dinner party and although there’s not a hint of demonic possession here the tension of the writing and the surface of respectability hiding much darkness reminded me of Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, a book I love.

There are many plot turns along the way but the last third feels as if the build-up dissipates greatly to find an acceptable resolution and I rather think that this resolution might feel more acceptable to an American audience.

There are issues raised which are relevant to the #MeToo campaign and LGBT considerations here given a powerful, fresh dimension and I’m not sure how Parks-Ramage could have otherwise found his way out of the plot he has weaved but I feel he might have let his dramatic peaks appear too early in the narrative denying me the really splendid reading experience I thought I was going to get with this book.

Yes, Daddy was published on 18th May 2021 by Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Books.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

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.