Best Of Friends- Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus 2022)

I loved Kamila Shamsie’s last novel, the 2018 Women’s Prize For Fiction winning “Home Fire” placing it at number 6 in my 2017 Books Of The Year.  Although based on the Ancient Greek myth of Antigone it felt extremely relevant to our world.  There were some big themes tackled and I said that the author “is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.”

No wonder I was looking forward to reading this.  It feels a much less ambitious work, a quieter novel but it still managed to impress.  The best friends are Zahra and Maryam and we first meet them in Karachi in 1988 as two fourteen year olds negotiating adolescence and kissing posters of George Michael.  Their friendship has been strong for years, Zahra is keen to point out the difference between their own close bond with a word she has found in the dictionary “Propinquity- a relationship based on proximity” which is what they feel they have with others.

The first half explores the potential minefields of teenage life for two girls in late 1980s Pakistan excellently.  It feels pitch-perfect, Zahra is coming to terms with physical changes and feelings, the awkwardness and newness of which will bring shudders of recognition.  Maryam, more privileged, feels that her future is mapped out for the with a family leather goods business and a grandfather who sees in her the abilities to take the business on.  She plays cricket with his employees, is popular and has more vision than her own father.  The girls sense new beginnings with the ascendancy of Benazir Bhutto until an event takes them into an unexpected direction.

The second part of the novel takes us to London in 2019 where the friends are now living very different lives.  How far are they the products of their past experience?  The second half is unsurprisingly more political as they attempt to improve the adult world they felt let them down as teenagers, but will their friendship survive?

I loved the first half and enjoyed the second half but for me the novel’s strength is in their teenage Karachi days exploring the girls’ strongly forged friendship with all its intensities and experiences together with the limitations that their environment places on them.  This feels magnified by the bombardment of the myriad mixed messages of their Pakistani upbringing which the author skilfully conveys.

Best Of Friends is published by Bloomsbury Circus on September 27th 2022.   Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Young Pretender- Michael Arditti (2022)

I read about the subject of this historical novel in an article in the May 2022 edition of “The Oldie” magazine.  It was written by the author and entitled “The First Child Star”.  I knew of Michael Arditti but have never read him (I do have a copy of is “The Celibate” on my shelves) and was totally fascinated by his account of his latest hero.

William Betty (1791-1874) became a hugely celebrated actor in his early teens, playing to huge acclaim and intimidating other very popular performers into semi-retirement and playing roles he was far too young to act.  This fame ended suddenly as it would do for myriads of child stars to the present day.  This novel begins when at the age of 20 he attempts to make a comeback.

In Arditti’s novel we see William going it alone.  The tutor who had so inspired and believed in him was dismissed by his manager father who has subsequently died. His first-person narrative feels authentic.  He does seem to have only sketchy memories of the time of his fame, even though it was just a few years before and is trying to piece together what caused him to fall out of favour.  This lack of memory is an effective device within the narrative but is quite a big ask for the reader to take on board and I admit to getting confused at times between the switches from Master Betty to the now Mr Betty’s attempts to emulate his success.

It is a slim novel and didn’t really get going in the way I was expecting it to.  Technically, it is impressive but perhaps the author had over-whetted my appetite in “The Oldie” article and I would have liked this fascinating, now pretty much forgotten subject to have been opened up more.  I do have a fascination for the fleeting nature of celebrity and this very early historical example is certainly worth a read.  It was always enjoyable even if it did not quite make the impression on me that I was anticipating.

The Young Pretender was published by Arcadia Books in 2022.

Lessons- Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape 2022)

I first discovered Ian McEwan when I was a teenager and I can still recall being blown away by his two collections of short stories – “First Love, Last Rites” (1975) and “In Between The Sheets” (1978).  I had never read anything like these before and his first novel “The Cement Garden” (1978) was equally flooring.

Decades on we are up to his 17th adult novel and along the way there has been the all-time classic, “Atonement” (2001) and the very strong, (“Enduring Love” (1997)“, The Innocent” (1990), “Saturday” (2005) and “Nutshell” (2016)), the okay “On Chesil Beach” (2007) and the one which left me cold but won him the Booker Prize in 1998 “Amsterdam”.  I haven’t read everything by him- “Nutshell” was the last and I reckon this latest makes it my 11th experience of him over the years.

Main character in this decades-spanning work is Roland Baines (a character the same age as McEwan which gives this an autobiographical feel to historical perspectives if not the actual events of the novel) and central is his experience as an 11 year old new to private school in 1959 when his female piano teacher punishes his mistakes by slipping a finger under his shorts and pinching his thigh.  This leads to an obsession for Roland which endures over the next few years.  Obsession is something McEwan does so well, we’ve seen it before in “Enduring Love” but here it is two-sided and we see the influence of this woman in the rest of Roland’s life.  Another starting point is in 1986 when his wife fails to return home leaving new father Roland as a suspect in her disappearance.

McEwan’s novel brings us up to the present-day – post-lockdown (this is my first experience of the lockdown months in fiction and it feels very authentic and I  discovered I am ready to read about it now ) and takes in family members, including Lawrence, the son he had to bring up alone and also incorporates back-story of his mother-in-law’s experience in post-war Germany.

At times the writing is superb and it is bated-breath fiction- particularly around the relationship with Roland and piano teacher Miriam yet at other times it feels surprisingly loose for an author whose work is often so concise and tight and yet even when it feels close to becoming bogged down in the everyday minutiae of family life, for example, he is able to produce writing and scenes which pulls it back and keeps the reader on side.  His son, Lawrence, and his generation feel quite safe characters and I did expect more spark and tension to come from them (unless this is McEwan’s comment on this age group) and there is one characterisation (I’ll leave you to work it out) who does not feel totally plausible.

It does feel a long book, in terms of words and scope.  It is highly reflective with a lot of evaluating the past and the lessons learnt.  I feel it is almost but not quite up there amongst his best work, there are scenes which will likely remain with me for a long time but I think that the fact that I found myself struggling with a star rating for this (even as I was writing this review) suggests it was not a five star read for me but a very high four star work. 

Lessons was published in hardback by Jonathan Cape and as an e-book by Vintage on 13th September.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

All The Broken Places – John Boyne (Doubleday 2022)

A new John Boyne title is always a reading highlight for me.  I’ve read 7 of his up to now, 4 of which have ended up in my end of year Top 10s. I was both thrilled and made nervous by his decision to write a sequel to his most famous and my 2nd favourite of his, (“The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is probably still my most loved book of the 21st Century so far), “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” (2006) which I read in 2018 when it was runner up in my Books Of The Year to “The Count Of Monte Cristo.”

It is such an impressively self-contained piece that it seems an unlikely and perhaps unnecessary book to have a sequel.  In his Author’s Note John Boyne says he’s been mulling the idea over for years and the isolation of lockdown felt like the right time.  The question for me was, did I want to revisit these characters in another setting?

This is the first-person narrative of Gretel, the sister to Bruno, main character in “Striped Pyjamas” and it follows a dual narrative, one which moves through time from the end of World War II and one taking place in modern day London.  Here, Gretel is a sprightly 91 year old living in a smart apartment in Winterville Court, overlooking Hyde Park, the other narrative explores how Gretel has reached this point in her life.

Unsurprisingly, the central theme in the novel is guilt. Gretel has got to 91 living daily with her family’s involvement in the hostilities in the place Bruno thought was called “Out-With”.  The immediate post-war years saw a need for re-invention in different locations until she settles in London. 

My dilemma here, and I think this will be the case for many readers, is Gretel.  She is realistically rather than sympathetically drawn but I couldn’t help rooting for her and I struggled whether this was the right response, and this was likely to be the author’s intention.  Obviously she has got to an old age thousands were deprived of and there are some extraordinary moments in her past which will stop you in your tracks and will fundamentally change the way you feel about this character in “Striped Pyjamas” and Boyne does extremely well to also convey her effectively as an elderly woman still struggling after many decades to come to terms with her past.

Supporting characters do not seem as well drawn as in other of this author’s novels (especially in the contemporary section) but we are seeing them from Gretel’s perspective and words and she is very wrapped up in herself, so perhaps this is appropriate.  As “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” builds to a big twist there are a couple of those along the way for those readers looking for a big reveal.

I did enjoy this and wanted to know what was going on but my ongoing niggle as to whether a sequel was necessary was unresolved and so I take that as meaning that this book is not as Essential as “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas”.  All of the now 8 Boyne works I have read have had something in them to enrich my life but this  for me does not quite make it into my Top 5 of his novels.  It is thought-provoking and at times really gripping but remains slightly in the shadow of his 2006 masterpiece.

All The Broken Places is published by Doubleday on September 15th 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Whale Tattoo- Jon Ransom (2022)

This debut is published by The Muswell Press, an independent publishing house I’d not heard of before but a look at their catalogue shows they are putting out some very promising new material alongside fascinating Classic Crime list and a Queer Classics strand re-publishing out-of-print titles which deserve another airing.  So far so good!  They currently have a title “Scent” by Isabel Costello longlisted for the Polari Prize, the pre-eminent LGBTQ+ award and I can only think Ransom’s work must have been published after the cut-off date for 2022 as this would certainly seem to be worthy of consideration.

The novel hinges on a back-story event of a washed up whale on the Norfolk coast who Joe Gunner believes is an omen of further death which will haunt him.  I expected a ghostly, lyrical piece but this is a highly visceral read with lots of bodily fluids, copious amount of vomit and armpits and underpants which makes for a slightly uncomfortable highly sensory read (thank goodness a scratch and sniff version is not available!).  It’s dark, raw and relentlessly gritty as Joe returns home after a period of attempting to escape harsh realities.  One of the main sources of anguish, Tim Fysh, has married Dora yet wants to pick up with Joe where they left off.  It’s a tale of hurried encounters, of numbing lust, love and hate.  The river like the dying whale speaks to Joe taunting him for his return and his mistakes.

Its simmering power will continue to haunt me for some time although I would have relished a little more lightness.  Some plot turns surprised me and considering it is peopled with characters that were not always easy to care for I found myself driven to find out what would happen to them and the portrayal of this unsympathetic environment had a very hypnotic pull making this an impressive, unflinching debut.

The Whale Tattoo was published in paperback by Muswell Press on 3rd February 2022.

Let’s Do It- Bob Stanley (2022)

This is the second non-fiction work with this title I’ve read this year.  First up was a five star biography of Victoria Wood by Jasper Rees, this second “Let’s Do It”  also merits my highest rating.  Subtitled “The Birth Of Pop” by music writer, DJ, film producer and founding member of classy pop act Saint Etienne, Bob Stanley.

I read Bob’s work in “Record Collector” and even when I have no connection with what he is writing about (just a glance at my 100 Essential CD Countdown will show I’m pretty much on the margins for what “Record Collector” considers significant) I always enjoy his column and when I heard about this book decided that this author would probably be up to the gargantuan task he has set himself.

Over nearly 600 pages in the hardback edition Bob Stanley illuminates the history, the chronology and the connections of popular music, giving pretty much equal weight to the US and UK- a parallel history which had points of convergence and divergence over the decades but one in which the UK, until the British Invasion of the 1960s pretty much took the supporting role. 

This is very much the story before the British Invasion.  I haven’t read his critically acclaimed “Yeah Yeah Yeah” (2013) which is a chronicle of modern pop and for which this is a much needed prequel of what went on before and I would say this history, maybe because of its further distance from us could be the more fascinating.

Is there a starting point in the development of popular music?  It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to cite Ragtime and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” from 1899, the sheet music of which was the first to sell a million copies and  from this point the author is able to track the separation of “serious” classical music to what came to be considered “popular” and its huge significance to our world.  He succinctly sums up the appeal and influence of the major players along the way including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra as well as shining lights on people whose positions attained in the pop hierarchy may not have been as stellar, for one reason or another.

Bob Stanley is a brilliant guide because you do believe he has absorbed all this music from decades before any of us were born and his love of popular music, in all its forms, shine through.  He can be great when he’s not buying it (Al Jolson, Rice/Lloyd Webber, much of Tom Jones) but in a book where the scope is so huge and there’s so many names to be mentioned that half a page suggests an artist who has really made an impact his writing can be outstanding. 

On Nat King Cole;

Gradually his style became sleeker, soft and comforting, but slightly rough, like corduroy.  His delivery, like his piano playing, was relaxed, economical and emphatic.  When he sang you felt like you could trust him completely, and when he told a story, it sounded as if he was making it up off the top of his head.

On the (still) under-rated British singer Matt Monro, who Stanley acknowledges “there was never anything but kindness and warmth in his singing”;

He still looked like the bus conductor he had been before turning pro, like he’d just given the school bully a clip round the ear and chucked him off the 68 to Chalk Farm.  No matter what the exotic setting on his album covers, you could cut the shot of Monro and place him on a Watney’s pub backdrop and it would fit just as well.  A pint of bitter at his side, a fag in his hand.  Never a cigar.  Part of his classiness was that he never looked down on his own.  Monro was a working man’s hero.  In this respect certainly, he was Sinatra’s equal.”

On Shirley Bassey;

“When she sang Sweet Charity’s “Big Spender” in 1967 (wouldn’t you like to have fun, fun, fun?) it was like the hardest girl in school had taken a shine to you and was repeatedly slamming you against her locker door.”

If you had never heard of these three artists Stanley’s interpretation of what made them fit into the pop canon would be enough.

Is there a central character in the way that I suspect (but don’t know) that The Beatles would dominate “Yeah Yeah Yeah”?  Answer- not really because the fickle nature of pop suggests there’s always something else around the corner, those who survive were able to reinvent themselves or their timing was just right to take them onto the next big thing and judging by index references that would be Frank Sinatra (who Bob Stanley really wishes had stuck to his original retirement plan of 1971), Duke Ellington (so influential and who moved back and forth from “serious” to “pop”) and Bing Crosby (who was so popular).  Also hugely significant is the body of songs now known as The Great American Songbook from the greatest songwriters of all time and whose influence can be felt throughout the 500+ pages (and played a very important part in the careers of those I’ve mentioned above).

Reading books about music nowadays is a treat because with Spotify you can be seconds away from listening to performers whose work you would probably never have accessed.  Here are some of the artists I added to playlists whilst reading this book who I feel need to be discovered/rediscovered by me: –

Reginald Foresythe, Henry Hall, Art Tatum, Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, Dick Haymes, Frankie Laine, The Andrews Sisters, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Roy Hamilton, The Tokens, Caterina Valente, Chris Connor, Nat King Cole, Earl Bostic, Sammy Davis Jnr

Reading this book has been a joy and I feel there is more to come in discovering some of the music I read about.  Highly recommended for all music fans and I will very soon be purchasing “Yeah Yeah Yeah” for the next part of the story.

Let’s Do It was published in hardback by Faber in May 2022.

Isaac And The Egg- Bobby Palmer (Headline Review 2022)

Not too deeply within me lurks a bibliotherapist.  I strongly believe in the importance of fiction in mental health and its ability to support and heal- when a carefully chosen text connects with the reader at the right time.  I have done the odd course on this and it is something I may wish to pursue further in the future.  I think its most potent power works subconsciously and positive change can be brought about in implicit connections between the text and the reader.  The thing that makes this a knotty area is just like with the development of a reader where it is never the same books that propel the fledging reader into a life-long bookaholic so not every book with the potential to heal would work with each individual.

It was with an open mind that I approached this debut which has a strong pre-publication buzz.  I just know that in future months there will be people saying how much this book has helped them, the issue of grief is central and here it is turned into a very commercial read.  But, as I said above, I don’t think everyone who begins this book would get as much out of it but it is certainly worth giving it a go.

Newly widowed Isaac has reached his lowest point when he encounters a creature in the woods.  “The Egg” felt like one of those Furby toys in my mind, the author likens it to an abominable snowman painted on a hard-boiled egg by a child.  The Egg is taken home and over time helps Isaac begin to cope with the total collapse of his life. There is a mystery which builds up which kept this reader going when the shenanigans between Man and Egg begin to grate (which they occasionally did and which may be the point where readers give up).

There are references which we will be aware of which the author is right to make explicit, especially so to “ET”, when scenes feel reminiscent the author cannily acknowledges this.  Links to popular films are used as a device here as Isaac and Egg spend much time watching these.

I do feel (and I am acknowledging the bad pun here ) that at times the author has over-egged his tale and you might not look at beans on toast the same way again but these tragi-slapstick moments do give it a very filmic quality which suggests a film/tv adaptation wouldn’t be out of the question.  The writing is lively and of a good quality which suggests Bobby Palmer is a writer to be reckoned with, and an attention-grabbing debut is a very shrewd introduction.  This is also a gift of a book for reading group discussions.  If this is the first time you have heard about this make a mental note as I think novel and author are about to make an impact.

Issac and The Egg is published by Headline Review on 18th August 2022 .  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Queen Of Dirt Island – Donal Ryan (Doubleday 2022)

Donal Ryan’s last novel “Strange Flowers” (2020) was voted Novel Of The Year at the Irish Book Awards.  Do not be surprised if he does it again with this which I think is even better.

I absolutely loved his debut “The Spinning Heart” (2012) a book voted “Irish Book Of The Decade”.  By the winter 2015 edition of NB magazine I was putting it forward as my choice for “Best Book Of The Twenty-First Century So Far”.

“Strange Flowers” took a while for me to get into.  I felt the narrative style chosen with its very matter of fact fable or fairy story feel initially held me at bay and it wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through that I realised the extent this canny author had immersed me into the book.  Here, in what is very much a companion piece to “Strange Flowers” (although it works fine as a stand-alone) I was with him right from the start.

It is set in the same location with some of the same characters in a more supporting role this time but moving on a generation as we meet four generations of a family from rural Tipperary.  Main character Saoirse is brought up by her mother with daily visits from her grandmother who supports her daughter-in-law widowed at the very beginnings of motherhood.  Nana and Mother are the lifeblood of this novel, squabbling yet totally supportive, both have been let down by families in their past but they are not going to do that to the current generation.  The last novel was dominated by the superb characterisation of Alexander, who I loved, here it is the relationship between the two strong women who pull the others through the ups and downs of life.

And what I really like about this book is that life just goes on, the community faces some quite shocking events and keeps going.  Towards the end two characters who were central in the last book give their perspective to Saoirse in a way in which she thinks they might break out into the old Doris Day hit “Que Sera Sera” but this viewpoint does permeate the lives here.  So much is subtle and underplayed and you don’t expect that from what is ostensibly a family saga. Nothing is laboured.  Most of the characters would not even understand the relevance of the title, relating to a piece of land held by Mother’s family which has little part to play for most of the novel, other than it informs her personality.  The narrative style gives a lightness of touch I wasn’t as aware of in the previous novel.

Characterisation is so rich, Donal Ryan has created a set of characters who are so well developed within a short space of time.  He brings a whole community to life.  In a way (although the characterisations and location are completely different) it felt to me just a tad reminiscent of what Armistead Maupin was trying to achieve in his “Tales Of The City” series, but I think Donal Ryan’s handling of this is stronger.  He carried this off brilliantly in the talking heads approach of “The Spinning Heart” and has achieved it here within a very different narrative style.  It is totally involving and very impressive writing.

The Queen Of Dirt Island is published by Transworld Digital as an ebook and Doubleday as a hardback on 18th August 2022  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Night Ship- Jess Kidd (Canongate 2022)

I’m up to date with Jess Kidd’s four adult titles.  Two strong four star works, “Himself” (2016) and “The Hoarder” (2018) paved the way for her triumphant five star Victorian London-set work “Things In Jars” (2019) which ended up in my Top 10 Books Of The Year for 2019.  I also had the pleasure of interviewing her for Issue 90 of NB magazine when her debut was published so I was very pleased to receive this pre-publication copy of her latest.

We have a dual time setting, firstly the 1628 voyage of a Dutch boat, The Batavia, setting sail towards the place it was named after (now Jakarta) with young Mayken on board accompanied by her nursemaid Imke.  The ultimate destination is a father Mayken does not know, following the death of her mother.  Running alongside this is a strand from 1989 where Gil arrives at Beacon Island on the Australian West Coast to live with a grandfather he barely knows following the death of his mother.  These characters are mirrored beautifully in the early stages and it is not long before we discover Beacon Island is where the survivors of the Batavia shipwreck ended up.  Ghosts always have a part to play in Jess Kidd’s novels, here their influence is quite subtle with the echoes of the events of the past constantly just nudging the twentieth century Australians.  Both Mayken and Gil are great characters and both become touched by supernatural elements and the folklore of sea monsters.

Jess Kidd is using the real events and people of the ill-fated Batavia voyage.  What I really love about this author’s work is how the history sparks her into imaginative realms.  This was especially so in “Things In Jars” where the developments in medicine were seamlessly incorporated into a gripping mystery novel.   I think here her desire to follow the events of what actually happened as a tribute to those who perished in the seventeenth century have stopped this from taking flight in quite the same way.  The child’s imaginations of a sea monster being present for Mayken feels a little stodgy for Gil who comes across the story of the Bunyip in a discarded book.

These are minor gripes about what is, if not an Essential five star read like “Things In Jars”, a strong novel which shows how well Jess Kidd  is  developing  as a storyteller and historian.  This is my second favourite of her four novels and should continue to enhance her reputation as one of our most effervescent writers.

The Night Ship will be published by Canongate on 11th August 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Other Names For Love – Taymour Soomro (Harvill Secker 2022)

Pakistani author Taymour Soomro’s debut sees teenage Fahad very reluctantly accompanying his father to his upcountry farm estate in Abad, an area developed largely from jungle as his power-hungry father is keen to tell everyone.  Fahad would rather spend his summer with his mother in London or Karachi but Rafik wants to toughen him up, show off his own power and influence in the area and present Fahad as the next generation.

Fahad is unable to fit into his father’s image of him.  Things seem to improve when ex-London resident and Rafik’s cousin Mousey returns home but his motives challenge Rafik’s plans.  A young man, Ali, is introduced to Fahad as a role model but Fahad finds himself attracted to him.

Tradition and the importance of family are two unsurprising themes here with those unable to sustain those values being swept aside.  The characters are unable to express their feelings to one another causing long lasting frustration and resentment.  Rafik’s need for power and prestige cannot allow anyone to stand in his way.

The story is well told and there are some lovely moments especially in the interactions between characters, Fahad with the “young thug” Ali and also with his aging father in the latter stages of the novel but for me it did not have the resonance I was expecting.

The author switches from father to son’s perspective within the third person narrative and there are jumps in time which gives a jerky, disjointed feel at times which sometimes I can actually appreciate in novels but here I think it affects the reader’s relationships with the characters.

I didn’t feel that I knew the characters well enough.  There is so much potential within the cast here, Rafik, Fahad, the mother, father’s cousin Mousey and Ali have all potential to blend into something outstanding but I felt the author was only allowing me to have a superficial understanding of them as if something was being held back.  I felt this particularly with main character Fahad, on this occasion leaving the reader to fill in the gaps influences the reader’s response to him.  I felt I wasn’t being pulled in to the novel as consistently as I could have been.

I do feel however that Taymour Soomro has provided us with a very visual work and there are considerable poignant, subtle scenes.  A TV/film adaptation could work very well indeed incorporating these beautiful small moments within the novel into a visual narrative.

Other Names For Love is published by Harvill Secker on 7th July 2022.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.