Theatre Of Marvels- Lianne Dillsworth (Hutchinson Heinemann 2022)

This is a debut I’ve been looking forward to and highlighted as one to watch out for in my start of the year post.  I’m feeling pleased with myself as this is the 9th of the 10 of these titles I’ve read and it’s only April!

Lianne Dillsworth has put her MA in Victorian Studies to very good use in this 1840’s London set tale which is the first person narrative of Zillah, a mixed race twenty year old.  Zillah has escaped the poor dwellings of St Giles to become the lover of a Viscount and the headline attraction of Crillick’s  Variety Theatre.  Cast as a “genuine” African native, The Great Amazonia, her tribal dances and staged sacrifices thrill and horrify the audience.  Yet Zillah is a “gaffed freak”, not at all what the theatre is making her out to be and when the secret is blown her time will be up.  An audience member, the distinguished looking Black grocer, Lucius Winter, is dismayed by this duping of the public and Zillah’s role in this and things take a sinister turn when Crillick aims to introduce more authentic exhibits as part of a new disturbing venture.

Zillah is a sparky character who begins to see the error of her ways and passing as someone you are not is a main theme here as well as the notions behind the government plans for resettlement of the London’s Black poor to Sierra Leone.  But this increasingly becomes a tale of rescue and this is done very effectively due to the author’s good story-telling skills.  I liked the Variety Theatre as a central location and the atmosphere of this is well conveyed.  This is an easy read which contains thought-provoking issues, making it a very good Book group choice.  I do feel that keeping Zillah as the narrator throughout makes it seem a little one-note, I think I might have appreciated the odd shift in narrative style as at times it feels a little “reported”.  There were incidents that I would have loved to have been fleshed out, particularly with regards to Zillah’s back story.  This is a strong debut which feels very commercial and should win the author many fans.

Theatre Of Marvels is published in hardback by Hutchinson Heinemann on April 28th 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential Books- Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2022)

I’m not sure what I was expecting from Booker Prize Winner and current holder of my Book Of The Year Douglas Stuart’s second novel.  The promise of a 1990’s set tale of young love in a working-class Glasgow setting suggested the author was not going to stray too far from “Shuggie Bain” territory and there may be some who claim this to be a re-tread with 15 year old Mungo Hamilton’s relationship with a toxic mother being again a main focus.  This, however, is an outstanding novel and, I certainly wasn’t expecting to write this next bit, because of its greater focus on plot and sublime storytelling it is even better than his multi-award winning debut and perhaps the best book I have read since John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017)

It is another tale of a daily battle of survival here as Mungo battles against his environment, his disturbing older brother, Hamish, who overcompensates for his lack of height and thick glasses by being a ringleader for violence with an obsession for destroying the local Catholic youth and his mother Maureen, (known affectionately by Mungo as Mo-Maw) alcoholic and often absent.  In “Shuggie Bain” the mother character, the monstrous but appealing Agnes is given a central role.  Here, Mungo has to go it alone even more against Maureen’s fewer redeeming characteristics.  His only ally, Jodie, is looking for an out through education, an escape route which proves more flawed than she might expect.

The central narrative thread takes place over a May Bank Holiday weekend in the early 1990s making this a decade or so after the action of “Shuggie Bain”.  Mungo, battered and bruised from some incident is sent on a fishing trip to the Lochs with two of his mother’s friends.  We are plunged into a tragi-comic situation of two alcoholics negotiating a journey completely outside their everyday existence with the naïve Mungo in tow.  We know it is not going to go well.

Alongside this are the events leading up to this expedition.  Mungo’s life shifts from the mundane and the threats of violence when he meets James, a Catholic boy with a dead mother and father who works away on an oil-rig in James’ hand-built doocot (pigeon coop).  The boys find escape in caring for the pigeons (in a way reminiscent of Barry Hines’ “A Kestrel For A Knave” and film adaptation “Kes” of which there are echoes here and we know how well that turned out) and then in one another as love blossoms amongst the religious divide.

Once again, it’s beautifully written, there’s humour and warmth amongst the horrors but BAM! this author can hit you right between the eyes with shocking scenes of physical and psychological violence. Without doubt the mix can at times prove a difficult read.  I never thought I’d feel more sympathy towards a character than Shuggie, but Mungo, with his facial tics, unsuitable attire and devotion to a mother whose actions are consistently poorly-judged tops it.  Stuart does push further with the miseries than he did in the debut really putting his young hero through it and there is the odd moment where he might have been in danger of pushing too far and risking melodrama but such strong characterisations rooted so convincingly stops this from happening.  I did finish this feeling emotionally purged finding moments that I did not really want to read on from but ultimately being totally unable to take my eyes off the book.

I think if you are new to Douglas Stuart I’d suggest starting with the debut as he sets his stall out as a writer so well and then take this on to appreciate the upping of the ante.  I think the many, many readers who hold “Shuggie Bain”, like me, so dear in their hearts are going to be so impressed by this.

Young Mungo is published in the UK by Picador in hardback and as an e-book on 14th April 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Memphis- Tara M. Stringfellow (John Murray 2022)

Tara M. Stringfellow’s debut novel focusing on three generations of a family living in Memphis could only have been written by a poet.  There’s a voluptuousness to her words, a richness in description, an over-ripeness which beautifully conveys Memphis, Tennessee.

In 1995 Miriam returns in her battered car with daughters Joan and Mya and Wolf the dog to the house she grew up in and to her sister August and her son Derek.  Joan’s unexpected reaction to her cousin shows that there is a history to this family.  We jump around a fair bit incorporating Miriam and August’s upbringing and their parents, especially mother Hazel, but the focus is on the eight years after Joan’s return to Memphis. She is given a first-person narrative which is interspersed by third-person narratives which focus on the other characters.  The women are central, the male characters are little under-realised which is no doubt the author’s intention.  It is time to let these impressive women have their say away from the troubles that these men cause for the family.

At times it was hard not to be reminded of another “return home” Southern Black American saga I read recently, the critically acclaimed “The Love Songs Of W E B DuBois” by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers.  Both are debuts by women who have made their name in poetry and whereas I felt that Fanonne Jeffers’ novel was too long “Memphis” is too short.  I wanted more from the lives of these women, especially August, who is a terrific character and who I felt could have been further fleshed out through her own narrative.  But every author knows the importance of leaving their readers wanting more and that is why I would give “Memphis” the slight edge.  The importance of carving out one’s own route is emphasised in both books and this can be found through education.  There’s enough autobiographical clues in the author’s acknowledgements to indicate that Tara M. Stringfellow was really writing what she knows with elements of plot and characterisation overlapping her own life.

This is a very strong contemporary saga which deserves a wide readership.

“Memphis” is published by John Murray in the UK on April 7th 2022.  Many thanks  to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

This Might Hurt – Stephanie Wrobel (Michael Joseph 2022)

Stephanie Wrobel’s 2020 debut known in the UK as “The Recovery Of Rose Gold” was a 5 star little gem of a novel.  Its Munchausen By Proxy theme (although never actually specified in the book) fascinated me and it had an “under the surface darkness” which I loved.  It just missed out on my Top 10 Books Of The Year.

So, naturally, I was keen to read the author’s second novel although I must admit that when I heard the main setting was an island retreat for those who want to be fearless I didn’t experience the same anticipation as I did for the debut but I was keen to add the name of Stephanie Wrobel to my list of authors with two or more 5* reviews on this site (and because I am so stingy with my top rating she would have been only the 10th author to achieve this).

However, and as the title states, “this might hurt”, for me this book fell quite a bit short of my top rating and compared to her last book I felt so disappointed that I contemplated a two star but then appreciated that I had set the bar so high in my mind for this particular author and that 3 stars was the most fitting for this work.

Firstly, I found the narrative structure confusing.  I read enough books not to be confused by characters, but here I was, I thought maybe I was being misdirected on purpose and expected some big reveal but it never happened, I had just got characters confused.  I also love a bit of darkness but here I couldn’t get to grips with the sadistic nature of fearlessness or why these particular characters saw it as desirable.

There’s a number of first-person narratives here.  A child is being bullied into her father’s vision of reaching her full potential, being made to score “positive” and “negative” achievements and facing punishment if her score does not make his grade.  A young woman is at an island retreat getting her life back together when her sister receives a “I know what you did” type email and she goes to the island to confess a family secret.

The plot did not have enough to really hold me and unfortunately and surprisingly, considering how I felt about “Rose Gold”, the characters did not come alive  for me.

There are pluses, however, I liked the sense of isolation on the island and the not knowing whether anything was what it seemed was done very well.  It is another accessible, commercial read.  It is in comparison with Stephanie Wrobel’s previous work that this, for me, feels a little flat.

This Might Hurt is published in the UK by Michael Joseph on 3rd March 2022.  Many thanks to the author and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Mouth To Mouth – Antoine Wilson (Atlantic 2022)

Here’s a title I flagged up as one of the potential highlights of 2022 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  The narrator, a writer en-route to Berlin is delayed at JFK Airport and meets a man he vaguely knew twenty years before.  They share drinks in the lounge and this man, Jeff, regales the narrator with what has happened to him in the intervening time. 

It centres around an occasion when he reluctantly saved a man from drowning and his interest in the man he saved verges on the obsessive as he inveigles his way into his life.  This theme reminded me slightly of Ian McEwan’s impressive “Enduring Love” but the subject matter is handled differently here.

There’s an element of suspension of disbelief required for Jeff’s story forms virtually the whole of the book suggesting this is one long flight delay, for his account is so detailed, our narrator must hardly have got a word in.  It is a recounting of a tale told second-hand which seems a brave narrative style for a whole novel as that distance means characters are not fleshed out in the way that they could have been.

It is an interesting conceit but to be honest it didn’t really blow me away and whilst involved, and it is undeniably well-handled by Wilson, I didn’t feel that once-remove really pulled me into the actual narrative.

I can see why some readers would really like this book and I can also see why it might leave some unconvinced.  Unusually for me, I’m somewhat stuck in the middle.  I wonder if it might just be one of those books that do not completely win me over but leaves an impression which lingers hauntingly, lasting longer in my imagination than books which I had a stronger immediate response to.  Time will tell….

Mouth To Mouth is published in the UK by Atlantic Books on March 3rd 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Good Day To Die – Amen Alonge (Quercus 2022)

Here is a series debut I highlighted as one I wanted to read this year and a title which has appeared on at least a couple of forthcoming publications recommended reads lists.  Lagos born trainee London solicitor Amen Alonge has written a very commercial novel which may attract those who do not regularly read fiction.  It’s a day in the life of a young black man known only as “Pretty Boy” by some other characters who arrives back in London with a clear desire for revenge but who, by accepting a piece of jewellery as part payment for a debt provokes a lot of unforeseen circumstances.

It’s violent, it’s brash and unsentimental and both visually and aurally strong, as the author soundtracks many scenes by mentioning what music is being listened to.  It is branded well, especially with regards to cars and weaponry and at times is gripping and always involving.

It’s not easy to write violence and Alonge does a good job focusing on the details leading up to an attack and then dispatching characters quickly.  A couple of scenes are overwritten which gives a cartoonish quality and that is one of the inherent dangers of reading such scenes as compared to watching them on-screen.

It is hard to get into the mindset of these characters which can make them seem inconsistent.  The author uses a mixture of first-person narrative from “Pretty Boy” (which is strong) and a third person narrative which at times I felt slightly confusing.  There is a need to give the main character a back story which features mainly in a chunk in the last quarter of the book but I don’t know whether it helped in fully fleshing him out. 

Indeed, this may not matter as this is Book 1 of a projected series so there is plenty of time for “Pretty Boy” to grow as a character.  There is a freshness to this which I find invigorating but I don’t think the comparisons I’d seen to “The Wire” US TV series are helpful as that is one of TV’s modern greats and a masterclass in writing and crafting a narrative and these comparisons may have built up expectations for me which I do not feel were fully delivered.

Amen Alonge is a vibrant new voice in crime fiction and I would be interested to see where he goes with this character next.

A Good Day To Die is published by Quercus on 17th February 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Love Marriage- Monica Ali (Virago 2022)

I haven’t read Monica Ali for 18 years since her outstanding debut “Brick Lane” which was my runner up Book Of The Year back in 2004.

This is her fifth novel which shows once again her great skill at creating characters who will really resonate with the reader.  In this book this is particularly the case away from the two main protagonists as she gives us an extremely memorable supporting cast. 

Doctors Yasmin and Joe are planning their wedding.  Yasmin’s father is a straight-laced Indian GP, who keeps himself to himself and likes nothing better than diagnosing case studies with his daughter.  Her mother wears mis-matched charity shop clothes and handles each situation through cooking.  Joe’s mother is a feminist writer and intellectual, infamous because of a naked photo which Yasmin’s brother Arif takes great delight in.

Ongoing preparations for the wedding causes both families to implode, Joe to seek therapy and Yasmin to act completely out of character.  There is a delicious lightness of touch which makes it an enjoyable read and yet there is darkness in each of the lives which gradually become revealed to Yasmin who is a self-declared maker of “all sorts of misjudgements and assumptions” which is only too common when dealing with all of our responses to family.

I enjoyed the obviously well-researched medical setting; the lives in the hospital compared to the lives in the two very different family settings.

It doesn’t feel as essential a book as “Brick Lane” which felt so right at its time of publication and has since become a modern day classic but this is a strong, highly satisfactory read.

Love Marriage is published in the UK by Virago on February 3rd 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. 

A Flicker In The Dark – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins 2022)

I highlighted this debut in my “Looking Back Looking Forward post”, a Louisiana set thriller described by top crime writer Jeffery Deaver as “an unstoppable journey through the psychology of evil, and of courage (in many senses), all told in a pitch-perfect literary style.”

I don’t read many psychological thrillers nowadays, the market seems flooded with them and I find them a little samey but here we have a strong example.

Psychologist Chloe Davis is our damaged first-person narrator.  Keeping herself well-dosed with prescription medication she is facing the twentieth anniversary of a case she helped to crack as a 12 year old when, horrifically, her father was imprisoned for the abduction and suspected murder of 6 teenage girls.  All this happened in Breaux Bridge, “the Crawfish capital of the world”, a small-town environment Chloe had to escape from after the disintegration of her family.

Now in Baton Rouge and on the verge of marriage her world crumbles again when it looks like a copycat killer is murdering in her local area.

Chloe is implicated, needs to clear her name and takes too long to involve the police (which is so often the case in this sort of book).  Three quarters of the way through the tension is ramped up by unforeseen (by me) twists which continues to impress to its conclusion.  It was a resolution I saw coming early on, then didn’t, then forgot all about as Willingham skilfully misdirects with careful plotting.  It reads well, the Louisiana setting effectively makes its presence known and I am not surprised that options for a TV adaptation have reputedly been picked up.

Flicker In The Dark is published on 3rd February 2022 by Harper Collins in the UK.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Devotion- Hannah Kent (Picador 2022)

That’s 3 out of 3 novels I’ve read now by Australian author Hannah Kent, a prospect I’d so anticipated that I highlighted this new title in my “Looking Back, Looking Forward” post.

Her 2013 debut “Burial Rites” recreated nineteenth century Iceland, incorporating Icelandic sagas into the narrative and a use of documents and reports which really impressed me but I gave the slight edge to 2017’s “The Good People” set in a nineteenth century Irish village entrenched with folklore and fairies in a dark, foreboding read.  It’s three good four star reads in a row as far as I am concerned but maybe if forced to rank them “Devotion” would be at number three.

We are still in the nineteenth century but we begin in Kay, a Prussian village and a small community of Old Lutherans facing persecution for their beliefs.  Amongst them is narrator Hanne, an adolescent who sees herself as “forever nature’s child” and as an outsider to the rest of the community content with adhering to the traditions of the forefathers.  Into this mix comes a new family, the Eichenwalds with mother Anna Maria, a midwife from outside the region, whose unconventional  treatments arouse suspicion and daughter Thea who recognises Hanne as a kindred spirit.

So far this feels like we are on typical Kent territory with her doing what she does so well evoking a small community battling with tradition and a fear of new ideas but this is very much a book of three parts, with a marked tonal shift in each.

The second part ramps up the adventure stakes with the community’s response to persecution and the third, with what happens afterwards becomes more lyrical, spiritual and poetic. Compared to her other novels this has the same focused intensity but here the plot events bring about a sense of space which gives contrast to the pressures of small space living

This is very much a love story between Hanne and Thea as suggested by the “Devotion” of the title and this is the unifying strength between the three parts.  This is touching, often heart-breaking and effectively conveyed throughout. 

There seems to be a 4-5 year gap between Hannah Kent’s novels, which always feel thoroughly researched and may explain this but her third novel should cement her reputation as a very good historical writer and will give new readers who come to her via this publication a chance to catch up with her work so far whilst waiting for her next book to appear.

Devotion is published in the UK on February 3rd by Picador.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Heretic – Liam McIlvanney (Harper Collins 2022)

It feels a long time since 2018’s “The Quaker” which won this author the McIlvanney Prize for Best Scottish Crime Novel, an award named after his late father, William.

The action here has moved on, same Glasgow location but six years forward to 1975.  Main character Duncan McCormack has spent the years between working in London and returns to Scotland to head up the Serious Crime Squad.  One of his team, Goldie, has suffered repercussions from McCormack’s handling of the case that brought down The Quaker, another, Shand is in the pocket of the Detective Constable’s Superior and the third member, Liz Nicol, has been moved across from the recently disbanded women’s section to work with the men.  McCormack, himself, is secretly gay in a force where his homosexuality would not be tolerated and has abandoned a promising relationship in London, putting his work before his personal life.  All of this team are outsiders which brings interesting dynamics into play.

This is quite a lengthy crime novel coming in at over 500 pages and the case hinges around two warring gangs, the Catholic Quinns and those led by the Protestant Walter Maitland, who, in the time McCormack has been down South has established a strong grip on Glasgow’s Crime World.  A house fire looks set to start up tit for tat reprisals and a body turns up amongst the rubbish heaps caused by the refuse collectors’ strikes.

Time-wise, we’ve moved into “The Sweeney” territory, with little tolerance of anyone not a white heterosexual male but I’m not sure this bigotry and misogyny comes across quite as potently as it did in “The Quaker”.

The plot is always involving, taking ambitious turns and McIlvanney had me with him all the way.  I’m not sure whether this is a series which will continue and if so whether the author is happy to stay in this time period or envisages another jump with the next book.  I don’t think I was quite as enthralled as I was with its predecessor yet this is quality crime writing.

 The Heretic is published on January 20th 2022 by Harper Collins.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.