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.

The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex (Picador 2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such A Fun Age – Kiley Reid (2020)

On the day I finished this it was announced that Philadelphian resident Kelly Reid had won the Best Debut Award at The Goodreads Choice Awards, voted for by readers.  I am not surprised that this book has won a popular vote as I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year.

There are a lot of complex issues in this book presented in a highly readable, involving form.  I found myself holding my breath when reading it, I was so gripped by the turn of events and felt on edge for the characters.  It is very much a book for our age, certainly in keeping with a couple of other books written by women of colour I have read this year which feel so relevant, as well as being very well-written, Kia Abdullah’s stunning legal thriller “Truth Be Told” and Candice Carty-Williams’ British take in “Queenie”.

Reid’s richly drawn main character is Emira, a 25 year old young black woman living in Philadelphia who works part-time as a babysitter for two white children.  One night, whilst at a party, she is called on for emergency child-care in order to remove the toddler Briar from the house for a time.  With limited choices available at that time of night, Emira takes Briar to a supermarket which sets off a whole chain of events.  This makes for a jaw dropping, tense beginning and repercussions and analysis of this event occupies all the main characters.  At the supermarket the proceedings are filmed by a white man, Kelley, who Emira begins a relationship with.  Her white employer, Alix becomes obsessed with this event and with Emira herself.  The multi-layered plot thickens continually until the characters are in a right old stew.  Whose behaviour is without blame?  Who is using who to score points and how far can all of the characters’ actions and justifications be classed as racist? It is especially pertinent (following the publication of this book) with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s non-fiction work “Why I’m Not Talking To White People About Race” (2018) belatedly topping the UK best sellers list but here we have some of these issues within a vibrantly written, involving fiction work which is so impressive.  There is great warmth and humour which also deepens the issues raised.  If we are to class this as an issue-led book it is so rich in character.  I would imagine this could well be a very big bestseller when the paperback is published on 29th December. 

My only reservation is the title and I know it’s ironic but it doesn’t convey the feel of the book and may detract purchasers, especially in the UK, where it has a kind of a “jolly hockey-sticks” air about it but surely this will be compensated by the very good word of mouth and its featuring in end of year lists, including The Daily Telegraph’s Best Books, that Goodreads win, a Booker longlist nod and The Independent calling it “the book of the year.”

“Such A Fun Age” was published in hardback in the UK in 2020 by Bloomsbury Circus.  The paperback edition is scheduled for 29th December.

Who They Was- Gabriel Krauze (Harper Collins 2020)

krauze

Gabriel Krauze’s debut novel has attracted considerable attention since it was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.  Most of us would probably have not heard of it before the list was announced and even though I have only so far read one other book which has made it onto the list ( C Pam Zhang’s “How Much Of These Fields Is Gold”) I would say this is certainly short-list worthy.

It’s definitely not a comfort read.  It’s being marketed as an autobiographical novel from an author now in his thirties who lived a life of crime from his teenage years, here in this novel, even whilst studying English Lit at University.  Centred around the estates in South Kilburn this is a tale of casual violence, drugs, theft and where wearing an expensive watch is asking for trouble as they get stolen from their original owner and seemingly again and again from the thieves.

To begin with Gabriel, known as Snoopz, fits perfectly into this life and works with those keen to escalate the takings (and the violence).  Following a scholarship at a private school his Polish Dad and especially his mother, with naturally high hopes for her offspring, are dumbfounded but supportive.  Relationships are casual and with men bonded over drug taking and crime plotting and with women just disturbing as any attachment other than physical only seems to occur when they are apart.  University life is important to him but there’s a self-destructive attitude struggling to find prominence over a keen brain.

It’s written in street slang which slows the reader down but gives a vibrant energy to events.  I’ve never read anything quite like this from a British perspective.  The closest I can think of outside of this is Marlon James’s “A Brief History Of Seven Killings” which won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 although I think that book was more multi-layered than this more straightforward narrative.

I’m not going to get round to many more in the Booker list but I would place it above C Pam Zhang’s novel as I feel this is a more striking, relevant work.  I’m not sure what this author would do next but I’m fascinated to find out.

four-star

Who They Was was published as an e-book on 3rd August and will be published on 3rd September 2020 in hardback by Harper Collins.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Little Gods – Anna Richards (2009)

littlegods

I remember this book coming out with a big buzz around it (gosh, was that really 11 years ago?) A debut novel with an on-cover recommendation from Ali Smith and comparisons to John Irving and Michael Chabon this British author looked set for very good things.

All too often it doesn’t always go to plan. This book is still in print but there doesn’t appear to have been any further publications by this author in the intervening years.

Right towards the end of the book Anna Richards puts her title into context. “Love makes little gods of us all. It awards the power to shatter the existence of someone who, by loving, has made themselves glass.” There are a lot of emotionally fragile characters in this novel.

I say emotionally because physically main character Jean is a robust giant of a woman whose sheer physical presence unnerves people. An unwanted child, her mother Wisteria is almost a caricature of a neglectful mother and has no redeeming features which makes for some difficult reading early on. Jean is redeemed in the early days of World War II when an explosion destroys her house and allows her to start again with her best pal from the sweet shop, Gloria. Their tale turns in a very unpredictable fashion, unsurprisingly, as it is set in very unpredictable times, which takes the women to new situations in the post-war years. Richards is determined not to allow us to get comfortable with these characters in this well-structured work. Jean, especially, is pushed onwards into these new situations even before she can adapt to her present. Plot-wise this can at times be a little frustrating as it shifts the tone of the novel but Jean is a great character who the reader wills on to succeed.

It’s bold and brash, not always rooted in a sense of location which can give it a kind of fairy-tale feel and this can be both enthralling and distancing. That is, until life deals Jean another bitter blow and we are hurtled back to reality. I enjoyed it and feel it is a highly promising debut which would re-read well, which is often my criteria for a four star rating. I think it would go down well as a reading group choice as there would be so much to discuss.

four-star

 

Little Gods was first published by Picador in the UK in 2009

The Recovery Of Rose Gold- Stephanie Wrobel (Michael Joseph 2020)

rosegold

Here’s a debut that has had a big buzz around it pre-publication. Stephanie Wrobel is a Chicago born writer now living in the UK who has ditched her advertising agency copywriting work to concentrate on fiction and the feel is that this could very much be one of the biggest thrillers of the year. I was determined to get in before the hype and find out if this buzz is deserving. I’ve already mentioned it in my Looking Back Looking Forward post so I know I’m adding to that hype but now I’ve read it I’m more than delighted to build up a bit of anticipation for readers. It is very good.

Taking as its theme (although I don’t think it’s actually mentioned by name in the text) Munchausen By Proxy, which is a fascinating idea ripe with dramatic potential the novel opens with Patty Watts being released from her prison sentence for child abuse which was sustained over a number of years treating her daughter as if she was seriously ill. On release she (and this is such a good idea for gripping fiction) goes back to live with the daughter, Rose Gold, now in her twenties with a family of her own. I’m saying little more about the plot but it wouldn’t take too much conjecturing to realise the potential. These two damaged women attempt to put together the pieces of their fractured relationship. Is this going to be a second chance for them or will they not be able to escape the traumas of the past?

The author uses an effective structure of two first-person narratives from the main characters with different time settings. Mother Patty focuses on the time from her release and Rose Gold’s narrative is interspersed moving from the time of the mother’s conviction towards Patty’s present day. Given the context of the plot this works sublimely.

It has an under the surface darkness which I love and it builds beautifully. This is certainly a read to look out for.

fivestars

The Recovery Of Rose Gold is published in hardback by Michael Joseph on  5th March 2020.  Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.

The Animals Of Lockwood Manor – Jane Healey (Mantle 2020)

lockwood

With Sarah Waters absent from fiction since 2014’s “The Paying Guest” here comes the latest author who has incorporated the feel and themes of some of her work into their debut novel. This also reminded me slightly of Sara Collins’ 2019 debut “The Confessions Of Frannie Langton” and that as well as selling well was one of the most critically acclaimed titles of last year scoring the Costa First Novel Award. Jane Healey here has produced a commercial literary novel which has the potential to do well.

Set largely in the early years of World War II museum director Hetty Cartwright is evacuated together with a sizeable collection of stuffed mammals to Lockwood Manor where recently widowed Major Lord Lockwood lives with his daughter Lucy. Hetty has much to prove in the male world of museums and she attempts to do this professionally in this large country house populated by a dwindling staff who view the extra work caused by the displays as a nuisance. Someone begins tampering with the collection but is it human or supernatural? The Major’s wife had been turned mad by the house which had proved to be too alien for her Caribbean upbringing (shades of “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca”) and her surviving daughter fears for her own sanity in the stifling atmosphere which proves conducive to nightmares.

Narrated alternately by Hetty and Lucy there is generally a good feel for the period but I think the author could have ramped up the tension of life in the house but as the novel progresses I feel that this is lost a little with the focus moving to the relationship of the two leading female characters (incidentally, I felt exactly the same about “Frannie Langton.”)

I found it easy to read, polished it off quite quickly and was involved throughout and enjoyed the turns of the plot but it never managed to crank up to the higher gear which would have made this more memorable. For me the standout book I’ve read in recent years of this type is still Laura Carlin’s “The Wicked Cometh” and as diverting as this is I don’t think it came up to that debut’s standard.

threestars

 

The Animals Of Lockwood Manor is published by Mantle on March 5th 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Swimming In The Dark – Tomasz Jedrowski (2020)

swimming

The first of the books I highlighted as those I wanted to look out for in 2020 is this debut written in English by a German born author with Polish heritage. It is an impressively written tale of the relationship between two young men set in Poland during the late 70’s/early 80’s at a time of great unrest.

The pair meet at a summer work camp picking beetroots and the development of this blossoming connection is handled very effectively. Behind much of this lies another book, “Giovanni’s Room” by black American author James Baldwin,  a suppressed text which main character and narrator Ludwik glues between the covers of another publication becoming the link which forges he and Janusz closer together. (Incidentally in a recent Guardian interview with Sara Collins of Costa winning “Confessions Of Frannie Langton” fame she praises Baldwin’s work as her choice for most under-rated novel calling it a “perfect love story.” I’ve been thinking for a time that I should re-read this and this book has further convinced me that I should do so.) In the novel Ludwik is researching the author for his doctorate and in fact just a couple of years after this novel was set I was doing the same for my degree dissertation. Ludwik faces the additional difficulties of a system where who you know is important in his quest to get his academic work off the ground.

The relationship is threatened by the atmosphere in Poland and the political differences between the two men. The whole narrative is directed towards Janusz as an explanation behind the actions and feelings Ludwik had at the time which he could not express to him face to face. The difficulties of dealing with same sex attraction at different times and places appears in many novels I have read but I feel that these stories need telling and retelling and this literary work is a very welcome addition to this.

My slight quibble is to do with the number of chance encounters the two men seem to have but maybe when attraction is that strong they can’t avoid the pull of fate that places them in similar locations at the same time. Well written and a strong debut, it had the feel of Andre Aciman’s “Call Me By Your Name” which became an Oscar winning film, especially stylistically in this book’s more languid moments but I think I may have enjoyed Tomasz Jedrowski’s novel slightly more.

fourstars

Swimming In The Dark is published by Bloomsbury on February 6th 2020. Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.

The House Of Impossible Beauties – Joseph Cassara (2018) – A Rainbow Read

rainbow

 

cassara

I feel like I’m on familiar ground here. Since publication I’ve been aware of this title and was delighted to see it chosen as an end of year pick by Cathy @ 746 Books as featured in my “Looking Around…” post in January. Familiar because this is the third work I have experienced this year that has taken as its source the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning”, which I have also re-watched this year and which once again blew me away (it’s on Netflix). Actually, it may very well be the 4th because the whole set-up of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” is indebted to the 1980’s New York Drag Balls scene which is the subject of this documentary but more explicitly this year we’ve had the Ryan Murphy TV series “Pose” which aired on BBC2 to much acclaim. British author Niven Govinden’s take on this with his 2019 novel “This Brutal House” and now American author Cassara’s debut which was published last year.

Comparisons are inevitable especially as the source material and all of the off-shoots have so far all impressed. Govinden’s novel had as its centre a silent protest against official incompetence in a narrative stream of great energy and rhythm in what was very much a literary take where the plot was less essential than the language and its cast of characters seeking their own family groupings for support and safety. This is also very much the case in “Pose”, character led with great performances and an unprecedented visibility of trans actors but had the Drag Balls themselves more as its focus.

Cassara has focused even closer on the characters, here, the real-life House Of Xtravaganza family, mothered by Angel and comprising of runaways; her lover Hector, transsexual Venus, “banjee boys” Daniel and Juanito and the older observer Dorian, characterisation which will feel familiar to those who have watched “Paris Is Burning” from where their stories are developed.

“The House Of Impossible Beauties” has a wider chronological spread from 1976-1993 which for gay New Yorkers means it has an essentially epic sweep featuring a remarkable period of their history. This encompasses the defining of identity in the hedonistic days of disco, to the forging of their own groupings through the “families” and Drag Balls in the early 80’s leading to a move towards their own self and society’s acceptance and having that shattered through the years of the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath.

I think the subjects Cassara deals with are always going to draw me in. This novel is sparky, touching, funny, fiery and yet becomes increasingly tinged with the inevitability of tragedy. Cassara has both followed the plotlines of the Xtravaganzas as featured in “Paris Is Burning” and broadened their existence with his fictional twists. Perhaps more than “Pose” it shows the struggles in terms of coping with discrimination, poverty, prostitution and mortality but like the television series it is all done with great humanity and compassion and more than a fair share of glitter. That is why, like “Pose” this is an important piece of work, which in terms of the journey the author puts the reader through does outshine the slightly later-to-be published “This Brutal House”. For this reason I am awarding it five stars but take note, this is enough now. No more Drag Balls or “Paris Is Burning” inspirations for a while. I am very happy having this novel, “Pose” and “This Brutal House” all representing this era because they are all high quality works, let’s not oversaturate this particular market.

fivestars

The House Of Impossible Beauties was published by Oneworld in 2018.

The Chalk Man – C J Tudor (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

imagesN8KPZ1YT

chalkman2

“Every kid wants to find a dead body. About the only thing a twelve year old boy wants to find more is a spaceship, buried treasure or a porn mag.”

These sentiments expressesd in CJ Tudor’s debut remind me very much of “Stand By Me”, the film based upon the short story by Stephen King and the King feel looms large throughout this book, there is even a front cover recommendation from the man himself who has obviously noted that he and Tudor are pulling in the same direction as he states; “If you like my stuff, you’ll like this.”

But don’t think this is some Stephen King rip-off as it is has an identity all of its own. For a start it is British set in a town called Anderbury located around 20 miles from Bournemouth. We have a narrative of two time spans – 1986 with the aforementioned twelve year old boys and thirty years later when a discovery made back then in the woods is still holding the main characters back.

I was really looking forward to the 1980’s setting and I think the author does a pretty good job of conjuring up what it was like to be twelve in the mid-80s but I think I was looking for a stronger feel of the period, but then again I suppose we can’t expect this particular group of adolescents to be too aware of what was going on around them, they are just living their last innocent summer before some horrific realities of life kick in.

What the author does do very well in her debut is to keep a tense atmosphere throughout. A terrifying incident at a fairground packs one hell of a punch early on and from then on we know that lives will never be the same again. I like the ambiguity in the title referring both to chalk figures used by main character Ed and his pals to communicate; to drawings which have resurfaced in the later narrative strand and to the nickname of an albino teacher who makes his presence felt in the summer before he joins the children’s school. This all adds to the richness and edginess of the book.

Characterisation is memorable, the resolution perhaps not as satisfactory as the build- up but I often feel that way about crime novels. I really like the idea of us having a budding Stephen King here in the UK and I could also feel the influence of another of the author’s literary heroes, James Herbert. This is well-written edgy crime, that never allows the reader to truly relax and which does hover towards horror on quite a few occasions. I’m not surprised that it has appeared on a good number of “Best Of 2018” lists.
fourstars

The Chalk Man was published by Penguin in 2018.