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.

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.

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.

Rainbow Milk- Paul Mendez (2020)

I have at last got round to a book I highlighted in my annual “What I Should Have Read” post back at the end of 2020.  Excellent reviews on publication and fulsome praise by Bernardine Evaristo on the teatime Richard & Judy Bookclub during lockdown had me eagerly anticipating and I bought the paperback the day it was published.  That was February 2021 and inexplicably it just stayed on the shelf.  I was beginning to think it might not live up to my long-held expectations and that may have been the reason I was choosing other titles.  The recent series of BBC’s book show “Between The Covers” saw more praise from author and comedian Deborah Frances-White who described it as “so beautiful, so literary” when selecting it as her favourite book pick.  This made me realise I had procrastinated for too long.

I knew the outline for this book, Jesse, a young black male from the Midlands who has grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness is disfellowshipped because of rumours about his sexuality and flees to London and becomes a sex worker.  I knew it would be edgy, explicit, and that debut author Paul Mendez enjoyed  proclamations that an important new British voice had arrived with his writing which was said to have a strong autobiographical element.

This only goes someway.  It actually begins in the 1950s with recent immigrants Norman and Claudette and their two small children discovering the British dream they’d been tempted by wasn’t quite true and with Norman becoming unwell Charlotte was having to hold down two jobs while he looked after the children.  Jesse’s story begins 50 pages in and it is not clear for a considerable time how the two strands connect.

Despite Deborah Frances-White’s TV recommendation I was still surprised by how well rounded and literary this debut is.  It increasingly reminded me of the best work of Booker Prize winning Alan Hollinghurst.  Yes, it is explicit and I hope that the details of how the young Jesse makes his money to survive in London will not deter readers because this is just one element of a story which amazingly given the subject matter is full of hope and life-affirming.

Mendez handles language very well and there is a multi-sensory richness to his work.  He uses two potential pitfalls well.  He’s not afraid of dialect, especially in the early scenes where Jamaica meets Black Country.  At one point a French character is introduced and whilst reading a lengthy explanation from her I wondered if Mendez was just pushing this a little too far but her role in the novel is brief.  The other thing which he does well which is not always a success in fiction is rooting in its time through the use of many music references.  The sound of the Sugababes, turn of the Millennium R&B and hiphop and earlier bands such as Joy Division permeate and enhance this novel. This is a very strong, confident debut and I hope that given the two years since publication that Paul Mendez will soon be ready with something else to further boost his reputation. 

Rainbow Milk was published in 2020 by Dialogue Books   

The Whalebone Theatre- Joanna Quinn (Penguin 2022)

Dorset author Joanna Quinn has produced a very strong debut here.  Her depiction of the Seagrave family between 1919 and 1945 is full of wonderful moments.  The manor house at Chilcombe, a village which actually exists 10 miles from Dorchester (last estimated population in 2013 was 10!) is lovingly created and provides the central focus although the action splinters to other locations during the war years this house is the lifeblood for this novel.

A great favourite of mine is Dodie Smith’s “I Capture The Castle” (1949) and I am regularly tempted by works which aim to get the feel of that novel, with its memorable characters, excellent set-pieces and its superb balance of being heart-warming, funny and poignant within a family setting.  Get this balance slightly off and it shows and I tend to end up not really responding positively but Joanna Quinn, whether this is an explicit aim or not, gets the feel of this type of novel beautifully and the first half was a thing of sheer of joy which I loved reading.  At the mid-way point I thought I’d got a strong contender for my Book of The Year.  From the outbreak of war, when the characters inevitably leave to play their part, I felt it slipped into more standard fare, which I still very much enjoyed but for me the real magic of the first half was not sustained.

Playing a part is an important theme of this novel.  Fish out of water Christabel is a toddler when her father arrives at Chilcombe with a new wife and the family dynamics further change in time leaving Christabel very much an outsider.  Her life changes when the corpse of an errant whale washes up on the beach.  With younger siblings and others originally encountered on the beach where the whale lies dead Christabel develops a theatre on Seagrave land using the whale bones in its construction.  The theatre where friends and family all have a part to play brings Christabel into the fold.  This “Swish Of The Curtain” aspect gives this novel  a vitality and the notion of the theatre simmers away in Christabel’s heart when war takes her far away from Chilcombe.

The war sees these memorable characters involved at home and overseas- some slip away at this point and have little part to play in future proceedings but others develop a stronger focus. Looking at my review of “I Capture The Castle” I also say that it is a book of two halves, with the first half more captivating for me than the second.  I’d actually forgotten about that when I read “The Whalebone Theatre” and even when I began writing this review but it’s interesting (for me anyway) that I felt the same way about a book I just can’t help comparing this to.

It is a splendid debut and this was enriched for me by the Dorset location, as a newcomer to the County myself I loved the references to places I have so recently visited and the mentions of my new home town in an earlier part of its history.  This book will charm and thrill many readers and could be a very pleasing commercial as well as critical success.

The Whalebone Theatre is published in the UK by Penguin on June 9th. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Manningtree Witches – A. K. Blakemore (2021)

Winner of the 2021 Desmond Elliott Prize which is given to the best debut novel and a book I highlighted in my 2021 round-up of “Books I Should Have Read”.  At the time I mentioned “A quick look at Amazon reviews suggest some readers have not really got it which might make it a bit of a Marmite novel.”  Well, having now read it it’s time to reveal where I am on the love/hate divide and just like the actual yeast extract spread, I love it.

I do have a bias towards historical novels, 7 years of reviewsrevues have taught me this.  The 1640’s setting is going to tick boxes for me.  I also like it when there is a fiction/fact overlap, particularly in the use of characters (most existed here) and documentation.  The author weaves in (but does not overdo) statements from the 1645 Witch Trials.  I have a taste for darkness, and the work of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins certainly brings that but perhaps the main reason I am giving this debut five stars might have been the reason it turned off some readers.  The language is rich, detailed and poetic, just occasionally over-wordy, this award-winning poet certainly came up with a few words I had never heard before.  I actually felt this added to the depth of the novel and enriched the sensory experiences such evocative language conjures up.

This is the narrative of nineteen year old Rebecca West, daughter of Anne, who has her own local nickname, the Beldam West, a good-natured woman who keeps an eye on the less fortunate including the ancient one-legged Old Mother Clarke, but who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  Her occasional clashes with neighbours does not help her when Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins takes over the local inn and begins his puritanical interfering into the lives of these country folk in Manningtree, Essex.

Plot-wise we know what it going to come.  A group of women will be singled out and victimised and manoeuvred into confession.  Rebecca finds herself in this situation because of her mother and others she associates with and not even her blossoming relationship with Hopkins’ Secretary, Matthew Eades will help.

Characters are strong here, some of the women are adept at saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  I felt myself both cringing and full of sympathy for them.  The author has avoided the stereotypical baddie in her creation of Hopkins which we might have expected from horror films (and some of the criticism aimed at this book has been because of this) but her depiction of him as misguided and hypocritical rather than out and out evil makes him seem more rounded as a character.  There is often black humour in the townsfolks’ dealing with him and the situations he brings about. 

The subject matter was always going to win me over but A.K Blakemore’s poetic recreation of this dangerous world was so rich.  The evidence sought to prove consorting with the Devil is ludicrous and the seventeenth century prejudice, hypocrisy and victimisation still resonates in this world we live in.  The author, in her Afterword, acknowledges areas of the world where individuals are still murdered because of accusations of witchcraft.  This is a potent debut.

The Manningtree Witches was published by Granta in 2021.

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.

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.

The Love Songs Of W E B Du Bois – Honoree Fanonne Jeffers

Attracting much critical acclaim in the US and an Oprah Book Club pick which ensures high sales this is a big book in terms of size and themes, coming in at just under 800 pages and an extraordinary debut from an award-winning poet.

It is both an epic saga taking in generations of an African American family from Chicasetta, Georgia and in a parallel first-person narrative an intimate, unflinching study of the youngest member Ailey, focusing in very close detail on her upbringing and academic studies.  A family tree at the front of the book is vital as one narrative begins with the Native American inhabitants of the land moving to the rise of the plantation and slavery moving through the generations slowly slotting things into place as Ailey begins her own studies of her family history.

The historical narrative is powerful, beautifully written and impressive.  This is a long book, however, and it does at time sprawl which can place demands on the reader.  This author loves detail and this is most evident in Ailey’s account which is so closely observed and meticulous in its detail.  It was here that I felt the odd twinge of frustration, especially in Ailey’s college years and her response to American academia.  However, this is a book which will leave the reader feeling changed, this long time spent in the company of Ailey’s family (you can’t rush through this book) will provide the reader with a change of perspective in terms of American history, race and feminism.

It never gets any easier reading about slavery and it is important that it doesn’t.  Ailey’s contemporary account highlights the more subtle forms of racism, including what is referred to here as “Black Tax” where the African-American has to work harder to achieve the same results.

I know I am not the intended audience for what the author unapologetically describes in her Coda as “a black feminist novel” and “undoubtedly a woman’s novel” but I was very impressed.

The Love Songs Of W E B Du Bois was published on 20th January 2022 by 4th Estate in the UK. Many thanks to the publishers and NB magazine for the review copy. This review, along with many others of recently published books can be found at the Review Centre on the NB website.

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.