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.  This 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.

The Appeal – Janice Hallett (2021)

A book from my “What I Should Have Read in 2021” list. I could see the potential of what is being promoted as a modern day Agatha Christie but had slight concerns that its reliance on e-mails, text messages and post-it notes might make it gimmicky with the whole style over substance debate threatening.

I needn’t have worried.  If we are considering this debut in the “Cosy Crime” genre then this is the best “Cosy Crime” book I have ever read.  Normally, mid-way through this type of book my attention wanders and I have to pull it back for the ending which I either find satisfactory or not.  Here, I hung on every word, really focused on reading between the lines and found the whole thing extremely involving. 

The structure is watertight.  Written communication makes up the entire book, also including local press reports, police transcripts as well as the aforementioned means of modern messaging.  There’s a murder but not until about mid-way through and I loved not even knowing who the first victim was going to be. 

The novel centres around an amateur dramatics group about to embark on Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and central character and bit-part player Isabel Beck is thrilled by the prospect.  This time she has introduced a new couple to the group, nurses fresh from volunteering in Africa.  Their dynamic challenges the established set-up of the group which revolves around the founding family, the Haywards.  Focus is switched when a small child becomes ill and the society needs to divert to fund-raising and that is all I am going to say about the plot.

The forms of communication (there’s lots of e-mails) allows for bias and unreliable narrators a-plenty.  Isabel is a great character who early on we glean comes across very differently in real life compared to her exuberant messages.

This book really had me thinking about minor plot details, spotting inconsistencies and having these confirmed or otherwise by the set-up of a couple of young legals reviewing the evidence.

I loved this and am fascinated where the author will go next.  This work seems a real labour of love and is so tightly structured.  It seems I won’t potentially have to wait too long as her next novel “The Twyford Code” has just been published.  It apparently follows along audio transcripts so she is approaching it stylistically in a similar style.  It will be interesting to see if she gets away with it twice or whether this book works so well as it is a fresh, original one-off.  But for the time being, this is an excellent work, my first 5 star read of the year and one that even though I now know exactly what went on amongst the Fairway Players I would be very happy to read (between the lines) again.

The Appeal was published by Viper in 2021.

Black Drop – Leonora Nattrass (Viper 2021)

It’s London in 1794 and those with power are nervous. A fragile treaty with America is being attempted, relations with France have become further rattled by events following the French Revolution, and their own subjects fill the pungent air with talk of sedition and treason. This provides the starting point for Leonora Nattrass’ historical  debut novel.

Nattrass has combined fictional characters with those really around at the time and provides us with a useful cast list at the beginning (I consulted this a number of times).  Largely the confession of Foreign Office clerk Laurence Jago, who is hiding his French ancestry and offering information to a shadowy female spy (an underdeveloped character I felt here and perhaps the only one the author does not bring fully to life).  Jago becomes implicated in leaking information which would hurt the British army in France but he is innocent and the house of cards he had built up around himself begins to fall.

This is Jago’s narrative throughout and he meets some lively characters, most notably Philpott, a loyalist journalist who the author states she based upon William Cobbett, who brings a lot of life to the scenes he is in, including one set in a menagerie.  There’s much political intrigue in this well-researched novel but I found it most gripping away from the main plot to uncover spies when it deals with the human cost and the changing loyalties of the volatile mobs.  A trial for treason follows closely along historical facts and involves the Prime Minister William Pitt and provides a high point of the novel.  The title refers to a laudanam type medicine Jago becomes addicted to but this is somewhat underplayed.  This is a strong debut from a promising author.  There were, admittedly, times when my attention wandered but I was pulled back in and found myself caring about the outcome for these characters.

Black Drop is published by Viper on October 14th 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Mrs March- Virginia Feito (4th Estate 2021)

This is a stylish, mannered debut by an American author who has been compared to Shirley Jackson and Ottessa Moshfegh.  I can appreciate these comparisons as it doesn’t take long to realise that underneath the veneer of respectability something dark might just be going on.

Feito drips feeds this to us and this could frustrate some readers.  I felt a little frustrated myself at times but I kept reading and it did draw me in.  Mrs March’s husband has a successful new novel out and his wife is told she resembles his main character.  She hasn’t read the book but knows that Johanna is a hard-to-like prostitute.  This causes shifts in Mrs March’s mental balance and as things go off-kilter she begins to suspect her husband is a killer.  Plot-wise that’s about it, but there’s much more than plot going on here.

Mrs March is self-centred and only sees the world from her point of view.  It’s a third person narrative but the formality holds the reader at bay.  Mrs March is not referred to by her first name.

There’s also the setting – the smart New York apartment, but when is it set?  There’s a 1960’s Jackie Kennedy- as- style- icon vibe, with real furs being worn, the Lawrence Welk show on TV but there’s nothing to cling onto here and there are Rubik’s cubes which only became a thing in the 80’s.  I found myself highlighting every reference to try and pin this down realising that Feito is playing with us, unsettling us throughout which is very effective.  It doesn’t matter when it was set but it feels like it does. 

I felt undertones of the work of Ira Levin, not just “Rosemary’s Baby” but also “Sliver” and “The Stepford Wives” and as I was obsessed with his work when a teenager I experienced quite a nostalgic chill even though Feito’s work is a 2021 publication.

The disorientation the author nicely sets up is enriched by hallucinations, something is definitely not right here.  I was expecting a “Ka-boom!” moment to hit me between the eyes which Ottessa Moshfegh’t “Eileen” did to me, but Feito is content to keep us simmering and questioning what we are reading but not sure of what questions to ask of ourselves.  This makes for a slick, surprisingly emotionally complex debut.

Mrs March is published in the UK by Fourth Estate on 4th August 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

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.