Shadow Play – Joseph O’ Connor (2019)

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One of my selections of books I  highlighted in my  2019 What I Should Have Read post which I just managed to fit in before the end of the year where it ended up in 4th place in my  Books Of The Year.  Short-listed for a Costa Award (losing in the final judgement to Jonathan Coe) but victorious in the Irish Book Awards Eason Novel of the year this is Irish writer Joseph O’Connor’s 9th novel. I’ve not read his celebrated work “Star Of The Sea” (nor anything else by him) but I will be looking out for this to read this year as I feel I’ve made a real discovery here.

This is a beautifully written historical work which represents pretty much a love triangle between actor and impresario Sir Henry Irving, founder of the Lyceum Theatre, hugely popular actress Ellen Terry and “Dracula” author Bram Stoker. As well as his using various narrative techniques as in Stoker’s most famous work O’Connor drops seeds of inspiration throughout showing how Stoker came up with his iconic creation. Largely unknown as a writer in his lifetime, Stoker earnt his living as general manager and dogsbody in Irving’s theatre, attempting to find time to write against his employer’s wishes. All three characters are a little obsessed with one another and this proves fascinating reading.

Also fascinating is spotting the allusions to “Dracula”, some obvious (characters called Mina and Harker) and some more subtle and beautifully interwoven into the text.

It is the quality of the writing that makes this book a joy. O’Connor is good with multi-sensory lists which build such evocative pictures of the time. The narrative touches in at different parts of their lives and an undercurrent to all are the crimes of Jack The Ripper.

The main narrative thrust ends with the death of Irving but then there is a Coda which I initially didn’t warm to feeling it unnecessary but this change of atmosphere achieved here really drew me in and was so beautifully written that I felt close to tears at the end. For an author to change the pace and mood of the piece feels brave, for it to work so well is a real achievement.

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Shadow Play was published in hardback by Harvill Secker in 2019. The paperback is due in May 2020.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2019 – The Top 5

Right, let’s crack on with this.  Here is the rest of the countdown.

5. The Meaning Of Night – Michael Cox (2006) (Read and reviewed in July)

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Amazingly the only book I re-read this year, just a couple of years ago I had read enough re-reads to give them their own separate Top 10 but I cannot ignore this book and so my Book Of The Year from 2007 makes it into the Top 5 for this year.  It is a strange one, I read it and totally love it but after I finished it the events in the novel seem to rapidly fade from my memory and I struggle to remember what it was about even when I can remember books I enjoyed much less in greater detail.  This has happened twice which makes me think there is some kind of ethereal quality to this which causes it to dissipate once finished.  It’s a great Victorian revenge novel and I said of it “On completion the feeling was of total satisfaction for a high quality reading experience. This novel does seem to have faded from public consciousness but I can’t help feeling that a sensitive tv or film adaptation could bring it back to the top of bestsellers lists.” Maybe that will happen in 2020.

4. Shadowplay – Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker 2019) (Read in December not yet reviewed)

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I highlighted this in my earlier 2019- What I Should Have Read post and managed to squeeze it in before the end of the year.  A full review of this will follow but this is a splendid historical novel, shortlisted for Best Novel at the Costas, with Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula the main character and here part of a long-lasting love triangle with actress Ellen Terry and actor and theatre impresario Sir Henry Irving.

3. Sanditon – Jane Austen and Another Lady (Corgi 1975) (Read and reviewed in December)

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I can’t say I’ve ever been tempted to read a novel which has been finished by someone else after the original author had died before completion, particularly one that was completed 150 years later.  This was all changed by the ITV adaptation which was one of this year’s television highlights as far as I was concerned and a recommendation from my friend and colleague Louise who felt I should read how it should have ended (well how “another lady” wanted it to end anyway).  I always thought the joins between the two authors would be obvious but I thought this was done seamlessly and ended up enjoying this more than when I re-read “Pride And Prejudice” a couple of years back.

2. Little – Edward Carey (Gallic 2018) (Read and Reviewed in June)

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Another splendid historical novel with that added bit of quirkiness which I so often find appealing.  This is a fictionalised account of the early life of Madame Tussaud.  Punctuated throughout with little pencil drawings which adds much to the experience.  I said of this “Through a first-person narrative Carey has created an enthralling character I will probably remember forever.  Written with gusto and an eccentric energy “Little” will not be beaten down however bad circumstances get.  There’s a naivety and optimism which fuels this novel- she is certainly no “Little Nell” yet the skill of storytelling here will suggest comparisons to Charles Dickens.”

1.Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (Hutchinson 2018) (Read and reviewed in April)

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This sublime account of the later years of Truman Capote and an act of literary betrayal towards his friends was always going to be in with a strong shot of being at the summit this year.  Debut author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s position was further cemented when I went to see her talk about this book at this year’s Isle Of Wight Literary Festival following its publication in paperback.  I said of it “I was hooked from the moment I saw printed on the back cover; “They told him everything.  He told everybody else.”  It is a novel fuelled by gossip which makes it sound tacky but it is so beautifully written and every word seems considered and measured.”  I can’t remember ever falling for a book written in the third person (by a chorus of the betrayed women) but here it worked just brilliantly.

So Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott joins my Hall Of Fame for producing the book which has given me the most pleasure this year.  She becomes the first American author to do since 2014.   Here is my list of my favourite books going back to 2008.

2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2020!

2019 – What I Should Have Read

Here’s something that I did last year which I feel is worth revisiting.  My post 2018 – What I Should Have Read  highlighted ten publications that I felt I had missed out on by not reading.  Looking back on these now I see I actually read 5 out of those 10 this year which was a pretty good success rate.  Here are this year’s 10 books which I just haven’t got round to but feel as if I should and which I will hopefully put right in the first few months of 2020.

We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff – Louise Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe)

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Completely passed  me by until I saw it placed at number 39 in the Telegraph’s Top 50 Books Of The Year.  I was fascinated by the description of it as ” a garrulous, magical-realist and Brexit-tinged comedy about a pair of trans migrants working at a “no star” hotel on the Isle Of Wight”.  Being an ex-hotel owner on the Isle Of Wight myself this sounded a perfect match (although we had plenty of stars, thank you) so found myself clicking the Buy It Now button on Amazon to get this book from a small publishing company I had also not heard of until now.

Shadow Play – Joseph O’Connor   (Harvill Secker)

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I haven’t read any Joseph O’Connor to date although I’m a little surprised that I have never got round to his most celebrated “Star Of The Sea” but this book has also got a good smattering of critical acclaim this year and has been shortlisted for Best Novel at The Costa Book Awards where the judges have praised it as exploring “the danger and complexity of unconventional love, the restlessness of creativity, and the experiences that led to the creation of the most iconic supernatural tale of all time.”  That tale is “Dracula” as this novel features Bram Stoker alongside actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.  This kind of rich, historical novel is right up my street and often features on my end of Best of Year lists.  I have a copy out from the library so should get round to finding out if this will be the case.

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (Harvill Secker)

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I’ve been reading about this book for some time now, in pieces about translations it gets a mention because it is a big Japanese seller that is making its English language debut this year after 25 years.  Translated by Stephen Snyder, The Guardian describes it as “the story of an island where both objects and memories are “disappeared” by shadowy totalitarian forces” and that “this timeless fable of control and loss feels more timely than ever.”  Not the sort of thing I read often (I have never read a translated Japanese novel) I was  fascinated enough to also pick up a library copy the other day and am waiting to begin this.

The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (Fleet)

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Another book I hadn’t heard of until my workmate Louise mentioned that she had bought it for herself for Christmas hoping it was going to be this year’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies“.  You don’t need to be that regular a visitor to this site to know how much I love that book and after about five seconds perusing her copy I ordered this for myself.  It has made more of a splash so far in the US where it won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Outstanding Adult Fiction beating strong finalists Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black” (how many times am I going to mention this title before reading it!) and Tommy Orange’s “There There”, it has been a New York Times Top 10 Bestseller and scooped The Stonewall Prize as well as being shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and a US National Book Award.  Although it first appeared in 2018 the paperback came out this summer and it has been picking up 2019 awards so thought I should include this tale set in Chicago and Paris at the time of the first years of the AIDS crisis.  I know I’m going to need tissues for this one.  Can’t tell you more about it as my copy is in my Amazon parcel which I’m not opening until Christmas Day.

Leading Men – Christopher Castellani (W&N)

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Also in that Amazon parcel is this book described by Celeste Ng as “a timeless and heart-breaking love story”, a fictional account of the relationship between Tennesee Williams and his long term partner Frank Merlo, this sounds like it can be 2019’s “Swan Song”.  Reviewers are talking about Castellani’s recreation of the glamour of 1950’s Italy, which sounds ideal for discovering  during the post-New Year slump when short days and short-lived diets feel as if they will go on forever!

Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan 

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I’ve also got a copy of this already sat on my shelves and feel like I should have read it.  I can absolutely love Ian McEwan “Atonement“, his early short story collections, and “Enduring Love” have all embedded themselves in my psyche.  I can also just really enjoy him as in “Innocent” “Saturday” and his most recent pre 2019 publication, the clever “Nutshell“.  He can also leave me unimpressed as in his Booker Prize winning “Amsterdam”.  He put out two books this year and this seems to be the one worth bothering with, but with its themes of Artificial Intelligence I’m not absolutely convinced I am going to love it- but I do hope to get round to finding out.

The Secret Commonwealth – Philip Pullman (David Fickling Books)

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This year I caught up with Lyra’s adventures in “La Belle Sauvage” just as this second in the “Book Of Dust” sequence was published.  I reserved a copy from the library but the reservation list grew too long and I doubted whether I’d be able to finish it within three weeks so I cancelled my reservation until the demand dropped.  But with the TV adaptation of “His Dark Materials” (which I started off loving, then wasn’t sure but am enjoying again now) doing so well I’m sure I’m going to have to wait some time for the demand to drop.  The Guardian in their round up of the year describes it as a “huge, challenging novel (which) asks the reader more questions than it answers”.  Am I ready for this yet?

Me- Elton John (Macmillan)

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I’m not a massive Elton fan but he has been around so long that you just can’t ignore him.  I have seen him perform live (with George Michael) although I think his glory days as a performer are probably now behind him.  This year I watched “Rocketman” which I felt was okay as a film, although did very much admire Taron Egerton’s portrayal (more so than the Oscar winning Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody”) but Elton knows everything about everybody so this autobiography seems like a must.  The Guardian felt that it might very well be the celebrity memoir of the decade and the Telegraph had it at number 8 in their books of the year describing it as “gossipy”, “self-aware” and “as eye-popping as his wardrobe”.  I enjoyed his interview with Graham Norton on TV recently and want to read his revelations before they become common knowledge.

Chinglish – Sue Cheung (Andersen)

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I seem to make this reading resolution every year.  I must read more Young Adult Fiction.  I have missed out this year on this 1980’s Coventry set account of a teen living over her parent’s Chinese takeaway restaurant.  The Guardian feels that “it will resonate with any teenage reader who feels alien or left out.”  Apparently funny and moving in equal measures this is a title I am determined to seek out.

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton)

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One of the big hitters of the year which made headlines when jointly awarded the Booker Prize.  In the furore of the judges not being able to make up their minds between this and Margaret Attwood’s best-selling follow-up to “The Handmaid’s Tale” “The Testaments” it was this title which seemed to be winning the hearts of critics.  Described as “innovative”, “fresh”, “life-affirming”, brimming with “heart and humour”, it’s the title on what felt like an underwhelming shortlist that I would have been most likely to have wanted to read.  I’m a bit put off by it being a verse poem which explains why I’ve not placed it higher on this list but I do very often read the Booker winning titles so feel I should at least give it a go.

Which books did you not get round to reading this year?