Picador have high hopes for this novel which has been appearing on 2023 anticipated read lists from before the New Year. I knew nothing about book nor author before reading it. I wasn’t surprised on completing it to find out this is the work of a very established American writer and his sixth novel, his first being published some 33 years ago (“The Wild Colonial Boy” which has a Northern Ireland terrorism theme). Nor was I surprised that he has been making a living teaching creative writing courses at American universities and getting qualifications from the highly influential Iowa Writers Workshop as this is a technical masterclass of a novel which shows a gifted writer demonstrating much experience and talent. I also discovered, on completion, that a few years ago I’d purchased from The Great Courses a DVD course on “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques” and the tutor is James Hynes. To be honest, I’ve never actually got round to starting that but am far more motivated to do so now I have read what could be the book to bring this writer considerable international success.
“Sparrow” is the story of a slave in Ancient Rome who as a small child finds himself living amongst a group of prostitutes (“wolves”), who live and work in a tavern. It took me a little while to get into the story but that’s because the author is busy employing his tips and techniques to draw you in. Very little background is needed as we are reading a first-person narrative from the boy written as an old man looking back. He doesn’t know his own background but works from one of his first memories which is a violent altercation between an unknown man and the woman who resentfully feeds him. He is “Pusus”, which just means “boy” and the woman, another slave, referred to as “Focaria” – cook. He has no other identity and a virtually non-existent outlook on his world. Through Focaria and one of the prostitutes, known as “Euterpe” his ignorance is slowly diminished and over time his very small part of the world begins to extend a few hundred yards from the tavern.
One of the ways in which this is achieved is by the author’s multi-sensory approach and description of sights, smells, sounds, taste and the feel of the environment which allows the boy to make sense of his world and has the added bonus for us as readers in creating a very strong fictional depiction. We all know how valuable a technique this can be and here it is employed superbly. Books set in Ancient Times can be a little off-putting for some as it feels so alien and often too much information is needed to be taken on board but here as we are working through the child’s narrative we only know what we need to and his questioning of his experiences allows us to access his world. I’m not saying that this is not superbly researched but it is so seamlessly integrated and never over-complicated which also brings the reader right into the text.
Of course, all these technical skills would be pointless if the story did not involve. Time is taken with plot, strong characters are established and we see things like the boy coping with the social dynamics of getting water from the public fountain at some length before realising that a rich, gripping plot has developed which builds beautifully.
I was very impressed by this work, there are characters I will remember for a long time. The characterisation of the narrator feels as potent as “Shuggie Bain” or “Young Mungo”, two of the most vital literary depictions of male youth in recent years. It never shirks from the horrors facing these people (it’s never totally clear how old the boy is, at one point he says he thinks he is ten, which completely floored me, given the ways he has to survive). You can take these characters out of their Ancient Times setting and place them anytime in history and, shockingly, their ordeals and issues would still be relevant, a sobering realisation.
Despite the darkness of the subject matter the book does have an uplift and there is an overriding sense of hope. The boy uses a sparrow as a metaphor for escape and can visualise out-of-body experiences when things get too grim, another technique that lifts any sense of gloom and like this metaphorical sparrow this book really flies.
“Sparrow” is published by Picador on May 4th 2023. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.
This is the third novel from a British author I had not read before and what story-telling! I found this tale of a drowned girl who comes back to life in the 1880s and its setting of a stretch of the Thames between Cricklade and Oxford absolutely captivating. I said; “It is beautifully rich, imaginative, involving and operates on the thin line between myth and dark reality. I was spellbound by this book.” Looking forward to reading more by this author in 2023.
I knew I had missed out on something good when I put this book in my “What I Should Have Read in 2021” post. I had felt it calling me from a table of new titles at Waterstones. I liked the look of this book, even though it’s not the kind of book I read regularly. At that time I decided not to merely judge it by its cover but when I saw it in the library in January this year I snapped it up. It’s clever, funny, and so well structured. In my review I said “If we are considering this debut in the “Cosy Crime” genre then this is the best “Cosy Crime” book I have ever read.” Her follow-up “The Twyford Code” appeared this year and was good but did not blow me away like this did. Her new novel “The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels” is out in January.
A re-read but I had left it probably over 40 years. The plot of this novel feels like it has been with me for the whole of my life, both from the book and film adaptations (apart from the ending which I always have trouble remembering). In sections this is the best book I have ever read in my life but then there are sections that fall flat making it an uneven gem, but it is still a gem. Perhaps it is a casualty of the way in which Dickens’ novels first appeared with a certain amount of padding mid-way through to keep the issues coming. I feel that it should be Dickens’ best work- but it isn’t, but it is up there amongst his very best. Pip, Miss Havisham, Estella, Joe, Magwitch – what characters!
Two books with the same title in my Top 10. What are the chances? Luckily, both have subtitles and this one explores “The Birth Of Pop” and it is my non-fiction pick for this year (I think I have to go back to 2010 and Vince Aletti’s “The Disco Files” to find a non-fiction work I have enjoyed as much). This is a real labour of love and involved so much research for music journalist, founding member of Saint Etienne and DJ Bob Stanley. Thousands of books have been published about the music industry post-Beatles (the author published a very thorough, critically acclaimed one “Yeah Yeah Yeah” himself about decade earlier – which I am currently reading) but this charts the development of popular music from its very origins to the point where Beatlemania came in. Pop music is seen as transient and temporary but these developments inform everything that has come afterwards and so is a very important, totally fascinating history. Beginning with Ragtime and Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” the first million selling sheet music from 1899 he explores the major musical shifts and the major players with insight, humour and with love. This book had me seeking out all sorts of artists on Spotify. I felt Bob really knew what he was writing about and was able to convey his views so well and this for me was a real treat. The Telegraph had this book at number 8 in their Books Of The Year list.
Well, this is unprecedented. I’ve never given my Book Of The Year to the same author before and here is Scottish writer Douglas Stuart doing it two years in a row with his first two novels. “Shuggie Bain” – a Booker Prizewinner (and this would be a serious contender for best ever Booker winner ever in my view) blew away all the competition for me last year and I do believe that “Young Mungo” is even better. It’s the best book I have read for 5 years. It wasn’t Booker shortlisted and it didn’t get as much critical approval because some saw it as more of the same, but I really don’t understand that this is a criticism. Some did get it- It is appearing in a healthy selection of Books Of The Year list – The Telegraph had it at number 34. Emily Temple at Literary Hub produces an Ultimate Best Books list which counts the number of times books make the end of year lists in American publications and this makes it onto six lists, which earns it an Ultimate nod (the highest 14 was achieved by two novels Hernan Diaz’s “Trust” and Gabrielle Zevin’s ubiquitous “Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow”). I said “I never thought I’d feel more sympathy towards a character than Shuggie, but Mungo, with his facial tics, unsuitable attire and devotion to a mother whose actions are consistently poorly-judged tops it.” I also felt “I did finish this feeling emotionally purged finding moments that I did not really want to read on from but ultimately being totally unable to take my eyes off the book.” That for me represents an ultimate reading experience. Congratulations to Picador for publishing my ultimate favourite two years in a row. Over at Bookshop.org you can find Douglas Stuart’s list of the books which inspired him during the writing of this novel
So, Douglas Stuart makes it onto my Hall of Fame for the second time. Just for some context here are my other top titles going back to 2008
It’s time for the annual namecheck for 10 books which I didn’t get round to reading in 2022 but I think I should. Perhaps they are books I’ve intended to read since publication or titles that passed me by and which I’ve only found out about recently in end of year lists. Since publishing last year’s list I’ve got round to reading 30% of them, which is a lot lower than I would have expected. I do have 5 of them on my bookshelves or on my Kindle so hopefully I will get round to them in 2023. Here are the ten titles in alphabetical order of author’s surname.
Too Much – Tom Allen (Hodder Studio)
This is the second time comedian and TV presenter Tom has made this list. I did read his debut autobiography “No Shame” (2020) early on in 2021 which I described as “well-written, funny, significant”. This second work has his response to the death of his father as the central theme. Graham Norton’s three words to describe this are “Funny, candid and measured.” It’s a very British thing to process feelings about grief through humour and it is something which fascinates me. I look forward to seeing how Tom has achieved this.
A Tidy Ending – Joanna Cannon (Borough Press)
When am I going to get round to reading this author? I don’t know how many times I have had “The Trouble With Goats And Sheep” recommended to me and I have had it on my shelves for years. I’m not sure I fancy “Three Things About Elsie” but this 2022 novel seems up my street and I have bought a Kindle copy. It’s described as “dark comedy” which is something I approve of. The Mail On Sunday said “Cannon’s shrewd characterisation, sparky observations and subtly menacing plot makes this a darkly funny and delightfully sinister read.” Whereas I rarely believe what The Mail On Sunday say I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one because reviews are consistently good. It made the Times Thrillers Of The Year list. Right, next year is going to be the year I catch up with Joanna Cannon.
Without Warning And Only Sometimes – Kit De Waal (Tinder Press)
I haven’t read anything by Kit De Waal’s, although “My Name Is Leon” has been on my radar since publication and there is no reason why I would not get round to this, especially once I have read this memoir which made it to number 39 on the Telegraph Books Of The Year list. The only book in her house when growing up was a Bible, the possession of her Irish, Jehovah’s Witness mother. Of her childhood in 1960’s/70’s Birmingham, Kit has said; “We were the only black children at the Irish Community Centre and the only ones with a white mother at the West Indian Social Club.” Cathy Rentzenbrink has said of it “I loved it and couldn’t put it down. Both joyous and heart-breaking, it captures an era and is also a beautiful tribute to sibling love, and a completely compelling story of how one girl became a reader.” This just sounds like the perfect memoir to me.
Exit Stage Left- Nick Duerden (Headline)
I’m fascinated by the subject of this non-fiction work. Fame in the entertainment business can be intense and also fleeting. This book looks at what happens when the adulation disappears. Nick Duerden interviews a whole range of artist across the music business in a book which featured on Sunday Times, Guardian & Telegraph best books of the year list and according to Surrey Life Magazine “… is a candid and at times, laugh-out-loud look at the curious afterlife of pop stars.”
The Trees – Percival Everett (Influx Press)
It was only a few years ago that I made a determined effort with the Booker Prize to read as many as the shortlisted titles as possible before the winner was announced. In order to fit them in I had to actually read from the longlist trying to make an educated guess as to what would stay in the running. This has dwindled over the last couple of years to just reading the winner. This year I didn’t even fancy that but this was the title from the shortlist which piqued my interest. I already have an unread Percival Everett title on my bookshelves “Erasure” from 2001 but this new title promises much. The Telegraph called it “grotesquely entertaining” and the NY Times applauded its combination of “unspeakable terror and knock out comedy”. It deals with racism and police violence and yet it is funny. I’m fascinated to see how the author pulls this off. I think it would be a powerful impressive read.
In Perfect Harmony – Will Hodgkinson (Nine Eight Books)
Another music-based non-fiction title this time examining how in the grimy industrial strife of the 1970s we became awash with sunshiny pop music. Punk, disco and reggae may have been more cool but it was this more mainstream music which dominated record sales and radio playlists. This promises to be both a social and popular cultural history which appeals in the same way that Bob Stanley’s “Let’s Do It” did this year. It also made a number of best of lists in the British press. Suzi Quatro describes it as “A colourful picture of the entire 70s in Great Britain” which sounds right up my street.
Vladimir – Julia May Jonas (Picador)
This American debut fiction title made it to number 40 in the Telegraph Books Of The Year and caused quite a stir on publication. It’s a tale of obsession and has been talked about as “Lolita” in reverse as a female academic in her 50s falls for a young male novelist. The Boston Globe described it thus; “Vladimir goes into such outrageous territory that my jaw literally dropped at moments while I was reading it. There’s a rare blend here of depth of character, mesmerizing prose, and fast-paced action.” I think this is a book which sounds like it will cause a much greater impact in the UK when the paperback arrives (scheduled for Feb 2023). It sounds like a page-turning and head-turning debut.
Mercury Pictures Presents – Anthony Marra (John Murray)
This historical novel also attracted plaudits this year and was a Book Of The Year in both the Sunday Times and The Observer. It’s a tale of a woman who moves from Italy under Mussolini to Hollywood where she becomes an associate producer at a movie studio. The blurb describes it as “an epic story of love, deceit and reinvention”. Ann Patchett says it is “full of history, comedy and horror. It’s a great literary read.” Sounds good enough to me. I don’t know of American author Marra but he has been compared to literary greats such as George Orwell, Nabokov and Kafka, which does seem a very broad comparison but suggests that there’s a bit of a genius at work.
The Guncle- Stephen Rowley (GP Putnam’s)
I’ve got a bit confused by this book as to its availability over the year. I just wasn’t seeing it around like I had expected to. It looks like it was published in the UK in April but I’m sure I knew about it long before then. I’m assuming that this was because it was a big American title which gained a lot of attention in the US in 2021, reaching the shortlist in the reader chosen Goodreads awards but took a while to appear over here. I think when I was looking for it only a US edition was available. It’s a feel-good, funny novel and we can all do with some of those this winter about a once-famous gay sitcom star having to take over the care of his niece and nephew (hence the title). Author Timothy Schaffert describes it as “Delightful, sharp, and very funny. The Guncle is the cocktail equivalent of the fourth sip of your martini while you sit poolside at sunset.” We might have to swap that for a cup of tea and sitting with a blanket over your knees deciding whether to put the heating on but I think you’ll get his point!
Portable Magic – Emma Smith (Penguin)
Subtitled “A History Of Books and their Readers” from the critical appreciation being heaped on this non-fiction work it looks like Emma Smith has done what she set out to do. Colin Burrow in The Guardian described it as “Thought-provoking …fizzing with jokes…Smith does it all with such a light touch you barely notice how much you’re learning.” Lynne Truss says “Emma Smith’s terrifically knowledgeable and thoughtful Portable Magic helps us understand every aspect of what our beloved books stand for. I for one am very grateful. What a delight this book is.” Books about books, I’m know I’m probably preaching to the converted if you are reading this but I’m sure you will agree with me that this is worth seeking out.
This is my end of year report, looking back at the 10 titles I had eagerly anticipated last year and seeing how many of them I actually got around to reading as well as picking ten more choices for 2022. In 2020 I got round to reading five out of the ten titles , in 2019 three out of the ten and four out of ten the year before. Let’s see how I did in 2021.
I read this in January, the month it was published, and it was my first five star read of the year and narrowly missed out on my end of year Top 10. I’d read Washington’s prize-winning short story collection “Lot” but this cranked up to a higher gear for me. The central male couple straddle cultures and the set-up leaves Black American Benson with his partner Mike’s Japanese mother, who he had never previously met, whilst Mike goes to Osaka to be with his dying father who had deserted the family years before. Cue much family tension and bonding over cooking.
An astonishing debut which ended up as number 2 in my end of year list with its haunting appeal hanging over me from January for the rest of 2021. I said “it could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.” I hope this becomes a big seller in paperback when it is published later this month.
This was a four star read for me in March. Debut writers are really having to be original and inventive to stand out from the crowd and Gnuse certainly did this with his creepy thriller. 11 year old Elise lives in the space of a house she formerly lived in, now owned by a new family and their teenage boys. Nobody suspects she is there until a younger boy turns up unannounced to the house. This is a high-quality commercial thriller which will really have readers holding their breath.
This is a book that seems to have done quite well sales-wise since I read it in February. I’ve asked a few people who read it their opinion and it feels that it doesn’t quite match the expectations which readers have when starting it. I found it entertaining but it did not blow me away and I gave it a three star rating. The 1970’s lighthouse setting is great, as claustrophobic and intense as you might expect. A modern day narrative strand sets out to explain what is set up as a classic locked-room mystery. I said at the time; “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.”
I rated this three stars in March, an enjoyable urban tale which is very different from the author’s Booker shortlisted debut “Elmet” and I applauded the author for that. Early reviews compared to it to a modern day Dickens, I said of this. “It’s all likeable and in a way I can appreciate those that are seeing this as modern day Dickens but it all feels a little unresolved which Dickens would not be.”
Read this in March and gave it a five star rating with it ending up at number 4 in my Books of The Year. I said “This was the best non-fiction work I have read this year. I’m not sure how ready I am to read about the Covid-19 pandemic, it might still be a little too much too soon but I was certainly prepared to make an exception for this collection of prose poems from a writer I very much admire who nearly became a Covid death statistic.” Moving, funny and with loads of heart from Rosen and those who cared for him.
Kitchenly 434- Alan Warner (White Rabbit)
This one passed me by. It got good reviews so I will hopefully get round to this butler and rock star tale. This year saw a well-received film adaptation of the book of Alan Warner’s I’ve read which I love “The Sopranos” retitled “Our Ladies” which suffered from multiple rescheduling because of the pandemic which I also haven’ t seen but hope to do so.
Like Fiona Mozley, here was an author who did something very different, with this book I rated three stars in September, an understated crime novel which featured on quite a few end of the year lists but I think perhaps my own expectations were a little too high which led to me feeling a tad disappointed. I said “I found plot development a little stop-start and the novel does not flow as well as I would have hoped.”
People Person – Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze)
This was scheduled for September but didn’t materialise. I’ve seen it listed on the BBC news website “Books To Look Forward To In 2022” and it is now due for publication at the end of May.
Retitled “Are We Having Fun Yet?”, I certainly did when I read it in September and rated it four stars. Written in diary format, I said “It is a very commercial work, written in a genre where fans will be loyal and supportive, it feels fresh and contemporary, so it’s a shrewd move which could sell very well indeed.” The paperback is due in June.
Woo-hoo! That’s 8 out of 10 read and one of those I couldn’t read because it hasn’t been published yet. Here are ten more titles which have attracted my attention pre-publication and I will certainly be looking out for in 2022.
The Heretic – Liam McIllvanney(Harper Collins) ( due out on 20th January)
Follow-up to Scottish Crime Book Of The Year “The Quaker” which I read back in 2018 which introduced DI Duncan McCormack in a late 60’s Glasgow setting. This location was the setting for my current Book of The Year. Could McIlvanney’s Glasgow make it two in a row? This book shifts forward in time to the mid 70’s. Last time round I was impressed by the feel of the period and the character of McCormack so this is certainly one I want to read.
Devotion – Hannah Kent(Picador) (due out on 3rd February)
It’s been five years since Hannah Kent’s last novel “The Good People“. “Devotion” is her third, I’ve read both her others and have given them four star ratings. Set in Prussia in 1836, I’ve found Kent’s previous works to “be saturated with the feel of the times” so expect real authenticity in its setting. We are being promised “a stunning story of girlhood and friendship, faith and suspicion, and the impossible lengths we go to for the ones we love.“
Love Marriage – Monica Ali (Virago) (due out on 3rd February)
This is Monica Ali’s 4th novel. I haven’t read her, inexplicably, since her most famous novel, 2003’s “Brick Lane” ended up as runner-up of my favourite reads of 2004. Featuring doctors as the main characters this is being touted as “a story about who we are and how we love in today’s Britain – with all the complications and contradictions of life, desire, marriage and family. What starts as a captivating social comedy develops into a heart-breaking and gripping story of two cultures, two families and two people trying to understand one another.” That description certainly get the thumbs up from me.
Flicker In The Dark – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins) (due out on 3rd February)
A debut book already picked up for a television adaptation. This is a tense, edge of the seat thriller. I don’t actually read that many of these but there is something about this Louisiana swamps set serial killer tale which I find very appealing. I like small town mentality in my thrillers, where everyone knows everything about everybody and apparently this book will really deliver on this. Author Jeffery Deaver has said of it; “Author Willingham takes us on an unstoppable journey through the psychology of evil, and of courage (in many senses), all told in a pitch-perfect literary style.”
A Good Day To Die – Amen Alonge (Quercus Books) (due out on 17th February)
Another debut with a big buzz, the first in a British crime series which will feature a character called Pretty Boy and his desire for revenge. It’s being talked about as a British version of “The Wire” and we can expect it to be gritty, brutal yet full of dry humour. The author is currently training to be a solicitor but might find himself needing to change the day job if this book really takes off in the way some suspect it will.
Mother’s Boy – Patrick Gale (Tinder Press) (due out on 1st March)
A Cornish historical novel from a writer who can really impress me and who is a great storyteller. I think, judging by what I’ve read it is a fictional account of the life of poet Charles Causley focusing on his war experiences. His last novel, 2018’s “Take Nothing With You” was the best of his books I have read and featured in my 100 Essential Books strand. I hope this will be as good.
Mouth To Mouth- Antoine Wilson (Atlantic Books) (due out on 3rd March)
Lots of praise for this American author’s first novel already. The story of an author who wants to find out more about a man’s life he saved. Andrew Sean Greer who wrote “Less” which won him both a Pulitzer Prize and a four star review from me says it is; “the best book I’ve read in ages. Narratively ingenious, delicately written, intriguingly plotted, it is literature of the highest quality. I see you now, dear Reader, with this novel in your hand and already losing track of time “ That is an impressive recommendation.
Memphis – Tara M Stringfellow (John Murray) (due out on 7th April)
A debut from African-American writer who here explores three generations of a Memphis family. It comes with a recommendation from my runner up for Book Of The Year author Robert Jones Jnr who describes it as having “an endearing and unforgettable cast of characters who find strength in vulnerability, safety in art, and liberation in telling the truth.”
Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Picador) (due out on 14th April)
The author of my Best Book of 2021 looking to make it two in a row. A love story between two men from working class Glasgow- one Catholic and one Protestant. The publishers are promising “a gripping and revealing story about the meaning of masculinity, the push and pull of family, the violence faced by so many queer people, and the dangers of loving someone too much.” Considering how well everything was handled in the Booker winning “Shuggie Bain” I have high hopes for this one.
Theatre Of Marvels – Lianne Dillsworth (Penguin) (due out on 28th April)
A debut from a Black British author. I love a Victorian London setting and anything with a hint of the Gothic and here the author is said to come up with the goods in her tale of an actress from Crillick’s Variety Theatre. The author has an MA in Victorian Studies and early reviews are praising her ability in bringing the setting and location to vivid life. There’s a real buzz about this author and this book which will continue to build up to publication.
That’s 10 books to look out for all in the first four months of the year with that date of 3rd February looking like a good one for book-lovers. Here’s to lots of good reading in 2022!