Friday, 22 June 2018

Weekend at Thrackley - Alan Melville

You’d think by now the British Library would be scraping the barrel with their crime classics? You’d start to think that they simply cannot come up with yet another gem of a story But they have! And gem couldn’t be a more appropriate way to describe this recent addition to the catalogue.

I absolutely loved this story from beginning to end. It’s almost perfect. I had this strange emotional deja vu of how I felt about reading when I was a child. That indefinable surge of delight that flows through you when you’re really enjoying a book. An insatiable desire to read to the end to see what happens and a stab of disappointment when it’s over. 

What is about this book then that engenders such appeal? A tight, well constructed plot, okay there were some contrivances but they worked within the context of the setting and the atmosphere created.  A couple of plot holes which I forgave because the rest is so good. An array of well drawn characters, some goodies, some baddies and some inbetweenies. All clearly defined and behaving as you would expect them to behave and reacting as you would expect them to react, no, want them to behave and react. I think there’s a difference. A different kind of reader satisfaction. A satisfactory conclusion where everyone seems to get exactly what they deserve and all ends are tied up so you aren’t left hanging and wondering. The final denouement was a surprise! I’ll say no more. Wink.

The writing is well paced, economic, comedic sometimes, ‘you can bet your Sunday corsets….’  says one character to an aristocratic lady. We’re told all we need to know with as much or as little detail as we need. Something else I realised after finishing the book is that you completely forget it was written in 1934 the writing is so fresh and crisp. And when the telephone lines are cut, (is that a spoiler?) I didn’t immediately think about mobile devices. It didn’t cross my mind. Surely that’s an indication of how well written it is that you become so completely immersed in the story.

I think this would make one of those excellent TV period drama specials they someimes present at Christmas. It’s actually fun to imagine who’d you cast in the parts.

So, what are to doing  still reading this? Get yourself a copy. For the weekend maybe?

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Gather The Daughters - Jennie Melamed

There have been comparisons of this book with The Handmaid’s Tale but, blessed be the fruit, this makes Gilead seem like DisneyLand! If you’re looking for an upbeat, uplifting jolly sort of tale then this tome is not for you. But if you enjoy bleak, dystopian, thought provoking fiction then read on.

This is a debut novel and enjoys what I like to call ‘debut novel exuberance syndrome’ where there is an uninhibited abundance of language and extended descriptions. It’s a chilling, harrowing tale with little or no redemption. It’s inconclusive leaving the reader to imagine what the outcomes may be. 

This story takes misogyny and patriarchy to a whole new level. Quite a distressing level. For all that, it is a compelling, though, uncomfortable read. It poses a paradox for the reader. For how can I say I enjoyed it?!  And yet I was reluctant to put it down. I continually wanted to hope that these brave, courageous girls would ‘escape’.  The book was structured into seasonal parts beginning and ending with spring suggesting the inviolable,  cyclical nature of things.  The fiction is told from the perspectives of four of the girls on a cult defined island with no implied geographical location. It’s brutal and uncompromising. But the characterisation of the girls are extremely well drawn by this writer. If that were not so I think it might be impossible to read the book!! I really don’t wish to give anything away but the protocols to which these girls and women are subjected to defy belief almost. There were times when I couldn’t believe what I was reading! Yet I never felt that the book was wholly gratuitous. The quality of the writing saved it from that. It’s not graphic writing, more,understated implications.  The book demands its reader ask questions of themselves, of society, of religion. It demands we think. And as a character in the book observes whatever else happens no one can ever be prevented from thinking. 

This is a marmite book without a doubt. There will be no middle ground. You’ll loathe it or laud it. 
There were times when I did question the point of such a story. Is it a chilling indictment of where our world is headed? Or does it point us to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds? The book raises more questions than it answers and poses much food for thought regarding the psychology of societies, cults and religions. 

One thing is for sure, it won’t leave you for ages after you’ve finished it. But be prepared to be disturbed. 

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Dance of the Jakaranda - Peter Kimani

So you want to write something about the history of your country? Do you write a dry, turgid reference book that not many people would read unless they are passionate about the subject? Or do you write an engaging, colourful, humorous yet truthful novel to really get your points across and reach a potentially wider audience? If you’re Peter Kimani you do the latter and you do it very well.

Dance of the Jacaranda tells the story of Kenya, its independence and the struggles that accompanied it, through the stories and lives of several of the men involved with the construction of a railway line, which would offer a link between Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean. The stories traverse the decades and examine Kenya’s pre and post colonialism. It is an historical story full of factual and imaginary events without losing sight of the more contemporary with the character of Rajan’s. There is satire and humour a plenty. The attitudes of the age may not come across as politically correct today particularly where women are concerned but adds some substance to the story when taken in context. It’s culturally rich and one gets a strong sense of the African tradition of storytelling to illustrate points. 

It seems to be a year in which Africa features most prominently in some of the fiction around at the moment. I am thinking of Jean McNeil’s Fire on the Mountain, Phil Whitaker’s Sister Sebastian’s Library and  Stephan Collishaw’s A Child Called Happiness. Very diverse as you might expect from such a huge continent and from such different writers but this story is a wonderful way to entertain and educate the willing reader.

I would not wish to spoil the experience of this story by offering too many details about this book but I found much of it fascinating not merely from the historical unfolding of Kenya’s history of which I was ignorant but also the structure of the novel which spins its characters in circles chronologically and offers what seem to be African tales of legend and folklore. The dignity and grace of a people shine though these pages and surely this writer must truly love his country. 

This could have been a bleak tale, colonialism and race relations are not necessarily subjects  to fill any heart with joy but Kimani ensures his narrative works on a number of levels, spiritual, familial, constitutional, subversive even and imbibes it all with just the right amount of light heartedness without overshadowing some of the more sombre aspects.

I won’t say it was an easy book to read. Much rereading and referring back was necessary but some things are worth persevering with to an ultimately satisfying conclusion. This is a work of quality, beautifully written with an elegant prose style that meanders towards the poetic. The rhythm and vibrancy of Africa dominate. And rightly so. 

Friday, 15 June 2018

Ascension - Victor Dixen

Well thank you very much Victor Dixen!!! How could you?! How could you leave us hanging like that!?? If you were hoping on the strength of that cliffhanger we might read the next Phobos novel you’d be right!! Bring it on! NOW!

Think Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Love Island, Big Brother, Divergent - all in Outer Space - and you’ll get the flavour of this first Phobos novel, Ascension. And in a sense there is nothing new here but it doesn’t seem to matter for what you have is a rip roaring, fast paced, dystopian YA sci fi novel from Hot Key books boasting ‘Friendship, Romance, Truth and Lies and The Stars’! If any of those are your bag there’s little to dislike about this story.

Heroes, heroines, and villains populate its pages. The reader is let in on the dreadful corruption of the huge conglomerate that is Atlas and the Gemini project whilst the participants of the spacecraft Cupido are not and hurtling though space in total blissful ignorance. 

It’s translated from the French, Daniel Hahn has done a good job given the nuances of the French language compared to a clunkier English. Not surprisingly, Leonor, the heroine is French but ultimately nationality seems not to matter as the six girls and six boys travel through space heading for a new colony on Mars. All characters play their part and I believe the reader responds to them exactly how the writer intended! Clever. The scientific descriptions sound suitably baffling yet authentic and the narrative flows along pulling its reader through its universe desperate to see what happens. Although clearly aimed at the YA readership there’s plenty in it to keep an OA entertained. Well this OA was most definitely! However I may not have taken it as seriously as intended. I can see that there are some points of interest and debate. What they are I’m not going to divulge as I don’t do spoilers. It’s an easy, entertaining read that certainly made me wish I had the next volume ready and waiting!

Thanks Readers First for this opportunity. 

Thursday, 14 June 2018

The Story Collector - Evie Gaughan

Blurbed as ‘A beautiful and mysterious historical romance…’  it does sum up this captivating little tale perfectly. Told in a dual narrative format between the past and the present, two lives, separated by the decades,, tread a similar path in an effort to unravel secrets that dance between this world and another world that is unseen by many.

The writer seems to switch effortlessly between the two time scales with both Sarah and Anna’s accounts authentically enveloping us into the ethereal fairy world of Ireland. Some subtle little parallel nuances with Harold and Sarah, the outsiders, decades apart but both looking for a way in and both finding Anna! 

This book is populated with relatively ordinary people who chance upon some extraordinary events. One could see it as belonging to the magical realism genre but there’s more than a passing tip of the hat to folklore and legend which leads us  into the historical elements of the story. And then of course there’s romance! I don’t want to give anything away but as the bard said the path of true love never did run smooth.

The characters are accessible and likeable. You want to learn what happens to them, You want things to work out for them. Skilled is the writer who makes the reader care about the characters. The narrative flows along easily with that gorgeous subtle lilt that reminds us we are visiting the Emerald Isle along with Sarah. 

This is the kind of book to lose yourself in and allow the words to take you away to far flung places both geographically and spiritually. Whatever you may believe in your everyday world, isn’t it the place of fiction to sometimes take you where you’ve never been before? This book will do that but does remain grounded in our contemporary world.

I was unfamiliar with Evie Gaughan’s work but this has whetted my appetite. My thanks to Urbane Publications for the opportunity to read this novel novel!

Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Long Goodbye - Anthony Le Moignan

A few years back a fellow reviewer advised me against taking on books from authors themselves. Several bad experiences had prompted this advice; a writer offering money for a five star review, a writer begging for a higher star rating than the reviewer was prepared to give, an author demanding a review be rewritten! And up till now I’ve heeded that advice. But sometimes a gut instinct, a sixth sense kicks in and throwing caution to the wind I responded to Anthony Le Moignan’s social media offer of a review copy of his book The Long Goodbye. Moral of that digressionary prologue? Follow your instincts!!

This is a self published, debut novel. The Alzheimers/dementia theme, currently quite topical in fiction, invites comparison with Lisa Genova’s Still Alice since it deals specifically with early onset Alzheimer’s, and the writer himself acknowledges a similarity with Emma Healy’s Elizabeth is Missing and Jojo Moyes Me Before You. Readers with affinities to those books should enjoy this novel.

I love debut works. There’s an optimism within them, unstated but there in the exuberance of the language and the tendency to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the reader! I sometimes baulk when a debut novel attempts to deal with a potential harrowing subject. But my fears here were unfounded. Whilst this is clearly a debut novel it is an impressive one.

The characters are well developed and believable. Simon is heart warming and heart tugging. And the novel is populated with largely decent people. That’s quite unusual today! There are no real ‘baddies’! That gives you a warm feeling and makes you care about the characters. The running theme is well executed and sustained throughout. Whilst the dementia theme is potentially harrowing there is sufficient humour and wit to offer some light relief and bring a smile to your face. In fact prepare yourself to run through your entire catalogue of emotions. 

When I was at school I remember being told to ‘write about what you know’. It was always good advice and here is another perfect example. Meticulous research is one thing and so many writers display consummate skill in their use of it. But this writer has first hand understanding of seeing someone suffer with that cruel condition, Alzheimers, and it shows in his writing. Reader, I wept. 

And if there’s another thing I learned from reading this book it is that Anthony Le Moignan loved his dad and love runs through this novel, flowing out of every sentence. Mr. Le Moignan Senior would be so proud of his son. So what appears to be a novel about a memory wasting disease is fundamentally about  - Love.

Have a look at this YouTube clip.

My thanks to Anthony for sending me a copy of this fine book.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Take Nothing With You - Patrick Gale

I remember delighting in The Aerodynamics of Pork, particularly because of the title. Made me chuckle. And I can’t for the life of me think why it’s taken me so damn long to read another book by Patrick Gale! But thanks to the wonderful Georgina Moore the balance has been redressed with this copy of Take Nothing With You.

  Perceptive. Witty. Passionate. Compassionate. Intelligent. Honest. Wonderful. Realistic.
Engrossing. Reflective. Bohemian. Musical. Well written. Descriptive. Sympathetic. Empathic.   Heartbreaking. Marvellous. Uplifting. Heartbreaking. Yin. Yang. Dazzling. Lyrical. Imaginative.
Gem. Beautiful. Enriching. Radioactive. Childhood. Adolescence. Maturity. Love. Sexuality. Parents. Stash. Exquisite. Memorable. Moved. Beauty.

Okay. yeah, right. It’s not really a review is it? I know. I understand.  I should have surrounded my adjectives, superlatives and observations with some erudite sentences. But hey, today I thought I’ll just cut out the middle man and pour out what I felt about this book. So I have. And I won’t apologise. Maybe you wanted a conventional review. But there it is. I think I loved this book too much and whilst not lost for words exactly , I’m just lost for some words. I hope I found the right words.

Whatever you do today, take nothing with you, but this book.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

You - Phil Whitaker

This is Phil Whitaker’s sixth novel. But I only ‘discovered; this amazing writer earlier this year when I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of Sister Sebastian’s Library from Nudge Books. I jumped at the chance to secure a copy of this most recent novel, You. I am still bewildered as to why this writer doesn’t enjoy a wider popularity for he certainly deserves to.

You can be appreciated on a number of levels. Firstly the language and the writing which is of the highest quality. Whitaker seems to put his prose together effortlessly creating word pictures and word thoughts that stay with you for several pages. Secondly his ability to characterise again seems to be effortless. I’m sure it isn’t! But for the reader it’s the end result that resonates and the characters here, especially Stevie, are real and substantially drawn. Thirdly, and arguably most importantly the theme of this book, Parental Alienation. If it’s not a term you’re familiar with, take heart. Neither was I. But I am now and how!

You tells the story of Stevie Vaughan, an artist and art therapist, who has been estranged from his much beloved daughter for the last seven years. In an explosion of imaginative prose Stevie revisits key events from his past with his daughter, addressing her, analysing, agonising. But what could be a polemic told from a first person perspective is not. Stevie seeks to offer, for the most part,  a balanced view of what has occurred without attributing blame or recrimination to any large degree. As you are drawn into the narrative the implications become more harrowing. What disturbed me dreadfully was whether this book derives from first hand experience and is an act of catharsis for this writer. He writes so convincingly of his subject. If not then his research is impeccable. Prepare to be moved. Prepare to do some thinking. Prepare to do some rearranging of your previously held conceptions

When you pick up a work of fiction there is an expectation that you will be entertained on some level. When you are educated too it can only be a bonus? I learnt a great deal from reading this book. Not necessarily factual knowledge but of states and situations that I had not considered before. Considerations about family, nature and nurture, the power of love to bind us.

In conclusion my heart goes out to all those children and parents who are suffering right now, this very second. I hope this book goes some way to contribute to the healing process. But, hey, it can’t do that unless you all go and read it. Please?

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Life of a Banana - PP Wong Blog Tour


(Good Morning)

My third blog tour!! I'm getting to be an old hand at this now!! Today it is my great pleasure to celebrate PP Wong's The Life of a Banana. To begin - a clip of the author talking about the book and reading an extract.

Please don't apologise if you rushed out at this point to find a copy of the book! But if you're still here  I submit my review of the book.

I had little idea of what to expect from this book. It was long listed for the Bailey’s Womens’ Fiction Prize in 2015 so somehow I felt it might be a serious work. And on one level, yes it is, very, but I was unprepared to chuckle as much as I did. I wasn’t expecting the intelligent wit singing out to me from every chapter heading. And I was pleasantly surprised by the exultant narrative flow. My heart was full to overflowing with the delightful characters populating this novel. But I certainly did not envisage myself bawling my eyes out at the end. But that, dear readers, is exactly what happened. 

This is a republication from Legend Press who seem to have an uncanny knack for finding the right book at the right time and the right place. This one is no exception. 

The title refers to Chinese people who, though born and bred in the UK - white, remain, of course, ethnically Chinese - yellow. And the banana in question here is the delightful Xing Li. And whilst the entire story could be viewed as an observation on race relations and second generation immigrants in this country it does spread its net wider than that. In other ways it seeks to question society’s need to compartmentalise by nationality and ethnicity. It deals with the very contemporary issue of bullying in schools. It is a coming of age story, of someone finding out who they really are. It is a story of a young girl coming to terms with bereavement. And if that all sounds a little sombre it is also a novel of love and friendship, of family, of looking at the bigger picture, of not just accepting everything at face value, about integrity and standing up for yourself. In many ways it is life affirming. 

Don’t let the wit and humour fool you. It’s an uneasy read in many places with some sensitive issues that the author deals with very well, not seeking to water anything down. I believe it offers the reader insights into what it feels to be perceived as an incorrect stereotype which is hard enough for an adult but for a child to deal with it’s a tough gig. Nowhere is sentiment allowed to cloud the issues and if the conclusion leaves us hanging a little in terns of outcomes there is redemption of the best kind - love. 

But above all it is a novel of people, yes, somewhat defined by their origins, but also people living their lives, dealing with their secrets and coping with the fall out. In that sense ethnicity takes a back seat.

But, hey, what are you doing reading this? You could put the time to better use. Go grab yourself a copy of this touching, funny, entertaining and thought provoking story. 

And if my opinion is insufficient others held these views.

‘Revealing in its exploration of cultural and generational conflicts and moving in its optimism.’ The Guardian 
'Life Of A Banana is so refreshingly distinct. Read it, and you will soon find yourself wanting more.' The Daily Mail 
‘PP Wong has blazed a trail for future British Chinese novelists... bursting with original and exciting flavours.’ The Independent 

I wasn't fortunate enough to interview PP Wong on this occasion but I found a clip of a 2014 interview she did for Legend which I feel is worth posting here.

Please check out the rest of the blog tour, then rush out and grab yourself a copy of this book!

Monday, 4 June 2018

Falling in Love - Donna Leon

This is another of my library books. I am pleased that I am maintaining my resolution of using the library more. 

My brother is a self confessed italianophile. He lived in Italy for a year and fell in love with the country but most particularly Venice to which he returns as often as time and finances allow. Not surprisingly his penchant for all things Italian extends to fiction too, especially crime fiction. and it was he who recommended Donna Leon’s books to me. I was pleased to find this one nestling on the library shelves.

From that you will correctly deduce that this is the first Brunetti novel I have read so I have nothing to compare it to. The first thing that struck me was that I was clearly reading a translation and I think there were some inconsistencies with things like police ranks. It didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment of the book but it was enough to make me notice. 

The crime concerns one of stalking and obsession. It becomes quite chilling towards the book’s conclusion. More broadly the novel examines contemporary Venetian society and I wondered at one point if the opera Tosca was a metaphor for the decline of that but on reflection that is maybe too far fetched. I enjoyed the descriptions of Venice and the way the writer brought the city alive acknowledging an historical Venice and the contemporary Venice.

I enjoyed the book overall. I did warm to Brunetti and as a character he seems well defined and I’m sure I would have benefitted from reading some of the others in the series to know him better.  But I was not overwhelmed by the book. I didn’t feel it touched any new ground or even supported an original scenario. But maybe I expect too much! It was a pleasurable read with a relatively easy, flowing narrative given that it was a translation. I found the title a little ambiguous or maybe it was ironic or maybe it was something that was lost in translation. 

I won’t be rushing to add any more to my TBR shelves but I won’t rule out reading at least another should it come my way. 

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Excellent Intentions - Richard Hull

They say you can’t tell a book by looking at the cover. I’ve always been inclined to agree. But in this case I’d say, yes, you can. The British Library Crime Classics are very distinctive with their gorgeous covers that give you a good feeling before you even begin to read the book.

I’m not sure whether this title relates to the novel or the writer’s objectives! Nevertheless this latest offering from The British Library’s crime classics will have you scratching your head as you try to unravel just what has happened here.

Stereotypically chartered accountants have fuelled the ‘wit’ of many a comedian who have asserted the profession as boring. Richard Hull would seem to disprove this with his fine crime writing which is anything but boring. I’m glad I read The Murder of My Aunt before I read this for it allowed me to experience Hull’s deceptive subtle and witty style of writing. Possibly less immediately accessible than the former Excellent Intentions focuses on a courtroom perspective and the investigations of a Scotland Yard police Inspector who, lacking todays forensic tools and sophisticated autopsies must try to ascertain exactly what happened to the victim and ‘whodunnit’.

It’s an unusual and original way of delivering a crime fiction with a kind of dual narrative as we switch from courtroom to police. Somebody has been accused of the murder but tantalisingly we are never told exactly who it is from the handful of potential suspects encountered as Inspector Fenby goes about his meticulous investigation. Not until the latter stages of the novel anyway and by that time the list has been narrowed down and the discerning reader will conclude who stands in the dock.

The victim is a most unpleasant person which is crucial as our emotions are not wasted on him. Instead we focus our feelings on the rather pompous prosecution lawyer and the  more self effacing defence lawyer and the very business like Inspector. If I might quote from the book, Mr. Justice Smith says of the prosecuting counsel, ‘though he had taken a personal dislike to Anstruther Blayton’s rather pompous, fussy methods it had been a clear and convincing bit of work’. Perfect summation!

The plotting is clever and tight and the exposition detailed down to the last letter. The prosecution and the police enquiry dominate the narrative with less space given to the defence which, for me, made proceedings a little off balance but I could see why it had to be that way, there was little defence!

And of course no British Library Crime Classic would be complete without a foreword by Martin Edwards. I find myself looking forward to those as much as the novel itself!