Category Archives: Books of 2017

The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan

Those of you who have visited this blog for some time (it will be ten years old this year which seems madness) will know that I have a slight aversion to horses both in real life and in fiction. So when I spotted both Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings I was somewhat vexed. Internally and then I cursed myself as I had popped both of these books proof copies in the recycling last year, because of the horses. However in the name of reading the whole of the Baileys Prize longlist for the second year running, I momentarily cursed the Bailey’s judges for their choices and then picked up the most daunting of the two, The Sport of Kings. Within an hour I was completely and utterly gripped, who could have seen that one coming from the cover or synopsis, yet this is not really a book about horses and horse racing, it is about so much more than that.

4th Estate Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 545 pages, kindly sent by the publisher and then re-bought by me for me (that’ll learn me!)

As The Sport of Kings opens we join a young boy Henry Forge as he runs to escape his father< john Henry, from something awful that has happened in one of the barns and which he is being blamed for. Two lines in and Henry is asking himself ‘How far away from your father can you run?’, in many ways is actually the constant theme in the book as it moves forward. We soon discover that Henry is the master’s son of a vast plot of land and one of the wealthiest and longest running family dynasties in Kentucky. We also soon learn when he gets home and the belt is brought out, that his father is also a monstrous, bigoted, misogynistic tyrant as he proves time and time again throughout the first hundred pages.

His voice loud against the clattering, John Henry said, “What you don’t yet comprehend about women, Henry, is a great deal.” He stared at the cars as they flipped past. “I wouldn’t say that they’re naturally intellectually inferior, as the Negroes are. They’re not unintelligent. In fact, I’ve always found little girls to be as intelligent as boys, perhaps even more so. But women live a life of the body. It chains them to material things – children and home – and prevents them from striving toward loftier pursuits.”

I know, awful isn’t he? And this is just the John Henry that Henry (I know a lot of Henry’s and we have a Henrietta to come, but that is what the Forges are about) sees. One of the brilliant things which C.E. Morgan does is let us see John Henry from other characters eyes, both his wife and his staff, and we see many of the things we shouldn’t – but I don’t want to spoil anything (I did an admittedly thrilled ‘oh my goodness, well I never’ about 50 pages in). Honestly, this book has lots of lovely sensational moments throughout, which also made it so readable and epic.

Anyway, I digress… The more Henry’s father rages and orders the more Henry wants to go against him, infuriating his father by announcing when he inherits the land it will be used to breed the finest race horses, the ultimate revenge in his eyes and also the ultimate escape as he goes on to learn everything he can about them filling his mind with anything but his father. But as they say the apple never falls to far from the tree and, as we all probably know too well, in spite of ourselves elements of our parents run into us despite our best intentions and we soon see Henry has far more of his father in him than he would care to admit or acknowledge.

Ginnie said, “Henry, are you going to get married?”
Henry made a face. “Someday, maybe, I don’t know.”
“Let’s you and me get married!”
“You? No way, you’re ugly.”
“I am not!”
Henry sighed. “When I get married, I’m going to marry a beautiful woman. My father says not to waste energy on ugly girls.”
Great dollop tears formed in Ginnie’s eyes. “A pretty girl won’t be half as fun as me!” She whined, but Henry was distracted by the blooms of his breath in the suddenly icy barn air.

Ginnie is right, I won’t say why but she is and this leads us onto the middle section of the book which not only sees Henry’s daughter Henrietta start to take a real prominence in the families thoroughbred business, her tale also brings with it a darkness to the whole breeding theme throughout the book as well as hiring a young man, Allmon Shaughnessy, whose life in the darkest, poorest parts of Cincinnati couldn’t be more different than the colour of his and Henrietta’s skin and here is where the heart of the story, for it is a ripping yarn, starts to reveal itself.

In the first scene of Allmon’s tenth year, a girl dies in the cement garden. Her name was Gladys Gibbons, just a tiny little thing on the third floor opposite with skin the colour of chalky churned-up river water, a soft cheek and a pert ski-slope nose like a white girl’s, maybe the kind with money. That nose made her a beloved pariah, as despised as she was envied by girls who didn’t yet know what envy was. She had the stamp of difference on her face, and that stamp was a pass. The girls in her building put their hands to the skinny vale between her shoulder blades and shoved. Knocked her against barriers, into doors, down onto cracked sidewalks and onto her knees. She thought: I’m ugly. And there was no grown person to tell her otherwise. So the wind of natural confidence died.

How beautifully and vividly written whilst utterly heartbreaking is that? You see The Sport of Kings is not really a book about horses and racing, it is a book about race, class, bigotry, power and privilege and how those who have it and those who don’t fare over several decades in American History and it saddens me that people, myself included, might avoid it because they think it is about horseracing when it is so, so, so much more. And it is an incredibly powerful example of an epic book that contains all of those themes whilst also being an incredibly addictive family saga to with affairs, murder, incest, poverty and riches, secrets and ok, horses. As one character sums it up so brilliantly “Those Forges are motherfucking nuts.” They are.

In many ways what I think made me enjoy it so much was it had all the elements of a Victorian sensation novel, which I adore, with all the twists and turns, melodramas and characters of incredible depth. You have the main characters Henry, Henrietta and Allmon who come with whole family descendent stories behind them and who effect the Forges dynasty in huge ways, but you also get every characters back story too (a trope I really love in a big sprawling book) even the smallest of characters. And you never know when one of those smaller characters might come back to a big dramatic effect when you least expect it… oh, I might say too much.

This could of course make it sound like The Sport of Kings is a never ending, far too filled and possibly flabby book. Not at all. If anything I would have quite liked for it to have been another hundred or more pages as I felt the final section was somewhat suddenly rushed and a bit manic, one of my only two qualms in the book. The other being that I can’t decide if I feel like Morgan does something incredibly brave, making a huge point with one of her characters story arcs or if in fact she really, really lets them down (a bit like J. K. Rowling did with A Casual Vacancy, though in this case it didn’t ruin the book for me) which had me slightly riled for a while after putting it down and I am still debating.

The Sport of Kings thrilled me and surprised me. It also reminded me why sometimes picking up a dense family saga can be such a wonderful reading experience. You find characters you live and breathe with, even the ones you love to hate; you have big chunks of history to digest with all their politics and social questions around to think about and the ripples that affect everyone afterwards. I was lost in a ripping good epic yarn, for that is really what this book is and I would highly recommend you get lost in it too. You’ll race through it – sorry, I couldn’t not.

Has anyone else read The Sport of Kings and if so what did you make of it? If you had been put off somewhat by how it was sold have you changed your mind? If you’re thinking about giving it a whirl now you can get it here. I know I certainly want to give C.E. Morgan’s All The Living a read now.

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, C.E. Morgan, Review

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

One of the joys for me with reading the Baileys Women’s Prize is the books that it makes you discover. There are some on the list, mainly the horsey ones and Barkskins, which I am slightly nervous about, there are also all the books and authors I have been meaning to read for quite some time. Linda Grant is one such author. I actually own almost all her books because she is an author I have always felt I would really like and every time I go into Waterstones in Liverpool and see her writing by the escalators, reading as I ascend or descend, I think ‘ooh, I really must finally pick up one of her books’. Well now I have…

Virago Press, hardback, 2016, fiction, 312 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

London. Big black old place, falling down, hardly any colour apart from a woman’s red hat going into the chemist with her string bag, and if you looked carefully, bottle-green leather shoes on that girl, but mostly grey and beige and black and mud-coloured people with dirty hair and unwashed shirt collars, because everything is short, soap is short, joy is short, sex is short, and no one on the street is laughing so jokes must be short too. Four years after the war and still everything is up shit creek.

I have mentioned the infamous ‘book tingle’ on the blog before. That feeling you get very early on in a book where you know that you are just going to love the journey ahead of you, wherever the author decides to take you. You just know, simple as that. That is what happened to me within about two or three pages of The Dark Circle, well in fact probably from the first paragraph and the tingle lasted throughout and has since because I simply will not forget this book or the wonderful cast of characters that inhabit it. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Four years after the Second World War has ended, Lenny and his sister Miriam are being driven to a sanatorium in the Kent countryside. Ironically, after their uncle paid for the powers that be to say Lenny was unfit to be a soldier, it turns out that Lenny has TB and has passed it on to his sister or vice versa, so the pair are packed off to recuperate. To Lenny and Miriam, who we discover very early on like to live life to the full and often rebel against it, this is going to be torturously dull. However once they arrive and start to get to know the other characters there, and in their minds see it as a grand free hotel thanks to the newly created National Health Service, they begin to see this as a holiday from the cares of the world. Yet as we follow them both, and those around them, we discover behind these facades darkness and fear reside.

This place, Gwendo, was all about plate glass, calm light blue paint, the stillness, the paths through the woods, the bells that rang to punctuate your day, the reading of books, the playing of cards, and above all the ceaseless measuring of temperature, saliva in the spittoons and the mysterious darkness inside your chest which the machine could see and you couldn’t. Your skeleton which held you up and would be what was left of you when the worms had finished chomping at your insides.

What I loved about Linda Grant’s writing in The Dark Circle most initially was its warmth and humour, from the off it brims with life and all the quirky wonders of it. This somewhat lead me in to a false sense of security though as the more I read on the more bittersweet the humour becomes, after all the power with dark comedy is that it verges so close to the edge of tragedy the two can become entwined and the effect of that can be incredibly emotionally potent. If I am sounding a little cloak and dagger here it is because I don’t want to spoil an iota of this book for any of you who go onto read it, which I want every single one of you to do. Suffice to say each of the characters knows they are dicing with death, though the longer they stay and life at The Gwendo becomes routine, the more they are inclined to forget.

Weeks pass. The reading group on the veranda is making its way through the sanatorium’s library and attempting to expand the dimensions of incarceration. Lenny has been enjoying exotic foreign voyages in the company of Joseph Conrad. There has been an unsuccessful foray into Jane Austen. Miriam throws Pride and Prejudice off the veranda where it lands on a rhododendron bush. ‘Them girls should just get bleeding jobs instead of hanging around fluttering their eyelashes at rich fellers.’ Valerie agrees to give up on Middlemarch when she sees it is sending them to sleep.
And reading is not enough, Valerie admits to herself. I used to think it was everything, it isn’t. I’m so bloody bored. The hands of the clocks seem to have stopped altogether. What day is it, what month? Stupor.
To Lenny, too, the days seem mouse-coloured. The officers still in their old battledress jackets have become mouse-like creatures, timid and grey.
No one is discharged well, they leave secretly without goodbyes. New arrivals disappear onto the verandas. Stuck.
Lenny wonders if he died under the pneumothorax needle.

Valerie, who shares a veranda with Miriam, puts into words the other element that I loved about The Dark Circle and Linda Grant’s writing and the world she created when she says ‘When you approach a story, it’s not necessarily just about one thing.’ I know this is the case with every story, however I don’t think I have read a book that says so much about the world then and the world now so compactly, succinctly and (enjoyably isn’t the right word but I want to say it) with so much spirit and heart.

She looks at tolerance of all kinds. There is race and heritage; at the start we learn that Miriam has to change her name at work because it is “a little too Hebrew for our clientele”, we also have Hannah who is a German resident and left ignored by most of the other patients. We later, without spoilers, have themes around disability and also deformity. Then there is class. When they arrive at the sanatorium Lenny and Miriam are not only the first Jews but also some of the earliest of the ‘common folk’ getting their health care for free, up until then it has been the privileged or those who have served for our country. In doing so she also looks at the NHS and, through another link I don’t want to give away, the political state of the country and how Labour strived to do good and yet failed at the election. Remind you of the present at all? This is of course, I think, all meant to highlight that too us, we haven’t come as far as we think but where we have, acceptance and some of the medicines now etc, we should be thankful but never complaisant. Bad things happen when we do, though we are also shown that bad things happen to good people with the best intentions. Again I don’t want to say more. Ooh this is a tricky book to try and encapsulate and talk about.

Suffice to say, as I think I have made it pretty clear, I thought that The Dark Circle  was an utterly wonderful book. It has a real vibrancy, in all of its shades from bright to dark and back again – believe me it takes us through them. I was utterly bereft when it finished, I felt like I had lived with these wonderful characters, through good times and bad, and the stories they share with each other and the ones they don’t yet we get to discover. Go and read it, now.

If you have read The Dark Circle I would love to know your thoughts on it. If you haven’t read it then please do, you can get it here. Have you read any of Linda Grant’s other novels and if so what did you make of them, which of her other works should I be heading to? I now want to read them all.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, Linda Grant, Review, Virago Books

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

There are sometimes books that come into your life and strike such a chord with you that they leave you somewhat stunned. Those books are wonderful. Then there are books that strike a place in your psyche which resonate with such force within you that they can leave you breathless like someone has just punched you hard in the heart. Midwinter, Fiona Melrose’s debut novel, was a book that did the latter for me and completely shocked me with how much it affected me.

Corsair Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 262 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

As Midwinter opens young lad Vale is out in the middle of the water trying to save his friend, Tom’s, life when they take a boat out after one too many drinks finding themselves in danger. We are thrown straight in and initially think that this could be the heart of this novel. Wrong. We soon discover, and this isn’t really much of a spoiler, that Vale had gone out to get drunk after an altercation with his father (Landyn Midwinter) about his mother, who has been dead for some years. Melrose pretty much throws us right into the centre of a fractured family just as they start to spiral out of control all the more. I liked this, no messing about. I think we have all endured those novels which spend at least two hundred pages slowly but safely taking us from the smallest chip to the tiniest hairline fracture and beyond. Yawn. No the case here.

What Melrose does though is far more powerful and also more cunning. Cunning in a good way. We think we know the issues, we then learn that actually much more is going on which is slowly revealed. Why did Cecelia die? Why were they in South Africa when it happened? Why did they then head back to this desolate part of Suffolk after? And why does Landyn believe that Cecelia has come back as a wild animal watching over them?

‘I saw my fox this evening, Son. You remember the year I had to leave food out for her poor thing? I know she knows me. Came out of the night and looked right at me. Come to check we were all doing ok. Beautiful.’
I knew I was babbling. The lad said nothing, only fiddled with the bed sheet. His colour wasn’t right yet and we’d be needing to see the doctors again even after he was released. And he carried the mark of my anger, his eye still swollen. He carried on rolling the hem of his sheet into a little peak between his thumb and forefinger.
He made to clear his throat a little. Didn’t look up though. ‘It’s not her you know?’
‘What’s that?’ I had to lean forward to hear him.
‘It’s not her. It’s just a fox.’

Whilst there are these questions going on, really where the story lies is in the void that grief can build between two people. The lonely desolate space where shock leads to silence, where things can become misunderstood, messy and where a chasm needs to be covered up and potentially avoided. This is where this book really hit home for me. Without going into too much detail, when I was ten and my mother twenty six my stepfather accidentally killed himself, I found him after a shopping trip with my mum. We didn’t properly talk about it for almost fifteen years in which time we both created our own version of events and the story of the others filling in the blanks often wrongly, mine leading to rebellion.  Very, very, very like Vale’s, though not with a boat as we all know I hate boats – sorry had to lighten it a bit. What blew my mind somewhat was seeing my feelings and that chasm of silence between two people written so like my own experience but from someone else, someone who I have never met but will definitely give a hug if I do.

Fiona Melrose is an incredible writer, not just because she writes about that empty space between two people who don’t know how to communicate or simply can’t, this space which she throws her readers into. She also writes incredibly about atmosphere, Suffolk broods as the Midwinter house hold does, nature can be friend or foe as we see through the novel when she equates natural elements or moments with what is going on in the book, and not just in the Suffolk countryside but the South African too.

The trees out there always felt nervous, I felt that from the day we arrived. Later realised they were always anticipating rain, bristling for it even, and after one of those lovely downpours you could just about feel the roots ease out as they relaxed under your feet. For a week or so and then they’d be back tilted on the edge of their seat, an eye on the sky and another on the furthest horizon.

She also writes incredibly about grief. Not just how people cope with it, or don’t, at the time or how they deal with it as a long term mental battle, like seeing foxes. But also how grief can be a thing which you cling to, in the case of Vale, and use all the emotions around it (anger mainly) to push yourself further. Or how it can be something which will nag at you one moment, leave you completely alone then next and then come at you full throttle when you least expect it.

Don’t I still think how things might have been different for his mother? Some nights I dream things turned out well for us. Then I wake full round and as I fall back into my old sad skin, I remember myself again and know it not to be true. This is a cruel trick the mind plays. Like a sly old ferret those hopeful thoughts burrow in there. And then, when you’re getting all cosy, they turn on you and rip you right open with their sweaty little teeth until you feel your guts are spilling out all over again.

And she doesn’t always need a paragraph or two to do it in, often in this novel a single sentence can contain all that needs to be said. Sometimes a blessing is just shy of a curse.

If I am making it sound all doom and gloom, albeit it powerful doom and gloom, there are often some real heart warming moments that never verge on clichéd. There is the way in which Landyn bonds with his sons’ best friend, and in turn how Tom bonds with his nurse. There is the relationship between Vale and a barmaid. There are also wonderful moments between grown men in the village, such as when Landyn is at his wits end with Vale and his friend Dobbler says ‘Ah, I knew a boar like him once.’ When pushed on how he might make things better he replies ‘Parsnips.’

After the effect that Midwinter had on me personally, and rather unexpectedly, it is hard for me not to just go on and on and on about how wonderful. But then part of the reason why I hope you read this blog and these thoughts is the personal interaction I have with this book, the joys of bloggers and vloggers eh? I will say I had a slight quibble as Vale’s storyline develops and at one point became a little melodramatic for me, but we all need a melodrama or two in our fiction really don’t we?

I think what astounds me most is that Midwinter is Fiona Melrose’s debut because this to me felt like a novel which is three or four down an author’s career. Don’t get me wrong I bloody love a debut, always have, and like all the best debuts Midwinter is brimming and jam packed with themes, ideas, fantastic set pieces and characters. Yet there is a control and a restraint, which makes the book all the more sharp and affecting to the reader. I cannot recommend you read this novel enough.

I am thrilled the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction made me head to Midwinter, though I have been meaning to read it for a while. If you haven’t read Midwinter you can get it here. If you have read it then I would love your thoughts and experiences of it. I would also love to know about books that have shocked and surprised you as they made you see moments of your life on the page.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, Corsair Books, Fiona Melrose, Review

This Sweet Sickness – Patricia Highsmith

I am quite superstitious about the first book that I read of any year. However after possibly one of my ropiest reading years back in 2016, I was feeling it even more. (Ironically I started 2016 with a brilliant book which frankly puts my superstitious theories to pot, but anyway.) So the big question came of what I should start 2017 with. I wanted something that would hook me in, be well written, have characters that delighted me be they villainous or heroic and be a little dark. Basically I wanted a book that infuses all of the elements which give me a good old book tingle.

So after much mulling I settled on Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness, after all none other than Marieke Hardy had recommended it on The ABC Book Show (alas not personally over a cocktail or two) selling it in all its twisted glory. Plus I read and absolutely bloody loved Deep Water in 2015 and was smitten, before also loving Highsmith’s very different but also fantastic Carol – which I am ashamed to say I have not reviewed from last year, 2016 really was a pesky pest. So with rather a lot of pressure I opened up the first page…

9780349006284

Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 1960 (2016 edition), fiction, 320 pages, bought by myself for myself

It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tussled bed out of the dark and silent boarding house to walk the streets.
He had so longed lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years.  No use bothering with details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around his chest day and night. The evenings and the nights, when he wasn’t working, were a little bit worse that the daytime, that was all.

Seriously, how could anyone fail to be hooked from the opening paragraphs of This Sweet Sickness? Without meaning to come over all English Professor on you all, let us dissect that opener. A man, David, is overcome with jealousy. Instantly I am intrigued, jealousy being a fascinating and wicked subject and emotion. He lives in a dark and silent boarding house, gothic setting instantly ticked. Then comes ‘the Situation’ but what on earth is it, what on earth is going on? You simply have to read more don’t you, you can’t not. Well, I couldn’t anyway.

What transpires after this opening, and it transpires quickly so this is by no means a spoiler, is that David is in love with Annabelle. Annabelle is a woman who merely a few years ago, back in their home town, he had pondered asking to marry – and many people believed would have said yes – that is until another man asked and she said yes to him. However, despite the fact that they have a child together, it is David’s belief that Annabelle will leave her husband and their true love will soon run smooth, okay so there might be a slightly annoying child involved, but he would still have Annabelle wouldn’t he?

Yes, this is when you realise that David might be slightly unhinged, further confirmed when you realise that despite his pretty decent job, David is living economically in that slightly gothic boarding house because he has bought (and decorated, just to add another level of madness) a house for himself and Annabelle for when she sees sense and leaves everything for him. Yes, David is deluded and possibly a bit bonkers. Gripping stuff right?

The leaves fell, brown and yellow, and others turned red and clung for weeks longer. It was the first of November, and still Annabelle has not answered his letter. Should he send her another letter, or had she gotten into trouble with one letter and was Gerald now pouncing on all the mail that came in?

What I loved so much about This Sweet Sickness is also what I loved about Deep Water, though delivered just as originally whilst very differently… The way she goes inside the mind of someone who has quite possibly lost theirs. Not only is it a fascinating portrait into the mind of someone quite sick (she referred to many of her creations as her beloved little psychopaths) yet she does so in a way that humanises them and some of the deeds that they may or may not commit. As we follow David, slightly ironically following Annabelle, we feel for him even though we know what he is doing is creepy and even when he goes too far.

In a small part this is also because Annabelle quite frankly is a bit of a psycho-tease. As the novel went on I found her wet and insipid responses quite pathetic and questioned if actually it was adding some spice to her and her husband’s relationships. Anyway, I digress. If I was her I would have told him to absolutely do one, but that wouldn’t have made for novel, more a piece of flash fiction. Yet the main reason for us feeling for David when we probably (ha, definitely) shouldn’t, is that Highsmith somehow manages to make us empathise with him. After all haven’t we readers all fallen for someone who we thought loved us back but didn’t? Erm, yes. Haven’t we all become slightly besotted with someone we shouldn’t? Erm, yes. Haven’t we all deluded ourselves that the one doesn’t know they are the one and so we buy a house we don’t live in but decorate how we imagine the one would want us to even though they don’t know about it and might not want to live in their too? Erm… just David then. But in other ways many of the things David has done we have done too, just slightly less extremely and I think that is where Highsmith’s true power lies.

She can also write a downright gripping and addictive plot. Chapters just long enough. As sense of impending dread that gets larger as you read on. Twists coming when you least expect them. And the ear, or eye, for a great main character who is flawed, nuts and yet you can’t get enough of and even sometimes like. She also knows how to add extra meat to the bone with a thriller, the plot and the main character aren’t enough and in This Sweet Sickness that comes in the form of an interesting friendship between David, his colleague Wes and Effie, a slightly lost young woman who I loved and felt deeply sorry for, which also becomes a slightly warped and strange love triangle all of its own.

I cannot recommend This Sweet Sickness enough; it is a thriller that should be up there with so many of the infamous classics it is quite remiss that it is not. As with Deep Water, which I also urge you to read, it has all the elements of a gripping thriller whilst being a fascinating insight into the darker parts of the human psyche. I know we get into the heads of some really warped characters in crime fiction right now, but never in the way or on the same level as we do in a Highsmith, all the more eerie as we sometimes empathise with it. Simply writing this review has made me want to run and take another of the shelves.

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Filed under Books of 2017, Patricia Highsmith, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics