Category Archives: Books of 2017

Sugar Money – Jane Harris

One of the books that I have been most looking forward to, for quite some time, is Jane Harris’ Sugar Money. I was a huge fan of Harris’ debut The Observations pre-blog, in fact I believe it was one of the books that got me back into reading after Rebecca and Miss Marple, I remember my Gran buying it for me in Scarthin books. Anyway, I digress, long suffering standing readers of this blog will know that back in 2011 I then fell head over heels with Harris’s second novel Gillespie & I; a book which I genuinely felt like had been written for me and me alone. I know that sounds like I have an ego the size of a small continent but we all have those books don’t we, ones which seem like the author rooted through the ‘favourite things’ sections of the bookish corner in our brains? To cut a lot of waffle from me short, after two such reading hits with me how would I get on with her third novel…

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2017, fiction, 390 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Some masters are swift to get to the point when they give instructions; you might say they go directly through the main door, cross the threshold, no hesitation. Father Cleophas was not one of these. He would walk around the property first, try the windows, then wander off into the garden to gaze at the roof before eventually he retrace his step to the front of the dwelling and give a tentative knock and – whiles he went on this bumbling circumbendibus – you oblige to go with him, wondering what abominable toil or trouble might be in store for you whenever he finally came around and stated his requirement. With this rigmarole and in other ways, Cleophas like to cultivate the impression of being an absent-minded, kindly fellow and he would beguile you with that bilge awhile until you became better acquainted and began to cognise just how sly he could be, for true. My brother and I had encountered all manner of individual among the friars; a spectrum of humanity, from gentle coves who scarce could bear to swat a mosquito to the most heartless bully. Whiles Cleophas might not be the worst kind of tyrant, for true, he was surely as slippery as a worm in a hogshead of eel.

I was so tempted to simply leave the paragraph above with the words ‘how could you not read a book after you have read that’ and left that as my review, as really what more do you need to know? Yet a wonderful book like Sugar Money It is a paragraph brimming with everything I love, fantastic vivid prose, you both know the character of the narrator and Father Cleophas in mere sentences and it also brims with the past, the present and a potentially concerning future. It is funny and yet there are horrors hidden in the spaces between the charming tone. It is actually a paragraph that surmises everything that is so brilliant in Harris’ writing, atmosphere and characterisation as well as what you can expect from the rest of the book. But hang about, I have started waxing lyrical already and not even told you what Sugar Money is about so let’s rewind.

The year is 1765 and Lucien and his older brother Emile have been instructed to perform a mission for Father Cleophas who wants them to smuggle 42 slaves from the island of Grenada, where the brothers themselves once lived, back to him in Martinique where he feels they belong as he believes that these slaves have been stolen from the French by the British, or at least that is what he says. Anyway, this is not a mission that either of the brothers can say no to for they are slaves themselves and so a boat is sorted and soon they set sale. Lucien, our narrator, sees this both as a huge adventure and also as a way of seeing some of the people he just about remembers from Martinique. Emile however can only see the hard realities of what lies ahead and what seems and impossible task. Through his interactions with Lucien we get the sense there is much the younger brother doesn’t know and the first prickles of dread appear in our minds, we as readers catching Lucien’s sense of excitement whilst picking up Emile’s forewarnings that this will be anything but a tale of daring do.

I don’t want to give too much more of the story away because an adventure, which I do think this novel is albeit a rather harrowing one which had me in physical tears at the end, when you know what is coming isn’t going to have the effect that Harris clearly intends this book too. I will say that when we get to Grenada the brooding atmosphere that has been lingering at the edges builds and builds as you read on. There are some utterly gut wrenching scenes of how the slaves were treated, which Harris doesn’t flinch away from and show us how horrendously these people were treated and then she also cleverly reminds us that Emile and Lucien are slaves themselves and not two free young men on a rescue mission, they just undergo slightly less horrific lives as slaves themselves, which is a complete mind f**k in itself again. Yet this also calls out to the here and now, how often have we heard people say ‘well, we have made steps forward so that is ok, there is still hope?’ You are reading a ripping yarn but follow the threads and the undercurrents and there is much for us to ponder within the prose.

In case I am making this sound like too dark and harrowing tale, Harris interweaves the story of Sugar Money with humour which invariably comes from its cast of utterly fantastic characters. There are many things that I have loved in both Jane’s previous novels The Observations and Gillespie and I; unforgettable characters is one of them (atmosphere and sense of place another which are also in abundance in this novel) be they characters who appear for a page or two or the main narrators themselves. In the latter case Lucien is a welcome addition to Harris’ wonderful leads, the bawdy Bessie Buckley and the beguiling Harriet Baxter. He is cheeky, he breaks the rules and heads off on his own when he shouldn’t and his internal dialogue and perceptions have us hooked, and often horrified, by his side.

Unlike Bessie and Harriet, who were lone narrators if that makes sense, here we have the brotherly bond and banter of Emile, who frankly I fell head over heels in love with. He might seem an older bossy brother to Lucien but through the moments Lucien describes, without picking up on himself, we find a man who cares deeply for his brother, his former lover (a wonderful and moving additional strand in the book I won’t spoil) and yet one who knows the darkness of the world and just wants to do what is right or failing that what is best. If you do not fall for him then there is no hope for you and we simply can’t be friends.

‘But who is this with you, Emile?’
Chevallier forced a laugh.
‘You must recognise him?’
The old woman cast her eye over me, her mouth downturn. Then she took a step back.
‘Ha! Just like his mother – big ugly lips and skinny face.’
Well, that was nonsense for my mother was known for her beauty and I would have said as much except Emile shot me a warning glance.
Anqelique sat down and took up her pipe. The firelight threw flickering shadows across her face. Sharp creases ran from the corners of her nose to the ends of her lips. The skin below her eyes look puffy. She was old and lame. Nevertheless, she was still tough as old turtle, for true.

Yet what makes Sugar Money all the more powerful is also the cast of characters around these two. Be they the duplicitous Father Cleophas, the delightful Celeste, the villainous Dr Bryant or the matriarchal Angelique, to name just a few, these characters come to us brimming with life, with their own spectrum of perspectives stories to tell. It is with this collection of characters that we see how people can keep on going in times of adversity or simply times of utter horror and also how people keep hope in their hearts which adds to the emotional impact of a book such as this.

As you can see I could probably carry on singing the praises of Sugar Money for quite some time so, I shall simply round off by saying that if you want a tale of adventure and daring do, filled with wonderful characters, that makes you think and explores a period of history you may not know of (oh and I should say this book is based on a true story) that will leave you heartbroken yet with a sense of hope then this is a book you should be rushing out to get right now or what the tumpty-tum are you playing at?

You can get Sugar Money here if you would like, you can also see Jane and myself in conversation about this wonderful novel and both her others at Chester Literature Festival on November 19th tickets here. End of shameless self promotion in italics. 

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Filed under Books of 2017, Faber & Faber, Jane Harris, Review

A Line Made By Walking – Sara Baume

This week I have had a small break in my Costa submissions reading due to some logistics and so could read what I fancied for five days. I can’t really talk too much about Costa and how it works and the like I don’t think, though I am hoping to talk about some of the wonderful books which may not make our shortlist later in the year somehow, we will see. Anyway, I had the freedom to pick up anything I liked and so I went for A Line Made By Walking which has been calling me for a while partly because it has a fox on the cover and partly because it was on the shortlist for The Goldsmith’s Prize which celebrates daring writing and ‘fiction at its most novel’. Or as I see it quirky books that push the boundaries of writing and prose in some way, I was just in the mood for quirky and so in I went.

William Heinemann, hardback, 2017, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Walt Disney lied to me. The weather doesn’t match my mood; the script never supplies itself, nor is the score composed to instruct my feelings, and there isn’t an audience. Most days I make it too dark without anybody seeing me at all. Or at least anybody human.
I’ve been here in my grandmother’s bungalow a full three weeks now. All on my own. Except for the creatures.

Frankie, a young woman in her mid-twenties has left the big city for the safety of her familial homeland. However rather than live with her parents she has ended up temporarily staying in her recently deceased grandmothers house where in a mixture of depression and general lethargy towards life she spends slightly less time lying on the carpet pondering anything and everything than she did in the bright lights. Her mind wanders from items on the news (the Malaysian plane that disappeared), the paintings and sculptures she learnt about as she studied art and also nature, from deranged penguins who send themselves on suicide missions to the animals bouncing around at the end of the garden… or even some of the dead ones all whilst she tries to work out what everything means and where she fits in with it.

You might be thinking that this is really depressing and bleak, a pretentious novel about someone’s quarter life crisis or simply that this sounds really wanky; especially when I add that each of the dead animals becomes a chapter title in the book as well as being included as a slightly macabre image for you to ponder between a pair of paragraphs. If I told you Frankie tests herself on subjects dealt with by art, possibly to test her own feelings around those themes herself, from goldfish (Works about Goldfish, I test myself; I think and think. I can’t come up with a single one.) to death, then you might think this was even more pretentious twaddle. Yet she does. In many other authors hands this book would have annoyed the hell out of me by page twenty but under the creativity and instruction of Sara Baume I absolutely bloody loved this book.

I think one of the initial things that warmed me to the book so much was how relatable Frankie is as a character. Okay sometimes you do want to tell her to get a grip but there were so many times reading this book where I thought ‘ooh I have felt that’. Yes, once or twice in my life I have simply laid on a carpet for a few hours when I could have been doing something spectacular, or even just proactive, and thought about nothing much. Yes, there have been times when going to the supermarket simply feels like a hurdle and frankly you don’t want to make a meal for one you just want to curl up in bed with a chocolate bar (in fact those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I still occasionally fall asleep with a chocolate bar on special drunken occasions, but I am a grown-up I am allowed, don’t judge me). Frankie does all these things as she goes through those first awkward stages of being fully independent, sometimes the first try or two don’t work out. You have to start again. Oh, and something they forget to tell you at school is that sometimes being an adult is shit.

There was a Lidl a few streets away but I hated Lidl; it reminded me of the dole queue, only with vegetables. I’d pick up a basket from the doorway of the posh one and drift the aisles. I’d stand perfectly still and stare at an item for an uncomfortable length of time. Several other customers would come and go in the minutes it took me to remember whether I had any honey left, whether I prefer my tuna in oil or brine, whether or not I am able to tolerate wheat. Eventually I’d make it to the checkouts with a few random products sliding from side to side in my basket, and then at home again I’d lie on my floor for a couple of hours before going to bed with a bar of chocolate – something slightly revolting like a Double Decker or a Toffee Crisp – because only the slightly revolting chocolate bars were evocative of childhood.

Yet adulthood and that phase between being mildly independent to fully independent is actually just the first layer of Frankie’s situation, not to make her sound like an onion. It becomes clear as we read on that Frankie is suffering from some kind of depression. This isn’t just someone being a bit lazy and over dramatic as we initially think, though often these moments add a dark bittersweet comedy often without feeling at the expense of anyone who is going through this themselves. This is someone who is lost, lonely, overly worried at life and not quite able to communicate with those around her in the way that she would like, in fact often she can’t even see when other people are trying to reach out to her, particularly her parents.

‘Well,’ he says. ‘How are you, then? Your mother’s woeful fucking worried.’
My father doesn’t really want to talk about my feelings. That would be excruciating for both of us. He only wants me to tell him that I am okay, so he can return to my mother and tell her there is no need to worry.
‘I’m okay,’ I say. ‘There’s no need to worry.’

Somewhat unintentionally though, once away from the city and indeed her family and taking her loneliness to an extreme two things start to help her start sorting all the things going on in her mind. The first is nature, as I mentioned alive and dead which on the one hand sends her often to look at moments in her childhood which seem minimal but have actually had a more profound (or rippling) effect than would first seem and make so much sense in the context of the relationships she has in her adult life. Oh how we are formed by those, well, informative years. Cliched but so true.

When I was little I had a friend called Georgina who lived a quarter mile up the road. For her sixth birthday, she got a white rabbit and named it Snowball. For roughly a fortnight, Snowball lived in a pretty timer hutch on the back lawn, fortressed by a wire mess run. Then one morning, Georgina went out to find a jagged hole in the mesh and the rabbit gone. Her mother told her this wasn’t the horrific tragedy it appeared; Snowball had simply made the decision to go and live in the fields with her wild friends instead. Georgina passed this story on to me in the playground, and I passed it on to my sister, and she laughed and declared it a load of crap.
Now it seems she was wrong to be so cynical so young.

As she discovers several deceased animals she starts her own project to photograph those she finds dead, no animals are allowed to be killed by herself (though there is one heart breaking section of the book where she does have to and is a hugely emotional moment for her – and the reader – but is written utterly beautifully and is also a kind of catalyst for her) and start her own kind of artistic project. It also helps her deal with grief and see things at more of a distance/in clearer focus through a lense. Art is also something which she uses to ‘test herself’ as she tries to look at art when it depicts an item, feeling or situation that helps her to analyse herself. Two in particular I think relate to and reflect upon varying states of her feelings…

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows, 1980… An angry, churning sky, tall yellow stalks, tapering into the distance; a line made by walking. A murder of crows between the stalks and the sky as though they are departing or have just been disturbed.

Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, 1967. A short, straight track worn by footsteps back and forth through an expanse of grass.

Again, this should have put me off as books about art do as much for me about books about music. Bar a few exceptions (Jessie Burton’s The Muse is one which I really must review) I find it very difficult to conjure a painting just like I can’t conjure music for the written word, yet here with Baume’s prose and Frankie’s outlook and the way she analyses these works I oddly could. It shouldn’t have worked but it did and it has – though this could also be partly due to becoming a Tate member as well a recent trip to the Guggenheim in Bilbao wandering galleries on my own– made me think about art in a way that I don’t often and one which is summed up beautifully in the book. Even still, art remains the closest I have ever come to witnessing magic.

I could go on about some smaller but equally brilliant parts of the book; how well it deals with loneliness and feeling lost, the mother and daughter relationship and its complexities and unspoken moments, the way Baume looks at the news and how much fear and worry it can add to our lives, the sense of worry and slight dread you feel for Frankie and the completely unexpected and yet so right ending, the random facts Frankie learns that mean so much without you realising and I will also be using in conversations in the future, etc., etc. I should really wrap this up though…

So, I shall just end this by saying that I urge you to read A Line Made By Walking. It was a risky pick when my brain was somewhat frazzled and it is quite out of my comfort zone in terms of topics but I loved it, possibly all the more for executing it so well and making me think so much. I will certainly be heading to Baume’s debut Spill Simmer Falter Wither in the future, as well as some of the other Goldsmiths Prize 2017 shortlist. It has also reminded me how I need to try more quirky/novel books, so do get recommending me some.

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Filed under Books of 2017, Review, Sarah Baume, The Goldsmiths Prize, William Heinemann Books

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done was eagerly thrust into my hands pretty much fresh off the printer with the words ‘this book is wonderfully dark, gritty and gothic, very you, you’ll love it’. Which instantly made me nervous of it. I am one of those people who gets reader stage fright. You hear a book is going to be ‘very you’ and you feel the pressure is already too much or start to contemplate what that person recommending you the book thinks of you before you have even opened the cover. In this case I was oddly flattered, strangely even more so when it turned out that Schmidt’s debut was a fictionalised account of the true crime case of Lizzie Borden, who many believed a murderess. I like my fiction dark, gritty and gothic, so believe me when I say that if that too is your bookish bag then this is just the sticky icky twisty treat for you too.

9781472240873

Tinder Press, paperback, 2017, fiction, 356 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

He was still bleeding. I yelled, ‘Someone’s killed father.’ I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth. The clock on the mantle ticked ticked. I looked at father, the way hands clutched to thighs, the way the little gold ring on his pinky finger sat like a sun. I gave him that ring for his birthday when I no longer wanted it. ‘Daddy,’ I had said. ‘I’m giving this ring to you because I love you.’ He has smiled and kissed my forehead.
A long time ago now.

From the very beginning of See What I Have Done we are thrown straight into the macabre action and cloying, dirty atmosphere of the Borden household as Lizzie finds her father dead on the sofa with his head caved. It starts as it means to go on for this is a house that from the very start feels sick. It is grubby, meat being recooked over and over leaving a stench that pretty much sticks to the walls – and all this before it turns out there is not one dead body in the house but two as Lizzie’s step-mother is soon discovered to have met the same end. But who would take an axe to the heads of these two people, especially with such savagery? That of course is what we the reader, seemingly along with everyone in the Borden household and the surrounding streets of Fall River wonders, though of course deep down they all know it must be one of them.

And this, from the very off, is one of the things that makes See What I Have Done so utterly delicious to read, if a rather gory morsel. Everyone is under suspicion; from the police, from each other and from us as readers. Schmidt kindly, with a cunning and beguiling smile as her prose grips us and pulls us in ever more, invites us to play detective alongside the, erm, detectives. Yet she doesn’t make it easy, where would the fun in that be. Instead she takes us into the minds of four people who as it happens could be the main suspects and through them introduces us to some right shady characters on the side lines who could also be worth further investigation.

Bridget looked me over, her caterpillar eyebrows cracked like thunder, and the second officer took notes, took notes. My feet traced circles across the carpet, I opened my eyes wide, felt the house move left then right as the heat ground into walls. Everyone pulled at their necks to unloose their tightly wound clothing. I sat still holding my hands together.

First of all there is Lizzie, who I actually want to come back to as I think she is probably the finest creation (though there is a plethora) of the whole novel alongside the atmosphere. Lizzie however is the one who discovers the body, she is the one who has been home all day, though the house is like a  disorientating maze so anyone could have got in, and she is also, as we get to see her through others eyes and some hints of her own, the one who seems to have the biggest axe to grind – I am sorry I couldn’t help it.

We then turn to Bridget who is the maid of the house, she cooks and cleans (well both of those are debatable when you take into account the slop in a pan on the cooker and the absolute state of the house) does she know secrets that she shouldn’t, does she have a grudge or a secret of her own to keep? We also have Emma, Lizzie’s sister who mysteriously goes out that day but no one really knows where to, there are vague places alluded to and most people seem to believe her but could she have a grudge against her father and his wife, or worse her own sister. Then there is Benjamin a man who has suddenly appeared in the town, looks like a whole heap of trouble and who has met Lizzie’s (incredibly sleazy and delightfully creepy, remember what I said about shady side characters) Uncle John and may have made a pact with him and the devil.

Exciting isn’t it, all these possibilities. I have to say I really enjoyed, if that is the right word, getting into these four people’s heads, watching them watching each other and taking in all their interior viewpoints whilst having a bit of a root around in their potential motives and trying to work out just who on earth did it. I do have my theories but I will say no more for I don’t want to give anything away and take any of the fun of finding out yourself, or at least trying to.

Of course, being based on true events, even if still brimming with grey areas and shrouded in what ifs and maybes which has kept so many people fascinated, you know what actually happened or can look it up. What Schmidt does with Lizzie’s character, which also makes you forget it is real, will have your absolutely hooked even when you sometimes want to look away or pop the book down for a five-minute breather.

Under Schmidt’s prose, Lizzie is probably one of the most interesting women in fiction you will meet this year and also one of the most grimly fascinating character studies I have come across in a long time. Broken and vulnerable yet cunning and sneaky. Is she a misunderstood victim of her household or a product of it? Is she a potential killer or is she mentally unwell? Whatever the case she is completely enthralling to read, all the more so because her narration is slightly off; sometimes repetitive and childlike, sometimes wise beyond her years and almost gleefully sinister and knowing. You never know where you are with her and you feel she knows this all too well – I could be talking about Lizzie Borden or Sarah Schmidt herself when I say that, ha.

Underneath the sofa were tiny pieces of paper that had come away from police officers’ notebooks, trailing from sofa to kitchen like Hansel’s and Gretel’s hoping to find their way back home. I rubbed my forehead again. There would be many things Emma would have to fix to make everything right. I could see father’s blood on the sofa. I considered things.
Words slipped out of me then. ‘I was here talking to Mrs Borden this morning.’
Emma seized. ‘When was this?’ Her voice scratched at my ear.
‘After she told Bridget to keep cleaning the windows. She said there was a strange smell.’
Emma’s nose twitched. ‘What kind of smell?’
The sweet syrup tripped through my limbs. ‘I don’t know. It was probably her.’ I giggled.

One of the benefits of leaving it sometime between reading a book and writing a review of it is that you can get a distance from it – an excuse which I will be using for why some reviews have taken so long to write. I digress. After all, sometimes books fade a little from that first reading rush, or of course they can grow on you as the themes and thoughts they bring up bloom the larger the more time that you have away from them. Then there are books like See What I Have Done, which as your read them worm their way deeper into your psyche and leave something lingering there long after, these are the books you don’t forget the ones whose characters and places just refuse to budge. I urge you to read Lizzie’s tale and let yourself become entwine in the Borden house before it starts to stick in your head, rather like an axe could.

In rather exciting news, as sometimes books can bring people into your life who become lifelong friends or soul siblings, myself and Sarah will be starting a ‘sinister’ book group later this year where we read an unsettling read a month and you can all join in, titles and dates to be released soon. In the interim, you can get Sarah’s book here if you haven’t already which you really should have.

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Filed under Books of 2010, Books of 2017, Random Savidgeness, Review, Sarah Schmidt, Tinder Press

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

As this goes out on the blog, tonight will see the winner of the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction 2017 announced. In a break with tradition on the blog, I decided that instead of telling you all about the shortlist (though I think I have reviewed all of them bar one and made video about them here too) I wanted to share my thoughts on my very favourite last. I have loved a lot on the shortlist this year but without a doubt my favourite has to be Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò which has pretty much every element of what I love in a book and held me captivated by it.

9781782119463

Canongate, hardback, 2017, fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

From the opening of Stay With Me we know that something has gone very wrong with the marriage between Yejide and her husband Akin as she writes of packing up and driving away. Where to, where from and what has happened we do not yet know but soon we are taken back a decade or two before to when the cracks began to show. The time when after much trying Yejide was finding it very difficult to get pregnant and it was becoming the constant focus of her husband and his family’s attention. (I know the below is quite a long excerpt, however I think it gives a real flavour of what comes in the novel as I am going to have to say very little as I don’t want to give too much away, which I will explain.)

I had expected them to talk about my childlessness. I was armed with millions of smiles. Apologetic smiles, pity-me smiles, I-look-unto-God smiles, name all the fake smiles needed to get through an afternoon with a group of people who claim to want the best for you while poking at your open sore with a stick, and I had them ready. I was ready to listen to them tell me I must do something about my situation. I expected to hear about a new pastor I could visit; a new mountain where I could go to pray or an old herbalist in a remote village or town whom I could consult. I was armed with smiles for my lips, an appropriate sheen of tears for my eyes and sniffles for my nose. I was prepared to lock up my hairdressing salon throughout the coming week and go in search of a miracle with my mother-in-law in tow. What I was not expecting was another smiling woman in the room, a yellow woman with a blood-red mouth who grinned like a new bride.

It soon transpires that Akin and his family have been plotting a back-up plan which is to introduce a second wife into the home, Funmi, a woman who they believe will bear children and thus save the family line as well as the marriage between Akin and his first wife. Breaking away from what is socially and culturally expected of her Yejide fights back initially in a rather comic way, yet this is the beginning of an unravelling between Yejide and Akin and a downward spiral of Yejide’s already low sense of worth since the death of her own mother in childbirth.

‘What did you feed them?’ Akin shouted.
‘Bridegroom, welcome back,’ I said. I had just finished eating my dinner. I picked up the plates and headed for the kitchen.
‘You know they all have diarrhoea now? I had to park by a bush for them to shit. A bush!’ He said, following me into the kitchen.

That is where I pretty much have to stop telling you the story, and we are only a chapter or two in, because what follows is a fantastically twisting and turning tale of what happens between Yejide and Akin in the aftermath of this with Adébáyò almost turning a marriage into a thriller which I wasn’t expecting but delighted me with the way in which she accomplished it. Of course, there is a danger in me simply saying that there are plenty of twists and turns ahead may mean you will look out for them but I doubt you will spot them. I genuinely couldn’t tell what was might happen next, and there were many a gasp out loud moment and many a heart dropping moments for this reader.

I am slightly worried that comparing Stay With Me to a thriller may diminish it in some people’s eyes, they couldn’t be more wrong and not only because to accomplish the best kinds of thrillers you need to hide a tightly constructed spiders web of plot where one can’t be seen. Adébáyò does this and much, much more. Behind the domestic dramas that are going on is the drama of Nigeria in the 1980’s and all the rioting and crime that was taking over the country and adds an additional tension to the novel as well as some heart breaking and shocking scenes as the novel moves forward.

I could not imagine then that one day in Nigeria thieves would be bold enough to write letters so that victims could prepare for their attacks, that one day they would sit in living rooms after raping women and children and ask people to prepare pounded yam and egusi stew while they watched movies on VCRs that they would soon disconnect and cart away.

One of the other elements that I admired so much about the book, and yet I have seen criticised in some places, is the fact that as the book goes on you realise it isn’t always Yejide that is narrating the story. Sometimes it flits to Akin and it takes you a small while to realise and then reassess the voice you are reading. I loved this because I thought it not only highlighted the two points of view of a marriage and all that befalls it, but more cleverly is that Adébáyò asks you to stop making assumptions about how a woman might feel about marriage and parenthood and how a man might feel about marriage and parenthood. It gives you so much to think about as well as asking you to check your own assumptions of men and women, though kindly.

You might think this implies that Adébáyò creates two leading characters who merge in to one far too easily, again that isn’t that case. Adébáyò’s characters all come fully formed whether it be leading players like Yejide, Akin, Funmi, Dotun or Moomi or lesser characters like Yejide’s competitor hairdresser Iya Bolu or the hermit up the mountain. They all brim with life, laugher and more often than not secrets. I adored them, even the shadier ones. I also loved the elements of fairy tale (you know me, I love a good fairy tale or myth) that intertwine and are told throughout too. Not often yet deftly and adding certain nuances when they do.

My favourite story was the one about Oluronbi and the Iroko tree. Initially, it was difficult for me to believe the versions my stepmothers told. Their Oluronbi was a market woman who promised to give her daughter to the Iroko tree if it could help her to sell more goods than other traders in the market. At the end of the story, she lost her child to the Ikoro. I hated this version because I did not believe that anyone would trade a child for anything else. The story as my stepmothers told it made no sense to me, so I decided to create my own version.

I could frankly go on for hours about how much I loved Stay With Me, can you tell? It brims with life, humour (dark and saucy), heartache and hope. It is one of those books that just enraptures you within its pages and you find yourself thinking about those characters, situations and layers long after as well as thinking ‘what a bloody good story that was’. For me this was a dream of a novel, it will be one of my books of the year without a shadow of a doubt, and I think Adébáyò is going to be an author to watch in wonder. Go read this book.

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Filed under Ayobami Adebayo, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, Canongate Publishing, Review

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