Snake (2020): Erica Wright

★★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

I’ve read several other books in the Object Lessons series and they’re always thought-provoking, quirky and inventive. Each book takes an everyday object and examines it from various perspectives – historical, social, ecological, cultural or mythological – offering unexpected angles on things that we might have taken for granted our entire lives. But the subject of this book is less ‘everyday’ than the others, at least for those of us in the UK. Erica Wright’s throwaway comment that, ‘If you’ve never killed a snake yourself, you probably know someone who has,‘ definitely isn’t true for me, but perhaps I just associate with particularly unadventurous non-snake-killing types. Wright is American and this book feels very heavily weighted towards a US perspective, whereas the other books I’ve read from this series manage to take a more universal approach. While there’s plenty to fascinate in Wright’s discourses upon all things serpentine, her book lacks the firm narrative command that some of the other writers in this series have achieved. Instead, Snake has a slightly frustrating, meandering quality that means we dart from subject to subject without really getting our teeth into the topic.  Continue reading

American Midnight (2019): Laird Hunt

★★★★

Sunny afternoons in May might not be the most obvious time to read ghost stories, but Pushkin Press’s new collection of eerie American tales are enough to send a chill up the spine no matter what the time of year. Selected and edited by Laird Hunt, these classic stories span the 19th and 20th centuries, and their settings include barricaded castles; modest lodging houses; wooded roads; aesthetic Parisian apartments; forest glades; and supposedly comfortable country houses. The general trend is to unsettle rather than terrify, for which I was grateful, because my overactive imagination really doesn’t need any encouragement in the dark reaches of the night. Including works by Edgar Alan Poe, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, Shirley Jackson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, this is likely to include a couple of tales you’re already familiar with, but will introduce you to at least a few new friends, ready to raise the goosebumps on your arms…

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The Mystery of Henri Pick (2016): David Foenkinos

★★★★

Imagine a library of rejected manuscripts, where failed books find a new home. Actually, it doesn’t take too much imagination, because such a place really does exist: the Brautigan Library in Vancouver, Washington, named after the author Richard Brautigan, who invented such a library in his novel The Abortion. In The Mystery of Henri Pick, the librarian Jean-Pierre Gourvec forms a similar collection in his small Breton town of Crozon. For decades, shelves of rejected stories slumber in the back of the town library until, some years after Gourvec’s death, something remarkable happens. Up-and-coming young editor Delphine Despero, at home on a visit to her parents, visits the library of rejected manuscripts with her author boyfriend. They discover a remarkable text – a masterpiece, signed by one Henri Pick. Snapped up by the publishing world, this book becomes a sensation, less for its content than for the romantic story of its creation. But how did the late Pick, a humble pizza chef with no discernable literary leanings, come to create such a beautiful novel? As Crozon adjusts to its new literary fame, the novel begins to affect the lives of those connected with it. And then a maverick journalist raises a controversial prospect. What if the novel isn’t really by Pick at all?

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A Different Drummer (1962): William Melvin Kelley

★★★★

Hailed as a rediscovered classic, this 1962 debut novel examines the complexities of race relations in the American South, through the story of one extraordinary day. It’s a Thursday when the men who congregate on Mister Thomason’s shop porch see the salt wagon going by, up to Tucker Caliban’s farm. When they follow, they witness an unbelievable sight. Tucker, an African-American man who has only recently purchased his own land and built a house, methodically sows his entire acreage with salt, before destroying his livestock and setting the house on fire. He and his heavily pregnant wife leave without a word. In the days that follow, word spreads to the other African-American residents of the state and, one by one, they too pack up and leave. Kelley’s novel traces the roots of this event back through the history of the Caliban family and that of their employers and former owners, the Willsons. A blistering picture of a still-segregated South, it’s a sobering book – but one which proudly looks ahead to change.

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The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes (2018): Ruth Hogan

★★★

Masha has been trapped in the past for twelve years, ever since her young son toddled away from her and drowned in a tragic accident. When she goes to the lido every morning, it isn’t to swim, to make her body strong, but to force herself underwater and to stay to the very point of drowning, so that she can understand what he would have felt. When she visits her loyal, supportive friends – playing the part of a functioning grown-up – everyone knows that there are some subjects which must be avoided. One of the few ways that Masha finds peace is in her daily walk through the rambling local cemetery, with her lolloping dog Haizum, where she conjures up fanciful histories for the people whose graves she passes. And it’s here, in the cemetery, that she encounters an eccentric old woman who, quite unexpectedly, opens Masha’s eyes to the possibility of joy. This is a heartwarming tale of old friends, new friends and new starts, which sometimes strays dangerously close to being mawkish, but might well leave a tear in your eye.

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The Inugami Curse (1951): Seishi Yokomizo

★★★½

Kosuke Kindaichi: Book 2

I really enjoyed my introduction to Kosuke Kindaichi in The Honjin Murders, and was keen to read more of his adventures. Enter The Inugami Curse, the second novel in the series to be translated by Pushkin Vertigo, which like the earlier book blends a highly readable mystery with insights into traditional Japanese culture. As the novel opens, Kindaichi arrives in the lakeside town of Nasu, north of Tokyo, after receiving a worrying letter from the lawyer Wakabayashi. The powerful businessman Sahei Inugami has recently died, sending shockwaves through the local community, for whom he was a figurehead. Everyone is breathlessly waiting for his will to be read, to reveal how his fortune will be divided. Each of Sahei’s three daughters waits, hawk-like, with their husbands and children in tow. But Wakabayashi has seen the will and knows it will have the power to rip the family apart in blood and fury. Kindaichi initially believes Wakabayashi’s predictions to be overblown, but when the lawyer is poisoned moments before their meeting, he realises someone in the Inugami clan will stop at nothing to secure Sahei’s fortune. And this, alas, is only the first of the murders…

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The Goldsmith and the Master Thief (1961): Tonke Dragt

★★★

You know when you buy a book and mean to read it, and keep meaning to read it, but never quite get round to it, and then it’s adapted for TV and you realise that you’ve missed the moment, and that now whenever you read it people will assume you’ve only read it because you’d seen it on Netflix? Yep. That’s happened to me with Tonke Dragt’s story The Letter for the King, so I was keen to get ahead with her novel The Goldsmith and the Master Thief. I should emphasise that this is a children’s story and it’s written as such: there are no winks or extra layers of meaning aimed at adults, just a good old-fashioned fable which follows the adventures of two very different (and yet very similar) brothers. Cynics need not apply: in this world, duplicity is always punished, the misguided mend their ways, and the pure of heart are always rewarded. Reading it feels like a deliciously self-indulgent step back in time, to the days when life was simpler.

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Bulletproof Vest (2020): Kenneth R. Rosen

★★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

After Coffee, I decided to try another of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons books, to see whether I’d misunderstood the gist of the series. Fortunately, Bulletproof Vest was a better fit for my expectations: a moving personal story woven around the object’s history. It’s a tale, first and foremost, of the human desire to both destroy and protect. Rosen experiences the former in a cataclysm of depression when, with his self-worth shredded and with years of self-loathing behind him, he comes within a hair’s breadth of suicide. Ironically, for what follows, his weapon of choice is a gun. Later, having clawed his way out of the depths, he channels his self-destructive instincts in a new direction, thanks to his work as a journalist. ‘Pointing the lens outward,’ he writes, ‘would allow me to heal my inner disruption‘. And so he signs up for work as a war correspondent in Iraq, a job which will bring him face to face with the innate human desire to conquer and kill, but which will also require him to take concrete, proactive steps to protect himself. Rosen buys his first bulletproof vest, and thus the story begins.

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Stanley and Elsie (2019): Nicola Upson

★★★★

Two years ago, on a hot summer’s day, I went to Cookham in search of Stanley Spencer. Nestled around a high street, the village is small and probably rather peaceful under normal circumstances, but I’d managed to turn up on the weekend of Rock the Moor, a festival which had taken over the meadows down by the river. As I studied the pictures in the Stanley Spencer Gallery, a converted chapel at the far end of the village, my contemplation was underlaid by the distant, persistent throb of drums. It was all rather wonderful, in its own bizarre way. Stanley Spencer is an artist I don’t know well, but I like what I’ve seen of his work. It has the kind of robustness, the rounded simplicity and simplified geometric flair, that I find in the works of other British artists of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and which always appeals to me (think Laura Knight; Augustus John; or, in a slightly later period, the young Lucian Freud). It was inevitable that this novel would capture my attention, but I came to it with caution: all too often, art-historical novels disappoint. But not this one. In simple but evocative prose, Upson unfolds the story of the Spencer family and their maid Elsie Munday, in a story that spans thirty years and offers an absorbing insight into one of the most tumultuous and bizarre artistic marriages of the 20th century. Fascinating and beautifully researched.

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Middlegame (2019): Seanan McGuire

★★★★

The Up-and-Under stories by A. Deborah Baker are cherished classics of children’s literature. Two friends, a strangely complementary boy and girl, set out together on a journey to a dazzling city, where destiny awaits. Along the way, they meet strange characters, some of whom are friends, and help them on their journey. Others seem friendly, but only hinder them. This is a core narrative in other stories too: the road; the city; and the knowledge that awaits you when you get there. But what if the story isn’t just a story, but a road-map? What if Baker’s innocent series of children’s books is actually a manual of secret knowledge? Few people know that A. Deborah Baker wasn’t a cosy children’s author. She was Asphodel Baker, one of the most brilliant and frustrated alchemists of all time, and the books were the distillation of her knowledge, in a world that slammed all its doors in her face. Now, a hundred years down the road, two children – a strangely complementary boy and girl – are about to embark on their own journey into the unknown. They can succeed, or they can die. Success will mean remaking the world. Sprawling, ambitious, and stuffed with ideas, Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame grabs you by the throat and simply doesn’t let go for five hundred pages.

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