The Made-Up Man: Joseph Scapellato

★★★

It has been much too long, hasn’t it? It wasn’t meant to be this way: when the lockdown started in London, back in March, I thought this would be the perfect time for reading and blogging. Yes, I thought I’d finally get round to ploughing through Proust. Instead, I’ve spent seven months in a one-bedroom room flat (save a few days here and there), on furlough, with a steadily dwindling sense of purpose and intellectual capacity. It turns out that, when you have nothing to do, it becomes increasingly hard to do anything at all. And I was one of the lucky ones: having my partner here with me has been a joy throughout. But it has still been immensely hard. This is the longest gap in my blogging since I started writing The Idle Woman in 2011 and I’m sorry for that. I even forgot the blog’s birthday back in July! But things are, hopefully, on the mend now. I’m returning to work in just over a week, and am looking forward to honing my mind again because, quite frankly, it feels like unformed putty at the moment. And I need to write. I’ve been genuinely lost without this blog over the last few months. Feeling unable to focus on reading, unable to write a blog post, has deprived me of some of the most joyous hobbies in my life. Writing this blog brings me contentment, discipline and, crucially at the moment, contact with you lovely people out there in the ether. In an ideal world, I’d be taking up the reins again with a post about a staggeringly brilliant book (for which, see Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi). I have more complex feelings about The Made-Up Man, but come along with me and we’ll see if we can thrash out an opinion about it somewhere on the way.

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Edith’s Diary (1977): Patricia Highsmith

★★★

We are all familiar with the concept of the unreliable narrator in fiction. But how much greater is that unreliability, how much greater the pinch of salt or the necessary adjustment, when we read someone’s diary! Many of us will have kept diaries, in our teens if not for longer. Looking back on them provides us with an opportunity to reassess the self-delusions of someone who is no longer the same ‘us’ are we are now. To read old diaries is to engage in a constant process of negotiation with a past self. Diaries give us the chance to tell our own stories: to present the world as we know it, with ourselves as the central characters, and everyone else swirling around us in secondary roles. We are unreliable, not through intention or malice, but through simple solipsism. Edith, the protagonist of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, also keeps a diary. It was given to her as a gift when she was young and idealistic, starting out on a life that she felt sure would be full of success. But increasingly, as we follow Edith through her life, that diary becomes a reminder of life’s unpleasant tendency not to fit in with nice, neat expectations. The appropriate narrative arc never quite seems to arise in real life. Family members, somehow, never quite fulfil the expectations we have of them. More and more, Edith finds herself having to correct the shortcomings of real life in her diary, an imagined world of perfection which could all too easily become more real than her own imperfect life.

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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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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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Where the Crawdads Sing (2018): Delia Owens

★★★★

Way out on the marshes, where the water meets the sky, a young girl grows to womanhood alone. Kya Clark has grown used to people abandoning her: first her mother left, then her beloved brother Jodie, and finally her abusive, drunken father failed to come home. It seems safer to place her trust in nature, which lives by simple rules without the duplicity of mankind. The family’s ramshackle home lies only a few miles from the little town of Barkley Cove on the North Carolina coast, but Kya might as well inhabit another world. Everyone in town knows that the marsh-dwellers are outcasts, law-breakers and thieves. When the body of popular local boy Chase Andrews is found broken and battered beneath the old fire tower just outside town in August 1969, people are quick to seek a scapegoat. And who better than the half-wild Marsh Girl? Delia Owen’s haunting novel was this month’s Book Club pick and my favourite so far (a relief, since I suggested it). It’s a paean to nature in all its rich variety, written in poetic cadences infused with Southern rhythms, and with a heroine who shatters all the stereotypes of the ‘outcast’. It’s the perfect novel for a time when, confined to homes and gardens, we finally have time to savour the natural world around us.

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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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Castle Skull (1931): John Dickson Carr

★★★

Henri Bencolin: Book 2

The British Library Crime Classics series doesn’t just embrace British writers. Castle Skull is positively international: the work of the American crime novelist John Dickson Carr, set in Germany, with the Parisian detective Bencolin as its protagonist. It’s one of Carr’s earlier works, published in 1931, and he seems to have thrown everything at it in an excess of exuberance. A mystery, but also a macabre piece of Grand Guignol, this story takes us deep into the dark gorges of the Rhineland, and to the eponymous Castle Skull, former home of the magician Maleger. This extravagant folly was left jointly in his will to his friends Jerome d’Aunay, the Belgian financier, and Myron Alison, the British actor. But now d’Aunay has come to Paris in search of Bencolin’s brilliant mind, for there has been a horrific death, and the castle has seen blood spilled upon its walls: ‘Alison has been murdered. His blazing body was seen running about the battlements of Castle Skull.’ It’s definitely one of the more ‘what the…?!’ opening gambits in detective fiction. A blazing body; a castle shaped like a skull; a whole treasure trove of dark secrets… Bencolin can’t resist and, along with his friend (and the book’s narrator) Jeff Marle, he heads for the Rhineland to discover the full sinister history of Castle Skull.

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The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (2019): Abbi Waxman

★★★

My book club has already thrown up several choices that take me outside my usual reading habits. Following on from Liar’s Candle, this month’s selection is a light and bubbly piece of biblio-chick-lit. Nina Hill is an attractive, kooky, bookish 29-year-old singleton, who works in a bookstore (of course she does), and lives alone with her cat (naturally) in a picturesque suburb of Los Angeles. She plans her life with military precision, but as the book starts she’s about to encounter two major curveballs that threaten to disrupt her cherished schedule. One curveball is Tom, the cute guy in the rival team at trivia night (aka pub-quiz night for Brits). The other, potentially more shattering, is news that Nina’s father has died. This comes as something of a shock, since she never knew who her father was. As she embarks on this terrifyingly unpredictable new chapter of her life, she must push herself to her limits, forcing herself out of the comfort zone she has so painstakingly created for herself. Will it be worth it?

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Paper Wife (2018): Laila Ibrahim

★★★

This gentle novel throws light on an aspect of history that I knew nothing about. Set largely in San Francisco’s Chinatown, it focuses on the surreptitious custom of the ‘paper wife’, and on one particularly determined and compassionate woman. In March 1923, in a small village in China’s Guangdong Province, young Mei Ling is obliged to take her elder sister’s place in a matchmaking deal. New American immigration laws mean that Chinese workers in the USA can no longer move freely back and forth to their families in the motherland. A businessman from San Francisco has come home, hoping to take his wife and son back with him, only to find that his wife has recently died. Now he needs a replacement, and Mei Ling’s family are poor enough and desperate enough to send their daughter to the other side of the world, with a stranger, in the hope of securing a good life for her. The catch is that Mei Ling must pretend to be the dead wife of her new husband, in order to get through the examination given by US border officials. A tale of resilience, hope and well-meaning deceit, this book looks at the challenges of building a new life in the New World – and stepping into another woman’s shoes.

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Liar’s Candle (2018): August Thomas

★★½

I said just a few days ago that thrillers aren’t really my comfort zone. So you can imagine I was rather amused when, after discussing The Binding, my book club decided to go for something completely different: this fast-paced CIA thriller set in Turkey. It’s a breathless modern tale of terrorism, murky ambitions, double-dealing and innocence maligned, and it’s certainly very readable: I got through it in a couple of days. But it is weakened considerably by its complete implausibility, which I shall detail with relish in just a moment. Let’s set the scene. Naive US intern Penny Kessler has been working at the American Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, for just three weeks when she wakes up in the Ankara state hospital with a piercing headache and vague memories of an explosion. She is one of the few survivors of a terrorist bomb that detonated at the American Embassy’s Fourth of July party, killing swathes of people. Penny has also become the poster girl for the tragedy, thanks to a photo of her, dazed and blood-drenched, pulling an American flag from the rubble. Suddenly everyone is very interested in her. But are they really just interested in her welfare? Or is there something more sinister going on? Before Penny knows it, she’s on the run – and there’s no one she can trust.

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