Tag Archives: Faber

Sugar Money by Jane Harris: Well worth the wait

Cover imageThere seems to be something of a trend in fiction at the moment, although perhaps three novels are too few to be called that. First came Colson Whitehead’s Man Booker shortlisted The Underground Railroad followed by Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and now Jane Harris’ Sugar Money, all exploring the history of slavery. I’ve yet to read the first two, leapfrogging over to Harris’ novel having waited eight years since the wonderful Gillespie and I. Based loosely on true events, Sugar Money tells the story of an attempt to bring a group of slaves back from Grenada to Martinique, restoring them from British to French hands.

In December 1765, the war between France and Britain recently over, Father Cléophas has hatched a plan to rescue his friary’s finances, employing a mixed-race slave to help execute his scheme. Emile was once a slave on Grenada before he was sold on leaving his brother – more than ten years his junior – with the friars who took him to Martinique. Lucien is a cocky young twelve-year-old. Emile does everything he can to prevent his younger brother from accompanying him on what he thinks of as a foolish and dangerous mission but Lucien is determined to show he’s just as smart and brave as the brother he quietly idolises but constantly mocks. These two cross the sea, finding their way to the Fort Royal hospital where they are greeted by many that remember them including Emile’s beloved Céleste. Emile has three days to persuade the hospital slaves to return to Martinique. Some are eager, perhaps foolishly so imagining a paradise of ease and freedom, others are more circumspect, many are weak and infirm. On the third night, they set off, hoping their masters will be distracted by Christmas celebrations. What ensues is a fraught and arduous journey on which Lucien will finally become the man he thinks himself to be.

Harris structures her story as a lost slave narrative, written by Lucien and discovered on the death of his abolitionist employer. Lucien is an engaging and entertaining narrator, a bumptious sardonic smart Alec in counterpoint to his quietly resourceful brother whose intelligence and integrity have won him great respect. Harris’ writing is as striking as I remember it in both The Observations and Gillespie and I. Lucien reels off a string of colourful flourishes: Father Cléophas is as ‘slippery as a worm in a hogshead of eel’; Emile is ‘a closed-up box within a box with locks; ‘say what you like about my brother but his eyes so sharp he could see two flea fornicating on a rat in the dark’. Harris uses her narrator’s voice to leaven her sober theme with a good deal of humour while laying bare the barbaric brutality of slavery fueled by greed and corruption. Ratcheting up the tension as the slaves make their way to the port, she had me racing through the final sections of her novel, hurtling towards the finishing line in the hopes that all would be well. A rattling good yarn which manages to entertain while never losing sight of its subject’s horrors.

Blasts from the Past: The Observations by Jane Harris (2006)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

There seemed to be something of a vogue for Victorian novel pastiches a decade or so ago. May be it was the turn of the twentieth century that sparked it off or maybe it was Sarah Walters’ success which began with her first novel, Tipping the Velvet. I’m not a huge fan of what almost became a genre in itself but I read Jane Harris’ first novel The Observations for a work assignment and loved it mainly because of Bessy, its wonderfully sassy narrator.

Only fifteen years of age and Bessy already has a past as colourful and inappropriate as the yellow satin gown she wears to walk from Glasgow to Edinburgh in search of work. To escape unwanted male attention, she takes the turning for Castle Haivers and is soon employed by its mistress Arabella who asks her for a record of her Cover imagedays working as a maid. When she finds the reason for this puzzling request in the Observations, Arabella’s record of experiments she has conducted in an attempt to find the perfect servant, Bessy is appalled at her own character assessment and decides to take revenge setting in motion a chain of events that she will bitterly regret. Narrated in Bessy’s sly, earthy, often very funny, voice, Harris’ novel is part ghost story, part mystery, and ultimately a heartening tale of redemption.

Harris followed The Observations with the equally brilliant Gillespie and I which features a quintessentially unreliable narrator, always a favourite device of mine. There’s been nothing from her since – six years ago now – but I’m still hopeful.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker: A life in forty-five objects

Cover imageIt took some persuasion to get me to read this novel. When it was pitched to me it seemed a) too clever for its own good and b) up an entirely different alley from mine but it’s published by Faber who know what they’re talking about when it comes to literary fiction so I thought what the hell. UK readers may well have heard all about it by now – lots of publicity including a spot on Channel 4 News and Radio 4’s Today programme meant it was much talked about on publication. Deservedly so, as it turns out. Harry Parker is a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars: Anatomy of a Soldier is the story of Captain Tom Barnes who steps on an improvised explosive device – just as Parker did – told from the point of view of forty-five objects.

The novel opens with the tourniquet which Tom’s comrades tie tightly around what’s left of his leg, waiting for the medics to arrive. It’s spent eight weeks, two days and four hours in the pocket of his trousers and will be burnt as surgical waste once the doctors begin their work. This is Tom’s third tour of duty. He’s settled himself in, chatted with his men, read letters from home, endured the boredom of war punctuated with moments of fear and adrenaline when out on operations. He‘s talked to the man who manages the village irrigation system and been helped by the man’s son who fears for the friend who has been drawn into the insurgency by the promise of much-needed cash. When Tom steps on the IED he’s first treated in a field hospital, then shipped home for further surgery before the long and arduous process of rehabilitation begins. By the end of the novel, he has found his way to a life that is entirely different but no less rewarding.

You may share my initial scepticism about the structure Parker uses to unfold his story but it works extraordinarily well and continues to work through all forty-five objects which range from Tom’s boot to his mother’s handbag, his occupational service medal to the IED’s detonator. By telling his story in this way, Parker manages to be both objective and extraordinarily vivid in his descriptions of what happens to Tom and to the villagers. It’s not a linear narrative but Parker is careful to tie in any loose ends, weaving the villagers’ stories into Tom’s in a compassionate, empathetic way – quite remarkable given his own experience. The writing is striking at times – a boot observes ‘other boots like me fidgeted under the table’ before the company ships out; a respirator sees that other patients’ ‘bodies were disfigured, too, and did not fill the beds as they should’. Parker conveys emotion beautifully, recording the prosaic exchanges hiding fear and worry as Tom’s father shaves his son in hospital. Towards the end, as Tom has a drink with a civilian friend who commiserates with him he says ‘If the men who did this to me walked in here right now, … … I’d offer them a drink’. Hard for those of us who’ve never been through such an experience to understand such a reaction but my hope is Parker is articulating his own feelings. Altogether a thoroughly impressive and inventive piece of work. Not an autobiography but it’s impossible not to think of Parker’s own experience when reading it.

That’s it from me for this week. H and I are off to Nice tomorrow for a few days, hoping that a little spring sunshine will finish off my flu recuperation. Thanks to all those kind people who wished me a speedy recovery after Monday’s post and many commiserations to those who knew only too well what I was talking about.

Books to Look Out for in January 2015

I know you’ve all get your minds on Christmas but I thought it might be time for a little taster of what 2015 has to offer before we get overdosed on carols and all that malarkey. It’s a good month, too. No huge names leap out for me but there are several interesting looking treats nevertheless.

Cover imageI’ll start with the appropriately named debut, The Winter War,  by Finland’s answer to Jonathan Franzen according to its publishers but I’m not letting that put me off. Middle class Helsinki couple Max and Katriina appear to have a perfect life but as we all know that can’t be true. Katriina no longer loves Max, their adult daughters both have problems and as he nears his sixtieth birthday, Max strides off into dangerous territory. It’s compared to ‘a big, contemporary, humane American novel, but with a distinctly Scandinavian edge’ which sounds just the ticket to me.

Jonas Karlsson’s The Room is about Bjorn (bit of a Scandi theme going on here, I know) a discontented bureaucrat who finds a secret room in his office in which he feels wonderfully empowered, performing to the exacting standards demanded by the Authority with ease. Everyone else, however, denies its existence. It’s an intriguing idea which could easily backfire but it sounds worth a try.

I remember reading Emily Woof’s first novel, The Whole Wide Beauty, and not getting on with it very well but I like the sound of The Lightning Tree enough to give her another try. Set in Newcastle in the mid-1980s it’s about Ursula, raised on big ideas and keen to start the adventure of adult life, and Jerry, a class warrior with an altogether different sort of upbringing, who fall in love with each other. She heads off to India while he goes to Oxford – will their relationship survive? Recommended for fans of both The Line of Beauty and The Marriage Plot, – two very different novels, make of that what you will – it’s described as ‘lyrical and funny’.

Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is another title that could go either way. Jonathan Franzen describes it as ‘hilarious…cracklingly intelligent…and original in every sentence’, apparently, but as you may have noticed I’m not a fan of Mr Franzen. It sounds a little like an early Paul Auster which is where the attractions lies for me. Narrated by Ben, a writer who has just secured a big advance after the ecstatic reception of his first novel and is now writing his second narrated by ‘Ben’, 10:04 ‘charts an exhilarating course through the contemporary landscape of sex, friendship, memory, art and politics’, apparently. Not lacking in ambition, then.

Let’s end with what I hope will be a highly entertaining nineteenth-century romp, the wonderfully named LucyThe Hourglass Factory Ribchester’s debut  The Hourglass Factory, which takes us to the circus with the equally wonderfully named Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist, tiger tamer and suffragette, who’s stage getup includes the tightest laced corset you’ve ever seen and certainly wouldn’t want to experience. When Ebony disappears mid-performance, intrepid girl reporter Frankie George – fascinated with all things circus-related – is determined to find out what’s happened to her. Sounds like a rip-roaring tale, just the thing for fireside reading.

That’s it for January books. As ever a click on a title will reveal more information at Waterstones website and if you want to know what I’m hoping for in my Christmas stocking just click here.

Why we need independent publishers

Quercus logoLast week it was announced that Hodder & Stoughton was to buy Stieg Larsson’s publisher, Quercus, an independent  started by Anthony Cheetham back in 2005. For several years it was the book trade’s darling, its success no doubt helped along by Cheetham’s many years of publishing experience combined with his legendary entrepreneurial nous. Finding itself cash-strapped, it had put itself up for sale a few months ago and I had been anxious about who might buy it. It came hard on the heels of the announcement that Little, Brown was buying Constable & Robinson, another independent

I’m very fond of independent publishers – they’re more likely to produce books that are a little out of the mainstream rather than staying on a bandwagon for rather too long. They keep the big boys and girls of the publishing world on their toes but sometimes find themselves swallowed up by the conglomerates as happened to Fourth Estate who caught HarperCollins’ eye. As is often the case with independents their very inventiveness results in a huge success – in this case Dava Soebel’s Longitude which opened up a whole new genre of niche history – attracting the attention of the publishing behemoths. That particular acquisition was accompanied by the appointment of Victoria Barnsley, whose baby Fourth Estate was, to CEO of HarperCollins which ensured that it didn’t entirely lose its personality. Sadly, since her surprise departure last year, Barnsley is longer holding the reins.

I’m a great fan of Quercus – good strong commercial fiction and crime coupled with theCorsair logo literary and translated fiction of Maclehose Press. I’m sure Hodder will take care of them – worries about the takeover of the illustrious John Murray, surely the most venerable of independents, proved unfounded – and that Little, Brown will look after Corsair, Constable & Robinson’s literary fiction imprint, long a favourite of mine. There are a multitude of independents out there, many of them publishing in enterprising and inventive ways: Persephone’s beautifully produced women’s lost classics, originally only sold from their own shop, filled the Virago Classic gap; Profile’s often quirky and original non-fiction is always worth a look; not to mention Alma’s short but carefully chosen list plus And Other Stories’ inventive crowd sourcing, publishing by subscription approach. Some of them have reserves to live off – Faber have a solid backlist of plays, poetry and William Golding while Bloomsbury still has the Harry Potter goldmine. These, along with Canongate who filled that Fourth Estate gap for me, Granta, publishers of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and Atlantic are some of my favourite publishers. I’m sure many of you will have your own treasured independents – I’d love to hear who they are.

Holiday reading ups and downs

Great dixterBack from my Sussex hols the highlights of which were undoubtedly two gorgeous gardens – Great Dixter and Charleston Farmhouse – both the kind that look as if they’ve been causally thrown together although anyone who knows anything about gardening, and I know very little, understands that this kind of planting is the product of great skill and effort. The guided tours at Charleston were over subscribed so we didn’t make it into the house but the kind woman in the ticket office sent us off to the garden with free tickets instead. I suspect H was relieved given his irritation with all things Bloomsbury Group apart from John Maynard Keynes about whom the others were apparently very sniffy. Another holiday delight was Lewes, a fascinating little town and home to the excellent Bill’s which has all day dining down to a tee – buzzy atmosphere, scrummy food and friendly efficient staff. You can do a little shopping from lists provided at your table which the staff picks out from Bill’s produce as you enjoy your meal. Even better, I find that they’ve recently opened a branch in Bath.

Holiday reading was a bit hit and miss. The biggest miss was Flight Behaviour which I gave up. I’m a huge fan of the early Barbara Kingsolvers – The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams – but Cover imagethis one felt overwritten and ponderous to me. I know I’m in a tiny minority but there it is. Hits were Aifric Campbell’s riveting On the Floor, the story of a female trader’s visceral meltdown made all the more gripping by the knowledge that Campbell herself was a trader for many years at Morgan Stanely, and MarjorieCover Image Celona’s Y which I’m still reading. It’s the story of a young girl abandoned at birth then shuttled between foster carers told in her own voice from the moment she was left on the steps of the local YMCA. As gripping as On the Floor in a very different way Y is a moving, gut wrenching first novel. Perfect holiday reading but not out in paperback until September, I’m afraid.

I‘ve been catching up with a bit of book news this morning and spotted The Best 100 Opening Lines From Books which was published last week. There are some corkers here, from the exploding grandmother of Iain Banks’s The Crow Road to the clocks striking thirteen at the beginning of 1984, but I couldn’t find any trace of my own favourite from Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” Beat that!

What’s in a genre?

Cover imageI’ve been reading Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies for a review and wondering where I’d shelve it if I was back in my old bookselling days. It reads like a polished piece of literary fiction but it’s clear from the start that things are going to become pretty visceral, and indeed they do. Not to spoil it for anyone who plans to read it but there’s more than a nod to Frankenstein and his monster here. While trying to make up my mind I thought I’d check out other reviews several of which seemed to be on SF sites. Truth be told, if I had known that before I would probably not have chosen to review the book as it’s not a genre I’m drawn to – I read Iain Banks but not Iain M. Banks. That would have been a shame. It’s an interesting novel that asks serious questions about what makes us human – are our essential selves made up of our conscious memories, thoughts and feelings or are we incomplete without our bodies? It’s also gripping as well as being erudite: lots of literary allusions, a Samuel Johnson expert as a narrator and a nasty conspiracy based on nineteenth century Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov’s teachings on universal resurrection and the resuscitation of the dead. There’s a reasonable helping of black humour in there, too. All in all an excellent read. Must get out of my comfort zone more.