Tag Archives: The Fatal Tree

Books of the Year 2017: Part One

Cover imageI’ve been in dire need of distraction this year. I tend to keep politics out of this blog but ours is a very political household. It’s what we talk about over supper but this year we both decided, for the sake of our mental health, we needed to rein it back. Books, as ever, have been a solace. Far too many favourites for one or even two posts so there will be four, all with links to full reviews on this blog.

January began with a book that was published in the previous December and as a result may not have made the impression it deserved which is why it’s popped up two weeks running here. Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend  kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability. Written from Audrey’s point of view, Down’s debut is a masterclass in elegant understatement steered neatly away from the maudlin. It’s about the way in which friendship can help you through the darkest of times, about resilience and learning when to reach out, and it ends on a note of hope which brought me to tears. A very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely.

Nathan Hill’s The Nix is a big novel in every sense of the word. Through the story of a mother and the son she left when he was eleven, it explores the panorama of American life from the heady idealism of the ‘60s to 2011, the world still reeling from the global financial crisis. The writing is striking from the get-go and it’s very funny: Hill hurls well-aimed barbs at all manner of things from social media to advertising, publishing to academia to mention but a few. Careful plotting ensures that each piece of the puzzle slots neatly into place until both Faye and Samuel’s stories are told. It ends with fresh starts, a much-needed reminder that despite all that’s gone before there will always be both redemption and hope somewhere in the world, albeit personal rather than political.

Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack comes packaged in the perfect jacket. It’s the story of a marriage Cover imagespanning sixty years, contracted in 1952: Jack is about to playfully pull the laughing Milly into what they hope will be the nice warm swimming pool of married life. In many ways they’re an ill-matched couple, neither of them quite what the other expected or thought they were, but they stick it out, always finding some love left no matter how close they are to the bottom of the barrel. Jones’ narrative is a little fragmented in the way that memories are but it’s all beautifully done, anchored by recurring motifs. An engrossing, utterly gripping novel, beautifully bookended by the repetition of Jack and Milly’s first meeting.

February also delivered three novels that hit the spot, each very different from the others, starting with Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. This elegant novella is a book of memory, the story of a teenage girl in the ‘70s which unfolds when a chance meeting after her father’s funeral catapults August back into her past. It’s a gorgeous book – deeply moving, peopled with vividly drawn characters and beautifully expressed. Woodson is known for her young adult and children’s books but I hope she’ll find time to write some more for us grown-up readers.

Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, The Refugees is by an author who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. It explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. Viet Thanh Nguyen considers themes of memory, love, family, identity and belonging – or not belonging – from a variety of points of view in a collection which combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience lending it a quiet power. Every refugee – from Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or any of the many conflicts that afflict our world – has their story which will continue to reverberate for many decades.

Cover imageAt which point you may be wondering about books as a distraction from politics but my next February choice has that in spades. Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree is a rip-roaring tale of thieves and whores, love and folly, corruption and redemption, much of it told in flash – gloriously vivid eighteenth-century thieves’ slang. It’s the story of Edgeworth Bess who is in Newgate Gaol, awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Alongside Bess’ tale, Billy – petty thief, scribbler and molly – tells his own, intertwining his narrative with hers as each moves towards a decisive conclusion. I have a feeling that Arnott had a great deal of fun writing this book, delving into the lives of spruce-prigs, twangs and buttock-brokers.

That’s it for January and February’s favourites. Goodies were thinner on the ground in the following three months but they did include one which should have won all this year’s prizes, as far as I’m concerned, but didn’t…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2017: Part One

There’s an abundance of paperback treats coming up this September, so many that I’ve split them into two posts. Top of my list is Jake Arnott’s rollicking tale of thieves and whores, The Fatal Tree, set in 1726. Told to us by Billy, a confessional writer with his own story, it’s about Edgeworth Bess, banged up in Newgate Gaol awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Replete with period detail, salaciousness and vivid descriptions, Arnott’s novel is both nicely taut and very funny at times. A wonderful piece of historical storytelling as atmospheric as Michel Faber’s The Crimson and the White.

Nathan Hill’s The Nix is an entirely different kettle of fish, although parts of it are set in 1968, certainly classed by my contemporary historian partner as history. Samuel is an assistant professor in his mid-thirties when the story of the Packer Attacker breaks: a woman in her sixties is facing prosecution for throwing stones at the Governor of Illinois. The woman turns out to be Samuel’s mother who left the family home when he was just eleven. Hill takes Samuel and Faye’s stories from the heady liberalism of the ‘60s to 2011, the world still reeling from the global financial crisis. Riveting stuff for me, full of striking writing and it’s very funny, too: Hill hurls well-aimed barbs at all manner of things from social media to advertising, publishing to academia – the latter spot-on according to H – to mention but a few.

Michael Chabon’s Moonglow also takes a long hard look at American history by the sound of it, drawing on stories told to him by his grandfather. The novel takes the form of a deathbed confession in which an old man tells his grandson stories long-buried, revealing a life far more adventurous than the grandson could ever have expected. ‘From the Jewish slums of pre-war Cover imagePhiladelphia to the invasion of Germany, from a Florida retirement village to the penal utopia of a New York prison, from the heyday of the space programme to the twilight of ‘the American Century’, Moonglow collapses an era into a single life and a lifetime into a single week’ say the publishers. Given Chabon’s storytelling skills this should be unmissable.

The next three titles are on a much more domestic scale beginning with Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade described by the publishers as ‘luminous and moving’. Set in Dublin, it’s about Sonny who falls for Vera, both of them from very different backgrounds. ‘Unfolding in the sea-bright, rain-soaked Dublin of early spring, Montpelier Parade is a beautiful, cinematic novel about desire, longing, grief, hope and the things that remain unspoken’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing.

Gwendoline Riley’s Baileys Prize shortlisted First Love could be described as exploring similar territory although the relationship between Neve and Edwyn may not seem like love to everyone. Neve is a writer, working at home and living with Edwyn who is much older than her, often cranky and unpredictable. As we learn more about Neve’s life we begin to understand why she puts up with the stream of insults hurled at her. Riley leavens her spare, pin-point sharp novella’s bleakness with spikes of humour. Unsettling and thought-provoking, it ends on a note of frail hope.

Cover imageLove and its difficulties also runs through Laura Kaye’s engaging outsider’s view of rural life, English Animals, about a young Slovakian woman who leaves London to work as an au pair for a couple at Fairmont Hall, the house which is both their home and a financial millstone around their necks. Mirka arrives to the sound of bickering but despite their turbulent relationship, Richard and Sophie warmly welcome her into their home where she is surprised to find herself learning taxidermy, Richard’s new money-making scheme. A thoroughly enjoyable novel, peopled by well-observed characters and very funny at times although the squeamish may want to skip the more detailed taxidermy descriptions. I’m delighted to see that the publishers have kept that striking jacket for the paperback edition

That’s it for the first instalment of September’s paperbacks. Should you wish to learn more, a click on a title will take you to a full review for those I’ve read, and to a more detailed synopsis for Moonglow and Montpelier Parade. And if you want to catch up with September’s new titles they’re here. Second batch of paperbacks to follow soon…

My 2017 Man Booker wish list

Despite swearing off Man Booker predictions a few years back I can’t seem to keep away although I must emphasize that my track record is pretty dismal so don’t go laying any bets on my suggestions. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2016 and 30th September 2017 and have been written in English. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September but I’m sticking to novels I’ve already read. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Thursday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order:

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The Fatal Tree                                             Birdcage Walk                             Reservoir 13

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The End We Start From                      The Answers                      Conversations with Friends

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A Line Made by Walking               Before Everything                            The Nix

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The Hearts of Men                     Johannesburg                              Forest Dark

Usually several titles jostle for position as my top choice but this year there’s no contest – Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. No reflection on the merits of the other books: McGregor’s writing is sublime and this is quite possibly his best work yet. I’ll be searching for a hat to eat if it doesn’t make it on to the longlist at the very least. If you’d like to read my review, a click on a title will take you to it. A reviews of Forest Dark to follow soon, as will a what I got up to on my holidays post later in the week for those who might be interested.

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

Blasts from the Past: The Long Firm by Jake Arnott (1999)

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 into as many hands as I could.

Jake Arnott was featured in a documentary on the trials and tribulations of getting your first novel published back in 1999. The Long Firm later became a bestseller, dramatized by the BBC several years later. I’ve often wondered how the other writers felt about this personable, camera-friendly literary star in the making whose success was contrasted with their increasingly desperate efforts as they waded their way through their well-thumbed copies of The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook looking for an agent. Arnott’s debut is the first of three novels set in the gangster world of the ’60s East End. Sadly, the other two didn’t quite match its brilliance although I’m pleased to say that his new novel, The Fatal Tree, is every bit as good.

Narrated by five very different characters, The Long Firm follows the career of Harry Starks, a gangland boss with a weakness for stardom and a yearning for respectability. Each narrator tells the story of their dealings with Harry: Terry is Harry’s pretty suburban kept boy; Teddy is the corrupt peer who finds himself out of his league; Jack the Hat is a freelancer who flits dangerously between Harry and the Kray twins; Ruby is a fading Rank starlet and Lenny is a criminologist whose relationship with Harry leads him into the dark realities of the criminal underworld. Set in mid-60s London amidst enormous social change and written with a wit as sharp as the cut of a gangster’s suit, Arnott’s novel explores the dark underbelly of a period often recalled as vibrant and exciting, expertly blending fact and fiction in a vivid evocation of the times. Not only can Arnott write but my contemporary historian partner assures me that the period detail is spot-on – high praise indeed.

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

The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott: A rollicking tale of thieves and whores

Jake Arnott’s first novel, The Long Firm, was published way back in 1999. I was a huge fan: he summoned up London’s underworld in prose as sharp as a ‘60s mobster’s suit, expertly blending fact with fiction. A hard act to follow, then, and sorry to say Arnott’s never quite matched it for me but I’ve stuck with him, ever hopeful, and The Fatal Tree proves that fidelity can win out. It’s a triumph – a rip-roaring tale of thieves and whores, love and folly, corruption and redemption, much of it told in flash, gloriously vivid eighteenth-century thieves’ slang.

In 1726 Edgeworth Bess is in Newgate Gaol, awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Billy Archer has petitioned Mr Applebee, a publisher of confessions popular at public hangings, to commission him to tell Bess’ story. Bess began life in the home of a noble family – the daughter of a servant, thrown out when she’s caught in bed with their son. With only the guinea he’s given her, she finds her way to London, easy meat for the city’s madams eager for fresh faces. Punk Alice saves her from the worst of them, installing her in Mother Breedlove’s bawdy academy where she learns how to please both the punters and herself. Smart and sassy, she’s soon at home amongst the denizens of Romeville, a buttock-and-file who whores and picks pockets, attracting the attention of both Jonathan Wild, self-proclaimed Thief-taker General, and Jack Sheppard, a carpenter’s apprentice who puts his skills to use as an expert burglar. Bess and Jack fall for each other hard. Jack’s strutting arrogance will trip him up badly but his jail-breaking skills will make him a legend while Bess will need her sharp-as-a-tack wits to get him and herself out of trouble, all under the gaze of Wild who holds Romeville in his grubby sway. Alongside Bess’ story, Billy – petty thief, scribbler and molly – tells his own, intertwining his narrative with hers as each moves towards a decisive conclusion.

Arnott alternates Bess’ confession, told in her own words with Billy’s letters to Applebee. Written in flash, Bess’ sections will have you frequently diving into the glossary at first but, rather like The Wire, once you have your ear in, so to speak, her narrative is easy to follow. Arnott keeps the tension nicely taut with cliff-hangers and foreshadowing throughout, liberally lacing his story with both the salaciousness promised in Billy’s first letter and a fair dose of humour. The period detail is vivid, descriptions of the thieves’ dens nicely lurid, but Arnott takes care not to get too caught up in what has clearly been meticulous research, rounding out his characters so that they leap off the page. John Gay wanders through Billy’s narrative, a frequent acquaintance, keeping his ear to the ground. There are echoes of our own times both in the language – I think we’d all like to see ‘impeach’ in common use soon – and in the tidal wave of greed preceding the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable novel, a wonderful piece of historical storytelling as atmospheric as Michel Faber’s The Crimson and the White. I have a feeling that Arnott had a great deal of fun writing this book, delving into the lives of spruce-prigs, twangs and buttock-brokers.

I can’t finish this without quoting a few more of my favourite flash expressions: gospel-shop  a church; glaziers eyes; pot-valiant drunk; dandyprat a puny little fellow; caper-merchant a dancing master and prattle-broth tea. I long for a way to work these into the conversation.

Books to Look Out for February 2017: Part One

Cover imageFebruary is my least favourite month – dull, often wet, drained of colour – it’s the fag-end of winter here in the UK but at least it’s short. In terms of books however, this year’s February is looking very bright indeed beginning with Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking for which my hopes are extremely high. Finding herself out of step with life in the city, Frankie moves into her grandmother’s bungalow, vacant since her death three years ago. Resisting the ennui that threatens to overcome her, she picks up her camera and uses it to reconnect with nature. The result is ‘a profound meditation on the interconnectedness of wilderness, art and individual experience, and a powerful exploration of human frailty’ according to the publishers. I loved Spill Simmer Falter Wither with its wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language painting gorgeous word pictures of the natural world and am hoping for more of the same from A Line Made by Walking.

Mhairi is also looking for a refuge in Annalena McAfee’s Hame set on the remote Scottish island of Fascaray where she takes her nine-year-old daughter after the breakup of her relationship in New York. Mhairi has been commissioned to write the biography of renowned poet Grigor McWatt. Her subject seems a little slippery but as she uncovers more detail, Mhairi finds there’s a good deal more to McWatt than his reputation as a Scottish national treasure had suggested. ‘A dazzling, kaleidoscope of a novel, Hame layers extracts from Mhairi’s journal, Grigor’s letters and poems and his evocative writing about the island into a compelling narrative that explores identity, love and the universal quest for home’ say the publishers of what sounds like a very satisfying read.Cover image

A few years ago Hannah Kent’s Icelandic-set Burial Rites was everywhere. It’s one of those rare books that, like Spill Simmer Falter Wither, actually lived up to the hype which surrounded it. Hopes are high for The Good People then, although mine have been a little tempered by Kate’s review over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It’s set in County Kerry in 1825 where newly widowed Nora is caring for her grandson Micheal who can neither speak nor walk. This is a time of superstition – rumour is rife that Micheal is a changeling, a bringer of bad luck. Two women come into Nora’s life who may be able to help her restore him to the health he once enjoyed but not without danger. Kent’s second novel, like her first, is loosely based in fact, apparently.

Set in London a century earlier than The Good People, Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree sounds like an entirely different kettle of fish. Jack Sheppard and his lover, Edgeworth Bess, seem to be the only the inhabitants of the city’s underworld to have bested Jonathan Wild, the ‘Thief-Taker General’ determined to get crime under control in the wake of the bursting of the Southsea Bubble. Now in Newgate, condemned to death, Bess dictates their story to Billy Archer, a hack known to Defoe and Swift, and a secret denizen of the city’s molly-houses. Arnott’s first novel, The Long Firm, explored similar territory in 20th-century London blending fact and fiction in a vivid evocation of the times. He’s never quite matched it for me but perhaps The Fatal Tree will buck that trend.

Cover imageAmor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow takes us to Russia in June 1922. Count Alexander Rostov is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square to the Hotel Metropol where an attic room awaits him. Sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to indefinite house arrest, the Count is forced to reassess his privileged life while Russia endures decades of upheaval. ‘With the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose’, according to the publishers. There’s a fair head of steam behind this one already which always makes me sceptical but Towles’ first novel, The Rules of Civility, was a joy and we all need a bit of that at this time of the year.

That’s it for the first batch of February’s treats. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’re interested. The second part of the preview will be along soon…