Tag Archives: The Observations

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2018

Cover imageJust one batch of paperbacks to look out for in September, five of which I’ve already reviewed beginning with Jon McGregor’s The Reservoir Tapes. Readers who’ve been following this blog over the past year will know that I’m passionate about Reservoir 13, not to mention mystified as to why it’s not won all the prizes. The Reservoir Tapes is a prequel to McGregor’s novel and, unusually, started life as a podcast. Comprising fourteen stories, the collection explores the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Becky Shaw. McGregor’s acutely observed characters all have their own stories – often interconnected – offering a nuanced portrait of a small community with its secrets and history, and the writing is all that fans like me would want it to be.

Given my admiration for Jane Harris’ previous novels – The Observations features in my Blasts from the Past series – hopes were high for Sugar Money. Based loosely on true events, it tells the story of an attempt to bring a group of slaves back from Grenada to Martinique, restoring them from British to French hands. Harris has a particular skill in telling her stories through the voice of engaging narrators and the bumptious, sardonic, young smart alec, Lucien, is no exception. A rattling good yarn which manages to entertain while never losing sight of its subject’s horrors.

Robin Sloan’s Sourdough offers a bit of light relief after that. A techie wage slave at General Dexterity, Lois lives off stress and Slurry, the nutrient gel championed by her boss. A flyer leads her to two brothers delivering delicious bread who look to Lois to save their sourdough starter when they’re forced to leave the country, sparking an obsession in her. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment which, like Sloan’s previous novel Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, has something to say about the way we live – and eat – now.

David Bergen’s Stranger takes a more serious turn, exploring themes of entitlement and deprivation through a young Guatemalan woman left pregnant by her American lover who returns to the States after a devastating accident. When her daughter is abducted shortly after she’s born,  İso sets out to find her. Written in clear, direct language, heightening the tension and constant danger of İso’s journey, Stranger is an easy, absorbing read – I finished it in an afternoon – but it has some serious points to make and makes them well.

I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to include this one but the paperback edition of Alicia Drake’s Cover imagedebut, I Love You Too Much, sports such an atmospheric jacket that I’ve come down in its favour. Largely ignored by the adults around him, thirteen-year-old Paul watches from the fringes of his mother, her lover and his father’s lives. Before long he’s seen something he shouldn’t but finds unlikely consolation in Scarlett, a rebellious classmate. ‘I Love You Too Much is a novel of extraordinary intelligence and heart, a devastating coming-of-age story told from the sidelines of Parisian perfection’ say the publishers. Let’s hope they’re right.

That’s it for September’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for the first five and a more detailed synopsis for I Love You Too Much. If you’d like to catch up with the new titles, they’re here and here.

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?