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Plot luck party

Martin Chilton reviews five of May’s crackling releases for our monthly book column, including short stories that revel in the absurd and the memoir of a formidable mum

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Covid-19 has been hard on many authors, with promotional events cancelled and publication dates delayed. On the bright side: a number of fine books are still coming out in May.

I am an Island (Doubleday) is an inspirational tale about leaving London to live on a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides. Tamsin Calidas discovers how to “recalibrate and find her compass” in a place of beauty and desolation. Although the immediacy of the coronavirus crisis may have postponed worries about global warming, there is melancholy food for thought in Alastair Bonnett’s The Age of Islands (Atlantic Books), including his analysis of why the gorgeous Isles of Scilly are in peril from rising sea levels.

Among the novels taking a reader further afield is Paul MM Cooper’s beguiling Our Broken Idols (Bloomsbury), which is set in ancient Assyria and modern Iraq. Fran is the protagonist of Helen Fitzgerald’s compelling Ash Mountain (Orenda Books), which is about a single mother who returns to her Australian hometown to care for her dying father just as a terrible bush fire erupts. The cover image, taken by Rob Dixon in 2019, is an apocalyptic image of a little girl standing in a doorway gazing at a firestorm. Returning to a childhood home is also at the centre of Lesley Thomson’s creepy thriller Death of a Mermaid (Head of Zeus).

Sophie Mackintosh’s chilling fantasy Blue Ticket (Hamish Hamilton) and Anstey Harris’s atmospheric Where We Belong (Simon & Schuster) are also recommended, along with Before I Say I Do (Simon & Schuster) by DC Vicki Bradley, who took a break from the Met Police to write her gritty debut thriller. ITV news anchor Tom Bradby continues his series about MI6 officer Kate Henderson in Double Agent (Bantam Press) in which the Prime Minister (“who had the carefully cultivated crumpled air of the truly vain”) is embroiled in a sordid scandal involving Russians. Fiction, obviously.

Ben Kane’s Lionheart (Orion) is the first in a new series about the warrior Richard Coeur de Lion. Lionheart has plenty of betrayal, bloodshed and rich historical detail. Lesley Glaister’s Blasted Things (Sandstone Press) is a sensitive, unsettling tale of a post-First World War romance.

Short stories by Maria Reva, memoirs by Nicholas Royle and Michèle Roberts and fiction from Ava Homa and John Grisham are reviewed in full below.

Maria Reva was picked by Margaret Atwood as ‘a new talent to watch’

Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva ★★★★☆

Ukrainian-born, Canadian-raised Maria Reva was picked by Margaret Atwood as “a new talent to watch”, and she proves worthy of the recommendation with her debut short stories Good Citizens Need Not Fear.

Reva casts a cold, funny eye on absurd bureaucracy in the lead up to, and aftermath of, the fall of the Soviet Union. The nine stories revolve around an apartment building in Ivansk Street, in the Ukrainian town Kozlov. In the opening story, “Novostroïka”, resident Daniil tries to get the heating repaired and becomes embroiled in a Kafkaesque row with a town hall clerk, who insists that according to the documentation the apartment building does not, in fact, exist. “What do you mean?” Daniil pleads. “I live there.”

In “Bone Music”, Smena, who has not left her apartment in a year, makes money by copying illegal vinyl records. I especially enjoyed “Letter of Apology”, which is about a poet called Konstantyn Illych and the inept attempt to strong-arm him into writing a letter of apology after making an inappropriate political joke.

The recurring characters are interesting, especially the cleft-lipped orphan Zaya. We see her at four, escaping an orphanage, and later as a teenager who is selected for a national beauty pageant. She spits at the judges. Reva’s stories draw on her family history for an impressive debut full of paranoia, comedy and pathos.

Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva is published by Virago on 7 May, £14.99

Ava Homa’s debut novel is a blisteringly powerful tale of standing up to oppression and terror (Sam Attar)

Daughters of Smoke and Fire by Ava Homa ★★★★☆

Ava Homa was raised in the Kurdistan province of Iran. Her debut novel Daughters of Smoke and Fire, which was inspired by the life of Kurdish human rights activist Farzad Kamanger, is a blisteringly powerful tale of standing up to oppression and terror. The likeable protagonist Leila is a strange youngster, mocked for her old-fashioned clothes and grey gumboots, who seeks refuge from the bleakness of her violent, male-dominated surroundings in literature and movies. She stands out in a culture where girls are expected to be “ladylike”.

Homa explores Leila’s complex relationship with her own father Baba – who hates his wife – and shows him struggling to explain the difficulties of navigating a life where “nothing’s certain”, one where war brings out the worst in people. “I have seen parents in refugee camps prostituting their daughters to get some clean water,” Baba tells Leila. The story is disturbing. Kurd villages are burned, women are raped, families can’t even retrieve the bodies of their children.

Leila’s activism rises to the fore when her brother “disappears” in Tehran and is tortured and electrocuted. This haunting novel is unquestionably bleak, but it is seeded with positivity – mainly because of Leila’s courageous fight for freedom and her indomitable quest to build a life elsewhere and “reclaim the years stolen from me”. Above all, Daughters of Smoke and Fire is an evocative portrait of the lives of millions of stateless Kurds.

Daughters of Smoke and Fire by Ava Homa is published by Abrams & Chronicle on 12 May, £18.99

Nicholas Royle’s tender, moving book is about his late mum Kathleen, a former district NHS nurse

Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle ★★★★★

Author Nicholas Royle says that “more than anything else” he wanted to “evoke my mother’s voice” in this touching memoir. From an outside perspective, he does this impeccably with his tender, moving book about his late mum Kathleen, a former district NHS nurse. “Her primary passion was for the spirit of free universal healthcare,” says Royle. Mother: A Memoir is a tribute to all in life that is witty, modest and caring.

Kathleen was a complex woman, was patient and gentle yet capable also of fireworks. After the family moved from suburban Cheam to Devon, she took her son totally by surprise during a drive through their village by stopping her car, winding down the window and yelling “you silly cunt!” at a local woman who supported fox hunting. How’s that for an indelible childhood memory?

Royle’s mother enjoyed gardening, crossword puzzles and listening to Elgar. She was a voracious reader, who would always begin a novel by reading the final page. She was left wing. She and her son read aloud from the Telegraph letters page, finding hilarity in the strident opinions.

The book contains sweet black and white family photographs, which add a poignancy to the memoir, bringing to mind Philip Larkin’s poem “Home is So Sad”, about the withering effects of time. Royle is also astute about his own childhood and the experience of growing up watching Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile on television, leaving him with “the eerie retrospect of having watched paedophiles and other gruesome abusers entertain us”.

There is terrible grief at the core of the story, because Kathleen’s other son Simon was killed by cancer in 1986, when he was just 26. The 151-word chapter “Simon” captures the howling grief which by degrees sent his mother mad. Royle does his brother proud, bringing a gentle focus to what the world is deprived of when any kind young person dies. You can’t help but smile at the tale of Simon’s expulsion from school for, among other bizarre reasons cited by the headmaster, “thinking that he is an eagle”. The revelation of how Royle’s taciturn ageing father showed his feelings for his dead son – patting a clay owl Simon had made as a child on his way up to bed each night – filled my eyes with tears. Life itself is a ghost story, Royle remarks.

The deft presentation of a once impressive woman who knows “she is losing her marbles” is painful to read because we see the decline so clearly. Royle knows this is a common experience and shares a grimly funny anecdote from a friend whose mother had Alzheimer’s – and the comic outcome of a trip to a Neil Diamond concert.

In our present time of anxiety and global virus death tallies, this graceful memoir seems particularly pertinent. “Every loss is a lessening. Every loss makes one more aware of how much there is to lose,” writes Royle.

Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle is published by Myriad Editions on 14 May, £8.99

‘Camino Winds’ has all the usual John Grisham hallmarks – a pacy plot, tension-filled scenes – and the descriptions of a storm-battered island are well executed (Charlotte Graham Photography)

Camino Winds by John Grisham ★★★☆☆

As with all John Grisham novels, there are lots of men being nervous and a heroic few who remain cool and calm in a crisis. Bruce Cable, the owner of Bay Books in downtown Santa Rosa, is one of the tranquil men in Grisham’s new thriller – the second in a new series set on Florida’s Camino Island. Cable is an engaging protagonist, full of ambiguities, a man whose own morality is full of “grey areas”.

Camino is a place of “misfits” and Cable presides over “literary mafia” that includes thriller writers, wannabe authors and the septuagenarian authors Myra and Leigh, who make a living “cranking out soft porn romance novels”. His lively bookshop, which provides homemade biscuits, coffee and pastries for early morning customers, is at the hub of the island.

The island is hit by a Category 4 hurricane at the start of Camino Winds. Someone takes advantage of “the perfect time” to commit a murder. In this case, it’s Cable’s friend, the crime author Nelson Kerr, who is found with head wounds after the storm. Cable’s sleuthing morphs into a trademark Grisham conspiracy thriller, this time involving the multimillion-dollar nursing home industry. Dark secrets about illegal drugs, the rapes of nonresponsive bed-ridden patients, and a nefarious corporation that “cares about nothing but profits” slickly unfolds.

Camino Winds has all the usual Grisham hallmarks – a pacy plot, tension-filled scenes – and the descriptions of a storm-battered island are well executed. One irritation, however, is the dreary sexism that peppers the novel, from islander Bob Cobb’s jokes about chasing “young divorcees in string bikinis” and prowling for women who are “old enough, barely”, to the unlikely scenario of a professional sniper scoping a tanned, thin victim wearing “black string panties” and saying to himself “such a waste” as he takes aim.

Perhaps Grisham fans don’t mind. As Myra remarks, at one of Cable’s literary dinner parties, “Murder sells… remember that when those royalty checks arrive.”

Camino Winds by John Grisham is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 28 May, £20

Michelle Roberts writes with wit and honesty about enduring mishaps in her life in ‘Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving’ (Viv Pegram)

Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving by Michèle Roberts ★★★★☆

I warmed to author Michèle Roberts from the opening page of Negative Capability, when she admitted that she swears at the local cats who “like to shit in my flowerbed”. The full title of the latest book from the former WHSmith Literary Award winner is Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving. Her story is set in London and France over 12 chapters – describing a day per month from April to March over a difficult 12 months – and Roberts writes with wit and honesty about enduring mishaps in her life.

“My life often felt such a mess,” Roberts confesses, as she battles against a publishing culture that always wants “New! New! New!”, one she fears will write off someone in their seventies as “an old crock”. She wonders whether writing a diary makes her “a horrible narcissist”. There’s egotism in any published diary, of course, but this does not seem to be the book of a self-admirer. In any case, as you may be aware, Narcissus was a teenager.

There are a couple of enjoyable walk-on cameos from the famous, including the human “pink meringue” Barbara Cartland. Roberts skilfully dissects the late best-selling novelist, whom she once interviewed. Roberts senses that Cartland does not like other women and detects “the small, sad girl who’d revenged herself on her cold parents by earning masses of money from writing romances about perfect love”.

Among the wide-ranging subjects in the memoir are the writings of Virginia Woolf, Colette and Camus, the psychology of Freud, feminism, gropey men, masturbation and gardening. There are also lots of evocative passages about food and cooking. Roberts certainly put me off trying the “horribly gristly” dish of calf’s head brawn. Negative Capability is sometimes simply about the pleasures of the ordinary, such as an afternoon nap. “I usually took an hour’s siesta,” Roberts writes. “The days sag and drag if you don’t insert some of semicolon.”

“Negative Capability” was a term used by the poet Keats to sum up someone in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts – the present state of the world. Yet it’s heartening to see how Roberts finds a way through her tough year. It’s no surprise that the kindness of neighbours and “the net of friendship” helps hold things together for Roberts, until she finally begins “believing in the future again”. Amen to that.

Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving by Michèle Roberts is published by Sandstone Press on 28 May, £14.99