This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor

The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin

Georges Simenon (Penguin: £6.99; e-book £4.99)

Penguin continues to republish the works of George Simenon, this being number 10. Written in 1931, the book has lost none of its grip. Set in the Liège of Simenon's youth, the story sees two narratives collide. Two young boys (one rich, misleading the other, less well off) are suspected of murder, while Maigret is on his own path keeping a watchful eye on a Russian, at the latter's request. Maigret does not appear until about halfway through this short book, but when he does, the narrative takes a decisive turn. The cast of characters revolve around the club of the title and the conflicting lives of those involved with the dancer. This is a dark, smouldering and immensely enjoyable novella.

A Man of Genius

Janet Todd (Bitter Lemon Press: £16.99)

For some reason I have seemingly been bombarded of late with my least favourite genre of literature, historical fiction. Some books have been excellent, winkling me out of my shell-like antipathy; others have delighted me by fanning the flames of my prejudice. Against that declared bias I am still unsure what to make of Ms Todd’s novel. Her credentials are impeccable. A much travelled academic and author, she is an authority on Jane Austen. Her output includes more than 35 books, mainly on women authors. In 2013 she received an OBE for services to higher education and literary scholarship. This is her first novel, at age 73.

It is set in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic War. The central character is Ann St Clair, a single woman based in London. She lives largely within her own self, having had a father who died when she was very young and a mother who is distant to the point of invisibility. Her outlet is literature in the form of Gothic novels. Perhaps no surprise then that she falls under the spell of a wrong 'un, one Robert James, the self professed character of the title. Having published one short work of dubious quality, James lets no opportunity slip to drink the wine of others and to give them the benefit of his opinions on all and sundry, especially on the shortcomings of others. For all that Ann can clearly see James’s shortcomings, she becomes obsessed by him. They run off to Venice, and she stays with him over time despite mental and physical abuse.

One can see the product of a lifetime with the written word. The prose flows smoothly (except when Todd wishes to impart tension by making it less so). Her sense of time and place, and her ease with the history and geography of Venice, are masterly. One can imagine its social and political turmoils between the rule of Napoleon and of Austria; one can feel the tangible discomforts of a city on a lagoon lacking modern plumbing and sanitation. Yet I found it difficult to shake off the notion of Robert and Ann as two characters in one of Ann’s Gothic novels. Her submissiveness with no obvious reason why irritated me. I found the ending unsatisfactory and, despite the quality of the writing, I find it difficult to recommend this book. I must say, in fairness, that I have read a number of five star reviews; however, it’s not for me.

Martin John

Anakana Schofield (& Other Stories: £10)

Rain will fall. Check my card. I never tasted bread like the bread in Beirut.

Martin John has not been to Beirut. He has only been to London and to visit his Auntie Noanie.

Ever since Joyce’s stately plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead with his bowl of lather, Irish writers have been surprising us in so many ways with their variations on conventional form. Award winning (Amazon First Novel Award 2012) Anakana (AK for short) Schofield has pushed the boundaries of novel writing to remarkable effect.

If the editor had told me he was sending me a book charting the spiral of a sexual deviant from flashing and much worse into mental illness, I would have laughed nervously and declined. I picked it up dutifully and unaware, as I never read sleeve notes of books for review. Within a few pages I realised what I had got into but, astonishingly, I discovered I was in possession of a real page turner. I devoured the whole thing in a couple of sittings. No attempt is made to put a gloss on the unspeakable behaviour of Gaffney MJ, the central character. Sent away to London when the consequences of his behaviour became far too serious, we meet Martin John holding down a job. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, whatever he did. But the job goes, relationships with housemates go, being replaced by his paranoid delusions about Baldy Conscience, the guitar player on the first floor. There is no real time in the book, the whirling of events reflecting the permanent turmoil of Martin John’s very disturbed brain, normal from where he sits. Little by little we build up a picture of the man. Not a pretty picture, but the artistry is breathtaking.

I will be seeking out AK’s first novel, Malarky, and await her next work with interest.


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