Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The Wacky Man by Lyn Farrell

Reviewer: Jerome Griffin

What we thought: "Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." It's almost like Cesar A. Cruz was talking about Wacky Man when he uttered his immortal phrase.

If you don't want to experience everyday terror, don't read this book. If you want don't want to feel domestic fear, don't read this book. If you don't want to know parental rejection, don't read this book.

But if moving outside your comfort zone is the reason you read, then Wacky Man will drag you over skin reefing gravel, through flesh shredding hedges and slam you into bone crunching boulders. It's not that Wacky Man holds no punches, but insists on delivering blow upon blow on already raw emotions.

The story follows Amanda, a teenager suffering with a range of mental health issues, trying to survive in a broken home dominated by an abusive father. Her mother, Barbara, was defeated long before Amanda was born, while her brothers, like Amanda, spend their lives trying to avoid the next beating.

It wasn’t always like that though and it’s easy to see how Barbara fell for the undoubted charms of Seamus before she got to know his other side. At times Lyn G. Farrell’s tale delicately ebbs and flows with Seamus’s moods and Barbara and her children do their best to enjoy the good times knowing that within Seamus a volcano is getting ready to erupt.

Farrell paints a multilayered picture over time that shows the alarming power one controlling person can exert over so many others. She shows the lasting impact that a never ending cycle of abuse can have on an individual. And she demonstrates the power of a bully in an age when victims of bullying weren’t heard because of their age or sex.

Instead of being heard, they learned to cope. Or not, as the case may be. And maybe that’s the same for everyone. In times of duress and stress we tend to put on a brave face. The ability of humans to adapt to a new set of circumstances, such as oppression, is truly remarkable and worrying in equal measure.

On one level Wacky Man is the story of a teenage girl trying to cope with the solitary anguish of depression, while on another level, it is a savage indictment of how we, as a species, have learned to suppress emotions in favour of stoic resolve, thereby damaging our own mental health in the process.

In the same way books like American Psycho have you turning away from the page in horror only to turn back because you must know what happens next, Wacky Man will leave an indelible mark on your mind. It will leave you emotionally raw and desperate for a comedy to read next. But it’s well worth the journey.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Disturbing stories featuring mental illness

Avoid if you dislike: Domestic violence

Ideal accompaniments: Crispy pancakes, chips & peas washed down with something non-alcoholic

Genre: Contemporary

Available on Amazon

Innocent Blood by P.D James

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit, Crimson Shore, False Lights & Sacred Lake. (

What we thought: A standalone crime thriller from one of my favourite crime writers that for me stood apart from her usual style, but was none the less still gripping to the final page.

Written from split perspectives, we firstly follow Philippa Palfrey, a young girl who upon reaching eighteen decides to find out the truth about her birth parents despite the objections of her adoptive family. Her fairy tale dreams that she is the long-lost daughter of a nobleman are shattered by her discoveries, and we join her as she struggles to come to terms with the reality of her past. 

In a separate thread, Norman is on the mission of his life to find justice for her wife and daughter. Gradually, inch by inch, we see the two stories merge into one and the shocking conclusion that results.

There is much more of a psychological style here than in most of the author’s detective books and I thought she handled it well. I also really enjoyed the London setting, the use of inner city areas versus the leafier suburbs added weight to the class struggle running throughout the novel.

The twist in the tale of the novel was superbly written and the book was well-paced throughout, keeping the reader guessing how the story would evolve. Characters were well formed and believable, yet still distant enough that the reader would not easily connect with any of the main players as none were designed to be ‘nice’ or pleasing to the audience.

I really enjoyed my time back in the company of P.D. James and was pleased at the more modern style in this novel.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Ruth Rendell, Michael Crichton, Karin Slaughter.

Avoid if you don’t like : Family secrets and lies.

Ideal accompaniments: Vegetable stew and a half pint of bitter.

Genre : Thriller.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I am grateful to the Twitter feed of the Bradford Lit Fest for alerting me to fictional delight I could easily have missed!

Sofia Khan is a totally recognisable, flawed, modern young woman. She wears skinny jeans, smokes, swears, has issues with deadlines and agonises about getting fat while scoffing muffins and lemon puffs. So far, so Bridget Jones. On the other hand, she wears a hijab, doesn’t drink alcohol, prays five times a day and has no intention of having sex before marriage.

It’s something of a meta fiction – a book about Muslim dating telling a story of someone trying to write a book about Muslim dating. Like Bridget Jones’ Diary, it’s written in the form of a diary. And the book has other things in common with BJD. Parents who are frequently out of joint both with each other and with their daughter. A mixed bag of supportive friends with their own hang-ups and problems. And a selection of potential marriage partners each with their own reasons for appearing both attractive and unsuitable.

It will also make you laugh out loud on almost every page. Sofia and her friends have to deal with things Bridget could never have imagined - from Muslim speed dating, to deciding whether it’s okay to become a polygamous second wife. As for emotional blackmail, Muslim aunties take it to new heights.

But Sofia Khan has something BJD never quite achieved – a sense of real heart. Sophia can be clumsy, obtuse, grumpy, even downright rude at times. But she is utterly lovable in her vulnerability, and the warmth of affection for her friends and her bickering family leaps off the page. I cried unashamedly through much of the last fifty pages.

Do not expect this to end with Sofia ripping off her hijab and going on a binge. Nor with her settling down to be a ‘traditional’ submissive wife. This is about how you can be a modern, independent, strong-minded woman – and still a faithful Muslim. Something most Muslim women have always known; Malik is just letting the rest of us in on the secret. Can’t wait to follow Sofia into the next chapter of her life.

You Will Enjoy This If You Loved: Bridget Jones Diary by Helen Fielding, The Trials of Tiffany Trott by Isabel Wolff, Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee by Meera Syall

Avoid If You Dislike: Novels in diary format

Perfect Accompaniment: Chocolate digestives

Genre: Romance

Available on Amazon

Last Child by Terry Tyler

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new release, The Silent Kookaburra.

What we thought
: Last Child is the gripping sequel to the unique and highly entertaining Kings and Queens, which I thoroughly enjoyed and reviewed here. As Kings and Queens was a modern day take on the life of Henry VIII and his six wives, through a contemporary setting, Last Child evokes the lives of his children, the Tudor descendants: Edward VI (as Jasper), Mary I (as Isabella), and Elizabeth I (as Erin), written with a fictional take that brings these modern characters alive.

Last Child is divided into three parts, representing the “reigns” of Edward VI (in Jasper Junior), Mary (in Isabella) and Elizabeth (in Erin).

I loved reading about the lives and loves of this next generation of the Lanchester family as much as I did Henry VIII’s generation in Kings and Queens: hateful, lovable, irritating, sweet, laughable, the entire array of human qualities and faults renders the characters easy to relate to, and to empathise with. I couldn’t help but become attached to this family.

In Last Child, as in Kings and Queens, most readers will be well-acquainted with Tudor history –– those turbulent times in British history –– (although the author’s brief account of this historical period post-Henry VIII is a very interesting and useful accompaniment), but what makes this author’s books unique is the way she narrates the stories against a fictional, contemporary backdrop. She shows us that human nature, human behaviour, and history, are timeless.

As a history lover, and author of historical fiction, I love a gripping historical novel. I also enjoy good contemporary fiction, so Last Child ticked both of those boxes for me. It’s a book I wanted to read slowly, to savour, but one that I couldn’t help but gobble up in a few short sittings.

As for Kings and Queens, it’s not easy to label this book with a particular genre. Again, I think I’d call it parallel history.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Kings and Queens by Terry Tyler.

Avoid if you don’t like
: A contemporary, fictional take on factual historical stories.

Ideal accompaniments
: Pigeon pie with a large glass of mead.

Genre: Parallel History, Contemporary Historical Retelling

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Twelve Days to Dream by Bradley Bernarde

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett ( author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and Don’t Look Down.

What We Thought: Solicitor, Anne Reed, is a Jane Austen fan. She works hard but fantasises about living in the early 19th century and attending the balls and pump rooms mentioned by her heroine. While suffering a bad case of ’flu, she visits an odd apothecary’s shop where she is given a medicine to take. Next morning she wakes in her own flat in the Queen Anne house in London where she lives, to discover that she and it are now in the year 1816.

Naturally confused, she realises that the ‘Apothecary’ has granted her wish to experience life in Jane Austen’s time. She is now Lady Arabella Clyde, married to Sir Andrew, who bears a striking resemblance to her colleague Andrew Hargreaves, her senior partner’s son. As her relationship with that Andrew was difficult, she finds the prospect of matrimonial relations with this Sir Andrew disconcerting.

The Apothecary visits Anne and tells her she will spend a year in the past but this will only amount to twelve days in her modern life, where the real Arabella will take her place. Under the guise of having lost her memory in a fall, she tentatively begins her life in Georgian times.

Anne meets Arabella’s friends, relatives and servants and must pick up what information she can about her new life and the woman she is supposed to be. She makes various discoveries about Arabella and her companion Hortense, an overbearing Frenchwoman, and about the strained relationship between Arabella and Sir Andrew. Anne is, at first, homesick and desperate to return to her own times. Life in 1816 is not as glamourous as she had imagined. The Apothecary tells her she must remain until November 1817.

Though she never gets to meet Jane Austen, Anne has various adventures and eventually comes to enjoy her new life. She makes peace with Sir Andrew and grows to care for him and her friends. As November looms, she finds herself reluctant to return to the 21st century.

The transitions in time are plausibly done and the period detail rich without seeming research-heavy. Characterisation is good and the protagonists are all changed by circumstances. Occasionally, a little more detail would have been welcome – a ball comes and goes without much description – and more information on Hortense and her strange powers would have been interesting. If you are a fan of timeslip novels, however, this one certainly fits the bill.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Georgian Romance, Georgette Heyer etc

Avoid if you dislike: Timeslip novels.

Ideal accompaniments: A hot posset.

Genre: Timeslip Fiction/Light Romance

Available on Amazon

Out of Heart by Irfan Master

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

When Adam steps into his estranged father’s shoes and takes on the man’s role of washing his dead grandfather’s body, he discovers that his Dadda’s dying wish was that his heart should be given away for transplant. Adam cannot understand why he would do this, especially without telling anyone. And when the recipient, William, turns up on their doorstep, things can only get more complicated.

Adam is a regular teenager (one who just happens to be Muslim). His mother is a single parent working hard to support them. He’s estranged from his father, and his cheerful little sister’s refusal to speak hints at something traumatic in the past.

He’s also an artist. He sketches all the time, trying to make sense of a world that continually baffles him. His art teacher appreciates his talent – though she knows probably won’t help him pass exams. And he’s earning the grudging respect of the graffiti crew from the old train yard.

William’s arrival, unsettling as it is at first, seems to provide them all with an anchor. But there are those on the outside who misinterpret their relationship and are bent on causing trouble.

And then there’s Laila, the girl Adam adores but to whom he can never seem to say the right thing.

At times it seems as if the weight of the world is on Adam’s shoulders, but maybe he is not quite as alone as he thinks. Out of Heart is a wonderful exploration of friendship and family, love, loss and trust. Like all the best of YA, it confronts troubling subjects in a way that is uplifting but not sentimental.

And I must mention the stunning gold-on-black cover that makes you want to reach out and hold the book in your hands.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine, Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence, Pig Heart Boy by Malorie Blackman

Avoid it you dislike: Stories addressing bereavement / organ transplant

Perfect Accompaniment: A mug of masala chai.

Genre: Young Adult

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

Reviewer: JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult and the Overlord series

What we thought: Then She Was Gone describes the sudden disappearance of Ellie Mack; a beautiful, fifteen year old golden girl with her whole life ahead of her.

The effect upon her family is both heartbreaking and unsurprising as her parent's marriage disintegrates and the effects of Ellie's disappearance leaves a damage rippling through the years.

And then, ten years later, Ellie's mum, Laurel, meets Floyd, and the beginning of a happy future glow on a barren horizon. But when Laurel meets Floyd's youngest daughter, Poppy, the past comes racing back.

Poppy looks just like Ellie.

You think you know the end, you think you know all the answers; you think the conclusion obvious. But as you race through the pages, you realise there's more to Ellie's disappearance, and the secrets unfold to the very end.

The prose is dynamic and fluid and Jewell's characters keep you engaged. You will feel their confusion, loss, sadness and hope for a future not as bleak as the past.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, anything else with 'Girl' in the title.

Avoid if you dislike: Mysteries, books which rely a little heavily on coincidence, missing girl stories.

Ideal accompaniments: Rhubarb and custard tea, pistachio nuts and a footstool.

Genre: Thriller

Available on Amazon