Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Subjunctive Moods by C G Menon

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I first read ‘Watermelon Seeds’ by C G Menon in the anthology Love Across a Broken Map by The Whole Kahani collective, also published by Dahlia Books. It was one of my favourite stories in the book, so I had high hopes for Subjunctive Moods, Menon’s own collection, and it did not disappoint.

The definition of a subjunctive mood is ‘a grammatical construction with expresses a condition which is doubtful or not factual.’ A common thread running through this collection is imagining lives as they could have been, if things had turned out just a little differently, or sometimes as they might still turn out to be. For one hour each year, as the clocks go back, one woman constructs an imaginary affair with a man she broke up with at university. Another dabbles with an actual affair, whilst in yet another returns to a secret place from her childhood to lay to rest her longing for a life where her son did not die.

The collection moves back and forth between Malaysia and Britain (with a single foray into Australia thrown in for good measure). The British stories take place in the hard, rocky corners of these islands – on the slag heaps of South Wales, the moorlands around Middlesborough, the coast by the Farne Islands.

Menon has a gift for finding fresh and arresting turns of phrase. The wife of a man with a wandering eye watches a beautiful woman as “her reflection swims up into his empty hands.” A troubled young mother who has already had one child taken from her contemplates, “a lifetime of trudging up her terraced street with a pram and a hangover and her mistakes dragging behind her like a sodden length of rope.”

Even before I found the first story set in Wales, Menon’s language was reminding me of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. Her description of a faithless husband sloping off back to his mistress, “to be checked off her lists and hung up in her kitchen with the dinner menus, where he will dangle uselessly for several years,” is irresistibly reminiscent of Mr and Mrs Ogmore Pritchard.

Menon weaves threads of old beliefs – Malayan, Welsh, Hindu – into some of the stories to give a hint of magic realism. By coincidence, I had just finished reading Sharlene Teo’s Ponti, which introduced me to pontianaks – the malign, vampire-like female ghosts of Malaysia – before finding them again here, in two of Menon’s stories. But here too is the makara, the Hindu sea monster, and the piece of iron that keeps Welsh goblins at bay so your baby can’t be stolen away.

An utterly beguiling collection of stories by an author who weaves spells with language around the lives of ordinary people.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Love Across a Broken Map by The Whole Kahani, Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie 

Avoid If You Dislike: Spinning poetry out of ordinary lives.

Perfect Accompaniment: Each story has a flavour of its own – from Bara Brith to Nasi Lemak

Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

I'll Keep You Safe by Peter May


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

What we thought: For those who follow Bookmuse reviews, you will know I am a huge fan of Peter May and think he’s one of the best new crime fiction writers of a generation. So, I was hugely excited to hear that in this latest novel he had returned to his Hebridean roots – a setting I think he handles best of all.

However, the story starts in Paris, with a shock car bomb explosion, that at first made me think we were going down the terrorism route, but no – Hebridean wool is at the heart of this crime not international terrorism.

Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane co-own the Hebridean company Ranish Tweed and are in Paris for a high-profile fashion show when the explosion kills Ruairidh and leaves Niamh a widow, alone in a foreign country to cope with the tragedy and its after effects. On her return home to the island of Lewis, and the beautiful house she shared with her husband, a series of events terrify Niamh and it becomes clear that she may have been the intended victim all along.

The landscape itself is a standalone character and the atmosphere of the islands is, as ever, evoked superbly well. Also, it’s nice to meet up again with old friends like DS George Gunn. The characters are brought to life in detail, real and vivid, and there is a large enough cast to hold a number of suspects. The pace and flow of the story is as good as I have come to expect from this author and grips you until the final pages. 

Next please, Mr May!


You’ll enjoy this if you like : Ann Cleeves, Peter James, Ian Rankin.

Avoid if you don’t like : Remote Scottish landscapes.

Ideal accompaniments: Haggis, peas and gravy.

Genre : Crime

Available on Amazon




Wednesday, 27 June 2018

The Corsican Widow by Vanessa Couchman

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: I really enjoyed Vanessa Couchman’s first historical novel set on the island of Corsica: The House at Zaronza, and her second, The Corsican Widow, was just as enjoyable.

It follows the story of a young woman, Valeria, just before her arranged marriage to a much older man. This marriage, in which she is expected to cater to her husband’s every wish, and to provide him with children, will remove her from family and friends and everything she has ever known. So when, despite Valeria’s best efforts, he dies, she finds herself a lonely, isolated widow, trapped in the chains of the traditions of the customary bereavement period.

Valeria is strong, tenacious and craving independence in a time when attitudes to women were so very different from today. This provides for an emotional roller-coaster of a story as we share with Valeria her widowed plight.

Via well-researched historical detail, descriptive settings –– the herb-scented hill paths, the stone forts, the fountains and village squares –– and skilled characterisation, the author cleverly evokes the customs and traditions of 18th-century Corsica, and the Corsicans’ fight for independence.

After reading The Corsican Widow, I feel I know a lot more about the history of the island, and especially the traditional, archaic and cruel attitudes towards women. This all helps the reader to empathise with Valeria and to fight her seemingly impossible battles alongside her, all the way.

I highly recommend this beautifully-written and engaging story for lovers of Historical Fiction.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: well-documented historical fiction exploring the timeless themes of love and emotion.

Avoid if you don’t like: women in submission. Archaic treatment of women

Ideal accompaniments: Tommette de Chèvre – a full-flavoured goat milk cheese, accompanied by a rustic Corsican red wine.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The Summer of Impossible Things by Rowan Coleman

Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought:

Take a deep breath and suspend your disbelief.

This take on 'Back to the Future' has much charm and character, not least the setting of Brooklyn in two different eras. It's flawed, certainly, but the central idea comes through.

Luna and her sister Pia fly to Brooklyn from Britain after their mother's suicide. Officially, they have come to sell her house. Luna's instinct tells her the old house contains more than dust and spiders. Memories claim her, she assumes from family photographs and old stories. Then she meets Riss.

This is a story of wish fulfillment. Don't we all imagine we might be able to go back and change the past to affect the future? It has tension, mystery and some strong characterisations, but meanders and circles on occasion. One to read on the beach.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Back to the Future, time travel, Saturday Night Fever

Avoid if you don’t like: Shifting realities, time slips, 1970s

Ideal accompaniments: Dr Pepper, popcorn and The Bee Gees

Genre: Women's Fiction

Available on Amazon


Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Trick to Time is a tender exploration of love and loss and the ways we find to come to terms with the unbearable.

Somewhere in a small English seaside town, an Irishwoman approaching her sixtieth birthday makes and sells beautiful dolls. The bodies of the dolls are wooden, turned and carved for her by a man referred to only as the carpenter. She dresses them in wonderful, individualised clothing and she sells them to customers all around the world.

But as well as these, there are also the special dolls. The ones ordered by women who come into the shop and whisper in her ear. The ones whose wooden bodies are made to a precise weight. The ones that are handed over to the customer, not in the shop but at the Irishwoman’s home.

As the present day story unfolds - Mona’s sixtieth birthday, her tentative relationship with Karl, a neighbour who shares her insomnia, an annual trip in November that holds special significance – so we learn more and more about her past history: her early life in Ireland, her move to Birmingham, meeting her husband. They are poor and life is tough, but they are very much in love. Then, on the night that the IRA blows up a Birmingham pub – their life is split apart by tragedy.

This is a difficult book to review because the things I most want to write about risk spoiling the pleasure of peeling back the layers of the story and uncovering its mysteries step by step. It’s a very different story to de Waal’s debut, My Name is Leon, but her delicate prose shines through in the same way, as does her ability to create sympathetic characters with real depth of humanity.

De Waal is a champion of working class writing. (She is the editor and instigator of the anthology Common People, shortly to be published on Unbound.) Her characters are ordinary people from ordinary working class backgrounds. Her gift is to write about them without cliché and without being patronising – something you only realise is rare (among British writers in particular) when you take a step back.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀, My Counterfeit Self by Jane Davis, A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories that revolve around bereavement and loss.

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of tea and the smell of freshly turned wood

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks


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


This is an author I’d been meaning to read for some time and chose this book because I liked the historical element to the story. I must admit I fell in love with the writing style from page one, there was an easiness to the prose, almost a languid confidence that took the reader right to the heart of the action – be that WW2 trenches, 1940’s London or a Mediterranean island – without once tripping over the prose.

This book is cleverly constructed, it hops back and forwards, again with a confidence that carries the reader along in its presence. The protagonist is Robert Hendricks, an English doctor, whose memories of WW2 are a rich and varied story in themselves from tragic events to an intense love story, Hendricks is a walking novella. Add to the mix, his Mediterranean host, Alexander Pereira, and his tales of his time in WW1 with Hendrick’s father – a man who was a stranger to his son – and the trip through time becomes a gripping tale.

There’s so much to love here, and this is a writer who clearly loves his craft. The historical attention to detail was effortless. The characters sparkled with life and the narrative was clever and clinical and engaging throughout.

I’m so glad I took the plunge with this author and have already made plans for the next.


You’ll enjoy this if you like: Anthony Doerr, Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain.


Avoid if you don’t like: War stories and personal journeys.


Ideal accompaniments: Iced tea and salad Nicoise.


Genre: Contemporary


Available on Amazon



Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gower

Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought:

Two earthly lives intertwine, drawn to each other by creatures of the sea.

In the 18th century, women must be either lucky or clever. Angelica Neal is a courtesan, experienced in the arts of love, protected by her madam until one client takes her under his protection.
Jonah Hancock is a Deptford merchant, risking all he has on sea voyages to Macau and Java to procure fine china and profitable cargo.

His captain returns, without his ship. He sold the Calypso for the most unusual curiosity. A dessicated, furious sea-sprite, the furthest removed from one's idea of a mermaid imaginable. Yet the dreadful husk strikes fear into the populace of London, drawing folk of all ages and social class to witness its death mask. Mr Hancock profits handsomely and finds himself drawn into a wholly different world. Mrs Chappell's 'nunnery' or well-regarded whorehouse wishes to host the mermaid for a week of revelries. Mr Hancock is guest of honour. Things do not go according to plan.

Historical fiction doesn't get much better than this. The author's sympathies with the lot of women and comprehension of class permeate every chapter. Limited opportunities, social judgement and the currency of beauty is a delicate balance for a woman with no means other than looks and intellect. The ladies refer to their genitals as 'the commodity'.

This book fascinates and wears its research lightly. Stays, pins, phaetons, milk-soaked sheaths and powder capes are as incidental as the weather. Yet the things-we-do-not-understand loom large over the novel.

Taking something from its rightful place will curse you and yours. Shifting from one status to another is fraught with difficulty. In the final analysis, one must feel content in one's confinement or be released.

Gower builds a London as it was, and a cast of characters so real, spiteful, snobbish, kindly, humble, capricious and arrogant, one cannot help but want more.

You'll like this if you enjoyed: Sarah Waters, Rosie Garland, Angela Carter

Avoid if you dislike: The grim injustice of the female situation in the 18th century.

Ideal Accompaniments: Millefeuilles and sweet wine, or freshly shucked oysters and brine.

Genre: Literary fiction, historical fiction

Available on Amazon