Thursday, 14 February 2019

The Darkest Hour: WWII Tales of Resistance by Roberta Kagan, Jean Grainger, Marion Kummerow, Ellie Midwood, Alexa Kang, Mary D. Brooks, Deborah Swift, Kathryn Gauci, John R. McKay, Ryan Armstrong

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of the French Historical, The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new Australian 1970s series: The Silent Kookaburra and The Swooping Magpie.

What we thought: I live in a rural French village that suffered under Nazi Occupation during WWII. The region became an important resistance centre, and my personal interest in this topic was what first drew me to The Darkest Hour.

A collection of ten novellas by some of today’s bestselling WWII historical fiction authors, The Darkest Hour moves from the brutality of the Warsaw Ghetto and the determination of the Jewish Resistance, strong Catriona searching for her beloved father, to reluctant informer, Sabine, struggling to save her husband from the Gestapo. There is Josef and Jan’s order to assassinate the cruel and terrible Nazi elite, Reinhard Heydrich, Chinese resistor, Yuan Wen-Ying determined to avenge her countryman after the Japanese rape of Nanking, young Zoe’s anger at the occupation of Greece, Céline and the German invasion of Jersey, Nathalie Fontaine, determined to join the Parisian Résistance, young Charles, sneaking out at night to chalk the letter “V” onto buildings (Vive la France), and last, but by no means least, young American Charlie, who finds himself in Germany, but does not believe his sadistic uncle’s Nazi ideology.

Each novella in this eclectic collection is a gripping and compelling account of those courageous and committed people who chose not to surrender, but to fight for their country and their cause, whatever the outcome.

Readers can enjoy the whole book from start to finish or, from the short synopsis at the beginning of each novella, just dip into any particular story that appeals. However, I would recommend reading every one of these wonderful resistance stories.

I would highly recommend The Darkest Hour, and urge you to purchase this book not just because it is a fascinating read but because all proceeds are donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Historical Fiction. WWII tales.

Avoid if you don’t like: Nazi brutality stories. Strong heroes and heroines.

Ideal accompaniments: A creamy hot chocolate.

Genre: Anthology, Historical Fiction.

Available on Amazon


Thursday, 7 February 2019

Gift Horse by Jan Ruth

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

I'm a big fan of this author as her books are based in North Wales - one of my most favourite places in the world and her talent for writing brings alive the location in all of her books.

I loved Gift Horse for many reasons. Firstly, the authors knowledge and passion for horses and associated therapy through animals shone out in the writing and added another level of interest for me, I even found myself Googling the subject whilst reading! Also, I loved the human layers and morals in the storyline. How a drunken one-night stand can have life-long ramifications and how so many lives can be affected by one bad decision.

The plot in general was gripping and unpredictable - another trait of this author - and I thought the ending was well thought out and cleverly written. As ever, the characters were perfectly drawn – engaging and still yet littered with human failings that many of us can associate with. I liked the push and pull of the romance in the story and felt drawn to each of the characters for different reasons.

Gift Horse was a total page turner for me and I hope there's a follow up to come very soon!

Highly recommended!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Kate Hamer, Jo Cannon, Ruth Hogan.

Avoid if you don’t like: Horses and Wales.

Ideal accompaniments: Ploughman’s Lunch and a pint of pear cider.

Genre: Contemporary

Available on Amazon

Friday, 1 February 2019

Giovannni's Room by James Baldwin

Reviewer: David C Dawson

What We Thought:

When you read a gay romance written over sixty years ago you expect it to be dated. It’s too easy to smugly believe that attitudes have changed, that there’s a greater openness towards gay people and that shame in the gay community has gone.

The beauty of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is that it brings into sharp focus what it is still like for millions of gay men around the world. Men who live in countries where religious or societal oppression forces them to hide and be ashamed of themselves. It also reminds us how the struggle for gay rights is still very recent history.

David is a young American living in Paris. His girlfriend is travelling in Spain. David meets Giovanni, an Italian barman who works in a bar frequented by gay men. They fall in love and David moves in with Giovanni in his single room apartment. This is the era before instant communication. Throughout much of the book David’s girlfriend is out of sight and mostly out of mind.

Baldwin uses metaphor brilliantly. As the relationship sours, the single room in which David lives with Giovanni becomes claustrophobic, as it reflects the suffocating claustrophobia he feels in his ambivalent emotions towards Giovanni.

Despite his love for Giovanni, David’s self-loathing at being a gay man is never far below the surface. He despises effeminate men in the bar, comparing them to “watching monkeys eating their own excrement.”

Only much later in the novel does David reveal his self-knowledge. “I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me. I succeeded very well—by not looking at the universe, by not looking at myself, by remaining, in effect, in constant motion.”

The book gives enormous insight into the mind of James Baldwin. He was a black, gay American living through the enormous repression of the1950s. His characters frequently comment on the telescope through which Americans observe Europe. One of his characters observes wryly, “Americans should never come to Europe. It means they can never be happy again.” His French characters refers to damaged American innocence and the myth of American happiness.

The structure of Giovanni’s Room is simple but engrossingly effective. From the start you know that Giovanni will die by the guillotine. Only much later do you find out why. You know that David has a girlfriend who he intends to marry. Only later do you find out what will happen to this doomed relationship.

Books are too often referred to as modern classics, but this is no overstatement in the case of Giovanni’s Room. It’s a novel that questions the nature of love itself. Baldwin’s prose is masterly and I urge you to read this wonderful book.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White

Avoid if you don’t like: Unhappy endings

Ideal accompaniments: A Ricard

Genre: Romance LGBTQ


Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Golden Age of detective fiction, before Police Procedurals and hard-bitten PIs came to dominate the genre, was the era of the amateur detective. The (usually aristocratic) detective could open doors and blend in where the flatfooted policeman could only blunder around. Since then, amateur detection has largely been the preserve of latter-day Miss Marples, sniffing around the social hierarchies of English country village. In Brothers in Blood, Amer Anwar turns the concept on its head..

Zaqir Khan (known as Zaq) is an intelligent, hard-working young man who threw an unlucky punch and ended up in prison for manslaughter. Now out of prison again, he’s working in a dead-end job for a man who has most of Southall in his pocket. But when Mr Brar calls him into his office and orders Zaq to find his missing daughter, life just gets a whole lot more difficult. The Brar’s make it quite clear that if he fails, they’ll find a way of sending him back to prison. But how is he supposed to find a young woman he’s never even met? And does he want any part in forcing her into a marriage she clearly doesn’t want?

The story unfolds in the backstreets around Heathrow airport, in the Muslim and Sikh dominated communities of Southall and Hounslow. It’s Zaq’s home turf and he blends in perfectly – but that doesn’t mean he stays out of trouble.

Zaq’s best mate, Jags, is living the life Zaq was meant to have, working in IT, living in a nice house and driving a BMW. But he won’t turn his back on Zaq. Together they uncover some very nasty dealings indeed and hatch a plot to turn the villains on one  another.

Zaq and Jags are a great double act – likeable, solid and real. And Zaq, like AA Dhand’s Harry Virdee, is tough, courageous and more than able to handle himself in a fight. And if his moral code is flexible enough to allow him to survive the mean streets of Southall, nevertheless when push comes to shove, he can be relied upon to do the right thing – even at his own expense.

A page-turner filled with both action and humour. Here’s hoping we’ll be seeing more of Zaq and Jags in the future.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
A.A. Dhand, Dreda Say Mitchell

Avoid If You Dislike:
Blow by blow accounts of violent fist fights

Perfect Accompaniment: Aloo Paratha

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

The Prince of Mirrors by Alan Robert Clark

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett – author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn and other books

What We Thought: Prince Albert Victor, known as Eddy, is next in line to the throne after his father, Bertie. But his grandmother is Queen Victoria and she’s not going anywhere yet. His father considers Eddy an unsuitable candidate for future glory and Eddy himself is not all that keen. Sent away to sea, tutored rigorously, shoehorned into Cambridge, Eddy tries his best. Not that his best is ever good enough. His younger brother, Georgie, though no intellectual, has far more go about him which is just as well since Albert Edward is the king that never was.

Though his life is short it is filled with rumours and speculation. Did he attend the house in Cleveland Street where the girls are all Mary-Anns? Does he enjoy rough trade? Is he in fact Jack the Ripper? The Ripper nonsense does not feature largely in this book – this novel is a benevolent portrait of a young, dreamy and inadequate prince.

Eddy drifts through his life incapable of the concentration required for serious study and not sufficiently interested to apply himself. He is an outsider – required to pretend to be a normal student, which he isn’t, and expected to act like an heir to the throne, which is beyond him. When Jem Stephen is hired as his personal tutor though, Eddy’s life perks up. Jem is the ace face. Handsome, clever, witty, sporty, big, blue eyed and poetic, he is all things to all men. Eddy is smitten. All he wants is Jem’s love, which Jem is willing to give – as long as things don’t get physical. Jem is perfectly happy to get physical with other young men, just not the prince.

Years go by. Jem suffers an accident which affects his brain. Eddy is required to choose a wife. Neither of these events will have happy consequences. Ultimately, Jem is confined to an asylum and Eddy contracts influenza. This is not a spoiler as the endings to their stories are already in the public domain. The way those endings are reached and the twists and turns along the way are the meat of this novel. Eddy is a sympathetic character – so privileged, yet having no real life of his own and no one in his own sphere who loves him for who he is. His father is either angry, despairing or distant, and even his mother would be disgusted by his true character if she knew it. Only Jem Stephen, a man now out of his reach, accepts the real Eddy.

Written in the present tense, this book is easy to read, both funny and sad, and fascinating from an historical perspective. It is also a sensitive account of a young man who is incapable of conforming to the outwardly expressed mores of his circle and age. Of course, it is heavily fictionalised and we can never know the innermost truths of the matter, but this is certainly an enjoyable account of what might have gone on behind the scenes at Sandringham.

I received a free ebook from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Fictionalised biography with a twist.

Avoid If You Dislike: Sympathetic accounts of Royals.

Perfect Accompaniment: Boiled eggs stuffed with truffles.

Genre: Historical Fiction/LGBT

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Unfurled by Michelle Bailat-Jones

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

The title struck me first as an umbrella - a tightly wound spiky bat-like device to be unfurled when the rain comes in. But the reading of this beautiful novel led me to sails, and the thought that only when the wind fills them is motion possible.

Ella's mother left them years ago, in the grip of a mental illness. She hardly thinks of her at all. She has her dad, her anchor and ferryman; her job as a vet; and her rock, husband Neil. Now she is expecting a child of her own and motherhood is her next challenge.
After a sudden accident kills her father, Ella is undone. All the more so when she discovers her mother and father maintained contact over the years. She questions the story of her life and her understanding of who she is.

This is a gracefully written novel which packs a huge punch. Grief, identity and acceptance of change are bundled up into this atmospheric story of how one woman grows to interpret and understand her role in the story of her life.

Bailat-Jones writes with elegance and precision, much like a ballet dancer, using imagery of sea, storms, knots and a sailor's respect for the ocean. But like a dancer, the artistry comes from strength. One of the loveliest and most haunting books I've read this year.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Fog Island Mountains, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, or Spilt Milk by Amanda Hodgkinson

Avoid if you don’t like: Stories of grief, loss and the realities of a veterinarian's day

Ideal accompaniments
: Gentleman's Relish on warm buttered toast, sparkling water with a dash of Angostura Bitters and Haevn's The Sea playing in the background.

Available on Amazon

Friday, 4 January 2019

One Woman's Struggle in Iran by Nasrin Parvaz

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

In 1979, Nasrin Parvaz returned from England, where she had been studying, and became a member of a socialist party in Iran fighting for a non-Islamic state in which women had the same rights as men. Three years later, at the age of 23, she was betrayed by a comrade and arrested by the regime’s secret police.

Nasrin spent the next eight years in Iran’s prison system. She was systematically tortured, threatened with execution, starved and forced to live in appalling, horribly overcrowded conditions. One Woman’s Struggle is both an account of what happened to her during those eight years, and evidence that her spirit was never broken.

One Woman’s Struggle is not an easy book to read. The opening chapters, which detail her interrogation under torture, are devastating. This is the reality of which dystopian depictions of totalitarianism, like V for Vendetta, merely skim the surface. Small wonder that many break under torture. Far more extraordinary are those who find within themselves the strength to endure.

Once the interrogations end, the hardships and degradations of daily prison life begin. The dirtiest trick of totalitarianism is to persuade its followers that those who it oppresses are no longer entirely human. The regime in Iran played this trick with brutal effectiveness. But Nasrin’s memoir also shows how the humanity of the women in prison nonetheless survived. It is a story of friendship and mutual support, of how the women drew strength from one another and found endless small ways to show kindness and even find tiny specks of joy.

The book begins and ends with fleeting encounter, when Nasrin recognises one of her tormentors in a London supermarket. The guard is terrified, but Nasrin turns and walks out into the spring sunshine.

Some things in Iran have changed since Nasrin was released. The interrogation centre where she was first held has been turned into a museum. School children are taken there on tours, but they are told that it was only used in the Shah’s time. Other things remain. In an echo of an incident described in the book, when international ambassadors visited Evin Prison earlier this year, political prisoners were hidden away where they could not be seen.

This book, however, is not simply about the prison system in Iran. It is about oppression – and especially the oppression of women – wherever it takes place. It deserves to stand with Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man as an indictment of cruelty, brutality and the dehumanising of fellow human beings.

You can read Catriona Troth's interview with Nasrin Parvaz on Words with Jam.

Parvaz has written a novel based on her experiences - The Secret Letters from X to A - which is also published by Victorina

You'll Enjoy This If You Loved: If This Is Man by Primo Levi, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Avoid If You Dislike: Reading details of torture

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of tea and a donation to Freedom From Torture

Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir

Available on Amazon