Wednesday, 13 March 2019

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

One of those books which gently washes away your expectations and impatience, drawing you into a strange and semi-familiar world of souls and stories. I confess, I started this, gave up and tried again. The prose is lyrical and the style almost magical realism or fable, and if it catches you in the right mood, you will fall into its pools.

Marvellous Ways lives in a caravan in Cornwall. She’s lived a long life and seen many extraordinary things. Her relationship to the world around her is fluid, making the reader wonder what is real and what is imaginary. Thoughts and speech sometimes blur into one another which feels entirely natural once you get used to the convention.

Francis Drake, back from the war, is looking for someone else when he encounters Marvellous Ways. A friendship and understanding develops between the two allowing an exceptional exchange.

Winman’s prose is the definition of mindfulness. She slows down, looks and really sees. Her imaginative language weaves itself into nature, so that the book feels like the movement of the water up the creek.

Not a book to rush, this is like a poem. Sit down, relax and let this writer work her magic.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: When God Was A Rabbit, Spilt Milk by Amanda Hodgkinson, or The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Avoid if you don’t like: Non-linear narratives, magical realism, relaxed pace

Ideal accompaniments: Sparkling water, crab cakes and whalesong

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rhaman

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Somewhere in the territory between The Little Drummer Girl and Kingsman lies East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rhaman.

This is the story of hapless small-time drug dealer, Javid (‘call me Jay’) Qasim who, against all probability, is recruited by MI5 to infiltrate what they believe is a dangerous terrorist cell at his local mosque.

He is – apparently – the perfect candidate. At a turning point in his life. Credible as someone who could be sucked into extremism. But why did MI5 pick him over all other candidates? And why exactly is the leader of the cell so keen to have him along?

Rhaman’s MI5 is a bit shoddy and rundown – nothing like the hi-tech world of programmes like Spooks. And his terrorists are a long way from the extremist stereotypes and the bogeymen of the tabloid press. And yet the threat they pose is real enough. Will Jay be able to stop them? And at what cost to himself?

Rhaman’s world is an uneasy balance between the absurd and the all-too-probable – a reflection of our society and its fears that creates a kind of uncanny valley. You’ll laugh, and then wonder maybe if you should be laughing – and then laugh again because sometimes laughter is the best weapon against fear.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Dear Infidel by Tamim Sadikali, Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar, Three Lions (film).

Avoid If You Dislike: Finding humour in terrorism and counter-terrorism

Perfect Accompaniment: A pint of San Miguel

Genre: Thriller, Humour

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 7 March 2019

The Other Half of Happiness by Ayisha Malik

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

If Sofia Khan thought dating was hard, she is about to find out that marriage is even harder – especially when you haven’t spend quite enough time finding out about each other before tying the knot in a Karachi mosque.

Sofia’s mother won’t believe she is married unless they have a proper wedding ceremony back home, her husband is turning out to be a much more complicated creature than she’d imagined and now her publisher wants her to follow her book about Muslim dating with one about Muslim marriage. Just how many more problems can Sofia handle?

As ever, it is Sofia’s circle of irrepressible friends, Suj, Foz, Hannah and her sister Maars, who uphold her and sustain her through what will turn out to be the toughest time of her life.

Sofia Khan continues to demolish every stereotype of Muslim women. She is sexy, funny, with a huge heart - and just as confused about life as any modern woman. And she is absolutely nobody’s pushover.

Along the way, The Other Half of Happiness encompasses the pitfalls of book promotion for a Muslim woman, the manners and mores of Asian weddings and several things-you-never-knew about Ramadan.

From the opening lines to its unexpected ending, The Other Half of Happiness veers from bittersweet to laugh-out-loud funny. At the end, Sofia appears to be poised on the edge of another new adventure. But it may be a while (if ever) before we find out what happens next. Ayisha Malik is working on new book about building a mosque in an English country village that, sadly, doesn’t feature Sofia at all.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Sofia Khan is not Obliged by Ayisha Malik, Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee by Meera Syall, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Avoid If You Dislike: Romantic Comedy tinged with an edge of sadness

Perfect Accompaniment: Masala chai and a lot of biscuits

Genre: Romance, Comedy

Available on Amazon

Saturday, 2 March 2019

The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer

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

What we thought: Another fabulous read from this talented writer! After the success of her debut novel, there was a lot of expectation on the author to deliver with her second novel and she does not disappoint.

There are elements of the supernatural, historical, crime … all wound into a superbly crafted character driven novel that wraps you in its embrace from the opening page and doesn’t let you go until you arrive bruised and shaken at the final chapter.

The main protagonist is Ruby – a troubled teenage girl living an unhappy half-life existence as the adopted daughter of Mick and Barbara. Ruby has long ago learned to hide her bruises and mask her pain. When she creates imaginary childhood friends therefore – is it any real surprise? But who or what is Shadow? Is he real or a figment of Ruby’s scarred imagination?

The novel leads us on a journey through Ruby’s formative years and the search for her real family which leads to some shocking revelations. The dramas and characters she encounters along the way are brilliantly written in this author’s engaging style. I thought each character was so perfectly crafted they could have stepped straight from the page. Pace was handled to perfection – the highs and lows matched the tone of the novel so no section every felt too rushed or too slow.

There’s not an emotion left unexplored in this novel and you will turn the final page with a mixture of regret and joy. I admire this author’s writing even more so now and the topics she chooses to confront take real bravery.

Highly recommended!

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Joanna Cannon, Gail Honeyman, Celia Imrie.

Avoid if you don’t like : Teenage angst and family secrets.

Ideal accompaniments: Cheese platter and crackers with a glass of Pinot Noir.

Genre : Contemporary.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

All The Little Lies by Chris Curran

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

A chance email with a casual link to a newspaper article about an artist triggers a revelation for Eve. A new mother herself, her emotions are more vulnerable when she realises that artist is her birth mother. The one her parents apparently knew nothing about.

The long-buried secret trope is much overdone and despite my admiration for this writer, I approached this book with concerns. Two nights later, I'd forgotten what I was worried about. 

This is a perfectly wrought psychological drama times two. The dual narrative of Eve and her mother puts the reader into the uncertainty and naïveté of both women.  The characters, voices and relationships are so sharp they could have been cut with a Stanley knife. Right until the end, I was still unsure who to trust.

In addition to the well-woven, tense and emotionally literate narratives, Curran evokes her locations with an expressionistic flair. The characters' perspectives are reflected in their physical environment, used to stunning effect in the dénouement. Hills, steps, bridges and levels of a gallery echo internal landscapes. This is a film-maker's dream.

This is a tense, intelligent and layered thriller which makes you ask yourself why you believe the stories you've been told. This is a writer who just gets better.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Don't Look Now by Nicolas Roeg, Cry by Helen Fitzgerald or Mindsight by Chris Curran

Avoid if you don’t like: Dual narratives, time shifts, stories of adoption

Ideal accompaniments: Ginger beer, pomegranate seeds and a view of the Tyne 

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