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

Thursday, 20 December 2018

When Trouble Sleeps by Leye Adenle

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
Two years ago, when I interviewed Leye Adenle for Words with Jam, I was privileged to read an early draft of the opening scene of When Trouble Sleeps. He’s kept me waiting a long time to find out what happened next, but it was worth the wait!

For this second thriller, Adenle takes us back to Lagos, this time with Amaka taking centre stage as the main point of view character.

Amaka is the founder of Street Samaritans, an organisation that seeks to protect Lagos’s many sex workers. And she is on the trail of the men who runs The Harem, a secret brothel in the depths of the countryside that caters to the very worst tastes of the rich and powerful.

When, following a bizarre plane crash, one of these men unexpectedly becomes a candidate for governor of Lagos, Amaka’s quest becomes not just about preventing the sexual exploitation of young women, but about challenging corruption at the very heart of Nigerian politics.

And of course, Amaka is clever enough to fool them all. If she can only live long enough.

Adenle’s technique of using multiple points of view gives his writing a filmic quality. (And these are books that are surely crying out for adaptation.) Amaka’s Lagos is as brutal and unforgiving as The Wire’s Baltimore. But Adenle gives us a textured and multi-layered picture of Nigerian life, from the market stall holders to the mega-rich, from the police officers honouring one of their own, to the ruthless discarding of political failure. His compassion and respect for the sex workers of Lagos, so clear in Easy Motion Tourist, still shines through here.

This is a tale of one remarkable woman taking on Nigeria’s own House of Cards. If you haven’t yet sampled crime fiction from Africa, this is a great place to start.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle, The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal, Girl Zero by AA Dhand

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories that focus on sexual exploitation

Perfect Accompaniment: Pounded yam and a bottle of Guinness

Genre: Crime Fiction

Available on Amazon

Roma Nova Extra by Alison Morton

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

This is the perfect companion volume to The Roma Nova series. But even if you'd not read one of these alternative history books, you'd enjoy this as a standalone.

A selection of short stories which go off at a tangent from the novels, or fill in some of the gaps. Each has its own identity, characters and narrative arc, while nestling comfortably under the overarching premise of a Roman empire that never died, but run by men and women as equals.

The stories are divided into two sections - Glimpses from the Past, and Modern Times. The author's grasp on historical and imagined detail from AD 370 to the present and into the future of 2029 are convincingly grounded, allowing the reader a privileged insight into another world.

I was expecting intrigue, powerful women, action and excitement as an avid reader of the Roma Nova series, but the romantic element took me by surprise. Here is love: for one's family, country, potential partner and even a statue. It is touching and moves you when you least expect it.

One of the elements I enjoyed most was the connections between each tale. The reader recognises physical and personality traits through the generations, relishing how the protagonist of one tale becomes an influential ancestor in another. It is like being privy to a dynasty that never existed.
But you really wish it had.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Roma Nova Series, The Power by Naomi Alderman, or Code Name Lise by Larry Loftis

Avoid if you don’t like: Alternative history, wide-ranging timelines, strong women

Ideal accompaniments: Mead (powerful yet sweet), cheese, grapes and a crisp apple with Nabucco playing in the background.

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Karna’s Wheel by Michael Tobert

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

What We Thought: There are two Stephens in this book – the grandfather and the grandson – both from Dundee, the city of jute. Stephen the younger inherits his grandfather’s notebooks when his half-Indian mother mysteriously dies and decides he wants to work them up into a film script. He is assisted in this endeavour by the Leprechaun-like Séamus and at times it is unclear who is writing the script as Séamus takes on Stephen's writing persona and Stephen takes on Séamus’s version of himself. Identities are fluid it seems.

Stephen the grandfather works in the jute mills in the early 20th century but after falling out of favour moves to India, only to work in the jute mills there. He falls in love with Ranjana, a radical supporter of Home Rule and finds himself torn between the British Raj and the Indian people fighting for their rights.

Stephen the grandson lives in St Andrews and is obsessed with Julia who says she comes from Provideniye but Julia demands more honesty and openness from him than he is capable of giving. Only by revealing truths about himself and his estranged mother can he draw Julia back to him. However, Stephen’s obsession with himself is perhaps greater than his obsession with Julia.

His mother, Kitty, had her own secrets, in which Stephen seems largely uninterested, despite a police enquiry into her activities.

No one is quite who they seem in this book and everyone has secrets, or at least hidden aspects of themselves. The language is at times exquisite and at times prosaic. The novel experiments with dialect but gives it up as unnecessary – as indeed it is for the voices of different nationalities are clear enough without it. Form is also occasionally part of the experiment, as is structure, but this is not a difficult book to read. It hints at Joyce but never quite goes down that road.

Mysterious and compelling, the story draws one in and though the sections on Karna, the Hindu god, are often obscure, in the end it is a fulfilling read.

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

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Novels with various intertwining strands.
Avoid If You Dislike: Mildly experimental works.

Perfect Accompaniment: A pint at The Rook.

Genre: Literary/General Fiction

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Life After Men (A Silver Sex Kittens Short Story #1) by Jean Gill and Karen Charlton

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: What a heart-warming and entertaining short story! Well, long short story really.

Being of a similar age, mid-50s, I could readily identify with the two main characters: Carys and Moira, just enjoying life and attempting to do the things they were always afraid of doing, or never got the opportunity, earlier in life.

We are introduced to other “Sex Kittens” in this story –– single, divorced or widowed women –– creating a humorous, warm-hearted and supportive circle of friends for future stories.

This story might not be long, but already we can see the characters changing, accepting their new life circumstances, and trying to make the best of them –– something with which many women of this age are faced. A situation that can be challenging, when one’s bloom of youth has faded, and when you lack the heart or stamina to “begin again”.

However, this story, the first of many in this series I believe, gives us hope that starting over is, in fact, possible. And maybe even enjoyable.

Funny, witty, laugh-out-loud, I would highly recommend Life After Men and I can’t wait for the next “Sex Kittens” story.

Avoid if you don’t like: Coming of Age stories featuring older women.

Ideal accompaniments: A glass of chilled white wine and some 80s music.

Genre: chick lit, humorous, short story

Available on Amazon