Wednesday, 15 November 2017

We Are The End by Gonzalo C. Garcia


Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought: This would make a perfect art house film. It has all the right elements: rain, ennui, obsession, motifs and a tragic (in)sensibility.

Chilean games designer Tomás is trying to start again. New life, new game. His girlfriend left him with the crushing line, “I never knew I could do better”. She’s taken everything they had – except an album by Serge Gainsbourg and some unreliable memories.

Self-absorbed beyond millennial navel-gazing, Tomás is not a good neighbour, friend, son, brother or casual lover. He made all the wrong choices. Now his best mate is a successful rock star (with the band Tomás left), his ex-girlfriend is in Antarctica and he cannot up his narrative game. His university teaching gig depends on him being a games designer, but ever since Bimbo – the elephant that can jump but doesn’t come down again – his IDEAS book is full of non-starters.

Adventures with Tomás are just around the corner. He has big plans but planning is as far as he gets. His imaginary world and reality overlap as he floats into one situation after another until he finds himself onstage at a Satanists’ meeting, talking about the end of the world.

This is a darkly comic insight into a barely functioning adult who can shave, make coffee and single-mindedly try to rewind his world. Symbols of home and escape abound: mountains encircling Santiago, the hole in the ceiling, the plastic windmills, chewing-gum constellations and our not-quite-hero’s decision to camp in a tent in his own living-room.

A book to make you sigh, smile and acknowledge the internal loop of self-deception, all the while hoping Tomas might still bring his elephant back down.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked:
Model Behaviour by Jay McInerey, L’Etranger by Albert Camus or The Ten O’Clock Horses by Laurie Graham

Avoid if you don’t like: Languor, introspection, fractured storytelling

Ideal accompaniments: Piscola, sopaipillas and Ana Tijoux’s 1977.



Away for Christmas by Jan Ruth


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

What we thought: Loved this Christmas novella! There really is something for everyone here. If you’re a writer you will laugh, despair and sympathise with protagonist Jonathan Jones, and the trials and tribulations he faces as he battles to become a published author. And if you’re a reader, you’ll be captivated by the excellent story-telling that weaves Jonathan’s complicated life into a page turning drama.

Set in the North Wales resort of Rhos-on-Sea, the author uses the landscape to match the tone of the narrative. Out of season Irish Sea coastlines can be bleak, grey and blustery – but equally they can be lit by twinkling fairy lights and toasty open fires and packed with heart-warming memories. It’s a clever trick that worked perfectly here and brought out the best of the setting.

The story strode along at a pace, detailing the successes and failures, the rights and wrongs, Jonathan made on his life’s journey. You will laugh and cry in equal measure. He not only walks out of his job, inherits a book shop, and splits from his partner … he also has additional complications from his first wife and daughter to manage. I also loved the subtle echoes of some of Jonathan's writing heroes, like Frodo the dog and references to rings and lost manuscripts. All helped build the atmosphere of Jonathan's literary life.

Characters are strong and believable – from Jonathan and his writer’s angst, to Catherine as his discontented partner, to Lizzie his strong-willed daughter … to the ineptitude and rudeness of the staff of the small publishing house, Tangerine Press, who were just perfect for their roles! For me as a writer, I could relate to every single publishing experience poor Jonathan suffered and was cheering him on throughout. Whether he gets his happy ending or not though, of course, is not for me to say – this is fiction after all!

A real feel good novella, perfect to curl up with on a stormy winter’s afternoon, and experience the highs and lows of one writer’s journey. 

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Jojo Moyes, Jill Mansell, Erica James.

Avoid if you don’t like : Writers and Christmas!

Ideal accompaniments: Hot chocolate with marshmallows and a plate of shortbread.

Genre : Contemporary.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Zoli by Colum McCann

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

What we thought: I wondered how an Irish, male writer could conceive to portray a Romani woman from Czechoslovakia in 1930. Yet Colum McCann’s Zoli is a rich, intricately-researched tale of Romani life, racism, love, exile, belonging, and human endurance and survival. In short, a literary masterpiece.

When Zoli’s parents and other members of her Romani caravan are murdered by the Hlinka guards in fascist Czechoslovakia, she and her grandfather flee, and join another caravan. Even though their culture bans literacy, Zoli’s grandfather sends her to school, and Zoli begins not only to sing the old Roma songs, but to compose her own. “It was still a secret, my writing. I pretended to most that I could not read, but, I thought, then, surely it could do no harm? I said to myself that writing was no more nor less than song. My pencil was busy and almost down to a nubbin.”

However, as post-war Czechoslovakia goes from fascist to communist control, the long-persecuted Gypsies, along with Zoli’s song-poems, become useful to the revolution. And Zoli’s safety is in great danger.

While Colum McCann’s lyrical, prose-like style is haunting, harrowing and beautiful, at times I had some difficulty understanding the cold, hard political facts. Then I stopped trying to understand every factual detail and just sat back and drank in this gripping story. And, in the end, I did understand. The author is so talented that his message of how the Romani people suffered comes through crystal clear.

I greatly enjoyed this novel for the author’s characterization of Zoli –– portrait of the life of a poet, her song-poems as the voice of her people. I loved this peek into Slovakian “Gypsy” culture. Spanning the twentieth century, across Europe, this is a unique tale that evokes the life of a community rarely portrayed so vibrantly in literature.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Sensuous, literary historical fiction.

Avoid if you don’t like:
Racism, holocaust stories.

Ideal accompaniments:
Potato soup and roasted ribs, eaten whilst listening to Zoli’s song-poems.

Genre: Literary Historical Fiction.

Available on Amazon

The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Being something of an optimist it has always struck Makana that it made a good start to the day to wake up in the morning and find himself still afloat.”

Makana is a former Sudanese policeman, now a refugee in Cairo, living in a wrecked houseboat and trying (and mostly failing) to eke out a living as a private detective. All that changes one day, when one of the wealthiest men in Egypt, the founder and owner of the famous DreemTeem football club, comes to him for help to find his missing star player.

Makana begins to find connections with another case – the four-year-old daughter of an English woman, abducted years before. Are those connections real, or is Makana’s imagination working overtime – driven by memories of his own daughter’s death?

As the present-day investigation rolls forward, we also learn, piece by piece, about the troubling events in Sudan that led to Makana fleeing north into Egypt.

Parker Bilal (pseudonym of Jamal Mahjoub) is of Sudanese and British heritage. He was born in London and has lived in Sudan, Egypt, Denmark, Britain and Spain. Mahjoub’s first three books were a trilogy of historical novels exploring the history of politics of Sudan from the late 20th C back to late 19th C, and that understanding permeates his writing as Parker Bilal. The Egypt he portrays is not one any tourist is likely to discover.

This is a crime novel with political overtones, a setting you can smell and taste right off the page, and a detective character with both charm and depth.

At the end of the book, we have the making of a classic Holmesian trio – the detective, withdrawing into his own thoughts, a jaded policeman, and a young, eager journalist dreaming of turning the story into a best seller. An enticing invitation to the rest of the series.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Streets of Darkness by AA Dhand, Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle, Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela

Avoid If You Dislike: Moderate graphic violence, stories centred on child abduction

Perfect Accompaniment: Taamiya (Egyptian falafel) with tahini dip

Genre: Crime Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Poloola

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Two friends so close they are like twins. One who never stops talking. The other who never stops running. In the summer before their eighteenth birthdays, their lives pull them in different directions. Karl flies to Nigeria in search of a father he never knew existed. Abu stays behind, in a London about to explode into riots.

Port Harcourt gives Karl a chance to be himself, free of other people’s assumptions. In company of new friends, he learns how oil companies are despoiling the landscape while leaving local people in poverty.

“The village we are passing. Life expectancy is only 35 years. Because of the flaring. The gas, it comes back with the rain. There’s toxicity. Health problems.”

Back in London, Abu is immersed in a school project, discovering the memoirs of Mary Prince, an enslaved black woman who lived and worked in the Bloomsbury streets he walks down every day. And then there’s the anger that’s brewing on the streets. The anger that will explode into the 2011 riots.

Karl and Abu have always shared everything. But distance, new friendships and first love are all carving a space between them. Will their relationship be broken by their experiences – or just fundamentally changed?

This is a coming-of-age tale that explores friendship and trust, sexuality and gender. It touches, too, on the long legacy of slavery and colonialism to be found in both London and Nigeria. The voice is unusual, almost as if you’re overhearing a story one friend is telling another, and they’re not going to wait for you to catch up or fill in the gaps.

The sort of story that opens a window in your mind and lets in a breath of fresh air.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta, Orange Boy by Patrice Lawrence, Feral Youth by Polly Courtney

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of teenagers exploring gender and sexuality

Perfect Accompaniment:
Spicy Nigerian beef and tomato stew

Genre: Young Adult, LGBTQ

Available on Amazon

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

No surprise this won The Booker Prize. A book which makes the impossible plausible and in doing so, holds up the harshest of lights to illuminate our broken civilisation.

Dickens, California, where Sellout was born and raised by a terrifyingly obsessive father, has been wiped off the map, along with its self-respect. But he has an idea how to get it back.

By re-instituting slavery and segregation.

Beatty’s writing is shocking, sharp and erudite while his main character is laconic and stumbles into his heroic role almost accidentally. The novel’s landscape is peopled with a fabulous range of characters: Marpessa, the bus-driving love of Sellout’s life; Hominy Jenkins, ageing ex TV-star who makes Sellout his unwilling slavemaster; Foy Cheshire and the Dum Dum Donut intellectuals; plus the whole range of black cultural stereotypes which are not so much pierced as skewered.

The wit is bone-dry and the social intelligence brilliant. It’s hilariously, caustically funny, making you guffaw with a guilty look over your shoulder.
 “Like most black males raised in Los Angeles, I’m bilingual only to the extent that I can sexually harass women of all ethnicities in their native languages.”
There are some startling moments, such as when Sellout is coerced into doing a Show and Tell at the local school, to demonstrate the jobs available to young black teenagers. He chooses to castrate a calf. Or when young white people stage a demonstration demanding access to the segregated school, protesting their exclusion.

A book to make you actually laugh out loud, gasp and nod, but most of all, think.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge or Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe.

Avoid if you don’t like: Comedy as black as it gets, social satire.

Ideal accompaniments: Cantaloupe melon, a banana daiquiri and Billie Holiday Sings.

Available on Amazon 



Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Drawing Lessons by Patricia Sands

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: When Arianna’s beloved husband, Ben develops dementia, she decides to leave Canada and take part in an art retreat in France, in an effort to quell her grief and to rekindle her interest and talent for art.

She joins a very eclectic group of artists from all over the world, each of them aiming to improve their craft. And, like Arianna, each of them with their own reasons for travelling to this stunning region, south of Arles. Together, they support and encourage each other, form friendships, coax out hard-to-share stories.

Besides the opportunity to meet some memorable, strong and very human characters, I loved the way the author wove the story around the magnificent landscape, the fauna and flora, as well as the incredible historical, cultural and architectural aspects of this region; the same beautiful buildings and scenery that Van Gogh once painted. And, of course, the usual plethora of gourmet French food and wines.

Drawing Lessons is a story to lose oneself in; an emotional but wonderful escapade to the Camargue region in France as we accompany Arianna on her journey from grief to joy. Highly recommended for all Francophiles!


You’ll like this if you enjoy
: Women’s fiction, romance, love. Stories set in France. Patricia Sands’ Love in Provence series, which I reviewed here, and here and here.

Avoid if you don’t like
: stories set in France.

Ideal accompaniments: Taureau de Camargue sprinkled with Fleur de Sel, washed down with a chilled rosé de Provence.

Genre: Women’s fiction.

Available on Amazon