Wednesday, 15 August 2018

After the Party by Cressida Connolly

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett – author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn and other books. http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.com

What We Thought: Before reading After the Party, I would never have imagined I could feel sympathy for someone who had espoused a far right cause. This book is so sensitively written, however, that it is impossible not to feel sadness for the protagonist, and to recognise that she is embroiled in something, the potential consequences of which, she doesn't fully understand.

Phyllis Forrester is the youngest of three sisters. In 1938 they are all living, in various states of prosperity, in the south of England. Phyllis has three children, two girls and a boy, all about to go back to boarding school.

Through her middle sister, Nina, she becomes involved in a political party, the leader of which is simply referred to as The Leader. At first she is not especially interested in the cause but as she has little to do she helps her sister out. Her eldest sister, Patricia, is also involved but to a lesser extent. Patricia and her husband, Greville, are at the upper end of the social scale, Phyllis and Hugh are perhaps slightly below, and they both think Nina and her husband, Eric, are a little infra dig, as he runs a garage and she runs summer camps for members of the Party and their children. Patricia invites The Leader, or the Old Man, as he is sometimes called, to a grand dinner and a certain amount of vying for his attention is involved.

Though the Leader is not specifically named until some way into the novel, it is soon obvious who he is. He is charismatic and charming and his followers all adore him. Phyllis meets Sarita through her association with the Party and they become friends, though Sarita is often a little vague and distrait. When disaster strikes, Phyllis feels guilty that she had not seen the truth of the situation and had not been able to step in to help.

When war breaks out Phyllis and her husband are unexpectedly taken into custody. There is no trial and no formal sentencing. Separated, they are given little information as to what is going on or where the other is. Phyllis feels that her incarceration is in some way justified - not because of her association with the Party but because she let her friend down.

Years pass. Phyllis is sent to a camp on the Isle of Man along with other politicos and enemy aliens. She discovers another way of life, of friendships with women, of making do and of overcoming hardships. She misses her children desperately. When she is finally released they barely recognise her, and the youngest, Edwin, has become attached to Patricia and Greville, who have taken him in every school holiday.

Betrayed by both her sisters for different reasons, and in reduced circumstances, Phyllis moves north. Her children blame her for her involvement in what is now considered a wicked cause, and she has little contact with her wider family. She has become, perhaps sardonic rather than bitter, and quite apart from seeing the misjudgement in her earlier associations, has become rather more deeply entrenched in her views.

This is a beautifully written book, full of poignancy and sadness. It shows how lives can be destroyed by happenstance and by foolish errors of judgement and how, ultimately, no lessons may be learned.

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

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Great Gatsby

Avoid If You Dislike: Accounts of the privileged classes.

Perfect Accompaniment: Whisky in cut glass with an engraved cigarette case nearby.

Genre: Literary fiction

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Cresting Waves by F. K. Sewell

Reviewer: Jerome Griffin

What we thought: Cresting Waves, the third and final instalment of the Black Feather Trilogy, completes the tale of orphan pirate, Alex Cavendish, and leaves the reader with something of a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye.

As with the previous two books, it opens as an action-packed, adrenalin-fuelled adventure that ebbs and flows throughout, but very quickly it becomes so much more than just a fun pirate romp.

The long-running feuds with the Vliets and Barnaby continue to play a central role in the story, but Alex also has his mind on other matters, including a safe, secure and peaceful future. He’s had enough of life on the wave and he realises there are alternative lifestyles available to him. He is also determined to find his mother, if she is alive, and Kitty who he still loves dearly.

Sewell is a talented author who can produce diverse fight scenes bursting with excitement and tension, as well as intimate moments full of emotion and tenderness. One episode in particular between Alex and his wife will live with me for a very long time due to Sewell’s delivery and skill. I don’t want to give too much away in terms of spoilers, so I won’t go into detail, but she manages to take an extremely difficult situation for a couple and make it touching and poignant, without being cloying or trite.

On one level Alex is the same character as before. His determination, loyalty and strong moral code – despite being a pirate – remain true. But on another level, something has changed in him. There is a difference in his approach to life and responsibility. Where earlier in the story he was thrown into the deep end and had to learn fast, in retrospect that was his coming of age. In Cresting Waves, he has become a man.

As a trilogy, the Black Feather books provide a wonderful balance of adventure, passion and emotion with a dash of gritty history thrown in for good measure. Cresting Waves is a worthy finale.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: A mixture of high-octane adventure and emotional situations handled delicately.

Avoid if you dislike: Difficult relationship scenarios.

Ideal accompaniments: A strong drink, a box of tissues and something that reminds you of your childhood home.

Genre: Historical fiction, adventure

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett - author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn and other books http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.com

What We Thought: Set in Edinburgh in the mid-19th century, The Way of All Flesh is both an informative account of the development of anaesthesia and a historical murder mystery.

Will Raven is a young medical student working as assistant to the famous James Young Simpson, pioneer of painless childbirth. Impoverished and of dubious parentage, Raven has secrets to keep and financial problems to solve. If he can do well with Dr Simpson, he will be set up for life. The work is challenging and often gruesome - women die in agony or survive at the cost of their infant's life. Simpson experiments with ether and other prospective anaesthetics (often on himself an d his colleagues) before he hits on chloroform.

Meanwhile, women's bodies are being found contorted into positions of apparent agony. Raven's friend, Evie, is one such and he determines to discover what has happened to her and to the other women of the lower orders thus cruelly disposed of.

He forms an uneasy alliance with Sarah, the Simpsons' housemaid, who has also had a friend die in similar circumstances. Sarah is intelligent and forthright - neither qualities likely to serve her in her employment. She dreams of better things and resents Raven's ability to move up in the world in a way that is denied to her.

This is an extremely well-written page-turner with plenty of excitement and interest on every page. The descriptions of medical matters are often graphic but never unnecessarily so. Both Will and Sarah are well-rounded characters with faults and foibles as well as strength and compassion. Edinburgh itself plays a major role, from the foetid wynds and ginnels of the Canongate to the pleasant streets of the Georgian New Town.

Ostensibly by Ambrose Perry, this novel, as I discovered after reading it, was in fact written by Christopher Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. Brookmyre, who needs no introduction, has reined in the more excessive aspects of his graphic comedy; Haetzman is his wife and a consultant anaesthetist. It appears to be a perfect partnership. More books in this series are planned and I could visualise them as a tv series.

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

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin, Sarah Waters’ books.

Avoid If You Dislike: Accounts of childbirth that don’t always end well.

Perfect Accompaniment: A reasonably strong stomach and a bottle of gin.

Genre: Historical Mystery

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Someone To Look Up To by Jean Gill

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and first book in the new Australian 70s trilogy, The Silent Kookaburra.

What we thought: I absolutely adored this beautifully-written story told from a dog’s point of view. Sirius, a magnificent Soum de Gaia (Pyrenean Mountain Dog) narrates his story and that of his siblings when they leave their mother, and their breeder, their “Choosing” taking each puppy to a very different place.

The author’s deep understanding of, and respect for, the canine psyche, is obvious, perfectly capturing the thoughts and emotions of Sirius as he attempts to understand the world into which he was born, and the often unhappy situations in which he finds himself.

Filled with humour, love and sadness, the author captivated me with her wonderful descriptions and lyrical prose, one moment bringing tears to my eyes, the next making me laugh out loud. My favourite scenes were the very moving dogs’ nighttime storytelling, the twilight barking.

Sirius’s story will certainly make all dog owners rethink the way they handle their dogs, especially those, like me, who need a bit of subtle training in managing their hound.

I would highly recommend Someone To Look Up To for every dog owner, but especially for those who are planning on getting a dog. I would even go so far as to say this book should be mandatory reading for people wanting to own a dog, in particular a large breed of dog.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Animal stories. Fictional tales based on fact.

Avoid if you don’t like: Sad stories about animals that people can't handle.

Ideal accompaniments: Hot toddy and comfy fireside armchair, preferably with a view of the snow-capped Pyrénées Mountains.

Genre: General Fiction

Friday, 27 July 2018

The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of it:
I first came across Nikesh Shukla in a yurt on the banks of the River Thames. It was Refugee Week 2011, and I had come to hear members of the Write to Life group from Freedom from Torture perform their poetry. Shukla was there to read from his debut novel, Coconut Unlimited. The reading, which was very funny, stuck with me because Shukla’s description of hearing his grandmother speaking Gujarati peppered with modern English words like ‘television’ was exactly like my memories of hearing my grandmother speaking Welsh. I bought the book the next day.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, and The One Who Wrote Destiny is a very different book to Coconut Unlimited. This is one of several books I have read recently where the narrative passes from one hand to another. It begins with a father, Mukesh, retelling – as we later found out – a story he has repeated s often it has driven his children mad. It’s the story of how he met their mother, at Diwali, and how together they fought off racists trying to stop the celebrations. 

It then passes to the daughter, Neha – mathematician, programmer, obsessed with numbers and patterns. She shares the fatal genetic flaw that killed her mother before she really had time to get to know her. And now, dying herself, she is trying to find out if she can predict the destinies of the rest of the family.

From Neha it passes to her twin brother Raks – a stand-up comedian who needs to please, returning to Kenya to trace the grandmother he and his sister stayed with only once.

And finally to Ba, the grandmother, dealing with two small children who are foisted upon her when all she wants is to be left alone to mourn.

Each of the characters has their own take on what destiny means – whether it be written in our DNA or our stars. But for me, at least, the book is about coming to terms with death, whether our own or that of a loved one. And the recognition that the final step is one that one must always take on one’s own

Almost incidentally, the narrative also traces the paths of British immigrants (especially Kenyan Asians) and their descendents, showing how their experience alters (and doesn’t) over time, and the tensions that creates between generations. (Being made complicit in the telling of a racist joke may be a small thing compared with being beaten to death in the streets, but it still shows what a long way this country has to go.)

There were snippets of the narrative that I recognised, either from having read The Good Immigrant, which was edited by Shukla, or from following him on Twitter, which made it feel a little like reading a book by an friend whose back stories I was privy to.

A moving and reflective novel from an author who has done more than anyone else in the last few years to change the landscape for BAME authors in Britain.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, If You Look For Me I am Not Here by Sarayu Srivatsa, The Good Immigrant (ed Nikesh Shukla)

Avoid If You Dislike: narratives about death and dying

Perfect Accompaniment: Mango and sugar rotli

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon


Nikesh Shukla is the editor of The Good Immigrant, co-founder of the Jhalak Prize and founder of The Good Literary Agency

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett – author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn and other books http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.com

What We Thought: Set in 1666 at the time of the Great Fire of London, this is a wonderfully atmospheric novel. We feel the heat of the fire scorching us in the opening chapter, and wipe the sooty sweat from our brows. There are two protagonist in this book and though they encounter each other briefly while watching the fire in that opening chapter, they don't meet properly until much later in the story.

James Marwood is a clerk to an Under Secretary of State at the Palace of Whitehall. James' father is a believer in 'King Jesus', a Republican and member of a Protestant sect who believe that getting rid of the earthly king will bring about King Jesus's reign more quickly. Only his age and increasing dementia saves him from the ultimate penalty. Let out of prison, he lives out of London, in Chelsea, and is safe as long as he keeps out of trouble.

Through his work James is involved in the investigation of a series of deaths that look very much like murders. It is a dangerous time: those who had demanded the killing of Charles I - the Regicides as they were known - were hunted down when his son, Charles II, reclaimed the throne. Is someone picking off former Republicans who have managed to hide their involvement in the king's downfall?

Catherine Lovett lives with her wealthy aunt and uncle who have betrothed her to Sir Denzil Croughton, a man much older than she is. Her father, also a follower of King Jesus and wanted as a Regicide, is on the run. Lovett has been abroad but there are rumours he is now in London. Cat longs to find him and creeps out of the house under cover of darkness to seek him out.

The lives of the two protagonists intertwine but this is not a love story. Cat wants to be an architect and have a life of her own. James is drawn ever further into the service of powerful men and ultimately into helping the king, on whose benevolence his father's freedom depends.

This is an entertaining and exciting book. It is part murder mystery, part political intrigue. It's a page-turner which is also a well researched and fully believable historical novel.

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

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel.

Avoid If You Dislike: Occasional graphic cruelty

Perfect Accompaniment: A long cold ale.

Genre: Historical Mystery

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