Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Mother by Yvvette Edwards

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Today is the first day of the trial of the man – well, boy, really – accused of the murder of our son and, as a result, instead of a regular cup of tea on the bedside table, it is a steaming act of phenomenal cowardice and I will not touch or drink it.”

Just this sentence at the end of the opening paragraph of The Mother made me stop, gasp and read it again to savour the intense distillation of emotion it represented.

The eponymous mother’s son has been murdered, stabbed to death by a boy his own age. The novel begins on the morning of the first day of the boy’s trial, and unfolds in a few short days. But as readers we are so tightly inside the head of the mother, living every heartbeat alongside her, that time seems to slow down.

The mother has done everything in her power to keep her son safe, in a world that is full of dangers. At one point she goes over in her mind the thousand and one things she did – that every mother does – to try and keep her child safe, from teaching him to tie his shoelaces to rehearsing every detail of his first solo trip on public transport.

“I read about young people, crime, knives, gangs, guns, killings over nonsense, but they were nothing to do with the tiny safe haven I thought I’d created to insulate myself and mine.”

Despite all the mother’s care, that other world has broken through and stolen her child. In the space of a few moments, her safe haven has been ripped apart and her world has collapsed to a point of grief. What she does not expect is that, during the course of the trial, that world would begin to open up again. Her understanding and her empathy expands and with it, ours.

The Mother is about the tragedy and outrage of having a loved one’s life stolen through violence. It’s a novel, set in England and revolving around knife crime, but the mother’s story stands alongside those of the young men dead from gun violence, researched and retold by Gary Younge in Another Day in the Death of America.

It is a book of extraordinary compassion. Compassion for the victims of crime, and the different ways it can affect different members of a family. And compassion for the children growing up in a wealthy first world country, and yet living in circumstances that are closer to those of a war zone. An important read for all of us who live in safe havens and blinker ourselves to those on the outside.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge, Unless by Carol Shields, A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

Avoid If You Dislike: Intimate portraits of the aftermath of violent crime

Perfect Accompaniment: Strong English Breakfast tea

Genre: Literary Fiction, Grip Lit

Available on Amazon

Cast Iron: Enzo Macleod 6 by Peter May

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

What we thought: An exciting return into the life of Enzo Macleod, with the usual highs and lows we expect from Peter May, and a superbly balanced way of carrying forward all the baggage and backstory that accompanies this character, without slowing the tension or the pace of the plot.

Still determined to complete his quest and solve all of the cold case enquiries in Roger Raffin's book of unsolved crimes, Enzo investigates the enquiry into the murder of a young charity worker, Lucie Martin. Was she a victim of serial killer, Regis Blanc, as everyone believes or are there more sinister secrets closer to home?

Someone is determined to put a stop to Enzo’s investigations, and has made several attempts on his life to do so. But when the threats move to his closest family, Enzo has no choice but to re-examine who he can trust and who must be a potential enemy. The discoveries will shock the foundation of his life to the very core.

I’m a big fan of this author. I love his writing style and characterisation, and I wasn’t disappointed by this book. Enzo Macleod is a complex, and brilliantly written, character who somehow connects with the reader, despite all of his hot-headed faults.

The tension and drama were ramped up high in this book, it’s a real page turner, and I found myself racing towards the end, dreading the final page, and was totally thrown by the final reveal.

Superb writing once again from May and as ever I await the next book in anticipation.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Ann Cleeves.

Avoid if you don’t like: Family secrets and hidden lives.

Ideal accompaniments: Almond croissant and a double espresso.

Genre: Crime.

Available on Amazon


The Words in my Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Land Beyond Goodbye and Don’t Look Down (

What We Thought: Amsterdam 1634: French Philosopher Rene Descartes takes a room above Mr Sergeant’s bookshop to work on his Discourse. Helena Jans, sixteen years old, is the maid who takes his eye. Helena is an intelligent girl and, unusually for one of her class, can read and write. Slowly, through a very natural sharing of small events they come together. The Monsieur, as Descartes is known, is 20 years older, a controversial thinker, and a Catholic.

When the inevitable happens, Helena is sent away to hide her pregnancy while the Monsieur goes to live in Utrecht. Will he ever return? Will the child Helena bears ever know her father?

Based, very loosely, on what little is known of true events, this is the story of Descartes’ and Jans’ relationship over a number of years. Helena is portrayed as an almost modern-thinking woman, wanting to write, draw, create and be more than the skivvy she is. She must scrimp on paper, salvage quills and make her own ink. She must fit her learning in between her household duties. Trapped in her time, she is at the mercy of men and even the loving ones do not accord her full status. The frustrations of women’s lives are starkly drawn, constrasting with sensuous descriptive pieces.

Beautifully written, this is a fascinating story. I found the first part of the book to be more involving than the latter part but this did not at all spoil my great enjoyment of it.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Tracy Chevalier, Jessie Burton etc

Avoid if you dislike: The realities of life for women in earlier centuries.

Ideal accompaniments:
Experimenting with beetroot ink.

Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought:

An almighty rippling beast of a book which spans centuries of American history, taking in its stride such subjects as eugenics, slavery, sexual politics, lineage and morality.

Set in the state of Kentucky, the book traces the fortunes of the Forge family starting with young Henry, growing up on his father's tobacco farm. With glances back at his ancestors who settled on this land and claimed it as their own, Henry makes up his mind to forge his own path and turn the land to breeding racehorses.

The novel progresses in a relatively conventional sense to the next generation and Henrietta, who is groomed by her father to continue the family business. One day, while interviewing potential farmhands, she encounters Allmon Shaughnessy, son of a black mother and white father, who claims he's good with horses.

This is where the book loops away from the typical saga and flips back to follow the misfortunes of Allmon's upbringing. An absentee father, a sick mother who cannot afford healthcare and a lack of choices lead Allmon from the wrong side of the tracks to the wrong side of the law.

Morgan embraces the unpredictable in her storytelling, using flashbacks, excerpts, playscripts, speeches and rewritten parables to reinforce her themes. The juxtaposition of theory beside the brutal realities described in her prose jar the reader into an uncomfortable awareness. Her language is exceptional when she gives herself free rein to encompass the geography and natural wonders of the Bluegrass State, but also when evoking the smallest detail of equine or human.

It's not an easy read, often harrowing and dark, disturbing and shocking, leavened with excitement and suspense of the races and some wonderfully entertaining characters; a jockey, a preacher, a chain-smoking neighbour. It's also huge not only in number of pages but scope. That said, it's a book that will stay with you a long, long time and very likely lure you back again.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Underworld by Don de Lillo, Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.

Avoid if you don’t like: Stories of extreme suffering by humans and animals, long descriptive passages, unconventional structures.

Ideal accompaniments: Derby pie and a mint julep. And a shot of bourbon after the river crossing.

 Genre:  Literary fiction, Bailey's Prize shortlist 

Available on Amazon

My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream by Janine Marsh

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: I might not be brave enough to renovate a run-down barn in rural France, but as an ex-pat living in a French village, I can totally relate to Janine Marsh’s book, My Good Life in France.

The author’s new life in France started out quite differently to most ex-pats though: whilst on one of her regular day trips to pick up cheap wine in northern France, she purchased an old barn in the rural Seven Valleys area of Pas de Calais. It seems no one was more surprised at this purchase than the author herself.

Her French adventure began as weekend trips to renovate her new home which lacked mains drainage, heating, proper rooms, and had not the slightest of comforts. It turned into a life-time project requiring far more time, money and energy than she could ever have imagined.

Several years ago, Janine eventually gave up her top corporate banking job in London to move with her husband to their still quite run-down French barn. In My Good Life in France, she narrates the true story of negotiating the local inhabitants, French bureaucracy, tradesmen, culture and etiquette. No easy feat for a born and bred British girl from the city!

I loved reading about all of her adventures: the good, the bad, the ugly. And the incredible, one of which resulted in the neighbours nicknaming her “Madame Merde”. I’ll let you read the story for yourself to find out why!

The author’s joy, frustration, enthusiasm and curiosity for her new homeland shines through as she recounts her experiences with humour, from administrative struggles to homesickness and personal tragedy, to her love for chickens and stray animals. And, finally, love for her life in France.

Towards the end of the book, Janine includes a lot of useful information for adapting to the French lifestyle and negotiating French rules –– both written and unwritten!

Highly recommended for Francophiles and anyone thinking of impulse-buying a run-down property in a region where it rains all the time.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Humorous ex-pat stories, such as Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and the sequels: Toujours Provence and Encore Provence.

Avoid if you don’t like: tales of travel and home renovation.

Ideal accompaniments: Gratin de Maroilles aux lardons washed down with a cool glass of Chardonnay.

Genre: memoir, travel book.

Available on Amazon

The Break by Katherena Vermette

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Once again, the annual Canada Reads event from CBC Books has connected me with a brilliant indigenous author I might otherwise have missed from this side of the Atlantic.

The Break is an area of rough ground on the edge of an unnamed city between the Canadian Shield at the Prairies. It abuts a neighbourhood home to many Métis and ‘status Indians,’ written off by the local police as ‘nates’ or ‘May-tee’.

When one Métis woman witnesses a brutal attack – a rape, she says – on the Break, the police are reluctant to believe her. Sexual attacks just don’t happen in snow drifts in the middle of winter. But then a young girl shows up at hospital with a story that matches her account.

The novel unfolds in a series of overlapping points of view – most of them women across three generations of the same family - the matriarch, Kookum (grandmother), her daughters and granddaughters.

They have a strength forged by a lifetime of tough experience, and the bonds of love between them are warm and tangible. They have made their lives and homes in the city, supporting their families while their men, for the most part, have retreated to the bush. Between them, their voices draw us, not just into the tragic events on the Break but into a family history that encapsulates the experience of Métis women.

A tender exploration of the impact of sexual assault on an extended family, and of the resilience of indigenous women. A story that will stay with you long after you have closed the final page.

Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer from Manitoba, the heart of the Métis nation. Her book, North End Love Songs previously won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. The Break, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Avoid if You Dislike: Stories centred around sexual assault

Perfect Accompaniment: Tomato soup with bannock bread

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fiction from Indigenous Authors

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Power by Naomi Alderman

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought:

One of those concepts that's so simple yet so mind-altering, you can't believe this is the first time anyone's done it.

Teenage girls begin developing an electrical force. It can hurt, maim and kill. Young girls teach older women and an age-old imbalance tilts. Now the men are afraid, rushing home before dark, segregated into private schools, vulnerable in the face of female retribution.

Alderman tells the story from four strategic viewpoints: the religious icon, the journalist, the politician, the business dealer, each character formed by the previous status quo. When social norms turn, so do people, politics, international relations, sexuality and human behaviour.

Utopian ideals regarding nature prove unpredictable when centuries of oppression are overturned and the victims can choose forgiveness or retaliation. Power in the wrong hands is lethal. Four characters experience the best and worst of such a new order, allowing the reader a wide-angle lens on how good/bad it could get.

The scope of this book is breathtaking. There is a joy and a terror in imagining irresistible might, accompanied by all the unavoidable decisions as how to use it.

Terrifying, fascinating and one to ponder for many, many years.
And then read it again.
You might change your mind.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Roma Nova Series by Alison Morton

Avoid if you don’t like: World views and status quo overturned, thinking

Ideal accompaniments: Pepper vodka, Bombay Duck and Amanda Palmer's Grown Man Cry

Genre: Literary Fiction, Bailey's Prize Shortlister

Available on Amazon