Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Review by: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I read once that there are holes in the universe that swallow all light, all bodies. St Jerome’s took all the light from my world.

Saul Indian Horse is from the Fish Clan of the Northern Ojibway – the Anishinabeg.

As the opening of the book shows, in the late fifties and early sixties, there were still pockets of land, even in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, where the indigenous people could live traditional lives. But the rot that would destroy that way of life had long since set in. The church-run, government sponsored system of residential schools had ripped through communities, stealing away generations of children.

If you haven’t already read the damning reports, this book can leave you in no doubt that those who ran these schools were not ‘well meaning but misguided’. The systematic cruelty Wagamese describes beggars belief. Sexual assaults and deaths from brutality and neglect did not just happen, they were routine. It left generations of survivors suffering from PTSD and vulnerable to alcoholism and domestic abuse.

When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human.

For a while, Saul escapes from the horrors into the world of ice hockey. The instincts that once allowed his great-grandfather to anticipate the movements of the animals he hunted allow Saul to ‘read’ the ice, to place himself where the puck will be a split-seconds before it arrives, to find the gap in the players through which to score. Wagamese brings a captivating poetry to his descriptions of these hockey games.

As Saul moves up from the Indian ‘Rez’ teams and starts to compete with white players, he faces racist aggressions – micro and macro – that suck the joy out of the game. He will have to hit rock bottom before he can finally confront what happened to him at the school and begin the slow process of healing.

A powerful book that everyone should read to understand the long-reaching impact of childhood trauma.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal.

Avoid If You Dislike: Frank depiction of institutional child abuse

Perfect Accompaniment: Rabbit stew on a cold, cold night.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Indigenous Authors

Available on Amazon

Love is Blind by William Boyd

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

What We Thought: Brodie Moncur has perfect pitch. Son of the bullying Rev Malcom Moncur and protege of Lady Dalcastle, Brodie works for Edinburgh piano manufacturers, Channons. He is a gifted piano tuner and man of ideas. When, at the age of 24, he is offered the position of Assistant Manager of the Paris branch he accepts with only a few trepidations.

In the late 1890s Paris has many attractions for a young man but when he meets the Russian soprano Lydia Blum, his life is changed forever. Lika, as she is known, is the mistress of fading star pianist John Kilbarron. Kilbarron's thuggish brother Malachi keeps a suspicious eye on them all. Of course, Brodie and Lika begin an affair and after a series of disastrous events involving a stolen melody and a duel, are forced to flee and live under assumed names. Constantly fearful that Malachi is on their trail they move from place to place until Lika can take no more.

This is a beautifully written novel full of hints of Chekov – both his life and literature. Jimmy Joyce also makes a brief appearance and there are no doubt other references for the reader to discover and feel clever about. The nature of obsession and the randomness of life and love are portrayed through fully realised characters against a variety of backgrounds, both European and more exotic.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher with no obligation to either read or review.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Other William Boyd books, Sebastian Faulks.

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of obsessive love.

Perfect Accompaniment: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2.

Genre: Literary/Historical/General Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Blessed Fury: Angels of Fate Book 1 by CS Wilde

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Paranormal romance is not my usual genre, but having read one of CS Wilde’s previous books, A Courtroom of Ashes, I dived into this with anticipation. This is an epic adventure of angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, Warriors and Erudites. Guardian Ava is tasked with protecting Liam, one of the Selfless, after he has lost his partner.

He’s angry, passionate and hell-bent on vengeance. Keeping him out of trouble is going to take everything Ava’s got, especially when a malevolent force is setting species against each other. And if that’s not enough to contend with, she finds herself powerfully attracted to her charge. Sparks are going to fly.

This is a wonderfully realised world with its own laws and codes of honour. The characters leap of the page and the action is breath-taking. There is a huge cast of beings and it feels as if there is much more to be learned, so it’s reassuring to see this is the first of a series.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked
: Gods and Monsters, The Dimensions Series, Requiem for Fallen Gods

Avoid if you don’t like
: Paranormal elements, fantastical creatures, fighting

Ideal accompaniments
: Popcorn, a Bloody Mary and a thunderstorm.

Available on Amazon

Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

Review by: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I wish he knew that when an NDN laughs, it’s because they are applying a fresh layer of medicine on an open wound.

Jonny Appleseed is an urban NDN - young, Two Spirit / Indigiqueer and a glitter princess. He has left the rez in northern Manitoba and made a life for himself in Winnepeg, earning his living creating sexual fantasies on camera for other gay men.

I’m like an Etch-a-Sketch – every cell in my body is yours to define.

Homophobia was rampant on the rez, especially among the men. And Winnepeg is known as ‘the most racist city in Canada.’ Jonny has spent his life playing straight on the rez in order to be an NDN and playing white in the city in order to be queer. There are perhaps only three people in the world who accept him as himself – his mother, his Kokum (grandmother) and his childhood friend and sometime lover, Thias.

Funny how an NDN “love you” sounds more like “I’m in pain with you.”

But Kokum is dead and Thias is in love with a girl called Jordan. Then his mother calls to say that his stepdad, Roger – ‘a pig-headed, alcoholic, homophobic sonuva’ – has died, and she wants him home for the funeral. So now he has a couple of days to earn enough money for his rent AND to pay for the journey home.

As the story flips between Jonny’s memories of growing up on the Rez and his present life in Winnepeg, Whitehead plays with language as if he’s inventing it afresh. He references January Jones, The Revenant or Elle from Stranger Things as lightly as he references the elements of Oji-Cree beliefs and traditions salvaged from the wreckage of the past.

This is two generations on from the residential school system that ripped through indigenous communities throughout Canada, but the wounds are still open. Jonny ‘s life is a desperate, clinging-to-the-edge existence. And yet there is a joy and a tenderness and a depth of love that emerges from the hurt and sorrow.

A powerful, utterly modern story that will take you by the scruff of the neck and shake your preconceptions. Long-listed for the 2018 Giller Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Break by Katherena Vermette, Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Popoola

Avoid If You Dislike: Unflinching descriptions of gay sex

Perfect Accompaniment: Soup and bannock (or something with hamburger helper!)

Genre: Literary Fiction, LGBTQ Fiction, Indigenous Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Sealskin by Su Bristow

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

This is the first book I’ve read of this author and I must admit I was totally gripped by both the writing and the story. My love of location as a character in its own right was well and truly quenched here, as Bristow brought alive the surroundings of the remote Western Isles of Scotland with total professionalism and I could almost taste the salty spray of the sea on my lips.

According to the post script, the author based the novel on one of the many legends of the area, that is the selkies which are seals who can transform themselves into people and back again. Tales of such creatures are as known to the locals of the parts as mermaids are to the rest of us, and the fear and intrigue they carry comes across superbly in the story. As well as using the beauty of the landscape, Bristow brings into the play the resilience of the cross section of locals in such a tough landscape, and the strength of human spirit through adversity.

When young fisherman, Donald, gets to see the selkies on one of his lone fishing trips he makes a decision that will change his life forever in any ways. Along with his long-suffering mother, Bridie, he begins a journey that will take him to places and situations he never believed he would visit.

The writing winds its way effortless through this superbly crafted tale and I very much look forward to reading another book by this author.

Highly recommended!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Kate Hamer, Jo Cannon, Ruth Hogan.

Avoid if you don’t like: Haunting tales and legends of old.

Ideal accompaniments: Smoked mackerel fillets with brown bread and pale ale.

Genre: Contemporary

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Strangers on a Bridge by Louise Mangos

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

On her morning run, Alice spots a man on a bridge, preparing to jump. 
Her innate compassion makes her stop to help. It's a gesture she'll regret.

Manfred believes he and his saviour have a special connection and inveigles his way into her life, affecting her marriage, her children and her mental health. She thinks he needs professional help. He thinks she is his destiny.

This is a classic psychological thriller with a domestic touch. Alice is a wife and mother, plus a stranger in a closed land, trying to cope with exceptional circumstances in a foreign language. As she becomes increasingly isolated and takes some impulsive decisions, the scene is set for a dramatic resolution.

Mangos uses the Swiss landscape and cultural quirks to great effect, but where she excels is in the creeping sense of insecurity growing to paranoia. The steady erosion of Alice's judgement as to right and wrong has the reader scrabbling for a foothold on an icy, fatal slope.

Some of her choices appear inexplicable in the 'If it were me' mindset, which only underlines the derailment this woman has undergone. This novel is a look into the abyss within all of us.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: 
The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn, Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, Mindsight by Chris Curran.

Avoid if you don’t like: Psychological uncertainty, Swiss background, German language.

Ideal accompaniments: Wild deer with chestnuts, Pinot Noir and Profondo Rosso by Goblin

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Ponti is a debut novel by Sharlene Teo, set in Singapore, where Teo was born. The narrative weaves between three timelines. It opens in 2003 with a story that, on the surface, appears to be Mean Girls set in a Singapore high school. Szu is clever but frequently in trouble and her only friend is the equally odd-ball Circe.

“Today marks my sixteenth year on this hot horrible earth. I am stuck in school, standing with my palms presses against a green wall. I am pressing so heard, my fingers ache. I am tethered to this wall by my own shame.”
But Szu is the daughter of Amisa, the star of a trilogy of cult horror films about the Pontianak – a savage, flesh-eating ghost disguised as a hauntingly beautiful woman. The second timeline reveals how Amisa went from village girl in rural Penang via never-quite-realised stardom to embittered motherhood.

“Amisa was a woman pushing a problem. The problem gurgled as they took laps around the park.”
The third brings us into the present day and is Circe’s story, forced to look back on the events of her school days when she becomes involved in promoting a remake of the Pontiniak films.

“Szu and I were sixteen, each other’s only friends in the world. We were symbiotic and that intense, irreplicable way that comes as part and parcel of being careworn teenage girls.”
The fourth key character is Aunt Yunxi – not Szu’s really aunty, but her mother’s oldest friend, who lives with them and runs a questionable business as a medium and spirit healer out of their house.

“The truth is my Aunt Yunxi is half woman, half violin. She screeches, she is narrow and stiff. She holds out her arms at odd angles as if they don’t belong to her.”

Singapore is polyglot and the narrative reflects that. As in Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, it is up to you whether you want to look up the references to food, clothing and so on, that pepper the text in Mandarin, Hakka, Teochew, Hokkien ... or let them flow past you, teasing you with possibility.

This is a sophisticated coming-of-age story that explores grief, loss, disappointment and their physical manifestations in teenage and young adult bodies. Its rich language vividly evokes a world that will be unfamiliar to many readers, without the need to exoticise it. If your only reference for Singapore is an image of a skyline of glass and concrete tower blocks, this is an entry into a whole different world, that of the city’s ordinary inhabitants.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Harmless Like Me by Rowan Hisayo Buchanon, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Avoid If You Dislike: casual multilingual references

Perfect Accompaniment: Red bean pancake and a diet coke

Genre: Literary Fiction, Coming of Age

Available on Amazon