Wednesday, 19 September 2018

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Violence made this city. Those living, born and raised, grow up with it like an older brother.”
Guy Gunaratne’s mad and furious city is London – the rough estates of modern, multi-cultural, working class London.

The story is told through five voices. Three young men who grew up playing football together: Selvon, the athlete, headed for university; Ardan, who watches from the rooftops, spinning Grime lyrics out of the world he observes, and Yusuf, son of an Imam, whose brother has lost his way. Then there is Nelson, wheelchair bound and speechless after a stroke, who lived through the bitter race riots of the 50s and 60s and has seen it all before. And Caroline, the alcoholic Irishwoman, who escaped, deeply scarred, from the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland.

A soldier has been murdered on these streets in broad daylight and the city is turning on itself. Far Right groups are marching, threatening the mosque. And in response, the new Imam is summoning up a vigilante group of young men, the Muhajiroun, to protect, but also to police, their community.

As anger and mistrust rip through their Ends, tearing at the bonds of friendship and stomping on the dreams of the three younger men, the two older ones remember earlier battles, and how violence begats violence, warping those who are caught up in it.

“During a high tide, things come fairly. The people them welcome newcomer like a novelty. Other times the tide is low and them smiles turn to bitterness and hate.”

Gunaratne is a master a voices. Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf’s stories are written in the street slang of modern London, while Nelson’s voice is still rooted in his Caribbean childhood and Caroline’s is straight off Belfast’s Falls Road. Each is distinct and utterly convincing.

A powerful novel that rips a window onto contemporary London in all its multicultural complexity – its violence, its vibrancy and its endurance.

In Our Mad and Furious City was longlisted for both the Man Booker and the Not the Booker prizes in 2018. Disappointingly, it failed to make the cut in either. I sincerely hope to see it on the Jhalak Prize shortlist next year, as it thoroughly deserved the recognition.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Poloola, An Unreliable Guide to London (ed Kit Caless)

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories told in strong dialect

Perfect Accompaniment: Gang Signs and Prayers by Stormzy

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The Stolen Child by Sanjida Kay

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. In the vein of some of the best of the modern-day thrillers from Gillian Flynn and Clare Mackintosh, The Stolen Child is the riveting story of one couples attempt to stop themselves, and their whole lives, falling apart when their adopted child, Evie, goes missing after school one day.
Zoe and Ollie Morley tried for years to have a child of their own and when it seemed their only route was adoption, they took on a tiny girl called Evie, and never looked back. Even after the birth of the own natural son, Ben, Evie was an integral part of their family, and other than long working hours keeping them apart, their lives were everything they had dreamed.
But after moving back to Zoe’s home county of Yorkshire and setting up a home on the edge of her beloved moors, Evie’s personality begins to change. Strange packages are left from Evie’s natural father, and when one day she disappears after school, the Morley’s life is shattered into a million unconscionable pieces.
The author cleverly gives us enough clues and red herrings to keep us guessing and on the edge of our seats right up until the exhilarating climax of the story. A personal favourite of mine was the description of the moors and the landscape, which I feel always adds another layer to the depth of the story. The characters were superbly drawn, no emotion felt awkward or contrived, I felt from start to finish that I was in the hands of a talented storyteller and let myself go to enjoy the journey.

Highly recommended!
You’ll enjoy this if you like: Kate Hamer, Jenny Blackhurst, Erin Kelly.
Avoid if you don’t like: High emotion and gripping plots.
Ideal accompaniments: Cheeseburger, fries and cola.
Genre: Contemporary

Available on Amazon

Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

This third outing for Sam Wyndham and his redoubtable sergeant Surrender-not in 1920s Calcutta does not disappoint, from its shocking opening in Calcutta's Chinatown to the tense ending, blending fact and fiction.

It’s almost Christmas Day 1921, the end of the year in which Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation movement really got going. It’s also the year that the King Emperor George V decided to send his son, the Prince of Wales, on an ill-advised tour of India. Then, in the midst of seething unrest and with all the security implications of an impending royal visit, mutilated corpses start to turn up – apparently unconnected but bearing startlingly similar wounds. Section H, the military police, are convinced it must be the work of terrorists from the Independence Movement, but Sam is far from sure.

This is case that will test Surrender-not’s painfully divided loyalties to the limit. It will also force Sam to confront his own growing dependence on opium.

Mukherjee continues to paint a vivid picture of Calcutta as India lurches closer to independence, weaving fiction around real events and people. Chitta Ranjan Das, Gandhi’s chief lieutenant in Bengal, his wife Basanti Devi and his disciple and future hero of the movement Subhash Bose all appear in this novel, as Sam starts to appreciate both the genius of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance and the untenable nature of the British position.

“To see a man as your enemy, you needed to hate him, and while it was easy to hate a man who fought you with bullets and bombs, it was bloody difficult to hate a man who opposed you by appealing to your own moral compass.”

Mukherjee’s choice of Sam as his point of view character – an outsider who is part of the British Raj without being fully of it – provides a fascinating lens through which to see this troubled and pivotal period in India’s history. At the same time, he draws the thriller elements of the story from little known scraps of background history – in this case, a particularly shameful episode in British treatment of its colonial subjects.

This absorbing series just keeps getting better and batter. I am thrilled by its success – not least because it means should be plenty more to come for Sam and Surrender-not.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee, The Devil’s Porridge by Chris Longmuir, The Golden  Scales by Parker Bilal

Avoid If You Dislike: Facing up to the realities of Britain’s colonial past

Perfect Accompaniment: A stiff whisky

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

City of Sinners by A.A. Dhand

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

City of Sinners is the third in the A.A. Dhand’s series of crime novels set in Bradford and starring his detective, DCI Harry Virdee. It opens in the most arresting way possible, with a body hanging from the dome of Waterstones – formerly the Bradford Wool Exchange and one of England’s most beautiful bookshops. And that is just the start of a spree of bizarre killings that seems to centre Harry himself.

As ever, Dhand presents a Bradford that is – as Harry says – a British Gotham. And in Harry Virdee he gives us a stereotype-busting Asian Luther – violent, angry and willing to cross almost any line you draw. Surely it can only be a matter of time before someone takes these high energy books, with their spectacular set pieces and arresting imagery, and transfers them onto the small screen?

But Virdee doesn’t stop at busting stereotypes of geeky asexualised Asian men. He drives a coach and horses through the trope of the loner cop as well. For the light in the dark of Dhand’s novels remains the relationship between Harry and his wife and baby son. It’s also the part of the books where he most cleverly flips your expectations. The only other crime novelist of recent times that I can think of who has allowed their protagonist such a rich, warm and realistic home life is Sheila Bugler. Without it, these books could be grim fare indeed. With it, they become a joy.

Dhand also does what few other authors could do with clarity and integrity: he takes as his themes the darker, dirtier aspects of British Asian society – in this case, brown on brown bigotry, something he’s touched upon in his earlier books. And it is those generations of accumulated hatred and prejudice that, to my mind, produce the most quietly shocking moment in the whole book.

There is no getting away from the fact the Dhand’s novel’s are brutally violent, and if that’s really not your thing, you should probably steer clear. That said, there are many, many reasons why you should introduce yourself to Harry Virdee. If you haven’t already done so, go back and read Streets of Darkness and Girl Zero. And then get straight on and read City of Sinners.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Val McDermid, Dreda Say Mitchell, Sheila Bugler, Gillian E Hamer

Avoid if You Dislike: Graphic depiction of violence (or probably if you are an arachnophobe.)

Perfect Accompaniment: Chai flavoured with fenugreek and cardamom seeds

Genre: Crime Fiction

Available on Amazon

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

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

What We Thought: This is a very loud book! Matty Simpkin bounds onto the page and makes herself heard wherever she is and whatever she is doing. Mattie and her friend Florrie Lee (known as The Flea) live near Hampstead Heath in The Mousehole, so called because the house was once a refuge for suffragettes released under the Cat & Mouse Act.

Both Mattie and The Flea were members of the WSPU before the Great War. In 1918 an act was passed giving the vote to property-owning females over the age of thirty. It is now 1928 and a new bill is about to extend suffrage to all women over 21, even those who are not property owners.

Though still active - giving talks about the movement with The Flea's assistance - Mattie feels she wants to do more. Another former suffragette has started up an organisation for boys and girls which Mattie considers to be verging on the fascistic - uniforms and marching are involved. She determines to start her own group - a more freethinking outfit to be called The Amazons. Mattie wants to encourage young women and girls to be fit, healthy and knowledgeable so as to be able to use their votes wisely.

She recruits Ida, a former cloakroom attendant who has been dismissed, and puts notices up for more members. The group becomes successful, with The Amazons gallivanting all over the Heath learning physical skills while ingesting Mattie's teaching on a wide range of subjects.

However, when Inez joins things start to go wrong. Mattie knew Inez's dead mother, Violetta, and comes to believe that the girl's father may not be who she believes he is. She favours Inez again and again, thereby putting the other girls' noses out of joint. On one disastrous summer's day Mattie acts against her own better judgement and loses the respect of the Amazons and, ultimately, her friendship with The Flea.

Beautifully written, vibrant, witty and sad, this book explores the disappointments of nepotism and the way a fond memory of someone may not be the whole truth.

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

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

Avoid If You Dislike: Accounts of women’s lives.

Perfect Accompaniment: Gooseberry jam and a cup of tea.

Genre: Literary/General Fiction

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is a tricky book to pin down. It begins, straightforwardly enough, in a city crowded with refugees and about to be overrun by war. The city is never named and you are left to decide for yourself whether Hamid might have a specific place in mind or whether this could stand for any city on the brink of war.

The two central characters, Nadia and Saeed, meet at an evening class.

“It might seem off that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class ... but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying.”
We watch as that normal life crumbles around them, as militants take over the city, as the bombs come closer and closer, as they start to look for a way out.

And at this point, the story deviates from reality and take on the qualities of an allegory. Because in this world doors are opening up. Doors where, wif you step through, you walk out into a different part of the world.

To begin with, this does not change the trajectory of Nadia and Saeed’s lives that much, as – like so many refugees in our world – the first place they find themselves in is an overcrowded and ill-equipped Greek island. Resentment and nativism rear their ugly heads. Again and again, they flee.

But gradually, Hamid’s narrative implies, the fact that anyone, anywhere can step through a door and find themselves in another country begins to change the nature of the world. The concepts of borders and national identities grow hazier.

In the end, the novel is both an indictment of the West’s failure of understanding and its treatment of refugees, and an uplifting vision of what the world might be if we abandoned the idea of nation states.

In keeping with the allegorical nature of the story, our viewpoint remains slightly detached throughout. We are a camera hovering just above the scene, following Nadia and Saeed like a fly on the wall documentary team without ever fully entering their minds. There is little, if any, dialogue, only a few reported speeches. We are sitting at the feet of a story teller, not watching a play.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Fifteen Dogs by AndrĂ© Alexis, A Country of Refuge (ed Lucy Popescu), The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.

Avoid If You Dislike: Allegorical style, stories that depart from realism

Perfect Accompaniment: Olive bread and fresh mint tea

Genre: Literary Fiction, Allegorical Fiction

Available on Amazon

The Future Memoir of Ann Jones by Alex Bailey

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Ann Jones is a respectable, happily married mother of two with a network of family and friends on the West Coast. Then out of the blue, she has a vision of her whole life transformed. The first thing she does is run around to tell her best friend, Alex.

“I saw his death, Alex. You think I should warn him?”

The Ann Jones of the future loses her husband in box-and-basement accident. Widowed with teenage twins in college, she takes her dog and moves to the East Coast. So far, so strange.

But things get a whole lot stranger when she joins a Knitting Club. All the members have lost a husband, some in quite bizarre circumstances, but they’re all friendly, they love their pets and appreciate home cooking. The one thing they don’t do much of is knitting.

As Ann embraces a new career as a baker and welcomes a new man in her life, she begins to enjoy her freedom. But she underestimates Knitting Club and the dangers it presents.

But it was only a vision, right?

Light romance with a dark tone, this is an entertaining read with witty observations on life, love and lethal women. Perfect to read on the beach while wearing sunglasses and looking innocent.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Jojo Moyes, Cecilia Ahern, The Stepford Wives

Avoid if you don’t like: Not knowing what’s real

Ideal accompaniments: Southern Fried Choc-Chip Cookies and coffee

Genre: Women’s Fiction

Available on Amazon