Friday, 19 December 2014

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: Twenty five years on from when Asian youths confronted skinheads on the streets of Britain’s cities, a new generation of teenagers are navigating ethnicity and identity in Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani.

The immediate threat of racism has receded. Hounslow is a comparatively prosperous London suburb, not an inner city ghetto, so just how far do Jas and his mates have to go to prove they are hard men, not ‘batty coconuts?’

The narrator, Jas, is an intelligent young man whose natural, liberal instincts keep poking through, before being swamped again by the need to prove his ‘rudeboy’ credentials. Like teenagers everywhere, he constantly contradicts himself.

It is increasingly clear that the only thing these boys really have to rebel against is their own families. The refrain that ‘you have to respect your elders, innit?’ clashes with Jas’s almost allergic reaction to his own parents, whom he can’t bear to be in the same room with. The world view of adults is compared to the plugged-in illusions of The Matrix. And there is a recurring metaphor about ‘family-related shit’ that is graphically exploited.

Malkani wrote his dissertation on race, gender and identity among teenage boys in his native Hounslow, and Londonstani is the fictionalised outcome of his studies. The book is dotted with episodes of shocking violence. And yet it is hard not to feel empathy for Jas, whose brain is constantly trying to escape from the narrow limitations of what Malkani, on his website, refers to as ‘hyper-masculinity.’

Londonstani is written in a dialect that is a mishmash of Punjabi, hiphop, West London slang and text-speak. As Malkani explains on his website, this is an invention of language that won’t date because no one has ever spoken exactly like this. He provides no glossary and though the meanings are mostly easy enough to work out, the book could be hard going if you have no familiarity with any of the elements that make it up.

As a portrayal of angsty teenage boyhood, this book belongs in the tradition of Josef Svorecki’s The Cowards and JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Oh, and there is a twist at the end that you won’t see coming.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Josef Svorecki’s The Cowards, Suhayl Saadi’s Psychoraag, Polly Courtney’s Feral Youth,

Avoid if you dislike: Graphic violence, bad language, books written in dialect

Perfect Accompaniment: Samosas with auntie’s napalm sauce

Genre: Lit fic, coming of age story

Available from Amazon.

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of The Land Beyond Goodbye, Don’t Look Down and Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion. (http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.co.uk/)

What We Thought: If you want a well-written, page-turning thriller, look no further than I am Pilgrim. This is a superior blockbuster doorstop of a novel in that it is intelligent and literate. At over 880 pages it seems at first to be a dauntingly long read but it isn’t. The pages fly by and midnight oil is liable to get burnt as you read just one more shortish chapter.

Two men are at the centre of this novel: the chaser, code name Pilgrim, and Saracen, the potential terrorist he’s chasing. Can the ultra-secret Secret Serviceman prevent the disaster about to be unleashed on America or will Saracen prove to be his nemesis? Both men seem superhuman at times, having knowledge and abilities far beyond the norm – but so do Sherlock Holmes, Jack Reacher and a hundred other crime-fighters/criminal masterminds, so that trope is a given.

However, I am Pilgrim delves into the lives of both men, following them through their earlier careers, showing us their family tragedies, their successes, their failures, and all the time building up to the moment when you just know they will meet. Though the novel is firmly on the side of the West, there is some depth to it and it’s hard not to sympathise just a little with the Saracen. Neither side is squeaky clean.

Another, possibly linked, story runs alongside the hunt for the Saracen – the murder of an unknown woman in New York. Pilgrim is involved in this one as well – in fact, he seems to be rather more involved than is good for him (another trope). A book on forensics he has written under a false name appears to be being used as a how-to manual for the perfect murder.

The two strands wind together in Bodrum, Turkey and though we know it must end well for Pilgrim (it’s a ‘Good’ vs Evil’ book after all and surely ‘Good’ must win) we are kept wondering just how this will be achieved until the final chapters.

I am Pilgrim is Terry Hayes’ first novel but he has a track record in writing film scripts. I can see this book being turned into a film very easily.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Homeland, Lee Child, plenty of background and build-up.

Avoid if you dislike: Western Imperialism, very long books, scenes of torture (though these are minimal).

Ideal accompaniments: Turkish coffee, the trill of a Ç???rtma.

Genre: Thriller

Available from Amazon.

The Charter by Gillian E Hamer

Reviewer: JW Hicks, author of Rats.

What we thought: If you like a jolt of Quirk with your murder mysteries, then read Gillian E Hamer’s The Charter. Hamer adds a hefty measure of supernatural happenings to her plot-mix which gives a tremendous zest to this thrilling narrative.

The story is set on the coast of Anglesey which provides a made-to-measure background, well suited to the bleak centre of this story, a story that begins in one century and is still wreaking havoc in the next.

Sarah Morton returns home for her estranged father’s funeral, and is plunged headlong into her first paranormal encounter – with the ghost of drowned eleven year old, Angelina Stewart, her distant relative. The ghost alerts Sarah to danger. Through a succession of ghostly encounters Sarah learns that the secrets of the past will not stay hidden, and the sins of the past are being repeated in the present day.

Sarah learns that her father, Owen, was murdered. Part of her inheritance is a letter that sends her on a treasure hunt, searching for gold lost when the Royal Charter was wrecked, the same wreck that cost Angelina Stewart her life.

When her home is broken into and she is attacked she fears that someone else is hunting the treasure. But given the task of solving the mystery, she risks all to follow her father’s wishes and grant him some kind of peace. In following the trail of clues to solve the riddle, she meets treachery, suffers heart break and barely escapes with her life.

This tremendous story is enriched by scenic beauty revealed in glorious prose and fully realised, totally believable characters.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Romance and scares aplenty.

Avoid if you don’t like: Plots involving supernatural elements winding through them.

Genre: Literary thriller, Crime

Available from Amazon.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Celia’s Room by Kevin Booth

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of The Land Beyond Goodbye, Don’t Look Down and Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion. (http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.co.uk/)

What We Thought: Every now and again a reader comes across a book which is a perfect fit. For me, this is one of those books. I had very little idea of what Celia’s Room was about before I started reading it, so it was a true pleasure to enter this world and discover it was one I was comfortable in.

Alternating chapters tell the first person stories of two young men: Joaquim and Eduardo. Barcelona is almost a third protagonist in this beautifully written novel as we wind through its streets, its bars, and its subcultures uncovering its secrets and its secret places.

Joaquim, an artist, and Eduardo, a business student, are polar opposites involved with a group of friquis that includes the flamboyant Caribbean Narcissus, Alvaro his lover, a host of minor characters, and of course Celia, a prostitute of dubious gender. Narcissus inveigles Joaquim into stumping up the rent on a decaying mansion and the freaks move in. There are grand plans to restore the house to its former glory but little is likely to come of it. The seedy grandeur of the former ballroom, with its peeling wallpaper and crumbling plaster, provides the perfect backdrop for this strange collection of people and their drug-infused dreams.

Both Joaquim and Eduardo fall under the spell of Celia who is mysterious, voluptuous and aloof. Eduardo is both attracted and repelled; this is not the life he wants for himself and he merely skirts the fringes of group. His brutish behaviour hides his pain at the loss of his father and sister; his entanglement with Celia almost destroys his relationship with his girlfriend Fra.

Joaquim is disturbed by his own sexual confusion. He is drawn to both Celia and Narcissus though an undercurrent of distrust unbalances him. He paints portraits of each them, not knowing if his work is good or bad, or if it will be received positively, or even if he will ever reveal it at all.

This richly allusive novel has its own mysterious voluptuousness – the prose is studded with gems and brilliant flashes. There is often a dreamlike underwater feel to the narrative yet it is always fully alive. Behind the beauty we sense the dread, the fear of what may come, the fragile hold on love and friendship that may turn out not to be that at all.

With Celia’s Room Kevin Booth has created a minor masterpiece.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Almodóvar films.

Avoid if you dislike: Gender-bending; prose and characterisation over plot.

Ideal accompaniments: As much drink and drugs as you can handle.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Gay & Lesbian.

Available from Amazon

The Quarry by Iain Banks


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: I fell in love with Iain Banks the first time a read the opening line to his novel, Crow Road: “That was the day my grandmother exploded.”

And my heart cracked a little when I read his short, dignified announcement of his own imminent death, when he told the world he had asked his partner, “if she would do me the honour of becoming my widow.”

So it’s taken me over a year to bring myself to read his final novel, The Quarry. It is an irony that Banks himself certainly appreciated that, when he found out he was dying, he was in the midst of writing a novel about a man dying of cancer.

The story is told, not through the eyes of the dying man, Guy, but through those of his son, Kit – autistic, intelligent, almost painfully self aware, in his own words, somewhere on “a spectrum that stretches from 'highly gifted' at one end to 'nutter' at the other, both of which I am comfortable with.”

Guy and Kit live in a house that is decaying almost as fast as Guy himself, perched on the edge of the eponymous quarry and threatened with final annihilation when the digging extends onto their property.

At the start of the story Guy is gathering around him six university friends who used to share his crumbling house. At the heart of their get-together is a lost video tape. Each of the friends has a reason to want it found and destroyed – and the weekend becomes a combined house clearing and search party.

Kit is by and large an outsider in all this, navigating his way through the behaviours other humans and learning how to respond more-or-less appropriately with the support of his long-time mentor Hol. Because we see everything through Kit’s eyes, we become anthropologists, observing the strange rituals of reunion and seeing the fractures appear along the fault lines of their friendship.

According to Banks’s final interview (in the Guardian), there is one place in the book where his own illness leaks into the pages of The Quarry. He had his laptop with him on the day he received his diagnosis, and wrote the rant beginning, “I shall not be disappointed to leave all you bastards behind,” from his hospital bed. But in other ways, he had limited sympathy with Guy. "I'm not Guy,” he told his interviewer, Stuart Kelly. “He deeply resents that life will go on without him. I think that's a stupid point of view. Apart from anything else, I mean, what did you expect?"

The Quarry may not be Banks’s greatest work. (In his view, that was The Bridge. For me, it was probably Crow Road.) But it provides a fitting valediction on a career that ended far too soon.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Crow Road, The Steep Approach to Garbadale

Avoid if you dislike: Looking the process of dying in the eye

Perfect Accompaniment: Champagne. Or possibly a spliff.

Genre: Literary 

Darkness Becomes You by M Cid D’Angelo

Reviewer: JW Hicks author of Rats

What we thought: This novel could be aptly summed up with this tagline taken from the text – It was time to place a haunted past to rest.

I came to this second offering from D’Angelo without having read his first, Dark Running. Thankfully it wasn’t necessary as D’Angelo insinuates the backstory with subtlety.

Artemus Dark, AKA the Big AD, is a metaphysician extraordinaire. In his world the paranormal is an accepted part of life, existing side by side with everyday normality. The Big AD is a psychic investigator par excellence – a self-proclaimed occult scientist who investigates crimes perpetrated by the shade community.

His latest case concerns two psychics being blasted with an identical blast of psychokinetic energy, resulting in mental meltdown. One of the psychics is his old pal Eddie de Winter, the other – Big AD himself. Turns out it’s no coincidence but the result of a direful happening they experienced in the past.

Add to the mix a dark-magic hit man hot on AD’s trail, plus the visions of a spectral zero-Fahrenheit ice-woman haunting his dreams, whispering ‘Come back to me...’ and you have the ingredients for a real terror ride.

Overall, Darkness Becomes You is a thrilling read, though in some places the pacing falters a tad, forcing a speed-read to catch up on the action. But despite this nit-pic D’Angelo’s novel spins the reader into a dark world-scape that both perturbs and fascinates. Darkness Becomes You is a gripping read and a supernatural TV hit in the making.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Paranormal thrillers akin to Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt vampire series and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.

Avoid if you don’t like: Ghouls, evil spirits and psychic phenomena.

Ideal accompaniments: Halloween treats – Dead Man’s fingers, Marshmallow Ghosts and a Bloody Mary.

Genre: Horror. Noir thriller.

Available from Amazon

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Waiting Game by Sheila Bugler


Reviewer: Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit, Crimson Shore. (www.gillianhamer.com)

What we thought: The second novel from this fabulous crime author and the writing goes from strength to strength. Here we re-join DI Ellen Kelly, recovering from the trauma she faced in book one of the series, but ready to restart her personal life and take a risk with old flame, Jim O’Dwyer – and more than ready to face the challenges of her professional career with renewed vigour.

But it seems someone is determined to stop her on all fronts.

When the investigation into the brutal murder of an estate agent moves from a routine enquiry and starts to interfere in her private life, Ellen’s maternal instincts take over. Someone is stalking her, taking photographs of her while asleep, vandalising her parents’ home. How and why can it be connected to her work? And when Jim O’Dwyer finds himself prime suspect for the murder, Ellen’s world begins to fall to pieces. Who can she trust? And how can she ensure the safety of her children?

The climatic scenes of the book are page-turners and the ending …. Well, is it really an ending or just beginning? That is for the reader to decide, but it certainly leaves you in high anticipation of the next book in the series!

I adore the gritty, noir style of this author and the way she effortlessly navigates her characters through the intricate twists and turns of the narrative. Five stars and highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Ken Bruin, Val McDermid, Tess Gerritsen.

Avoid if you don’t like: Psychopaths and complicated lives.

Ideal accompaniments: Dark chocolate truffles and a rich Merlot.

Genre: Crime Fiction.

Available from Amazon.

61 Hours by Lee Child

Reviewer: JW Hicks author of Rats.

What we thought: You want a mind-filling, worry-blocking read? Then take a gander at Lee Child’s oeuvre. His thrilling series of Jack Reacher novels is a guaranteed escape route from worry, bad thoughts and insomnia. Who cares if you can’t sleep if you have a Reacher novel close to hand?

I’ve just read book 14: 61 Hours. Wow!

61 Hours is a countdown to some unknown, scarily foreshadowed and clearly terrifying event. The opening paragraph reads, ‘Five minutes to three in the afternoon. Exactly sixty-one hours before it happened.’

As the chapters progress, so does the countdown... and the reader’s trepidation.

The protagonist, Jack Reacher, is an ex-army Military Police investigator. At six foot five and a skilled fighter with intimate knowledge of any number of martial arts, Reacher is a force to be reckoned with. Reacher – he only answers to Reacher – really does try to avoid trouble, but somehow always seems to find himself slap-dab in the middle of a whole stinking heap of it.

(In the 2012 film adaption of Child’s Reacher novel, One Shot, Tom Cruise got to play Reacher. As the Americans say, go figure.)

In 61 Hours, you will read high-powered action, experience Reacher winning mentally-planned fights with seemingly unbeatable opponents, and feel racking tension as the plot spirals into free-fall taking Reacher to the very edge.

Child writes with pictorial ease so that we see the pictures he draws oh so very clearly. In 61 Hours he describes snow with meticulous clarity, from the falling flakes to the deepening drifts, and as we read we actually feel the deathly cold that informs this teeth-chattering tale, and experience growing fear for our hero, Reacher.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Hi-octane thrillers, and breath-holding blockbuster films.

Avoid if you don’t like: Walking a virtual tightrope of excited, quivering fear.

Ideal accompaniments: a smooth malt whisky and a giant box of Maltesers.

Available from Amazon

Brenton Brown by Alex Wheatle


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: Brenton Brown is a sequel to Wheatle’s debut novel, Brixton Rock.

It’s 2002 and Brenton Brown, the Stepping Volcano, is pushing forty. He has a good business as a carpenter/builder, a roof over his head, a steady girlfriend. Life ought to be good.

But Brenton has never got over his brief affair with his half-sister. Juliet is married to a successful banker and is making her way in the world of politics. Their daughter, Breanna, is turning twenty-one and knows Brenton only as her uncle. Brenton knows he should leave well enough alone and move on. But when their mother, whom he met first in his late teens, dies, it seems it is harder than ever to let go of his perfect love.

South London may have changed beyond recognition in the late 1970s. But Wheatle reminds us that, if you are young and black, like Breanna and her mates, you may face a world no less brutal than the one Brenton, Floyd and Coffinhead had to negotiate thirty years earlier.

Wheatle’s dialogue is as rich with Jamaican and South London slang as ever. But this is not just a slice of inner city life in the 21st Century. Brenton and Juliet’s story moves onward with the remorselessness of a Greek tragedy.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Brixton Rock and East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle, Londonstani by Gautam Malkani

Avoid if you dislike: Fiction that is far from escapist

Perfect accompaniment: Rice and peas, and a few tracks of Barrington Levy

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Available from Amazon.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Callum Fox and the Mousehole Ghost by AC Hatter


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: Callum is on his way to Cornwall to stay with the grandfather he barely knows. He doesn’t know it, but he is following in the footsteps of Jim, an evacuee from London sent to Cornwall at the start of the Second World War.

But when Callum has a head-on collision with an ambulance in the Cornish village of Mousehole, his life collides with Jim’s. Somehow in the course of the accident, he has acquired the ability to see ghosts. And when the ghosts realise, they won’t leave him alone.

Jim is a ghost too, but he keeps insisting he is granddad’s best friend, which to Callum makes no sense at all. He must have died when he was still a kid.

Callum Fox is funny, exciting and full of intrigue. Hatter skilfully blends story lines in the past and the present.

The story is rooted deep in the Cornish landscape, from the tiny fishing port of Mousehole to the tin mine at Geevor where the story reaches its tense climax. Whether you know Cornwall or not, Hatter’s writing will transport you straight there.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson

Avoid if you dislike: Blending history with humour and a dose of the paranormal

Perfect Accompaniment: a ice cream cone on the beach

Genre: Children’s Lit, humour, history, paranormal

The Promise of Provence by Patricia Sands


Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels and Wolfsangel

What we thought: Swept up in the lovely local descriptions of the vineyards, the food and wine, the market places and the flowers, The Promise of Provence transported me to one of my favourite places in France. Katherine’s journey from loss and grief to her happiness as she falls in love again, with Provence, kept me turning the pages and evoked every emotion. If Provence is not already on your travel list, it certainly will be after this most enjoyable read!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Romance stories set in stunningly scenic spots.

Avoid if you don’t like: Romantic women's fiction.

Ideal accompaniments: Sun, deck chair, parasol, glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc, with ripe St. Marcellin spooned onto hunk of baguette.

Genre: Women's Fiction.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, by Umberto Eco, translated by Geoffrey Brock


Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: Yambo (Giambattista Bodoni) of Milan is a husband, father and antique book dealer. He wakes up in hospital without his memory. Well, most of it. He can remember every book he ever read, but doesn’t recognise his wife or children. He must piece together who he is from anecdotes, relationships, assumptions and by revisiting his books.

This is a fabulous quest for identity, for memory and forgetting, for literature and its formative effects and opens the door to another premise. What if it’s actually better to forget? Umberto Eco, best known for novels such as The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, shares his extraordinary literary knowledge in this semi-philosophical, semi-historical and deeply personal journey of discovery.

Colour plates throughout illustrate the imagery of Disney, Fascist pamphlets, stamp collections, family photographs, comics (originals and politically corrected) while Yambo assumes the role of archaeologists, dusting off his past and ascribing significance. The ‘mysterious flame’ alludes to a story, but also to the flickering tongues of memory as the narrator rebuilds connections and acknowledges the marks made by his reading material.

It’s a gentle voyage into the past and an invitation to consider how much our passive consumption of culture, propaganda, family history and individual obsessions can actively form our personalities. Eco’s prose is at its fullest when he describes the rediscovery of sensual memory.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: anything by Louis de Bernières, Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon.

Avoid if you dislike: Slow storytelling, the universal revealed through the personal, literary references. 

Ideal accompaniments: Eat oranges and prunes soaked in brandy with Amaretti and listen to Lakmé by Delibes.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

An Unchoreographed Life by Jane Davis

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels and Wolfsangel

What we thought: A brilliant and cleverly-written story about the relationship between a single mother and her daughter. When Alison discovered she was pregnant, she gave up the chance of being a prima ballerina and took up prostitution to give her daughter, Belinda a chance of a decent life.

After a chance encounter with a seemingly perfect family, Alison is offered the opportunity of making more money. The family welcomes Alison with open arms, and she gets a taste of the life she so desperately wants for Belinda, but can this wealthy couple be trusted?

I loved the well-rounded, flawed characters: child narrator, Belinda and her skewed six-year old view of life, and her mother, Alison, even when she did things that made me cringe.

As I approached the end, I was enjoying the story so much I couldn’t decide what I wanted most: to quickly find out what happened to the characters or for the book not to finish at all. In the end, the author left me with hope––hope for a decent future in such a chaotic life that any of us could fall into, given the right circumstances.

And when I turned the last page, I was left thinking: what would I have done in this situation?

Highly recommended to readers of thought-provoking literary fiction.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Books with great characters such as those by Maggie O'Farrell, Ann Patchett and Anne Tyler.

Avoid if you don’t like: Stories about hookers.

Ideal accompaniments: Three glasses of Möet & Chandon, wearing slinky undergarment and high heels.

Genre: Literary fiction

Tribute by Ellen Renner

Reviewer: JW Hicks author of Rats

What we thought: This YA novel stands up to any sci-fi/fantasy novel you can think of, and will suit teenage vid-gamers and hipster silver surfers.

Tribute is a novel of magic; a surprising new magic invented by Renner which is unlike any other. This magic enables mage-kind to enforce a cruel apartheid, allowing them to rule over the kine – their non-magical human slaves.

Tribute is a novel of misused power and ruthless domination.

Zara is the talented daughter of Benedict, Archmage of Asphodel, a man she hates for forcibly entering her mind in an arrogant demonstration of his dominance. Seeking revenge when her slave companion dies by her father’s hand, she allies with the Knowledge Seekers who are determined to overthrow the demon magicians who hold them in bondage.

Falling in love with a hostage, taken by her father to use in a nefarious plan to destroy the non magical Makers, she promises to help him escape, but when her secret alliance is discovered Zara is forced to flee the society of magic-users and live among those who believe her to be an evil demon. As the novel progresses, both Zara and the non-magical humans slowly discover their common humanity: an enlightenment which develops in a totally realistic and satisfying way, as does her confidence, talent and determination to defeat her father and all he stands for.

This wonderfully written book takes hold from the very first page and doesn’t let the reader off the hook even at the very last. Renner’s prose is as magical as her story; the flowing often poetical writing both captivates and rivets. Her daring and unexpected word choice bring scenes to vivid life.

The resolution is completely apposite and totally satisfying, giving warm promise of an equally satisfying sequel.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Heart-gripping emotionally satisfying fiction.

Avoid if you don’t like: Gutsy teen heroines finding the courage to fight for what is right and just.

Ideal accompaniments: A comfy armchair, a chocolate bar and plenty of spare time, because I guarantee you won’t be able to stop reading this gripping book.

Genre: YA

Cinema Lumière by Hattie Holden Edmonds

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought: A deceptively thoughtful read, which starts in a similar vein to many chick-lit novels. Hannah’s thirty-six, her career and romantic life have both stalled and her nearest companion is a flatulent bulldog.
But read on. She strikes up a friendship with Victor, an elderly French lift attendant, and they begin to attend an art house cinema to explore Nouvelle Vague, Truffaut, Godard and a passion for films of people's stories.

The narrative switches between Hannah’s past and present, alluding to a traumatic schism between the two. She meets Joe, a dog walker, who makes her feel she might trust her heart again. She draws Ian, the new boy in the office, out of his shell. She considers all the mistakes she’s made. And she thinks about Victor.

The book is deeper and darker than it first appears and perseverance pays off. The looming shadow hinted at from the start grows larger and more intrusive until both Hannah and the reader have to face the truth.

A surprising, endearing and layered novel of perception and personality, well rooted in its environment, populated with noisy, entertaining and believable characters, of which the most loveable might be Nellie, the greedy, sulky, demanding bulldog.

This is an entertaining and intelligent debut and I suspect Hattie Holden Edmonds may well be a writer to watch.


You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Running in Heels by Anna Maxted, Rachel’s Holiday by Marianne Keyes and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.

Avoid if you dislike: Shifting timescales, uncertain realities, European cinematic references.

Ideal accompaniments: Croque monsieur from Luigi’s, Chardonnay from Waitrose and this Nouvelle Vague take on London classics.

Genre: Dark chicklit

Available from Amazon

Friday, 7 November 2014

The Testament of Mariam by Ann Swinfen


Audiobook version read by Serena Scott-Thomas

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

What we thought: I came to this with no preconception of this book or the story, and I am glad about that. I found it a slow burner, that although the writing was precise and engaging, the story did not immediately draw me in for the first few chapters. But I soon became engaged and enjoyed the twin threads, between the elderly Mariam, living a peaceful life on her farm with her son’s family and the story of Mariam’s first journey – that of the forgotten sister of Jesus who joined him on his travels and was there at his final execution.

As the characters developed, and we saw Mariam mature through childhood into a young woman, I found myself captivated by her presence, with a need to read on and learn about her journey, even though I already knew where the story would finale.

What I particularly enjoyed is that I learned as I read. I haven’t read the Bible since it was compulsory at school, but I realised both how much I’d retained and how much I didn’t know. I thought the author did a fascinating job getting across so much information without turning once to the need of info dumps. Also, she managed to transport us with ease to the location, so I could almost feel the hot sun and taste the sweet pomegranates. I admired the skill this writer shows in retelling such a well-known story in such a way that made it entertaining and gripping in equal measure.

The sign for me of a brilliant book is when I dread the approach of the end. That may have been here because I knew what fate waited for these characters who I’d come to know so well, but also because I’d so enjoyed my time in their company that I didn’t want it to end.

There’s no need to fear reading this book whatever your faith or whether you are an atheist or a believer. Mariam’s journey is as entertaining as any travelled by a Hobbit in Middle Earth. She just happened to have as a sibling the most famous man to have walked the earth, and the story of how she lived with this is compelling. This is a work of fiction, but knowing the context, did give it that special extra element for me. I am already planning to listen to the audiobook a second time, and I’m sure I’ll learn more about Mariam and her family that I didn’t take in first time round.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Stories of the bible, historical fiction.

Avoid if you don’t like: Jews, Romans, Christians, Israelites.

Ideal accompaniments: Roast lamb with rosemary, pomegranate and fig, washed down with red wine.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: “His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.”

Thus Matthew Home introduces his big brother, who died when the boys were just ten and eight.

So we know that Simon is dead. And we know that Matt is a patient – or ‘service user’ – at a mental health day centre. In the course of the book we will follow Matt as he traces the thread reaching back through time that links those two circumstances.

The story is told in the disjointed way that Matt recalls his life. At the same time, the present day keeps intruding on the writing process – as Clare-or-maybe-Anna reads over his shoulder or Click-Click-Wink-Wink Steve, the ever-cheerful occupational therapist, bounces into the room.

This book won the 2013 Costa Book of the Year for mental health nurse, Filer, who has used his experience to create a rare and honest portrayal of schizophrenia. But the book is also an examination of the impact of grief and loss on a family.

And if this all sounds heavy, it is also at times both funny and touching.

In the end notes, Filer describes envisaging the book as ‘the crumpled stack of Matt’s writing and drawings; the typewriter pages with their smudged ink; the letters from Denise; the words that Patricia cut up and stuck down with Pritt Stick.” What a joy that would be to discover in a book shop – if hopelessly expensive to produce.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan, Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard

Avoid if you dislike: disjointed narratives, stories involving mental health or the death of children

Ideal Accompaniment: a can of Special Brew

Genre: Lit Fic

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Looking For a Reason by Frances di Plino

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels and Wolfsangel

What we thought: I have thoroughly enjoyed all three of Frances di Plino’s dark psychological thrillers starring Detective Inspector Paolo Storey: Bad Moon Rising, Someday Never Comes, and Call It Pretending, but I must say that this fourth in the series––Looking For a Reason––surpasses them all. 

DI Storey investigates a particularly depraved series of male rape and torture victims. To make things even more difficult, the victims refuse to admit they were imprisoned and treated with such cruelty. Storey knows that if he can uncover the reason these attacks are taking place, he’ll be closer to discovering the perpetrator. But can he do this in time to save someone close to him?

Paolo Storey is, as always, a flawed and empathetic character with whom we can readily identify in his personal, as well as his working life. The supporting characters too, as well as the perpetrator, are masterfully-evoked.

With its many plot twists and turns, Looking For a Reason had me guessing right up to the end. Another brilliantly plotted and engaging crime story to add to this excellent series, I would highly recommend it for readers who love dark, psychological crime fiction, and staying up all night reading.

You'll enjoy this if you like: The other three Paolo Storey novels, dark and gritty crime stories.

Avoid if you dislike: reading about depraved and violent crimes

Ideal accompaniments: fish 'n chips 'n cold beer

Genre: Psychological crime fiction

Available from Amazon

Friday, 31 October 2014

Wild Water by Jan Ruth


Reviewer: JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult and the Overlord series.

What we thought: The author not only has a taste for the wild, beautiful and atmospheric country of Wales, but of relationships and characters that define us as human beings.

This is a story of the reality which many of us face in our day to day lives, the breakdown of one relationship, the beginning of another, and all the subtle shades in between, financial difficulties, ill health and hard decisions.

Ruth describes the best and worst parts of our lives in equal measure through characters which we come to both know and understand and feel a huge amount of sympathy for: Jack, Patsy, Anna, as well as their respective children, friends and relatives. This is a story primarily of family, what it means and how it can be manipulated and damaged so easily by the choices we make.

Although in parts it is predictable, it wouldn’t be so truthful, and so close to what many will have experienced, if it wasn’t.

Jack Redman, I look forward to meeting you in the sequel.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Nosing into other people’s lives, gossip and descriptions of the Welsh countryside.

Avoid if you don’t like: Secrets, family difficulties, or you are going through a divorce.

Ideal accompaniments: Wine and plenty of is, a big bubble bath, a cigarette if you are so inclined.

Genre: Contemporary, womens’.

Available from Amazon

The Haunting of Nathaniel Wolfe by Brian Keaney

Reviewer: JW Hicks, author of Rats.

What we thought: If you’ve never dipped into YA or Teen Fiction, try this taster and prepare to become addicted.

The books are set in Victorian London. The hero a young teenage by. The style, an easy flowing read which will suit both young and old(er).

To the world, Cicero Wolfe is a famous medium, able to summoned the spirits of the dead. But to his son, Nathaniel, Cicero is an abusive father and a mountebank: a trickster extorting money from desperate people seeking contact with loved ones languishing in the realm of the dead.

Nathaniel Wolfe definitely doesn’t believe in spirits... but then something happens to change his mind. One night, watching his father’s onstage performance, Nathaniel sees a ghostly apparition; a blurred shape, the ghostly figure of a woman dressed in a long white robe. The figure stares directly at him, moving her lips in a desperate attempt to communicate... with him. What the message is he can’t make out, and the disappointed figure vanishes with a roar that seems to come from the end of the world. A noise that only he can hear.

A second visitation thrusts Nathaniel into a chilling mystery where he must help avenge the spirit from beyond.

This, all-ends-tied-up-neatly, book is a great treat for all ages, a book filled with excitement, adventure, eerie scares and gut-gripping thrills. The first thing I did after reading The Haunting of Nathaniel Wolfe was order the second in the series, Nathaniel Wolfe and the Body Snatchers. Believe me, I was not disappointed.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: A rollicking read with a truly satisfying ending.

Avoid if you don’t like: Plucky youngsters foiling the bad guys.

Ideal accompaniments: A plaid rug on your knees with a softly purring cat sitting on it.

Genre: Historical, Mystery

Available from Amazon

The Light Never Lies by Francis Guenette


Reviewer: Gillian Hamer

What we thought: The Light Never Lies is the second book in the Crater Lake Series by Francis Guenette, and although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I would strongly recommend reading the first novel, Disappearing in Plain Sight, first - so you come into it understanding the roots of the complex relationships dissected here - I did not and that is my one regret.

That aside, I totally enjoyed the story and the characters. Based around a collection of troubled teens (and equally troubled adults) who find themselves in or around Micah Camp - a place for problem teens to find a new purpose and start in life. This book starts several months after the end of book one, and initially, I did have a few problems identifying and connecting with the characters which is why I would recommend reading this in series order. But that was my only issue.

The writing is wonderful, particularly in terms of settling the reader into the landscape of Crater Lake and the secluded landscape of Northern Vancouver Island, Canada . Guenette also has a talent with characterisation, storytelling ability and complex relationship conflicts which are the real backbone of this novel.

I'd have no hesitation recommending it to readers of women's and contemporary fiction. And I look forward to catching up with the first book in the series too!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jo Jo Moyes, Linda Gillard.

Avoid if you don’t like: Tangled relationships and troubled teens.

Ideal accompaniments: Maple syrup pancakes and strong, hot coffee.

Genre: Contemporary Fiction.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters


Audio version (read by Juliette Stevenson)

Reviewer: Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit, Crimson Shore. (www.gillianhamer.com)

What we thought: Wow. Wow, wow, wow. I LOVED this book. One of the times when you felt bereft as you neared the conclusion and so slowed your pace to make it last longer. Those kind of books don’t come round too often for me.

I chose the audio version of the book and I am glad I did. Juliet Stevenson’s remarkable narration really added an extra layer of depth for me.

I deliberately knew nothing, read nothing, about this novel before I began. I didn’t know if it had the spooky tone of The Little Stranger, or the charismatic bluntness of The Night Watch. In the end, it somehow managed to carry an essence of both.

Frances Wray, and her mother, are gentile class folk, struggling to cope in the hardship of London post World War I. The deceased father left a mountain of debt upon his death, and after losing their servants, Frances finds herself taking over the upkeep on her house. Still, debts mount, and to try to balance the books, this story opens with the introduction of the ‘paying guests’ Mr and Mrs Leonard Barber.

It’s pretty impossible to say too much about the development of the story without giving away the crucial points and it would be a shame to do that and spoil the reader’s enjoyment. Suffice to say that the arrangement soon becomes complex, the characters are all involved in life-changing circumstances, and once the tension and emotion takes hold, the book changes gear from a slow burner into a rollercoaster of a ride.

Totally gripping. Totally realistic. Totally genuine. And as ever perfect writing of that period. I am a huge fan of Sarah Waters and I put this up alongside The Little Stranger as her best work to date. One not to miss.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Any of Sarah Waters’ previous works. I struggle to compare.

Avoid if you don’t like: Betrayal, love and guilt.

Ideal accompaniments: Toasted currant loaf and milky hot chocolate.

Genre: Literary Fiction.

Available from Amazon

Guises of Desire by Hilda Reilly

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels and Wolfsangel

What We Thought: Guises of Desire is a fictionalised account of the three-year illness of Bertha Pappenheim, known as the founding patient of psychoanalysis, mental illness treatment pioneered by the famous Dr. Sigmund Freud. “Anna O”, Bertha Pappenheim’s clinical pseudonym, was a patient of Dr. Josef Breuer, an associate of Freud’s, and one of the cases on which much of Freud's theory was based. Freud described his patient as cured of "hysteria" with his “talking-cure” method.

Through the author’s extensive research, Bertha’s Jewish upper-middle class of 19th century Vienna is excellently portrayed. A sensitive, well-educated child who spoke several languages, Bertha was deeply disturbed by the gender discrimination she saw in her milieu of society. When her father falls ill, Bertha begins to exhibit more and more alarming symptoms such as paralysis, aphasia, blackouts and hallucinations. Through his regular visits to her home, Dr. Josef Breuer uses new methods such as hypnotism and the “talking cure” to try and root out the cause of Bertha’s psychological problems. As Bertha comes and goes from sanatoriums over the following two years, the author narrates the progress of her illness in a fascinating and horrifying, but truly sympathetic manner that urges the reader onward, to discover what happened to this poor girl, in the end.

I found Guises of Desire an excellent and informative novel and would highly recommend it for readers interested in understanding the history of psychoanalysis.

You'll enjoy this if you like: medical stories based on fact

Avoid if you dislike: misogynist doctors, medical ignorance and male chauvinism

Ideal accompaniments: challah and chicken soup

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available from Amazon

The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: Jonas Jonasson has a genius for finding the cracks in history, inserting his characters into them and spinning out of them a surreal shaggy dog story. His books read like A Series of Unfortunate Events for grownups.

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden starts in Soweto in the 1970s, with Nombeko, an illiterate latrine attendant with a special knack for numbers. Having had the misfortune to be run over on her fifteenth birthday by the Chief Engineer of South Africa’s secret nuclear weapons programme, Nombeko finds herself as a bonded labourer in his office, surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard dogs. The only glimmer of hope is that she is considerably smarter than her new boss.

Thousands of miles away, in Sweden, twins are born to monarchy-hating Ingmar Qvist, both of whom will be called Holger but only one of whom will officially exist.

Between those two improbable circumstances lies a web of bizarre coincidences and narrowly avoided disasters.

I am not quite sure how Jonasson gets away with putting the current Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt , along with King Carl Gustaf, in the back of a potato truck along with a bomb that was never supposed to exist. But somehow he does.

It helps if you know enough about 20th Century history to recognise when real world figures – such as Chinese President Hu Jintao – intrude on the story. But the story can be enjoyed even if you aren’t entirely sure where real life ends and fantasy begins.

You’ll enjoy this is you liked: The Hundred Year Old Man Who Jumped Out of the Window and Disappeared.

Avoid if you dislike: playing fast and loose with world history

Perfect Accompaniment: chicken casserole, potatoes and lots of vodka (and a small package of antelope meat)

Genre: Comic Fiction

Available from Amazon

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell


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

What we thought: To begin with. Relax. There will be no spoilers in this review. The less you know about this book before you open page one, the better, in my opinion. So, ignore 99% of the media coverage.

I have wanted to get into David Mitchell for some time and with this novel I have finally cracked it. I finally get him, finally love his writing. And I can’t wait to go back and re-read Thousand Autumns, and take on Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten.

No spoilers, but I am going to answer one question. What is a Bone Clock? The answer isn't found written anywhere in this novel, but by default you just know. A bone clock is simply a human being as they mature and age. By simply looking at a person, you can tell the stage of their life. From birth, via adult strength, through to frailness. We are all bone clocks.

Or at least them are the ‘normal rules’. And as Mitchell fans will know, in Mitchell novels normal rules don’t apply.

In The Bone Clocks we meet a collection of random (seemingly) characters starting and ending with the person I would class as the main protagonist, Holly Sykes. From a 14 year-old tear-away in the 1980s to a wise grandmother in the 2040s, we see her complex life journey through her eyes. There are some great characters here – the devious Hugo Lamb and curmudgeonly author, Crispin Hershey among my favourites – but Mitchell’s real skill in my opinion is in his attention to language and his story-telling skills. Mitchell weaves you into his world like a spider cocooning a fly in its web, and by the time you realise you’re hooked it’s far too late to walk away.

This book is a stayer – one that will linger in your memory for a long time after you close the final page. Without giving anything away, it is Mitchell’s predictions of our future that left me shaken and cold - and there are clearly many hidden messages and layers of intent in the author’s work.

I’ve no doubts this will attract many new fans to Mitchell’s fold, like myself, and equally I can’t believe any dedicated Mitchell fans will be disappointed by his latest work. If you have often thought of giving Mitchell’s work a try, I would recommend this is the novel to do it.

If I had to recommend one ‘must read’ book so far this year, then it would be The Bone Clocks.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Michael Connolly.

Avoid if you don’t like : Growing old and questioning the basic fundamentals of life.

Ideal accompaniments: Comfort food. For me - a strong G&T and the most chocolatey cake I can find.

Genre: Literary Fiction.

Available from Amazon

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: Don Tillman is a professor of genetics at a prestigious Australian university. He is also an undiagnosed sufferer from Asperger’s Syndrome, who governs his life via time slots allocated to his Standardized Meal System, scheduled work-out, household cleaning, work assignments and his only two friends, Gene and Claudia. So when he decides he needs to get married, he approaches the problem scientifically, designing a sixteen-page questionnaire aimed at finding his perfectly compatible woman.

But when Gene introduces Rosie, a wildcard who could hardly be a worse fit with Don’s carefully thought out measures, he starts to discover that there is more to relationships than shared values and tastes. He also plumbs some hitherto unsuspected depths in his own character.

This is a feel-good book, full of charm and dry wit. It will make you stop and think about what really makes a perfect match – and how we recognise one when we find it. It will also remind you that it's never too late to try something new, or something out of your comfort zone.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Salmon Fishing on the Yemen by Paul Torday, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

Avoid if you dislike: Geeks, lists and questionnaires

Perfect Accompaniment: lobster, mango and avocado salad, champagne and cocktails

Genre: Comic Fiction

Available from Amazon







The Strange Death of a Romantic by Jim Williams

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of The Land Beyond Goodbye, Don’t Look Down and Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion. (http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.co.uk/)

What We Thought: The Strange Death of a Romantic is another of Williams’ playful tales of possible but disputed murder. You may never have wondered if the poet Shelley was deliberately drowned but if you read this book you will discover who dunnit anyway.

Guy Parrot, a young doctor, is befriended by a bunch of socialites in 1930. Most of these people are brittle and artificial and from the outset we know things are not going to go well for poor Guy. They set up temporary home in the Villa Esperanza near Le Spezia in Italy close to where Shelley had his boating accident – if accident it was.

To while away the time, the friends make up stories about Shelley’s possible murder. This is where William’s skill really comes into play. The stories are written in a variety of styles including pastiches of a Gothic romance, a Just William type story, a Noel Coward-like play and a bit of Gatsbyesque prose. The various peripheral characters evince qualities of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple with a touch of Madame Arcati thrown in – and there’s a bit of Mitford and Mosely for good measure. The novel is rich with literary and contemporary allusions. Recognising at least some of these allusions is probably necessary for full enjoyment of the book, but even without the background knowledge it will still be an entertaining read.

The novel starts in 1943 when Guy Parrot, now an army doctor, returns to the Villa Esperanza (and remember, ‘esperanza’ means ‘hope’) to set up a military hospital there. Along with dealing with wartime shenanigans involving insubordinate corporals, missing equipment and gay squaddies, Guy must also face his past and decide on his future. I have to admit finding the start slightly confusing but that doesn’t faze me – I’m not an advocate of the idea that all books must start with a bang. Stick with it and in no time at all you’ll be caught up in the fractured world of the well-meaning Dr Parrot.

This novel is funny, clever and literate; it also deals with hopeless love, disillusionment and mental illness. Another intriguing book from Jim Williams.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Scherzo, Recherche, and novels that play with writing styles.

Avoid if you dislike: Novels that make literary, political and social allusions.

Ideal accompaniments
: G&T for the 1930s bits, contraband coffee for the wartime episodes.

Genre: Literary, Crime, Historical.

Available from Amazon

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Bitter Trade, by Piers Alexander


ReviewerJJ Marsh

What We Thought: Calumny Spinks, of ginger hair and peppery wits, finds himself in more than one wrong place at the right time. That time is 1688, when England has been through reformation, civil war, restoration and renaissance, only to face the threat of invasion. Not that seventeen-year-old Spinks is concerned. He’s just a small droplet, trying to learn a trade and survive.

After what happens to his mother, he and his father flee to London, where the past is never far behind. Secrets seep out and alliances ripple across wider pools. No man can be an island, especially where the rivers converge. Small droplet he may be, but nevertheless Calumny Spinks is part of the flow.

The Bitter Trade refers both to the produce of the coffee houses, and the commerce and politicking conducted therein. This is an epic adventure, full of pungent period detail, a Dickensian cast of vibrant characters, plus a complex and brilliantly conceived plot which makes your head spin. 17th century London comes fully to life, with all its triumphs and inequalities, colour, texture and structure. One of those worlds you absorb so wholly, you itch to return.

The language deserves a special mention. This is a beautifully written story, a master class in voice, character and description. So many lines stopped me in my tracks to just admire the craftsmanship of this prose.

You’ll like this if you enjoyed: Perfume by Patrick Suskind, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Pure by Andrew Miller, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Avoid if you dislike: The realities and compromises of life in London; sex, politics, violence and double-crossers.

Ideal accompaniments: Eat a bowl filled with nuts, chopped beef jerky, pickled onions, Bombay mix, grapes and wasabi peas to constantly surprise the palate. Drink a pint of London Pride with a gin chaser. Listen to Britten’s Phantasy Quartet.

Genre: Historical fiction, literary fiction

Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin

Reviewer: JW Hicks, author of Rats

What we thought: If you’ve read Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and Daniel Tammet’s autobiographical Born on a Blue Day, you’ll find this narrative-essay written by an autistic, utterly fascinating.

In Thinking in Pictures, Dr Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University, allows us to see what it’s like to be an autistic, and gives us a glimpse into a quite other kind of mind.

As a child she confronts the overwhelming sensations of smell and sound and touch that she cannot blot out. She screams and rocks, shutting out chaos and terror by focusing on grains of sand for hours on end. Gradually she gains the beginnings of speech and starts to overcome her fear of contact. With the help of a remarkable science teacher who recognises her unusual potential, she channels her obsessions and becomes a world-renowned expert on cattle psychology and behaviour, a passionate advocate of their humane treatment, and a leading authority in the field of autism. As well as studying cattle, Grandin studies us, as if she were “an anthropologist on Mars.”

Grandin likens herself to Data, the android in Star Trek, who yearns to be human, and compares her mind to a computer. “You look at flowers, I see what great pleasure you get out of it. I’m denied that.”

Grandin never ceases to ponder and explore her own nature and feels “thinking in pictures” gives a special rapport with cattle and is in some way akin to their own mode of thinking.

Words are a second language to her. She translates spoken and written words into full colour movies which run inside her head. As an equipment designer, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage. Her imagination works like CGI, and she has video memories of every item she has ever worked with; from steel gates, to latches, to concrete walls. She has the fantastic ability to create new designs using these remembered templates, and tests them by running three-dimensional visual simulations in her mind. Unlike ‘normal people’ Grandin sees design faults on a drawing before the equipment is even installed and soon realises that normal thinking patterns lack visualisation skills, rendering non-autistics fault-blind.

Learning to read she had problems learning words that could not be thought about in pictures. Nouns were easy to remember because they relate to pictures but spatial words like overand under had no meaning for Grandin until she had a visual image to fix them in her memory. As, if and the, proved difficult words to master.

Thinking in Pictures comes across as a mesmerising mix of scholarly treatise and autobiography. The reader not only learns the scientific aspect of autism, but experiences the actuality of an autistic life. This compelling book tells how it really is. Thinking in Pictures is not only a guide to understanding autism, but a step by step account of Temple Grandin’s integration into our so-called normal society.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: A mix of real life and real science

Avoid if you don’t like: Facts and real-life experiences intermingled.

Genre: Autobiography

Available from Amazon

The Hurricane Lover by Joni Rodgers


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: The Hurricane Lover is the story of two former lovers from polar ends of the deep political divide who collide – sexually, emotionally and in every other way – as Hurricane Katrina rolls over New Orleans and a predatory serial killer called Queen Mab takes advantage the ensuing chaos.

Corbin is a meteorologist, one of the best hurricane forecasters around – a liberal, a Democrat and an alcoholic. Shay is a small-time TV presenter, fobbed off with stories about ice cream and Ziploc bags – a former beauty queen and daughter of a wealthy and influential Republican. He is on the trail of Katrina and she is on the trail of Queen Mab.

I have never been to Louisiana or to Texas (where part of the action takes place), nor have I ever lived through a hurricane. But there is a filmic quality to the writing that means that the book played out in my mind in a series of vivid images. Rodgers has an ear, too, for the rich language of the Louisiana: colourful, gutsy and laced with Old French.

Katrina, of course, provides a gift of a setting for any thriller. No one reading it can doubt that the jeopardy of the hurricane is real – no need here for writerly exaggeration. And Queen Mab is a frighteningly plausible killer – a modern take on an old nightmare, using the Internet to lure her victims into traps she baits with their own lusts.

Shay and Corbin have a chemistry that flies off the page. They are an impossible pairing, striking sparks off each other at every encounter, yet you find yourself rooting for them to find a way past their differences and be together, because they are also perfect for each other.

The book has an undoubted political edge. It’s hard to miss the deep underlying anger at the woefully inadequate response to the hurricane. It comes through in Corbin’s railing against head-in-the-sand attitude of the authorities, and also in the verbatim reproduction, as chapter headings, of published emails to and from the Head of FEMA – the organisation charged with preparing for and coping with the disaster. Yet Rodgers avoids polemic by giving the ‘opposition’ their own rounded, sympathetic characters.

This is a powerful book that deserves to be read both for the yarn it spins and for the real-life story it uncovers.

You'll enjoy this if you liked: Entry Island by Peter May, Purple Cane Road by James Lee Burke.

Avoid if you dislike: sex and politics with your crime

Ideal Accompaniments: iced tea and southern barbecue

Genre: Crime Fiction, Political Thriller

Friday, 3 October 2014

The Golden Lynx by C.P. Lesley


Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels and Wolfsangel.

What we thought: The Golden Lynx is set in 16th century Russia, with Nasan, an Islamic Tatar as protagonist. Nasan witnesses the murder of her brother by a Russian, triggering a battle, and the young Tatar princess becomes the peace offering. Nasan is sent by her parents, far away from her homeland to marry Daniil, who is related to her brother’s killer. Before long, Nasan finds herself caught up in events that will decide the future of Russia.

This was a period of history about which I knew next to nothing, and I enjoyed learning about it through this story, which is always a sign of good historical fiction for me. I loved the author’s excellent descriptions, and her intriguing exploration and contrast of the two cultures.

Nasan, in her refusal to play the expected role of women in this society, comes across as strong independent, but I would have liked to witness more of her nightly escapades.

I loved the idea of the Golden Lynx playing “detective” in parallel to Daniil, and, all in all, found this a compelling 16th century adventure. I look forward to reading the next book from this author, The Winged Horse.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Russian history

Avoid if you don’t like: 16th century Tatar adventure tales

Ideal accompaniments: bowl of borscht, plate of pelmeni 

Genre: Historical

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

Reviewer: Rebecca Johnson Bista

What we thought: A novel that cleverly intertwines the history of Indians in combat in the First World War and subsequent issues of loyalty to the Empire, with the ancient Greek legend of Scylax, explorer of India, and an Edwardian British woman’s passion for archaeology and independence.

As you would expect of Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone unearths a unique perspective on WWI. Her English heroine, Vivian Rose Spencer, is a non-suffragette in the mould of Gertrude Bell (a spy and colleague of T E Lawrence) who defies convention to travel to the Ottoman Empire and to Peshawar during the war. This is a woman who studies ancient Greek, suffers traumatic shock from her experience of VAD nursing in London, smokes Turkish cigarettes and speaks Pashto. She is on the trail of a legendary artefact sought by the man she loves, but from whom she has been separated by the war.

On the way to Peshawar, she meets a discharged Pathan soldier who served at Ypres and lost an eye. Much of the rest of the novel is the story of this man, Qayyum, and his brother Najeeb. I was gripped by this part of the novel, with its atmospheric descriptions of the old quarters of Peshawar and its museum rich with Buddhist art. I also found compelling Qayyum’s moral and emotional dilemma of divided loyalties between the British Army, particularly his own regiment the 40th Pathans, and the growing anti-British independence movement back home in what would eventually become Pakistan. At times, for a non-Pakistani audience, the different factions are confusing, but the concerns, cruelties and resentments and the shift in sympathies – often creating a division between the two brothers – are very clearly portrayed. None of these issues is resolved within the novel except that the two brothers grow closer again through their experience of a massacre of non-violent protesters in Peshawar by the British authorities. The subsequent historical events leading to Partition are well known.

The novel is clearly driven by its anti-colonial sympathies, and the English character, Vivian, is left without resolution to her own stories at the end – the artefact she seeks, though Najeeb finds it, is lost again, kept out of even sympathetic British hands. Much is left ambiguous, with the reader invited to draw their own conclusions about the ultimate fate of the relationship between Vivian, Najeeb and Qayyum. For all this, A God in Every Stone is a vivid and compelling read, shaping individual tragedy, experience and relationships as part of a much larger pattern of historical forces and political concerns. In doing so it makes that history profoundly moving and intimately human.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Nadeem Aslam, Salman Rushdie, Pashtunwali, war stories, Buddhist sculpture, ancient Greek legend.

Avoid if you don’t like: WWI, archaeology, stories of colonial India.

Ideal accompaniments: A cup of finest Darjeeling and a stick of sugar cane.

Genre: Post-colonial fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction.

Available from Amazon

Feral Youth by Polly Courtney


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: Feral Youth is the story of Alesha – a fifteen year old from Peckham in South London. At the start of the book, Alesha is living under the radar, dodging social services, gang violence and her alcoholic mother. But she has a roof over her head, a friend she owes everything to, a youth centre that provides an occasional refuge, and a ‘rep’ that provides some flimsy protection on the streets.

In the course of a few short weeks over the summer of 2011, even those are taken away. No wonder Alesha’s angry. Angry enough that when messages start crowding onto her phone, telling her riots are kicking off all over south London, she is ready to take revenge on the whole self-satisfied world she sees around her.

Only, it’s beginning to look as if the one person she can really trust isn’t from the streets at all. She’s Alesha’s eccentric former music teacher, Miss Merfield – and she’s trying to tell Alesha there’s another way out.

There is almost an unspoken rule of writing that you may write as a serial killer or a space pirate or Marie Antoinette – but you don’t bust through the barriers of age and class to write a piece of serious contemporary literature from a point of view totally outside your own experience. And Courtney is no street kid. But she has had both the courage to know that rules are there to be broken, and the integrity to see that it must done right. Before she wrote the book, she immersed herself with South London teenagers and those that worked with them, absorbing their speech and learning at first hand what life on the streets is like. The result is a voice that will haunt you.

Reading Feral Youth brought back all the anger I felt in those weeks following the 2011 riots. At the end of it, I was crying. Aching for the Aleshas of this world. There is no doubt that Alesha is at times her own worst enemy. There were points where I wanted to reach into the pages of the book and shake her for not saying aloud what is going through her head. But Alesha can’t tell anyone about what’s happening. Everything in her life has taught her to say nothing, to trust no one.

Like Celie from The Color Purple, Alesha is a barely literate teenager reaching out to you from a world most of us would rather pretend doesn’t exist. And so long as we go on pretending, it will go on existing – to the shame of us all.

You'll enjoy this if you liked: The Colour Purple, Noughts and Crosses

Avoid if you dislike: having your preconceptions of today's youth shaken to the core

Ideal Accompaniments: Debussy spliced with DJ Dice

Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Young Adult

Available from Amazon

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah


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

What we thought: One of my most highly anticipated new novels of the year! As a lifelong Agatha Christie fan I couldn’t wait to read Sophie Hannah’s interpretation. These kinds of ‘tribute’ novels can be hit or miss, but after the success of Anthony Horowitz/Sherlock Holmes, and knowing the quality of Sophie Hannah’s writing, I was expecting to be impressed. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Hannah is clearly as much of a Christie geek as me, and that is great! It was also apparent in this book that the author got tremendous pleasure in resurrecting Hercule Poirot and her research into both the characters and the period really made the book shine.

In a Christie style, this is a typical Who-dunn-it. Three bodies found at a well-to-do London hotel, all laid out in the style of professional courtesy of the dead, but with a monogramed cufflink in each mouth. It was impossible to guess the killer, as the plot twisted and turned, back and forth, scattering red herrings in its wake. We view the case through the eyes of ‘Catchpole’ – a Scotland Yard detective with slightly more intelligent side-kick to Hastings, but one whose failings throw spotlight on the intelligence of the little Belgian detective. Personally, more chapters in Poirots' POV would have pleased me, I found Catchpole’s re-telling of some aspects of the story seemed to dilute the narrative.

There will be no spoilers here, but let’s say the ending did surprise me.

I experienced an undeniable excitement to be back in the 1920’s London scene as I love the language, customs and idiosyncrasies of the time. There was even more of a buzz to be back inside the mind of Hercule Poirot and his little grey cells.

I’m envious of Sophie Hannah for getting this opportunity, and know from her love of the Queen of Crime she would jump at the chance to do it all again if the option arose – and I hope it does. There’s no better tribute to Christie than a tribute novel of this quality.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Agatha Christie.

Avoid if you don’t like: Belgian detectives and period crime writing.

Ideal accompaniments: Crème de cassis and smoked salmon sandwiches.

Genre: Crime Fiction.