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 (

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