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.