Friday, 18 December 2015

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: One day in the mid-1860s, potential gold-digger Walter Moody steps off a ship in the town of Hokitika on the south island of New Zealand. He’s just had a nasty shock. There was something quite terrifying in the hold of the Godspeed. Out of sorts, he stumbles in to the hotel lounge, unaware of the fact he’s interrupting a private meeting between twelve leading lights of the town.

Gradually, the tale begins to unfold, guided by the firm hand of our narrator(s). Each man seems implicated in death, suicide, murder and conspiracy, but nothing is quite as it appears. All these men are seeking a fortune and then intend to be ‘homeward bound’. But fortune has two meanings.

The story unfolds from each person’s perspective, dropping nuggets of information for the reader to assemble into a detective’s theory. Our loyalties shift, our opinions alter and we tread with great caution, unsure who can be trusted.

Catton’s narrative is a perfectly constructed drama in a most unusual setting, conjuring Victorian New Zealand and its inhabitants with atmospheric realism. The hardships, the gossip, the politicking and the landscape don’t so much leap off the page as lure you in, so you feel as tangled and sapped of the will to escape as a fly in a web.

A hefty tome, but wholly absorbing with a wonderful Zodiac theme underpinning the complexity of this intrigue where men believe they are in control of their destiny.

You’ll like this if you enjoyed: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, The Little Stranger, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Avoid if you dislike: Victorian storytelling, overt exposition of construction, large casts of characters.

Ideal accompaniments: A platter of cold meats, a dram of Laphroaig and a cold, clear night so you can see the stars.

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

Eve (A Christmas Ghost Story) by Shani Struthers


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

What we thought: There's nothing better than a chilling ghost story on a dark winter's night, and I was totally absorbed by this story and look forward to reading more from this author. And as an aside, I thought the cover fitted the genre perfectly, the spooky, aged photos with faces blanked gave me a shiver before I even read the opening line!

A Yorkshire village, Thorpe Morton, has been haunted for a century by 59 victims, many of them children, of a terrible tragedy that was never really explained. The author clearly loves her research, and I found the background fascinating and well delivered. Lead characters are psychic investigators, Theo Lawson and Ness Patterson, who arrive in the town to attempt to give peace to the disturbed spirits, but are led on a journey of problems that lead to a tense and emotional climax.

Eve is a well thought out and gritty ghost story without all of the 'fluff' usually associated with Christmas-themed books. It's certainly does its job by drawing the reader into the series of books, and touches on many topics, like social equality, that you wouldn't expect to find in this genre.

Highly recommend and I look forward to reading more from this author!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: PD James, MR James.

Avoid if you don’t like: Ghosts and Yorkshire.

Ideal accompaniments: Boiled suet pudding and a half of stout.

Genre: Paranormal.

Available from Amazon







The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: When we think about immigrants at the mercy of 21st century gang masters, we are likely to think first of eastern European workers, or perhaps Chinese. South Asian immigrants, we imagine, came in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and are now economically established.

If we do harbour such illusions, then Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways shatters them.

The story opens with a scene that echoes the early episodes of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Young men, far from home, packed together in cramped, basic conditions, working long hours on a construction site to send money back to their families.

The focus of the story then pulls back, and we learn how each of the three principle characters arrived in Sheffield from India. Randeep, the youngest of them, whose father who has lost his job, and hence the family their home, because of depression. Avtar, secretly engaged to Randeep’s sister, who dreams of earning enough money to go back to India and marry her. And Tochi, a despised chamaar (‘untouchable’), whose family were murdered in riots orchestrated by Hindu extremists. Each of them believes that in Britain they can earn enough money to transform their lives.

The fourth point of view is provided by Navinder, a devout Sikh woman, engaged to a man selected by her family, who gives everything up to marry – not for love, but to provide a visa for Randeep.

Gradually their dreams unravel under the relentless pressure of finding work, keeping a roof over their heads, repaying debt. Through countless small cruelties and all-too-few moments of grace, squalor slides into degradation. Faith is stripped of illusion. Friendships are pushed to breaking point. Mistrust is fanned into flames.

Through the lens of these four lives, Sahota reveals the human face of economic migration, the myth of return, and such headline fodder as illegal workers, scam marriages and abused student visas. This is a book that will shake your belief that we are in any way a ‘fair’ or ‘equal’ society. Like Dickens’ Victorians, we climb on the backs of an army of invisible poor. The only difference is the poverty is now globalised.

You’ll enjoy this if you loved: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistri, Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid, Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka

Avoid if you dislike: Graphic descriptions of deprivations

Perfect accompaniment: Rotis with vegetable sabzi and dahl

Genre: Literary fiction

Available from Amazon

Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Killing Room by Peter May

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

What we thought: I am a huge fan of Peter May and would list his Lewis trilogy among my favourite top three crime fiction reads of recent years, so I was excited to take on a new crime series from this author.

The Killing Room is the third in the China thriller series, and in my opinion the most gruesome yet. The opening scene was brutal and the discovery of a mass grave in Shanghai was brilliantly written. The investigation focuses on the hunt for a serial killer of women, but the crimes are even more disturbing than usual murders, as the bodies are all found hacked into pieces with organs removed.

Again, lead characters are Li Yan and American pathologist, Margaret Campbell, whose difficult personal relationship is not helped when Li Yan is transferred to Shanghai to assist in the serial killer enquiry. He finds himself working with attractive, Mei Ling, and his feelings become even more complicated.

As the story unfolds, so the horror increases, Margaret’s assistance with the post-mortems opens up even more chilling theories, and before long every layer of Shanghai society is implicated in the cover up of these hideous crimes. With some excellent final twists and reveals.

This is a real blood and gore, no-holds back, crime thriller that is past-faced, full of tension and cleverly laced with personal versus professional life issues. The forensic research and attention to detail is wonderful,the reader is always in safe hands, and the writing is smooth and effortless. Another brilliantly crafted piece of writing and another surefire winner from this superb author!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Tess Gerritsen, Karin Slaughter, Peter James.

Avoid if you don’t like: China. Corpses.

Ideal accompaniments: Chow mein, noodles, prawn crackers and rice wine.

Genre: Crime thriller.

Available from Amazon

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
It’s always a pleasure to stumble on a book set in my former home town of Toronto, but this 2015 Giller Prize winner isone of the more unusual.

Two gods, Apollo and Hermes, are arguing over the nature of human intelligence. Apollo maintains that “animals would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.” To settle their argument, they make a wager. They endow fifteen dogs, who happen to be spending the night at a Toronto veterinary surgery, with human intelligence and bet on whether any of them will be happy at the end of their lives.

The dogs, aware that some immense change has come over them, break out of the vets and make for a coppice in High Park. There they begin to adjust to their new existence.

Make no mistake. This is no Disney-style fluffy anthropomorphism. And it certainly is not suitable reading for children. Yet nor is it a straightforward political or social allegory, like Animal Farm.

What Alexis has done is more subtle and complex than either of those. He examines the effect on canine instincts and pack behaviour of the dogs’ dawning critical intelligence. In doing so, he suggests a potential evolutionary path for such human achievements as love, religion, poetry, humour- and murder.

Alexis knows dogs. Any pet owner will recognise much of the canine behaviour he describes. But each of the fifteen dogs is changed in quite different ways by the gift (or curse) of consciousness. Atticus, the pack’s first leader, is appalled by the distortion of ‘true’ canine ways. Majnoun develops a tender friendship and deep understanding with a human female. Prince, a poet at heart, falls in love with the idea of language itself.

If you have studied European philosophy, you might catch oblique references to St. Anselm’s Ontological Proof of God’s Existence, Hegel’s master-servant dialectic, Wittgenstein’s ideas about language, and Kant’s notion of consciousness. On the other hand, if you’ve never heard of any of those things, your reading will lose little by it.

Fifteen Dogs is by turns playful, affectionate, tender, brutal and moving. A brief, thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Alexis is a Canadian writer, born in Trinidad and Tobago. Fifteen Dogs is the second book in what he calls his 'Quincunx,' five novels which will examine philosophical ideas from different angles, this one being an ‘apologue’ or fable.

You’ll enjoy this if you loved: The Humans by Matt Haig; Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

Avoid if you dislike: Stories with animal characters; animal characters that aren’t cute and fluffly

Perfect Accompaniment: A cuddle on the sofa with your dog

Genre: Literary fiction, Apologue, Philosphy

Available from Amazon

Joshua's Story by James Titcombe

Reviewer: JD Smith

What we thought: Joshua's story isn't exactly an easy read, but that has nothing to do with the succinct and well-presented narrative, more the subject matter which would tug at any heart string, and can be related to by so many who have had traumatic experiences during childbirth.

James Titcombe and his family suffered such an experience in November 2008 when their baby boy, Joshua, died at Furness General Hospital aged just 9 days old.

This book tells the years Joshua's father dedicated to discovering exactly why Joshua's death occurred, and whether it could have been prevented. What James' tireless search revealed was much more than the failings leading to his own son's death as he uncovered knowledge of many other babies' deaths which could have been entirely preventable had medical professionals owned up to their errors and learned from them.

The book goes deeper still has we witness public reaction to investigations, correspondence between NHS staff, and a long and tangled journey to justice.

This story is not only one of deep sadness and lies, but it is also one of hope; the truth can be found if you keep looking. A personal tale told with candour.

In 2015, James Titcombe was awarded the OBE for services to patient safety.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: real stories, truth, medical scandals

Avoid if you don’t like: people saying negative things about the NHS

Ideal accompaniments: none - this is a completely absorbing tale

Genre: non-fiction, memoir, medical



Sunday, 22 November 2015

Spilling the Beans by Just Write

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Ever sat in a coffee shop and wondered about the lives of the strangers you see sitting around you?

Many writing groups have produced anthologies of short stories, and many of those have had common themes running through them. But the ten members of the Just Write group, based in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, set themselves a far more intriguing challenge.

All twenty stories in Spilling the Beans take place in a single day in the same coffee shop. And each one, from 'Ristretto' to 'Hazelnut Steamer', has the title of a drink served in the shop. More than that, the same characters weave in and out of the stories, brushing up against one another’s lives – sometimes colliding, sometimes barely noticed.

In many ways, this anthology has more in common with serial novels such as Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street. Many of the stories are not self contained. They leave tantalising loose threads, some of which are picked up later, while others trail out of the coffee shop into a future we are invited to imagine. Taken singly, this might make for frustrating reading, but the pleasure in this anthology comes from the way the stories weave together into a satisfying whole.

We learn about the staff, the regulars and the casual visitors – people at all ages and stages of life, from seven year old Maisie, to Maria, recollecting days in the SOE during WWII. Some of the stories brim with optimism and others are redolent with disappointment.

“He imagined freeze-drying each of these memories, reducing the essence of each cup down and capturing them somehow in his instant coffee jar, his to release ... every time he brought them to life with hot water.”

From “Instant Coffee”, by Phil Tysoe.

The design of the book, too, is pleasantly unified. The cover appears ring-stained from coffee mugs. Each story starts with a line drawing that matches its title, and ends with a pattern of three coffee beans. And the book itself does not End, but Close at the end of the day.

I am not surprised, therefore, to learn that this innovative compilation won Writing Magazine’s Writers’ Circle Anthology Award 2014.

Spilling the Beans is sold in aid of the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.

Just Write’s second anthology, Delayed Reaction, was launched on Thursday 19th November, 2015.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith, The Lost College and Other Oxford Stories, by the Oxford Writers Group

Avoid if you dislike: Gentle domestic dramas, stories with minimal driving plot

Perfect Accompaniment: Coffee and cake at your favourite independent coffee shop (obviously)

Genre: Short Stories.

Ebook available from Amazon Pbook available from www.spillingthebeans.org.uk

The Chimes by Anna Smaill, Sceptre (2015)

Reviewer: Rebecca Johnson Bista

What we thought: Anna Smaill is a New Zealander, a classical violinist and a poet. This, her first novel, was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize, and it certainly deserved that accolade. It will be like nothing you have ever read. Reading this book is like inhabiting the head of someone who thinks in musical idiom rather than in prose, which has a startling and disorientating effect – especially for the musically illiterate, like me. And along the way, Smaill raises questions about memory, narrative, religion, oppression, identity, language, the evil of perfection, and the pain of free will, in a consistently vivid and gripping tale.

The Chimes is – technically – science fiction, as it is set in a future where the world as we know it – the hi-tech world of computers, electronics, metro systems, planes, and written information - has been destroyed in an apocalyptic episode called the Allbreaking. What has replaced it is a harmonious, but backward, totalitarian state run by the Order, and ruled by music: music as social organizing principle; music as mytho-political orchestration; music as language; music as mind control; music as faith. It is a world where everyone plays an instrument, almost everyone converses in ‘solfege’ – the hand-signed version of the tonic Sol-Fa scale – and every trade, place, smell, object, person, direction or memory has its own idiosyncratic theme-tune or melody. It is also where, more ominously, all books have been burned and the narrative principle of individual lives, the connection with remembered past, is erased daily by Onestory and the Chimes. These are two acts of compulsory daily communal worship or ritual accompanied a massive barrage of glorious but brain-wiping sound. Smaill sustains this world not only descriptively but with its own vernacular – an English corrupted in pronunciation by the lack of written records – and with a perfectly judged use of musical terminology and imagery through which the characters describe their lives, feelings and actions.

In this strange but familiar world we meet Simon, a boy or young man apparently from nowhere, somewhere on the road to London. With him he carries only a bag containing his ‘object memories’ – talismans he uses to recall elements of his past and his now dead parents, and the ‘body memory’ of the skill of planting bulbs. We know nothing more of him or where he is going – and nor, it seems, does he, except for a song whose words he can’t quite remember as a clue, a thread he is convinced he has to follow.

Simon falls in with a gang of young river prospectors who search ‘the Under’, formerly the London Underground and sewer systems, for ‘the Pale Lady’ – a corruption of palladium, a pure silvery metal that has the unique property that it can insulate against sound. They sell scraps of this ‘mettle’ to make a living, as it is used to build the instrument that makes the Chimes. The gang members find their way in the darkness by maps drawn with song, memorizing routes with music, and find ‘the Lady’ because of its silvery silence behind the interwoven melodies of their soundscape world.

It turns out, however, that Simon has a gift that not many in his world possess – the ability to piece together his own fragmented memories into a narrative, and the ability to ‘read’ others’ memories from the objects in which they have invested them. The novel is written in the present tense, so we are naïve readers, sharing Simon’s perpetual ‘groundhog day’ point of view, then piecing together the threads along with him and Lucien, the gang leader, as they begin to reconstruct each others’ pasts and the history of their world through recovered scraps of memory. In doing so, they discover the dystopian truth of their apparently utopian world, and the mission Simon has been sent on by his parents. This, it becomes clear, is to seek out others like him, a kind of resistance movement of memory keepers and, eventually, to overturn the beautiful serene musical order that has tried to erase the past and imposes totalitarian oppression on them all.

The concepts raised in this ambitious novel are not all quite fully realized or resolved, which perhaps is why – aside from the genre – the book did not make the Booker shortlist. What enchanted me about it, though, was the magical world of musical consciousness – a parallel to the almost magical way in which those with faith of certain kinds perceive the universe and operate within it. Reading it was like acquiring a seventh sense, in which everything is newly comprehensible in a supra-real way, or like experiencing all-five-sense synaesthesia. This beyond-normal means of perception and communication, the revelatory exploration of the capacities of memory and what it means in human society, and the extraordinary talents and feats of musicianship, are gateways to a higher, more refined world, and it is no surprise that after the demise of the Chimes the general population is not relieved but pained and bewildered by the loss of this magical repetitive certainty of existence.

Although the beauty of such a world in this novel proves fatal, it is nevertheless an extraordinary imaginative creation, and sings on in the memory long after you close the book. I will be looking forward to Anna Smaill’s next novel.

Best accompanied by: bubble and squeak, neeps and tatties, rabbit, squirrel and every kind of music from folk song to organ to plainsong.

You will like if: you can read music or play an instrument or know solfege; you like earth-based future world sci-fi; Oxford; London; the Underground; memory games.

Avoid if: You don’t like science fiction or music, or critiques of religion!

Genre: Literary fiction, science fiction

Available on Amazon

Slade House by David Mitchell

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What We Thought: Down a back alley is a small door, leading to an improbably large garden and exceptional house. Over decades, people are lured inside, with the promise of fulfilment. Fulfilment does indeed lurk within, but not for them.
Mitchell has often stated he’s writing an ‘über-novel’, with each of his books as chapters in it. Characters reappear, themes recur, motifs abound and certain questions are addressed from a variety of angles. Slade House is a whimsical chapter, an example of the author extrapolating and enjoying himself by delving into a plotline overtly from The Bone Clocks but less visibly, Cloud Atlas.

This ghost story began life as a Twitter tale, told in 140 character chunks. Its origins and length make it perfect for a dark and stormy night in front of the fire. Nods and winks to conventions of storytelling, haunted houses and fantastically alluring predators are familiar. The author’s trademark brilliance with voice and character sparkles as the victims’ stories are told through the prism of their own egos. References to the various periods are subtly flagged making this an ideal Christmas Eve TV adaptation. Are you listening, BBC?

There are some goosebumpy, skin-shivery moments, an increasing sense of menace and several hearty laughs. It’s not quite the Michelin-starred feast of Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green or The Bone Clocks, but rather like cheesy-beans-on-Marmite-toast. You scoff it down in one greedy sitting and afterwards feel smug and satisfied, but certainly not guilty.


You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Woman in White, The Little Stranger, Interview with the Vampire.

Avoid if you dislike: Spooky houses, shifting realities and hidden icebergs of references.

Ideal accompaniments: Honey-glazed roast pumpkin, a Bloody Mary and the soundtrack to The Hunger.

Genre: Literary fiction, fantasy

Available on Amazon

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Firemaker by Peter May


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

What we thought: I am a huge fan of Peter May and would list his Lewis trilogy among my favourite top three crime fiction reads of recent years, so I was excited to take on book one of this China Thriller series.
Location plays a big part for me in books, connecting with the setting, as well as the characters will determine if I immerse myself fully in the story, and if I’m honest the thought of a China location, with all the language and name difficulties that posed, did put me off the series for a time. 

But I have to say I am pleased I took the plunge!

In normal Peter May style we open with a gruesome murder, and it’s not long before we sympathise with the chief detective in the case, Li Yan, who faces mounting pressure from all sides as the body count increases. Finally, his boss enlists the help of a visiting US pathologist, Margaret Campbell, who has decided to spend time in a new country and culture to escape the mess of her own life back in America. 

The two leading characters soon bond, and in their own troubled ways forge an excellent crime fighting team that puts their own lives in danger.

This is a great start to the series, fast paced, full of twists and heavy with tension. I can see great things in the future for both Li Yan and Ms Campbell, and can already see their private lives are going to be as enthralling as their professional careers.

Another winner from a truly talented author!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jo Nesbo, Ann Cleeves, Peter James.

Avoid if you don’t like: China.

Ideal accompaniments: Special fried rice and green tea.

Genre: Crime thriller.

Available from Amazon





My Story as an American Au Pair in the Loire Valley (French Illusions Book 1) by Linda Kovic-Skow

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

What we thought: French Illusions: My Story as an American Au Pair in the Loire Valley is the first of two memoirs based on the diary entries of the author, Linda Kovic-Skow. Back in 1979, when she was 21, Linda yearned to become a flight attendant. But this required speaking a second language, so she chose to learn French by becoming an au pair to a wealthy French family living in a château in the beautiful Loire Valley. Thrown in at the deep end, without knowing any French, Linda struggled to adapt to her new environment, not to mention certain difficult members of the family. And when she signed up for French classes at the university, and met another student, the handsome Adam, her life became even more complicated.

As an Australian living in France, I completely identified with the author’s predicament. Arriving here to take up with the Frenchman I’d met on holiday in Thailand, without a word of the lingo, I too floundered with the language, customs and traditions, yet immensely enjoyed the food, wine and history.

I felt I was reading the author’s diary entries a she was writing them, and as I accompanied Linda on her adventures and romances, I found myself sympathizing with her problems, and celebrating her triumphs.

By the end of the first book I felt I had truly come to know the author as a person; as she was then––a young girl struggling to find her way in a foreign country. Keen for more, I immediately purchased French Illusions Book 2, from Tours to Paris; which I also loved.

Highly personal and entertaining, as well as informational, I would recommend these stories for Francophiles and young girls thinking of becoming au pairs in France, or any foreign country for that matter.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: non-fiction travel tales.

Avoid if you don’t like: intimate personal memoirs.

Ideal accompaniments: cheese lathered on a hunk of baguette, accompanied by a chilled glass of dry French white.

Genre: Memoir

Available from Amazon

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and Don't Look Down. http://bit.ly/1rYqaDT

What We Thought: Nora Webster is a middle-aged recent widow living in Wexford, Ireland in the late 60s. She has two daughters grown and beginning their own lives, and two sons, Donal, aged 14-15, who suffers with a dreadful stammer, and Conor, several years younger. Her wider family includes her sisters and aunt, and her husband’s relatives all of whom both bear her up and drag her down.

Neighbours in the town of Enniscorthy all knew or knew of her husband, and she must daily suffer the condolences which serve to remind her of what she has lost. Maurice, a teacher, was well-thought of by most and Nora must negotiate the frequent references to him and accept the scrutiny of those who, though well-meaning, watch her closely to see how she copes.

Her finances now constrained, Nora has to return to work though she has been twenty or more years out of the workplace. Without her husband to buffer her she must also discover a new way to live. She makes her first tentative steps at developing a social life, joins a music appreciation society, and studies singing. She keeps some of her activities secret, or at least quiet, for fear she will be misunderstood and criticized.

Her mother, now dead, and her sisters have apparently always criticized Nora and as a counter to this she herself tries to be as uncritical of her children’s lives as she possibly can. This leads at times to her seeming almost totally detatched from them. Indeed much of Nora’s life is lived at a distance – the result of her grief and depression. Despite this apparant apathy she does have strong feelings which she internalises, though they do occasionally break out. Though outwardly passive most of the time, Nora is anything but in her head. Her ascerbic inner comments temper our vision of her as the plaything of circumstance.

There are no major events, adventures or plot points in this novel. Incidents which seem to be about to lead to some denouement fade away and are never referred to again. This is not a fault however; it is the perfect representation of everyday life where things simply happen and follow no writerly pattern.

As the book progresses one finds oneself drawn into the sedate rhythms of Nora’s life. Tóibín’s genius here is in letting us experience the dullness, the quotidian plod through ‘this happens’ then ‘this happens’ then ‘this happens’ all of which shows us what Nora’s existence is like and which allows us to inhabit it and feel it. We live with her, accompanying her on her inexorable trudge towards some hope of light and life. And though this may seem bleak, in fact there is gentle humour in this book and an underlying beauty.

This is a perfect book and a perfect reflection of a life which, though ordinary, is heroic in its ordinariness.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Literary books about ordinary life.

Avoid if you dislike: Novels without much plot or adventure.

Ideal accompaniments: A shiny Schubert LP on the gramophone and a Babycham.

Genre: Literary / General Fiction.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Hotel Arcadia by Sunny Singh

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: A hyper-luxury hotel in a city by the sea has been overrun by terrorists. Guests who were in public spaces, or who were rash enough to open their doors, have been gunned down. Now the survivors hunker down inside, as outside, the security forces plan their assault. With an opening chapter headed ’87 hours ago’, it is clear we are counting down towards a showdown.

The premise of Hotel Arcadia could be the outline for yet another Die Hard film, but Sunny Singh transforms it into something quite different. Instead of focusing on the battle between the terrorists and the soldiers, she homes in on two people who would be bit players in any Hollywood movie. Abhi, the hotel manager, trapped in the operations room, watching events unfold on the closed circuit television screens. And high up in the tower, Sam, a photojournalist who was spending the last night of her assignment in the hotel.

Hotel Arcadia is a duet of whispered conversations by phone and text, followed by hours of silence as memories peel back layers of their lives. We learn that Abhi is an army brat who refused to follow his father and brother into the forces, while Sam has spent her life moving between one war and another, increasingly obsessed with capturing images of the dead. Both lonely, both used to being alone, they reach out to each other across the darkness, revealing parts of themselves they habitually keep hidden.

This is an intensely visual book. Sam’s photographs are described in lush detail, as is the way she attempts to control the world by framing it through her viewfinder. Photographs and images on screens – who takes them, why they are taken and for whom – become powerful, shifting metaphors.

“It was the jutting plane of this hip that caught her eye ... The jutting bone pushed against brown skin, gleamed in the growing morning light, the lean plane of his upper leg disappearing into the gloom. Shadows reached up from the depths of the hut and bled into hollows of his stomach.”

Singh names neither the city nor the country in which the siege is happening, though it is hard not to hear echoes of the 2008 attacks on the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. Yet the absence of specificity serves to underline that this could happen anywhere, at any time. This could be Mumbai, but it could equally be New York or London, Sydney, Nairobi or Dubai.

The three and a half day siege is allowed to play out with no sudden rush of heroics. We are left poised in the moments before what, in the blockbuster version, would have been the big set-piece climax – a profoundly emotional ending that satisfies on a much deeper level.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tam, Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid, Grace Notes by Bernard Maclaverty

Avoid if you dislike: Stories where the tension doesn’t come from shoot-outs, car chases and other high octane tropes

Perfect Accompaniment: A bottle of L’Eglise-Clinet Pomerol, 1994. Or failing that, an inch of Auchentoshan single malt whisky, neat.

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available from Amazon

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What We Thought: One day in the mid-1860s, potential gold-digger Walter Moody steps off a ship in the town of Hokitika on the south island of New Zealand. He’s just had a nasty shock. There was something quite terrifying in the hold of the Godspeed. Out of sorts, he stumbles in to the hotel lounge, unaware of the fact he’s interrupting a private meeting between twelve leading lights of the town.

Gradually, the tale begins to unfold, guided by the firm hand of our narrator(s). Each man seems implicated in death, suicide, murder and conspiracy, but nothing is quite as it appears. All these men are seeking a fortune and then intend to be ‘homeward bound’. But fortune has two meanings.

The story unfolds from each person’s perspective, dropping nuggets of information for the reader to assemble into a detective’s theory. Our loyalties shift, our opinions alter and we tread with great caution, unsure who can be trusted.

Catton’s narrative is a perfectly constructed drama in a most unusual setting, conjuring Victorian New Zealand and its inhabitants with atmospheric realism. The hardships, the gossip, the politicking and the landscape don’t so much leap off the page as lure you in, so you feel as tangled and sapped of the will to escape as a fly in a web.

A hefty tome, but wholly absorbing with a wonderful Zodiac theme underpinning the complexity of this intrigue where men believe they are in control of their destiny.

You’ll like this if you enjoyed: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell.

Avoid if you dislike: Victorian storytelling, overt exposition of construction, large casts of characters.

Ideal accompaniments: A platter of cold meats, a dram of Laphroaig and a cold, clear night so you can see the stars.

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith


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

What we thought: In a word - brilliant! I have been having Strike withdrawal symptoms for many months, so it was with sweaty-palmed anticipation I awaited the release date of the next Cormoran Strike novel. And it was well worth the wait.

The opening thrill in this novel is not a gruesome killing, but the delivery, by a calm and devious murderer, of a female leg to Strike’s office, addressed to his assistant, Robin. Clearly a reaction to Strike’s own disability and a hint to unfinished history. The story revolves around three suspects who Strike believes hold strong enough grudges, and are evil enough in character, to have carried out the crime.

In this novel we came closer to the backstory of the characters than ever before, partly due to the fact that the closeness between Strike and Robin takes us there. We find out about Robin’s troubled past and why she suddenly left university, and we get a glimpse into the real horror of Strike’s childhood and his mother’s premature death.

There were the usual clever twists and turns we come to expect from Galbraith (which if you’ve been living under a stone for the past two years is actually Harry Potter author, JK Rowling) and also some excellent descriptive writing that I thoroughly enjoyed when the story took us out of London during visits to Melrose and Barrow-in-Furness in particular.

I’m quite proud to report that I guessed the identity of the killer about mid-way through the book, but was still enthralled by the author’s clever ending. And I punched the air with frustration at the cliffhanger between Robin and Strike in the final chapter which doubtless means I have several more months of Strike withdrawal symptoms to come! 

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Val McDermid, Peter James, PD James.

Avoid if you don’t like: Serial killers and gritty crime stories.

Ideal accompaniments: Fish, chips and mushy peas with a pint of Doombar.

Genre: Crime Fiction.

Available from Amazon





Friday, 6 November 2015

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

If you are not to get lost in the highways and byways of this epic Man Booker winner, it helps beforehand to know a little Jamaican history.

During the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, two political parties were vying for power, each backed, to some extent, by rival gangs. One of those parties was taking an increasingly socialist stance and making overtures towards Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and this was making the US extremely nervous. It is widely alleged that the CIA armed, and possibly provided drugs, to one of the gangs, in order to swing power to the party sympathetic to the US.

This gang – the Shower Posse – went on to become one of the most powerful drug gangs of the 1980s and early 90s, controlling the supply of crack cocaine in New York and other US cities. But before that, in 1976, when reggae singer Bob Marley returned to Jamaica to hold a Peace Concert, a group of men from the Shower Posse shot and almost killed him and members of his family in his own home.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is set against a barely fictionalised version of those events.  In it, the Shower Posse becomes the Storm Posse. Tivoli Gardens, the Kingston neighbourhood where they were based, becomes Copenhagen City. Their leader is transformed into the gloriously named Josey Wales, while Bob Marley is referred to only as ‘The Singer.’

The book opens in the days leading up to the attempted assassination of The Singer. The plot, such as it is, follows what happens to those who took part, through the rise of the powerful drug syndicates, to the death, 15 years later, of the last surviving shooter.

As the Jamaican proverb quoted at the beginning of the book says, "If it no go so, it go near so."

But A Brief History is, above all, a novel of voice. James has said that the book began with what he believed were two false starts – the voices of John-John K, gay hitman in 1980s New York, and Bam Bam, minor gang member in 1970s Kingston. It was only when he began to think of them as part of the same whole that the book began to take shape – a book which lists over 70 named characters, of which 15 take turns to narrate the story. They include gang members, drug lords, CIA members, a journalist, a nurse.

The novel is structured like a patchwork quilt. Each of the fifteen voices is a colour, cut into small pieces and sewn together. Some colours – Josey Wales, holding his empire together through terror; the derailed music journalist Alex Pierce, doggedly hunting down the truth; Nina Burgess, reinventing herself over and over to escape from her past – sweep across the whole book, creating its dominant notes. Other voices are highlights, used selectively in parts. It’s only when you reach the end of the book that you can step back and appreciate the whole pattern.

A Brief History is not an easy book to read. Many of the segments are written as streams of consciousness. Most are in one flavour or another of Jamaican dialect. By the fifth and final section, James has stopped heading chapters with the name of the narrator, expecting you to recognise their voices. You have to read slowly to appreciate the dense texture of the writing – but at the same time, you need to hold onto the bigger picture, to remember where characters have come from and how they fit together.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Pychoraag by Suhayl Saadi, All Involved by Ryan Gattis, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.

Avoid if you don’t like: Fragmented narratives, novels written it dialect, graphic violence

Ideal accompaniments: Fry chicken ‘light brown and soft inside,’ with rice and peas and fried plantain so ripe it ‘just mash up in your mouth’.

Genre: Literary Fiction.

Available from Amazon

Sewing the Shadows Together by Alison Baillie

Reviewer: Ruby Barnes, author of Peril, Dodge, The Baptist, Koobi Fora and the Zombies v. Ninjas series

What we thought: A very engaging read that does what it says on the cover – pulls together the shadowy events of thirty years before and weaves a tale of intrigue and romance around a cast of appealing characters.

Although pitched as crime fiction, Sewing the Shadows Together is firmly in the romantic suspense genre. There is a murder, there is injustice and there is new evidence that verifies the innocence of the poor soul who has spent most of his adult life in a secure prison, but the main story is about the middle-aged rekindling of young adult affections, unrequited love and regrets over a life of compromises.

Alison Baillie’s settings are as blustery, rocky and rain-soaked as the streets and shores of the Scotland where they take place. Her characters are treacherous, fallible and infuriating as real people are. The reader will care if the original crime is solved or not, but it’s always about the two main protagonists. Will they or won’t they? Can they overcome the obstacles on the path to happy ever after?

I read this book during a week trapped by stormy weather in a mobile home on a seaside caravan park. It was the perfect companion and was quickly grabbed by my other half when she saw how immersed I had been in its pages.

Avoid this if you dislike: slightly floppy forensics (this really isn’t crime fiction) or a couple of rather convenient plot twists.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: reading about real people and living with them through some excruciating self-discoveries, because you hope their future will be bright.

Ideal accompaniments: stormy weather, several glasses of your favourite vino and a loving partner to make you realise how lucky you are.

Genre: romantic suspense / crime fiction

Available from Amazon

Friday, 30 October 2015

A Spot of Bother, by Mark Haddon

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What We Thought: Haddon’s breakthrough novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, gave the reader the unusual experience of piecing together a mystery through the eyes of Charlie, a young boy on the autistic disorder spectrum. In A Spot of Bother, we experience a domestic drama through various perspectives.

George, recently retired, finds a lesion on his hip. Despite his doctor’s assurances that it is eczema, he becomes convinced it’s cancer. He begins having panic attacks and seeing death and disease everywhere. His mental imbalance affects his wife, Jean, who has been quietly having an affair. To add to the disturbance, their daughter Katy announces she’s getting married to Ray, whom nobody likes. This bombshell causes a ripple effect and creates a rift in her brother’s relationship with Tony.

Haddon’s prose is spare and fluid, making you laugh aloud while wishing the characters knew what you know. There’s an almost theatrical feel to the way the scenes build to acts and climax in set pieces which border on farce. It’s a deceptively easy read, light in tone and suburban in setting, yet explores the heart of human relationships. Best of all, the fact we see the same incidents from differing perspectives forces us to acknowledge our own personal filters of experience. Not exactly a comfort read, but ultimately comforting.

Ideal accompaniments: a white wine spritzer, a tube of sour cream and chives Pringles and Gardeners’ Question Time on in the background.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Alan Bennett, Mike Leigh, David Nicholls.

Avoid if you don’t like: suburban domestic drama set in Peterborough.

Genre: General fiction

Available from Amazon

Cornish Killing by Chrissie Loveday


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

What we thought: A thoroughly entertaining crime novel, maybe not as gruesome as the title would suggest, and more of an adventure story than a hard-edge crime thriller, but still a really intriguing read which for me had echoes of an adult-version of an Enid Blyton story with missing persons, remote beaches and deserted cottages.

When city girl Emma Peterson travels to Cornwall to meet up with her friend, Charlie (who had recently been bequeathed a cottage by the sea in a relative’s will) she is distressed to find the cottage abandoned and no signs Charlie had ever arrived. Less than hospitable locals seem determined to force Emma to leave, but determined to make the police set up a serious attempt at finding her friend, Emma digs in her heels and stays. And soon wishes she hadn’t …

The author does an excellent job of balancing Emma’s fear and frustration against the wonderful backdrop of the Cornish coast, and it’s not long before the reader is as on edge as the characters!

I’d not read any of Chrissie Loveday’s writing beforehand, but found myself totally immersed in the story and desperate to find out the ending – always the best sign of a good crime novel. There are no blood, guts and gore in this novel, but it’s certainly worth a read for anyone who enjoys a well-woven crime story.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: MC Beaton, Enid Blyton, JJ Marsh.

Avoid if you don’t like: Creepy locals and deserted cottages.

Ideal accompaniments: Cornish pasty with cloudy cider.

Genre: Crime Fiction.

Available from Amazon

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz

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

What we thought: As a secret Stieg Larsson fan, I was excited to hear about the new novel ‘in-the-style’ of that was on the way. With a growing trend in crime fiction for revisiting the classics – from Sophie Hannah bringing Poirot back to life to Anthony Horowitz fabulous Sherlock Holmes revival – I was looking forward to delving back into the muddy waters surrounding Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

And did it tick all my boxes? Well …. almost.

Lagercrantz is clearly a devotee of Larsson himself and has spent a lot of time perfecting the original author’s style – i.e to be blunt using twenty-eight words when three would do. For the most part, it works, and is reminiscent of previous books in the Millennium series. There were a few times when I really did feel less is more, and that he’d tried just a little too hard to copy Larsson’s writing and in so doing over complicated the prose to a point where the reader was more frustrated and confused than content!

That aside, all other boxes were duly ticked. Characters announced themselves from the page in much the same way as Larsson first evoked Salander and Blomkvist. They were real, tangible and full of their usual foibles within the first few pages of introduction.

Plot too was very reminiscent of Larsson. The death of a Swedish scientist approaches Blomkvist to publish his lifestory in Millennium magazine, but before Mikael has chance to meet with the man, he is murdered and all leads to his work in the fascinating world of artificial intelligence disappear. And when Blomkvist discovers the scientist had been dealing previously with a world-renowned female hacker …. there was only one person it could be!

The author did a very clever job of winding past threads and characters from earlier books in the Millennium Trilogy back into this novel, and I found the ending gripping and satisfactory.

I’m not sure if there are more plans to revisit Salander and Blomkvist but I hope … theirs is a story that can run and run.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo, David Hewson.

Avoid if you don’t like: Espionage, artificial intelligence, computer hackers.

Ideal accompaniments: Pizza, microwave chips and lager.

Genre: Crime thriller.

Available from Amazon

The King's Sister by Anne O'Brien


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

What we thought: Another first time read of a new author to me. I saw favourable reviews of Anne O’Brien’s historical fiction novels online, and as a fan of Philippa Gregory decided to give her latest book a try – and I’m very glad I did!

The main character is Elizabeth of Lancaster, a young, strong-willed woman of Plantagenet blood. Set in 1382, at a time when England was teetering between monarchs, betraying the family rules was not sensible. But when Elizabeth falls in love, nothing will get in her way. Following her father’s strong allegiances, she finds herself among the Royal Court, in a sham marriage and yearning for a better life with the man of her dreams, John Holland.

But when the brother of one king marries the sister of his biggest rival – there can only be one outcome. Trouble.

The novel cleverly leads us through Elizabeth’s complicated life, showing how her loyalties were tested time and again. When a final call to take sides leads to the death of either her husband or her brother – which choice can she take?

I found the book very entertaining, and thought the period was evoked in very accurate detail and the characters expressed in great depth. Not always likeable, but always believable. The author crafted a real rollercoaster of emotions that led us on an amazing journey of betrayal and loyalty. I’m always fascinated by novels based on real people, and that was yet another reason why I found this book so riveting.

Another name to add to the growing list of authors on my TBR pile!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel.

Avoid if you don’t like: Medieval period, Royalty.

Ideal accompaniments: Real ale and roast venison.

Genre: Historical fiction.

Available from Amazon




Saturday, 17 October 2015

Some Rise by Sin by Courtney J. Hall

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

What we thought: I found Courtney J. Hall’s debut novel, Some Rise by Sin, highly entertaining. This historical romance takes place in 1558, during the dramatic end to Catholic Mary Tudor’s reign, the rise to the throne of her half-sister Elizabeth, and the ensuing turmoil this causes across the country.

The new Earl of Easton, Cade Badgley, is unhappily forced to take responsibility for his father’s rundown estate in dire financial troubles, and jumps at the chance to return to Mary Tudor’s court to accompany Samara, daughter of the wealthy Earl of Brentford, to find a husband.

But the strong-willed Samara prefers drawing pictures and swimming in lakes to choosing a suitable husband, and the Earl of Brentford’s naïve eldest daughter risks falling for a seducer with less than honourable intentions.

I would highly recommend this romantic tale, rich in historical detail and packed with religious and political turmoil to lovers of the Tudors looking for a fresh take on this period.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: strong female characters, factual history-based stories.

Avoid if you don’t like: the Tudors

Ideal accompaniments: glass of rich red wine with ripe cheese chunks on bread.

Genre: Historical Romance

Available on Amazon

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought:
It had never occurred to me – though I expect it should have done – that among the artists that flocked to Paris and Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s were many Black American jazz musicians who were unable to play to white audiences back home. Nor did I know that when the border between France and Germany in Alsace Lorraine was shifted once again following the Treaty of Versailles, the French sent in, not French soldiers, but soldiers from their colony in Senegal, some of whom inevitably started relationship with local women, resulting in mixed-race children – or ‘Mischling’.

Once the Nazis came to power in 1933, both groups found themselves in a perilous situation. Half Blood Blues is told through the eyes of Sid – a Black jazz bassist from Baltimore - and is primarily about Hiero, a young Mischling who may just be the best jazz trumpeter since Louis Armstrong.

Sid is now an old man. As he returns to Berlin to honour Hiero, whose music is being rediscovered by a new generation, he reluctantly recalls what happened as their group of musicians fled from Berlin to Paris, trying to stay ahead of the Nazis advance. What really became of Hiero, and what part did Sid play in his fate?

Canadian writer, Esi Edugyan, delivers a narrator whose voice is pitch perfect (five seasons of watching The Wire making it relatively easy to conjure the Baltimore accent in my head...)

Half Blood Blues explores notions of guilt, responsibility and sexual and artistic jealousy. It also unravels a little known aspect of a well-worn story, and one that deserves to be better understood.

A beautifully written book and one I will return to.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Cowards by Josef Škvorecký, 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

Avoid if you dislike: WWII stories, stories about musicians

Perfect Accompaniment: Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Dizzy Gillespie

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

The Devil on her Tongue by Linda Holeman

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

What We Thought: What a wonderful book! I am so glad to have been given the opportunity to read and review The Devil on her Tongue. This is the first book by Linda Holeman I have read but I will certainly be seeking out more. It’s a long book with a wide span covering the many vicissitudes of the heroine, Diamantina.

Though from different cultures (North African and Dutch), Diamantina’s parents both washed up on the shores of the Portugese island Porto Santo in the early years of the 18th century. Her mother, a former slave, is a curandeira – a healer, a midwife – and her father is a sailor thrown overboard for killing the abuser of a cabin boy. From this mixed parentage Diamantina learns both to use the herbs and potions of a wise woman, and to read and write and be astute in business. Staunchly individual, she forges her own path despite the disapproval of the local priest and the other islanders.

When her father leaves to mine diamonds in Brazil, Diamantina and her mother must somehow manage for themselves. Betrayed by the first young man she loves, Diamantina is forced to take on menial tasks in the church and in the inn. When her mother dies she marries a man she barely knows and moves to Madeira. And then her troubles really start.

A strong and capable young woman, she takes on the task of looking after her husband’s aging father and a young boy he brought home from Brazil. As the years pass she meets her first love again (who hasn’t improved), has her own child, works for a wine company, and gets caught up in the Lisbon earthquake.

At times I wanted Diamantina to speak up for herself more (though she does this a lot anyway) and explain how and why she came to act as she did. Her choices are often forced on her by circumstance yet she fully accepts responsibility for them. Her moral attitude and awareness of her own mistakes makes her blame herself when the reader is crying, ‘It’s not your fault!’

The Devil on her Tongue is a beautifully written novel. The prose is evocative and often poetic, the characters diverse, and the vast canvas of events makes for a substantial meaty read. The pace never falters and I found myself reading well into the night wanting to know what happened next. Excellent!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Sprawling historical novels with lots of action.

Avoid if you dislike: Books about strong women.

Ideal accompaniments: A glass of vintage Sercial with cinnamon sprinkled pastéis de nata.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Available on Amazon



Thursday, 1 October 2015

Mimes Chimes and Rhymes by Ian Graham

 
Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, Wasps & Scorpions: Luv Pomes and Other Lies and former judge of Flash 500 Humour Verse Comp. (http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.co.uk/)

What We Thought: Mimes Chimes and Rhymes is a quirky book featuring verses by Ian Graham and drawings by Emilie Vercruysse. A slight volume, it nevertheless has scope to be clever, funny and thought-provoking.

The verses tend to be short and to the point; the accompanying drawings are kitsch and sometimes sweet.

The poems offer a variety of line schemes to keep the reader interested and though seeming sometimes to be mere frivolities closer inspection reveals depth. They tackle verbal absurdities and play with the meanings of words and phrases; being more than puns however, they also delve into the meaning of life.

Well worth a look if you enjoy verse that takes a sideways look at things.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Playfulness with words.

Avoid if you dislike: Puns.

Ideal accompaniments: French Toast with a little cognac to taste.

Genre: Poetry, Humorous Verse.

Available from Amazon

Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA, by Luis J Rodriquez

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
Having just read Ryan Gattiss’s All Involved, his novel looking at the 1992 Los Angeles riots through the eyes of 17 members of the largely Chicano community of Lynwood in South Central LA, I thought I should look for something written by a member of that community. I found Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA by Luis J Rodriquez – a former gang member and now the Poet Laureate of LA.

While Gattis’s novel focuses on the 6 days of the riots, Rodriguez’s memoir takes place over more than three decades, and gives a broader view of the social, economic and political pressures that led to the rise of the gang culture and which continues to suck in the young.

I am in no position to compare Gattis’s and Rodriguez’s books in terms their portrayal of Chicano life. If there is a difference that struck me between the two accounts, it is that Gattis focuses on honour and revenge as a driving motive behind much of the violence he depicts, whereas the violence that Rodriguez experiences comes across, more often, as a random outpouring of rage against the poverty and injustice of their lives.

What both books share is the sense of wasted talent. Over and over, chinks appear in the darkness and Rodriguez starts to crawls towards the light. This intelligent, articulate, yet barely educated young man becomes involved, successively, in boxing, in urban art projects, in student politics. He even gets a book contract. But time and again, something hurls him back into the La Vida Loca. Sometimes it is his own demons of drink, drugs and despair. At other times it is the blind prejudice of the authorities, the violent aggression of the police or the bitter rivalry between different barrios that reopen the doors of hell.

In the end, Rodriguez escaped La Vida Loca. As he wrote, “There comes a moment when one faces the fresh features of an inner face, a time of conscious rebirth, when the accounting’s done, the weave in its final flourish, a time when a man stands before the world – vulnerable, nothing-owed – and considers his place in it. I had reached such a moment.”

Many years later, he wrote Always Running as a cautionary tale for his son, then 15, to warn him away from gang life – something which he failed to do. As he reveals in the foreword to the 2005 edition, his son is serving an 28 year term in jail for gang-related violence. But in other ways, the books has been vastly more successful. It has been recommended reading in schools, in prisons – and even assigned as part of offenders’ sentences. It is apparently one of the most checked out and most stolen books from US public libraries.

It has also achieved a spot on the American Library Association’s top 100 banned books list. That is perhaps not so surprising. Rodriguez’s account of La Vida Loca is raw – his depictions of sex, violence and drug taking sometimes eye-wateringly graphic. It needs to be. The life he depicts is real, and the young people the book is aimed at are living it.


You’ll Enjoy This if You Liked: East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle, Original Rude Boy by Neville Staple

Avoid if you dislike: Graphic depictions of sex, drugs and violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Large cheeseburger and fries and a stiff vodka

Genre: Non-Fiction

Available from Amazon

Leap the Wild Water by Jenny Lloyd

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought: Leap the Wild Water is a harrowing story, told with honesty and truth allowing the reader insight into another age, an age not long past, when womenkind were regarded as Eve’s true daughters, bent on tempting men to sin.

Set in early in 19th century Wales, this tragic, yet uplifting story centres on Megan Jones, daughter to a viciously religious mother. Her once close younger brother, Morgan, is heavily influenced by his overbearing mother. Manipulated into following orders that deep down he knows are wrong, he is filled with regret. He accepts that what’s done cannot be undone, but the deed preys on his mind, casting a heavy shadow not only on his life, but that of his older sister. Too late he realises the evil he has done. He has chosen the primrose path, and knows just where that path leads.

The consequences of this cruel act is dramatically portrayed by the author in vivid exciting prose. This debut novel, inspired by her fascination for social psychology and the real-life struggles of women in her family’s past, is a grippingly tense read. Megan is a strong woman, wanting freedom in a society of denial and discrimination, a freedom denied by the very fact that she is female.

Historically accurate, strongly written this is a book that needs to be read and treasured.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Hardy, Dickens and Wilkie Collins

Avoid if you don’t like: Heart-stopping tension and utter involvement in characters and plot

Ideal accompaniments: A slice of bara brith and Glengetti tea sipped from a bone china cup.

Genre: Literary fiction. Historical

Available from Amazon

Friday, 25 September 2015

Stolen by Lisa C Hinsley

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought
: Want something shockingly original, with thrills and frights in abundance, something you can’t stop reading, something that you must keep reading until you reach that very last word? Read Lisa Hinsley’s novel, Stolen.

One of the great reads, this book. Cleverly written to sound so everyday, so natural that when the shocks happen, they freeze and frighten. The slow build up that leads to skin-creeping fear is masterly.

Thirty year old Emily travels to Scotland after a year of mourning, wanting to escape her mother’s cloying sympathy and her father’s relieved ‘perhaps it was for the best.’ Emotionally battered, she encounters an older, dependable, good looking man that she instinctively trusts. Accepting his offer to chill out, relax and heal her aching heart by spending time on his Shetland island, she does in fact find peace. All too soon that peace is shattered by the discovery that she’s been lied to and manipulated. By the time she realises how foolish she’d been, it’s way too late.

It’s the authentic details, the powerful writing that make the story so readable and so very believable. It makes you feel that it really could happen to you.

Hinsley, the author of the enthralling bestseller Plague, certainly does not disappoint with this new offering.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The books of James Herbert

Avoid if you don’t like: Horror stories that could so easily happen... to you.

Ideal accompaniments: A roaring fire, a bottle of brandy, Stilton and crackers.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Thriller.

Available from Amazon

All Involved by Ryan Gattis

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Eleven years after the Brixton riots, nineteen years before the London riots, Los Angeles exploded. Following the following the acquittal of police officers who had been videoed beating a young black man, Rodney King, the city erupted in riots that lasted for six days. In a city with just 7,900 police to over 100,000 gang members, and where guns – including automatic weapons – were available with chilling ease, those riots resulted in 53 deaths, over 2,000 injuries and $1B worth of damage to property.

Ryan Gattis’s novel, All Involved, begins on the evening of the first day and the story passes from one narrator to the next. Victims of violence, perpetrators, onlookers, a nurse, a fireman, a homeless man, a member of the military squads that were brought in to quell the violence – seventeen in all are given voice.

This is not the place to come to try and understand the causes of the riots, or to see the bigger picture. Rather, the novel focuses on one neighbourhood - the Chicano (Mexican American) district of Lynwood in South Central LA – and on one particular chain of events, starting with the brutal murder of a taco salesman who just happens to be brother to two gang members.

What happens next has almost nothing to do with Rodney King and everything to do with “a sweaty, hot feeling of we-can-do-whatever... [that] feels like way too much coffee.”

Gattis is not a Latino ex-gang member, but a white boy from Colorado. Inspiration came when he spent time as part of a street-art gang in LA. As he said in an interview in the Guardian:

“The most fascinating people want to talk to you when you’re working on a wall in a neighbourhood… Over time, the riots came up, and they always reacted as if it were an unhealed wound… as if they were still processing 20 years later.”

Gattis challenges the reader to think about myriad pressures that could make one twelve year old child desperate to be part of a violent gang while another just wants to get as far away as possible; or that make it imperative for one violent act to be met with another, yet more brutal, in a cycle of violence that feels unstoppable.

There is a huge sense of wasted talent here. Of intelligent, passionate young people who, in another environment would be writers, artists, musicians, scientists, engineers, but whose lives here have been circumscribed by poverty, lack of opportunity, and a desperate scrabble for the crumbs from the table of a very different America.

As Gattis said in an interview for Esquire:

“Violence, crime, riots, chaos—that does not negate family and love and loyalty and hope ... If anything, the darkness makes those things more incandescent.

The hardest part about reading this book is the knowledge that – with the grim events of 2015 – so little has changed in twenty years. Sadly, I suspect few in the LA’s Black and Latino populations would be surprised by that.

As gang leader Big Fate says, "Welcome to my America, chabron."


I am in no position to judge how accurate this portrait of Chicano gang culture is. If you want to read something in the authentic voice of LA, try Always Running by Luis J. Rodriguez, (an ex-gang member and Poet Laureate of Los Angeles) or Monster: the autobiography of an LA gang member, by Sanyika Shakur.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle; Feral Youth by Polly Courtney; Trainspotting by Irving Welsh

Avoid If You Dislike: Graphic violence, drug use and extreme bad language. Books written in street slang.

Perfect accompaniment: Enchiladas with cold beer

Genre: Literary Fiction, Modern Historical Fiction, Urban Realism


Stalin's Englishman, by Andrew Lownie


Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought:

On one hand, anyone with an interest in the 1930 to 1950s Cambridge/Moscow spy ring of Philby, Blunt, Maclean, Caincross and Burgess must wonder if there is anything left to say. On the other, there is such an evergreen fascination with the spies, the politics, the morality and the culture which fostered such a scandal, readers still wonder how it happened. 
And after reading this book, I wonder how much has changed in the last 100 years.

Andrew Lownie is an expert biographer and tells his version from the centre – Guy Burgess. Drunk, gay, promiscuous, indiscreet, unkempt and ‘a natural liar’, Burgess is an extraordinary character, both outside and inside the establishment, equally charming and repulsive. In addition, the depiction of the social structure and strata of the times illuminates an intriguing (in every sense) set of circumstances which propelled such an individual into a position of alarming power. A portrait of a man, his time and social class.

What is added to a life already picked over and exposed is the hall of mirrors Burgess himself created. He batted for both sides, but neither trusted him. His background and education shaped a personality with an ego all his own. Duplicitous and charming, this man was a player, and one far more significant, according to Lownie, than previously assumed.

An absorbing read, strong on research and new perspectives, peppered with wit and humour, you emerge from this book enlightened and entertained by one man’s exceptional lives.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked:
Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges, The Mitford Girls, by Mary S. Lovell, Present Indicative by Sheridan Morley

Avoid if you don’t like: British history, real characters, the realities of spying

Ideal accompaniments: Pimms, kedgeree and Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice

Genre: Biography, non-fiction

Available on Amazon

Friday, 18 September 2015

The Chessmen by Peter May

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

What we thought: Another wonderful novel from Peter May, and although it took me a while to get around to reading this, the third and final book in The Lewis Trilogy, I’m sad to say goodbye to Fin McLeod.

In The Chessmen, Fin has settled permanently on his Hebridean childhood home of Lewis, and has been employed by a local landowner to oversee security on the estate and tackle the problem they have with poachers. Before long, Fin finds himself caught up in another crime where the legacy of the past comes back to chase down a killer. A bog burst reveals the remains of a light aircraft and the body of a victim that has lain submerged for decades.

A superbly crafted tale of revenge, that again makes perfect use of location to bring the story alive. Again, the characters jump off the page and it’s interesting to see how Fin’s idea of an idyllic new start begins to unwind around him. 

I listened to the audiobook version and the talents of Peter Forbes really brought the novel to life. Peter May is fast becoming one of my favourite popular crime writers, with his blend of originality, smooth prose and likeable characters.

It’s a real shame this is the final book featuring this detective, and I hope Peter May decides to bring him back to life at some point.

Anyone who loves a gripping, and excellently written, crime thriller will enjoy this novel.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Ann Cleeves, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson.

Avoid if you don’t like: Scottish locations and twists and turns!

Ideal accompaniments: Smoked Scottish salmon and a single malt.

Genre: Crime Fiction.

Available from Amazon