Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

Reviewer: JW Hicks author of Rats

What we thought: If you appreciate Laurie Lee’s lyrical prose then you will treasure this book.

The Shepherd’s Life tells the real story of farmers; their traditional way of life, the fight against the industrialisation of farming, and the cheapening of food by supermarkets. It’s a tough, warts-and-all tale of the dedication, and great love, that a farmer has for his land and livestock.

Rebanks describes a year in a farmer’s life, starting in Summer; ending in Spring. In amongst the non-stop drudgery of impossible to ignore tasks such as laying hedges, hanging gates, bathing sheeps’ feet, trimming muck from their tails and cleaning roof gutters, we learn of his personal history, how he went from a boy who despised school, teachers and book learning to gaining a degree at Oxford University, and we also learn of his family who have farmed Cumbrian land for hundreds of years.

Woven through The Shepherd’s Life are strands expressing not only his frustration that small-scale farming families feel their income and place in society is slipping away, but the author’s anger at the public’s and policy makers’ failure to respect a culture based on community and shared land.

Rebanks writing is lyrical, descriptive and a joy to read. Of his time in the classroom he writes: I was thirteen or so years old, sitting surrounded by a mass of other academic non-achievers, listening to an old battle-weary teacher lecturing us on how we should aim to be more that just farm workers, joiners, brickies, electricians and hairdressers. It felt like a sermon she’d delivered many times before. It was a waste of time and she knew it. We were firmly set, like our fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers before us, on being what we were and had always been. Plenty of us were bright enough, but we had no intention of displaying it at school. It would have been dangerous.
And of his great love of the land he farms: There is no beginning, and there is no end. The sun rises, and falls, each day, and the seasons come and go. The days, months and years alternate through sunshine, rain, hail, wind, snow and frost. The leaves fall each autumn and burst forth again each spring. The earth spins through the vastness of space. The grass comes and goes with the warmth of the sun, The farms and the flocks endure, bigger than the life of a single person. We are born, live our working lives and die, passing like the oak leaves that blow across our land in the winter. We are each a tiny part of something enduring, something that feels solid, real and true. Our farming way of life has roots deeper than five thousand years into the soil of this landscape.

I enjoyed every word and every well written phrase in The Shepherd's Life, and I am confident you will too.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.

Avoid if you don’t like: Gritty tales of the hardship of an age-old way of life worked in a modernised society ignorant and uncaring of its true worth.

Ideal accompaniments: A roaring fire, a strong wind howling outside, and dripping toast for tea.

Genre: Non-fiction

Available from Amazon

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: It is a rare thing to find a book that conjures a world completely in its opening sentences and then builds and maintains that world to the very last page. It’s even rarer for an author, having done so once, to pull off the trick again with a second, completely different world.

I was bowled over by the opening to Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. From the moment that Sugar beckoned to me from the shadowy world of London’s Victorian slums, I would have followed her anywhere. But the last thing I would have expected was that the next journey Faber would take me on would be to a far flung planet at the limits of human exploration, at some unidentified time in our not-too-distant future.

The Book of Strange New Things is the story of Peter, former drug addict and thief turned pastor, who leaves his wife behind on Earth to travel to a planet called Oasis. The indigenous population, small, roughly humanoid and seemingly benign, have a thirst for the Bible (which they call The Book of Strange New Things) and for the ‘technique of Jesus.’

Despite the strangeness of his new world, Peter, it seems, has landed the cushiest missionary job in the history of Christianity. Back on Earth, things are not going so well for his wife, Bea. Disasters, climactic and economic, are striking closer and closer to home, and it’s clear that the social order is breaking down. Their only contact is via the Shoot, a fragile electronic link that allows them to write letters to each other over billions of miles. But Peter, absorbed in his mission, is increasingly disengaged from his wife’s distress.

The book could be seen as an exploration of the different types of love – especially agape (the love of man for God and God for man), eros (sexual love) and philia (love or affection among equals). It is also an exceptional exploration of a species in some ways more essentially alien than many science fiction authors have attempted. The truth behind the Oasans’ passion for Christianity, when finally revealed, is heartbreaking in its simplicity.

If this is, indeed, as Faber has declared, his last novel, then together with The Crimson Petal and the White, The Book of Strange New Things will stand as evidence of an extraordinary, fertile imagination and a compassionate heart. But I really hope that, sometime in the future, he might be persuaded to change his mind. Because I would love to know where he might take me next.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederick Pohl, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

Avoid if you don’t like: Religion, Sci Fi, or mixing religion with your Sci Fi.

Ideal accompaniments: A loaf of fresh bread and a tall glass of water

Genre: Literary Fiction, Sci-Fi

Available from Amazon

Silent Scream by Angela Marsons

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit & Crimson Shore (

What we thought: There’s always a thrill when you read a new author for the first time, especially, for me, a new crime writer. I’d seen a lot of buzz online about Angela Marsons and so I had high hopes for Silent Scream – and I wasn’t disappointed.

A gripping opening to a fast-paced story, believable characters, clever plotline – and the prerequisite twists and turns that leave the reader unbalanced – added to a really enjoyable read.

This is the first book in a new detective series, which introduces us to the main character Detective Kim Stone. Kim has issues, as most good fictional detectives have, plus a troubled history which makes the hardness of her character seem very real. Although we touched on her past, we learn little about her present, so I look forward to seeing the character develop in subsequent books.

An abandoned children’s home set the scene for some grisly finds, and as I come from the edges of the ‘Black Country’ I was secretly delighted to find a book based in the area. The narrative was well told, and kept me gripped and guessing right to the end. The author fed in enough ‘red herrings’ that it could have been any of a number of suspects – that said I was satisfied with the ending and thought all of the loose ends were handled superbly.

The writing was of excellent quality, and I would highly recommend this to crime fans and really look forward to reading Evil Games (Detective Kim Stone Crime Thriller series book 2) which will be published later this year.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Ann Cleeves, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid.

Avoid if you don’t like: Black Country accents and cold case thrillers.

Ideal accompaniments: Fish, chips and mushy peas washed down with a pint of Mild.

Genre: Crime Fiction.

Available from Amazon

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: Back in summer 2013, Terry Pratchett came to Beaconsfield Library. He and Rob Wikins, his close friend and assistant, had just sent off the first draft of Raising Steam to their editor. Rob read a passage from near the beginning, when the Discworld gets its first glimpse of a steam train.

“The bystanders, most of whom were by now byrunners, and in certain instances bystampeders, fled and complained, except of course for every little boy of any age who followed it with eyes open wide, vowing there and then that he would be the captain of the terrible noxious engine, oh yes, indeed!”

It’s clear on every page of this book that Terry and Rob are still at heart small boys goggling at a locomotive. The love of steam is woven into every passage.

Raising Steam sees the return of Moist von Lipwig, former conman and thief, whose gift of getting along with people of all species have led him to run, in turn, Ankh-Morpork’s Post Office, Clacks, Bank, Mint – and now the Ankh-Morpork and Sto Plains Hygenic Railway. Under the (largely) benign direction of Vetenari, he finds himself in partnership with engineering genius, Dick Simnel, and serial entrepreneur Sir Harry King, the King of the Golden River (formerly Piss Harry).

What begins as an idea to build a line from Ankh-Morpork to Sto Lat, to enable fresh produce to be brought to the city before it spoils, becomes a race against time to build a line all the way to Uberwald when the Low King of the Dwarfs is overthrown by extremists.

But like all Discworld books, this is so much more than a story about the building of a railway. With his sights as firmly as ever on our world, in this, his last adult Discworld novel, Pratchett tackles terrorism and religious fundamentalism. It’s perhaps not his most subtle dig ever, but when the grags – the deep dwarfs that want to bring down the modern world - destroy one of clacks towers on which Ankh-Morpork’s communications depend, Vetanari’s response is “This isn’t war. This is a crime.”

One theme that has run through all the Discworld novels is the redemption of species once regarded with fear and suspicion. Trolls, werewolves, vampires - they've all been given a chance to show that they, too, are just as human as the rest of us. And now it is the turn of the goblins, first introduced in Unseen Academicals and enlarged upon in Snuff, to complete their road to hero status. For it turns out the goblins are very good mechanics indeed, as well as determined fighters.

In fact the only species I can think of who have never been redeemed by Pratchett are the Elves, who in Lords and Ladies turned out to be very unpleasant indeed. Perhaps in the Discworld’s very last outing, Shepherd’s Crown, (the fourth and last Tiffany Aching book, to be published in September) they too may get their chance.

I can’t wait.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Any of Terry Pratchett's books, especially the Moist von Lipwig stories (Going Postal, Making Money); The Titfield Thunderbolt (film)

Avoid if you don’t like: Satire based on a fantasy world.

Ideal accompaniments: A cup of tea and a bacon sandwich, cooked on the stoker's shovel.

Genre: Humour, Satire

Available from Amazon

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Reviewer: JW Hicks, author of Rats

What we thought: That this is a futuristic novel that engenders hope in the survival of human spirit.

Station Eleven, written by Emily St John Mandel, was nominated for the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

This dystopian novel is set in the days of the World’s total collapse, brought about by the fast-spreading and unstoppable Georgia Flu, which kills 99.99 percent of the population.

Mandel tells the tale through an interconnected web of characters, amongst them, Arthur Leander, an actor past his prime playing King Lear, who dies of a heart attack as the flu erupts; Jeevan who gives Leander CPR in attempt to save his life; Kirsten a child actor in the same production, who acts in post-apocalypse Shakespearian performances and Miranda who creates the hand-drawn comic called Station Eleven which miraculously survives, becoming both a totem of the old world and a distorted mirror of the new.

These characters and a host of others weave a magical, totally absorbing story of individual triumph against seemingly unsurmountable odds – characters that are skeins of colour in the grey tapestry of post-apocalyptic life in the years that follow Armageddon.

The story looks at both the pre-flu time and Year Twenty, when the flu has abated and the survivors have settled into isolated communities – and the Travelling Symphony of musicians and actors who go from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare plays.

Gradually the character-skeins grow in colour, illustrating their interconnectivity and underpinning this wonderful, soul-satisfying story – a story that connects the two time frames, the then and the now.

The skein which represents Arthur Leander, links characters and events in subtle, hidden ways, helping usher the story to a satisfying conclusion, a conclusion that offers the reader the prospect of a brighter and more hopeful future.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: John Wyndham’s oeuvre. John Christopher’s Death of Grass. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Avoid if you don’t like: Futuristic revelations.

Ideal accompaniments: Comfort food and a warm cat.

Genre: Dystopian. Sci-Fi.

Available on Amazon

The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician by Tendai Huchu

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought:

The stories of three Zimbabwean men in Edinburgh is intriguing and unusual. The Magistrate used to dispense justice back home. Here, he cleans the toilet. The Mathematician makes money and indulges himself in the belief he won’t be here for long. The Maestro collects shopping trollies in Tesco’s car park and reads. The three men’s lives intersect and cross, meeting the challenges of a different culture with varying measures of success.

This book is rounded, measured and smart, and anything but a miserable tale of immigrant isolation. Intelligence and thought shine off the page via these layered and introspective characters. Farai’s casual sexism and judgemental views are offset by his willingness to engage with the old man in the café. The Magistrate’s adaptation to his changed circumstances is beautifully encapsulated in his memories of the maid. The Maestro’s gradual retreat from the world in search of meaning in books is slow, heart-breaking and completely plausible.

Whilst the main characters are more than enough to grip your attention, the supporting cast add still more light, shade and laughter. Alfonso, the rodent Del Boy alcoholic, is infuriating and hilarious at once. Tatyana, the Maestro’s Polish friend who would be more, is alternately invasive and vulnerable. One of the most powerful personalities in the book is Edinburgh itself. Huchu uses the city to the full: its people, its architecture, its humour.

The bittersweet ending left me sorry to leave these people and this place, but curious to read more by this talented, sly and unpredictable writer. Tendai Huchu is one to watch.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Bridge by Iain Banks, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín.

Avoid if you dislike: Change, perspectives on politics and change, thinking.

Ideal accompaniments: A full Scottish breakfast, rock shandy and Baobab Gateway.

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Bones by Michael Prince

Reviewer: JW Hicks author of Rats

What we thought: Ben is sixteen, it’s Summer in Caernarfon and he is friendless. Transplanted from Manchester to a Welsh speaking area when his parents buy a rundown pub, he is totally adrift, finding it difficult to make friends in a school where the language is determinedly Welsh.

Working with his father to renovate the Ceffyl Du pub, Ben discovers the bones of a child hidden in a blocked chimney. Given the task of disposing of them, he is landed firmly on the horns of a dilemma. Should he go against his own conscience and obey his father or do what he feels is right – report the find to the proper authorities?
His worry over what to do with the bones leads to great unease, and this is when the story strays into unearthly realms.

As well as being tormented by his decision, Ben has to acclimatise to his new school and a completely different way of life. While dealing with tearaways Skids, Dilys and Sospan, and in order to get to know Haf, the attractive girl in his English Literature class, Ben must get to know his own mind and work out the person he wants to be.

Prince’s smoothly unfolding story, written in teen-friendly prose, steers the reader through this ofttimes spectrally chill tale with consummate ease.

The Bones is a guide book for children making their way from teens to adulthood; an inspiring read for parents and teenagers alike.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The novels of Brian Keaney.

Avoid if you don’t like: Stories with psychic undertones.

Ideal accompaniments: A couple of Kit-Kats and a flagon of fizzy pop.

Genre: YA

Available from Amazon

Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones

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

What we thought: Translated from Spanish, and set in 14th century Barcelona around the building of the magnificent Santa Maria del Mar––Cathedral of the Sea––in the Ribera district, I really enjoyed this book.

The main character, Arnau Estanyol is the son of a fugitive peasant who starts out as a lowly porter, carrying stones for the building of this cathedral. Arnau’s luck turns when King Pedro makes him a baron as a reward for his courage in battle. But the king also forces him to marry Eleonor, one of his wards, with who Arnau is not in love. His new-found social status and riches incite jealousy from those around him, who set about bringing Arnau down, all with terrible consequences.

Arnau's journey from slave to nobleman is the story of a struggle of good versus evil, Church versus State and brother versus brother.

I was impressed with Falcones’ knowledge of 14th century traditions, commerce and culture and his detailed research shines though in this rich and fascinating portrait of medieval society.

An epic tale of war, love, treason, plague, anti-Semitism and the Inquisition, I would recommend this to readers enjoying historical fiction of this era.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Epic historical adventures like Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.

Avoid if you don’t like: Stories in which almost every female suffers agonisingly.

Ideal accompaniments: Robust glass of vino tinto and tapas.

Genre: Historical Fiction in translation

Available from Amazon

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Land Beyond Goodbye and Don’t Look Down (

What We Thought: If I had read only the first 300 pages of this novel I would have said it was undiluted genius. However … but more of that later.

There is genius here – Suttree, the protagonist, is a superbly imagined character. Veering between riverfishing and drunkeness, he is his own worst enemy. Having broken from his well-to-do family, abandoned his wife and child, done jailtime and settled for selling catfish to local fishmongers for a living, he seems to have achieved a kind of peace. The action takes place in the early 1950s when Suttree is around 30. He works a stretch of the Tennessee river near Knoxville, where he lives on a leaky houseboat. McCarthy’s descriptions of the river – even of its filth and flotsam – render it beautiful.

Occasionally things seem to be going well for Suttree – he receives a legacy, or he pimps out his girlfriend (I said there was a ‘However’) and he struts a while in new clothes. But just when you’re rooting for him to turn his life around, he meets up with his pals from the wrong side of town and goes on another bender. The clothes are torn, his body is battered and the arm of the law reaches out to him again.

Sutree is a likeable character (most of the time – see below). He looks out for his friends, buys them booze when he’s in the money, helps them hide the bodies. And his friends are loyal to him – when he’s short of cash, someone will buy him a beer or hand him some hooch.

Though sadness and despair are never far away, this novel is often hilarious. Suttree’s pals are great characters in their own right – especially Harrogate whose adventures in the melon patch are laugh out loud funny.

But what about the pages that come after the first 300 or so? Well, there’s still a lot to like; unfortunately there’s a lot that’s uncomfortable reading too. Suttree (and his creator McCarthy) is seriously misogynistic. More so than a man of his time might be expected to be. What comes across most strongly is that McCarthy himself, not just his character, really hates and fears women. There’s probably a touch of racism and homophobia too, but not much more than you would find in any novel of the period – it’s the feminine he really can’t cope with.

So, read and enjoy the first 300-odd pages – and if you love words, and love fine writing, and welcome great characters and bizarre events, you will not be disappointed. But once Suttree takes up with the musselfisher’s daughter, McCarthy’s distrust of the female starts to reveal itself more blatantly.

Please don’t let this put you off though. It would be a shame to let the writer’s inability to curb his prejudices in this semi-autobiographical novel make you miss out on such an otherwise great book.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Fine writing, original phraseology and word usage, wry humour.

Avoid if you dislike: Mostly male characters, drunkenness.

Ideal accompaniments: Beer, whiskey, moonshine, hooch, more beer.

Genre: Literary Fiction

Saturday, 4 April 2015

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: “Those who know me now will be surprised to learn that I was a greater talker as a child,” Rose begins. “When you think of two things to say, pick your favourite and only say that, my mother suggested once, as a tip to polite social behaviour, and the rule was later modified to one in three.”

Rose is an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life. There was something unique about Rose's sister, Fern, and for the first five years of their lives, the two were constantly tested and observed by their psychologist father and a large cohort of grad students.

Now at college, Rose is no longer a talker but a loner. We first encounter her on the day she meets Harlow, storming into the student cafeteria and tearing up a storm to break up with her boyfriend. The way that Rose reacts to Harlow’s behaviour is, with hindsight, highly significant.

This is a tricky book to review. 77 pages in, the narrator throws a curve ball at you. You may guess what that curve ball is before you get there, but it won’t be me that told you. You’ll have to work it out for yourself.

For those first 77 pages, it’s easy to imagine this is just another story about a dysfunctional American middle-class family. From p77 onwards, it unfolds into something more complex, and more challenging to our view of ourselves as humans and custodians of the planet.

Like many stories with an unreliable narrator, it unfolds in a non-linear way. Rose revisits her past, and in particular the crucial point when Fern disappears from her life, at least twice, her perspective altering each time.

Woven through the story are questions about the ethics of scientific experimentation, guilt, responsibility, and the fallible nature of memory. It is not, as novels with scientists at the centre often are, unsympathetic to science. But neither does it let scientists off the hook.

If all this makes it sound like science fiction, it’s not. It’s a leap of imagination, but grounded squarely in 20th and 21st Century reality. It’s poignant, funny, and may leave you feeling a little uncomfortable.

You’ll enjoy this if you love: Ann Tyler, Carol Shields

Avoid if you dislike: a challenge to your view of yourself as human

Perfect Accompaniment: Banana cream pie, eaten in a diner in the middle of night with rain streaming down the windows

Genre: Lit fic

Available from Amazon

Broken People by Ioana Visan

Reviewer: JW Hicks author of Rats.

What we thought: That the synopsis states the absolute truth:– You don’t always get what you want, but if you’re lucky, you might get what you need.

And, Anything is possible in a world of Broken People.

Broken People – Visan’s futuristic heist story, set in a war-ravaged and bitterly divided world, where the injured rely on expensive and increasingly rare prosthetics. A world where the cost of fitting and maintaining the prosthetics is rocketing, and trained technicians increasingly rare.

Dale Armstrong and his partner in crime, Cole, plan to rob the Hrad,an ancient castle reputed to hold fabulous artifacts, soon to be open to the public for one week only. When Cole is badly injured before the heist is to take place, Dale, in desperate need to fix his partner is forced to turn to the Golden Lady for help. She agrees, but the cost is far higher than he could ever imagine.

The Golden Lady, a power player in the city, has her own very particular agenda. She allows Dale entrée toThe Nightingale Circus, where Big Dino rules over his technicians and outré performers with a rod of iron.

Involved, entangled and trapped, Cole’s journey to fulfill his plan weaves a convoluted path through deceit, diversions and disasters. En route he has to deal with strongly individual and off-the-wall characters such as Aurora, the golden-armed lady, the magician Nicholas who is far more than he seems, the enigmatic Ceilo, and the monstrous Big Dino’s scary techs, Rake and Spinner.

This startlingly inventive novel is a must for sci-fi, dystopian, and cyber-fiction fans. Visan draws the reader into this broken world with consummate ease, endowing her characters with solidity and depth and drawing the reader with an unbreakable thread through the twists and turns of an unforgettable story.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Novels which echo Gibson and Cadigan. And futuristic thrillers like Mad Max.

Avoid if you don’t like: Cybernetic humans and circus freaks.

Ideal accompaniments: A plate of fancies, numerous cups of strong coffee and an absence of interruptions, because you won’t be able to stop reading this thrill-ride.

Available from Amazon

Half Truths and White Lies by Jane Davis

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

What we thought: Jane Davis’s first book, and well-deserved of the Daily Mail First Novel Award, this is only the latest in her range of amazing literary novels, all of which I have enjoyed.

I love the author’s captivating style of storytelling.

I love her characters, who come alive on the page and who, by the end of the book I feel I know personally.

And I am intrigued by her deftly-handled complex plotlines.

When main character, Andrea, loses her parents, she becomes interested in her family history, uncovering many half truths and white lies along the way.

Narrated from Andrea’s point of view, as well as her aunt, Faye, and her father’s friend, Uncle Pete, we see each character, and their perceptions of each other, very differently.

A thought-provoking and beautifully-crafted story that explores family, friendship, love, grief and life in their many guises. Enthralling right to the end.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Literary stories by novelists such as Anne Tyler and Kate Atkinson.

Avoid if you don’t like: character-driven novels that don’t necessarily end well.

Ideal accompaniments: chilled glass of white wine and comfy armchair (as you won’t be moving for a while)

Genre: literary fiction

Available from Amazon