Friday, 19 June 2015

A Funeral for an Owl by Jane Davis


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

What we thought: I’m not sure why it took me so long to read one of this author’s books, but I am extremely glad I finally did.

Everything about this novel surprised me - from the title to the final page it was a joy. A story that weaves three unlikely characters together in a gripping web. After the stabbing of teacher, Jim Stevens, in the schoolyard we see incidents unravel through the eyes of 14-year old Shamayal Thomas whose character is a total revelation. Despite breaking down innumerable barriers, rules and taboos he somehow manages to bring together Jim and another teacher, Ayisha Emmanuelle, who all find strength in each following the stabbing event and subsequent repercussions.

The flashbacks to Jim’s early life, while he struggles with life and death in hospital, are poignant and moving, and add yet another level of intensity to the novel.

There are so many layers in this novel to enjoy, so many subtleties that make you laugh aloud and wallow in the enjoyment of super writing. Characterisation sparkles like a diamond, each individual comes to life and breathes emotion in the storyline. Excellent pacing, excellent use of language and excellent social awareness made this a joy to read.

If you want to laugh and cry and stamp and cheer – all in the space of a few hours of reading – then this book is one for you. Highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Polly Courtney, Ali Smith, Claire Fuller.

Avoid if you don’t like: Savvy teenagers and broken hearts.

Ideal accompaniments: Burger and fries with a Diet Coke.

Genre: Literary Fiction.

The Argentinian Virgin by Jim Williams

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: Once again Jim Williams pulls off a magnificent feat. The Argentinian Virgin is dreamlike book of memories and insights which flashes back and forward in time. Though reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald’s work it is more homage than pastiche.

In the summer of 1941 the young narrator, Pat Byrne, takes a small house on the French Riveria to write. France is occupied by the Germans but Pat, being Irish, is a neutral as are the four glamorous Americans he falls in with. Pat attends the Americans’ drinking parties and finds himself admiring ‘Lucky’ Tom Rensselaer, a man of Gatsby-like mysteriousness.

Tom himself falls for the Argentinian virgin of the title – a young woman who lives with her mother in a crumbling villa further up the cliff. The ‘Argentinians’ are allegedly awaiting the return of their husband/father who is missing on some unspecified business. Tom Rensselaer is a man who espouses a certain moral code – as evidenced by his reaction to the fall and death of a young boy early in the novel. By holding these particular views on good and evil and allowing himself to be drawn in to the problematic lives of the two women he seals his own future.

When a greatly disliked Spanish businessman turns up dead, life in the various villas becomes strained and cracks start to appear in relationships. Tom does not want to believe the two women are responsible for the death – but if they aren’t there must be an unknown third person in the equation.

This ‘testament to doomed youth’ novel is both a love story and a murder mystery. It is a novel of langorous prose and tales of golden youth and golden days where the tarnish to come is not quite hidden. We see it all through Pat Byrne’s eyes but does he himself understand what he sees?

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Avoid if you dislike: Sensuous, lyrical writing.

Ideal accompaniments: Whiskey, cocktails, G&T.

Genre: Literary, Mystery

Available from Amazon

Deadwater And Other Weird Tales by David A. Sutton

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought: This collection of tales, written in suitably eclectic styles, is oddly fascinating and at the same time extremely disturbing.

The stories, set in varied times and places, run the gamut of weirdness. Not only are readers transported to the past, projected into the future, but are also confronted by present day eeriness.

From spectral sightings in today’s Wales, the stories veer back and forth in time. Sent back to Caledonia we visit a dying mage, sent to the 19th century Gold Coast we see the result of a witch doctor’s curse, in the Caribbean we meet voodoo priests and zombies and in Victorian Britain we read a highly original interpretation of the Jack the Ripper legend.

Interspersed between these mysterious tales we read of alien abductions, a malevolent Father Christmas, and of a time when nature is regarded as ‘untidy’ and is routinely destroyed by android ‘ghosts’. Finally there is a story which tells of the first manned mission to Mars. As this haunting tale of loneliness and mental turmoil enfolds, the reader becomes laced in a web of doom; but beware, the powerful ending packs a mighty punch.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Spooky stories that keep you awake nights.

Avoid if you don’t like: Horrors that haunt your dreams.

Ideal accompaniments: A litre bottle of Courvoisier V.S. Cognac

Genre: Horror

Available from Amazon

Friday, 12 June 2015

The Snow Angel by Lulu Taylor

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: I’m going to start this review with the dreaded words ‘I don’t normally read this type of book’; it was given to me so I picked it up and gave it a go – and I have to admit I’m glad I did. I started reading with a whole raft of prejudices (love story, women’s novel, not literary etc etc) but soon started to enjoy it.

The writing is perfectly acceptable without being sparkling or outstanding in any way and to my mind a little more editing wouldn’t have gone amiss but what I really liked about this is that the author, Lulu Taylor, has excellent storytelling skills. I was soon drawn in to it – almost against my will.

This is the story of two women fifty years apart and a family property called December House. The present day part is about Emily, whose husband Will has invested foolishly and through greed has lost everything they have. Emily’s well-to-do London life comes crashing down.

The tormented Will soon ends up in a coma, though, conveniently getting rid of him so we can follow Emily’s adventures in her new life. A total stranger has left her a property in Cumbria – December House – and Emily (who must be down to her last £50,000 or so and therefore in dire straits) takes her two children up there to start anew. Once there she meets a local farmer to whom she is strangely attracted even though he is not her type at all. She also attempts to uncover the mystery of why she has been left December House.

The other, interwoven part, is set in 1962. Cressida is also well off but her mother is dying and her father is so strict she almost has no life of her own (despite an odd foray into voluntary teaching). When Father suggests she get a portrait painted, she is at first reluctant. After the initial sitting, however, she is hooked. The handsome painter, Ralph and his wife Catherine fascinate her. This pair exist in a kind of genteel poverty – the kind that allows them to live in a charming little flat and drink champagne in the delightful garden.

Naturally Cressida falls for Ralph and he seems to have fallen for her. When her mother dies, Cressie inherits December House and heads to Cumberland to escape both her father and the artist’s irate wife.

I realise I am injecting a somewhat facetious note into this review but that’s simply because I enjoyed it very much despite its rose tinted view of life when the chips are down.

There are some great moments of tension at December House, in both parts of the book, and I found myself reading late into the night to find out what would happen next. The weakest part of the novel, for me, was the explanation of the mystery. I won’t give it away but I felt that there needed to be a much more powerful reason for the subterfuge. However, this did not stop me fully enjoying The Snow Angel – even if part of that enjoyment involved thinking up even nastier reasons for the cover up.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Unchallenging mysteries with a bit of romance and a lot of escapism.

Avoid if you dislike: Books where most of the men are damaged in some way.

Ideal accompaniments
: Cosying up in bed with a cup of hot chocolate – maybe with a dash of brandy added.

Genre: Romance, Mystery, Women’s Fiction.

Available from Amazon

Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper by John Lynch

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought: This is an emotionally charged coming-of-age tale which takes you on a switchback ride through the young life of Billy McErlane, christened Zappa. Born with less of a silver spoon and more of a shit sandwich, Billy has to make his own decisions – starting with his change of name – based on his innate moral code. Because there’s no way he’s going to follow his mother and he couldn’t follow his dad if he wanted to.

He’s a bright boy and works hard, fending off pressure to succumb to his family, spending hours in the library, refusing to conform to the stereotype. He writes essays and wins a competition. His future’s looking bright, until the estate where he lives brings him down, and he’s sent to a Young Offenders’ Institution.

Billy uses his brain and his physicality to stay out of trouble and sometimes to create it. He signs up for a photography course and his life starts to change.

The book follows Billy and his influences; some adults who want to help, others who want to help themselves, and it shows a young man trying to make sense of an unfair world.

It’s sad, uplifting, shocking, funny, hopeful and frustrating. The narrator’s voice is touching and honest. One of the most striking things is the close up observation of detail filtered through one individual’s interpretation: the Billy Lens. This book so absorbed me that navigating Heathrow Airport was a breeze. Yes, that good.


You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers, Feral Youth by Polly Courtney, Raven by Thomas Strittmatter

Avoid if you dislike: violence, sex, blunt language

Ideal accompaniments: roast beef and horseradish sandwich, Beaujolais Nouveau and Tricky’s Product of the Environment

Genre: General fiction

Available from Amazon

House of Shadows by Misha M Herwin

Reviewer: JW Hicks author of Rats

What we thought: This haunting story will stay with you long after you finish reading.

Jo hasn’t recovered from the miscarriage that happened a year back. She grieves for her lost child, and despairs of the distance that has grown between her and her husband. Feeling that her artistic creativity had died with the child she seeks sanctuary in The Granary, a studio her husband created in an outbuilding in the grounds of Kingsfield, the Georgian manor house near the council estate where she was raised; a house with a history of supernatural happenings, unsolved disappearances and murders.

Jo is convinced that the peace and quiet of her studio will spark her lost creativity and enable her to paint again. However, the Granary proves to be far from the sanctuary she craves. As soon as she arrives she sees the ghostly figure of a young girl in a blue dress and hears the haunting wail of an invisible child. At first she fears her mind is affected by the loss of her own child, but when she experiences terrifying spirit visitations and is be-shadowed by a malicious entity, she is convinced that something inhabits Kingsfield, something spectral, intent on revenge and that she is that spirit’s target. Her terror revives long-hidden memories of an unearthly childhood friendship and a blood-oath unwittingly made. Now, in the present day, Jo must confront the dire consequences of that careless action.

House of Shadows, an intriguing mystery story, set in the present and venturing into the past, is a thrilling, unsettling, scarily-tense read, telling how the past affects the future and how strong emotions spear through time to cause mayhem. The tension ramps up and up leading to a terrifying, nail-biting, edge-of-the seat-climax.

Herwin’s characters, whether evil or good, are never two dimensional, never merely black and white but constitute all the hues and shades in-between. Her skillful writing informs readers of the whys and wherefores of each character’s forming, and her narrative wends and flows perfectly as it leads the reader through tension and torment to a terrifying conclusion.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Appalachian Novels of Sharyn McCrumb and The Charter by Gillian Hamer.

Avoid if you don’t like: Characters being inhabited by malign spirits.

Ideal accompaniments: A glass or two of something strong enough to fortify your spirit.

Genre: Supernatural Thriller

Available from Amazon

Friday, 5 June 2015

The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: Galley Beggar Press is fast becoming a hallmark of great literary taste. Their back catalogue shimmers with glorious finds such as Randall, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, The White Goddess and The Everlasting Lane. They’re all different, but none forgettable. This one is a stylish addition to the canon.

A literary, speculative, to-hell-with-pigeonholes piece of fiction, The Weightless World blends reality and a fantastical premise. This is the crux of the thing and what makes it work. It’s office politics. It’s Human Resources doublespeak. It’s powerlessness and loyalty and fear and a step into the unknown, accompanied by the known only too well.

Raymond Ess and his assistant Steven Strauss are in India to buy an anti-gravity machine. Strauss, our narrator, is sceptical such a thing exists, especially as Ess has recently suffered a breakdown. The whole trip seems built on a web of lies, wishful thinking and betrayal. Trevelyan plays with the who-knows-what and reliability of perception so that the reader feels as vulnerable and confused as the narrator himself.

The story is alternately frustrating and surprising, but never dull. In fact, I read it again immediately after finishing. Superlative skills of observation allow us full sensory immersion into the strangeness of Mumbai and the Indian countryside, the uneasy relationships built over a reckless road trip and the shifting sands discomfort when everything you believe is altered at the flick of a switch.


You’ll enjoy this if you liked
: The Beach by Alex Garland, The Bridge by Iain Banks, Snowdrops by AD Miller

Avoid if you dislike: uncertainty, slow unravelling, suspension of disbelief

Ideal accompaniments: Chutney sandwiches, mango juice, Bj√∂rk’s Human Behaviour and a lava lamp to stare at when you stop and think

Genre: Literary

Available from Amazon

Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat

Reviewer: Meg Wessell, A Bookish Affair

What we thought: Okay, have you ever started reading a book slower and slower as the ending gets closer just so you can put off getting to the ending quickly because the book is that good? This is exactly what happened to me with Spirit of Lost Angels. This book is a fantastic tale of history, a little mystery, and great characters that I know is going to stay with me long after I shut the book. There is also a small pinch of magic in a bone angel pendent that the main character, Victoire, receives from her mother who is a healer in her own right. Oh, and this book is filled with fantastic writing. This book hit all of the marks for me! Oh, this book just was so fantastic (excuse me if I use fantastic a whole bunch in this review).

First off, Victoire is such a fantastic character. You will be rooting for her from the very beginning. Her life is anything but easy. She is incredibly resilient though. With every new plot twist (and there are tons and tons and I loved every single one), she gets knocked down but finds some way to fix things and make them better. I loved following Victoire through Revolutionary France.

The historical detail is fantastic (there I go again). You can tell the author took a lot of care in making Victoire's world both in the French countryside and in Paris come to life. I also really liked the appearance of a couple famous historical figures in the book. I don't want to give anything away but one was a famous American who I'd probably love to talk buildings and books with and the other is a very prolific female philosopher of sorts. Part of the reason I wanted to savor this book so much was because of the scenery and the settings.
This book is a really good example of how amazing indie books can be! Do yourself a favor and get this book!
I was pleased to learn that this book is the first in a series all about Victoire's descendents.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Stories set around the historical French Revolution.

Avoid if you don’t like: Stories featuring injustice of peasants and women.

Ideal accompaniments: French baguette, strong cheese and a stronger Burgundy red.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available from Amazon

The Generation by Holly Cave

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought: Reading this insightful novel confirms the belief that winds of change may flow soft, but grow exceeding strong.

Holly Cave uses a vibrant narrative, graced by often lyrical prose and dramatic descriptions to tell this sobering tale of an imminently possible and desperately troubling future.

After Europe’s bankruptcy births the Takeover, a law is passed by the new-formed totalitarian government. Every newborn citizen is to be Tagged with a Birth Diagnosis; a Background, that will define its life. From that time on the child will be what the Tag says it will be. Tagged as gay, it will never be allowed to be anything other. Tagging – Humanity imprisoned in a genetic straight jacket.

But after a suicide bombing by a member of the Anti Genetics Movement, questions are sparked and acceptance of the status quo begins to waver.

The story develops through the depiction of disparate characters, seemingly unknown to each other but in actuality linked by threads only gradually revealed. As those threads emerge we learn the importance of scientist Elin Nagayama, teenage genius Marie, and the enigmatic Angie; how they hold the keys to the unravelling of a secret held by the State and hidden from the populace. But it’s not until the final pages do we understand how those links will influence the future.

This debut novel is a fabulous read, and I’ll be keeping a lookout for the author’s future offerings.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. Huxley’s Brave New World. Veronica Roth’s Divergent.

Avoid if you don’t like: Disastrous future forebodings.

Ideal accompaniments: A glass of strengthening Guinness and a plate of savoury snacks.

Genre: Dystopian sci-fi. Lit-fic

Available from Amazon

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller


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

What we thought: It's not often I get so immersed in a novel that I finish it in just a few days, and think about it when I don't have my nose buried in its page. When it happens I feel like standing up at the end and giving the book a well deserved round of applause - and if you could see me now, having come to the end of Our Endless Numbered Days, I'm on my feet and clapping vigorously.

Having read the blurb about the book and the author, I'm amazed to discover this is a debut novel. It has the charm, intelligence and talent of a writer comfortable with her own skill and passionate about the art of storytelling. It has the deftness and depth of Harper Lee, with all the darkness of William Golding. It is a truly memorable read.

Our narrator, Peggy Hillcoat, is eight when the story begins. Living in North London with her musician mother and eccentric father, Peggy's childhood is full of wonderful memories and summer camping trips - until the moment her life changes forever. What starts as a holiday adventure, becomes a journey of confusion and terror - where a wooden hut in the forest, a toy piano that makes music but no sound, and a mysterious stranger called Reuben, are the only things to ground her, As days stretch into weeks, and months into years, Peggy's story of survival will stretch your emotions to their limits.

At the end of the book, I found it hard to walk away from Peggy. I wanted to know where her life took her, how she copes with her past, and how the events of the book shape her future. Above all, I wish her well.

There's something magical about a child narrator when it's done right. And have no doubt this is one magical novel. Highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: V.C Andrews, William Golding, Craig Silvey.

Avoid if you don’t like: Mistrust, betrayal and heart-rending children's stories.

Ideal accompaniments: Rabbit stew with oatmeal dumplings, washed down with nettle tea.

Genre: Literary Fiction.