Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Echoes of Time by Anne Allen

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

What we thought: This book ticks many of my boxes – particularly the 'time and place' values of Triskele Books. Set on the beautiful setting of the island of Guernsey, Allen brings the past and present alive by detailing two generations of families who both live in the same cottage.

It’s 1940 during the German occupation of the island, and the cottage is owned by Bill and Olive Falla, who endure an unhappy childless marriage – until Olive falls in love with a German soldier and Bill is taken away to a prisoner camp in France. Moving forward to the present day, businesswomen Natalie Ogier returns to her childhood home of Guernsey looking for a fresh start after escaping an abusive relationship in London.

Although the cottage Natalie buys has been beautifully modernised, it’s not long before its secrets come back to haunt her – quite literally. As Natalie tries to make a new start, she finds herself increasingly wrapped up in the cottage and its history. The new man in her life, Stuart, also has his own roots in the cottage’s past and so finds himself also drawn into the real truths behind the rumours.

I totally enjoyed this read and become engaged with the characters and drawn into the mystery. I’m a fan of books that move between the present and the past, and the writer cleverly maintained both threads effortlessly here. The locations, both past and present, were brought alive in the writing and I admit it’s left me planning a visit to the Channel Islands in the future!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jan Ruth, Liz Fenwick, Linda Gillard.

Avoid if you don’t like: Family secrets and ghosts.

Ideal accompaniments: Fresh crab sandwiches and a pint of cider.

Genre: Contemporary.

Available on Amazon

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: The Vegetarian, winner of the 2016 Man Booker International, is one of the strangest, most compelling books I have read for a long time.

The story revolves around a Korean woman, Yeong-hye, who decides to become a vegetarian – something still comparatively rare in that country. Her family’s extreme reaction to what they see as her subversive decision drives her progressively into a shadow world that eventually is indistinguishable from madness.

Yet we almost never privy to Yeong-hye’s point of view, seeing her, in the course of three successive narratives, from through the eyes of her austere husband, her artistic brother in law, and lastly her sister. The spare language of Deborah Smith’s translation works exceptionally well here. The lack of emotion in the husband’s narrative serves to heighten our empathy for Yeong-hye. The artistic obsession of the brother-in-law is initially more beguiling, but ultimately just as self-obsessed. It is only through the sister’s narrative that we begin to touch on what has shaped Yeong-hye.

Like Alex Pheby’s Playthings, The Vegetarian examines the psychological consequences of a living in a male dominated society. And like Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, it uses food as a metaphor for the female condition.

By the end of the novel, though, I began to suspect another underlying metaphor. Could it be that the two sisters represent the two divided halves of Korea, North and South? Could the father represent the brutal Japanese regime that governed Korea from 1910-1945? Are the husband and brother-in-law personifications of two forms of corrupt government – one more openly more cruel than that other, but both guilty, in one way or another, of raping their country?

This may be me overthinking things, as I can’t find any other reviewers who have made this interpretation.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Playthings by Alex Pheby, The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, The Gospel According to Cane by Courttia Newland

Avoid If You Dislike: Brutal, dispassionate accounts of violence; frank exploration of mental illness

Perfect Accompaniment: Lotus leaf rice and vegetarian kimchi

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fiction in Translation

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Unrelenting: Love and Resistance in Pre-War Germany by Marion Kummerow


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


What we thought: Unrelenting is the first novel in Marion Kummerow’s World War II Trilogy, spanning the years 1932 - 1936. It is a very special story in that it is a non-fictional account of the author’s remarkable grandparents –– the courageous and unrelenting World War II German resistance fight of Ingeborg and Hansheinrich Kummerow.

In this first story we meet the main characters, following their journeys that brought them together as a married couple. We also learn of the unrest in Europe at this time, and in particular, in Germany, with Adolf Hitler’s election as Chancellor. Following the Great War, the country is suffering political unrest and economic ruin, which Hitler promises to rectify. The author’s grandparents however, are skeptical. The stage is set for the darkness and tragedy that we know will follow.

I was captivated by the moving romance of the author’s grandparents, as well as each one’s personal history. The prose evokes unrest, fear, trepidation and anticipation for another war. For anyone interested in the human stories behind the WWII resistance fighters, I would highly recommend Unrelenting, and I am very much looking forward to the second in the trilogy, Unyielding.


You’ll like this if you enjoy
: Bravery tales about World War II resistance fighters

Avoid if you don’t like: tragic war stories

Ideal accompaniments: plate of Schlachtplatte and a stein of cold beer


Genre: Historical non-fiction


Available on Amazon

Dalila by Jason Donald

Review by JJ Marsh


What we thought: 

I started reading this in public but within four pages, decided it would be likely to provoke unrestrained bursts of emotion, so took it home. A wise decision.

Dalila arrives in London from Kenya, escaping violence and danger. She knows what she has to say, she’s ready to act the part she’s been given, she will do anything to escape the brutality and indignity she suffered at home. She’s alone and everything is different. Almost everything.

The people she has paid to help her are out for what they can get, so Dalila is left homeless, friendless and adrift. From being a college student with a future to a fearful bundle in a doorway. Charity volunteers help her survive and apply for asylum and so begins a day-to-day existence and an epic battle with bureaucracy.

The system relocates her to Glasgow while she is processed. Her isolation both increases and lessens as she meets other refugees and asylum-seekers, local people and charitable volunteers. She makes tentative friendships, builds bonds but all on a fragile web of hope.

If they grant her Leave to Remain.
If.

Meanwhile, the people who arranged her trip are still seeking their cash cow. She is collateral and they want her back.

Dalila’s story both heals your heart and breaks it. People are kind, cruel, thoughtful, caring, careless and ignorant. The small gestures and daily routines give us flashes of optimism. One woman’s journey makes us believe in, or at least hope for, the human race.

A novel to help us understand the global by engaging with the personal, this book leaves you profoundly shaken. It also offers a real insight into a situation reported with more hysteria than humanity.
Everyone should read this.  We are all responsible for Dalila.


You’ll enjoy this if you liked:
The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla, A Country of Refuge by Lucy Popescu, or Minaret by Leila Aboulela.

Avoid if you don’t like: 
Grim truths about the immigration system, reality for refugees & asylum-seekers, feelings for other people.

Ideal accompaniments: Porridge and pan-cooked tea.


Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and The Man with the Horn.

What We Thought: Following on from his television series on masculinity, Grayson Perry investigates how far society's ills can be laid at the feet of traditional man. Wars, crime, rape, vandalism, competitiveness and corporate bullying are all in the main male activities, he suggests in his new book The Descent of Man. How can men release the tension of these urges (which he acknowledges experiencing himself) without causing havoc?

In a world where aggressive hunting behaviour is no longer necessary for survival, what can men do to defuse their natural male urges? Looking at the role of men in today's society, he considers how Default Man (white, middle class, middle aged, grey-suited) can change and grow and find new avenues for self-realisation.

This is not an anti-man book but it does come out against fixed male gender roles. In the new more gentle model of manhood Perry promotes, men can benefit themselves and their health while benefiting the world. Many perceived norms, he suggests, are actually male behavioural traits but so deeply embedded are they in the mass consciousness, they have gone largely unchallenged. With the greater role of women and alternative males in business and politics these are now being eroded. Attempted adherence to these traditional male identities can cause stress, depression, illness and suicide in men who fit the Default Man mould and in those who do not.

Throughout this thought-provoking book Grayson Perry releases snippets of information about himself and his early life with a bullying stepfather. He acknowledges his own aggression and desire to get one over on other men. He sees this as partly a learned trait but also something in the male psyche that needs to be channelled. Though not going quite so far as to advocate military conscription, Perry does not dismiss the potential advantages inherent in some form of organised release of male aggression.

An easy yet compelling read, this book would make a great stocking filler for any man, especially those who may resist its message.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in return for an honest review.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Popular Psychology, Anthropology and Grayson Perry.

Avoid if you dislike: Anything that challenges male norms.

Ideal accompaniments: A pint of Heavy or a sweet sherry, take your pick.

Genre: Social Sciences/Gender Studies

Available on Amazon

A Country of Refuge by Lucy Popescu (editor)

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: In the past few years, the issue of refugees has been brought to the attention of the Western world in a way unprecedented since the end of the Second World War. Yet despite Britain priding itself on its long history as a country of refuge, and despite moments when individual images have roused us to compassion, most of what we see and hear about migrants and refugees has been overwhelmingly negative.

This anthology seeks to redress the balance and open readers to a deeper understanding of what drives ordinary people to flee their homes to make a life in a new country. It has been put together by Lucy Popescu, who for the last five years has worked as a volunteer mentor in the Write to Life programme of Freedom from Torture, hearing at first hand the terrible stories of refugee victims of torture, but also discovering their enduring warmth and resilience.

The anthology comprises a mixture of short stories, essays and poems. Given the prominence of refugees in the news, it seems extraordinary to me that publisher after publisher turned it down. So hurrah for Unbound, with their crowdfunding model of publication.

Though the authors are not, for the most part, refugees, many of the stories are drawn from the experiences of family. Sebastian Barry’s ‘Fragment of a Journal, Author Unknown’ takes us back to the ordeal of the Irish famine. Alex Wheatle recalls his father’s journey from Jamaica and Nick Barlay, his parents fleeing Hungary in 1956 as the Soviet tanks rolled in. Katharine Quarmby reflects on her family’s complex mix of migrants and refugees.

In ‘To Avoid Worse’, Joan Smith notes that the romanticisation of the story of Anne Frank obscures that fact that, before they went into hiding, her father tried desperately to get his family out of the country, but was refused visas by countries that might have given them refuge – and draws parallels with the family of Aylan Kurdi.

Hassan Abdulrazzak, who came to Britain with his family as a child refugee from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, reflects on how easy their path now seems in comparison with those trying to escape the war in Syria.

Some of the short stories seem designed to make us squirm. The narrator in Stephen Kelman’s ‘Selfie’ wants the man selling selfie sticks on the streets of Rome to understand he is different from all the other people ignoring him, even though he’ll do nothing to help him. In AL Kennedy’s ‘Inappropriate Staring’ two people eat their lunch outside the high fence of a detention centre while discussing the detainees like animals in the zoo. In Marina Lewyska’s ‘Hard Luck Story’, a security guard turns a deaf ear to the pleas of a woman he must put on a plane back to the country she fled.

Courttia Newland turns the tables on us, and imagines British citizens fleeing towards the coast, hoping to make it to a safe haven somewhere like Syria. Amanda Craig’s 'Metamorphosis' wreaks Kafka-esque revenge on one of Britain’s nastiest media commentators.

Roma Tearne contributes two heart-rending stories about families torn apart, one from Sri Lanka, one from Iraq. In ‘Shakila’s Head’ by Kate Clanchy, a teacher running a poetry writing class confronts some of the terrible things her young charges have experienced.

There is poetry from Ruth Padel, Hubert Moore and Elaine Feinstein, and essays from Hanif Kureishi, Noo Saro-Wiwa and William Boyd.

The final essay, by AL Kennedy, updated from a lecture she gave at the European Literature Days Festival in October 2015, warns us that the path that leads to a culture of cruelty is well known and that we are in danger of following it. She calls upon artists, and writers in particular, to fight against this. “We can make dreams to lead mankind forward and expressions of individuality that can make many free,” she writes. “Without those dreams, we face only nightmares.”

A much needed antidote to mass media vitriol, and a reminder of the humanity of each and every individual forced to flee their own country.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Moving a Country by Jade Amoli-Jackson; From There to Here (Second Decibel Penguin Prize anthology); In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights, Helle Abelvik Lawson, Anthony Hett and Laila Sumpton (editors)

Avoid If You Dislike: Having your preconceptions challenged

Perfect Accompaniment: Tea and humble pie.

Genre: Short Stories, Poems and Essays

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Natural Causes by James Oswald


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

What we thought: This writer is new to me and was recommended by a colleague who is a big fan of the author and knew I wrote and read crime fiction – and I can’t believe I’d never heard of him before! Natural Causes is the first book in the Inspector Mclean detective series, and I will certainly be continuing with the rest of the series.

There are multiple crimes under investigation by newly-promoted D.I Anthony Mclean and his team in this book, and all seem somehow linked to the mutilated fifty-year-old corpse of a young girl found in the basement of a house previously owned by a wealthy banking family. When a series of unconnected violent deaths leave the rest of the Edinburgh CID department at a loss, it’s Mclean who believes he can see a connection with the past and goes all out to solve the original crime – hoping it will lead him to their present day serial killer.

There was much to enjoy in this book, all the boxes needed from a strong police procedural were certainly ticked. I thought the characterisation was particularly well handled, and I can see from the hints dropped about D.I Mclean throughout the book that he is going to have many skeletons in his own closet that will be revealed during the rest of the series. There are many layers to this character, and he’s also not dripping with clichés with I think is refreshing in this genre.

Good pacing, good plotting and excellent attention to detail in the research, results in an excellent start to this crime series. I’m really looking forward to reading more and would highly recommend James Oswald to any crime fiction readers out there.

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

Avoid if you don’t like: Witchcraft and murder scenes.

Ideal accompaniments: Hearty beef stew and a single Scottish malt whisky.

Genre: Crime.

Available on Amazon












An Unreliable Guide to London by Various / Kit Caless

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

If you ever thought of London as one sprawling city, Influx Press’s Unreliable Guide will disabuse you.

Each one of these stories in set in a specific area of London. Taken together, they create the impression, not of an undifferentiated metropolis but a patchwork of neighbourhoods, each with its own character, instantly recognisable to those who come from its streets.

The authors have found different ways to play with the notion of an ‘unreliable guide.’ Some seek to capture the essence of place as known only to its residents. Others, like Eley Willams’ ‘In Pursuit of the Swan at Brentford Ait' – which might have been written by a 21st Century incarnation of Jerome K Jerome – tease us with the notion of what is real and what is not.

Still others depart from reality altogether. Will Wiles’s ‘Notes on the London Housing Crisis’ is an alt-hist vision of how London could have been. Noo Saro-Wiwa’s’s ‘Soft on the Inside’ is reminiscent of Andre Alexis’s Giller Prize-winning apologue, Fifteen Dogs, while Irenosen Okojie plunges us into a vision that marries Hieronymous Bosch with Salvador Dali.

Memories play an important role. Stephanie Victoire’s ‘Nightingale Lane’ distils Clapham South from recollections of an old soldier from Mauritius. Tim Wells’ ‘Heavy Manners’ captures Dalston through the record shops of his youth. The narrator of Koye Oyedeji’s ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ challenges the version of their personal history spun by his now-famous boyhood friend.

Others brush up against contemporary news. In Courttia Newlands’ ‘The Secret Life of Little Wormwood Scrubs’, a young jogger runs past an object that the next day will make the headlines. George F’s ‘Mother Blackcap’s Revenge’ describes a glorious fightback by the LGBT community against the gentrification of Camden.

Nor does the anthology ignore London’s less romantic corners – stories are spun from the unlikely locations of PC World at Staples Corner and the car park at Leyton Mills Retail Park.

Two of my favourites – Stephen Thompson’s ‘The Arches’ and Yvvette Edwards’ ‘Warm and Toastie’ – disclose hidden acts of practical kindness that belie the notion that London is a city of unfeeling anonymity.

At the end of the book, each author recommends three of their own favourite London reads – a further treasure trove of writing to delve into if you want to explore London through its stories.

This anthology may be, as the cover insists, "Bad Advice. Limited Scope. No Practical Use." But it reveals London as lived, loved and (sometimes) loathed by Londoners themselves.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Love Across a Broken Map by the Whole Kahani;

Avoid if you dislike: Short story anthologies the jump from one style of story to another

Perfect Accompaniment: Your favourite London street food

Genre: Short Stories, London fiction, Anthology

Available from Amazon

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Reviewer: JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult and the Overlord series

What we thought: Gregory is in full flow in this tale of the last of Henry VII's wives, Kateryn Parr. She is perhaps the lesser known of the six, for she was the one to survive him, being neither divorced nor beheaded. She married the English monarch at thirty years of age. Old perhaps considering Henry could choose any wife he wanted, but still much younger than the king himself.

She bore Henry no children, which is unsurprising given that she bore neither of her first two husbands any children either. Most fascinating is her scholarly work, being the first English queen to publish a book under her own name.

In The Taming of the Queen, Gregory paints a very intimate portrait of Kateryn, and her relationship with the king, whom she frequently refers to as a wife killer. Henry's character is one of a man in pain, lashing out as the mood takes him, who plays games both for his own amusement but also because he lives in fear of everyone around him, distrustful of his courtiers and advisers, quite rightly paranoid of who is plotting against him.

His method of ruling and staying at the top until his dying day is to be admired in Gregory's prose, as is the two faces of Kateryn, an educated, learned woman who strives for betterment of the court, the step-children she inherits, and the learning of everyone, whilst showing another face to the king; one of simple obedience, masking her constant fear.

For anyone wanted to live and breathe the last days of Henry's court, this is well worth immersing yourself in.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Anything to do with the Tudors, the English monarchy, biographical-style fiction

Avoid if you don’t like: grumpy, childish kings, female first person narratives

Ideal accompaniments: pigeon pie, small ale, warm blanket

Genre: historical fiction

Available on Amazon

The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: When Ruby learns, on her thirteenth birthday, that Barbara and Mick are not her real parents, she runs out into the garden and sings for joy. As she lights the candles on her birthday cake, she imagines the twin stars of her parents, orbiting her head. “Come and get me,” she whispers.

That day, Ruby becomes a soul hunter. But the truth, she learns, is never that simple. Especially when the dead (like Shadow) are eager to share their messages with her but are less than clear as to what those messages are.

In this dark tale, it’s not always clear who is real and who is either a figment of Ruby’s imagination or a glimpse into the paranormal. Nor is it clear, as Ruby cuts herself loose from her abusive stepfather and goes in search of her parents, who are her protectors and who the deceivers out to harm her.

In parallel with Ruby’s story, we see, in an earlier timeline, the unfolding story of her mother’s rocky relationship with Lewis, Ruby’s father - the path that will end with Ruby living with Mick and Barbara.

The book is set in the Forest of Dean, and forest itself is a powerful force in the novel, which both draws and repels the characters that live among it.

At bottom, this is a story about the true nature family –and how to rebuild it when your first, biological family has been broken beyond repair.

You can watch Kate Hamer talking about this and her debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat, at the Triskele Lit Fest in Sept 2016 here.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Closure by Gillian E Hamer [no relation]; Kate Hamer's debut novel: The Girl in the Red Coat

Avoid If You Dislike: A touch of paranormal with your psychological thrillers

Perfect Accompaniment: Rabbit stew

Genre: Psychological Thriller

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Necessary Deaths by David C Dawson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: When a young student journalist apparently tries to commit suicide, his mother enlists her neighbour, lawyer Dominic Delingpole, to investigate what lies behind his drugs overdose. Delingpole and his flamboyant partner, gardener and opera singer Jonathan McFadden, soon uncover a conspiracy that may extend to the furthest reaches of the British establishment.

I have been wracking my brains to decide where The Necessary Deaths fits in the spectrum of Crime Fiction. It is certainly not a gritty police procedural, in the style of Ian Rankin or Val McDiarmid. But nor is it the cosy crime of Agatha Raisin or Midsummer Murders. I've decided Dominic Delingpole may be the modern successor to Albert Campion, the detective created by Margery Allingham – the least known and most underrated crime queen from Britain’s golden age of detective fiction.

Like Campion, Delingpole is an accidental detective - neither a policeman, nor a PI nor a forensic professional. While Campion operated in pre- and post-War London, in a world of slightly down-at-heel aristocracy and East End eccentrics, Delingpole’s world is the 21st Century gay scene, as experienced by a middle class professional. Within that world, Dawson, like Allingham, delivers a plot that has its bizarre moments, but not one that stretches credulity to breaking point. And Delingpole’s sweet, sexy, romantic relationship with his Jonathan mirrors Campion’s surprisingly modern love affair with his beloved Amanda.

The Necessary Deaths is rooted in London, Brighton and the Chiltern Hills. Its American publisher has, for the most part, let it remain quintessentially British, but here and there they have found it necessary to ‘explain’ English terms. So mobiles become cell phones and the M25 is described as a freeway. It's mostly done with a light touch, but it can be a little disconcerting for a British reader.

It’s also firmly rooted in the gay community. Gay characters are a confident majority, not a marginalised minority. And male bodies, not female that are appreciatively checked out.

In defiance of the stereotype of the detective as a loner with a troubled past, The Necessary Deaths delivers a warm picture of friendship and love. There is real jeopardy here, but also an ending that is sure to make you smile.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham, Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle, Human Rites by JJ Marsh.

Avoid If You Dislike: Crime that is gentle but not cosy; joyful celebration of love between men.

Perfect Accompaniment: Handel’s Rodelinda and a glass of prosecco

Genre: Crime, LGBTQ fiction

Available on Amazon

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and The Man with the Horn.

What We Thought: In 1922 Count Alexander Rostov is classed as a Former Person in Soviet Russia but is spared Siberia (or worse) and sentenced instead to house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. Denied his usual extensive suite, he is moved to a 10ft-square room in the attic. With his books and the few pieces of his own furniture he can squeeze in, Rostov settles in to a life of routine and constraint.

Through his friendship with the nine-year-old Nina, daughter of an often absent official, he discovers that there is more to the hotel than he ever imagined. As the unlikely pair explore the Metropol from attic to basement, Rostov realises that his life has expanded rather than contracted under house arrest. Always ebulliant, urbane and charming, he befriends waiters, desk clerks, barbers and seamstresses.

Later, he takes a position as Head Waiter in his favourite in-house restaurant. There he develops friendships with Emile, the head chef, and Andrey, the maitre d’. When a stricter manager, who toes the party line, takes over the hotel the Triumverate, as they are known, cook secret meals and generally rise above the shortages of good food and wine without labels. As an old student pal tells him, being placed under house arrest has made him the luckiest man in Russia.

Meanwhile, Nina has grown up. When her husband is sent to a corrective institution she moves away from Moscow to be nearer to him, leaving her little daughter with Rostov temporarily. Nina never comes back and the Count becomes a father to six-year-old Sofia. So begin the further adventures of Alexander Rostov.

A Gentleman in Moscow is at first delightful and whimsical. As the book (and it’s fairly long) progresses through the 1930s, 40s and 50s we learn what Alexander’s privileged life was like before the Revolution and we see how he copes with his reduced circumstances. He shows us, through his strong friendships and open-heartedness, what true communism can be and what it means to be a gentleman in all senses of the word.

Beautifully written, amusing and entertaining, this is also a thought-provoking book. It truly is one to curl up with on a winter’s night.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Night Circus.

Avoid if you dislike: Good manners and whimsy.

Ideal accompaniments: The obvious would be a shot of vodka and some caviar but the Count would probably prefer a glass of Margaux.

Genre: Literary / Historical Fiction

Available from Amazon








Wednesday, 9 November 2016

My Counterfeit Self by Jane Davis

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: Jane Davis’s sixth novel, My Counterfeit Self, has three main characters and three interweaving story strands.

The first strand is the story of a lifelong relationship between a poet, a critic and a photographer – the complexities of which reveal themselves, layer by layer, as the novel unfolds.

The second is the story of an extraordinary mind emerging out of a struggle with both childhood neglect and childhood polio.

And the final strand is an account of the British anti-nuclear movement, starting with the Aldermaston march in 1958, and in particular of the fight for justice for the professional soldiers and National Servicemen whose lives were wrecked when they were ordered to act as observers in Britain’s nuclear test programme in the central Pacific in the 1950s and 60s.

Davis’s central character, Lucy, is an ‘activist poet’ – and in later life, ‘our greatest living female poet’ and someone in grave danger of being considered a national treasure. Davis wisely refrains from attempting to write poetry that lives up to this, and apart from a few stanzas, gives us just a glimpse of Lucy’s juvenile efforts – ‘Machine Girl’, the verses she wrote about her time confined in an ‘iron lung.’

“Underneath this layer of skin
This sitting down girl is made of
Pinking shears
A garden rake
Bicycle chains...”

Lucy was one of the lucky ones. She survived polio with only a chronic weakness in one leg to show for it. Deceptively tough, she has a lifetime putting herself in the way of controversy and risk, and of eschewing convention and risk. She reminds me of a childhood heroine of mine, the Canadian painter, Emily Carr, author of Klee Wick. Almost certainly not an easy person to live with in real life, Lucy is a joy to spend time with between the pages of a book.

My Counterfeit Self is a book that packs a punch beyond the realm of fiction – a piece of ‘activist fiction’ to stand in for Lucy’s imagined activist poetry.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler; The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories about childhood illness

Perfect Accompaniment: A cafetiere of coffee with a jug of warm frothed milk

Genre: Literary fiction, activist fiction

Available on Amazon

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: As a McEwan fan, this short book enthused and irritated me by turns. It’s an extraordinary premise, a domestic crime narrated by an unborn, and a retelling of a Shakespearean tragedy with a comic flair.

Our narrator, physically uncomfortable inside the womb and awkwardly worldly whilst not yet in it, is privy to a plot. His mother and uncle plan to kill his father and leave his own place fragile. Yet this is not the Danish court but St John’s Wood, home to the middle classes; poets, property developers and pretty girls in summer sandals.

As our hero is confined to his in utero existence, the reader is confined to the house. The various floors, the waste, the dust, the dilapidation take the role of proscenium arch, upon which the action plays. Even the entrances and exits are theatrical.

Trudy and Claude want John dead, so they can inherit the crumbling 7K worth family home. She’s pregnant and heavy in the London summer heat. He’s dull and stupid but eminently practical.

Our narrator, whose turn of phrase and panoramic perception comes apparently from listening to radio and podcasts through the wall of the womb, has elder statesman opinions and an innate self-interest.

The plot unwinds with more or less plausibility, the voice convinces more as author than character, but the stage action absorbs through character, quirk and hothouse environment. You leave this book with the sense of leaving the theatre – the director delivered an experience, just not one you might have expected.

A bit like being born.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, The Wimbledon Poisoner by Nigel Williams, Look Back in Anger by John Osborne

Avoid if you don’t like
: An unborn MC, a claustrophobic atmosphere, authorial intrusion

Ideal accompaniments: A bottle of Sancerre, a hard-boiled egg and Bach’s Air on G String

Genre: Literary fiction, contemporary

Available on Amazon



Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Pearl Harbor and More: Stories of WWII: December 1941

Contributing Authors: R. V. Doon, Vanessa Couchman, Alexa Kang, Dianne Ashcroft, Margaret Tanner, Marin Kummerow, Robyn Hobusch Echols, Robert A. Kingsley

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

What we thought: Taking its title from the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941 pivotal event that changed the face of WWII, these eight short stories are as diverse as the eight contributing authors hailing from all over the globe, each one a war-time fiction author.

All so different –– set in Pearl Harbour, other parts of the USA, Singapore and Europe –– each one is enjoyable and engaging in its own way. The authors evoke a vision of the war from many different points of view: soldiers, women, Jews, French, and Japanese Americans, amongst others.

My particular favourite was The List by Vanessa Couchman, which has great potential to be expanded into an intriguing novel. But I would highly recommend all the stories in Pearl Harbor and More to lovers of historical fiction tales, notably WWII.

I received a free copy of this book from the authors.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: diverse stories against a backdrop of WWII 

Avoid if you don’t like: Wartime Historical Fiction

Ideal accompaniments: NOTHING Ersatz!


Genre: Historical Fiction - Short Story Collection

Available on Amazon




Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Inspector Chopra is about to retire – at least he is supposed to. But then the mother of a murdered boy throws down a challenge. “For a poor woman and her poor son, there is no justice.” Chopra knows that he has to prove her wrong, even if it means going behind the backs of his wife and his former boss, both of whom are determined that Chopra should put his feet up.

To complicate matters, Chopra has just inherited a baby elephant named Ganesha – a most unsuitable resident for a Mumbai apartment block!

But Chopra’s determination (along with some unexpected help from baby Ganesha) will solve a crime with roots much earlier in Chopra’s career.

Khan writes with gentle affection for his creations. He paints a warm portrait of a long marriage shifting gears into retirement. And another of modern Mumbai – a city that can encompass both huge modern shopping malls and the Dharavi slum- “where houses were constructed with anything available to hand - ... – where a billion cockroaches played tag with a billion rats, where black smoke from the potters’ kilns created an artificial cloud overhead, where... the human spirit still flourished.”

Chopra will tolerate no threat to the city he loves. And while it remains under his watchful eye, you feel it is in safe custody.

A warm and entertaining read, shot through with wry humour.

You Enjoy This If You Loved: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, Hamish Macbeth by MC Beaton, Inspector Montalbano by Andrea Camilleri

Avoid If You Dislike: Cosy Crime

Perfect Accompaniment: masala dosa with sambar (stuffed pancake with a spicy broth)

Genre: Crime Fiction; Fiction from South Asia

Available on Amazon

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Glue Ponys by Chris Wilson

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and The Man with the Horn.

What We Thought: The Glue Ponys is billed as a short story collection but to my mind it is more a collection of vignettes. Anecdotal in form and substance, these pieces give glimpses into life at the lower end of society. We meet the drugged up and the desperate, the sick, the dying and the imprisoned. People live in cars or on the street; they con, steal and do tricks for drug money. This is a world of junkies, hookers and hustlers.

Though often fundamentally sad, these stories are never miserable. There is plenty of humour here – dark humour involving bodies in cupboards, beached whales, over-literal porn stars, and a redneck neo-nazi “being pinned to the wall by a six foot two black male transvestite with fake tits and wearing a spandex leotard.”

Chris Wilson spent time with “the lost and wandering of America” living on the streets and in the prisons of the USA before returning to the UK. Though this collection is classed as fiction, it would seem many of the incidents recorded are autobiographical or based on personal experience. The writing is straightforward and gritty, though at times I found the language of the streets and drug culture a little obscure. No punches are pulled and the reality of life in the gutter is exposed like a pus-filled open wound.

It’s difficult not to like these bruised and bleeding characters, though – the wily, the stupid, the drug-addled – and to feel for them in their deludedly optimistic quests for another score, another hit, another chance.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jim Carroll, William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski.

Avoid if you dislike: Anything too gritty, druggy or sleazy.

Ideal accompaniments: Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy album.

Genre: General Fiction/Short Stories

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Paralian by Liam Klenk

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: The extraordinary tale of an exceptional life. Any one of the barbed wire fences Klenk has overcome might be enough to define an average person, but this journey is as far from average as can be imagined.


Born into the wrong body, adopted by dysfunctional parents, battling spasticity, marrying for convenience, living as an agnostic with Mormons, undergoing gender reassignment, suffering heartbreak and embracing career changes while digging deep for a true identity, this is an epic journey. An odyssey.

Paralian, meaning a water-dweller, is a wonderful way to connect the flowing adventures and experiences. Each chapter takes the name of a body of water, and each has as much variance of temperature and hue.

Autobiographies tread a delicate line. Especially those rare few actually written by the subject, as opposed to handed over to ghostwriters. How to balance the personal journey and the unavoidable self-regard? Thankfully, Klenk gets it right. This is essentially a subjective take on a set of jaw-dropping adventures and the character who managed not only to survive, but to triumph.

Readers travel through peaks and troughs without ever losing sympathy with our narrator, even when he exasperates himself. By the end of the book, we feel we have made a fascinating friend and feel uplifted by the encounter.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig or Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Avoid if you don’t like
: Personal intimate stories of body and mind

Ideal accompaniments: A Sea Breeze cocktail, freshly grilled barracuda and a view of the ocean

Genre: Autobiography, non-fiction

Buy on Amazon


Monday, 19 September 2016

To Retribution by FJ Curlew

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought: This novel, a convoluted thriller with nods to Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, gives a Nostradamus-like prediction of the rise of the Right in the Britain of the not-too-distant future.

After a coup, life in Britain has changed beyond recognition. Fear and intimidation reigns. The only law is meted out by the New Dawn security force. The only citizens that prosper are the lickspittle followers of the facist regime. Corruption is widespread, especially amongst the new political elite.

Two young journalists, Suze and Jake, bent on reporting political corruption on their pirate website find themselves attacked by New Dawn security force. Barely escaping death in a raid on their secret headquarters they set out to discover exactly why they have been so murderously targeted. Their journey of discovery is a long and winding trail along which they not only meet horrors they couldn’t imagine, but allies that share their hatred of the new regime.

Gripping from the outset, To Retribution, is a fast paced narrative which leads its youthful protagonists into the very heart of a truly evil conspiracy.

A definite page turner!

You’ll enjoy if you like: Fast paced action culminating in an all-ends-tied-up finish. 
 
Avoid if you don’t like: Political corruption and fascist atrocities.

Ideal accompaniments: A hot toddy and a wrap-around comforter.

Genre: Thriller

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory

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

What we thought: Quote: “There is only one bond that I trust: between a woman and her sisters. We never take our eyes off each other. In love and in rivalry, we always think of each other.”

I listened to the audio version of Gregory’s new release, wonderfully narrated by Bianca Amato.

I am a huge fan of historical fiction, and Philippa Gregory in particular is one of my favourite authors. Her prose may not be as lyrical, and the narrative not as layered as some other writers in the genre – but what she never ceases to give you us a damn good story.

This book is no exception. Written in first person, present tense, it relates the story of a little-known Tudor queen, Dowager Queen Margaret of Scotland – eldest sister to Henry VIII. Married at fourteen to King James of Scotland, moved from her life at the Royal Palaces of London to the remote and barren land of Scotland, we see Tudor life from a completely different perspective.

The three queens mentioned in the title of the novel are Margaret, her sister-in-law, Catherine of Aragon, and her younger sister Mary, who became Dowager Queen of France. All three of the young princesses were ‘sold’ off for their titles at a very young age, all three of them in constant rivalry at the Royal Court, all three of them went on to face infant deaths and the betrayal of the men they married. In fact, their lives mirror each other’s in so many ways, it’s almost like this is a work of fiction, rather than based on historic fact.

Of course, we all know the story of Henry VIII but seeing it from the outside, from the remote castles of Scotland, and discovering how this strong and independent woman coped in the turbulent Tudor period, and managed to successfully get her son to the Scottish throne, was a truly entertaining experience. Gregory proudly shows the strength and guile of a woman, who although betrayed by men and let down by her role in society, become powerful through her own hard work and guile and owned her own lands and fortune in a time when this was unheard of.

Great story, superbly narrated, excellent pacing and strong characterisation. This is Gregory at her best and comes highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Hilary Mantel, Barbara Erskine, Alison Weir.

Avoid if you don’t like: Royal Courts, scandal, philandering husbands and whores!

Ideal accompaniments: Venison pie and a tankard of small ale.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Available on Amazon



The Trysting Tree by Linda Gillard


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

What we thought: I’ve read and enjoyed at least three of Linda Gillard’s previous novels now, so I looked forward in anticipation to catching up with her latest The Trysting Tree.

This is an enchanting and compelling story of love and loss over a hundred years, all set beneath the leafy boughs of the ancient trysting tree which has hidden the secrets of many women in its lifetime. The idea is charming in its originality and worked well for me, passages written both in a modern day scenario, where the current owners of the house and gardens discover through long-forgotten diaries and letters, the love and loss of a previous generation of occupants.

I’ve read novels with similar narratives before, and the key to making the novels work is the ability to connect the reader with the character – and I’m pleased to say I think the author really nailed it here. The modern day story between Ann and Connor was well written, the baggage of their respective pasts finally revealing itself as their love deepened. And in the historical thread, the triangle the author weaved between a previous mistress of the house and her staff was gripping and emotional.

I have a real soft spot for novels that blend elements of present and past so that the reader is presented with a satisfying tapestry of stories, which, when done well blend together effortlessly for a satisfying conclusion. Every box was ticked in this novel by a talented writer.

Highly recommended for people new to Linda Gillard’s work and for fans of her writing this is certainly up there with the best.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jan Ruth, Elizabeth Harris, Gill Paul.

Avoid if you don’t like: Country living and artistic folk.

Ideal accompaniments: Blue cheese and a large Chardonnay spritzer.

Genre: Contemporary.

Available on Amazon






Holding by Graham Norton

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and The Man with the Horn.

What We Thought: Yes, it’s by that Graham Norton. This is his first novel and I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. So here goes: It’s not bad. It’s actually not at all bad. A minor grammatical blip in the first paragraph almost put me off but then I realised I was being a bit up myself and carried on.

Set in the small Irish town of Duneen, Holding delves into the murky pasts of the various residents. There’s the rather odd Evelyn Ross and her sisters, spinsters all, and there’s Brid Riordan, unhappily married and hitting the bottle. There’s Mrs Meany, the housekeeper, and there’s the overweight Sgt PJ Collins who Mrs Meany ‘does’ for. There is also the sleepy background of Duneen itself and its shopkeepers, publicans and incidental others.

The discovery of bones buried on a building site shakes the town awake and gives PJ Collins his first real crime to solve. Apparently Tommy Burke, the former owner of the farm on which the body is found, mysteriously disappeared some twenty years or so ago. Rumours begin to fly that he never left. PJ soon discovers that Tommy was involved with both Brid Riordan and Evelyn Ross. Into the mix comes Cork Detective Linus Dunne, at first PJ’s adversary but ultimately a respected colleague.

The characters are beautifully drawn, very real and fully human. The plot is intriguing and has a surprising twist. The writing shines with humour, sadness, and most of all compassion. I was touched by this story, cynic that I am, and the large, sweaty PJ is policeman I would love to meet again. I can see a series arising out of this and if done sensitively, it would make delightful television.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Hamish Macbeth.

Avoid if you dislike: Cosyish crime.

Ideal accompaniments: A full Irish breakfast and vast quantities of tea.

Genre: General/Crime Fiction.

Available on Amazon








Friday, 9 September 2016

The Humans by Matt Haig

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: This is a tough one to get right. Too practical and it becomes geeky. Too sentimental and it becomes mawkish. Matt Haig’s tale of the alien who comes to Earth to smother certain information treads that line with near-perfect balance.

Our narrator, an alien sent on this mission as a punishment, observes the Humans in a similar tone to Mork and Mindy. He’s assumed the form of a middle-aged maths professor and with the body comes a wife, son, job and dog. Like all aliens to another culture, at first he is repulsed and yearns to complete his duty and return home.

Yet as he grows to understand this ugly race with their facial protruberances, he begins to see nuance and his clinical observations gain a philosophical note.

Some great comic moments with shades of darkness and touching insight combine to convey a sinister premise in a light tone. Imagine The Terminator directed by Richard Curtis.

It’s touching and likeable and provokes some put-down-the-book-and-think moments.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, the work of Matt Haig

Avoid if you don’t like: Philosophical insights on the human condition, some swearing and mathematics

Ideal accompaniments: Peanut butter sandwiches, a glass of Pimms and Holst’s The Planets in the background

Genre: Contemporary, YA

Available on Amazon

Her Secret Rose by Orna Ross

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

What we thought: Book one in a trilogy, Her Secret Rose is a fictionalised biography that follows the first ten years of the relationship between the Irish poet, WB Yeats and his muse, Maud Gonne: revolutionary, feminist and political activist.

Narrated from the point of view of domestic servant, Rosie the author takes us on a fascinating journey behind these public personas into the private, real world of their human strengths and flaws.

In 1889, Yeats is 23 when he meets the beautiful rebel Maud. Through his poetry and her politics, and their shared fascination for the occult, they then embark on a voyage to try and free Ireland from its British chains.

Amidst rebellion, politics, intrigue, and Gonne and Yeats’ passion for Ireland, the author deftly brings to life Dublin, London and Paris of the 1890s as the two flit between the cities. Parts of Yeats’ poems are also woven through the narrative which for me enhanced the ambiance of this magnificently-crafted and well-researched novel.

Before reading Her Secret Rose, all I knew of WB Yeats’ poetry was what I’d learned many years ago at school, and I found this fictionalised biography an excellent and entertaining way to learn more about the poet, both his work and as a person. I also knew next to nothing about Maud Gonne and was intrigued to learn how extraordinary she was, and about the hold she had over Yeats. Through letters, journals and family communication, the author has uncovered quite a different story from the one I learned in school and, after reading this illuminating and entertaining tale, I’m now looking forward to the next in this trilogy.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Late 19th century romance, mystery and drama, lyrical prose

Avoid if you don’t like: Victorian historical romance

Ideal accompaniments: Cold glass of Guinness

Genre: Historical Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Sons of Light and Darkness by Adam Ingle

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought: If you like bloody battles, Angels versus Demons and strange unpredictable alliances served up with a robust dose of humour you will love this off-beat novel.

Sons of Light and Darkness is the second in the series of Afterlife adventures. It is written as a stand-alone.

The first in the series, Necessary Evil and the Greater Good, introduces the captivating rogues, Levitcus and Mestoph. An unlikely pairing of two friends from radically different backgrounds, Leviticus being of the angelic persuasion, Mestoph belonging to the demon fraternity. Think buddy movies like Lethal Weapon, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and you’ll get the picture. (Pun intended.) 

Mestoph works for Hell Industries, Leviticus for Heaven Inc.; low-level grunts bored senseless with their thankless toil, wracking their brains for a way to grab sufficient loot to enable them to escape Afterlife drudgery and live in comfort to The End.

Their first attempt at freedom – the abortive Ragnorak affair – ended badly, resulting in the wrath of God and Satan raining down hot and heavy on their heads. 

The Sons of Light and Darkness tells of their second attempt.

Ingle certainly knows his religions, introducing a fabulous concoction of gods and demons snatched from every religion you can think of and winding them into a marvellously twisted plot, laced with humour that ranges from the sly to the uproarious. The narrative is rich with vivid description, bringing reality to this world of intricate and fantastical imagination.

All in all a very enjoyable book. Top marks. Oh, and by the looks of things there’s a third in the pipeline. Can’t wait.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Cleverly plotted stories, irreverent films such as Dogma, and fabulous main characters that you won’t be able to forget.
Ideal accompaniments: A non-stop supply of cappuccinos and biscotti.
Genre: Contemporary Dark Fantasy.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Feeding Time by Adam Biles

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: A disorientating mix of surreal and only-too-real, funny and bitterly sad, optimistically hopeless and fatalistically uplifting. An old folks’ home run by a cynical corporate management seems a depressing prospect. The physical deterioration of the residents is mirrored by their shabby surroundings and echoed by the crumbling morality of their ‘CareFriends’.

But the failings of the body are tempered by this exceptional tribute to the human mind. Imagination, whether manifest in stubborn delusion, drug-fuelled fantasy or erotic daydream, is the unifying element and only means of escape. And everyone, staff, residents and visiting relatives want nothing more than to escape.

Dot’s here looking for Leonard. His mind has gone and after the incident with the horse, she knows she can’t cope alone. She follows him to Green Acres, which seems at odds with the pictures in the brochure. She’s on Ward B, not the best, but not the worst. The question remains, where is Leonard?

Populated by fascinating characters of both the endearing and repulsive kind, the bizarre power struggles at the heart of Green Acres lure the reader closer with sharp observation and dark humour. This book provokes thoughtful reflections on mortality, ageing and inevitability, but does so while making you laugh and occasionally grimace.

From a writer whose imaginative acrobatics are ably supported by his dexterity with language and voice, this book will get under your skin.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Hundred-Year Old Man Climbed Out Of A Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, The Works by Joseph Connolly, Epitaph for a Working Man by Erhard von Büren

Avoid if you don’t like: Some graphic physical descriptions of bodily functions, the truth about ageing, shifting realities

Ideal accompaniments: A pint of cloudy cider and a pork sausage grilled till the skin spilts.

Genre: Contemporary

Available on Amazon

Into The Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes


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

What we thought: As a both a reader and a writer, I believe, characterisation is one of the hardest things in novel writing. And it’s characterisation that really brought this book alive for me. There’s a real art to creating a character who first off is a believable as your own sibling, and yet still allow the reader to discover the ‘real’ side of the character at the same time as the narrator does, without resorting to clichés or tiresome flashbacks.

I’m also not a huge fan of novels that portray women as weak victims, but although there are some brutal images here, it’s hidden and masked in the depth of the story and the people. Elizabeth Haynes has created here an excellent portrayal of one women’s desperate journey into an abusive relationship, but it’s also the story of that same women’s redemption and a lesson on how to confront your darkest fears and come out fighting into the light.

When Cathy Bailey meets and falls for the cool and handsome Lee Brightman she believes she is old enough and wise enough to know how to spot a bad apple. But is she? Cathy is one of life’s sparks, vivacious, outgoing and flirtatious - and sees no need to change. Lee is strong and silent, mysterious about his job and protective in the extreme. But there’s a strong connection and for a while Cathy’s life is bliss. Her friends are jealous and her future suddenly looks a whole lot rosier. But then odd things begin to happen, like items moved or missing from her house, like the increasing sense she’s being followed. By the end of the book Cathy won’t be the only one who has to check her front door is locked six times.

Cleverly narrated in two POVS – past and present – we follow Cathy’s journey right through to the chilling climax. Another art the author has mastered here is to engage the reader with the character, and I really felt myself drawn to Cathy, sympathising with her and willing her to get the future she deserved with the new man in her life, Stuart.

I found this book gripping and raced through to find out how the story would end. If it doesn’t make you look over your shoulder at least once while you’re reading it – then you’re doing something wrong!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: CL Taylor, Gillian Flynn, Clare Mackintosh

Avoid if you don’t like: Domestic violence

Ideal accompaniments: Extra strong double G&T

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon





Dead Wood by Chris Longmuir

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Dead Wood is the second in Chris Longmuir’s Dundee Crime series, and a winner of the Dundee International Book Prize.

Kara thinks it’s bad enough that two thugs are after her because her waster of a boyfriend owes their boss money. That is, until she escapes their clutches in the hands of the man who drags her into Templeton woods in the middle of the night.

What she finds there has strange echoes of a murder case from the 1970s. And for some of the police and social workers caught up in the case, it will drag them back into boyhood nightmares.

Inspired by a real life case from 1979, Dead Wood is a smart, scary and fast-paced police procedural. The novel makes effective use of multiple points of view to ramp up the drama. We see Kara, the young mother at the heart of the story, running scared from the thugs, from the killer, from the authorities. The drugs boss, who now has more than one reason to track Kara down. The police who, as past collides with present, may have reason to suspect one of their own. And peppered throughout, glimpses of the killer, whose warped mind serves as the will of Templeton Wood itself.

With so many characters at play, it would be easy for them to become two dimensional. But Longmuir creates strong individuals with their own quirks. Just when, like one of the young female coppers, we dare to feel sorry for the drugs boss Palmer, she finds a way to remind us how unpleasant he really is. The working girl Kara turns to for help is kind, but no ‘whore with a heart of gold.’

As all the best crime novels should be, Dead Wood is deeply rooted in its location. Even if we have never been to Dundee, we walk its streets along with the characters, explore its dark alleys, climb its hills, crawl through the dense undergrowth of Templeton Wood (and possibly feel the need for a good wash afterwards).

And excellent read for all lovers of Tartan Noir.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Gillian E Hamer

Avoid If You Dislike: Creepy serial killers

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of good malt whiskey and a slice of Dundee cake

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Scars Beneath the Soul by Dave Sivers

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: A classy take on the British police procedural, whose shine comes from layered characterisation, a tightly woven plot, in-depth research and local knowledge. The fact this is the first of a series is another cause to smile.

Detective Inspector Lizzie Archer's been transferred from London to Aylesbury. Not far in terms of distance but a world away from what she's used to. Dan Baines, who's been holding the fort, is effectively demoted to make room. Police politics aside, each is shadowed by an event in the past which left its mark - one more visible than the other.

If Archer expected the pace to be slower in the 'country', she gets a nasty shock. Someone is on a murder spree with a very unpleasant choice of weapon.

Tension cranks up as the two officers put aside their personal problems and their pasts to find connections. Those connections begin to show that someone out there is doing precisely the opposite.

Taut writing, a broad and vivid setting, appealing characters and a complex yet satisfying denouement all make this a thoroughly enjoyable page-turner. And if you enjoy following the characters over a series, there's more to come.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Gillian Hamer's Gold Detectives series and Val McDermid's Wire in the Blood

Avoid if you don’t like: Violence, British police stories, character focus

Ideal accompaniments: A pot of Lapsang Souchong, Gentleman's Relish on toast and Nick Cave's Red Right Hand

Genre: Crime

Buy on Amazon

Agatha Raisin & The Quiche of Death by MC Beaton


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

What we thought: I have been a closet MC Beaton fan for many years, all of her writing is quirky, clever and entertaining, but I particularly enjoy her Agatha Raisin series. As a treat, I have decided to go back to book one of the series, The Quiche of Death, and listen to each one on an audiobook format, as I particularly enjoy Penelope Keith’s narration. I believe it's also a popular new series on Sky TV now but I've yet to catch up with that format.

In The Quiche of Death we are introduced to Agatha Raisin, a businesswoman who has decided to take early retirement, and walk away from her successful company, and life in London, and settle down in an idyllic Cotswold village. This has been Agatha’s life long dream, since she was raised in a poor area of Birmingham … and of course, nothing at all could go wrong because dreams always live up to our expectations. Right?

Of course, being new to village life comes as a shock to Agatha. Joining the ladies’ society of Carsley seems one good way of integrating into her new life. However, when Agatha makes a decision to cheat the local baking competition, her life is turned upside down and she suddenly finds herself number one suspect in a murder enquiry.

I’m so glad I’ve gone back to the first book in the series, as it’s delightful to meet all of the characters, like Detective Bill Wong, and the vicar’s wife, Mrs Bloxby, for the first time.

Make no mistake this isn’t gritty, dark, high-action crime fiction, but it’s appeal for me is a calming, funny and yet intensely clever story, written by a hugely gifted writer. If you’ve yet to open a MC Beaton novel, I seriously recommend you try one as soon as you can!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Agatha Christie, PD James, JJ Marsh

Avoid if you don’t like: Cotswolds’ villages and nosey neighbours

Ideal accompaniments: Salmon and dill quiche and a crisp, dry Chablis.

Genre: Crime Fiction.

Available from Amazon





The Trials of Tiffany Trott by Isabel Wolff

Reviewer: JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult and the Overlord series.

What we thought: Originally published in 1998, The Trials of Tiffany Trott was a column in the Daily Telegraph before being commissioned by Harper Collins as a book.

Tiffany is your typical 37 year old London girl, who works in advertising. Despite being attractive and eligible, she's also a "complete failure with men".

I found Tiffany to be both likeable and funny as she goes in pursuit of marriage and children, all the while looking around her and feeling she has to conform to the relationship status her friends have chosen.

But is that what she really wants, or does she just feel she's missing out?

I was surprised by the lack of sex and swearing having previously read Bridget Jones, but it makes it no less funny and no less romantic. Set in the 90s there's no Match.com or Tinder, no mobile phones or internet. I really enjoyed looking back and reading about a time that despite being only a few years ago is very different from today, as Tiffany resorts to reading the small ads in the papers, and dating via agencies to find herself a date.

If you're looking for a fast-paced, funny, light read, then I would highly recommend this book.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Bridget Jones, chick-lit with a twist, humour, girl-talk

Avoid this if you like: Swearing, bloody violence, sex

Ideal accompaniments: A glass of chilled Prosecco, warm socks, massive box of chocolates

Genre: Chick-lit

Available from Amazon

Friday, 19 August 2016

Playthings by Alex Pheby

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: 

As the stark, black cover suggests, the innocent-sounding title, Playthings, hides a dark and troubled history.

It refers to a statement by Daniel Paul Schreber, an early 20th Century German judge who documented his own psychotic breakdown, that those around him were not real, but merely ‘playthings of a lower God.’ Schreber’s account of his breakdown was used by Freud in the early development of psychoanalysis.

Playthings is the Pheby’s fictional account of Schreber’s third and final breakdown, and his incarceration, under increasingly disturbing conditions, in an asylum.

What we experience, through reading the book, is Schreber’s comparatively lucid moments, with little idea of how much time has passed between episodes. To begin with, we are inclined to believe his protestations that he is perfectly well again and should be allowed to go home. But then the sense of dislocation and loss of control intensifies. Is the mysterious figure called Alexander, who follows him round the asylum, a distillation of Schreber’s fears and fancies, or a projection of his own guilt? And what about the orderly, Muller? He seems solid enough to begin with, but then that line, too, begins to blur.

Pheby’s writing creates moments of intense focus, as Schreber’s senses home in on some trivial detail in his environment.

“The pattern of the blanket came toward him in ever closer magnification the longer he stared. Grids of red and green entwined like the mesh of the ether, intersections picked out in gold thread, and below that motif, the brown webbing around which each fibre was woven.”

Pheby uses the type of chapter headings that were common in 19th and early 20th C novels, that flag what is about to happen in the chapter. At first this seems like a device to make the books seem as if written contemporarily with the setting. But read them carefully and they have a more unsettling effect. At times they provide context that you’d miss if you skipped over them, allowing you to take a step back from Schreber’s direct experience.

Playthings’ historical setting adds other dimensions to the story. We see the early, faltering and ultimately failing attempts at enlightened treatment of mental illness. And we observe its social background – the hypermasculinity of Prussian society and its intolerance of those who fail to fit its mould, its growing anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic sentiment.

A fascinating and unsettling read.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall; Hannah Green’s I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White

Avoid If You Dislike: Exploring mental illness at close quarters

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of brandy in a darkened room

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available from Amazon

Shameless by Paul Burston

Reviewer: David C Dawson www.davidcdawson.co.uk.

What We Thought:
This is a real Marmite of a book. You either love it or you hate it. I first read Shameless several years ago and I laughed out loud many times while reading it. The book is like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City - except with far more drugs and gay bitchiness.

Paul Burston was a well-known writer on gay topics for the London-based Time Out magazine by the time Shameless, his first novel, came out in 2001. He has published three novels since, and several short stories.

Thirty-two year old Martin works in advertising. He is kind and decent, unsuited to the cut and thrust of corporate life. At the start of the book, his boyfriend of four years has run off with a male prostitute. His friends John and Caroline are far too distracted by their drug-use and egotistical problems to be of any use to Martin. With no one to turn to, he decides to throw himself into a wild, hedonistic lifestyle. One that he feels he missed out on in his youth.

This is when Burston exposes Martin to the full on, and potentially destructive world of late 1990s gay London. The caricatures of gym bunnies, leather men, twinks and cocaine clubbers are brilliantly drawn. Martin is drawn into the excesses of a shameless, self-obsessed, cliquey world. Because Burston writes this as a morality tale, Martin ultimately finds that there is a price to pay.

Paul Burston’s style of writing is fresh and easy to read. His observations are shockingly accurate. I cannot tell you how I know this. Trust me, they are.

Shameless is witty, bitchy, trashy, camp, sweet and frothy, but always lots of fun. The characters of Martin, John and Caroline are fully formed and true to life. The essence of the London club-scene jumps from the pages. Paul Burston's books are accessible and unpretentious. His stories rocket along, like an express train. They are filled with humour, pathos and occasional insight.

I strongly recommend this book, unless you are of a nervous disposition. If you are, I would simply say, you should get out more.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Gay Divorcee: Paul Burston, Tales of the City: Armistead Maupin

Avoid if you don’t like: Occasional explicit sex description and drug usage

Ideal accompaniments: A very pink gin

Genre: Humour, LGBTQ

Available from Amazon