Friday, 25 March 2016

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald


Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: In a similar way to Louise O’Neill’s use of a real incident as a basis for her fiction, Fitzgerald uses an infamous viral video as the trigger for this unsettling story.

From the first line – I sucked twelve cocks in Magaluf – the reader is drawn into an experience much like a nightmare: how did I get here and what happens next?

Su wants to be a doctor. She’s a virgin and a good girl. She wants to make her adoptive parents proud. Her sister, a natural conception shortly after the adoption, dismisses the ambition of good girl and chases good times instead. When the two travel to Magaluf with a bunch of friends to celebrate their exams, only one will return home.

Su’s drunken (drugged?) escapade is filmed by the club staff and put online to go viral. She can’t bear to go home and face her family, friends, boyfriend, neighbours, knowing they’ve all seen it. So she runs.

Her mother, Ruth, is a judge (or Sheriff as it’s known in Scotland). Enraged at the judgement of her daughter and the lack of any shame attached to the men or those filming, she goes after them. This is not just for Su, but for herself.

All the three women are significantly changed by their efforts to manage the impact, and the ending is unexpected yet satisfying.

Fitzgerald’s black humour and skill with changing pace makes this a speedy read while luring the reader into genuine emotional investment. Not to mention striking a terrifying note about social media.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jodi Picoult, Louise O’Neill, Fay Weldon

Avoid if you don’t like: What really goes on in Magaluf, exploitation of young women and emotional stress

Ideal accompaniments: Gin and bitter lemon, dried seaweed and Amanda Palmer’s Machete

Available from Amazon

Hamelin's Child by D.J Bennett


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

What we thought: Excellent first in the series gritty crime drama from a new crime author for me, and I always love discovering new talent! Hamelin’s Child is the story of Michael Redford, one day an innocent seventeen year old and the next through no fault of his own he becomes a heroin addict known as Mikey. The journey into his new lifestyle was totally real and I learned a lot of details and information about the dark side of London’s underbelly.

The author has a background in police work and the realism and procedural details help to make this book a real page turner. I found the journey into the murky world of drugs a real eye opener, the details of how heroin takes over Mikey’s life was very real and created a real sense of empathy with the character. It was a refreshing approach to see the story unfold from the point of view of the victim rather than the bad guy.

Characters and dialogue were expertly handled by a competent writer. The lost innocence of Mikey and Lee were very well detailed and the imminent threat and sense of danger hung heavy over the story, giving the reader no doubt that even though these boys were often not prisoners in the real sense of the word, they were most definitely under the complete control of their captures and the drugs they made sure the boys soon became addicted to.

Pacing, style and tone suited the genre perfectly and I would recommended this book to anyone who enjoys dark and realistic crime fiction. The ending was well handled, the highs and lows of Mikey’s family kept the reader gripped to the very end, and leaves us wanting more from the next in series.

Highly recommended!

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

Avoid if you don’t like: Drugs and life on London streets.

Ideal accompaniments: McDonalds Quarter pounder and a coke.

Genre: Crime Fiction.

Available from Amazon

The Gospel According to Cane by Courttia Newland

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Gospel According to Cane shares its kernel with stories such as Martin Guerre, or Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrer – a stranger who turns up claiming to be a lost love one, in this case a child snatched when he was still a baby. Yet it contains much deeper resonances.

It is twenty years since Beverley Cottrell’s son, Malakay, was snatched, and although she has lost home, husband, job – she has managed to make a kind of life for herself, teaching creative writing to disadvantaged kids at a youth centre. But her frail balance is disturbed when she spots a young man in the street, staring at her, following her. Against the opposition of everyone around her, she becomes convinced that this is her son, returned to her.

The book is written as a series of almost haphazard journal entries by Beverley. In amongst the present day narrative are memories of her childhood, memories of her marriage and the loss of Malakay, dream sequences that take her back to the slavery era in the Caribbean, scientific analyses of pain perception – and a scattering of passages that only make sense when the book reaches its shocking climax.

The title appears to be a play on words. The Gospel According to Cane suggests both Cain, the brother of Abel, and the sugar cane harvested by the Caribbean slaves. Newland would thus seem to confront, head-on, the teaching of some white supremacist churches that the Mark of Cain, placed on him by God for the murder of his brother, was Black skin.

In Beverley’s dreams, she belongs to a family complicit in the slave trade. Despised by the Whites and hated by the Black field hands, they forge the chains and shackles and neck braces used on the slaves. These dreams make a bridge between the violence done to Black bodies in the slave era, and the violence – and acceptance of violence – that bubbles beneath the surface and occasionally erupts into the present day narrative. When Beverley records an episode of animal cruelty, Newland seems to dare us to be more shocked by that than what was done to human beings.

Newland's recurring image of a spider (including in one dream sequence probably best avoided by arachnophobes) evokes both the West African and Caribbean figure of Anansi – and the arachnoid mater (literarily ‘spider mother’) which, as Beverley’s journal entries tell us, is one of the three layers of meninges that protect brain and spinal chord and play a role in our perception of pain.

The question of whether the young man, now known as Wills, really is Beverley’s son Malakay is never fully answered. It is left to the reader to decide what the truth is, and whether it matters.

The Gospel According to Cane takes a simple narrative of maternal loss and psychological trauma, and gives it a far wider depth and resonance. Reading this, one cannot forget, either that countless babies were stolen from enslaved mothers, or that the damage done by the slave era still echo down through the generations today.

A Note on the Cover: The edition I read was the 2013 UK paperback, and the cover bothered me a lot, to the point where I have used what seemed to me the far more fitting American paperback at the head of this review. From the opening pages, it is clear that the narrator is a light-skinned Black woman of Caribbean heritage. And yet the woman on the UK cover seems to me to be generically Caucasian. Is this my distorted perception, or is it the publishing house ‘whitewashing’ the cover to make it more appealing to White readers -   Something I would have hoped would not happen to an established Black author like Courttia Newland?

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Long Song by Andrea Levy, Unless by Carol Shields

Avoid if you dislike: disjointed narratives, stories of lost children, spiders

Perfect Accompaniment: Curry Goat

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available from Amazon

Friday, 18 March 2016

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Ship is set in the not too distant future, when financial catastrophe has collided with destructive climate change to bring about the downfall of our world.

At the beginning of the great crash, Lalla’s father invented the Dove, a shell within the Worldwide Web, with the intention of bringing “fairness, equality, hope into a desperate situation.” It didn’t work. Instead, the Dove has become a tool of oppression in the hands of a brutal dictatorship.

Nevertheless, Michael Paul is perhaps the last rich man in the world. He has constructed a plan to take his daughter away from the violent, famished world they inhabit and give her everything he believes she needs to live a good life. But is this the right way to secure her future?

Lalla’s mother wants to live in the world and rescue as many survivors as she can. Her father wants to create a ideal world and choose the people to live in it. And as for Lalla, “If they were the knives cutting through the difficulties of the world they were living in, I was the whetstone upon which they sharpened themselves.”

When they finally set sail from London on the huge ship Michael has built and provisioned, the five hundred people he has selected to sail with them are overwhelmed with gratitude.

“But my inclusion was automatic. No one had made sure I was starving before they set a feast before me.”

Lalla is an adolescent, shielded to a great extent from the brutalities that the chosen passengers on the manifest have experienced at first hand. And she is not content to have her life circumscribed by the ship and mapped out by the father’s grand plan. Is she spoilt, or could her vision be wider than her father's?

Perhaps appropriately for a book set in a time where the modern world has crumbled away, there is something reminiscent here of Victorian novels. It is written in the slightly detached tone of a ship’s log, and the chapter headings, with their brief descriptions of the incidents to come [*We remember our missing * the stores *an apple *], echo Victorian imitations of the published journals of explorers. Lalla, like a Victorian heroine, seems by contemporary standards, at once mentally sophisticated and emotionally immature. There may be a clue, too, in the choice of her name – Lalage – borrowed from John Fowles’s homage to the Victorian novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

The Ship’s warning about how close to disaster our civilisation is sailing is timely; its vision of the world after the fall, plausible. At its heart lies the moral dilemma with which Lalla’s parents wrestled – as human beings pushed to the edge, who do we choose to save, and how?

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles,

Avoid if You Dislike: Post-apocalyptic stories, adolescent narrators

Perfect Accompaniment: A crisp, green apple, water cooled in a stone jug, and a garden.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic fiction

Available from Amazon

Echo Burning by Lee Child

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


What we thought
: I am enjoying my literary journey through Lee Child's novels and the audio books are extremely entertaining.

Here, newly-single Jack Reacher is back on the road, unencumbered by his foray into home ownership and back to living in motels with little more than a toothbrush as luggage.

When his first attempt at hitch-hiking for some time comes with a higher price, Reacher finds himself involved in a bizarre murder plot in which he wants no part. The desire of an abused wife to have her violent husband wiped out might be viewed as self-defence in some American states. But Reacher is in Texas. And in Texas the law has its own way of dealing with victims.

This is another gripping tale of Jack Reacher at his best. I think I secretly admire the way Child shows so many different sides to this character. We have an ex-cop, scared of no-one, who knows he only has to roll up his sleeves and pump up his biceps to have people quivering in their boots. And yet, here we get to see his empathetic side, his intelligence and also his people skills. When the good guys are lying and the bad guys are invisible, Reacher has this seventh sense that seems to kick in and it makes for a brilliantly perceptive read.

I shall continue through my journey of Reacher reads, and keep you informed along the way. For those who prefer to dip in and out of Lee Child’s books, this is definitely up there among my favourites and shows off his exceptional writing talent to its best.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Karin Slaughter, Jeffrey Deaver, Peter James.

Avoid if you don’t like: Long hot days and Texas.

Ideal accompaniments: Jack Daniels and ice cold Coke.

Genre: Crime

Available from Amazon





Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphreys


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

What we thought: The author of this shocking non-fiction tale, Margaret Humphreys, was originally a Nottingham social worker who, in 1986, began investigating the claim of a woman who stated she’d been transported to Australia on a boat, unaccompanied, at the age of four years old.

She gradually discovered, to her horror, and the horror of the British and Australian public in general, that as many as 150,000 children had been sent (without parent or guardian) from British children’s homes, starting in the 1920s, to a “new life” in Canada, Australia, Rhodesia or New Zealand. And that this had continued well into the 1960s.

She also discovered that many of these children were sent to remote farms run by religious organizations, and that this “new life” was, sadly and shockingly, filled with neglect and abuse, the children often working as slaves.

Once these children reached adulthood, they were turfed out into society to find their way as best they could, with no idea of who they were and where they’d come from. Or why.

For the charities, the child migrant scheme was apparently a solution to the overflowing British orphanages and the fact that the colonies were in need of a cheap labour force.

At great cost to herself, both financial and emotional, Margaret Humphreys made it her mission to try and reunite some of these child migrants with their families.

Empty Cradles is a well-written, heart-wrenching, tragic, but ultimately uplifting, story about the child migrant scandal from the UK to Australia post WWII, and I would highly recommend it to readers interested in such shocking social issues as this.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: true stories about bureaucratic scandal and cover-ups.

Avoid if you dislike: tragic accounts of neglected and abused children.

Ideal accompaniments: a comfortable chair as this is a real page-turner.

Genre: Non-fiction

Available from Amazon

Friday, 11 March 2016

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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

What we thought: Set in both Germany and France before and during WWII, this brilliant literary masterpiece moves back and forth in time, switching points of view amongst several finely-spun characters with whom we identify and empathise. Through beautifully flowing prose, the author paints pictures of light, and dark, and everything in between.

It is an amazing story of determination and love from both sides of WW2 and Occupied France. The author weaves historical fact––The German Occupation of France and the secret radio broadcasts of the French resistance––with the fictive story of a cursed diamond, into a rich and compelling story, deftly guiding the reader toward the day when gifted German boy, Werner, and blind French girl, Marie-Laure meet during the bombing of Saint-Malo.

Right from the first page, each small part of the story puzzle fits together as deftly as the miniature models Marie-Laure’s father constructs to help his daughter navigate the streets of Paris and Saint-Malo. And culminates in an unpredictable outcome as the final plot piece slots into place to uncover the hidden treasure.

Heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting, this portrayal of the light we don’t, or cannot see, is nothing short of dazzling; a novel to inhabit, to learn from and to mourn once it’s finished.

You’ll like this if you enjoyed: literary works such as The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings.

Avoid if you don’t like: character-driven, descriptive drama that doesn’t necessarily end happily ever after.

Ideal accompaniments: glass of smoky Bordeaux red wine, a portion of pigeon pie and a comfortable armchair (you won’t be moving for a while).

Genre: Historical Literary Fiction

Available from Amazon

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Us by David Nicholls

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought: Like much of Nicholls’ previous work, this is a gentle, carefully observed bittersweet romcom with surprising depth. Douglas Petersen recounts the story of how he met Connie, his wife, their love affair and the early years of their marriage. This is interwoven with his current situation twenty-five years on, when Connie is thinking of leaving him.

The family, Douglas, Connie and their 17-year-old son Albie, had planned to spend their summer holiday travelling Europe, doing The Grand Tour. Despite the precarious state of their relationship, Connie insists they should go ahead with their plans, stating that just as the trip made a man of all those 18th century adventurers, it will have the same effect on their son. The trip does indeed make a man of both him and his father.

Douglas is tightly buttoned, understated and very cautious. He believes that with careful organisation and the right mindset, he will be able to save his marriage and improve the father and son dynamic. Circumstances and his own attitudes, however, conspire against him, and he finds himself behaving most out of character. He learns to let go and in doing so, discovers who he really is.

Read with skilful nuances and a light touch by Justin Salinger, the book is laugh-aloud funny in places. These alternate with typically Nicholls touching, thoughtful and recognisable moments which occur in every relationship. As with One Day, he sidesteps the Hollywood resolution and provides surprises right till the end.

A perceptive and wonderfully observed novel to leave you thinking.

Favourite line: "As long as there is breath in my body, she will never lack for AA batteries."

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: One Day, The 7.39, Love Actually, A Spot of Bother

Avoid if you don’t like: Family tensions, European cities, parallel timelines

Ideal accompaniments: A baguette with ham & cheese, a bottle of Amstel and Bj√∂rk’s Human Behaviour.

Genre: Contemporary

Available from Amazon


The Six and the Crystals of Ialana by Katlynn Brooke

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought: An ideal first read for young adults attracted by the fantasy genre.

Fundamentally this novel is a Quest story. Three village boys, Jarah, Blaidd and Adain are forcibly conscripted into the army. Tristram, a young soldier press ganged some years before them, helps them escape. The escape is instigated by the onset of the mysterious dreams they all share. The dreams set them on a quest of discovery. Not only do they learn about reincarnation and their own past lives, but they gain astonishing information about the world they live in.

On their travels they meet three other dream guided teens, Djana, Kex and Tegan, and discover new things about themselves, some pleasing... some horribly disturbing and deeply troubling.

The questers viewing their past lives through dreams, learn that their deaths were brought about by treachery, that they were betrayed by one of their number; one of their brother questers.

Together and with some other-worldly help the companions must defeat an all-powerful enemy and prevent the cataclysmic destruction of their world.

This fast moving story is packed with peril and unexpected twists and turns... and magic, oodles and oodles of magic.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Beast Quest series and the works of Andre Norton and Terry Brooks

Avoid if you don’t like: Magic, mystery and psychic crystals.

Ideal accompaniments: For adults: A deckchair within sound of the sea and a tall glass of Pimm’s No 1. For teens: a flagon of Iron Bru, a family sized packet of Kettle Chips, and a comfy sofa.

Genre: Fantasy

Friday, 4 March 2016

The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander


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

What we thought: I'm not sure what I was expecting from this novel after reading the synopsis, but my expectations were well and truly surpassed by a debut novel which feels as if it has been confidently penned by a master of the craft.

Opening in 1688, we are introduced to Calumny Spinks, our central character, whom, despite his impoverished beginnings seems destined to lead a life of intrigue and adventure. Lanky-limbed and redheaded, Calumny comes alive to the reader, who are soon grinning at his clever wit, his talent at mimicry and his thirst for rule-breaking. He's a wonderful character, and I found great pleasure in taking Calumny's hand and allowing him to take me on a journey of sounds, smells, tastes, that brought alive the city of London during that period.

Each character we encounter leaps off the page, each road we tread feels authentic, and the language, style and pace are all polished to perfection. So, what can I say. If I had boxes to tick it would be tick, tick, tick, tick and tick. Any negatives? Only one ... we have to wait for the follow up. Highly recommended!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Elizabeth Chadwick.

Avoid if you don’t like: Period settings and London locations.

Ideal accompaniments: Porridge and ale.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Available from Amazon


The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought: In response to the interview question ‘Which book do you wish you’d written?’, Charlie Maclean mentioned this classic. A title I knew but had never read. Then I spotted the audiobook narrated by Colin Firth. Done deal. Any excuse for that man’s cadences in my earhole.

Firth’s voice does indeed add all kinds of wonderful to this story, but there’s already a very good reason this is a classic. It’s thoughtful, beautiful, angry, passionate, tragic and layered. At its heart is the love affair between Bendrix and Sarah. At its soul is the essential question – how to live one’s life?

Greene starts his story at the end, and the beginning. Bendrix meets the cuckolded husband, Henry, on the common. Friends once, they have a drink and a sequence of events is set in motion. Bendrix’s passionate love affair with his wife is, at her instigation, over. Their passions, however, are not so easily extinguished.

Characters struggle on three fronts: circumstances, desires and acceptable behaviour, as the narrative flicks back and forth between past and present with a terrible, classically tragic inevitability. The backdrop is WWII, and Greene makes the best use of a literal and metaphorical dropped bomb.

Layers peel away revealing other affections, superstitions, class distinctions and sympathies/antipathies based on social conditioning.

Impossible to say more without wrecking the enjoyment for the why-have-I-never-read-this-before reader. Read it and relish the joy of a master storyteller.


You’ll enjoy this if you likedBirdsong by Sebastian Faulks, Atonement by Ian McEwan, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Avoid if you don’t like: Slow burning stories, switching timelines, buttoned-down British characters

Ideal accompaniments: An English muffin with salted butter, chicory coffee and Don’t Me Fence Me In, by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters

Genre: Literary fiction, classic 

Available from Amazon

Palomino Sky by Jan Ruth

Reviewer: JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult and the Overlord series www.jdsmith-author.co.uk

What we thought: Palomino Sky is the second book in The Midnight Sky series, following the lives of James and Laura. Whilst the book is a sequel, I have read it as a standalone, and found myself immediately immersed in the couple's wedding plans.

Will it go smoothly? I think we all know the answer to that.

Laura's fun and loving, she just wants to be held and to live the life she sees before them. She wants to be married and be happy. But James is still running from his dead wife, He wants to sell his farmhouse and accompanying stables, a place that seems so perfect for him and Laura, but holds too many daily reminders of his previous life and love. And then a devastating accident throws him back into depression.

Maggie's more down to earth and matter-of-fact. Deep down she desires to feel needed after her husband is made redundant and promptly turns their family home into a B&B. And with too much time on her hands she's prone to meddling. But when her daughter's liaison with an undesirable man comes to light, everything is thrown into chaos.

Jan Ruth writes with the honesty and reflection that gives a very real representation of life and the way we live. Her characters are more than 3D, they live and breathe, they are people you and I know in our own lives. They are our neighbours and our friends, and depict a life filled with the same dramas we face day to day.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Drama, relationships, funny stories, Bridget Jones.

Avoid if you don’t like: Romance, annoying teenagers, horses.

Ideal accompaniments: Mug of hot chocolate, packet of custard creams.

Genre: Women's fiction

Available from Amazon

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The Demented Lady Detectives' Club

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

What We Thought: There are two narrative strands in this novel. One is written from the point of view of a woman with a colourful past, which she attempts to record before dementia hits and her memory goes. She remains unnamed until near the end. The other strand focuses on Janet Bretherton, a widow who we first met in The English Lady Murderers' Society.

Janet now lives in a small town in Devon where she is starting to make friends and find a way to live on her own. In this novel, as in the previous one, we are offered a selection of older women to get to know, along with Janet. Belle, who Janet met in France is visiting and may become a permanent resident. Christine runs an esoteric bookshop, Sandra works as a psychic, Frieda has a vintage clothes shop and there are three or four others. All these ladies belong to a bookclub and meet regularly.

When a mysterious man is found dead in the river, speculation is rife as to who he might be and who (if anyone) killed him. The bookclub members jokingly suggest they become The Demented Lady Detectives' Club. Janet, a writer of detective novels, takes the idea more seriously and, with Belle's help, tries to work out who the man was and what happened to him. She reasons that the answer to these questions will be the most obvious ones and can therefore be discovered simply from the known facts. She has, however, despite her acquaintance with DI Stephen Gregg, very few facts to go on.

Will Janet discover the murderer before the police do? Will the second narrator, and her shocking secrets, be revealed? And will the relationship between Janet and the much younger DI Gregg go anywhere?

This is a sometimes funny, sometimes serious novel which at times seems like cosy crime. Don't be fooled though – there is a gritty side to it. As is usual with Williams' crime novels, the morality of the crime, the criminal and the justice (which may or may not be dished out) are blurred.

A satisfying and enjoyable read that pokes fun at New Agers in a gentle and affectionate way.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Detective novels that don’t conform to stereotypes.

Avoid if you dislike: Novels featuring older women.

Ideal accompaniments: A nice cup of tea with a shot of something strong in it.

Genre: Crime / General Fiction.

Available from Amazon