Friday, 27 May 2016

Technologies of the Self by Haris A Durrani

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I first encountered Haris Durrani on the Bare Lit panel (Re)Writing Pasts and Futures which brought together fantasy and fiction novelists Tendai Huchu, Zen Cho, Tosin Coker and Durrani.

Jihad (now known as Joe, because it saves explanations) is an engineering student in New York. Like Durrani himself, he is of mixed Pakistani Muslim and Dominican Catholic descent. Joe is trying to be a ‘Good Muslim.’ His encounters with friends and girlfriends are tinged with a yearning, which any immigrant will understand, to find someone with whom he can share at least some common experience. Yet it is to his mother’s sprawling Latino family, and in particular to his uncle Tomás, who claims to have met the demon Santiago in 1967 and to have been stalked by him ever since, that Joe repeatedly turns in his effort to make sense of his place in the world.

As the novella progresses, it splinters into a rainbow of ideas. Discussions about the different strands of Islam bump up against ideas for travelling between different dimensions. Notions of devils, djinns and fallen angels sit alongside questions of ecological damage to the Dominican Republic through bauxite mining.

Durrani’s prose verges on poetry – perhaps at its best when it focuses on the banal details of everyday life. Here the adolescent Tomás encounters Veronica, one of his ‘three interlocutors.’

‘Her toenails glinted in the afternoon light, when the sun reached the right angle in the sky and Tomás would stare at faint line of dark skin that circled above her ankle bone like an old burn mark. She reeked of hard alcohol and thick jasmine perfume.’

The term ‘technologies of the self’ was used by the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, to describe “practices and strategies by which individuals represent to themselves their own ethical self-understanding.” Joe/Jihad associates it with medieval Muslim theologian, Al Ghazali and his description of prayer and recitation, which make the body sacred and shape it for good works. In the context of the novella, it seems to encompass the myriad tools needed to construct one’s own identity – especially as a second generation immigrant of mixed heritage living in the post-9/11 West.

In the end, Joe must battle the same demon who has dogged his uncle’s footsteps, and reclaim his identity as Jihad.

Technologies of the Self is not exactly what the general reader might expect from science fiction / fantasy. Magic realism perhaps comes closer. But the book defies categorisation. The nearest I can come to summing it up is: a reflection on religion, philosophy and identity, by an author with the mind of a scientist and the soul of a poet.

You can get a taste of Durrani’s writing (and meet the young Joe/Jihad) in his award-winning short story, “Forty-Two Reasons Your Girlfriend Works For The FBI, CIA, NSA, ICE, S.H.I.E.L.D., Fringe Division, Men In Black, Or Cylon Overlords,” available to read here.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, VALIS by Philip K Dick;  The Imagination Thief by Rohan Quine

Avoid if you Dislike: Poetry, religion and philosophy with your fantasy (or vice versa)

Perfect Accompaniment: Lamb with okra and a cup of fragrant tea.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Magic Realism, Fantasy

Available on Amazon

A Courtroom of Ashes by CS Wilde

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought: This fantastic, roller-coaster, mind-bending adventure tests the limits of belief. But keep the faith because there are hidden depths.

A young lawyer at a New York law firm rewards herself. Monetary if not moral successes earn her a mirror wall in her bedroom. Recycled mirrors have history, and so does she.

The mirror is a portal to the world of Death – and there’s someone on the other side Santana Jones really needs to talk to.

In this tale of otherworldly experience and emotional intelligence, Wilde blends realism and fantasy to an extraordinary degree. The main character is plausible and layered, the worlds she inhabits feel familiar and the descriptions of locations are practically poetic. Witty allusions abound and despite the tension, you will snort with laughter, I guarantee.

Wild, fanciful and occasionally absurd, the undeniable pace and personality drive this story with a furious energy. Shove JRR Tolkein, Philip K Dick and Ally McBeal into a blender and add some chilli pepper and you’re almost there. But this book has a rough, raw flavour all its own.

I look forward to reading more from this exceptional voice.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Rats by JW Hicks, Kimi's Secret by John Hudspith or Truly, Madly, Deeply.

Avoid if you don’t like: Inexplicable occurrences, fantasy/reality mix, violence.

Ideal accompaniments: Fresh bread, harissa and a tequila slammer.

Genre: Fantasy, contemporary, YA

Buy on Amazon

The Swan Princess by C.P. Lesley

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

What we thought: An action-packed, suspenseful historical adventure that kept me turning the pages right to the end.

Nasan, young tomboy and Tatar warrior princess from the first book in this series, The Golden Lynx has grown up, but the world of her 16th century Russian society still demands that she cast aside her feelings and desires, and conform to her powerless marital responsibilities.

However, just as in the legend of the swan maidens and swan wives who seek to flee their homeland with promises of enchantment and freedom, the determined Nasan too strives to break free from her binds, and escape her domestic prison.

The Swan Princess continues the ongoing relationship between Nasan and her Russian noble husband, Daniil, who is related to the man who killed Nasan’s brother, and for whom Nasan seeks revenge. These characters, along with the secondary roles, are so well-drawn, the historical facts so cleverly woven into the narrative, time and place so brilliantly evoked, that I felt I was experiencing 16th century Russia first hand. I also learned a great deal more about this period, and its people, which is always a sign to me of great historical fiction.

Due to the historical complexity of this era, and the large cast of characters with often unfamiliar-sounding names, I found the Historical Notes and Cast of Characters (fictional and real-life) at the end very helpful.

Alongside The Golden Lynx and The Winged Horse, I would highly recommend The Swan Princess (North) as a very worthy addition to this series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible: Legends of the Five Directions series–– north, south, east, west, and center.

Oh, and as you can see from the image, I think the book cover artwork is just divine, and says so much about the story!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: complex family saga adventure stories.

Avoid if you dislike: Historical Russian and Tatar tales.

Ideal accompaniments: vodka and pyraniki (Russian gingerbread).

Genre: Historical fiction.

Available from Amazon

Friday, 20 May 2016

The Glass Closet by John Browne

Reviewer: David C Dawson

What We Thought:

John Browne (Lord Browne) was CEO of BP, until he was outed by Britain’s tabloid press in 2007. At the time he wrote this book, there were no openly gay CEOs in the S&P list of the top 500 companies. Since then, there is now one: Tim Cook of Apple. Despite the passage of nine years since Browne’s outing, little has changed in the boardrooms of big business.

This book is a fascinating read. Browne explains why he thinks there is a continuing reluctance for senior executives to be open about their sexuality. As he once said in a radio interview, “It is a clubby experience. I mean, I think many people have an unconscious bias, they do tend to select people like themselves, and so therefore they [exclude] people who are a bit different.”
Starting with his own experience, he vividly paints a picture of loneliness and isolation. There are powerful emotions at work here. He goes a long way to explaining why he remained closeted throughout his corporate career. At one point he reveals that his mother was a Holocaust survivor. She would tell him, “Don't be different, because difference is always picked up when something goes wrong.” 

His interviews with people in senior positions describe casual homophobia from senior managers and peers, both male and female. All those that he interviewed remained closeted. Their fear is revealing and sad.

Browne’s argument ultimately is a simple one. People who are unable to be themselves in the workplace, who have to lie, or at least conceal the truth, are less effective. The emotional energy they consume as they pretend to be someone else, day-to-day, is bad for business. He makes a well-argued case. But he fails to come up with sufficient ideas for how homophobic corporate cultures can be changed.

Writing this book seems to have been important therapy for Lord John Browne. In some ways, he is refreshingly honest. After all, this was a man who repeatedly ducked the opportunity to be a role model for LGBTQ executives. A man who continued to lie to the court when questioned about his sexuality. So when I came to the final chapter, it became clear to me that what he had left unsaid in the book revealed much more about Lord Browne.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The G Quotient by Kirk Snyder

Avoid if you don’t like: Books featuring corporate life

Ideal accompaniments: A nice cup of tea

Genre: Non-fiction, LGBTQ

Available from Amazon

I Promise You This by Patricia Sands (Book 3 in the Love in Provence series)

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

What we thought: The third in Patricia Sands’ France-based Love in Provence series, I Promise You This follows on from Book 2: Promises to Keep, where the heroine, Katherine, leaves behind painful memories of her failed marriage in Canada to go to France to begin a new life with her French love, Philippe.

I Promise You This begins where book 2 ends, with Katherine returning to Canada to help her friend Molly, after a serious accident.

But her hometown evokes memories of all that Katherine left behind, and after a meeting with her ex-husband and a declaration of love from an old flame, Katherine asks herself if she’s truly ready to abandon all of this for an unknown new life in a foreign country, with Philippe. And if she does take the plunge, is this new love just a quirk of lust, or is it everlasting? After the disaster of her marriage, is she able to trust in love again?

Once back in France, amidst the stunning countryside of Provence, the smells of the flowers and trees, the succulent food and wine, we continue to follow Philippe and Katherine on their voyage of new love. Some plot twists involving other members of Philippe’s family add to the surprise and suspense of the story.

The author’s love of this part of France is evident through her breathtaking descriptions of the countryside, the villages, the gastronomic food and wine, which she deftly brings to life.

I Promise You This brings the Love in Provence trilogy to a satisfying close, leaving us with joy and the hope that a new life is possible, if we’re game to take the risk.

Highly recommended to readers of contemporary romance, women’s fiction and francophiles.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: contemporary romances set amidst stunning countryside and succulent food feasts of France. The Promise of Provence (Love in Provence book 1) and Promises to Keep (Love in Provence book 2).

Avoid if you don’t like: love stories, women’s fiction.

Ideal accompaniments: Cool class of Viré-Clessé (my personal fave!), ripe and smelly cheese served on a crusty baguette.

Genre: Women's Fiction/Contemporary Romance

Available from Amazon

Friday, 13 May 2016

From Both Ends of the Stethoscope by Dr Kathleen Thompson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: The response I kept hearing, from friends who had read this book, was ‘You don’t expect a book about cancer to be a page turner – but this is.’ I can vouch for that. I read it in the course of two successive train rides to London, and the journey has rarely gone so quickly.

Kathleen Thompson is a British doctor who, in her mid-fifties found herself on the other side of the medical ‘fence’ when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The book alternates clear explanations, in non-medical terms, of every aspect of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, with frank and personal accounts of Thompson’s own experience.

One of the first things Thompson reminds us is “Cancer is not a death sentence. Not everyone will recover, but most will.” Her gentle voice guides the reader, from the first anxious visit to the GP, through diagnosis, surgery, the various post-surgical paths and into (it is to be hoped) ‘life after cancer’. She is full of praise for the NHS, but also clear-eyed about the things that can sometimes go wrong. She knows how important it is for a patient to take charge of their own treatment and not allow themselves to be railroaded by well-meaning but often overworked and rushed medical practitioners. But she also understands just how hard that can be for someone faced with a life-threatening illness.

The power of the book lies in Thompson’s willingness to be completely frank about her own fears, frustrations, her highs and lows; and also her capacity to see the medical staff who treated her both from the perspective of a patient and from someone who has sat on the other side of the desk.

Even if you are lucky enough never to get cancer, chances are at some point in your life you will have a cancer scare. If not you, then your mother, sister, daughter or friend will face this disease at some point. If you are a patient, this book will help you understand what you are going through and give you courage to make decisions that are right for you. If you are a carer, a family member, a friend or a member of the medical profession, it will deepen your understanding of what the cancer patient is experiencing.

A work of huge compassion, and one that, in the end, is surprisingly uplifting.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The C Word by Lisa Lynch

Avoid If You Dislike: Frank medical detail

Perfect Accompaniment: A pot of green tea

Genre: Non-fiction, Medical

Available from Amazon

London Triptych by Jonathan Kemp

Reviewer: David C Dawson

What We Thought:

This is Jonathan Kemp's debut novel and is a fascinating insight into gay history over the last 100 years. Whether you are straight or gay, it is an absorbing read. The characters are well-rounded human beings, with their strengths and imperfections. The book is set in London and links the lives of Jack from 1895, Colin in 1954, and David in 1998.

Jack is a rent boy with few inhibitions. He lives a life of hedonism and adventurous sex, meeting men from all classes in suppressed Victorian society, notably the soon to be famous Oscar Wilde.

Colin is an aspiring artist. He lives in the asceticism of post-war London and is filled with self-doubt and self-loathing. He tentatively explores his sexuality as he prepares for his most ambitious painting yet: London Triptych.

David is also a rent-boy, constantly seeking his next sexual high among the drug-partying crowds of the 90s.

The three stories are intertwined from chapter to chapter, in a series of apparently disparate episodes. It is only at the end that Kemp provides the surprising link between them.

This is a compelling read, a real page-turner. Kemp challenges his characters by throwing them at events and then watching them flounder and flail. It betrays their weaknesses and makes them real and three-dimensional. Too often in gay fiction, authors resort to stereotypes. This book is a commentary on the changes to the lives of gay men over the last one hundred years, and an insight into Kemp’s own views on gay men and love.

From a writer’s point of view it is a book that makes you stop and think, not just about the observations Kemp makes, but also about his prose style and his chosen structure. The book is ambitious and a very good first novel. Well worth reading.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Alan Hollinghurst: The Stranger’s Child, Michael Cunningham: The Hours

Avoid if you don’t like: Explicit sexual description

Ideal accompaniments: Strong coffee

Genre: LGBTQ

Available from Amazon

Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Where the River Parts takes us inside a conflict that most of us know only from newspaper headlines and historical reports. And like Kamila Shamshie’s Burnt Shadows, it spans half a century and two continents.

The novel opens in the days before Indian Independence in 1947, when the country is about to be divided into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Mistrust is in the air and a season of madness is about to sweep across the country.

Asha and Nargis have grown up next door to each other in what will soon be the Pakistani part of Punjab. They are best friends, even sharing each other’s fast days – but Asha is Hindu and Nargis is Muslim. Neither can believe that anything will ever come between them. Even when the violence reaches to Suhanpur and Asha’s family are forced to flee to Delhi, everyone believes the separation is only temporary.

In fact, it will be half a century and half a world away before Asha sees Nargis’s brother, Firoze, – the man she was once secretly in love with - in New York. The wounds of Partition still run deep. Pakistan and India are now implacable enemies, and even away from the sub-continent mistrust between Hindus and Muslims is an ever-present shadow. Can old love and friendship build a bridge between the two communities, or will it be up to a new generation?

Swarup paints a picture of what life was like for two middle-class, educated young women in the Punjab between the end of WWII and Independence. Asha and Nargis bubble with mischief and fun, like any teenagers. Their lives are circumscribed by tradition, but not stifled. And there is a sense that they are the verge of new freedoms. All of which makes the senseless violence that erupts all the more shocking.

Where the River Parts is a tender tale that never takes sides. Kindness and generosity is found on both sides of the Partition, as is prejudice and cruelty. Swarup does not try to explain what triggers people who have lived side by side as neighbours to turn on each other – a pattern repeated in India, Nigeria, Bosnia, Rwanda... As, no doubt, it could almost anywhere. Wisely, she understands that the heart of the story lies not in the why or the how – but in the impact the brutal events have on families and communities, and how they continue to resound through succeeding generations.

Towards the end of the book, Asha meets a Muslim woman her own age who fled the other way, leaving Delhi for Pakistan. The woman asks her what Delhi is like now.

“It’s still a village at heart,” Asha tells her, “noisy and intrusive. There are still narrow lanes that cross the magnificent boulevards, still the shanties beyond the grand circuses. It’s still impossible to keep things secret.”

“In that case,” says the woman, “all is well.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamshie, Finding Takri by Palo Stickland

Avoid If You Dislike: Narratives stretching over several generations

Perfect Accompaniment: Potato parathas and a glass of home-made lemonade, flavoured with roast cumin.

Genre: Historical Fiction, South Asian Literature

Available from Amazon

Behind Closed Doors by B.A Paris

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

What we thought: I’d read a lot of excitement about this novel online before I opened the first page and as I read the book in just a couple of sittings in over the course of one weekend, it certainly lived up to the hype.

This is a story that grips you from the very first page and doesn’t let you go until its sudden and unexpected end. A cleverly constructed plot with strong characters that rollercoasters along at top pace. The writing style was quite linear, with everything seen from Grace’s perspective, and I would have liked a little more outside influence. Maybe from Esther or Diane, some of her friends, so that we were convinced by Jack from their perspective. Although this was a gripping read, for me it wasn’t quite as chilling as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, maybe because I wanted a more layered narrative. And I also wanted Grace to show her inner strength and intelligence more in the early chapters, to convince me how she fell for Jack’s lies and manipulation.

Jack and Grace appear, from the outside, to be the epitome of a perfect couple. Perfect lives, perfect jobs, perfect marriage. And yet the truth is so much darker. Jack Angel is a celebrity lawyer whose 100% success rate marks how manipulative and charming a character he can be. However, once Grace is caught up in his web, her chances of escape look grim. She seems to have only one option, but does she have the strength, mental and physical, to carry it through.

It was that uncertainty that kept me hooked. The author is very clever in leading you along one path, only with a quick jump back in time, showing you how wrong your initial thoughts turned out to be. There were twists and turns that kept you on the edge of your seat, and you were left chilled at the evil of humans, and yet praying for a happy outcome. Was it a happy ending? Well, you will just have to read for yourself to find out!

Have to agree that this is an impressive debut novel and I look forward to more from this talented author.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Mark Edwards, S.J Watson, Gillian Flynn.

Avoid if you don’t like: Twisted humans and perfect marriages.

Ideal accompaniments: Whiskey on the rocks.

Genre: Psychological thriller.

Available on Amazon