Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Review by: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I read once that there are holes in the universe that swallow all light, all bodies. St Jerome’s took all the light from my world.

Saul Indian Horse is from the Fish Clan of the Northern Ojibway – the Anishinabeg.

As the opening of the book shows, in the late fifties and early sixties, there were still pockets of land, even in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, where the indigenous people could live traditional lives. But the rot that would destroy that way of life had long since set in. The church-run, government sponsored system of residential schools had ripped through communities, stealing away generations of children.

If you haven’t already read the damning reports, this book can leave you in no doubt that those who ran these schools were not ‘well meaning but misguided’. The systematic cruelty Wagamese describes beggars belief. Sexual assaults and deaths from brutality and neglect did not just happen, they were routine. It left generations of survivors suffering from PTSD and vulnerable to alcoholism and domestic abuse.

When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human.

For a while, Saul escapes from the horrors into the world of ice hockey. The instincts that once allowed his great-grandfather to anticipate the movements of the animals he hunted allow Saul to ‘read’ the ice, to place himself where the puck will be a split-seconds before it arrives, to find the gap in the players through which to score. Wagamese brings a captivating poetry to his descriptions of these hockey games.

As Saul moves up from the Indian ‘Rez’ teams and starts to compete with white players, he faces racist aggressions – micro and macro – that suck the joy out of the game. He will have to hit rock bottom before he can finally confront what happened to him at the school and begin the slow process of healing.

A powerful book that everyone should read to understand the long-reaching impact of childhood trauma.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal.

Avoid If You Dislike: Frank depiction of institutional child abuse

Perfect Accompaniment: Rabbit stew on a cold, cold night.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Indigenous Authors

Available on Amazon

Love is Blind by William Boyd

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett – author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn and other books

What We Thought: Brodie Moncur has perfect pitch. Son of the bullying Rev Malcom Moncur and protege of Lady Dalcastle, Brodie works for Edinburgh piano manufacturers, Channons. He is a gifted piano tuner and man of ideas. When, at the age of 24, he is offered the position of Assistant Manager of the Paris branch he accepts with only a few trepidations.

In the late 1890s Paris has many attractions for a young man but when he meets the Russian soprano Lydia Blum, his life is changed forever. Lika, as she is known, is the mistress of fading star pianist John Kilbarron. Kilbarron's thuggish brother Malachi keeps a suspicious eye on them all. Of course, Brodie and Lika begin an affair and after a series of disastrous events involving a stolen melody and a duel, are forced to flee and live under assumed names. Constantly fearful that Malachi is on their trail they move from place to place until Lika can take no more.

This is a beautifully written novel full of hints of Chekov – both his life and literature. Jimmy Joyce also makes a brief appearance and there are no doubt other references for the reader to discover and feel clever about. The nature of obsession and the randomness of life and love are portrayed through fully realised characters against a variety of backgrounds, both European and more exotic.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher with no obligation to either read or review.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Other William Boyd books, Sebastian Faulks.

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of obsessive love.

Perfect Accompaniment: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2.

Genre: Literary/Historical/General Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Blessed Fury: Angels of Fate Book 1 by CS Wilde

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Paranormal romance is not my usual genre, but having read one of CS Wilde’s previous books, A Courtroom of Ashes, I dived into this with anticipation. This is an epic adventure of angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, Warriors and Erudites. Guardian Ava is tasked with protecting Liam, one of the Selfless, after he has lost his partner.

He’s angry, passionate and hell-bent on vengeance. Keeping him out of trouble is going to take everything Ava’s got, especially when a malevolent force is setting species against each other. And if that’s not enough to contend with, she finds herself powerfully attracted to her charge. Sparks are going to fly.

This is a wonderfully realised world with its own laws and codes of honour. The characters leap of the page and the action is breath-taking. There is a huge cast of beings and it feels as if there is much more to be learned, so it’s reassuring to see this is the first of a series.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked
: Gods and Monsters, The Dimensions Series, Requiem for Fallen Gods

Avoid if you don’t like
: Paranormal elements, fantastical creatures, fighting

Ideal accompaniments
: Popcorn, a Bloody Mary and a thunderstorm.

Available on Amazon

Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

Review by: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I wish he knew that when an NDN laughs, it’s because they are applying a fresh layer of medicine on an open wound.

Jonny Appleseed is an urban NDN - young, Two Spirit / Indigiqueer and a glitter princess. He has left the rez in northern Manitoba and made a life for himself in Winnepeg, earning his living creating sexual fantasies on camera for other gay men.

I’m like an Etch-a-Sketch – every cell in my body is yours to define.

Homophobia was rampant on the rez, especially among the men. And Winnepeg is known as ‘the most racist city in Canada.’ Jonny has spent his life playing straight on the rez in order to be an NDN and playing white in the city in order to be queer. There are perhaps only three people in the world who accept him as himself – his mother, his Kokum (grandmother) and his childhood friend and sometime lover, Thias.

Funny how an NDN “love you” sounds more like “I’m in pain with you.”

But Kokum is dead and Thias is in love with a girl called Jordan. Then his mother calls to say that his stepdad, Roger – ‘a pig-headed, alcoholic, homophobic sonuva’ – has died, and she wants him home for the funeral. So now he has a couple of days to earn enough money for his rent AND to pay for the journey home.

As the story flips between Jonny’s memories of growing up on the Rez and his present life in Winnepeg, Whitehead plays with language as if he’s inventing it afresh. He references January Jones, The Revenant or Elle from Stranger Things as lightly as he references the elements of Oji-Cree beliefs and traditions salvaged from the wreckage of the past.

This is two generations on from the residential school system that ripped through indigenous communities throughout Canada, but the wounds are still open. Jonny ‘s life is a desperate, clinging-to-the-edge existence. And yet there is a joy and a tenderness and a depth of love that emerges from the hurt and sorrow.

A powerful, utterly modern story that will take you by the scruff of the neck and shake your preconceptions. Long-listed for the 2018 Giller Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Break by Katherena Vermette, Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Popoola

Avoid If You Dislike: Unflinching descriptions of gay sex

Perfect Accompaniment: Soup and bannock (or something with hamburger helper!)

Genre: Literary Fiction, LGBTQ Fiction, Indigenous Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Sealskin by Su Bristow

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

This is the first book I’ve read of this author and I must admit I was totally gripped by both the writing and the story. My love of location as a character in its own right was well and truly quenched here, as Bristow brought alive the surroundings of the remote Western Isles of Scotland with total professionalism and I could almost taste the salty spray of the sea on my lips.

According to the post script, the author based the novel on one of the many legends of the area, that is the selkies which are seals who can transform themselves into people and back again. Tales of such creatures are as known to the locals of the parts as mermaids are to the rest of us, and the fear and intrigue they carry comes across superbly in the story. As well as using the beauty of the landscape, Bristow brings into the play the resilience of the cross section of locals in such a tough landscape, and the strength of human spirit through adversity.

When young fisherman, Donald, gets to see the selkies on one of his lone fishing trips he makes a decision that will change his life forever in any ways. Along with his long-suffering mother, Bridie, he begins a journey that will take him to places and situations he never believed he would visit.

The writing winds its way effortless through this superbly crafted tale and I very much look forward to reading another book by this author.

Highly recommended!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Kate Hamer, Jo Cannon, Ruth Hogan.

Avoid if you don’t like: Haunting tales and legends of old.

Ideal accompaniments: Smoked mackerel fillets with brown bread and pale ale.

Genre: Contemporary

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Strangers on a Bridge by Louise Mangos

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

On her morning run, Alice spots a man on a bridge, preparing to jump. 
Her innate compassion makes her stop to help. It's a gesture she'll regret.

Manfred believes he and his saviour have a special connection and inveigles his way into her life, affecting her marriage, her children and her mental health. She thinks he needs professional help. He thinks she is his destiny.

This is a classic psychological thriller with a domestic touch. Alice is a wife and mother, plus a stranger in a closed land, trying to cope with exceptional circumstances in a foreign language. As she becomes increasingly isolated and takes some impulsive decisions, the scene is set for a dramatic resolution.

Mangos uses the Swiss landscape and cultural quirks to great effect, but where she excels is in the creeping sense of insecurity growing to paranoia. The steady erosion of Alice's judgement as to right and wrong has the reader scrabbling for a foothold on an icy, fatal slope.

Some of her choices appear inexplicable in the 'If it were me' mindset, which only underlines the derailment this woman has undergone. This novel is a look into the abyss within all of us.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: 
The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn, Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, Mindsight by Chris Curran.

Avoid if you don’t like: Psychological uncertainty, Swiss background, German language.

Ideal accompaniments: Wild deer with chestnuts, Pinot Noir and Profondo Rosso by Goblin

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Ponti is a debut novel by Sharlene Teo, set in Singapore, where Teo was born. The narrative weaves between three timelines. It opens in 2003 with a story that, on the surface, appears to be Mean Girls set in a Singapore high school. Szu is clever but frequently in trouble and her only friend is the equally odd-ball Circe.

“Today marks my sixteenth year on this hot horrible earth. I am stuck in school, standing with my palms presses against a green wall. I am pressing so heard, my fingers ache. I am tethered to this wall by my own shame.”
But Szu is the daughter of Amisa, the star of a trilogy of cult horror films about the Pontianak – a savage, flesh-eating ghost disguised as a hauntingly beautiful woman. The second timeline reveals how Amisa went from village girl in rural Penang via never-quite-realised stardom to embittered motherhood.

“Amisa was a woman pushing a problem. The problem gurgled as they took laps around the park.”
The third brings us into the present day and is Circe’s story, forced to look back on the events of her school days when she becomes involved in promoting a remake of the Pontiniak films.

“Szu and I were sixteen, each other’s only friends in the world. We were symbiotic and that intense, irreplicable way that comes as part and parcel of being careworn teenage girls.”
The fourth key character is Aunt Yunxi – not Szu’s really aunty, but her mother’s oldest friend, who lives with them and runs a questionable business as a medium and spirit healer out of their house.

“The truth is my Aunt Yunxi is half woman, half violin. She screeches, she is narrow and stiff. She holds out her arms at odd angles as if they don’t belong to her.”

Singapore is polyglot and the narrative reflects that. As in Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, it is up to you whether you want to look up the references to food, clothing and so on, that pepper the text in Mandarin, Hakka, Teochew, Hokkien ... or let them flow past you, teasing you with possibility.

This is a sophisticated coming-of-age story that explores grief, loss, disappointment and their physical manifestations in teenage and young adult bodies. Its rich language vividly evokes a world that will be unfamiliar to many readers, without the need to exoticise it. If your only reference for Singapore is an image of a skyline of glass and concrete tower blocks, this is an entry into a whole different world, that of the city’s ordinary inhabitants.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Harmless Like Me by Rowan Hisayo Buchanon, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Avoid If You Dislike: casual multilingual references

Perfect Accompaniment: Red bean pancake and a diet coke

Genre: Literary Fiction, Coming of Age

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Violence made this city. Those living, born and raised, grow up with it like an older brother.”
Guy Gunaratne’s mad and furious city is London – the rough estates of modern, multi-cultural, working class London.

The story is told through five voices. Three young men who grew up playing football together: Selvon, the athlete, headed for university; Ardan, who watches from the rooftops, spinning Grime lyrics out of the world he observes, and Yusuf, son of an Imam, whose brother has lost his way. Then there is Nelson, wheelchair bound and speechless after a stroke, who lived through the bitter race riots of the 50s and 60s and has seen it all before. And Caroline, the alcoholic Irishwoman, who escaped, deeply scarred, from the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland.

A soldier has been murdered on these streets in broad daylight and the city is turning on itself. Far Right groups are marching, threatening the mosque. And in response, the new Imam is summoning up a vigilante group of young men, the Muhajiroun, to protect, but also to police, their community.

As anger and mistrust rip through their Ends, tearing at the bonds of friendship and stomping on the dreams of the three younger men, the two older ones remember earlier battles, and how violence begats violence, warping those who are caught up in it.

“During a high tide, things come fairly. The people them welcome newcomer like a novelty. Other times the tide is low and them smiles turn to bitterness and hate.”

Gunaratne is a master a voices. Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf’s stories are written in the street slang of modern London, while Nelson’s voice is still rooted in his Caribbean childhood and Caroline’s is straight off Belfast’s Falls Road. Each is distinct and utterly convincing.

A powerful novel that rips a window onto contemporary London in all its multicultural complexity – its violence, its vibrancy and its endurance.

In Our Mad and Furious City was longlisted for both the Man Booker and the Not the Booker prizes in 2018. Disappointingly, it failed to make the cut in either. I sincerely hope to see it on the Jhalak Prize shortlist next year, as it thoroughly deserved the recognition.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Poloola, An Unreliable Guide to London (ed Kit Caless)

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories told in strong dialect

Perfect Accompaniment: Gang Signs and Prayers by Stormzy

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The Stolen Child by Sanjida Kay

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

This is the first book I’ve read of this author and I must admit I was totally gripped by both the writing and the story. In the vein of some of the best of the modern-day thrillers from Gillian Flynn and Clare Mackintosh, The Stolen Child is the riveting story of one couples attempt to stop themselves, and their whole lives, falling apart when their adopted child, Evie, goes missing after school one day.
Zoe and Ollie Morley tried for years to have a child of their own and when it seemed their only route was adoption, they took on a tiny girl called Evie, and never looked back. Even after the birth of the own natural son, Ben, Evie was an integral part of their family, and other than long working hours keeping them apart, their lives were everything they had dreamed.
But after moving back to Zoe’s home county of Yorkshire and setting up a home on the edge of her beloved moors, Evie’s personality begins to change. Strange packages are left from Evie’s natural father, and when one day she disappears after school, the Morley’s life is shattered into a million unconscionable pieces.
The author cleverly gives us enough clues and red herrings to keep us guessing and on the edge of our seats right up until the exhilarating climax of the story. A personal favourite of mine was the description of the moors and the landscape, which I feel always adds another layer to the depth of the story. The characters were superbly drawn, no emotion felt awkward or contrived, I felt from start to finish that I was in the hands of a talented storyteller and let myself go to enjoy the journey.

Highly recommended!
You’ll enjoy this if you like: Kate Hamer, Jenny Blackhurst, Erin Kelly.
Avoid if you don’t like: High emotion and gripping plots.
Ideal accompaniments: Cheeseburger, fries and cola.
Genre: Contemporary

Available on Amazon

Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

This third outing for Sam Wyndham and his redoubtable sergeant Surrender-not in 1920s Calcutta does not disappoint, from its shocking opening in Calcutta's Chinatown to the tense ending, blending fact and fiction.

It’s almost Christmas Day 1921, the end of the year in which Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation movement really got going. It’s also the year that the King Emperor George V decided to send his son, the Prince of Wales, on an ill-advised tour of India. Then, in the midst of seething unrest and with all the security implications of an impending royal visit, mutilated corpses start to turn up – apparently unconnected but bearing startlingly similar wounds. Section H, the military police, are convinced it must be the work of terrorists from the Independence Movement, but Sam is far from sure.

This is case that will test Surrender-not’s painfully divided loyalties to the limit. It will also force Sam to confront his own growing dependence on opium.

Mukherjee continues to paint a vivid picture of Calcutta as India lurches closer to independence, weaving fiction around real events and people. Chitta Ranjan Das, Gandhi’s chief lieutenant in Bengal, his wife Basanti Devi and his disciple and future hero of the movement Subhash Bose all appear in this novel, as Sam starts to appreciate both the genius of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance and the untenable nature of the British position.

“To see a man as your enemy, you needed to hate him, and while it was easy to hate a man who fought you with bullets and bombs, it was bloody difficult to hate a man who opposed you by appealing to your own moral compass.”

Mukherjee’s choice of Sam as his point of view character – an outsider who is part of the British Raj without being fully of it – provides a fascinating lens through which to see this troubled and pivotal period in India’s history. At the same time, he draws the thriller elements of the story from little known scraps of background history – in this case, a particularly shameful episode in British treatment of its colonial subjects.

This absorbing series just keeps getting better and batter. I am thrilled by its success – not least because it means should be plenty more to come for Sam and Surrender-not.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee, The Devil’s Porridge by Chris Longmuir, The Golden  Scales by Parker Bilal

Avoid If You Dislike: Facing up to the realities of Britain’s colonial past

Perfect Accompaniment: A stiff whisky

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

City of Sinners by A.A. Dhand

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

City of Sinners is the third in the A.A. Dhand’s series of crime novels set in Bradford and starring his detective, DCI Harry Virdee. It opens in the most arresting way possible, with a body hanging from the dome of Waterstones – formerly the Bradford Wool Exchange and one of England’s most beautiful bookshops. And that is just the start of a spree of bizarre killings that seems to centre Harry himself.

As ever, Dhand presents a Bradford that is – as Harry says – a British Gotham. And in Harry Virdee he gives us a stereotype-busting Asian Luther – violent, angry and willing to cross almost any line you draw. Surely it can only be a matter of time before someone takes these high energy books, with their spectacular set pieces and arresting imagery, and transfers them onto the small screen?

But Virdee doesn’t stop at busting stereotypes of geeky asexualised Asian men. He drives a coach and horses through the trope of the loner cop as well. For the light in the dark of Dhand’s novels remains the relationship between Harry and his wife and baby son. It’s also the part of the books where he most cleverly flips your expectations. The only other crime novelist of recent times that I can think of who has allowed their protagonist such a rich, warm and realistic home life is Sheila Bugler. Without it, these books could be grim fare indeed. With it, they become a joy.

Dhand also does what few other authors could do with clarity and integrity: he takes as his themes the darker, dirtier aspects of British Asian society – in this case, brown on brown bigotry, something he’s touched upon in his earlier books. And it is those generations of accumulated hatred and prejudice that, to my mind, produce the most quietly shocking moment in the whole book.

There is no getting away from the fact the Dhand’s novel’s are brutally violent, and if that’s really not your thing, you should probably steer clear. That said, there are many, many reasons why you should introduce yourself to Harry Virdee. If you haven’t already done so, go back and read Streets of Darkness and Girl Zero. And then get straight on and read City of Sinners.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Val McDermid, Dreda Say Mitchell, Sheila Bugler, Gillian E Hamer

Avoid if You Dislike: Graphic depiction of violence (or probably if you are an arachnophobe.)

Perfect Accompaniment: Chai flavoured with fenugreek and cardamom seeds

Genre: Crime Fiction

Available on Amazon

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett – author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn and other books

What We Thought: This is a very loud book! Matty Simpkin bounds onto the page and makes herself heard wherever she is and whatever she is doing. Mattie and her friend Florrie Lee (known as The Flea) live near Hampstead Heath in The Mousehole, so called because the house was once a refuge for suffragettes released under the Cat & Mouse Act.

Both Mattie and The Flea were members of the WSPU before the Great War. In 1918 an act was passed giving the vote to property-owning females over the age of thirty. It is now 1928 and a new bill is about to extend suffrage to all women over 21, even those who are not property owners.

Though still active - giving talks about the movement with The Flea's assistance - Mattie feels she wants to do more. Another former suffragette has started up an organisation for boys and girls which Mattie considers to be verging on the fascistic - uniforms and marching are involved. She determines to start her own group - a more freethinking outfit to be called The Amazons. Mattie wants to encourage young women and girls to be fit, healthy and knowledgeable so as to be able to use their votes wisely.

She recruits Ida, a former cloakroom attendant who has been dismissed, and puts notices up for more members. The group becomes successful, with The Amazons gallivanting all over the Heath learning physical skills while ingesting Mattie's teaching on a wide range of subjects.

However, when Inez joins things start to go wrong. Mattie knew Inez's dead mother, Violetta, and comes to believe that the girl's father may not be who she believes he is. She favours Inez again and again, thereby putting the other girls' noses out of joint. On one disastrous summer's day Mattie acts against her own better judgement and loses the respect of the Amazons and, ultimately, her friendship with The Flea.

Beautifully written, vibrant, witty and sad, this book explores the disappointments of nepotism and the way a fond memory of someone may not be the whole truth.

I received a free ebook from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

Avoid If You Dislike: Accounts of women’s lives.

Perfect Accompaniment: Gooseberry jam and a cup of tea.

Genre: Literary/General Fiction

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is a tricky book to pin down. It begins, straightforwardly enough, in a city crowded with refugees and about to be overrun by war. The city is never named and you are left to decide for yourself whether Hamid might have a specific place in mind or whether this could stand for any city on the brink of war.

The two central characters, Nadia and Saeed, meet at an evening class.

“It might seem off that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class ... but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying.”
We watch as that normal life crumbles around them, as militants take over the city, as the bombs come closer and closer, as they start to look for a way out.

And at this point, the story deviates from reality and take on the qualities of an allegory. Because in this world doors are opening up. Doors where, wif you step through, you walk out into a different part of the world.

To begin with, this does not change the trajectory of Nadia and Saeed’s lives that much, as – like so many refugees in our world – the first place they find themselves in is an overcrowded and ill-equipped Greek island. Resentment and nativism rear their ugly heads. Again and again, they flee.

But gradually, Hamid’s narrative implies, the fact that anyone, anywhere can step through a door and find themselves in another country begins to change the nature of the world. The concepts of borders and national identities grow hazier.

In the end, the novel is both an indictment of the West’s failure of understanding and its treatment of refugees, and an uplifting vision of what the world might be if we abandoned the idea of nation states.

In keeping with the allegorical nature of the story, our viewpoint remains slightly detached throughout. We are a camera hovering just above the scene, following Nadia and Saeed like a fly on the wall documentary team without ever fully entering their minds. There is little, if any, dialogue, only a few reported speeches. We are sitting at the feet of a story teller, not watching a play.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, A Country of Refuge (ed Lucy Popescu), The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.

Avoid If You Dislike: Allegorical style, stories that depart from realism

Perfect Accompaniment: Olive bread and fresh mint tea

Genre: Literary Fiction, Allegorical Fiction

Available on Amazon

The Future Memoir of Ann Jones by Alex Bailey

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Ann Jones is a respectable, happily married mother of two with a network of family and friends on the West Coast. Then out of the blue, she has a vision of her whole life transformed. The first thing she does is run around to tell her best friend, Alex.

“I saw his death, Alex. You think I should warn him?”

The Ann Jones of the future loses her husband in box-and-basement accident. Widowed with teenage twins in college, she takes her dog and moves to the East Coast. So far, so strange.

But things get a whole lot stranger when she joins a Knitting Club. All the members have lost a husband, some in quite bizarre circumstances, but they’re all friendly, they love their pets and appreciate home cooking. The one thing they don’t do much of is knitting.

As Ann embraces a new career as a baker and welcomes a new man in her life, she begins to enjoy her freedom. But she underestimates Knitting Club and the dangers it presents.

But it was only a vision, right?

Light romance with a dark tone, this is an entertaining read with witty observations on life, love and lethal women. Perfect to read on the beach while wearing sunglasses and looking innocent.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Jojo Moyes, Cecilia Ahern, The Stepford Wives

Avoid if you don’t like: Not knowing what’s real

Ideal accompaniments: Southern Fried Choc-Chip Cookies and coffee

Genre: Women’s Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

After the Party by Cressida Connolly

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett – author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn and other books.

What We Thought: Before reading After the Party, I would never have imagined I could feel sympathy for someone who had espoused a far right cause. This book is so sensitively written, however, that it is impossible not to feel sadness for the protagonist, and to recognise that she is embroiled in something, the potential consequences of which, she doesn't fully understand.

Phyllis Forrester is the youngest of three sisters. In 1938 they are all living, in various states of prosperity, in the south of England. Phyllis has three children, two girls and a boy, all about to go back to boarding school.

Through her middle sister, Nina, she becomes involved in a political party, the leader of which is simply referred to as The Leader. At first she is not especially interested in the cause but as she has little to do she helps her sister out. Her eldest sister, Patricia, is also involved but to a lesser extent. Patricia and her husband, Greville, are at the upper end of the social scale, Phyllis and Hugh are perhaps slightly below, and they both think Nina and her husband, Eric, are a little infra dig, as he runs a garage and she runs summer camps for members of the Party and their children. Patricia invites The Leader, or the Old Man, as he is sometimes called, to a grand dinner and a certain amount of vying for his attention is involved.

Though the Leader is not specifically named until some way into the novel, it is soon obvious who he is. He is charismatic and charming and his followers all adore him. Phyllis meets Sarita through her association with the Party and they become friends, though Sarita is often a little vague and distrait. When disaster strikes, Phyllis feels guilty that she had not seen the truth of the situation and had not been able to step in to help.

When war breaks out Phyllis and her husband are unexpectedly taken into custody. There is no trial and no formal sentencing. Separated, they are given little information as to what is going on or where the other is. Phyllis feels that her incarceration is in some way justified - not because of her association with the Party but because she let her friend down.

Years pass. Phyllis is sent to a camp on the Isle of Man along with other politicos and enemy aliens. She discovers another way of life, of friendships with women, of making do and of overcoming hardships. She misses her children desperately. When she is finally released they barely recognise her, and the youngest, Edwin, has become attached to Patricia and Greville, who have taken him in every school holiday.

Betrayed by both her sisters for different reasons, and in reduced circumstances, Phyllis moves north. Her children blame her for her involvement in what is now considered a wicked cause, and she has little contact with her wider family. She has become, perhaps sardonic rather than bitter, and quite apart from seeing the misjudgement in her earlier associations, has become rather more deeply entrenched in her views.

This is a beautifully written book, full of poignancy and sadness. It shows how lives can be destroyed by happenstance and by foolish errors of judgement and how, ultimately, no lessons may be learned.

I received a free ebook from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Great Gatsby

Avoid If You Dislike: Accounts of the privileged classes.

Perfect Accompaniment: Whisky in cut glass with an engraved cigarette case nearby.

Genre: Literary fiction

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Cresting Waves by F. K. Sewell

Reviewer: Jerome Griffin

What we thought: Cresting Waves, the third and final instalment of the Black Feather Trilogy, completes the tale of orphan pirate, Alex Cavendish, and leaves the reader with something of a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye.

As with the previous two books, it opens as an action-packed, adrenalin-fuelled adventure that ebbs and flows throughout, but very quickly it becomes so much more than just a fun pirate romp.

The long-running feuds with the Vliets and Barnaby continue to play a central role in the story, but Alex also has his mind on other matters, including a safe, secure and peaceful future. He’s had enough of life on the wave and he realises there are alternative lifestyles available to him. He is also determined to find his mother, if she is alive, and Kitty who he still loves dearly.

Sewell is a talented author who can produce diverse fight scenes bursting with excitement and tension, as well as intimate moments full of emotion and tenderness. One episode in particular between Alex and his wife will live with me for a very long time due to Sewell’s delivery and skill. I don’t want to give too much away in terms of spoilers, so I won’t go into detail, but she manages to take an extremely difficult situation for a couple and make it touching and poignant, without being cloying or trite.

On one level Alex is the same character as before. His determination, loyalty and strong moral code – despite being a pirate – remain true. But on another level, something has changed in him. There is a difference in his approach to life and responsibility. Where earlier in the story he was thrown into the deep end and had to learn fast, in retrospect that was his coming of age. In Cresting Waves, he has become a man.

As a trilogy, the Black Feather books provide a wonderful balance of adventure, passion and emotion with a dash of gritty history thrown in for good measure. Cresting Waves is a worthy finale.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: A mixture of high-octane adventure and emotional situations handled delicately.

Avoid if you dislike: Difficult relationship scenarios.

Ideal accompaniments: A strong drink, a box of tissues and something that reminds you of your childhood home.

Genre: Historical fiction, adventure

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett - author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn and other books

What We Thought: Set in Edinburgh in the mid-19th century, The Way of All Flesh is both an informative account of the development of anaesthesia and a historical murder mystery.

Will Raven is a young medical student working as assistant to the famous James Young Simpson, pioneer of painless childbirth. Impoverished and of dubious parentage, Raven has secrets to keep and financial problems to solve. If he can do well with Dr Simpson, he will be set up for life. The work is challenging and often gruesome - women die in agony or survive at the cost of their infant's life. Simpson experiments with ether and other prospective anaesthetics (often on himself an d his colleagues) before he hits on chloroform.

Meanwhile, women's bodies are being found contorted into positions of apparent agony. Raven's friend, Evie, is one such and he determines to discover what has happened to her and to the other women of the lower orders thus cruelly disposed of.

He forms an uneasy alliance with Sarah, the Simpsons' housemaid, who has also had a friend die in similar circumstances. Sarah is intelligent and forthright - neither qualities likely to serve her in her employment. She dreams of better things and resents Raven's ability to move up in the world in a way that is denied to her.

This is an extremely well-written page-turner with plenty of excitement and interest on every page. The descriptions of medical matters are often graphic but never unnecessarily so. Both Will and Sarah are well-rounded characters with faults and foibles as well as strength and compassion. Edinburgh itself plays a major role, from the foetid wynds and ginnels of the Canongate to the pleasant streets of the Georgian New Town.

Ostensibly by Ambrose Perry, this novel, as I discovered after reading it, was in fact written by Christopher Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. Brookmyre, who needs no introduction, has reined in the more excessive aspects of his graphic comedy; Haetzman is his wife and a consultant anaesthetist. It appears to be a perfect partnership. More books in this series are planned and I could visualise them as a tv series.

I received a free ebook from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin, Sarah Waters’ books.

Avoid If You Dislike: Accounts of childbirth that don’t always end well.

Perfect Accompaniment: A reasonably strong stomach and a bottle of gin.

Genre: Historical Mystery

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Someone To Look Up To by Jean Gill

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and first book in the new Australian 70s trilogy, The Silent Kookaburra.

What we thought: I absolutely adored this beautifully-written story told from a dog’s point of view. Sirius, a magnificent Soum de Gaia (Pyrenean Mountain Dog) narrates his story and that of his siblings when they leave their mother, and their breeder, their “Choosing” taking each puppy to a very different place.

The author’s deep understanding of, and respect for, the canine psyche, is obvious, perfectly capturing the thoughts and emotions of Sirius as he attempts to understand the world into which he was born, and the often unhappy situations in which he finds himself.

Filled with humour, love and sadness, the author captivated me with her wonderful descriptions and lyrical prose, one moment bringing tears to my eyes, the next making me laugh out loud. My favourite scenes were the very moving dogs’ nighttime storytelling, the twilight barking.

Sirius’s story will certainly make all dog owners rethink the way they handle their dogs, especially those, like me, who need a bit of subtle training in managing their hound.

I would highly recommend Someone To Look Up To for every dog owner, but especially for those who are planning on getting a dog. I would even go so far as to say this book should be mandatory reading for people wanting to own a dog, in particular a large breed of dog.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Animal stories. Fictional tales based on fact.

Avoid if you don’t like: Sad stories about animals that people can't handle.

Ideal accompaniments: Hot toddy and comfy fireside armchair, preferably with a view of the snow-capped Pyrénées Mountains.

Genre: General Fiction

Friday, 27 July 2018

The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of it:
I first came across Nikesh Shukla in a yurt on the banks of the River Thames. It was Refugee Week 2011, and I had come to hear members of the Write to Life group from Freedom from Torture perform their poetry. Shukla was there to read from his debut novel, Coconut Unlimited. The reading, which was very funny, stuck with me because Shukla’s description of hearing his grandmother speaking Gujarati peppered with modern English words like ‘television’ was exactly like my memories of hearing my grandmother speaking Welsh. I bought the book the next day.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, and The One Who Wrote Destiny is a very different book to Coconut Unlimited. This is one of several books I have read recently where the narrative passes from one hand to another. It begins with a father, Mukesh, retelling – as we later found out – a story he has repeated s often it has driven his children mad. It’s the story of how he met their mother, at Diwali, and how together they fought off racists trying to stop the celebrations. 

It then passes to the daughter, Neha – mathematician, programmer, obsessed with numbers and patterns. She shares the fatal genetic flaw that killed her mother before she really had time to get to know her. And now, dying herself, she is trying to find out if she can predict the destinies of the rest of the family.

From Neha it passes to her twin brother Raks – a stand-up comedian who needs to please, returning to Kenya to trace the grandmother he and his sister stayed with only once.

And finally to Ba, the grandmother, dealing with two small children who are foisted upon her when all she wants is to be left alone to mourn.

Each of the characters has their own take on what destiny means – whether it be written in our DNA or our stars. But for me, at least, the book is about coming to terms with death, whether our own or that of a loved one. And the recognition that the final step is one that one must always take on one’s own

Almost incidentally, the narrative also traces the paths of British immigrants (especially Kenyan Asians) and their descendents, showing how their experience alters (and doesn’t) over time, and the tensions that creates between generations. (Being made complicit in the telling of a racist joke may be a small thing compared with being beaten to death in the streets, but it still shows what a long way this country has to go.)

There were snippets of the narrative that I recognised, either from having read The Good Immigrant, which was edited by Shukla, or from following him on Twitter, which made it feel a little like reading a book by an friend whose back stories I was privy to.

A moving and reflective novel from an author who has done more than anyone else in the last few years to change the landscape for BAME authors in Britain.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, If You Look For Me I am Not Here by Sarayu Srivatsa, The Good Immigrant (ed Nikesh Shukla)

Avoid If You Dislike: narratives about death and dying

Perfect Accompaniment: Mango and sugar rotli

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Nikesh Shukla is the editor of The Good Immigrant, co-founder of the Jhalak Prize and founder of The Good Literary Agency