Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I love listening to poetry in performance, but I am not always good at reading it on the page. Too often, inside my head, the poet’s voice turns into a meaningless sing-song. Fortunately for me, the voice in Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda was strong enough to override even my cloth ear.

Chinogonyi was born in Zambia in 1987 and came to the UK in 1993. The title of this debut volume of poetry, Kumukanda, refers to the initiation rites that young boys of the Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi and Mbunda people in north western Zambia must pass through to be considered a man.

“Tata’s people would think me unfinished – a child who never sloughed off the childish estate to cross the river boys of our tribe must cross in order to die and come back grown.”

As the author says, ‘This book approximates such rites of passage in the absence of my original culture.’

The book begins with poems about growing up in south London and a ‘white flight’ town outside London, about his relationship with music and rap and how that helped forge his identity. But Chingonyi moves on from that. In poems such as The ‘N’ word, Casting and Callbacks, he addresses casual racism. In Legerdemain and How To Build Cathedrals, he confronts colonialism and in Kung’anda (home) the Western eye view of Africa reduced to the image of a dying child.

The Nod, Loch Long by Ardarten, Argyll and In Defence of Darkness are love poems of breathtaking tenderness and sensuality. In Curfew, he glimpses the rebellious young woman who is now is Auntie.

A whole group of poems, including the title poem, Kumukanda, address the loss at a young age of both his mother and his father. There is humour here as in the description of his father, “him stood, sequoia among lesser trees, looking good in denim.” And heartbreak, as when he writes of his terminally ill mother, “She’s dying but I won’t call her dead, can’t let mum become a body, a stone, an empty hospital bed.”

Chingonyi said, in an interview with the ICA Bulletin in 2016, that one of his aims in writing is to “chip away at the motion that whiteness is the normative unmediated position from which all other subjectivities deviate.” Which makes him a perfect fit for the Jhalak Prize shortlist.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lemn Sissay, Tendai Huchu, Malika Booker

Avoid If You Dislike: Poems that combine lyrical beauty with razor-sharp political commentary

Perfect Accompaniment: Mussels and dry white wine

Genre: Poetry

Available on Amazon

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Where do I start? This is huge. Not only a broad range of geopolitical considerations, but stuffed with thematic issues and dense with cultural references. If this were a cake, you’d pour brandy on it and set it on fire.

In the historic New York district of The Gardens, a stranger moves in. He seems to have no past and has reinvented himself and his three sons. Nero Golden is a powerful, rich widower, who has adopted Roman monikers for himself and his family.

Against a backdrop of an America electing its first black president, there is a sense of “Yes, we can!” both in the country and this particular family.

The reader gains a unique insight as to how the Goldens (mal)function from their neighbour/friend Rene, orphan, documentary-maker and narrator of this tale. Tragedy in the classical sense alters the fate of the Golden boys while Rene falls victims to cynical manipulation, binding him inextricably to the figure of Nero.

Then a new election looms and this time the front runner is The Joker, a super villain who can work a crowd. Does Batwoman have a chance against such a highly coloured, grinning, bouffant showman?

Rushdie is in his element, cramming in fruity phrases and toothsome allusions, tackling identity, freedom of speech, the American Dream, globalisation, image and delusions of how much control anyone has over their destiny.

Commenting on his Booker of Bookers prizewinner Midnight’s Children, Rushdie said he could not use the cool English of Forster because India was hot. He needed to use language in a way that reflected that. In The Golden House, he has taken the US and the whimsical mood of social media and concocted a rich reflection of itself. A portrait you might put up on Instagram, revealing far more than you realise.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: A Bonfire of the Vanities, Midnight’s Children

Avoid if you don’t like: Epic sagas with contemporary references, a sense of tragedy which will come for you too

Ideal accompaniments: A litre of mineral water and an eight-hour flight east

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

When I Hit You Or Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I climb into the incredible sadness of silence. Wrap its slowness around my shoulders, conceal its shame within the folds of my sari.

If Winnie M Li’s award winning Dark Chapter is the fictionalised account of the author’s brutal rape by a stranger, this is a fictionalised account of another, perhaps more common type of sexual abuse – domestic violence and rape within a marriage.

Kandasamy wrote about the abuse within her own short but brutal marriage in an article for Outlook magazine in 2012. This is not, however, a memoir. Like her unnamed narrator, Kandasamy is a writer – articulate, politically aware, a feminist. As her narrator uses the tools of the writer to survive, to plot her escape and eventually to get away and start life again, so Kandasamy uses fiction to make it possible to tell her story fully and intimately. As the narrator says towards the end of the book:

I am the woman who stands in place of the woman who loathes to enter this story in any of its narrations ... I am the woman conjured up to take on the life of a woman afraid of facing her own reality.

The story is told through many different lenses. It begins with the mother recounting, over and over, the state of her daughter’s feet when she fled home. It covers letters written to imaginary lovers, and deleted before her husband can come home and read them. It goes through story boards of films she will make of her experiences, before dropping, intermittently into unvarnished accounts of a classic pattern of domestic abuse – control, isolation, verbal abuse, physical, sexual, and finally death threats.

This male psychological logic looks at penetration as punishment. This is the rape that disciplines, the rape that penalizes me for the life I have presumably led. This is the rape that tames, the rape that puts me on the path of being a good wife.

There is poetry in this prose, and a humour so dark it’s like pepper on the tongue.

When the narrator finally escapes and speaks about what has happened to her, she faces the shaming women in her position so often meet. Why did she not run away? Why did she stay, if things were as bad as she says? How much of this was really not consensual? Kandasamy answers these questions squarely within the narrative, taking you so deep inside her narrator's head you are forced to understand, to acknowledge the funnelling of her choices into just one, narrow conduit.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li,  A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards, Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Avoid If You Dislike:
Frank and intimate depiction of domestic and sexual violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Cumin and coconut, turmeric and chilli flakes, cinnamon and star anise

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Once Upon A Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize 2018, this is a memoir of growing up in China, of peasant existence in the 1970s, and the immense changes that have swept over China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. It is also the story of a struggle to develop an identity and a creative voice, first in a collective society, and then later, marooned and isolated as an immigrant in a foreign country.

The memoir overlaps, chronologically, with Madeleine Thien’s sweeping epic, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. But Xiaolu Guo’s family was not one with a long cultural and artistic heritage. Although her father was a state-sanctioned artist, for the most part, her family were illiterate peasants and fishermen, living in the rural and industrial fringes of China, far away from the cultural centres of Shanghai and Beijing.

Despite the declared feminism of Communist doctrine, this was a society where women were treated brutally. Domestic and sexual abuse was rife. Her grandmother, who brought her up for the first few years of her life, was regularly and savagely beaten by her grandfather, and nobody thought it was anything unusual. And when Xiaolu speaks up about her own sexual abuse at the hands of a colleague of her father’s, she finds every one of her university dorm-mates has a parallel story to tell.

Fascinating as Guo’s account of her life in China is, it is her struggle to find a creative voice in a strange country and in an unknown tongue that I found most absorbing. It always seems extraordinary to us stubbornly monoglot Anglophones when someone expresses themselves creatively in a language they did not grow up with. But the gulf that Guo had to cross was far more than merely linguistic. It required an entirely new mode of thinking.

“How could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first person singular all the time? The habitual use of ‘I’ requires thinking of yourself as a separate entity in a society of separate entities.”

I haven’t read any of Guo’s novels, but I am excited to try one now.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Avoid if You Dislike: Frank discussion of sexual and domestic abuse

Perfect Accompaniment: Noodles and tofu

Genre: Autobiography, Memoir, Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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

What we thought: This is an outstanding debut novel and it’s no surprise to me it’s become one of the year’s bestsellers and that Hollywood have already snapped up the film rights.

Eleanor Oliphant is a complex human being. She survives each day, locked into her routine, without ever experiencing most of the emotions and sensations we as human beings take for granted. Monday to Friday she does her 9-5 job, eating lunch alone, avoiding human contact, and her weekends start with vodka to help her sleep through till Monday when her working week starts again.

The story joins Eleanor as the rigid routine of the past two decades begins to change when she finds herself drawn into other people’s world and is amazed by the kindness and compassion she finds there. And this is the beginning of both Eleanor discovering herself and the reader discovering the truth of her troubled past. Both of which result in a shocking and dramatic conclusion.

The writing here is superb and it’s hard to believe it’s a first novel. Pace moves us along at a cracking rate and the characters are beyond brilliant. The deeper messages about society in general, our attitudes to mental health, were unmissable - and the humorous traits described from Eleanor’s perspective had me laughing aloud more than once. Her first bikini wax will bring tears to your eyes as well as the characters!

I found myself beyond sad when I got to the final page and had to say goodbye to Eleanor. I hope  she finds happiness in her future and more than anything I hope the author is planning a sequel!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Ruth Hogan, Jo Jo Moyes, Matt Haig.

Avoid if you don’t like: Human beings.

Ideal accompaniments: Magners cider and ice with vol-au-vents and party nibbles.

Genre: Contemporary

Available on Amazon

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Many years ago, when I was doing research in Coventry Central Library, I came across a list they were promoting of books by British Asian authors. One of those books was Maps for Lost Lovers, Nadeem Aslam’s novel set among the Pakistani community in Bradford, West Yorkshire. It became one of the first novels I read by a British Asian author.

In the intervening years, I lost track of Aslam, so I was delighted to be reintroduced to him via the Jhalak Prize shortlist, which this year includes his novel – the first for many years to be set in Pakistan – The Golden Legend.

The novel opens with the accidental shooting of Massud, one of a husband-and-wife team of architects, by an American. His widow, Nargis, is quickly caught up in the cross-currents of political expediency and religious extremism. As feelings run high, two Christian friends, Helen, whom they have brought up almost as their daughter, and her father Lily, are ensnared in accusations of blasphemy. When the Christian quarter of Badami Bagh is attacked, Helen and Nargis flee to a hidden island when Nargis and Massud once tried to build and mosque that would reconcile the four sects of Islam. Lily has vanished, but they are helped by a disillusioned Kashmiri insurgent, Imran.

The novel contains images of such lyricism they feel almost like the creations of a magical realist – beginning with scale models of two of the world’s most famous mosques, which in the winter form cosy work cabins for the two architects and in summer are winched up into the rafters out of the way. But the novel is in fact rooted firmly – and grimly – in reality. Key events in the novel – the shooting incident involving a CIA contractor with which the book opens, the attack on the Sufi shrine, the death of a Catholic Bishop – all are based on real events. One of the central characters, the Kashmiri Imran, is based on a young man the author met in Pakistan.

The Golden Legend examines religious extremism, intolerance, the concept of blasphemy, and the consequences of India and Pakistan’s long tug of war over Kashmir. Its portrayal of modern day Pakistan is brutal – a searing indictment of the ever-narrowing definition of ‘purity’ applied to determine who belongs in ‘The Land of the Pure’ – first rooting out Hindus and Sikhs, then all-but eliminating other minority religions, and now turning equally ruthlessly on sects within Islam. But just as importantly, The Golden Legend holds up a mirror to Britain and the USA, warning them of the consequences path they have both embarked on, of narrowing what it means to be British or American.

For Aslam, hope for the future lies in the people who are still prepared to struggle for something better. As one of his characters says:

“I am only speaking for myself when I say that despair has to be earned. I personally have not done all that I can to change things. I have not yet earned the right to despair.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: We That Are Young by Preti Taneja; A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories centred round religious and political extremism; lyrical, haunting prose

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of tea and a kulcha (Punjabi naan)

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari, Illus Jane Ray

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

My next review from the Jhalak Prize 2018 longlist is another children’s book, this time for young readers.

Two very different young girls, both facing massive life changes, are eased into their new Secondary School by the wonderful Grace Nuala and her messy colourful art house.

Amy-May’s parents have split up. Her father has gone to live in a tumbledown cottage on a remote hillside, and she’s not sure if that means he doesn’t want her any more. He’s been home schooling her up till now, but she and her mother have moved to the city, and she has to face the prospect of going to a big new school.

We stand and stare at the metal and glass building that looks more like and art gallery than a school. The outlines of hundreds of children move like ants along the corridors. “I can’t come here, mum,” I say, and turn away.

Rima’s journey has been even more difficult. She’s travelled all the way from Syria. She’s known hunger and fear, and her little brother’s leg has been crushed by a bomb. She feels guilty because she’s alive and safe, but she doesn’t want people to see her only as a refugee. She wants people to see who she is.

With the help of Grace, and the volunteer translator Iman, Amy learns that there are so many ways to talk to someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you:

With your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand...You act things out... you let the feeling show in your whole body... whatever way you can to show them you want to be their friend.

Grace makes Worry Angels, little figures to represent her young charges, and when they are ready to fly up to the big school, she gives the angels their wings.

Written in clear, simple English and beautifully illustrated by Jane Ray, this would suit young readers struggling with anxiety or those learning about refugees. But equally, it would be an excellent book for slightly older children learning English as an additional language. Worry Angels is full of warmth and empathy and above all, hope.

You’ll enjoy this if you loved: Azzi In Between by Sarah Garland, The Lost and Found Cat by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories about family breakup or children that have undergone trauma

Perfect Accompaniment: Chocolate Cake

Genre: Children, New Readers

Available on Amazon

Tipping Point by Terry Tyler

 Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new release, The Silent Kookaburra.

What we thought: I am a great fan of Terry Tyler’s books, mainly due to her great storytelling and character development. That’s the reason I tried Tipping Point even though I’m not generally a fan of post-apocalyptic/dystopian stories. And I’m so glad I did! I found this story scarily plausible and realistic, and could totally imagine it happening, especially since it’s set in 2024, not so far into our future. 

It all stems from the new and highly popular social networking site, Private Life, something most of us are readily familiar with today. Our privacy is ensured, but is that what happens? 

When a lethal and rapidly-spreading virus is discovered in Africa, and spreads through the UK, a nationwide vaccination programme is announced. However it soon becomes obvious that not everyone is being offered the vaccination, for example, the ill, old, mentally ill and unemployed are not entitled. 

In the roller-coaster ride of this thriller that follows, the author deftly explores the vast conspiracy theory and evokes a sense of real fear into the reader, about gaining data from social media and that information being used against us. It is a worrying scenario, with terrifying consequences, that I can easily imagine happening.

That’s not to say this story is simply a dystopian horror tale, far from it. It also shows us, very realistically, human behaviour: how people behave in both negative and positive ways when society as we know it breaks down.

As in all her books, the author has created some compelling characters with whom I could readily identify and care about.  

Tipping Point is the first book in what promises to be an excellent series, the Project Renova series and I’m eagerly looking forward to reading the second, Lindisfarne, which is waiting for me on my Kindle!

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Plausible and feasible dystopian tales.
Avoid if you don’t like: the idea of what might truly happen to our world in the near future.

Ideal accompaniments: just any kind of food that is available, as tomorrow it might not be.

Genre: Post Apocalyptic/Dystopian

Available on Amazon

My Bookmuse reviews of more of Terry Tyler’s books:

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Come All You Little Persons by John Agard, illus Jessica Courtney-Tickle

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It’s lovely to start the Jhalak Prize longlist for 2018 with this picture book by John Agard.

We’ve always been fans of Agard in this house. My daughter had a poetry anthology when she was small that included his delightful ‘Got a Date With Spring’. And his poem ‘Half Caste’ is a punch in the gut must-read for older children and adults. Sot to find a new poem by him is a delight.

The first test for a picture book is how it reads out loud. And, as you would expect from a poet like Agard, Come All You Little Persons has the rhythm that makes that a joy.

Each little person that is called forth is described by their clothing, and each summoning introduces different words – from a feathered cape, to a shirt made of spray, from an apron that shines, to an invisible gown – so there is plenty to talk about.

Jessica Courtney-Tickle’s illustrations are filled with detail that can be pored over night after night. The style edges towards pointillist and the colour palette is rich but soft and slightly muted. Most importantly, the little persons called forth come in all shapes and sizes – male and female, tall and short, chubby and slim – and with every shade of skin from pale to dark, so every little reader can see themselves reflected.

The final page shows all the little persons circling the earth in a great dance – those we have seen called forth and many more besides that you can have fun creating identities for yourself.

The second great test for a picture book is whether is stands being read again and again, with enough to hold the interest of both adult and child. Come All You Little Persons passes that test with flying colours.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lullaby Hullabaloo by Mick Inkpen, Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

Avoid If You Dislike: Rhythm, Dance, Reading Out Loud

Perfect Accompaniment: Bedtime cuddles

Genre: Picture book. Children's

Available on Amazon

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

The Richardsons’ house is burning down. It wasn’t an accident.

Wealthy (four cars in the drive), comfortable (doyenne of Shaker Heights) and happy (three and a half high-achieving children), Elena Richardson knows life is good. She’s generous and charitable and good with people. So why would her youngest daughter set their house on fire?

Celeste Ng takes on a ‘perfect’ society and peers around the façade. Shaker Heights, a small town outside Cleveland, Ohio, is a model community, where everyone toes the line. There are rules here and everyone obeys.

When Mia Warren and daughter Pearl blow into town to rent an apartment, Elena sees a chance to do some good. An itinerant artist with a young daughter – similar age to hers – why not help the woman out. After all, she likes to patronise the arts.

The families’ lives become increasingly intertwined to the extent they almost swap daughters, but there are other familial questions threatening to bust through the neat backyards. Whose child is the abandoned baby? The parents who adopted her and lavished her with love or the biological mother who wants her back? Whose is the child made with surrogate sperm? Who gets to choose whether or not to terminate a teenage pregnancy?

Ng weaves this omniscient perspective with huge skill, making the reader change sides almost every chapter. Her depiction of character is economical, wrong-footing assumptions and avoiding cliché. Finally, the fuses that lead to the fire are far more complex than the fire service or even Elena can understand.

Wholly absorbing and thoughtful, this book kept me thinking.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked:
Jodi Picoult, Helen Fitzgerald, Maeve Binchy

Avoid if you don’t like: Awkward questions, teenage girls, multiple POV

Ideal accompaniments: Satay sticks, banana milkshake and Jerry Springer in the background

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

This is a book I have had on my radar for a long time.

Leon is almost ten years old. He doesn’t look anything like his mother or his new-born half brother, but he loves them both very much and wants to take care of them. In fact he takes better care of Jake than his mother does, which is just as well, as she keeps disappearing off and leaving them alone. Leon manages all right most of the time, but one day they run out of food. He goes to a neighbour for help – and that’s when things really starts to go wrong.

Leon and Jake are taken into foster care with a women called Maureen. Maureen is kind but she’s not his mum. And now some people want to take Jake away for good. All Leon wants to do is keep his family together. But how can he do that? Adults lie and keep secrets and take things away from him without asking. There is no one he can trust, so he is going to have to solve everything by himself.

Set in 1981, riots and racial tensions run through the background. The novel addresses adoption, fostering, the complexities of multi-racial families, and the many ways we let children in care down.

Reading as an adult, we may see the good intentions of the grown-ups around Leon. But de Waal understands that, no matter how dysfunctional the birth family or how caring the foster family, having one’s family broken up is still going to be traumatic. She takes us deep inside Leon’s head and makes us feel what it’s like to be tumbled from one place to the next, to lose the people you love through no fault of your own, and to have no control and little say over what happens to you or them.

It’s hard to place whether this book for young adults or not. The story is told entirely through the eyes of almost-ten-year-old Leon, and the story-telling is simple and accessible. But some of the themes and language used are probably not be suitable for younger children.

A tender, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting story that sidesteps a fairytale ending in favour of realism and warmth.

My Name is Leon was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. The author is the founder of the Kit de Waal scholarship, a fully funded bursary on the Birkbeck College Creative Writing MA, for a student from a disadvantaged background. She is also the editor of Common People, an anthology of working class writers, currently seeking funding on Unbound.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, The Bed and Breakfast Star by Jacqueline Wilson

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories about adoption and fostering; children as point of view characters; strong language in Young Adult novels.

Perfect Accompaniment: Bacon sarnie with ketchup, and lots of tea

Genre: Literary Fiction; Young Adult

Available on Amazon

Agatha Raisin and Kissing Christmas Goodbye by M.C. Beaton

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

What we thought: If there is anything more Christmassy than turkey and all the trimmings it’s revisiting the world of Agatha Raisin over the festive period.

Agatha doesn’t have a good track record in life with two things – firstly men, ex James Lacey in particular, and secondly her attempts at creating her idea of a perfect world. So, when she decides to host the Christmas party to beat all other parties, then regular readers of the series are already sitting on the edge of seats chewing their nails.

Added to this, Agatha and her team of private investigators are faced with a complicated case of poisoning in a remote Cotswold village that has elements of witchcraft, family betrayal and intriguing historical links. She is grateful for the services of her latest protégé Tony Gilmore, a young girl from a similarly troubled background as Agatha, who has the makings of a top detective.

There are the usual cast of characters here lined up for this Christmas special - DS Bill Wong, Sir Charles and Mrs Bloxby to name a few. And there twists and turns galore to delight ardent crime fans in this very clever murder enquiry. For once Agatha’s personal life takes a back seat and seems a little more settled ... but then she never knows what is round the corner!

It was the perfect time of year to listen to Penelope Keith narrate the audiobook version of this novel and it was with a huge sadness that I had to say goodbye for a short time.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: J.J Marsh, Agatha Christie, Mandy Baggot.

Avoid if you don’t like: Crime fiction with a gentle touch.

Ideal accompaniments: Christmas pudding and a glass of mulled wine.

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

We that are the youngest, the fastest, the democracy, the economy, the future technology of the world, the global Super Power coming soon to a cinema near you, we, hum panch, that are the five cousins of the five great rivers, everybody our brother-sister-lover, we that are divine: the echo of the ancient heroes of the old times, we that fight, we that love, we that are hungry, so, so hungry, we that are young.

Preti Taneja’s debut is a monumental novel that brings King Lear to modern India – specifically, India in the midst of the anti-corruption movement of 2011/12.

Here, Lear has become Devraj, known as Bapuji (honoured father), ageing CEO of a towering, all-encompassing Indian corporation, source of wealth and possibly also of corruption.

Like the play, it unfolds over five ‘acts’. But while we view Lear primarily through the lens of Lear himself, in this novel, each ‘act’ is written from the point of view of one of the five members of the younger generation - Jirvan, the illegitimate son of Devraj’s closest advisor (Edgar); Gargi, the eldest daughter (Goneril); Radha, the second daughter (Reagan); Jeet, legitimate son and Jirvan’s half-brother (Edmund/Tom O’Bedlam) and Sita, the youngest daughter (Cordelia). So when Devraj, like Lear, rails against the monsters his children have become, we know he is railing against natures he spent years nurturing, while they are struggling to hold together what he has smashed apart.

The book delivers the key events of the play beat by beat, but it manages to do so in such a way that even the most iconic moments remain shocking. And if you know the play tolerably well, you can match even the minor characters one-for-one. At first I thought that the exception was The Fool. Then I realised that his place had been taken by Nanu, Davraj’s mother – the one person who can speak truth to him, who speaks gnomically in riddles drawn from holy texts.

The text is rich with the black humour and startling imagery, such as Gargi’s portrait of her father:

“In his white singlet and saffron underpants, like a hard boiled egg cut in half she had thought, he stood among the rails of shirts and suits... while telling Gargi (as if his mouth was full of acid and nails) that he had heard all about that moment, almost two weeks aso, when ... she had sat on the pool deck with that boy, Ranjit’s returnee.”

Taneja drops regularly into Hindi and no translation or glossary is offered. You don’t need to know the translations, but if you take the time to Google the meanings, it will add to the richness of your experience.

This is a darkly comic study of a monstrously dysfunctional family that is also so, so much more. Directors of Shakespeare’s plays can suggest settings in time and place the give context to the drama. But in transporting the story to India and fleshing out the location through the rich medium of the novel, Taneja has at once breathed entirely new life into a classic text, held a mirror held up to the faults and frailties of modern India, and created a powerful metaphor for greed, cruelty and corruption everywhere.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James; If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here by Sarayu Srivatsa; The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Avoid If You Dislike: Long tomes; elements not translated into English; Shakespeare

Perfect Accompaniment: Aloo paranthe (flat bread stuffed with spiced potato) and a glass of whisky

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Song at Dawn by Jean Gill

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought:

An unusual blend of thrills and insight, this is historical fiction at its most complex, rich and absorbing. I read this book in two sittings and am already well into Bladesong, the second in the Troubador series.

The story takes place in 12th century France, following Estela, an abused woman with a voice and a passion. Her misfortune lands her in a ditch, but her talents lead her to the Queen’s court where she encounters Dragonetz, the Troubadour.

The book transports you to France in the Middle Ages, which should feel far distant to a modern reader, but the social upheavals caused by religious and geographical muscling for power feel unpleasantly familiar. This is well-researched, beautifully written storytelling which deserves full concentration.

Detailed descriptions are in abundance, both of the beautiful and the bloody. Some scenes are not for the squeamish. Characters are layered and complex, even minor players and I was particularly drawn to the role animals play in the story. The complicated politicking is intriguing as is the status of women, from queen to entertainer.

For a glimpse of the past in sharp focus, Song at Dawn is highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Overlord series by JD Smith, Michelle Moran's historical fiction or Blood Rose Angel, by Liza Perrat.

Avoid if you don’t like: Some gory moments, emotional upheaval, addictive series.

Ideal accompaniments: Bitter black tea and roasted goose eaten off the blade of a dagger.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

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

What we thought: Set in 1930’s London, we are introduced to world-famous Christopher Banks through a series of superbly crafted scenes which switch between the protagonist’s past and present lives. We meet his childhood friends, introduced to his latest love interest. We learn about his early days in London, and discover his latest criminal cases.

Intertwined throughout all of this rich scene setting, is the knowledge that a piece of the puzzle is missing, and for the reader that is like a delicious expectation of what is to come.

And when that arrives, the tone of the novel takes an abrupt change. Banks is determined to solve the one case that has so far eluded him, the one case that his whole career has been built on – the discovery of what happened to his parents who both went missing whilst living in the International Settlement in Shanghai before Banks's return to live with a distant relative in England.

Banks returns to Shanghai, to find the city greatly changed and in the midst of war. We follow the twists and turns of his journey as he struggles to solve the mystery in a city torn apart by conflict. It is gripping, emotive and for me this is Ishiguro at his stunning best.

I loved this novel, it is a masterclass in novel writing. From characters that spring from the page, either in bright, bold colour or subtle shaded greys. The tone is exquisite and the narrative as complex as it is entertaining. The landscape and settings – be it the greyness of London or the explosive reality of war torn Shanghai – are perfectly drawn and as real as opening your curtains on the world each day.

When you find a novel that touches a part of you, it’s with a certain sadness that you close the final page. I hope the next Ishiguro novel I read will have the same effect.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Ali Smith, Robert Harris.

Avoid if you don’t like : War torn countries and childhood secrets.

Ideal accompaniments: Beef Wellington served with greens and a glass of Port.

Genre : Literary.

Available on Amazon

The Vermilion Bird by CP Lesley (Legends of the Five Directions Book 4)

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new release, The Silent Kookaburra.

What we thought: An excellent and entertaining addition to CP Lesley’s 16th century Russian historical series, Legends of the Five Directions. I was really looking forward to The Vermilion Bird as I have read and loved the first three in this series, which I have also reviewed: The Golden Lynx, The Winged Horse and The Swan Princess.

Once again, the author brings to life 16th century Russian court and politics through the unlikely couple of the scheming and snappy Maria Koshkina and her Tatar sultan husband. A seemingly mismatched couple, the pair attempt to get along before they are caught up in the clash between their two warring cultures: the Russians and the Tatars.

As in the previous Legends of the Five Directions books, the reader is drawn into sixteenth century Russian life via the author’s attention to detail and the research involved in recreating such a world. Then love, romance, adventure and intrigue render this story a spell-binding page turner. The characters we have come to know and love in previous books, such as Nasan and Daniil, leap off the page once more, interwoven with real characters, to portray this distant nook of sixteenth-century Moscow.

In The Vermilion Bird, I felt I was experiencing sixteenth-century Russia firsthand, and I am now eagerly awaiting the last book in the Legends of the Five Directions series, The Shattered Drum, which will be published shortly, I believe.

The author’s notes explaining the reason why she chose the Vermilion Bird phoenix for Maria are of great interest too.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: tales of romance and adventure that feature strong-willed women.

Avoid if you don’t like: action-packed, fast-paced historical political intrigue.

Ideal accompaniments: Vodka and Russian gingerbread.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Calling Major Tom by David M Barnett

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett ( ) author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and Don’t Look Down.

What We Thought: I started reading Calling Major Tom and after a couple of chapters almost put it aside to read at some other time. I didn't though, and I'm glad because it turned out to be one of the nicest books I've read this year. It's been described as 'heartwarming', 'life affirming', 'feel-good' and 'charming', and it's all of those things. It's also about loneliness and being a misfit.

Thomas Major, a grumpy scientist, manages to get himself appointed as the first man to go to Mars. The announcement is made the day David Bowie dies and, of course, the media instantly call him Major Tom. Thomas wants to go to Mars because he's had it with Earth and all its inhabitants. Having fallen out with his father, been manipulated by his mother and had nothing but failed relationships, he's happy - in a miserable sort of way - to leave the human race behind. On Mars, he'll build habitations and domes and get some crops established, ready for the first inhabitants who will arrive in ten or fifteen years. In the meantime, he will be blissfully on his own.

Sitting in his tincan far above the world, he refuses to engage in publicity stunts, read the manuals about spacewalks, or brush up on growing potatoes on Mars. He prefers instead to do his crossword puzzles and annoy the Head of the British Space Agency via the communications link. Until, that is, he encounters Gladys Ormerod. Gladys is a pensioner at the start of her dementia journey, who Thomas accidentally phones, and he is soon sucked into her problems. She is supposed to be looking after her grandchildren, James and Ellie, because their mum is dead and their dad is in gaol. However, the burden of care tends to fall on 15 year old Ellie.

As he becomes more and more drawn into the Ormerods' lives, Thomas relives his own experiences as a child and as a young man. He begins to understand things about himself and comes to various realisations.

Sad, funny, and filled with references to popular culture, Calling Major Tom is a little beauty.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Stories that make you laugh and maybe even cry a little.

Avoid if you dislike: Feel-good books that manipulate your emotions.

Ideal accompaniments: Bowie's Space Oddity on the turntable and a determination to keep on reading.

Genre: General Fiction

The Deadly Lies by David C Dawson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

David Dawson’s sequel to his debut crime novel, The Necessary Deaths, makes for another entertaining read.

Dominic Delingpole is on honeymoon with his beloved Jonathan, but neither in life nor in love are things allowed to go entirely smoothly. When a former lover sends a cryptic message to Dominic minutes before a fatal car crash, it puts both their lives and their barely-formed marriage in peril.

With the help of maverick student programmer, Steve, can they solve the riddle before anyone else is killed? And can Dominic and Jonathan's marriage survive its first big hurdle?

The theme of lies runs through the novel. The main plot concerns a chip that could allow the mysterious Charter 99 to rewrite online history – with little regard to the lives they would turn upside down. At the same time, as Dominic and Jonathan navigate the new territory of marriage, the impact of lies – even innocent lies - on relationships is thrown into relief.

The action moves between two long-established gay communities - Sitges in Spain and San Francisco in California. If Dawson’s first novel showed us his relatively conventional hero at home and at work, here he is on holiday, and like Dominic himself, the text has become a little more unbuttoned. There is more explicit (though still not graphic) sex than in the first book.

Last time I compared Dawson’s writing to Margery Allingham. This time, there is an echo or two of Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. But Dawson writes with a lighter touch than Sayers. There are no great intellectual challenges here. It remains, however, an affectionate portrait of the manners and mores of gay relationships, as well as fast-paced study in cyber-crime.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Necessary Deaths by David C Dawson, Babycakes by Armistead Maupin, Cold Pressed by JJ Marsh.

Avoid If You Dislike: Light-weight crime fiction. Explicit references to gay sex.

Perfect Accompaniment: Albondigas en salsa and a glass of Cava

Genre: Crime, LGBTQ fiction

Available on Amazon