Friday, 21 March 2014

No More Mulberries by Mary Smith

reviewed by Catriona Troth

On the eve of Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1995, a Scottish midwife is running a clinic in a remote village in Hazara Zat with her Afghan husband.

But a web of past relationships, conflicting expectations, and the all-encompassing Afghan concept of honour is placing an unbearable strain on their marriage.

Mary Smith spent ten years working in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as an aid worker concerned with leprosy and mother and childcare, and her novel is filled with the sort of detail that can only come from deep personal experience. Whether spreading out mulberries to dry in the sun on a roof weatherproofed with layers of mud, the bone-jarring impact of driving over rutted mountain roads, or the grim realities of working in a clinic with children hovering on the edge of life – Smith draws us into the lives of her characters.

She shows us the aid workers who drop into the country for a year or two, imagining they can solve all its problems without troubling to understand its culture. The young, educated Afghan men, torn between the desire to promote new ideas and the imperative to ‘maintain face’ among their more traditional families and neighbours. And above all, the strength, resilience and humour of the Afghan women.

This could have been simply a fictionalised memoir. But by weaving between the past and the present of her two main characters, Smith has added layers of emotional complexity to her narrative. Her examination of the difficulties involved in a marriage that crosses cultures is honest and avoids cheap stereotypes and lazy assumptions.

It’s impossible to read this and not be aware that, tough as the life described here is, the shadow of the Taliban, war and occupation lies ahead. If you want to understand a little of the country that has suffered so much, I recommend you read No More Mulberries.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: A Thousand Splendid Suns, Half of a Yellow Sun, An African Farm

Avoid if: you’re squeamish about the realities of life away from modern, Western ’civilisation;’ if you dislike having your cultural assumptions challenged

Ideal accompaniments: A bowl of mulberries (of course).

Genre: Literary Fiction, narratives from beyond the English-speaking world

My Better Half by Jerome Griffin
Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought:

Our hero, who is somewhat less than heroic, has hit rock bottom. His job is meaningless, his friendships are in a rut and now his marriage is over. The only real thing in his life is Clive, his mentor, his therapist, his twin brother. Clive’s going to set him straight.

Meanwhile, Libra is setting the world straight. A faceless entity with access to global media, an articulate disembodied voice who leads the Scales of Justice movement. Assassinating corrupt ministers, organising referendums for the British people, and punishing a lack of action with violence.

Clive believes in violence. And action. And vengeance. Gradually our hero begins to take his life into his own hands and reinvent himself, while slowly understanding who and what Clive really is.

An unusual book which starts out as sardonic lad-lit but segues into something far darker, it makes a feature of contemporary London, illuminates the vapid world of advertising and includes some searing social commentary.

The latter half of the book becomes a page turner, as if the author has discovered his style. In the first part, the voice is occasionally self-conscious, but when the pace picks up and the story changes gear, the reader is compelled to find out what possible resolution exists for our main character. And when it comes, it’s an almighty shock.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: the blacker side of Nick Hornby, Darren J Guest, Ben Elton, having your expectations overturned.

Avoid if you dislike: unreliable narrators, violence, British politics.

Ideal accompaniments
: Pringles (sour cream and chives), bottled Stella Artois and London’s Calling by The Clash

Genre: Contemporary

Hunting Shadows by Sheila Bugler

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (

What we thought : A wonderful book by a talented author. It opens with a child's abduction, sensitively handled, and cleverly seen from the viewpoint of both the abductor and abductee. Handling a variety of characters, POVs and voices is no mean feat for a writer, but soon I found I hardly noticed the writing - and that is meant as a compliment. When the change in style from six-year-old girl to a mentally disturbed young man passes without a single question about the authenticity of voice or believability of character - then you know you're in safe hands.

Hunting Shadows is the first book in a series, and here we are introduced to DI Ellen Kelly, recently back in the force following the death of her husband and a painful history of recrimination. Ellen is a complex, well-rounded and instantly likeable character whom the author handles with skill. Ellen's Irish roots shine through (no doubt aided by the author's own Irish background) and it's not long into the book before her whole family and history feel as at home to us as our own.

The plot and pace is handled superbly, clever twists and turns lead us one way and then the next, resulting in a terrifying page-turning conclusion that left me gripped.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Ken Bruin.

Avoid if you don’t like : Troubled detectives, murder and dark secrets.

Ideal accompaniments : A nice bottle of Rioja.

Genre : Crime, Noir

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Thursdays in the Park by Hilary Boyd

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

What We Thought: I'm glad I knew nothing about this book until I read it because it certainly isn't pensioner erotica or granny lit as some people have said. It’s a perfectly decent book about perfectly decent people.

I was put off at first by the fact that the characters were all so well-heeled and that for them work was more of a hobby than a means of earning necessary cash. However, the insights into relationships got me past my lingering irritation at this. Hilary Boyd has a knack of seeing and recording the complex and often conflicted emotions people have. She shows us human beings who are not straightforward and are perfectly capable of holding two opposing viewpoints at the same time - as most of us are. Yes, it is possible to not want to do something but do it anyway just to keep the peace. And yes, one can both love and hate the same person at the same time. Boyd puts emotions under the microscope so that all the self-delusion, self-interest and mild callousness that calls itself love is fully exposed.

The main character does dither a bit and gives way when you want her to stand firm, but do all heroines have to be kick-ass these days? I think the strong heroine is fairly well represented in fiction now and we can be allowed to read about weaker women without seeing that as somehow anti-feminist. Why can't we have books about ordinary women who do ordinary things and are often misguided? Let’s hear it for the women who don’t always know their own minds and who give in gracefully because they can’t bothered arguing any more. There are certainly enough of us out here.

I enjoyed Thursdays in the Park much more than I imagined I would and immediately went on to read another Hilary Boyd novel, Tangled Lives.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Books about ordinary, though fairly well-off, people; Fanny Blake.

Avoid if you dislike: Novels about the middle classes caught in tangles largely of their own making.

Ideal accompaniments: A nice cup of tea and a digestive biscuit. And a sneaky glass of white wine afterwards.

Genre: General Fiction; Women’s Fiction.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels and Wolfsangel (

What we thought: powerful, beautifully written and imaginatively conceived.

In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant has taken the scant Old Testament details of Dinah’s life and imagined them into an amazing narrative of what might have happened. The author never suggests this is the "true" story, though it may be based in fact and you do not have to be familiar with the Bible to enjoy this novel.

We are immediately drawn into the intimate details of the lives of Dinah and her four “mothers”, as Jacob marries Dinah’s mother, Leah, then her sister, Rachel, then takes as concubines the other two sisters: Zilpah, and Bilhah. As the only daughter, Dinah’s “mothers” all love and spoil her, bestowing on Dinah gifts that sustain her through childhood, a calling to midwifery, and a new home in a foreign land. In their relationship with Jacob, and with each other, the women struggle through jealously, love, pride and loyalty.

We hear about the births of their children and Dinah’s childhood of learning from her “mothers” in the red tent, where the women were isolated during their cycles, and where they bonded in such a way as to give them a subtle power over men, who were fearful of their rituals and knowledge of childbearing.

Dinah’s tale reaches out from a remarkable period in early history, creating for us an intimate connection with our past.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: strong female characters, lyrical prose, stories loosely based on biblical tales.

Avoid if you don’t like: religious stories, polygamy, lots of references to women’s cycles.

Ideal accompaniments: Fish and wine. Failing that, bread and water.

Genre: Historical Fiction

How to Market a Book by Joanna Penn

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter  (

What we thought : Having self-published my third crime novel, exploring new marketing opportunities is high on my current list of priorities. I must admit marketing has always been a minefield for me as an author, but Ms Penn's book has cleared up a lot of questions and made the process feel much less intimidating.

How to Market A Book takes the reader on a long journey, for ease split into five sub-headings, starting with Marketing Principals right through to Launching Your Book, with everything else in between to appeal to both short term and long term writing plans and ambitions. It's ideal for both an In-depth examination of every option available to authors or for dipping in at relevant sections as and when needed. The author goes into detailed advice which could prove invaluable for novices trying something new - eg podcasts or book trailers. There really is something for everyone here.

Ms Penn spends time explaining how many writers will first need to alter their mindset from seeing marketing as something tacky and embarrassing into the positive idea of 'sharing what you love with people who will appreciate hearing about it' and uses her own story and experiences of how to achieve your goals. In this section, I was particularly impressed with her time management advice.

By the end of the book many of my perceived marketing myths had been wiped out and I felt so much more confident about a range of topics which previously would have meant nothing to me at all! Metadata, keywords, author platforms, paid advertising, email lists. Fair to say, I already have a long list of my own of things I need to be doing! And luckily I now have the perfect guide to refer to along the way.

So, if you want to know more about 'social karma and relationship serendipity' or find the answer to questions like 'So, what exactly is an author platform?' I'd advise this book should be top of your reading list. I've no doubt I shall be referring to it time and again, and believe it will be an invaluable asset on any author's virtual bookshelf.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Feeling inadequate.

Avoid if you don’t like : Feeling inadequate.

Ideal accompaniments : A couple of Nurofen, a large dose of will power and a bucket of self motivation.

Genre : Non-fiction, self learning

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Flesh Market by Richard Wright

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What We Thought: and the dead are rising. The Cadaver Riots horrify the Old Town of Edinburgh as rotting corpses emerge from their graves, ravenous. All agree this must never happen again. The people choose violence, the police favour law and the scientists opt for investigation. But investigating requires raw material.
Enter Bill and William, aka Burke and Hare.

In a brilliant twist on true crime, this book takes a grim reality and turns it several shades darker. The key players each have plausible motivations and the reader sides with each in turn, while constantly questioning the moral drive behind their reprehensible actions. Real imaginative skill goes into creating the individual justifications and personal delusions which push these characters to take those fatal steps.

The setting is absorbing and vivid, the period fascinating and the distant echoes of this factual case are compelling in themselves, but it is the characters who bring this story to life. For a tale so concerned with death, it’s bursting with human vitality. In fact, as soon as I’d finished, I researched the real body-snatchers. 

A scary story in the original, but this angle manages to create something both macabre and human. I wouldn’t normally read anything labelled horror, so suggest we call this ‘Intelligent Grim’.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: atmospheric period horror, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, James Herbert’s The Fog, Edinburgh

Avoid if: squeamish about blood, body parts and death

Ideal accompaniments: A quality malt with a touch of peat such as Laphroaig, or go totally terroir and drink Ethanol. With steak tartare.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Horror

Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard

Review by Catriona Troth, author of Ghost Town.

“The days are very short, very dark and the wind is almost constant.  My new home, - my doll’s house – is small, but I like it that way.”

What We Thought:

Rose is a survivor of tragedy, betrayal and mental illness.  She has moved to North Uist, a place where she has no ties and no memories, in the hopes that she can manage her own condition and throw herself into her work as a textural artist without the deadening effects of medication.

But Rose cannot escape from human contact altogether. As her new neighbour Calum tells her, the islanders suffer from ‘indiscriminate generosity.’ “We do this for anyone – even folk we can’t stand!”

Calum is a poet and before long they are planning a joint project – textiles inspired by poems, poems interpreted through textiles. And Calum is worming his way through her defences in other ways.

Gillard’s style is sometimes fragmented, reflecting Rose’s state of mind. She moves back and forth between 1st and 3rd person, between past and present.  We see what Rose includes in her letters to her daughter, and also what she leaves out.  At times the narrative is almost raw with honesty, but at the same time it is redolent with hope.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Patrick Gale, Ali Smith,

Avoid if you don’t like: Fragmented narrative, stories that tackle mental illness, poetic evocations of the landscapes of the Outer Hebrides

Ideal Accompaniment: A long walk along a Scottish beach, a view of the mountains and a glass of whisky.

Genre: Literary Love Story

Georgiana Darcy's Diary by Anna Elliot

Reviewer: JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult

What We Thought: Georgiana Darcy's Diary is exactly that, diary entries by the young sister of our beloved Mr Darcy, written in the spring of 1814, following the defeat of Napoleon. Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy are married and settled in Pemberley, and they are about to host a house party. Along with scandal, deception, there is also romance in the air, as the family are on a mission to ... wait for it ... find Georgiana a suitor. No surprises there.

In fact, there aren't many surprises in this book, but despite that the plot fits well with the traditional and much-loved formulae of Pride and Prejudice. The narrative is more modern than Austen's original, so if you're expected it to be then you will be disappointed, but it does mean it is more accessible and suitable for all ages. 

Altogether a sympathetic yet refreshing slant on a beloved classic.

You'll enjoy this if you like: British stuff, Austen (obviously) and petticoats.

Avoid if you dislike: romance, Austen and reading.

Ideal accompaniments: Pimms, cucumber sandwiches, strawberries and cream
Genre: Romance, Historical.

Available from Amazon