Friday, 25 April 2014

Ratking by Michael Dibdin

Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought:
"A ratking is something that happens when many rats have to live in too small a space under too much pressure. Their tails become entwined and the more they strain and stretch to free themselves the tighter grows the knot binding them, until at last it becomes a solid mass of embedded tissue. And the creature thus formed, as many as thirty rats tied together by the tail, is called a ratking."

The first in the Aurelio Zen series, its title is a fundamental metaphor for the layers of inescapable corruption within the Italian political, judicial and business systems. Through which, Commissioner Aurelio Zen threads a complex route, attempting to do his job, but not rock the boat. 

Ruggiero Miletti, head of a powerful Perugian family business, has been kidnapped. Favours are called in and Zen, a Venetian attached to Roman Criminal Police, because he’s the only one available, takes on the case. He encounters resistance and corruption, allegiances and loyalties, and the weight of social history hangs over the book like smog. 

Alongside the darker underbelly of Italy, Dibdin shares the nuances of regional rivalry, cultural insights and geographical descriptions. Perugia has become well known more recently due to the murder of Meredith Kercher, but Ratking shows us a different side to the place. The plot is complex and slow to develop, but the author’s depiction of how difficult it is to solve a crime while battling vested interests results in an unexpected and exciting end.

There are eight more Zen novels, which take place in various Italian locations. I will be back for more.

You'll enjoy this if: culturally rooted crime, Donna Leon, Andrea Camilleri, Borgen.

Avoid if you dislike: character-led story, political intrigue, Italy.

Ideal accompaniments: Porchetta (stuffed pork), a frisky Montepulciano, and Puccini, specially Tosca.

Bring Up The Bodies (audio version) by Hilary Mantel

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (

What we thought: I’m going to start this review with the final line of the novel, one of my all-time favourite last lines in fact:

“There are no endings. If you think so, you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.”

If that’s not smart, I don’t know what is. I sat open-mouthed, not sure the book had finished for a moment or two, and then gave a little round of applause!

I listened to the novel on an audio book and have to say I was pulled into the story from the very first page. Whilst with Wolf Hall, I struggled and found it slow to start, with Bring up the Bodies, I was right there, immediately, back at Cromwell’s side, ready to face whatever battle Henry VIII chose to fight next.

Mantel’s writing here is flawless; she has found her stride and her voice. There were a number of scenes that stopped me in my tracks, made me rewind and listen again. One such was the execution scene of Anne Boleyn (I don’t think I’m spoiling anyone’s read by announcing this is where she ends up!) The scene was so powerful and vivid and yet the writing was so calm and succinct. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. No need for graphic, no need for fan fares, no loud words or strong colours. Yet, still, we were there, at Cromwell’s shoulder, hiding our eyes in the same way as his son, Gregory.

I can’t wait for the last in the trilogy. Although I don’t want to the story to end and knowing what will happen to Cromwell almost makes me refuse to read it. After so many interpretations of him throughout every other historical book I’ve read of this cruel, barbaric, selfish individual, I now feel I know him personally. And yes, he is all of the above, and more. But Mantel humanises him. And it is this I shall miss when I close the final page. I am already dreading his absence as Henry was said to have dreaded it every day until he reached his own grave. Mantel’s research feels effortless, never once did I bemoan an info-dump or shake my head at the writers need to boast. She dug into his life, his past and his persona and presented him to perfection.

I can’t recommend this novel highly enough; whether you’re a fan of historical fiction or not, do yourself a favour and let Hilary Mantel absorb you for a few hours into life in a Tudor court.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : For me, she’s incomparible.

Avoid if you don’t like : The Tudors, jousting and executions.

Ideal accompaniments : Jugs of claret wine (a gift from a French Ambassador) and roast oxen with figs and turnips.

Genre : Historical Fiction.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Reviewer: by JJ Marsh 

What we thought: I never quite know how to ‘file’ Jojo Moyes. Her stories paddle into deeper waters than Adele Parks and Helen Fielding, but never dive as far into the cold murk of Lionel Shriver or Helen Fitzgerald. Dark chick-lit? Chilli ice-cream?

Me Before You tackles a tough theme with a light touch. An unambitious waitress gets a job caring for a quadriplegic young man and they change each other’s lives. Not in a mawkish, pink-glittery kind of way, but via a series of awkward, painful lessons. Lou Clark’s comfortable if unexciting sense of self is shocked out of complacency by a man who is used to excitement. Now he’s dependent.

But he still has the right to decide.

The book is an absorbing, thoughtful read, which made me stop and consider rights of mind and body. The sudden switching to other perspectives in the second half I found distracting, but Moyes avoids a twee resolution, instead evoking a desperately tragic (in the classical sense) finale.

Yes, I cried.
But I also thought.

You’ll like this if you like: Marian Keyes, Anna Maxted, Jodi Picoult

Avoid if you dislike: detail of disability, the ethics surrounding rights to life/death and crying

Ideal accompaniments: Jalapeño peppers stuffed with cream cheese, Martin Miller’s gin with tonic and juniper berries, and The Best of Burt Bacharach. Plus kitchen roll. Tissues ain’t enough.

Genre: Commercial women's fiction, contemporary

Good as Dead by Mark Billingham

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (

What we thought : When a local newsagent takes two civilian hostages and keeps them at gun point in the rear of his shop – one who happens to be police woman Helen Weeks - he claims to want the truth about his son Amin's death in a local YOI and feels this is the only way anyone will take his certainty that his sons suicide was staged seriously. He chooses Detective Tom Thorne as the man to supply those answers. With time ticking and the safety of two hostages spurring him on, Thorne forges a path that takes him from the bottom of society through to the very top. It seems Javed Akhtar's view of justice may not be so warped after all.

This is a cleverly crafted story, following both the experiences of Thorne as he travels at full speed through the investigation with his usual focus and disinterest in politics or procedure - and also the POV of Helen Weeks who spends the biggest part of the novel chained to a radiator fearing for her life. Somehow she adds as much to the novel, even in her terrified state she manages to convey a calm in all the turmoil, making decisions that will change her life forever. The climax of the novel is page flipping, Thorne at his absolute best, and it was good to have some kind of closure for all concerned.

Billingham's books go from strength to strength and I am rarely left disappointed. I can hardly believe this is Thorne’s tenth outing. I still remember reading Sleepyhead a long time ago and thinking then that the UK had found another big name for the future in crime writing and I'm so pleased I was right. I can't wait to move onto the next chapter in Thorne's life.

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

Avoid if you don’t like : Clever detectives and a corrupt justice system.

Ideal accompaniments : Chicken Tikka Masala and a bottle of lager.

Genre : Crime.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of LostAngels and Wolfsangel (

What we thought: a thought-provoking story which subtly raises issues on class, ownership and power.

Australian author, and Orange Fiction prize-winner, Kate Grenville wanted to know what happened to one of her English ancestors when he arrived in New South Wales, early in the 19th century.
A poverty-stricken Thames River bargeman, Thornhill’s dire circumstances lead him to commit a crime for which he is transported to colonial New South Wales with his feisty wife, Sal, for the term of his natural life. Once emancipated, he seizes this opportunity to reinvent himself by becoming a trader and landowner, staking a claim on patch of ground by the Hawkesbury River, which, unbeknown to him, is Aboriginal land.

Whilst attempting to understand and exist peacefully alongside the natives, Thornhill, working hard for small gain in a hostile environment, gains our sympathy when the natives steal his crops. At the same time the author never lets us forget that this land, which the white man has stolen, belongs to the Aboriginals.

The undercurrent of tension with the natives begins as a murmur, gradually becoming palpable, until it is clear that conflict between Thornhill’s family and the Aboriginals is inevitable. The situation builds to a horrifying climax when William Thornhill is forced to make a difficult choice; a clash between one group of people who are desperate to own land, and another group for whom the concept of ownership is entirely foreign.

The author weighs the argument deftly, presenting the reader with the plight of both blacks and whites, with no aim of resolving the problem, but weaving a fine balance of empathy for both the Aboriginal population and the white settlers.

All moral dilemmas aside, this is also simply a good story: a man trying to carve a better life for himself and his family in brutal and unforgiving conditions.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Fiction and non-fiction stories about early Australian settlers, and pioneer tales such as Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.

Avoid if you don’t like: vivid depictions of the harsh and unforgiving colonial Australia.

Ideal accompaniments: roasted goanna with honey ants.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Friday, 4 April 2014

I Stopped Time by Jane Davis by JJ Marsh

What We Thought:

A wonderful tale of a son re-evaluating everything he thought he knew about his mother.
Two lives: Lottie Pye, growing up in Edwardian Brighton, and her son, James, who faces a lonely old age. Until he takes delivery of his mother’s legacy – her photographs – and with the help of young Jenny, begins to make a new picture from the jigsaw of images.

Along with James, we discover Lottie via perceptions of the woman, the wife, the photographer, the image. And as if by accident, he discovers much more about himself. This delicately paced book allows individual stories to unfold and reflect on one another, challenging the reader to decide on a definite reality.

This novel has charm in abundance, due to its acutely observed settings and period detail, intriguing characters who do not give up their secrets easily, and a glorious level of background detail. I love books that teach me something, and the insights into photography here are a delight.

This is a book you resent having to put down.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Tracy Chevalier, Audrey Niffenegger, The Lives of Lee Miller

Avoid if you dislike: Edwardian England, gentle pace, family history

Ideal accompaniments: Earl Grey, buttered English muffins and Cole Porter’s Don’t Fence Me In.

Eugenia by Mark Tedeschi

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

What we thought: A sobering tale of human tragedy. In Australia in 1920, a woman, Eugenia Falleni, was charged with the murder of her wife. Born into a large Italian migrant family, Eugenia began passing herself off as a man at a young age. Easily able to tackle tough construction jobs and join in the rough male drinking life, her existence as a man was always perilous though, and in a horrific experience on a merchant ship, her gender was uncovered.

The story then follows the twenty-two years she lived in Sydney as the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Scotsman Harry Crawford, and how Harry managed to convince his two wives that he was a man. However, Harry's first wife, Annie Birkett, eventually discovered the truth, and Annie disappeared. Her burnt body was discovered at Lane Cove and by the time Eugenia Falleni was charged with her murder, Harry Crawford had married a second woman, again successfully maintaining the elaborate cover-up.

The trial of Eugenia Falleni for Annie Birkett’s murder is extensively analysed by the author, Crown Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC, one of Australia's foremost criminal law barristers. He reveals a grim, fascinating and extraordinary tale against the vivid backdrop of working-class Sydney in the years leading up to the Great Depression. It is an interesting study of how Eugenia's case was subject to mishandling and to the prejudices of the times. A fascinating subject: a woman trapped in a man’s body, in a male justice system, I couldn’t help but sympathise with Eugenia, who had not a single friend, or family member, with whom she could share her terrible secret. I can’t begin to imagine how she must have lived in constant terror that her secret would be exposed and she would be ridiculed. I admire the great courage she displayed in managing to turn her life around in spite of such tragedy.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: True Australian crime stories.

Avoid if you don’t like: outdated notions of sexuality, intricate detail of, and unjust, criminal legal proceedings.

Ideal accompaniments: A roo-burger and a can of Fosters.

Genre: True crime

The Lies You Told Me by Jess Ruston

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (

What we thought : The central theme of the story is secrets and lies. How one deception leads intrinsically to another, and the author does a very competent job showing that the sins of the parents do echo down into the lives of their offspring.
Klara Mortimer has had a difficult childhood. Not difficult in the clichéd sense of the word, but difficult as she was raised without the love and protection of a mother. And the feeling that her mother’s disappearance has never been fully explained, leads to a multitude of insecurities in adulthood. When an anonymous letter containing a key arrives, Klara is led into a journey back into her mother’s life and discovers truths she would have preferred remain secret. Her spiralling obsession into finding answers takes her to some dark places, where she begins to believe her whole life has been a sham and she can trust no one. She turns against her husband, Mark - and her father, Henry who she feels has betrayed her in his desire to protect her.

Jess Ruston has a real gift of creating believable, sympathetic characters, that even if we don’t actually ‘like’ them, we feel a connection with their lives and a need to hear their story. Her writing is well-crafted, well-paced, and the attention to detail and ability to examine the dark side of people and situations, gives depth both to the story and the characters. She is also able to deliver a complex and gripping storyline which twists and turns enough to hook even the most difficult reader.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Maggie O’Farrell, Jojo Moyes, Kate Morton

Avoid if you don’t like : Troubled women.

Ideal accompaniments : Boozy cocktails and a girlie night in.
Genre : Women's Lit

Vlad The Inhaler by Lorraine Mace

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

What we thought: Chillingly clever, devilishly delicious and spine-chillingly suspenseful, Vlad the asthmatic hupyre is a teenage hero who will appeal to readers aged 8-88.

In the start of this beautifully illustrated and exciting series, Vlad is an asthmatic hupyre––part vampire and part human. When Vlad’s evil vampire relatives––Aunt Valentyna, Uncle Viktor, cousins Gretchen and Boris––tell Vlad they have killed his parents, and attempt to take over his family castle, Vlad sets out on a quest to defend his family name, his inheritance and, most of all, his life.

Pursued incessantly by his lethal vampire relatives, Vlad goes on the run, starting a roller-coaster string of action-packed adventures that kept me turning the pages. In a riveting climax, Vlad must prove to the people of Malign village that his is not an evil vampire: he does not murder, nor does he drink blood. He must demonstrate that he is proud to be a hupyre.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Nice, and nasty, vampires, werewolves and great action-packed adventure stories, with a small dose of black humour.

Avoid if you don’t like: mean vampire relatives.

Ideal accompaniments: bowl of slaughtered peaches topped with a dash of fresh A+ blood.

Genre: Children’s fantasy/adventure.