Friday, 27 June 2014

The Girl With The Painted Face by Gabrielle Kimm

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

What we thought: Set in 1582 in Italy, The Girl With The Painted Face tells the story of the young seamstress, Sofia Genotti – a vulnerable, sensitive and heart-warming heroine who has must go on the run after being falsely accused of theft. Sofia joins a troupe of travelling actors as their costume mistress, but is soon appearing on the stage as a budding actress. When she falls in love with fellow actor, Beppe, life seems finally to be treating her well, until Sofia is wrongly accused of murder and forced, once more, to run away.

Through her scrupulous research and vivid descriptions, the author has woven an historical tale that is both entertaining and educational. 16th century Italy and the world of the Commedia dell'Arte is vividly brought to life, the reader almost able to see and smell the countryside, the crowded taverns, the lively marketplaces, and the colourful characters, some of whom have very dark and dangerous sides.

I would recommend this as an easy read for historical fiction lovers who enjoy tales of adventure, romance and a whodunnit in the storyline.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: cosy and easy to read historical mysteries

Avoid if you don’t like: historical fiction about travelling actors.

Ideal accompaniments: A beaker of ale and a bowl of bean and hare pottage.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Spilt Milk by Amanda Hodgkinson

Reviewer: Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (

“Their eyes were the colour of the river. Grey as rain-swelled waters. It was how you knew the three of them were related. Nellie, Vivian and Rose Marsh.”

From the opening line of this novel, the scene is set. The importance of the river, the importance of the characters, and the importance of relationships. It also lays the first hint that not all may be as it seems within this family story.

Spilt Milk is the story of sisterhood and motherhood through the generations of a single family. Starting in 1913 with three sisters living an idyllic life in a cottage near a river in rural Suffolk. As the two youngest, Nellie and Vivian, blossom, their innocent existence is blown apart when a stranger, Joe Feriers, arrives in town. Both Nellie and Vivian fall for Joe and the consequences are devastating, creating a secret the sisters will be forced to carry to their graves, overshadowing everything else life presents them.

We follow Vivian and Nellie’s life stories right through into the 1960s. From their unusual start in life, they do go on to marry and create lives of their own, apart from one another – a fact that would have shocked the women at the outset. The author manages to convey wonderfully that not only do the sins of the father (or mother) echo on through time, but that generations of the same family can often inexplicably face similar life events, and it is interesting to see how each generation deals differently with them as time rolls on.

Nellie and Vivian are interesting characters, strong in their own ways, yet equally vulnerable. At some points Nellie takes the lead, finding strength from her passion for the river, always recalling the sense of power it gave her. At others, Vivian is the rock Nellie relies on to keep her sane, more of a mother to her than her birth mother.

The birth of Nellie’s daughter, Bertha (known as Birdie) and her life path, adds yet another layer of secrecy to the sister’s relationship. Birdie blossoms into a superb character in her own right, and her story is equally as captivating, and at times heart breaking, as that of her mother and aunt. The final piece in the family jigsaw here is Framsden, Birdie’s son.

I thought Amanda’s first novel, 22 Britannia Road, was a beautifully written novel and have eagerly awaited her second. And it doesn’t disappoint. There’s even more of a lyrical quality to Amanda’s writing here, which works perfectly, some scenes are so intense they are almost cinematic. The setting is perfectly described and the sense of time, as we move through the war years and onwards, is breathtakingly detailed and accurate. You feel as if you have stepped right into the character’s shoes and are seeing the world just as they knew it – whether it be the grime and danger of war-ravaged London or the open spaces and simple beauty of rural Suffolk. At the same time, while time moves on, you have a sense the author really wants to bring home the message that age is just a number, a date is just a reference, and that nothing really changes. Not really. Nothing of importance, such as love and loss, grief and happiness.

Spilt Milk is a beautiful novel. I was captivated by the story, the characters and the shadows they carried – and I’m sure you will be too.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Donna Tart, Kate Atkinson .

Avoid if you don’t like: East Anglia, family secrets, war-time stories.

Ideal accompaniments: Old English cider and a packed lunch.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Randall, or The Painted Grape, by Jonathan Gibbs

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What We Thought: Jonathan Gibbs is a cheeky beggar.

This alternative history take on the YBA movement born in the late 1980s and subsequent fallout is courageous, imaginative and wholly believable. It’s also terrific fun.

I actually wish some bits were true.

The premise is enticing – Young British Artists, led by a character called Randall – are shaking up and seducing London’s art establishment. Damien Hirst was around in the early days, but a lethal combination of train + alcohol took him out of the frame.

The story is told by an observer, Vincent. Much like Stingo in Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Fanny in Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love or Nick in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Vincent's on the fringe.

This novel bristles with character and characters. The former manifests itself in superb set pieces such as the artistic boat intervention on the Great Day of Art, where the reader can feel both sides of the tension. Aggrieved audience and guerrilla artists, both glad they were there because they needed each other.

The characters, many of them real people, are deftly drawn, suggesting depths and tangents with one tiny stroke. Randall himself is a massive personality who looms across the present narrative (after his death) with equal presence as he does the past.

Vincent's arrival in New York, as one of the trustees of the phenomenally successful Randall (deceased), triggers a legacy neither he nor anyone else had expected. Randall’s last laugh.

The book is as colourful, ambitious and as unpredictably expansive as its eponymous hero. It takes in art’s awkward relationship with sponsorship, the peculiar effects of the observer on the observed (refractions and reflections intensified in the video made by Randall’s son Josh), and the impossibility of maintaining rebellion against the establishment once it's been embraced.

There are some perfectly crafted lines, which post 1990s, seem instant soundbites.

“The danger of success is that you fail to grow in proportion to it.”

“He had one of those severe, northern European faces that seem to say: you’re enjoying yourself now, but soon it will be winter.”

"The sight and sound of waves on the shore at night always seemed to her obscene, uncanny... as if they were proof that the unconscious mind lived on after death."

So much entertaining and thoughtful detail form the background that I already know I must re-read for more of the subtle references I missed. Sunshines, super-heroes and The Painted Grape – do we admire them as art, or acknowledge the verisimilitude to reality? In this case, I’d say both.

You'll like this is you enjoyed: The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman, John Maybury's film Love Is the Devil (adapted from Daniel Farson's book on Francis Bacon), Spending by Mary Gordon.

Avoid if you dislike: contemporary British art, 1990s London, descriptions of pornographic oil paintings.

Ideal accompaniments: Eat black grapes, drink caffè corretto and listen to Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus. Wear yellow.

Genre: Contemporary, literary fiction.

Friday, 20 June 2014

String Bridge by Jessica Bell

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What We Thought: Made me cry. And curse and huff and want to throw things. In a good way.

Melody’s given up on music to be a wife and mother. She loves her husband and daughter but something’s not right. Maybe she needs to fix the past first. Her childhood was, at best, colourful. The future holds all kinds of rosy shades but the choice of any one is going to cause upset, either hers or her family’s. Or both. Melody dithers and dallies until the choice is taken out of her hands. Certain scores will never be settled and certain sorries left unsaid.

Jessica Bell’s writing is life under a microscope. The minutiae of human interaction is observed with such accuracy, it could be a lepidopterist’s scalpel. She has a wonderful, almost cinematic skill at describing facial expression, tone of voice and nuance of behaviour.

Set in Greece, the descriptions of city and island flora, fauna and inhabitants come to full sensory life. Characters sparkle off the page, evoking powerful reactions in the reader and immersing us in this world so deeply, you want to book a return ticket.

This is the first I’ve read from this author but now got the box set. I want more.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: A White Woman on a Green Bicycle, A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Jodi Picoult.

Avoid if you dislike: emotional wringers, the expatriate perspective, music.

Ideal accompaniments: bitter coffee with ouzo, yoghurt with honey and figs and Amy Winehouse’s Frank.

Genre: Literary fiction, contemporary

The Fall of the Empire by Zoe Saadia

Reviewer: by Liza Perrat

What we thought: I love historical fiction that sweeps me back to times I know nothing about; that allows me to experience life as it was then, and The Fall of the Empire does just that. I read, and immensely enjoyed, this final book of Zoe Saadia’s Rise of the Aztec series, as a standalone story.

Set in the Tepanec Empire, or today’s Mexico, this is an action-packed adventure story of revenge, survival and love, featuring slaves, warriors, traders and emperors. It begins with the trader, Etl, overhearing a band of soldiers who plan to overthrow the emperor, and the pretty, smart and determined girl, Tlalli, who is plotting her revenge against the Emperor.

The turmoil is intriguing, and had me switching sides from chapter to chapter. The battles are captivating and the story, with its great drama and unexpected twists, moves forward to a historically-accurate conclusion.

The characters are so well-drawn that we feel we are there, with them, trying to stay alive in a situation they have no control over. And when, at the end, we have to bid goodbye to Etl, Tlacaelel, Tlalli and the others, it feels like saying goodbye to real people.

With its rich characters, blended from real and imagined people, its lovely prose woven through accurate historical fact, and a pace that never flags, I would highly recommend this book to fans of historical fiction.

And after The Fall of the Empire, I’m really looking forward to reading the entire Rise of the Aztec series!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Bernard Cornwell, Manda Scott, Simon Scarrow.

Avoid if you don’t like: Mexico, ancient civilisations, warriors.

Ideal accompaniments: Corn bread and claret wine.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Until Our Blood is Dry by Kit Habianic

Reviewer: Catriona Troth, author of Ghost Town.

What we thought: Thirty years ago, the miners’ strike set miners against pit bosses and government, working men against policemen, neighbour against neighbour. It ripped apart communities and drove families to destitution. And nowhere were its effects more deeply felt than in South Wales.

Kit Habianic’s Until Our Blood Is Dry takes us into the heart of one of these communities. She shows us the men driven by desperation to save the life of the coal mines – even though they know those jobs are likely to kill them, either slowly through illnesses such as ‘black lung’ or abruptly, in rock falls or gas explosions. She shows us the different kind of desperation that drives the handful of ‘scabs’ to defy their unions and cross the picket lines to go back to work. She shows us the white-collar managers, making decisions about the future of the mines with scant understanding of the lives that depend on them. And above all, she shows us the women fighting to hold their families together – standing on the picket lines, organising collections and finding ways of putting food on the table even when the last penny has been spent.

“You lasses,” as one of the men says; “more balls, more brains, more guts than any of us.”

Her heroine, Helen, barely sixteen herself, is caught between her father, an overman and one of the hated ‘scabs,’ and Scrapper Jones, the boy she loves, who is a hot-headed strike supporter. In the course of the book, she learns a lifetime’s worth of lessons about the price of loyalty and the need to love and to belong.

If I say this is an important book, I am in danger of making it sound ‘worthy’ and dull. It is anything but that. Habianic captures the beauty of the South Wales valleys, the sound of Welsh voices and the strength and heart-breaking tragedy of these lives.

The world Habianic describes is long gone, swept away in the wholesale pit closures that followed the breaking of the strike. So is this now just a piece of history? Today, when more and more families are turning to food banks to meet their basic needs, it’s worth remembering what happens when ordinary working people are driven to desperation. Even more, it is worth remembering some of those ‘workless’ generations who are subject to so much scorn today are in that situation because the industries that once sustained them were systematically dismantled without anything being put in their place.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Stories of Rebels and Outsiders from Saturday Night, Sunday Morning to Feral Youth 

Avoid if you dislike: Women on the front line, Working Class Heroes, Wales

Ideal accompaniments: Welsh cakes and a cup of tea. And a pint of Brains SA for when the going gets tough.

Genre: Literary Fiction.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Stigmata by Colin Falconer

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

What we thought: It is 1205 and the knight, Philip of Vercy has survived a year of savage warfare in the Holy Land. He sails back to his castle in France expecting peace, and his beloved wife waiting, but is devastated to find his wife has died in childbirth and his young son is seriously ill.

When he hears of a healer in the Languedoc, Philip sets off from Burgundy on a desperate voyage to save his son.

But he rides straight into a war where his countrymen are being brutally persecuted by the Pope’s savage mercenaries sent to wipe out the heretics of the south – the Cathars. As the crusaders tighten their grip on the country, Philip’s journey becomes more and more perilous.

He finds the young woman, Fabricia BĂ©renger, who sees visions and is marked with Christ’s Stigmata, perhaps giving her healing powers. Sickened by the senseless slaughter, Philip questions everything he once held as true, and asks himself if he can give it all up and fight for justice, and for a woman everyone sees as godless.

Stigmata’s intricate detail reflects the author’s solid research, the dialogue and writing style took me to the core of southern France in the 13th century. The story moves along at a cracking pace, the narrative fraught with action and tension at every turn. I found Philip and Fabricia sympathetic and believable characters, and would highly recommend Stigmata as a powerful tale of religious heresy, crusades, loss and love.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: historical tales about the Crusades.

Avoid if you don’t like: characters who have visions from unexplained sources. Violent religion-fuelled squabbles. 

Ideal accompaniments: A slice of mutton pie with lashings of gravy, washed down with a beaker of hot spiced wine. 

Genre: Historical Fiction

Kimi's Secret

Reviewers: Emily, Alia and Caitlin

What We Thought

Emily: I found this book absolutely tremendous! The types of sentences and words the writer uses are brilliant and the story line was gripping and exciting. It is about a girl called Kimi who has a 'Tulpa' called Bentley. She goes on an adventure to find out secrets about her life and herself that she never knew.

I really liked it when Bentley kept on changing his age because it was quite funny how he could just change ages so quickly. The story made you want to read on and I found it hard to put down. I really liked how the story linked together towards the end. I also really liked the 'Greylians' because they kept on changing and making you think they were nice, and their name is really exciting and peculiar.

I think this book should be for older children - 11 years and up because it did have some fairly rude words. It was a book that is definitely worth reading and I can't wait to see if there is another book in the series.

Alia: One stormy night I was alone at home and I was bored out of my mind. As I walked into the dining room I saw a book lying on the table. I picked it up and went to my room. I sat down and started to read... And WOW! That book was GOOD! I'm telling you, you will want to get that book (or borrow or take or steal) and sit down and read it... and you won't want to stop until you have finished it.

It's about a girl called Kimi and it follows her through a big storm, through a cloud of crows, through quite a few twirlies, through a room with flying clowns, and then, oh, right back to the storm.

So I assure you, you will love this book. If you are 12 or 120 it doesn't really matter. (Although it's probably not much use to you if you're dead. Though I guess it's worth trying.)

Caitlin: Kimi’s Secret is a very exciting and interesting book that is full of mystery. It can be quite difficult to understand the first part of the book until you have read the end. Although there are some strange names that can be quite hard to read, it is a perfect book to excite you. It is definitely a page turner and hooks you on the story line. Throughout the whole story strange things happen, you feel like you can’t stop reading until you find out why or what it is, and at some parts of the book you have to flick back or remember what happened earlier in the story to understand what’s happening now. Even though this book is aimed at children between 10 and 15 years, it is a good read for all ages above ten, providing you like sci- fi and/or fantasy books.

Kimi is a very mysterious girl who is very wary, and conscious about the people and places around her. Her Tulpa, Bentley, is also very mysterious as he can change age and doesn’t give much away easily. But to find out what a Tulpa is and who Bentley and Kimi are then read the book!

This is a very good book because it draws you in right from the start and keeps you hooked throughout it! It is one of the best books I have read and strongly recommend it. If you like adventure and mystery then this book is definitely for you!

You'll enjoy this if you liked: Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket

Avoid if you dislike: Gross stuff, fantastical creatures and aliens

Ideal accompaniments
: Pommy juice and roasted dodo (or birthday cake - just clean your teeth afterwards or the Famoose will get you).

Genre: YA, children's, fantasy

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Reviewer: Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (

What we thought: Wow. I am a huge fan of Atkinson’s crime novels but have never read any of her early literary work, so thought this would be a real treat. And I wasn’t wrong. I’m always impressed by genre writers who push boundaries and are brave enough to try new things. Atkinson has certainly written a challenging book that keeps your attention every step of the way as the story unfolds, rewinds, unfolds, rewinds on a constant loop.

I like how the originality of structure shows how the author holds all of the power, in some ways this is as much a lesson about writing and literary skill as On Writing by Stephen King.

The central character, Ursula Todd, is reborn many times over. The book opens with the assassination of Hitler, when Ursula decides to shoot the tyrant in 1930 after befriending his girlfriend, Eva Braun. As his SS men pull out their guns, darkness fades, and we return to Ursula’s birth in 1910. This time the baby is a still-birth, the doctor is unable to revive her, darkness falls. And the story begins again. Each birth followed by a slightly different life-path, tweaked and manipulated along the way by Eva, although she seems confused and unaware of why she makes these decisions that alter the track of her life.

I’ll be honest that this wasn’t an easy read, keeping a constant check on dates was mandatory to understand where you stood in the story. Re-reading two or more versions of a characters life story took a depth of understanding in the author’s intentions. But there was something both compelling and satisfying about the novel, not to mention the sheer grace and beauty of the writing itself, which in its succinct style gave you such rich detail.

I did question the only tangible reference to the repetition of Ursula’s life, the blackouts and sense of deja-vu the author introduced in later versions. I wondered why the girl had no real memory of events like the Blitz or the Hitler assassination and this was the only time I felt pulled from the story and not totally convinced by the plot.

But fans of literary fiction will adore the writing and I would have no hesitation in recommending the novel.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Sarah Waters, Donna Tart.

Avoid if you don’t like: Reincarnation and manipulation of the reader.

Ideal accompaniments: Dry white Chablis with crackers and Brie.

Genre: Literary Fiction.