Friday 26 September 2014

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

Reviewer: Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit & Crimson Shore (

What we thought: One of my most highly anticipated new novels of the year! As a lifelong Agatha Christie fan I couldn’t wait to read Sophie Hannah’s interpretation. These kinds of ‘tribute’ novels can be hit or miss, but after the success of Anthony Horowitz/Sherlock Holmes, and knowing the quality of Sophie Hannah’s writing, I was expecting to be impressed. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Hannah is clearly as much of a Christie geek as me, and that is great! It was also apparent in this book that the author got tremendous pleasure in resurrecting Hercule Poirot and her research into both the characters and the period really made the book shine.

In a Christie style, this is a typical Who-dunn-it. Three bodies found at a well-to-do London hotel, all laid out in the style of professional courtesy of the dead, but with a monogramed cufflink in each mouth. It was impossible to guess the killer, as the plot twisted and turned, back and forth, scattering red herrings in its wake. We view the case through the eyes of ‘Catchpole’ – a Scotland Yard detective with slightly more intelligent side-kick to Hastings, but one whose failings throw spotlight on the intelligence of the little Belgian detective. Personally, more chapters in Poirots' POV would have pleased me, I found Catchpole’s re-telling of some aspects of the story seemed to dilute the narrative.

There will be no spoilers here, but let’s say the ending did surprise me.

I experienced an undeniable excitement to be back in the 1920’s London scene as I love the language, customs and idiosyncrasies of the time. There was even more of a buzz to be back inside the mind of Hercule Poirot and his little grey cells.

I’m envious of Sophie Hannah for getting this opportunity, and know from her love of the Queen of Crime she would jump at the chance to do it all again if the option arose – and I hope it does. There’s no better tribute to Christie than a tribute novel of this quality.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Agatha Christie.

Avoid if you don’t like: Belgian detectives and period crime writing.

Ideal accompaniments: Crème de cassis and smoked salmon sandwiches.

Genre: Crime Fiction.

The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory

Reviewer: JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult and The Rise of Zenobia.

What We Thought: It's been a long time since I read The Other Boleyn Girl, but I distinctly remember the court, menacing, unforgiving, moulded and manipulated by the strong families surrounding Henry VIII, that Gregory created. And now I entered that world once more with The Boleyn Inheritance. The year is 1539 and Henry Tudor must take yet another wife following the death of Jane Seymour and the birth of his only legitimate son. Anne of Cleves takes the crown.

Only Gregory can make the world of Tudor England appear as dangerous through the eyes of its women as it must have been. She builds a world through the voice if its women, in this case Anne of Cleves, a young girl who is tormented by her brother, Katherine Howard, a silly girl who is naive right to the end, and Jane Boleyn, sister in law to Anne Boleyn and wife to George, who betrayed them both to save herself. She is perhaps the most complex character, the one who is not innocent, who would do anything to live, who professes her constant and undying love for her husband and sister despite her betrayal.

It is the characters who make the story, their accounts and retelling in their own words. For without their distinct voices, without the smell and texture of a court life that draws you in and keeps you reading until the very last page, this would not be as engaging as it is, for we all know what happened to Henry's six wives.

You'll enjoy this if you like: fine gowns, the Tudor court, lots of description.

Avoid if you dislike: Lots of repetition, first person narrative, silly girls.

Ideal accompaniments: A glass of port and a plate of cheese and crackers, a warm fire, visits to lots of Elizabethan manor houses.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Available from Amazon

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: We Need New Names is a novel that pulls no punches.

The first part takes place in an unnamed Southern African nation as it undergoes violent disintegration. As in To Kill and Mockingbird, we see all this through the unquestioning eyes of a young child. But Darling and her friends – Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina – have no Atticus to protect them and provide them with a moral compass. Their fathers are dead or away working in South Africa and their mothers are working constantly just to survive. Schools have long since closed and they are perpetually hungry.

These are children who have been robbed of a childhood – Lord of the Flies in a war zone. Faced with horror after horror, they translate what they see into the games they play.

Darling dreams of going to live with her aunt in ‘Destroyedmichygan.’ Eventually, as a young teenager, she is sent to live in the USA – ‘the big baboon of the world.’ There she must deal with a whole new set of challenges. Her longing for the taste of guavas that she and her friends used to steal from trees along the roads where the whites lived. The shallow ignorance that lumps the diversity of Africa’s fifty-some countries into one amorphous mass. The sexualisation of childhood. And the loss of language.

Bulawayo describes the process of trying to make yourself understood in a language that is not your own – how you must think what you want to say, then find the words and arrange them in your head and say them to yourself before you speak them out loud. “And when you get to the final step, something strange has happened to you and you speak the way a drunk walks. And because you speak like falling, it’s as if you are an idiot.”

Darling and her family are illegals, unable to leave the US for fear they will never be allowed back. As the years pass, this creates an ever increasing distance between them and the country they have left behind. As her friend Stina had warned her “leaving your country is like dying and when you come back you are like a lost ghost returning to earth.”

Bulawayo repeatedly uses the phrase “things falling apart,” echoing the title of Chenua Achebe’s seminal novel of African dissolution, Things Fall Apart. The fact that she never names Darlings’s country as Zimbabwe is in itself a powerful statement on censorship and the danger of political opposition in that country.

A powerful and often disturbing read, and a wake up call to Western complacency.

You’ll enjoy this is you liked: Half of a Yellow Sun, The Kite Runner

Avoid if you dislike: facing the brutalities of civil war through the eyes of a child.

Ideal Accompaniment: the taste of fresh guavas

Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction from Africa

Friday 19 September 2014

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What We Thought: Tempting though it is to begin with a pun about how Barracuda dives under the surface of Australian identity, it doesn’t quite work. This is a book about a swimming champion, a cultural and class misfit, about social and personal limitations. It’s also about carving out an identity, whether in water or stone. Tsiolkas writes with both the savagery of a machete and the precision of a scalpel.

Danny/Daniel/Barracuda has a talent, which earns him a scholarship at a private school in Melbourne, an exceptional coach, the apparent respect of his peers and a determination for the future. He has a clear ambition and his future is all mapped out.

The narrative takes an unexpected turn, leaping to the future, when adult Dan and his partner Clyde, are living in Glasgow. Dan’s a carer for people with brain injuries – and he’s good at it – but he won’t swim.

The narrative switches between the build-up to the Sydney Olympics and the much-later aftermath, hinting at a pivotal event which changes the Barracuda’s course. It’s intense, in feeling, colour, place, strata and time. Danny is one of those rare characters you want to fight and fight for at the same time.

One of the most endearing set pieces comes when Dan accompanies his mother to Adelaide, to say farewell to his maternal grandmother. He meets his cousin Dennis, learns more about family dynamics and understands a bit more about what happens when he doesn’t come first.

Brilliantly structured and viciously observant, this book delivers a youthful searing rage and a mature sense of relative awareness in extraordinarily cool prose.

You’ll like this if you enjoyed: Tim Winton’s Breath, Thomas Strittmatter’s Raven 

Avoid if you dislike: Sex, violence, swearing or middle-class Melbourne under the microscope

Ideal accompaniments: LLB (Lemon, Lime and Bitters), Bombay Duck and Nirvana’s Come As You Are

Genre: Literary Fiction

Salvation by Harriet Steel

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

What we thought: Set in the late 1500s, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1, Salvation brings to life the sights, sounds and smells of Elizabethan England in evocative detail.

Aspiring playwright, Tom Goodluck is having an affair with the wealthy, and married, Meg Stuckton, but when Tom is charged with his employer’s murder, he must flee both his hometown of Salisbury, and his love. Meg’s husband discovers the affair, so she too, is forced to flee, and the narrative then follows the respective adventures of Tom and Meg as they struggle to survive the harsh realities of Elizabethan England.

Tom meets the Huguenot spy for the Queen, Alexandre Lamotte, who puts on Tom’s play, but leads them both into grave danger. Meanwhile, in an exciting fast-paced narrative, Meg struggles along her own journey fraught with danger and strife.

As with all good historical fiction, I enjoyed learning about Elizabethan times: the theatres and actors, the persecution of the Catholics, the tensions between England and Spain, and the brutalities of being poor.

Salvation has everything: murder and spies, war and drama, illicit love and longing, and I would highly recommend this to lovers of good historical fiction.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: fast-paced tales involving intrigue, romance, spies and war

Avoid if you don’t like: Elizabethan England

Ideal accompaniments: goblet of mulled wine

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available from Amazon

A Place of Execution by Val McDermid

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: I first heard of A Place of Execution via an interview with Val McDermid on the BBC’s World Book Club. It made me desperate to read it, but the book was published in 1999 and – shockingly – neither my local bookshop nor my library could supply it. So I’ve had to wait to sample what was described as McDermid’s best book.

I’ve always liked novels that break the boundaries of what crime fiction can be, and A Place of Execution is certainly one of those. The first part of the book purports to be by a journalist investigating the disappearance of a young girl which took place in an isolated hamlet in the White Peak district of Derbyshire in 1963. This is the time of the first Moors Murders, and newspaper reports of the disappearance of other children appear throughout the book. It is also, importantly, the last time in the UK when a capital sentence for murder could still be given, and the title is taken from the formal wording of that sentence.

The journalist grew up in the town where the missing girl had gone to school and her own teenage years had been affected by what happened. Perhaps because of this, she is the first person who, thirty years on, manages to persuade the original investigating officer to talk about the case.

McDermid herself was a journalist, working for three years as Northern Bureau Chief for a Sunday tabloid, so this is a territory she knows well. She evokes a landscape of secret dales and hidden limestone caves – a country where hamlets such as Scardale could be cut off from towns only a few miles down the road, and where the people are, of necessity, both self-reliant and suspicious of outsiders.

The police investigation of the girl’s disappearance, and their eventual conclusion that she has been murdered even though no body has been found, seems to be carried out the face of resentful obstruction on the part of the villagers. Only the single-minded determination of the young police inspector and his sergeant see to it that someone is brought to justice for the girl’s murder.

It’s a story full of wonderful characters and a thoroughly chilling villain. But the fact that the conclusion to the investigation comes a mere two-thirds of the way through the novel should tell you that this book far from a straightforward account of a brutal crime.

Just as she is completing her first draft, the journalist receives a letter from the policeman, withdrawing his cooperation and begging her not to publish her book. What has happened, thirty years on, to make him change his mind?

The twist that McDermid introduces is breathtaking, powerful and ingenious. Whatever your starting point, this is a story calculated to challenge your assumptions about crime, justice, truth, and the nature of capital punishment.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Border Crossing by Pat Barker, Innocent Blood by PD James

Avoid if you dislike: crime novels that refuse to deliver a simple conclusion.

Ideal accompaniments: Endless cups of tea and a good coal fire

Genre: crime fiction

Health Warning – this book is best avoided if you have just given up smoking!

Friday 12 September 2014

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

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 in two minds about this novel. On one hand it is a beautiful story with a timely message that needs to be heard, but on the other hand the writing sometimes lets it down.

All the many historical voices sound the same to me - a lost opportunity to give greater insight into the minds of the different narrators. Without looking at the chapter headings, it was impossible to know which character was narrating at any particular time. With characters as disparate as virgin brides, wild dervishes, violent thugs and old drunks, there should have been at least some verbal tics to distinguish them. The only really distinctive voice is that of the modern day character Ella.

This is a novel that, on the face of it, is right up my street. Ella is a publisher’s reader working her way through a book on Sufism. Throughout the book the Koranic ‘forty rules of love’ are explored along with stories from the lives of the poet Rumi and Shams the mystic. It’s a shame, therefore, that I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would.

The Forty Rules of Love is still well worth reading though and it won't put me off Shafak’s first book - which I probably should have read first.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Mysticism, exoticism, poetry, historical settings.

Avoid if you dislike: Multiple characters, bored housewives reading novels for publishers; anything religious.

Ideal accompaniments: Mediaeval Turkish lute music; Sufi meditation music; mint tea.

Genre: Literary, Metaphysical

Available from Amazon

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: For the last thirty years, Terry Pratchett has imagined how the introduction of new technology will affect the quasi-medieval society of the Discworld, and used that to hold a satirical mirror up to our own world. Now, in the company of science fiction writer Stephen Baxter he imagines instead how a step change in technology could affect modern-day Earth.

The Long Earth hypothesises that not only is the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics literally true, but that humanity has found a way of ‘stepping’ between those worlds.

A small proportion of humanity are ‘natural steppers’, able to step easily between worlds, and have done so, in secret, down through the centuries. The majority are given the power on Step Day, the day when the simple, home-made technology is made available to everyone. And another small proportion are stuck on ‘Datum Earth,’ unable to step even with the help of technology.

The Long Earth is straight science fiction story. The idea for the book was originally Pratchett’s and when he decided to develop it, he thought ‘who do I know who really understands quantum?’ and decided to approach Baxter. That the book was launched at the Royal Institution is an indication of how seriously the two authors took the science behind it. But if it lacks the humour and satire of a Discworld novel, it’s missing none of Pratchett’s warmth and humanity.

Arguably, the plot is quite thin and in other hands, could have become dry and repetitive. Pratchett makes it feel more as if David Attenborough were taking us on this voyage across the many worlds of the Long Earth – far out into the ‘high meggers’, millions of steps away from Datum Earth –gently illuminating what we are seeing and helping us to understand its implications.

This is a Utopia, but one that humanity has the potential to muck up.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Dan Simmons’ Endymion, Frederick Pohl’s Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

Avoid if you’re expecting trademark Pratchett fantasy and absurdity

Ideal Accompaniments: Grilled fish, a light salad and a glass of Pinot Grigio.

Genre: Science Fiction

Available from Amazon

You can read my account of Terry Pratchett’s return to Beaconsfield Library in summer 2013 here: