Friday, 20 February 2015

The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez by Ann Swinfen

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

What we thought: This is the second novel I’ve read by this author, and I have to say yet again I have been impressed with both the writing and the storytelling.

Without giving away the ‘secret’ within the title, this was a wonderful tale of espionage and double-dealing in sixteenth century London. Having mostly read about royalty and Tudor exploits, it was very enjoyable to immerse myself in the lower classes of London life, and see how the real people coped with life in the city at that time. It is 1586 and the country is alive with plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I and put the Scots Queen, Mary, on the throne. No one is safe, and no one can be trusted.

Christoval is a superb lead character, excelling in languages and code-breaking, soon drawn in to the world of counter espionage. By taking us by the hand and opening our eyes to the new experiences faced around every corner, the reader feels part of the story as it unwinds. A new country, new language, new career might be enough for most of us to handle – but that is only the start for Christoval upon settling in the UK. And once under the wing of the Queen’s advisors, instead of feeling safe, Christoval found they were faced with even great dangers.

I loved the language also, and enjoyed learning a lot about the period in history – the diseases and living conditions were real eye openers. Ann Swinfen is a talented writer, who rarely disappoints. Her use of language, attention to detail and obvious prolific research bring whatever period she describes to life. This book is no exception and is a real credit to her skills.

I came to the final page of this book disappointed that it had ended, and ended on a huge twist too! There are another four books so far in the series, and I very much look forward to spending more time soon in Christoval’s world.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel.

Avoid if you don’t like: Historical fiction. London. Espionage.

Ideal accompaniments: Roasted mutton with cabbage, and a tankard of real ale.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Available from Amazon

Runaway by Peter May (audiobook narrated by Peter Forbes)

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

What we thought: I should start this review by saying that I’ve never read a Peter May novel that I didn’t fall in love with. The Lewis Trilogy was wonderful, and Entry Island totally captivating. So, it’s no surprise if I tell you that Runaway was another top class novel.

Split between two storylines / two contrasting runaway journeys. 1965 and a group of Glasgow lads, who call themselves ‘The Shuffle’, run away to London with their band to find fame and fortune. Inspired by new group The Beatles, they feel sure London will present them with every opportunity that their home city failed to deliver.

Switch now to 2015 and the same group of now elderly men find themselves repeating the trip – but this time for very different reasons – with a very different end goal.

Each journey is eventful and entertaining in its own right. May handles the split time frame to perfection. He brings London’s Sixties’ music scene to life in vivid technicolour, and also manages to raise a multitude of social issues in his writing, not least societies view, and treatment of, the elderly.

Told mainly through the eyes of band guitarist, Jack, Runaway is a crime novel covering fifty years of friendships and shattered dreams, set against the backdrop of two unique and contrasting cities at two unique and contrasting periods of recent history.

And it has an edge of the seat twist that reminds you what a talented author Peter May is. If you don’t end this novel with a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye, go read 50 Shades of Something.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Ann Cleeves, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin.

Avoid if you don’t like: Glasgow, London, Swinging Sixties, Crime fiction.

Ideal accompaniments: Greasy-spoon full English breakfast and cheap lager.

Genre: Crime Fiction.

Available from Amazon

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

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

What we thought: Not the type of book I would normally read, I ended up really enjoying this as a light-hearted, holiday read, with many more layers of meaning between the lines.

After a long and incredibly adventurous life, Allan Karlsson finds himself in a nursing home, turning 100 years old. They are planning a party for him, but Allan doesn’t want to be there, so he climbs out of the window and escapes. From there on, he embarks on a series of hilarious, spontaneous adventures that often had me laughing out loud and kept me turning the pages right to the end.

Allan’s present life features criminals, hot-dog stand operators, women and elephants, whilst his past life, woven into the narration, tells of the roles he played in some of the most important events of the 20th century, alongside people such as Stalin, Churchill, Truman, Franco and de Gaulle.

Unique and eccentric, this tale urges us all to simply jump out the window, leaving our mundane lives behind, to embark on unknown adventures. Highly entertaining.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Forrest Gump-like tales

Avoid if you don’t like: Funny adventurous and quirky stories

Ideal accompaniments: Vodka, vodka and more vodka

Genre: Mainstream Fiction

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Reviewer: JD Smith

What we thought: It's hard to say much about Gone Girl without giving away chunks of the plot , and yet there are so many twists and turns and meticulously crafted reasons and explanations that regardless of what a review might reveal, you'd still be saying 'Oh, yes, that makes so much sense now!' and 'Of course, that's why they thought/went/did/said those things'. 

The story opens in the voice of Nick - "I used to be a writer… back when people read things on paper, back when anyone cared about what I thought" - a husband whose wife suddenly and mysteriously goes missing from their home in small town Missouri; the home nick dragged Amy back to almost kicking and screaming had she not been 'cool girl' who is far too laid back and cool to object 'much'. 

We flick back and forth, between Nick's present day narrative and Amy's diary entries for the years leading up to her sudden disappearance. 

Nick calls the police upon finding Amy gone, the front door left wide open, furniture upturned in their living room. But there's something not right about Nick's reactions to the police. He refers to Amy in the past tense, corrects himself. He appears on TV and there's something not quiet right about his expressions, the fact that he smiles. The scene of the crime isn't quite 'right'. But when you listen to Nick, his voice, it's all so right, so normal, for him to react that way. The media begin to believe Nick killed his wife.

And yet there's no body. Only the trace of blood having been cleaned up from his kitchen floor. 

So where is Amy and who is telling the truth? Because there's definitely an unreliable narrator in our midst.

This is a brilliant story. Both as a book and a film. Although I would say that the film has a darker edge than the book . There's something about the narrative in the book which gives a lighter, slightly less dark and sinister feel. And yet it is no less entertaining for it.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Before I Go To Sleep SJ Watson and The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty.

Avoid if you dislike: The word 'amazing', unreliable narrators.

Ideal accompaniments: a bottle of Budweiser, salted peanuts, seafood, crisp white wine (depending on whose narrative you're reading).

Genre: Thriller, mystery.

Available from Amazon

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (translated by Alison Anderson)

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: This 2007 French bestseller delights from the first page. Yes, it’s ponderous and introspective in its philosophical meanderings, but the characterisation and distinguishing nature of the storytellers cannot fail to charm.

Set in a well-to-do Parisian apartment building on the Left Bank, our first narrator is Reneé; the deceptively clichéd middle-aged concierge, who listens to Mahler, reads philosophy and hides any inkling of intellectual curiosity behind her pinny and misshaped slippers.

A second occupant of No. 7 rue de Grenelle is Paloma, twelve years old and determined to get no older. She intends to die by her own hand when she reaches the age of thirteen, because what it the point of life?

Their alternating thoughts on the French class system, snobbery, ascription of value, sense of self and relative complacency in their own intelligence are thrown into disarray on the arrival of Mr Ozu. When this cultured Japanese man moves into the building, their distanced disguises proved not to be as convincing as they thought.

This is a pensive, mannered and well-constructed novel which weaves a gossamer web around the reader, involving you in concepts and characters you couldn’t leave if you wanted to.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, The Joke by Milan Kundera or Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

Avoid if you dislike: thoughtful tangents, precocious narrators and a total lack of car chases.

Ideal accompaniments: Jasmine tea, Brie with truffles and Mahler’s 5th

Genre: Literary fiction, InTranslation

Available from Amazon

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

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

What we thought: One of my favourite authors, Anne Tyler has taken an ordinary couple––Pauline and Michael––and placed them in an ordinary situation. She does this with all her characters, in all her books, and as every other Anne Tyler novel I have read, she managed to keep me riveted right to the end.

Once the story was over, I felt I knew the characters personally, and found it difficult to say goodbye to them.

Deeply empathetic with the characters, I read on, hoping Pauline and Michael could overcome their seemingly impossible differences. And at the heart of the story, there is the ongoing suspense concerning one of the children, the outcome of which surprised me, but shouldn’t have … it was such a likely outcome.

I felt this was one of Anne Tyler’s best. If you're already a fan, you'll love it. If you're only just discovering this author, it’s a great starting point.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: family dramas featuring every-day people.

Avoid if you don’t like: slow-moving, character-driven stories where they don’t live happily ever after.

Ideal accompaniments: Glass of smoky red wine, matured Reblochon cheese and Saltine crackers.

Genre: Mainstream Fiction

Friday, 13 February 2015

Inceptio by Alison Morton

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What We Thought:
A book that doesn’t easily fit a genre, this is a modern action tale set against an alternate history. It’s exciting and pacy and contains lots of unexpected twists, but what attracted me most was the premise. A place where women make the decisions, right in the heart of Europe?

Our modern New Yorker heroine, Karen Brown, upsets the wrong guy and finds her options drastically reduced. Not only that, but she's attracting all the wrong kind of attention. When she learns of a relative in Roma Nova, the female-dominated European country which arose out of the ashes of the Roman Empire, it’s time to pack her bags.

She assumes a new identity, goes undercover, learns to fight and begins to understand how the politics work. All the while keeping two men in her sights: Renschman, who is out to kill her, and Conrad Tellus, who is her mentor, bodyguard and ...?

The tempo is snappy, the key characters believable and appealing, and the setting fascinates. So much so you actually wish it existed. In fact, that would be my only regret – that we didn’t get to see more of this world and how it operates at the ordinary level. Although the Latin references, alternate curses and glimpses of the architecture tantalised, I wanted a guided tour. But there are two more books in the series, following the transformations of our heroine, so there’s a great deal more to explore.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Afrika Reich, Fatherland, Rats

Avoid if you dislike: Latin, geography, history, violence

Ideal accompaniments: Half a bottle of Franciacorta, green olives stuffed with anchovies and Lux Aeterna by Kronos Quartet

Genre: Contemporary, Historical Fiction

Available from Amazon.

Death on the Aegean Queen by Maria Hudgins

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

What we thought: Dotsy Lamb is a lovable crime fighter in the style of Miss Marple or Agatha Raisin – but with a sharp eye and a Tennessee drawl that leaves her compatriots in the shade. This was the first novel I’d read by this author, and have to say I found it a pleasant experience.

There are no high emotions in this genre, but there are a satisfying amount of twists and turns by a bunch of interesting, in-depth characters that kept me gripped until the final chapters. The death of car salesman, George Gaskill, who disappears leaving only a pool of blood and a cryptic note, is the start of Dotsy Lamb's adventures. As a personal bonus for me, the descriptions of the stunning locations added another layer of interest to the writing, and I particularly loved the scenes set on the island of Santorini.

Cruise liner, the Aegean Queen is the setting for a double murder, or so it seems. A cast of slightly dodgy characters with more skeletons in their closets than a medieval churchyard, the story weaves around missing antiquities and revenge for past sins.

I found the ending really worked, and every box was ticked to give a satisfactory conclusion. This book is probably not for you if you like high-action and gore, or dark and complex, and although I shudder at the over-used term of ‘cosy crime’ there is a comfortable feel here that carried me though the novel in the author’s capable hands.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Agatha Christie, MC Beaton and Greek isles.

Avoid if you don’t like: Whodunnit-style mysteries and razor-sharp female amateur detectives.

Ideal accompaniments: Feta cheese salad, with olives and balsamic vinegar, followed by a couple of glasses of ouzo.

Genre: Crime Fiction.

Available from Amazon.

The English Lady Murderers' Society by Jim Williams

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

What We Thought: Janet Bretherton may or may not have murdered her husband. She goes to live in France where she meets several other women who may have done or be considering doing likewise. Even if they haven’t all gone quite as far as murder, though, they do all still harbour secrets.

In the village of Puybrun (a location Williams has used before, in Recherche) the women, all exiles from England, gather regularly to pass on skills and information. In addition to Janet, there is Belle whose husband, Charlie, may be imaginary (or dead); Carol, who may have done away with a previous boyfriend and has slept with a lot of men called Dave; Earthy, an old hippy who has run away from a commune; Joy, who tries to hide how truly awful her husband is; and Veronica and Poppy, who sensibly love each other, keeping men out of the equation altogether.

When a much younger man shows interest in 60 year old Janet, she wonders what he is after. It seems, though, that all he wants is to dance. Throw in a British detective investigating a fraud involving Janet’s husband’s business, a case of mistaken identity exploited for gain and a lot of local colour, and you have the delightful mélange that is The English Lady Murderers' Society.

This novel is witty, elegantly written and cleverly plotted. The characters all come alive on the page and draw us into their stories. Williams claims an in-depth knowledge of, and delight in, older women and this shines through in every word. A true piece of reading pleasure.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Unusual crime novels, clever writing, Williams’ other books.

Avoid if you dislike: Books about older women.

Ideal accompaniments: A glass of chilled white wine and some dance music.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Mystery & Suspense.

Available from Amazon.

Friday, 6 February 2015

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: When Nella comes to Amsterdam in the autumn of 1686 to join the husband she wed a few weeks earlier, married life is nothing like she anticipated. She is confronted with an absent husband, a hostile sister-in-law who has no intention of relinquishing her role in the household, a cheeky and cocksure maid, and a manservant from Surinam whose dark skin draws stares wherever he goes.

Her husband’s wedding present to her is a cabinet house – a miniature version of her new home, the sort given to young daughters of the wealthy so they may play at keeping house. At first Nella is affronted – she is not a child, but a new wife! But then she spots a strange advertisement for ‘A Miniaturist, residing at the sign of the sun.’ And the motto, ‘Everything man sees, he takes for a toy.’

Intrigued, Nella places an order for a miniature lute and betrothal cup for the cabinet house. What she receives is far more than she has ordered. It includes furniture that is eerily similar to the furniture in her new home. A cradle that seems to mock her with her husband’s absence from her bed. And two tiny dogs that are perfect replicas of his greyhounds.

The packages keep coming – each one betraying an ever-more uncanny knowledge of their household. Is this miniaturist a spy, a sorcerer ... or a prophet?

The story is enmeshed in secrets and surprises. But if it skirts the edges of magic realism, then the reality is a dark and brutal one indeed. Jessie Burton immerses the reader in the rigid Calvinist society of 17th Century Amsterdam – caught between the twin pillars of guilder and God. A society growing rich on the luxuries their ships bring back from the far reaches of the known world – but appalled by the temptations those luxuries represent.

It is more than a period piece, though. It’s impossible not to catch parallels with the modern world. In Burton’s end notes, she records that, in this period, 0.1% of Amsterdam society owned 42% of all the wealth – a figure not so different to that recently published in Oxfam’s latest report on the distribution of global wealth today. As for the endless edicts from the burgomeisters, the intolerance of difference, the brutality of punishments meted out: it seems that 17th C Calvinism had more in common with modern forms of extremism we might care to admit.

This is not a book that ends as you might expect from where it began. It takes you by the hand and leads you slowly from the light into the dark. And then perhaps shows you a glimmer of light again at the end. Something that rewards careful reading and – I suspect – rereading.

You will enjoy this if you liked: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini; The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

Avoid if you dislike: Dark historical fiction, stories of women battling a male dominated society

Perfect accompaniment: Olie-koecken (spiced doughnuts), puffert pancakes and spiced wine.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available from Amazon

Acts of Violence by Ross Harrison

Reviewer: JW Hicks author of Rats

What we thought: This dark, noir-type thriller shot through with a scintillating vein of science fiction, is a plot-driven adventure speed-way which drives the reader towards a totally unexpected, yet thoroughly satisfying conclusion.

Jack Mason is a failed cop living on a poverty-stricken colony planet way off the beaten track, where he earns a meagre living as an unlicenced PI complete with counterfeit badge.

Framed for murdering a bargirl working for criminal boss Cole Webster, Mason’s on the run from not only Harem PD, the United Planets Security Force, but also the masked gunmen who ‘rescued’ him from interrogation to force information from him – information he doesn’t possess.

Mason, needing to clear his name before the UPSF track him down, must solve the mystery of the bargirl’s murder and in doing so becomes mired in corruption, double dealing and the extreme violence of a mob against mob takeover bid.

His investigations expose layer upon layer of secrets, and as he peels back each disturbing layer he is forced to confront not only the unpalatable truths of how his planet is run, but has to learn to face the equally unpalatable truth of his troubled past.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The books of Lee Child and David Baldacci

Avoid if you don’t like: Violet confrontations, murder and mayhem.

Ideal accompaniments: A stiff whisky or a box of expensive chocolate liqueurs.

Genre: Hardboiled noir fiction

Available from Amazon

Writing the Town Read by Katharine E. Smith

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

What We Thought: Jamie lives in Cornwall and is a reporter for a local newspaper. She has a sexist boss, a boyfriend, Dave, who may not be as faithful as he could be, and a selection of friends and colleagues all of whom are pretty well-drawn characters. On 7th July 2005 she waves Dave off as he heads up to London for employment reasons. The 7th July 2005 was, of course, the day of the London tube bombings.

When she can’t get in touch with Dave, Jamie starts to worry. He would have been travelling to his meetings by tube at around the time of the bombings. Eventually the police call to say there is a man in hospital, badly injured, who was carrying Dave’s wallet. This turns out to be a false lead, however, and Jamie struggles to cope as the months go by and Dave is still missing.

Alongside the main mystery of what has happened to Dave, there run other strands dealing with sexism, newspaper closures, animal rights and the tensions of friendship. All these aspects are well handled, competently written and make for an interesting read.

Though I ultimately enjoyed this novel and would certainly recommend it as an intriguing read, I was almost put off at the beginning by what seemed to me to be too much personal detail before the story got started. I began to think it was an autobiography as it has a very chatty style and not much appeared to be happening other than the thoughts and opinions of the narrator. I felt that most of the first chapter and a lot of the second could have been omitted. I’m glad I stuck with it though, as it was worthwhile in the end.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Character driven novels, mysteries that may not be satisfactorily solved.

Avoid if you dislike: A chatty, familiar writing style.

Ideal accompaniments: A cup of tea and a cat.

Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Mystery.

Available from Amazon