Friday, 27 March 2015

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

 Reviewer: JW Hicks author of Rats.

What we thought: This YA novel, written by Welsh author Catherine Fisher, is totally gripping from the get-go. It’s Gothic Fantasy, what’s not to like?

Incarceron: an unimaginably massive prison; a world-scape filled with mountains, rivers, cities and labyrinthine dungeons. Sealed for centuries, it is a storehouse for malcontents, criminals and the indigent, created as a computer-run safe haven. But Incarceron becomes sentient and turns the safe haven into a living hell. Generations live and die unaware that they are captives forever barred from reaching the freedom of Outside. What they don’t know is that the ‘free’ world of Outside is as much a prison as Incarceron.

Outsiders are forced to live in a manufactured, medieval world, where progress is prohibited. Most live a life of serfdom. In this fiercely feudal society, they must toil with basic hand tools, barely subsisting, while their ‘betters’ live the faux life of lordlings – lordlings with access to futuristic technology.

Finn, cell-born deep within the dungeons of Incarceron, is haunted by visions of an earlier life. He refuses to believe he was born in the prison and has always lived there. Convinced he was born Outside, he makes plans to escape with his oath-brother Keiro.

Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, lives Outside, trapped in the artificial world of the past, in dread of a forced marriage to a man she despises. She, too, seeks to escape a life of lies, and is helped by her tutor, Jared.

When Finn and Claudia find identical crystal keys, through which they can communicate, their plans look set to be realised. But plans do not always work smoothly. Plans so often go awry, especially under the all-seeing Eyes of Incarceron.

The novel comes complete with a remarkable set of characters, not least the ruthlessly cruel gaoler, Incarceron itself – the AI prison-mind that seeks to see the stars. All of the characters, both evil and good, are many faceted and make compelling reading.

Incarceron is guaranteed to pique, then to sustain your interest until the last page is turned. Once that last page is read, you will feel a sense of loss, a loss eased by the knowledge that there is a sequel. The sequel is Sapphique.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Titus Groan, Mythago Wood, The Obsidian Mirror

Avoid if you don’t like: Time portals, black-hearted villains and hidden love.

Genre: YA, Gothic Fantasy

Available from Amazon

A Line of Blood by Ben McPherson

Reviewer: Rebecca Johnson

What we thought: A gripping psychological thriller set in Finsbury Park, London. The plot is centred around the impact of a neighbour’s death and the fallout from an affair. The lies and secrets that are uncovered in the investigation tear Alex Mercer’s family apart. This compelling, spare, and ultimately devastating tale kept me hooked right up until the final reveal.

Alex, his wife Millicent and their 11-year old son Max are a normal London family. Normal that is until Alex and his son find their neighbour electrocuted in his bath. From then on, Alex, obsessed with protecting his child from the psychological impact of what he has seen, and discovering his wife knew the neighbour a little too well, enters a nightmarish world of accusations, lies, guilt and betrayal as the past is re-examined, secrets are exposed and the layers of certainty peel away one by one.

Told entirely from Alex’s point of view, this novel is as compulsive as they come. It’s a long time since I wanted to read a book in a single sitting yet I found I could not lift my eyes from the page. Revelation by revelation, Alex’s world - his tribe, as he thinks of his family - his marriage and almost his sanity are ripped to pieces by the unfolding murder investigation. The way in which all the things which Alex believes about himself and the people he loves are dismantled is subtle and sensitively written. The focus here is on family and love, from a man’s point of view, and McPherson compellingly explores father-son relationships, and exposes the ultimate unknowable mystery of another person and their secrets, even if you are married to them, or are their parent or their child. It is also about the fragility of everything that matters: relationships, stability, love, emotional endurance, community, innocence. All are threatened here. No one is spared.

The blurb calls this novel from first-time author Ben McPherson a ‘psychological thriller about family’, yet this seems to underplay many of the undercurrents of A Line of Blood. McPherson is acutely observant and often wry about London life, about childhood, even about cats (the family cat plays an important role). The novel deals compellingly with trauma and its effects not only throughout the lives of individuals but in the way it can be passed on from parent to child and the repercussions for the entire family. One aspect of the story explores the impact of a miscarriage or still-birth on both parents (and the earlier child), which I found tremendously moving and is a rare subject to find in any novel, let alone one written by and narrated by a man. There were also insights about emotional fragility and recovery, the way we grow through previous relationships to understand what love means, and about the impact of war on families. The characters are strong and the elements of the novel are complex and finely and intelligently woven together to draw the plot to its shocking and resonant conclusion.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Gone Girl, Before I Go To Sleep, inner London, Norway, cats, domestic dramas told from a man’s perspective.

Avoid if you don’t like: staying up all night reading, strong language.

Ideal accompaniments: coffee, cigarettes, Ribena and crisps (and don’t forget to feed the cat.)

Genre: crime, psychological thriller

Available from Amazon

The Incarnations by Susan Barker

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought: This book is quite extraordinary. Wang is a Beijing taxi-driver who finds a letter tucked into the sun visor of his cab. The writer claims to have known him for over a thousand years, through various incarnations, and is watching him now. Unsettled, Wang continues with his daily grind, taking his daughter Echo to school, driving fares across the city, watching the preparations for the 2008 Olympics, but the letters keep coming. They tell of a father and daughter in the Tang Dynasty; slave boys driven across the desert by Mongols; concubines to a sadistic emperor; a fisherboy and British sailor captured by brutal sea bandits; two schoolgirls turned Red Guards in the 1960s; and a bond between two souls.

In parallel with the stories of previous lives, Wang is still struggling with this one. His wife’s job as a masseuse causes a constant low-level of jealousy. His helpless father – a thoughtless womaniser until his stroke – is now under the care of Li Hong, Wang’s stepmother, with her sharp eyes and vicious tongue. He runs into Zeng, whom he hasn’t seen since they became lovers at the clinic. But apparently Zeng’s watching him.

As the stories of the past grow closer to the present, the tension increases and Wang’s life feels out of his control. Will he break the cycle this time around or is he condemned to repeat the same mistakes again?

The combination of an absorbing modern-day story and the tales of dramatic periods in China’s past make for a fascinating if sometimes disturbing read. There is violence, betrayal, cruelty and sex; history at the human level. At almost 400 pages, this is dense, complex and completely absorbing, like being lost in a beautiful oriental maze.
This is not a book you will easily forget.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden or Wild Swans by Jung Chang.

Avoid if you dislike: brutal realities of life in China, historical fiction.

Ideal accompaniments: Hot and sour prawns, a cold bottle of Tsingtao and Sao Tau Hay.

Genre: Literary fiction, historical fiction

Available from Amazon

Friday, 13 March 2015

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: Maud may have forgotten what you said to her five minutes ago, but she is sure of one thing. Her friend Elizabeth is missing, and she needs to do something about it before it is too late.

The loss of her friend is becoming tangled in Maud’s mind with the tragic disappearance of her sister, almost seventy years ago. Her pockets are full of notes she can’t make sense of, and nobody seems willing to listen. But Maud’s sheer persistence may yet unravel both mysteries and give her, finally, a little peace.

Through Maud's memories of her youth, Healey captures the drab post-war world, when bombed-out houses are slowly being rebuilt, and queuing for a banana is a great event. Men and women are going missing every day, it seems, as hasty wartime marriages are repented at leisure. But young Maud is sure that the truth of her sister’s disappearance is something more terrible. And that thought has remained lodged in her mind, still crystal clear, seventy years on.

There have been several psychological thrillers recently based around narrators with unreliable memories – SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep and Peter May’s Lewis Man come to mind. And many people have written about the experience of living with someone with Alzheimer’s. But I am not sure that anyone has so successfully got inside the head of an Alzheimer’s patient and mapped the terrible disintegration caused by the disease – from vague absent mindedness, through intermittant failure to recognise family members, to an almost total loss of self.

Of course, we can’t really know if this is what it is like for the sufferer. But Healey, inspired apparently by a stray remark by her own grandmother, takes us so deep within Maud’s point of view that her responses seem entirely logical, even while we know she is driving everyone around her mad. The effect is heart-breaking and sobering, whether we put ourselves in Maud’s shoes, or those of her daughter, Helen. It could be a tough book to read if you are close to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s – but an enlightening, compassionate one too.

A book that is at the same time a page-turner and an eye opener. A deserved winner of the Costa First Novel Award 2014.

You’ll enjoy this if you loved: S.J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, Peter May’s Lewis Man, Al Brookes' The Gift of Looking Closely

Avoid if you dislike: taking an intimate look at the progress of Alzheimer’s

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of tea and scones with home-made blackberry jam (and a tin of peaches)

Genre: Crime Fiction; Psychological Thriller.

Available from Amazon

An Unknown Woman by Jane Davis

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

What we thought: Another brilliant novel by Jane Davis, winner of the Daily Mail First Novel Award with Half Truths and White Lies.

In her mid-forties, Anita Hall has a nice job. She lives in a lovely old house with her partner in a stable, loving, long-term relationship. Anita seems to have it all, her life mapped out to the last dot. That is until, one night, her house burns to the ground.

Left with absolutely nothing, Anita finds herself a changed person. And, as she stumbles through her grief, sadness and anxiety, every aspect and relationship of her seemingly faultless life begin to go awry.

As in all her books, the author has woven a captivating tale peopled with characters who jump off the page and into your heart.

A thought-provoking story that examines loss, identity and secrets, An Unknown Woman will have you turning the pages right to the end.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Literary tales that you can’t stop thinking about long after The End.

Avoid if you don’t like: Character-driven, casual-paced novels.

Ideal accompaniments: a rainy day, a cuddly cat and a nice sofa.

Genre: literary fiction

Available from Amazon

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Ground Will Catch You by David Powning

Reviewer: Ruby Barnes, author of Peril, Dodge, The Baptist and other novels.

What we thought: A thought-provoking, character-driven novel. The main character and narrator, Steve Hollis, is an anti-hero who has difficulty fitting into the world around him. He’s successful at his advertising sales job but feels no pride from it and dislikes his work colleagues. His former interest in Judo was put aside when he abused the martial art for purposes of revenge, and guilt denies him a return to the sport. A passion for life is something that he keeps locked away, like a miser saving up money with no foreseeable hope of ever spending it. Life picks Steve up and slams him down on the mat. He lets the ground catch him and bounces back for more punishment. Rinse and repeat. Steve haphazardly wanders through existence without making any real life-choice decisions. Until he meets two new, very different people: Jack and Emily.

Steve discovers life. He regains his dojo mojo, getting involved with Jack’s judo club and feeling the lure of the Orient. Irresistible Emily brings a missing, different spice to Steve’s existence with the promise of a privileged Occidental life, mixing in cultural circles, and escaping to pastoral marital bliss. The perfect private life balance, a confluence of relationship and sport, providing an ideal environment for work and family. Is life going to give Steve a break? Does an anti-hero deserve a break?

Steve, Jack and Emily are real people with typical human failings. Anyone who has ever dedicated themselves to sport will know the challenges of maintaining an equilibrium across the demands of modern life. But more sinister forces are at play here. The threat of a disastrous outcome for Steve hovers above the pages of this book from the start. The surprise is the direction it comes from and the motivation of the protagonists. The Ground Will Catch You is not all happiness and light, but then neither is life. Strangely gripping, at times frustrating when the characters exhibited their all too realistic flaws, I was left thinking yes, Steve Hollis has benefited from this tough experience. He has grown stronger and his life will be long and full.

Avoid this if you dislike: first person narration (by the way, get over that – one lives life in the first person, doesn’t one?) or if foreshadowing irritates you. Don’t read this if you want an action-packed, plot-driven novel. The characters make this story.

You’ll enjoy this if you: like and appreciate metaphor, if you can sympathise with the underdog and if you want some quiet reassurance that the lives of others can be so much worse than yours. There’s a strong message in The Ground Will Catch You and, if you’re the right type of reader for this book, that message will stay with you for a long time.

Ideal accompaniments: a warm mat, a challenging partner, a good wrestle and some cold beer.

Genre: Contemporary Fiction.

Mindsight by Chris Curran

ReviewersLiza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels and Wolfsangel and JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

What we thought:

Liza Perrat - The dark, compelling and intriguing story of Claire, who has no memory of the car accident of five years beforehand, in which she killed her husband, father and one of her twins.

Now released from prison, Claire wants to reconnect with her surviving son and try and find a clear pathway through the muck of misery and remorse that plagues her. However, Claire soon discovers that delving into her past might not be such a good idea.

In heart-rending scenes the author has excellently drawn the characters of Claire and her son, Tom, throughout this moving story, which builds up to a surprising ending. I would highly recommend this novel for readers who enjoy excellently-narrated, dark and thrilling crime mysteries.

JJ Marsh - This is a cut above the average crime novel. Yes, there’s a completely gripping plot which takes switchback turns until it reaches a thrilling peak. Yet it has a literary feel with psychological insights, complex relationships and a wonderful rootedness in the setting. Hastings and its beaches play a full role alongside the characters.

I loved everything about this book, but have to single out the author’s incredible knack for observing detail.
Clare, our central protagonist, has just been released from prison and her observations of daily life as an ‘alien’ are remarkably well-drawn, causing the reader to stop and think ‘How would I feel?’

Contrast this thoughtful and hypnotic start to the incredibly tense ending which leaves an echo reverberating like a cannon shot. I’m still thinking about it now. Rich cast, believable characters, powerful premise, lovely prose and proof that crime fiction can be intelligent and pulse-racing.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Books by Nicci French or Gillian Flynn

Avoid if you don’t like: dark psychological thrillers

Ideal accompaniments: several glasses of robust red wine, big bag of cheese-flavoured Doritos

Genre: Crime, Mystery

Available from Amazon

The Magpies by Mark Edwards

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

What we thought: This is a spooky house novel with a sinister theme. When young couple, Jamie and Kirsty, move into the flat of their dreams, it’s a perfect start to their life together. Even the neighbours seem nice and welcoming. But then there’s a gradual change in atmosphere. Dead rats on the doormat. Downstairs neighbours who dislike noise. And within months things take a sinister twist, and Jamie and Kirsty find themselves in real danger.

This is the first book I’ve read by Mark Edwards and I was impressed on many levels. He has a talent of twisting the dial, so that tension and fear levels are ratcheted up just a little at a time without you even noticing. As the drama increased, Edwards handled the breakdown of the main characters very well. It was almost painful to see the destruction of their relationship, and you read every page with mounting dread, almost unwilling to find out what happened next ... but unable to stop reading.

I also thought the characters worked really well. Jamie and Kirsty were solid, real, if a little unremarkable, as lead roles. And I liked how the supporting cast were given just enough peculiarities to always stay in the reader’s mind as potential suspects.

Often in psychological dramas, I find the ending something of a disappointment, almost as if the author has run out of ideas and steam once the climax is over. Here, all the loose ends and potential questions were answered, and I ended the book satisfied with the conclusion.

I really enjoyed this book. An interesting twist on a well documented storyline. Definitely one I’d recommend if you like tense thrillers.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Mark Billingham, Ian McEwan, Stephen King.

Avoid if you don’t like: Creepy neighbours, night time scares, intense drama.

Ideal accompaniments: Comfort food (chips or chocolate) and lots of vodka to settle your nerves

Genre: Thriller.

How to be both by Ali Smith

Reviewer: by Catriona Troth

What we thought: Like Carol Shield’s Happenstance, How to Be Both is a book in two halves, and depending which version one has, the two halves are presented to be read in a different order.

One half is narrated by the real-life painter, Francesco (or is it Francesca?) del Cossa, painter of some remarkable 15thC frescos in the Schifanoia Palace (‘the palace of not being bored’) in Ferrara. The only reason we know about this painter is because of a letter he wrote asking to be paid more than other painters for his work on those frescos, because of his superior skill.

“Begging to recall to your highness, that I am Francesco del Cossa, who made those three fields towards the antechamber entirely by myself: so if you, your Highness really don't want to give me more than 10 bolognini per square foot, I'd be losing 40 or 50 ducats…”

The other half is narrated by George, ‘a child of the child of the sixties,’ a teenager struggling to cope after the sudden death of her mother who, the previous summer, had stumbled on the existence of Francesco and whisked George and her brother off to Ferrara to see the frescos.

In the version of the book I read, it opens with a visual stream of consciousness – words weaving back and forth across the page like The Mouse’s Tail in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. Francesco’s consciousness protrudes into our world, as he watches George sitting in the National Gallery, in front of the only one of his paintings on display in Britain. Thereafter we follow, and try and interpret, George’s behaviour, while at the same time experiencing memories of Francesco’s own life.

The other half is a more straightforward narrative. It begins at an earlier point in George’s life - midnight on the New Year’s Eve following her mother’s death. She is alone in the house with her little brother, in a bedroom with a leaking ceiling, listening to the fireworks going off. Gradually we learn enough about her life to make sense of what Francesco observed, as she creates rituals to help deal with the loss of her mother and relives that last trip to Ferrara.

This book explores grief and loss and the process of mourning. Both George and Francesco lose their mothers as young adolescents and end up reinventing themselves through the process of recovery.

But more than that, the novel plays with the idea of art, and our perceptions of art, and the act of seeing itself. What happens, for example, when you look at one thing really closely, be it a work of art or a subject under surveillance? And what power is there in subverting conventional ideas of art? 

Both Francesco and George’s mother are engaged in subtle acts of subversion. Francesco models his Graces on prostitutes, and includes, in his ‘The Triumph of Minerva’, a dark-skinned infidel dressed in rags. George’s mother is a founder member of the Subverts, a group using pop-up technology to subvert political things with art, and art with politics. Smith, meanwhile, subverts language, playing puns with minotaur and monitor, and riffing on the several meanings of plot.

Impossible not to wonder what it would have been like to read the book in the other order. To read George’s story first would arguably be more logical. More of what Francesco sees would make sense, if we already know George’s story. But would that rob the reader of a sense of mystery, of the urgency of wanting to know more?

As George’s mother says, in the context of the artists’ cartoons revealed beneath frescos damaged in a flood:

“But which came first ... the chicken or the egg. The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

“The picture below came first, says George. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the picture on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all?”

Playful, beguiling, with layers of meaning that reveal themselves the more you think about what you’ve read, this is a book to be read and re-read.

You can read Ali Smith’s article in the Guardian, about how she was inspired to write How to be Both, here:

And you can explore the work of Francesco del Cossa in the Palace of Schifanoia here:

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition, Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn

Avoid if you dislike: non-linear narratives, the playful mixing of the historical and the present day

Perfect Accompaniment: antipasto of asparagus and salami, coppiette rolls and a bottle of Barolo

Genre: Literary Fiction