Friday, 25 September 2015

Stolen by Lisa C Hinsley

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought
: Want something shockingly original, with thrills and frights in abundance, something you can’t stop reading, something that you must keep reading until you reach that very last word? Read Lisa Hinsley’s novel, Stolen.

One of the great reads, this book. Cleverly written to sound so everyday, so natural that when the shocks happen, they freeze and frighten. The slow build up that leads to skin-creeping fear is masterly.

Thirty year old Emily travels to Scotland after a year of mourning, wanting to escape her mother’s cloying sympathy and her father’s relieved ‘perhaps it was for the best.’ Emotionally battered, she encounters an older, dependable, good looking man that she instinctively trusts. Accepting his offer to chill out, relax and heal her aching heart by spending time on his Shetland island, she does in fact find peace. All too soon that peace is shattered by the discovery that she’s been lied to and manipulated. By the time she realises how foolish she’d been, it’s way too late.

It’s the authentic details, the powerful writing that make the story so readable and so very believable. It makes you feel that it really could happen to you.

Hinsley, the author of the enthralling bestseller Plague, certainly does not disappoint with this new offering.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The books of James Herbert

Avoid if you don’t like: Horror stories that could so easily happen... to you.

Ideal accompaniments: A roaring fire, a bottle of brandy, Stilton and crackers.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Thriller.

Available from Amazon

All Involved by Ryan Gattis

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Eleven years after the Brixton riots, nineteen years before the London riots, Los Angeles exploded. Following the following the acquittal of police officers who had been videoed beating a young black man, Rodney King, the city erupted in riots that lasted for six days. In a city with just 7,900 police to over 100,000 gang members, and where guns – including automatic weapons – were available with chilling ease, those riots resulted in 53 deaths, over 2,000 injuries and $1B worth of damage to property.

Ryan Gattis’s novel, All Involved, begins on the evening of the first day and the story passes from one narrator to the next. Victims of violence, perpetrators, onlookers, a nurse, a fireman, a homeless man, a member of the military squads that were brought in to quell the violence – seventeen in all are given voice.

This is not the place to come to try and understand the causes of the riots, or to see the bigger picture. Rather, the novel focuses on one neighbourhood - the Chicano (Mexican American) district of Lynwood in South Central LA – and on one particular chain of events, starting with the brutal murder of a taco salesman who just happens to be brother to two gang members.

What happens next has almost nothing to do with Rodney King and everything to do with “a sweaty, hot feeling of we-can-do-whatever... [that] feels like way too much coffee.”

Gattis is not a Latino ex-gang member, but a white boy from Colorado. Inspiration came when he spent time as part of a street-art gang in LA. As he said in an interview in the Guardian:

“The most fascinating people want to talk to you when you’re working on a wall in a neighbourhood… Over time, the riots came up, and they always reacted as if it were an unhealed wound… as if they were still processing 20 years later.”

Gattis challenges the reader to think about myriad pressures that could make one twelve year old child desperate to be part of a violent gang while another just wants to get as far away as possible; or that make it imperative for one violent act to be met with another, yet more brutal, in a cycle of violence that feels unstoppable.

There is a huge sense of wasted talent here. Of intelligent, passionate young people who, in another environment would be writers, artists, musicians, scientists, engineers, but whose lives here have been circumscribed by poverty, lack of opportunity, and a desperate scrabble for the crumbs from the table of a very different America.

As Gattis said in an interview for Esquire:

“Violence, crime, riots, chaos—that does not negate family and love and loyalty and hope ... If anything, the darkness makes those things more incandescent.

The hardest part about reading this book is the knowledge that – with the grim events of 2015 – so little has changed in twenty years. Sadly, I suspect few in the LA’s Black and Latino populations would be surprised by that.

As gang leader Big Fate says, "Welcome to my America, chabron."

I am in no position to judge how accurate this portrait of Chicano gang culture is. If you want to read something in the authentic voice of LA, try Always Running by Luis J. Rodriguez, (an ex-gang member and Poet Laureate of Los Angeles) or Monster: the autobiography of an LA gang member, by Sanyika Shakur.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle; Feral Youth by Polly Courtney; Trainspotting by Irving Welsh

Avoid If You Dislike: Graphic violence, drug use and extreme bad language. Books written in street slang.

Perfect accompaniment: Enchiladas with cold beer

Genre: Literary Fiction, Modern Historical Fiction, Urban Realism

Stalin's Englishman, by Andrew Lownie

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought:

On one hand, anyone with an interest in the 1930 to 1950s Cambridge/Moscow spy ring of Philby, Blunt, Maclean, Caincross and Burgess must wonder if there is anything left to say. On the other, there is such an evergreen fascination with the spies, the politics, the morality and the culture which fostered such a scandal, readers still wonder how it happened. 
And after reading this book, I wonder how much has changed in the last 100 years.

Andrew Lownie is an expert biographer and tells his version from the centre – Guy Burgess. Drunk, gay, promiscuous, indiscreet, unkempt and ‘a natural liar’, Burgess is an extraordinary character, both outside and inside the establishment, equally charming and repulsive. In addition, the depiction of the social structure and strata of the times illuminates an intriguing (in every sense) set of circumstances which propelled such an individual into a position of alarming power. A portrait of a man, his time and social class.

What is added to a life already picked over and exposed is the hall of mirrors Burgess himself created. He batted for both sides, but neither trusted him. His background and education shaped a personality with an ego all his own. Duplicitous and charming, this man was a player, and one far more significant, according to Lownie, than previously assumed.

An absorbing read, strong on research and new perspectives, peppered with wit and humour, you emerge from this book enlightened and entertained by one man’s exceptional lives.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked:
Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges, The Mitford Girls, by Mary S. Lovell, Present Indicative by Sheridan Morley

Avoid if you don’t like: British history, real characters, the realities of spying

Ideal accompaniments: Pimms, kedgeree and Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice

Genre: Biography, non-fiction

Available on Amazon

Friday, 18 September 2015

The Chessmen by Peter May

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

What we thought: Another wonderful novel from Peter May, and although it took me a while to get around to reading this, the third and final book in The Lewis Trilogy, I’m sad to say goodbye to Fin McLeod.

In The Chessmen, Fin has settled permanently on his Hebridean childhood home of Lewis, and has been employed by a local landowner to oversee security on the estate and tackle the problem they have with poachers. Before long, Fin finds himself caught up in another crime where the legacy of the past comes back to chase down a killer. A bog burst reveals the remains of a light aircraft and the body of a victim that has lain submerged for decades.

A superbly crafted tale of revenge, that again makes perfect use of location to bring the story alive. Again, the characters jump off the page and it’s interesting to see how Fin’s idea of an idyllic new start begins to unwind around him. 

I listened to the audiobook version and the talents of Peter Forbes really brought the novel to life. Peter May is fast becoming one of my favourite popular crime writers, with his blend of originality, smooth prose and likeable characters.

It’s a real shame this is the final book featuring this detective, and I hope Peter May decides to bring him back to life at some point.

Anyone who loves a gripping, and excellently written, crime thriller will enjoy this novel.

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

Avoid if you don’t like: Scottish locations and twists and turns!

Ideal accompaniments: Smoked Scottish salmon and a single malt.

Genre: Crime Fiction.

Available from Amazon

Crossing the Whitewash by Nick Rippington

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought: An ambitious debut, this sprawling thriller boasts a large cast of characters, a complex plot and an intense sense of place. The novel begins on an East London estate where Gary Marshall, promising young footballer, is ‘rescued’ from a gang of muggers by Arnold Dolan. It’s the beginning of a long association Gary will live to regret.

The story follows the boys’ growth and development as the Boxer Boys, a gang with a reputation. Then two shocking incidents change the paths of both lives, with a permanent effect on their personalities.

The tough world of a council estate is vividly evoked, where violence is as natural as breathing. Once Gary gets a journalist position on a Cardiff paper, the author’s sports journalism background adds colour and expertise in the character’s adjustment to the regional newspaper life, rugby and Wales.

The plot is cleverly constructed with twists and tension throughout, the characters are believable and elicit extreme emotions in the reader, the locations are rich and detailed, and although a good editor could have taken this to another level, it’s clear this is a writer to watch.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Feral Youth by Polly Courtney, Stag Hunt by Anthony McGowan, This is England by Shane Meadows.

Avoid if you don’t like: Violence, sport, newspapers, Wales

Ideal accompaniments: A pint of Brains SA, chips with curry sauce and Blondie’s One Way or Another.

Genre: Thriller

Available from Amazon

Finding Takri by Palo Stickland

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Rupa was born in India but came to Glasgow as a tiny child. She has faint memories of her grandmother, Takri, ‘the only person who remembered the date I was born,’ but she grew up closer to Baba Kam – otherwise knows as Karam Singh – her mother’s childhood friend who fled India after the Amritsar Massacre in 1919.

Now, as a middle-aged woman she begins a search for the real story of Karam Singh, Basant Singh, her grandfather, and Takri, 'the woman who loved them both.'

The story shifts back and forth through the history of India – and the Punjab in particular – in the first half of the Twentieth Century, from the traditions and restrictions of life at the turn of the century, through the struggles for independence, to the beginnings of an independent nation. On the way, we spend time in the villages of rural Punjab, at the Golden Temple at Amritsar, among the dancers and prostitutes behind the Friday Mosque in Delhi, and in the Glasgow tenements where the first south Asian immigrants crowded together.

Karam and Takri are both in their way fighters. Karam goes to prison for his actions against the British colonial government. Takri is one of the first to take up the Ghandi's challenge to reject imported cloth and to start making her own 'homespun'. Basant is a gentler character, wanting only to care from his own family. But links between the three of them prove stronger than either tragedy or betrayal.

Finding Takri has at its heart a complex and tender love triangle, one that mixes friendship, loyalty, duty and the desire for independence. A revealing glimpse of a slice of Indian history, based loosely on the author's family's own journey from Punjab to Glasgow.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Liked: The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri; The Death of Shiva by Manil Suri. Until Our Blood Is Dry by Kit Habianic.

Avoid If You Dislike: 20th C Historical Fiction, stories based on family history

Perfect Accompaniment: Rice and lentil soup; tea with cardamom and cloves

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Available from Amazon

Friday, 11 September 2015

Starborn by Lucy Hounsom

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought: This YA fantasy adventure will satisfy and excite in equal measure. It crackles tension from the very first page, and once started it is impossible to put down.

Starborn is, in the true sense, a journey. The storyline forces the heroine, Kyndra, away from a normal humdrum life that will trundle on in the age old way, and leads her to the astonishing realisation of who she really is and where her destiny lies.

Her story begins on Inheritance Day: the coming of age day when the young people of Brenwym must look into the Relic to learn their true name and see their future in its depths. Once seen that future can never be altered.

When Kyndra’s turn comes, something happens that not only stops the ceremony but destroys all hope of future ones. Kyndra is named as culprit and also blamed for the horrific storm that occurs immediately after the disrupted ceremony. Accused of witchcraft and threatened with immolation, she is rescued by magic-wielding strangers, and spirited away from harm.

She and her saviours travel to the hidden citadel of Naris where the magic-workers live. Once there she experiences waking dreams, haunting visions of the past. Believed to have hidden powers, she is subjected to callous and agonising testing. Enduring the testing she discovers things about herself that terrify and confuse: things that rouse the magic she holds within herself, a force so strong that it could alter her and her world forever.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Game of Thrones, and the works of Trudi Canavan

Avoid if you don’t like: Vivid descriptions of horrors beyond imagining, and the decisions that have to be made by persons possessing tremendous power.

Ideal accompaniments: Calming possets and warm, gooey brownies.

Genre: YA Fantasy Fiction

Available on Amazon

Finding Arun by Marisha Pink

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: Aaron has grown up in Britain, the adopted child of two white parents. He has always known that his biological mother was an Indian woman from the clinic where his adoptive mother was working as a doctor. But it is only when his adoptive mother dies, and he finds evidence in her papers that his biological mother might still be alive, that he decides to travel to India to explore his unknown roots.

The clues he finds lead him to Puri, a coastal city in Eastern India, home of Ratha Yatra, or the Festival of Chariots, when statues of the gods Jagannath, Balabhadra, and Subhadra are paraded annually on vast chariots (which, incidentally, is where we derive the word ‘juggernaut’).

What Aaron uncovers there is both wonderful and disturbing and will change his life forever, enabling his to reclaim his birth name: Arun.

The story of Finding Arun began, for author Marisha Pink, when she gave up corporate life in London to backpack to southeast Asia. Two years later, she raised the money to self-publish her book on Kickstarter, making her a true indie pioneer.

The novel blends a sweet tale of self-discovery and sibling love with the unfolding of a dark family secret, all set against the background of one of India’s most holy cities.

It is a pleasure, too, to be taken inside ordinary village life – one that is neither of extreme poverty nor extreme wealth, but which is nevertheless precarious.

The story is gently paced and the conflicts more like ocean swells than tsunamis. But if you like a family story in a setting that is more than just a casual backdrop, then this could be one for you.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Liked: The Death of Shiva by Manil Suri, Finding Takri by Palo Stickland, No More Mulberries by Mary Smith

Avoid If You Dislike: Gentle family dramas, exploring new countries/cultures

Perfect Accompaniment: Mixed vegetable curry with dahl, roti and chutney

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

One Night at the Jacaranda by Carol Cooper

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

What we thought: Not my usual choice of reading matter, I began One Night at the Jacaranda with trepidation, but after only a few pages, I was well and truly hooked.

Amongst a group of adults who meet at a London speed-dating bar––the Jacaranda––we are introduced to the six main characters: Laure the lawyer, terminally-ill Sanjay, divorced doctor, Geoff, newly-single mother-of-four, Karen, and ex-prisoner, Dan. Journalist Harriet also attends, but in search of a byline, rather than a boyfriend.

Through a whole plethora of emotions––sadness, happiness, desperation and frustration, to name a few––we join these people along their bumpy, intertwined journeys in their search for love, companionship and/or sex. With great skill, the author uncovers the present and past lives of this vast cast of characters, the satisfying ending leaving hope for the future … and me hoping for a sequel!

The characters are flawed, lovable and easy to empathise with. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, the sex scenes amongst the best I’ve ever read. The author is a doctor, so the medical details are spot on, as well as interesting.

Alternately entertaining, witty, outrageously funny, poignant and dark, I would highly recommend One Night at the Jacaranda to lovers of intelligent women’s fiction.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: character-driven women’s literary fiction.

Avoid if you don’t like: multiple-point-of-view stories.

Ideal accompaniments: glass of cold Chardonnay, sunny Sunday, deck-chair.

Genre: Contemporary Women’s Fiction

Available on Amazon

Friday, 4 September 2015

Super Daddy Bedtime Questions by Nicolas Pavlou

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought: From the first glimpse of this super-bright, gloriously illustrated storybook you’ll be hooked. Whether parent, teacher or doting grandparent, this is the one for you... and of course, the children.

Nicolas Pavlou follows the footsteps of top-of-the-tree children’s authors by writing simple, truthful prose, and using delightful illustrations with which to captivate the reader’s heart. Super Daddy Bedtime Questions is a humourous book, with child friendly rhymes that are easy to remember and easy to chant. It is a highly enjoyable read, delightfully true to life and inspired by the playtime and bedtime questions asked by the author’s young son.

As a one-time nursery teacher I would have loved to have this storybook in the library corner: a book enriched with brightly coloured words and clear un-cluttered pictures is not only a treat to read aloud, but a delight to read to a small tot.

It’s the perfect length for a bedtime read, and written from a father’s perspective, the Super Daddy in the title, it offers an everyday dad the chance to be Super Dad, reader of the best story ever, the dad who answers the unanswerable: ‘Daddy, can you fly?’ in this delightful way – ‘No! But I can throw you way up high!’

Nicolas Pavlou, as this debut story shows, is an author to watch.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Hill’s Spot series and Jill Murphy’s On My Way Home.

Avoid if you don’t like: Books that children will want read to them again and again and a...

Ideal accompaniments: A well-worn blankie, a grubby teddy and a sleepy, snuggly youngster.

Genre: Children’s books 7 and under.

Available from Amazon

No Bed for Bacon by Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: In 1941, at the height of the London Blitz, two immigrants – a Russian bridge player and a second-generation Turkish ballet critic – set out to write what would turn out to be one of the most quintessentially English comic novels ever written. The two were both fire wardens, and when they weren’t on duty together, they would leave each other cryptic notes in the watch’s log, to the puzzlement of their fellow wardens.

It may seem strange to review a book that was written almost three-quarters of a century ago. But this is a book I read and reread until the original Penguin paperback I found on my parents’ bookshelves fell apart in my hands, and only to start all over again when it was reprinted after the film, Shakespeare in Love, came out.

At its heart, No Bed for Bacon shares its story with Shakespeare in Love – a young noblewoman who falls in love with the theatre and disguises itself as a girl-boy-player. But while the film focuses on the love story between Shakespeare and Viola, Brahms and Simon give us the whole panoply of Elizabethan life. Like a Brueghel or a Where’s Wally picture, the story romps from one vignette to another. One moment, we’re in the thick of court intrigue, and the next we’re with the horse holders outside the theatre, or conspiring with rival theatre managers, or playing witness to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

Dipping in and out of original sources – from Philip Henslowe’s account book to first-hand descriptions of the burning of the Globe Theatre – the two authors play fast and loose with history, without ever quite departing from it. We are treated to a host of comic creations, from a vain Raleigh and a miserly Lord Burghley to a Francis Bacon who bears a suspicious resemblance to Malvolio. Along the way, the authors have a sly dig at those who theorise that Bacon was the real author of the plays.

My favourite passage is where the ageing Queen Elizabeth, surrounded by her old sea dogs on a royal barge that has run aground in the Thames, relives the defeat of the Armada. But there is so much to choose from. As the authors themselves say in their opening note, “This book is fundamentally unsound.” And all the better for it.

You'll enjoy this if you love: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Shakespeare in Love

Avoid if you dislike: Playing fast and loose with history, mocking Shakespeare

Perfect Accompaniment: A foaming mug of ale

Genre: Humour. Historical fiction, Historical absurdity

Available from Amazon

She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb

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

What we thought: Right from the start, I knew this was one of those books I wouldn’t want to end. And I was right. Around the 80% mark on the Kindle I started feeling sad that I was reaching the end.

One of the few truly life-changing stories I’ve read, She’s Come Undone is the coming-of-age story of Dolores Price, victim of rape, divorce, abuse and mental illness.

Dolores, an unconventional heroine––albeit a very likeable one––drowns her woes in soap operas and junk food, munching her way relentlessly into obesity, sorrow and social isolation. But one day, in the midst of this gluttony, Dolores decides she’ll no longer be a victim, and we join the feisty Dolores in her journey out the other side.

As I was reading, I kept asking myself, how could a male, middle-aged author get inside the head of a young girl so perfectly? How can he narrate a first-person female story so convincingly? But he does, and I found She’s Come Undone to be a literary masterpiece of characterisation and, weeks after reading it, I still sympathise with Dolores Price.

You’ll enjoy this if you like:
novels by Anne Tyler, Sue Monk Kidd, Maggie O’Farrell

Avoid if you don’t like: character-driven stories about dysfunctional people and their even more dysfunctional families.

Ideal accompaniments: several free days… you won’t want to put it down!

Genre: Literary Fiction.

Available from Amazon