Friday, 30 October 2015

A Spot of Bother, by Mark Haddon

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What We Thought: Haddon’s breakthrough novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, gave the reader the unusual experience of piecing together a mystery through the eyes of Charlie, a young boy on the autistic disorder spectrum. In A Spot of Bother, we experience a domestic drama through various perspectives.

George, recently retired, finds a lesion on his hip. Despite his doctor’s assurances that it is eczema, he becomes convinced it’s cancer. He begins having panic attacks and seeing death and disease everywhere. His mental imbalance affects his wife, Jean, who has been quietly having an affair. To add to the disturbance, their daughter Katy announces she’s getting married to Ray, whom nobody likes. This bombshell causes a ripple effect and creates a rift in her brother’s relationship with Tony.

Haddon’s prose is spare and fluid, making you laugh aloud while wishing the characters knew what you know. There’s an almost theatrical feel to the way the scenes build to acts and climax in set pieces which border on farce. It’s a deceptively easy read, light in tone and suburban in setting, yet explores the heart of human relationships. Best of all, the fact we see the same incidents from differing perspectives forces us to acknowledge our own personal filters of experience. Not exactly a comfort read, but ultimately comforting.

Ideal accompaniments: a white wine spritzer, a tube of sour cream and chives Pringles and Gardeners’ Question Time on in the background.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Alan Bennett, Mike Leigh, David Nicholls.

Avoid if you don’t like: suburban domestic drama set in Peterborough.

Genre: General fiction

Available from Amazon

Cornish Killing by Chrissie Loveday

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

What we thought: A thoroughly entertaining crime novel, maybe not as gruesome as the title would suggest, and more of an adventure story than a hard-edge crime thriller, but still a really intriguing read which for me had echoes of an adult-version of an Enid Blyton story with missing persons, remote beaches and deserted cottages.

When city girl Emma Peterson travels to Cornwall to meet up with her friend, Charlie (who had recently been bequeathed a cottage by the sea in a relative’s will) she is distressed to find the cottage abandoned and no signs Charlie had ever arrived. Less than hospitable locals seem determined to force Emma to leave, but determined to make the police set up a serious attempt at finding her friend, Emma digs in her heels and stays. And soon wishes she hadn’t …

The author does an excellent job of balancing Emma’s fear and frustration against the wonderful backdrop of the Cornish coast, and it’s not long before the reader is as on edge as the characters!

I’d not read any of Chrissie Loveday’s writing beforehand, but found myself totally immersed in the story and desperate to find out the ending – always the best sign of a good crime novel. There are no blood, guts and gore in this novel, but it’s certainly worth a read for anyone who enjoys a well-woven crime story.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: MC Beaton, Enid Blyton, JJ Marsh.

Avoid if you don’t like: Creepy locals and deserted cottages.

Ideal accompaniments: Cornish pasty with cloudy cider.

Genre: Crime Fiction.

Available from Amazon

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz

Reviewer: Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit, Crimson Shore, False Lights.

What we thought: As a secret Stieg Larsson fan, I was excited to hear about the new novel ‘in-the-style’ of that was on the way. With a growing trend in crime fiction for revisiting the classics – from Sophie Hannah bringing Poirot back to life to Anthony Horowitz fabulous Sherlock Holmes revival – I was looking forward to delving back into the muddy waters surrounding Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

And did it tick all my boxes? Well …. almost.

Lagercrantz is clearly a devotee of Larsson himself and has spent a lot of time perfecting the original author’s style – i.e to be blunt using twenty-eight words when three would do. For the most part, it works, and is reminiscent of previous books in the Millennium series. There were a few times when I really did feel less is more, and that he’d tried just a little too hard to copy Larsson’s writing and in so doing over complicated the prose to a point where the reader was more frustrated and confused than content!

That aside, all other boxes were duly ticked. Characters announced themselves from the page in much the same way as Larsson first evoked Salander and Blomkvist. They were real, tangible and full of their usual foibles within the first few pages of introduction.

Plot too was very reminiscent of Larsson. The death of a Swedish scientist approaches Blomkvist to publish his lifestory in Millennium magazine, but before Mikael has chance to meet with the man, he is murdered and all leads to his work in the fascinating world of artificial intelligence disappear. And when Blomkvist discovers the scientist had been dealing previously with a world-renowned female hacker …. there was only one person it could be!

The author did a very clever job of winding past threads and characters from earlier books in the Millennium Trilogy back into this novel, and I found the ending gripping and satisfactory.

I’m not sure if there are more plans to revisit Salander and Blomkvist but I hope … theirs is a story that can run and run.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo, David Hewson.

Avoid if you don’t like: Espionage, artificial intelligence, computer hackers.

Ideal accompaniments: Pizza, microwave chips and lager.

Genre: Crime thriller.

Available from Amazon

The King's Sister by Anne O'Brien

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

What we thought: Another first time read of a new author to me. I saw favourable reviews of Anne O’Brien’s historical fiction novels online, and as a fan of Philippa Gregory decided to give her latest book a try – and I’m very glad I did!

The main character is Elizabeth of Lancaster, a young, strong-willed woman of Plantagenet blood. Set in 1382, at a time when England was teetering between monarchs, betraying the family rules was not sensible. But when Elizabeth falls in love, nothing will get in her way. Following her father’s strong allegiances, she finds herself among the Royal Court, in a sham marriage and yearning for a better life with the man of her dreams, John Holland.

But when the brother of one king marries the sister of his biggest rival – there can only be one outcome. Trouble.

The novel cleverly leads us through Elizabeth’s complicated life, showing how her loyalties were tested time and again. When a final call to take sides leads to the death of either her husband or her brother – which choice can she take?

I found the book very entertaining, and thought the period was evoked in very accurate detail and the characters expressed in great depth. Not always likeable, but always believable. The author crafted a real rollercoaster of emotions that led us on an amazing journey of betrayal and loyalty. I’m always fascinated by novels based on real people, and that was yet another reason why I found this book so riveting.

Another name to add to the growing list of authors on my TBR pile!

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

Avoid if you don’t like: Medieval period, Royalty.

Ideal accompaniments: Real ale and roast venison.

Genre: Historical fiction.

Available from Amazon

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Some Rise by Sin by Courtney J. Hall

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

What we thought: I found Courtney J. Hall’s debut novel, Some Rise by Sin, highly entertaining. This historical romance takes place in 1558, during the dramatic end to Catholic Mary Tudor’s reign, the rise to the throne of her half-sister Elizabeth, and the ensuing turmoil this causes across the country.

The new Earl of Easton, Cade Badgley, is unhappily forced to take responsibility for his father’s rundown estate in dire financial troubles, and jumps at the chance to return to Mary Tudor’s court to accompany Samara, daughter of the wealthy Earl of Brentford, to find a husband.

But the strong-willed Samara prefers drawing pictures and swimming in lakes to choosing a suitable husband, and the Earl of Brentford’s naïve eldest daughter risks falling for a seducer with less than honourable intentions.

I would highly recommend this romantic tale, rich in historical detail and packed with religious and political turmoil to lovers of the Tudors looking for a fresh take on this period.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: strong female characters, factual history-based stories.

Avoid if you don’t like: the Tudors

Ideal accompaniments: glass of rich red wine with ripe cheese chunks on bread.

Genre: Historical Romance

Available on Amazon

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought:
It had never occurred to me – though I expect it should have done – that among the artists that flocked to Paris and Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s were many Black American jazz musicians who were unable to play to white audiences back home. Nor did I know that when the border between France and Germany in Alsace Lorraine was shifted once again following the Treaty of Versailles, the French sent in, not French soldiers, but soldiers from their colony in Senegal, some of whom inevitably started relationship with local women, resulting in mixed-race children – or ‘Mischling’.

Once the Nazis came to power in 1933, both groups found themselves in a perilous situation. Half Blood Blues is told through the eyes of Sid – a Black jazz bassist from Baltimore - and is primarily about Hiero, a young Mischling who may just be the best jazz trumpeter since Louis Armstrong.

Sid is now an old man. As he returns to Berlin to honour Hiero, whose music is being rediscovered by a new generation, he reluctantly recalls what happened as their group of musicians fled from Berlin to Paris, trying to stay ahead of the Nazis advance. What really became of Hiero, and what part did Sid play in his fate?

Canadian writer, Esi Edugyan, delivers a narrator whose voice is pitch perfect (five seasons of watching The Wire making it relatively easy to conjure the Baltimore accent in my head...)

Half Blood Blues explores notions of guilt, responsibility and sexual and artistic jealousy. It also unravels a little known aspect of a well-worn story, and one that deserves to be better understood.

A beautifully written book and one I will return to.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Cowards by Josef Škvorecký, 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

Avoid if you dislike: WWII stories, stories about musicians

Perfect Accompaniment: Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Dizzy Gillespie

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

The Devil on her Tongue by Linda Holeman

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

What We Thought: What a wonderful book! I am so glad to have been given the opportunity to read and review The Devil on her Tongue. This is the first book by Linda Holeman I have read but I will certainly be seeking out more. It’s a long book with a wide span covering the many vicissitudes of the heroine, Diamantina.

Though from different cultures (North African and Dutch), Diamantina’s parents both washed up on the shores of the Portugese island Porto Santo in the early years of the 18th century. Her mother, a former slave, is a curandeira – a healer, a midwife – and her father is a sailor thrown overboard for killing the abuser of a cabin boy. From this mixed parentage Diamantina learns both to use the herbs and potions of a wise woman, and to read and write and be astute in business. Staunchly individual, she forges her own path despite the disapproval of the local priest and the other islanders.

When her father leaves to mine diamonds in Brazil, Diamantina and her mother must somehow manage for themselves. Betrayed by the first young man she loves, Diamantina is forced to take on menial tasks in the church and in the inn. When her mother dies she marries a man she barely knows and moves to Madeira. And then her troubles really start.

A strong and capable young woman, she takes on the task of looking after her husband’s aging father and a young boy he brought home from Brazil. As the years pass she meets her first love again (who hasn’t improved), has her own child, works for a wine company, and gets caught up in the Lisbon earthquake.

At times I wanted Diamantina to speak up for herself more (though she does this a lot anyway) and explain how and why she came to act as she did. Her choices are often forced on her by circumstance yet she fully accepts responsibility for them. Her moral attitude and awareness of her own mistakes makes her blame herself when the reader is crying, ‘It’s not your fault!’

The Devil on her Tongue is a beautifully written novel. The prose is evocative and often poetic, the characters diverse, and the vast canvas of events makes for a substantial meaty read. The pace never falters and I found myself reading well into the night wanting to know what happened next. Excellent!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Sprawling historical novels with lots of action.

Avoid if you dislike: Books about strong women.

Ideal accompaniments: A glass of vintage Sercial with cinnamon sprinkled pastéis de nata.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Mimes Chimes and Rhymes by Ian Graham

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, Wasps & Scorpions: Luv Pomes and Other Lies and former judge of Flash 500 Humour Verse Comp. (

What We Thought: Mimes Chimes and Rhymes is a quirky book featuring verses by Ian Graham and drawings by Emilie Vercruysse. A slight volume, it nevertheless has scope to be clever, funny and thought-provoking.

The verses tend to be short and to the point; the accompanying drawings are kitsch and sometimes sweet.

The poems offer a variety of line schemes to keep the reader interested and though seeming sometimes to be mere frivolities closer inspection reveals depth. They tackle verbal absurdities and play with the meanings of words and phrases; being more than puns however, they also delve into the meaning of life.

Well worth a look if you enjoy verse that takes a sideways look at things.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Playfulness with words.

Avoid if you dislike: Puns.

Ideal accompaniments: French Toast with a little cognac to taste.

Genre: Poetry, Humorous Verse.

Available from Amazon

Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA, by Luis J Rodriquez

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
Having just read Ryan Gattiss’s All Involved, his novel looking at the 1992 Los Angeles riots through the eyes of 17 members of the largely Chicano community of Lynwood in South Central LA, I thought I should look for something written by a member of that community. I found Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA by Luis J Rodriquez – a former gang member and now the Poet Laureate of LA.

While Gattis’s novel focuses on the 6 days of the riots, Rodriguez’s memoir takes place over more than three decades, and gives a broader view of the social, economic and political pressures that led to the rise of the gang culture and which continues to suck in the young.

I am in no position to compare Gattis’s and Rodriguez’s books in terms their portrayal of Chicano life. If there is a difference that struck me between the two accounts, it is that Gattis focuses on honour and revenge as a driving motive behind much of the violence he depicts, whereas the violence that Rodriguez experiences comes across, more often, as a random outpouring of rage against the poverty and injustice of their lives.

What both books share is the sense of wasted talent. Over and over, chinks appear in the darkness and Rodriguez starts to crawls towards the light. This intelligent, articulate, yet barely educated young man becomes involved, successively, in boxing, in urban art projects, in student politics. He even gets a book contract. But time and again, something hurls him back into the La Vida Loca. Sometimes it is his own demons of drink, drugs and despair. At other times it is the blind prejudice of the authorities, the violent aggression of the police or the bitter rivalry between different barrios that reopen the doors of hell.

In the end, Rodriguez escaped La Vida Loca. As he wrote, “There comes a moment when one faces the fresh features of an inner face, a time of conscious rebirth, when the accounting’s done, the weave in its final flourish, a time when a man stands before the world – vulnerable, nothing-owed – and considers his place in it. I had reached such a moment.”

Many years later, he wrote Always Running as a cautionary tale for his son, then 15, to warn him away from gang life – something which he failed to do. As he reveals in the foreword to the 2005 edition, his son is serving an 28 year term in jail for gang-related violence. But in other ways, the books has been vastly more successful. It has been recommended reading in schools, in prisons – and even assigned as part of offenders’ sentences. It is apparently one of the most checked out and most stolen books from US public libraries.

It has also achieved a spot on the American Library Association’s top 100 banned books list. That is perhaps not so surprising. Rodriguez’s account of La Vida Loca is raw – his depictions of sex, violence and drug taking sometimes eye-wateringly graphic. It needs to be. The life he depicts is real, and the young people the book is aimed at are living it.

You’ll Enjoy This if You Liked: East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle, Original Rude Boy by Neville Staple

Avoid if you dislike: Graphic depictions of sex, drugs and violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Large cheeseburger and fries and a stiff vodka

Genre: Non-Fiction

Available from Amazon

Leap the Wild Water by Jenny Lloyd

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought: Leap the Wild Water is a harrowing story, told with honesty and truth allowing the reader insight into another age, an age not long past, when womenkind were regarded as Eve’s true daughters, bent on tempting men to sin.

Set in early in 19th century Wales, this tragic, yet uplifting story centres on Megan Jones, daughter to a viciously religious mother. Her once close younger brother, Morgan, is heavily influenced by his overbearing mother. Manipulated into following orders that deep down he knows are wrong, he is filled with regret. He accepts that what’s done cannot be undone, but the deed preys on his mind, casting a heavy shadow not only on his life, but that of his older sister. Too late he realises the evil he has done. He has chosen the primrose path, and knows just where that path leads.

The consequences of this cruel act is dramatically portrayed by the author in vivid exciting prose. This debut novel, inspired by her fascination for social psychology and the real-life struggles of women in her family’s past, is a grippingly tense read. Megan is a strong woman, wanting freedom in a society of denial and discrimination, a freedom denied by the very fact that she is female.

Historically accurate, strongly written this is a book that needs to be read and treasured.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Hardy, Dickens and Wilkie Collins

Avoid if you don’t like: Heart-stopping tension and utter involvement in characters and plot

Ideal accompaniments: A slice of bara brith and Glengetti tea sipped from a bone china cup.

Genre: Literary fiction. Historical

Available from Amazon