Friday, 18 December 2015

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: One day in the mid-1860s, potential gold-digger Walter Moody steps off a ship in the town of Hokitika on the south island of New Zealand. He’s just had a nasty shock. There was something quite terrifying in the hold of the Godspeed. Out of sorts, he stumbles in to the hotel lounge, unaware of the fact he’s interrupting a private meeting between twelve leading lights of the town.

Gradually, the tale begins to unfold, guided by the firm hand of our narrator(s). Each man seems implicated in death, suicide, murder and conspiracy, but nothing is quite as it appears. All these men are seeking a fortune and then intend to be ‘homeward bound’. But fortune has two meanings.

The story unfolds from each person’s perspective, dropping nuggets of information for the reader to assemble into a detective’s theory. Our loyalties shift, our opinions alter and we tread with great caution, unsure who can be trusted.

Catton’s narrative is a perfectly constructed drama in a most unusual setting, conjuring Victorian New Zealand and its inhabitants with atmospheric realism. The hardships, the gossip, the politicking and the landscape don’t so much leap off the page as lure you in, so you feel as tangled and sapped of the will to escape as a fly in a web.

A hefty tome, but wholly absorbing with a wonderful Zodiac theme underpinning the complexity of this intrigue where men believe they are in control of their destiny.

You’ll like this if you enjoyed: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, The Little Stranger, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Avoid if you dislike: Victorian storytelling, overt exposition of construction, large casts of characters.

Ideal accompaniments: A platter of cold meats, a dram of Laphroaig and a cold, clear night so you can see the stars.

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

Eve (A Christmas Ghost Story) by Shani Struthers

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

What we thought: There's nothing better than a chilling ghost story on a dark winter's night, and I was totally absorbed by this story and look forward to reading more from this author. And as an aside, I thought the cover fitted the genre perfectly, the spooky, aged photos with faces blanked gave me a shiver before I even read the opening line!

A Yorkshire village, Thorpe Morton, has been haunted for a century by 59 victims, many of them children, of a terrible tragedy that was never really explained. The author clearly loves her research, and I found the background fascinating and well delivered. Lead characters are psychic investigators, Theo Lawson and Ness Patterson, who arrive in the town to attempt to give peace to the disturbed spirits, but are led on a journey of problems that lead to a tense and emotional climax.

Eve is a well thought out and gritty ghost story without all of the 'fluff' usually associated with Christmas-themed books. It's certainly does its job by drawing the reader into the series of books, and touches on many topics, like social equality, that you wouldn't expect to find in this genre.

Highly recommend and I look forward to reading more from this author!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: PD James, MR James.

Avoid if you don’t like: Ghosts and Yorkshire.

Ideal accompaniments: Boiled suet pudding and a half of stout.

Genre: Paranormal.

Available from Amazon

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: When we think about immigrants at the mercy of 21st century gang masters, we are likely to think first of eastern European workers, or perhaps Chinese. South Asian immigrants, we imagine, came in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and are now economically established.

If we do harbour such illusions, then Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways shatters them.

The story opens with a scene that echoes the early episodes of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Young men, far from home, packed together in cramped, basic conditions, working long hours on a construction site to send money back to their families.

The focus of the story then pulls back, and we learn how each of the three principle characters arrived in Sheffield from India. Randeep, the youngest of them, whose father who has lost his job, and hence the family their home, because of depression. Avtar, secretly engaged to Randeep’s sister, who dreams of earning enough money to go back to India and marry her. And Tochi, a despised chamaar (‘untouchable’), whose family were murdered in riots orchestrated by Hindu extremists. Each of them believes that in Britain they can earn enough money to transform their lives.

The fourth point of view is provided by Navinder, a devout Sikh woman, engaged to a man selected by her family, who gives everything up to marry – not for love, but to provide a visa for Randeep.

Gradually their dreams unravel under the relentless pressure of finding work, keeping a roof over their heads, repaying debt. Through countless small cruelties and all-too-few moments of grace, squalor slides into degradation. Faith is stripped of illusion. Friendships are pushed to breaking point. Mistrust is fanned into flames.

Through the lens of these four lives, Sahota reveals the human face of economic migration, the myth of return, and such headline fodder as illegal workers, scam marriages and abused student visas. This is a book that will shake your belief that we are in any way a ‘fair’ or ‘equal’ society. Like Dickens’ Victorians, we climb on the backs of an army of invisible poor. The only difference is the poverty is now globalised.

You’ll enjoy this if you loved: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistri, Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid, Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka

Avoid if you dislike: Graphic descriptions of deprivations

Perfect accompaniment: Rotis with vegetable sabzi and dahl

Genre: Literary fiction

Available from Amazon

Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Killing Room by Peter May

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

What we thought: I am a huge fan of Peter May and would list his Lewis trilogy among my favourite top three crime fiction reads of recent years, so I was excited to take on a new crime series from this author.

The Killing Room is the third in the China thriller series, and in my opinion the most gruesome yet. The opening scene was brutal and the discovery of a mass grave in Shanghai was brilliantly written. The investigation focuses on the hunt for a serial killer of women, but the crimes are even more disturbing than usual murders, as the bodies are all found hacked into pieces with organs removed.

Again, lead characters are Li Yan and American pathologist, Margaret Campbell, whose difficult personal relationship is not helped when Li Yan is transferred to Shanghai to assist in the serial killer enquiry. He finds himself working with attractive, Mei Ling, and his feelings become even more complicated.

As the story unfolds, so the horror increases, Margaret’s assistance with the post-mortems opens up even more chilling theories, and before long every layer of Shanghai society is implicated in the cover up of these hideous crimes. With some excellent final twists and reveals.

This is a real blood and gore, no-holds back, crime thriller that is past-faced, full of tension and cleverly laced with personal versus professional life issues. The forensic research and attention to detail is wonderful,the reader is always in safe hands, and the writing is smooth and effortless. Another brilliantly crafted piece of writing and another surefire winner from this superb author!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Tess Gerritsen, Karin Slaughter, Peter James.

Avoid if you don’t like: China. Corpses.

Ideal accompaniments: Chow mein, noodles, prawn crackers and rice wine.

Genre: Crime thriller.

Available from Amazon

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
It’s always a pleasure to stumble on a book set in my former home town of Toronto, but this 2015 Giller Prize winner isone of the more unusual.

Two gods, Apollo and Hermes, are arguing over the nature of human intelligence. Apollo maintains that “animals would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.” To settle their argument, they make a wager. They endow fifteen dogs, who happen to be spending the night at a Toronto veterinary surgery, with human intelligence and bet on whether any of them will be happy at the end of their lives.

The dogs, aware that some immense change has come over them, break out of the vets and make for a coppice in High Park. There they begin to adjust to their new existence.

Make no mistake. This is no Disney-style fluffy anthropomorphism. And it certainly is not suitable reading for children. Yet nor is it a straightforward political or social allegory, like Animal Farm.

What Alexis has done is more subtle and complex than either of those. He examines the effect on canine instincts and pack behaviour of the dogs’ dawning critical intelligence. In doing so, he suggests a potential evolutionary path for such human achievements as love, religion, poetry, humour- and murder.

Alexis knows dogs. Any pet owner will recognise much of the canine behaviour he describes. But each of the fifteen dogs is changed in quite different ways by the gift (or curse) of consciousness. Atticus, the pack’s first leader, is appalled by the distortion of ‘true’ canine ways. Majnoun develops a tender friendship and deep understanding with a human female. Prince, a poet at heart, falls in love with the idea of language itself.

If you have studied European philosophy, you might catch oblique references to St. Anselm’s Ontological Proof of God’s Existence, Hegel’s master-servant dialectic, Wittgenstein’s ideas about language, and Kant’s notion of consciousness. On the other hand, if you’ve never heard of any of those things, your reading will lose little by it.

Fifteen Dogs is by turns playful, affectionate, tender, brutal and moving. A brief, thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Alexis is a Canadian writer, born in Trinidad and Tobago. Fifteen Dogs is the second book in what he calls his 'Quincunx,' five novels which will examine philosophical ideas from different angles, this one being an ‘apologue’ or fable.

You’ll enjoy this if you loved: The Humans by Matt Haig; Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

Avoid if you dislike: Stories with animal characters; animal characters that aren’t cute and fluffly

Perfect Accompaniment: A cuddle on the sofa with your dog

Genre: Literary fiction, Apologue, Philosphy

Available from Amazon

Joshua's Story by James Titcombe

Reviewer: JD Smith

What we thought: Joshua's story isn't exactly an easy read, but that has nothing to do with the succinct and well-presented narrative, more the subject matter which would tug at any heart string, and can be related to by so many who have had traumatic experiences during childbirth.

James Titcombe and his family suffered such an experience in November 2008 when their baby boy, Joshua, died at Furness General Hospital aged just 9 days old.

This book tells the years Joshua's father dedicated to discovering exactly why Joshua's death occurred, and whether it could have been prevented. What James' tireless search revealed was much more than the failings leading to his own son's death as he uncovered knowledge of many other babies' deaths which could have been entirely preventable had medical professionals owned up to their errors and learned from them.

The book goes deeper still has we witness public reaction to investigations, correspondence between NHS staff, and a long and tangled journey to justice.

This story is not only one of deep sadness and lies, but it is also one of hope; the truth can be found if you keep looking. A personal tale told with candour.

In 2015, James Titcombe was awarded the OBE for services to patient safety.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: real stories, truth, medical scandals

Avoid if you don’t like: people saying negative things about the NHS

Ideal accompaniments: none - this is a completely absorbing tale

Genre: non-fiction, memoir, medical