Friday, 26 August 2016

The Scars Beneath the Soul by Dave Sivers

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: A classy take on the British police procedural, whose shine comes from layered characterisation, a tightly woven plot, in-depth research and local knowledge. The fact this is the first of a series is another cause to smile.

Detective Inspector Lizzie Archer's been transferred from London to Aylesbury. Not far in terms of distance but a world away from what she's used to. Dan Baines, who's been holding the fort, is effectively demoted to make room. Police politics aside, each is shadowed by an event in the past which left its mark - one more visible than the other.

If Archer expected the pace to be slower in the 'country', she gets a nasty shock. Someone is on a murder spree with a very unpleasant choice of weapon.

Tension cranks up as the two officers put aside their personal problems and their pasts to find connections. Those connections begin to show that someone out there is doing precisely the opposite.

Taut writing, a broad and vivid setting, appealing characters and a complex yet satisfying denouement all make this a thoroughly enjoyable page-turner. And if you enjoy following the characters over a series, there's more to come.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Gillian Hamer's Gold Detectives series and Val McDermid's Wire in the Blood

Avoid if you don’t like: Violence, British police stories, character focus

Ideal accompaniments: A pot of Lapsang Souchong, Gentleman's Relish on toast and Nick Cave's Red Right Hand

Genre: Crime

Buy on Amazon

Agatha Raisin & The Quiche of Death by MC Beaton

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

What we thought: I have been a closet MC Beaton fan for many years, all of her writing is quirky, clever and entertaining, but I particularly enjoy her Agatha Raisin series. As a treat, I have decided to go back to book one of the series, The Quiche of Death, and listen to each one on an audiobook format, as I particularly enjoy Penelope Keith’s narration. I believe it's also a popular new series on Sky TV now but I've yet to catch up with that format.

In The Quiche of Death we are introduced to Agatha Raisin, a businesswoman who has decided to take early retirement, and walk away from her successful company, and life in London, and settle down in an idyllic Cotswold village. This has been Agatha’s life long dream, since she was raised in a poor area of Birmingham … and of course, nothing at all could go wrong because dreams always live up to our expectations. Right?

Of course, being new to village life comes as a shock to Agatha. Joining the ladies’ society of Carsley seems one good way of integrating into her new life. However, when Agatha makes a decision to cheat the local baking competition, her life is turned upside down and she suddenly finds herself number one suspect in a murder enquiry.

I’m so glad I’ve gone back to the first book in the series, as it’s delightful to meet all of the characters, like Detective Bill Wong, and the vicar’s wife, Mrs Bloxby, for the first time.

Make no mistake this isn’t gritty, dark, high-action crime fiction, but it’s appeal for me is a calming, funny and yet intensely clever story, written by a hugely gifted writer. If you’ve yet to open a MC Beaton novel, I seriously recommend you try one as soon as you can!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Agatha Christie, PD James, JJ Marsh

Avoid if you don’t like: Cotswolds’ villages and nosey neighbours

Ideal accompaniments: Salmon and dill quiche and a crisp, dry Chablis.

Genre: Crime Fiction.

Available from Amazon

The Trials of Tiffany Trott by Isabel Wolff

Reviewer: JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult and the Overlord series.

What we thought: Originally published in 1998, The Trials of Tiffany Trott was a column in the Daily Telegraph before being commissioned by Harper Collins as a book.

Tiffany is your typical 37 year old London girl, who works in advertising. Despite being attractive and eligible, she's also a "complete failure with men".

I found Tiffany to be both likeable and funny as she goes in pursuit of marriage and children, all the while looking around her and feeling she has to conform to the relationship status her friends have chosen.

But is that what she really wants, or does she just feel she's missing out?

I was surprised by the lack of sex and swearing having previously read Bridget Jones, but it makes it no less funny and no less romantic. Set in the 90s there's no or Tinder, no mobile phones or internet. I really enjoyed looking back and reading about a time that despite being only a few years ago is very different from today, as Tiffany resorts to reading the small ads in the papers, and dating via agencies to find herself a date.

If you're looking for a fast-paced, funny, light read, then I would highly recommend this book.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Bridget Jones, chick-lit with a twist, humour, girl-talk

Avoid this if you like: Swearing, bloody violence, sex

Ideal accompaniments: A glass of chilled Prosecco, warm socks, massive box of chocolates

Genre: Chick-lit

Available from Amazon

Friday, 19 August 2016

Playthings by Alex Pheby

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: 

As the stark, black cover suggests, the innocent-sounding title, Playthings, hides a dark and troubled history.

It refers to a statement by Daniel Paul Schreber, an early 20th Century German judge who documented his own psychotic breakdown, that those around him were not real, but merely ‘playthings of a lower God.’ Schreber’s account of his breakdown was used by Freud in the early development of psychoanalysis.

Playthings is the Pheby’s fictional account of Schreber’s third and final breakdown, and his incarceration, under increasingly disturbing conditions, in an asylum.

What we experience, through reading the book, is Schreber’s comparatively lucid moments, with little idea of how much time has passed between episodes. To begin with, we are inclined to believe his protestations that he is perfectly well again and should be allowed to go home. But then the sense of dislocation and loss of control intensifies. Is the mysterious figure called Alexander, who follows him round the asylum, a distillation of Schreber’s fears and fancies, or a projection of his own guilt? And what about the orderly, Muller? He seems solid enough to begin with, but then that line, too, begins to blur.

Pheby’s writing creates moments of intense focus, as Schreber’s senses home in on some trivial detail in his environment.

“The pattern of the blanket came toward him in ever closer magnification the longer he stared. Grids of red and green entwined like the mesh of the ether, intersections picked out in gold thread, and below that motif, the brown webbing around which each fibre was woven.”

Pheby uses the type of chapter headings that were common in 19th and early 20th C novels, that flag what is about to happen in the chapter. At first this seems like a device to make the books seem as if written contemporarily with the setting. But read them carefully and they have a more unsettling effect. At times they provide context that you’d miss if you skipped over them, allowing you to take a step back from Schreber’s direct experience.

Playthings’ historical setting adds other dimensions to the story. We see the early, faltering and ultimately failing attempts at enlightened treatment of mental illness. And we observe its social background – the hypermasculinity of Prussian society and its intolerance of those who fail to fit its mould, its growing anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic sentiment.

A fascinating and unsettling read.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall; Hannah Green’s I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White

Avoid If You Dislike: Exploring mental illness at close quarters

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of brandy in a darkened room

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available from Amazon

Shameless by Paul Burston

Reviewer: David C Dawson

What We Thought:
This is a real Marmite of a book. You either love it or you hate it. I first read Shameless several years ago and I laughed out loud many times while reading it. The book is like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City - except with far more drugs and gay bitchiness.

Paul Burston was a well-known writer on gay topics for the London-based Time Out magazine by the time Shameless, his first novel, came out in 2001. He has published three novels since, and several short stories.

Thirty-two year old Martin works in advertising. He is kind and decent, unsuited to the cut and thrust of corporate life. At the start of the book, his boyfriend of four years has run off with a male prostitute. His friends John and Caroline are far too distracted by their drug-use and egotistical problems to be of any use to Martin. With no one to turn to, he decides to throw himself into a wild, hedonistic lifestyle. One that he feels he missed out on in his youth.

This is when Burston exposes Martin to the full on, and potentially destructive world of late 1990s gay London. The caricatures of gym bunnies, leather men, twinks and cocaine clubbers are brilliantly drawn. Martin is drawn into the excesses of a shameless, self-obsessed, cliquey world. Because Burston writes this as a morality tale, Martin ultimately finds that there is a price to pay.

Paul Burston’s style of writing is fresh and easy to read. His observations are shockingly accurate. I cannot tell you how I know this. Trust me, they are.

Shameless is witty, bitchy, trashy, camp, sweet and frothy, but always lots of fun. The characters of Martin, John and Caroline are fully formed and true to life. The essence of the London club-scene jumps from the pages. Paul Burston's books are accessible and unpretentious. His stories rocket along, like an express train. They are filled with humour, pathos and occasional insight.

I strongly recommend this book, unless you are of a nervous disposition. If you are, I would simply say, you should get out more.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Gay Divorcee: Paul Burston, Tales of the City: Armistead Maupin

Avoid if you don’t like: Occasional explicit sex description and drug usage

Ideal accompaniments: A very pink gin

Genre: Humour, LGBTQ

Available from Amazon

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

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

What we thought: As a big crime fiction fan I was excited to read this thriller after it appeared on the Sunday Times bestseller list and won the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2016. Also, I was intrigued to read that the author had spent numerous years working in a real-life CID role and how that would come through in the writing.

To be honest, all my boxes were totally ticked by this novel. The narrative is strong, with a good hook that soon captivates the reader. Characterisation was handled with a professionalism, so each person was real and engaging, and yet there was a cleverly handled sense of secrecy about the storyline too that kept you reading. I liked the first person POV and how the differing sides of the story were gradually revealed while maintaining an excellent pace throughout. This novel cannot have been an easy one to write, and it does not have the feel of a debut novel.

In short, this is a story of guilt, fear and redemption. When a five-year-old boy is killed by a hit and run driver, what appears to be a straightforward investigation soon ends in one dead end after another, until after an anniversary appeal, a year later, the police get a lead that takes them on a totally unexpected journey. Without giving too much away, the twist in the middle of the novel really worked for me, and unsettled me as a reader. Having engaged with characters, it’s always a real skill to turn the reader’s world upside down!

Highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys dark thrillers and gritty crime fiction. Some of the scenes of domestic violence may not be to everyone’s tastes, and a few times I found myself biting back tears. But I was very impressed with the novel and was sad to see it come to the end – and within 24 hours I had downloaded I See You the author’s follow-up novel.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: B A Paris, Jo Nesbo, Tara Lyons.

Avoid if you don’t like: Police procedurals and scenes of domestic violence.

Ideal accompaniments: Warm fresh baked bread with blackcurrant jam and a frothy coffee.

Genre: Crime.

Available from Amazon