Monday, 19 September 2016

To Retribution by FJ Curlew

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought: This novel, a convoluted thriller with nods to Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, gives a Nostradamus-like prediction of the rise of the Right in the Britain of the not-too-distant future.

After a coup, life in Britain has changed beyond recognition. Fear and intimidation reigns. The only law is meted out by the New Dawn security force. The only citizens that prosper are the lickspittle followers of the facist regime. Corruption is widespread, especially amongst the new political elite.

Two young journalists, Suze and Jake, bent on reporting political corruption on their pirate website find themselves attacked by New Dawn security force. Barely escaping death in a raid on their secret headquarters they set out to discover exactly why they have been so murderously targeted. Their journey of discovery is a long and winding trail along which they not only meet horrors they couldn’t imagine, but allies that share their hatred of the new regime.

Gripping from the outset, To Retribution, is a fast paced narrative which leads its youthful protagonists into the very heart of a truly evil conspiracy.

A definite page turner!

You’ll enjoy if you like: Fast paced action culminating in an all-ends-tied-up finish. 
Avoid if you don’t like: Political corruption and fascist atrocities.

Ideal accompaniments: A hot toddy and a wrap-around comforter.

Genre: Thriller

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory

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

What we thought: Quote: “There is only one bond that I trust: between a woman and her sisters. We never take our eyes off each other. In love and in rivalry, we always think of each other.”

I listened to the audio version of Gregory’s new release, wonderfully narrated by Bianca Amato.

I am a huge fan of historical fiction, and Philippa Gregory in particular is one of my favourite authors. Her prose may not be as lyrical, and the narrative not as layered as some other writers in the genre – but what she never ceases to give you us a damn good story.

This book is no exception. Written in first person, present tense, it relates the story of a little-known Tudor queen, Dowager Queen Margaret of Scotland – eldest sister to Henry VIII. Married at fourteen to King James of Scotland, moved from her life at the Royal Palaces of London to the remote and barren land of Scotland, we see Tudor life from a completely different perspective.

The three queens mentioned in the title of the novel are Margaret, her sister-in-law, Catherine of Aragon, and her younger sister Mary, who became Dowager Queen of France. All three of the young princesses were ‘sold’ off for their titles at a very young age, all three of them in constant rivalry at the Royal Court, all three of them went on to face infant deaths and the betrayal of the men they married. In fact, their lives mirror each other’s in so many ways, it’s almost like this is a work of fiction, rather than based on historic fact.

Of course, we all know the story of Henry VIII but seeing it from the outside, from the remote castles of Scotland, and discovering how this strong and independent woman coped in the turbulent Tudor period, and managed to successfully get her son to the Scottish throne, was a truly entertaining experience. Gregory proudly shows the strength and guile of a woman, who although betrayed by men and let down by her role in society, become powerful through her own hard work and guile and owned her own lands and fortune in a time when this was unheard of.

Great story, superbly narrated, excellent pacing and strong characterisation. This is Gregory at her best and comes highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Hilary Mantel, Barbara Erskine, Alison Weir.

Avoid if you don’t like: Royal Courts, scandal, philandering husbands and whores!

Ideal accompaniments: Venison pie and a tankard of small ale.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Available on Amazon

The Trysting Tree by Linda Gillard

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

What we thought: I’ve read and enjoyed at least three of Linda Gillard’s previous novels now, so I looked forward in anticipation to catching up with her latest The Trysting Tree.

This is an enchanting and compelling story of love and loss over a hundred years, all set beneath the leafy boughs of the ancient trysting tree which has hidden the secrets of many women in its lifetime. The idea is charming in its originality and worked well for me, passages written both in a modern day scenario, where the current owners of the house and gardens discover through long-forgotten diaries and letters, the love and loss of a previous generation of occupants.

I’ve read novels with similar narratives before, and the key to making the novels work is the ability to connect the reader with the character – and I’m pleased to say I think the author really nailed it here. The modern day story between Ann and Connor was well written, the baggage of their respective pasts finally revealing itself as their love deepened. And in the historical thread, the triangle the author weaved between a previous mistress of the house and her staff was gripping and emotional.

I have a real soft spot for novels that blend elements of present and past so that the reader is presented with a satisfying tapestry of stories, which, when done well blend together effortlessly for a satisfying conclusion. Every box was ticked in this novel by a talented writer.

Highly recommended for people new to Linda Gillard’s work and for fans of her writing this is certainly up there with the best.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jan Ruth, Elizabeth Harris, Gill Paul.

Avoid if you don’t like: Country living and artistic folk.

Ideal accompaniments: Blue cheese and a large Chardonnay spritzer.

Genre: Contemporary.

Available on Amazon

Holding by Graham Norton

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and The Man with the Horn.

What We Thought: Yes, it’s by that Graham Norton. This is his first novel and I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. So here goes: It’s not bad. It’s actually not at all bad. A minor grammatical blip in the first paragraph almost put me off but then I realised I was being a bit up myself and carried on.

Set in the small Irish town of Duneen, Holding delves into the murky pasts of the various residents. There’s the rather odd Evelyn Ross and her sisters, spinsters all, and there’s Brid Riordan, unhappily married and hitting the bottle. There’s Mrs Meany, the housekeeper, and there’s the overweight Sgt PJ Collins who Mrs Meany ‘does’ for. There is also the sleepy background of Duneen itself and its shopkeepers, publicans and incidental others.

The discovery of bones buried on a building site shakes the town awake and gives PJ Collins his first real crime to solve. Apparently Tommy Burke, the former owner of the farm on which the body is found, mysteriously disappeared some twenty years or so ago. Rumours begin to fly that he never left. PJ soon discovers that Tommy was involved with both Brid Riordan and Evelyn Ross. Into the mix comes Cork Detective Linus Dunne, at first PJ’s adversary but ultimately a respected colleague.

The characters are beautifully drawn, very real and fully human. The plot is intriguing and has a surprising twist. The writing shines with humour, sadness, and most of all compassion. I was touched by this story, cynic that I am, and the large, sweaty PJ is policeman I would love to meet again. I can see a series arising out of this and if done sensitively, it would make delightful television.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Hamish Macbeth.

Avoid if you dislike: Cosyish crime.

Ideal accompaniments: A full Irish breakfast and vast quantities of tea.

Genre: General/Crime Fiction.

Available on Amazon

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Humans by Matt Haig

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: This is a tough one to get right. Too practical and it becomes geeky. Too sentimental and it becomes mawkish. Matt Haig’s tale of the alien who comes to Earth to smother certain information treads that line with near-perfect balance.

Our narrator, an alien sent on this mission as a punishment, observes the Humans in a similar tone to Mork and Mindy. He’s assumed the form of a middle-aged maths professor and with the body comes a wife, son, job and dog. Like all aliens to another culture, at first he is repulsed and yearns to complete his duty and return home.

Yet as he grows to understand this ugly race with their facial protruberances, he begins to see nuance and his clinical observations gain a philosophical note.

Some great comic moments with shades of darkness and touching insight combine to convey a sinister premise in a light tone. Imagine The Terminator directed by Richard Curtis.

It’s touching and likeable and provokes some put-down-the-book-and-think moments.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, the work of Matt Haig

Avoid if you don’t like: Philosophical insights on the human condition, some swearing and mathematics

Ideal accompaniments: Peanut butter sandwiches, a glass of Pimms and Holst’s The Planets in the background

Genre: Contemporary, YA

Available on Amazon

Her Secret Rose by Orna Ross

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

What we thought: Book one in a trilogy, Her Secret Rose is a fictionalised biography that follows the first ten years of the relationship between the Irish poet, WB Yeats and his muse, Maud Gonne: revolutionary, feminist and political activist.

Narrated from the point of view of domestic servant, Rosie the author takes us on a fascinating journey behind these public personas into the private, real world of their human strengths and flaws.

In 1889, Yeats is 23 when he meets the beautiful rebel Maud. Through his poetry and her politics, and their shared fascination for the occult, they then embark on a voyage to try and free Ireland from its British chains.

Amidst rebellion, politics, intrigue, and Gonne and Yeats’ passion for Ireland, the author deftly brings to life Dublin, London and Paris of the 1890s as the two flit between the cities. Parts of Yeats’ poems are also woven through the narrative which for me enhanced the ambiance of this magnificently-crafted and well-researched novel.

Before reading Her Secret Rose, all I knew of WB Yeats’ poetry was what I’d learned many years ago at school, and I found this fictionalised biography an excellent and entertaining way to learn more about the poet, both his work and as a person. I also knew next to nothing about Maud Gonne and was intrigued to learn how extraordinary she was, and about the hold she had over Yeats. Through letters, journals and family communication, the author has uncovered quite a different story from the one I learned in school and, after reading this illuminating and entertaining tale, I’m now looking forward to the next in this trilogy.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Late 19th century romance, mystery and drama, lyrical prose

Avoid if you don’t like: Victorian historical romance

Ideal accompaniments: Cold glass of Guinness

Genre: Historical Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Sons of Light and Darkness by Adam Ingle

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought: If you like bloody battles, Angels versus Demons and strange unpredictable alliances served up with a robust dose of humour you will love this off-beat novel.

Sons of Light and Darkness is the second in the series of Afterlife adventures. It is written as a stand-alone.

The first in the series, Necessary Evil and the Greater Good, introduces the captivating rogues, Levitcus and Mestoph. An unlikely pairing of two friends from radically different backgrounds, Leviticus being of the angelic persuasion, Mestoph belonging to the demon fraternity. Think buddy movies like Lethal Weapon, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and you’ll get the picture. (Pun intended.) 

Mestoph works for Hell Industries, Leviticus for Heaven Inc.; low-level grunts bored senseless with their thankless toil, wracking their brains for a way to grab sufficient loot to enable them to escape Afterlife drudgery and live in comfort to The End.

Their first attempt at freedom – the abortive Ragnorak affair – ended badly, resulting in the wrath of God and Satan raining down hot and heavy on their heads. 

The Sons of Light and Darkness tells of their second attempt.

Ingle certainly knows his religions, introducing a fabulous concoction of gods and demons snatched from every religion you can think of and winding them into a marvellously twisted plot, laced with humour that ranges from the sly to the uproarious. The narrative is rich with vivid description, bringing reality to this world of intricate and fantastical imagination.

All in all a very enjoyable book. Top marks. Oh, and by the looks of things there’s a third in the pipeline. Can’t wait.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Cleverly plotted stories, irreverent films such as Dogma, and fabulous main characters that you won’t be able to forget.
Ideal accompaniments: A non-stop supply of cappuccinos and biscotti.
Genre: Contemporary Dark Fantasy.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Feeding Time by Adam Biles

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: A disorientating mix of surreal and only-too-real, funny and bitterly sad, optimistically hopeless and fatalistically uplifting. An old folks’ home run by a cynical corporate management seems a depressing prospect. The physical deterioration of the residents is mirrored by their shabby surroundings and echoed by the crumbling morality of their ‘CareFriends’.

But the failings of the body are tempered by this exceptional tribute to the human mind. Imagination, whether manifest in stubborn delusion, drug-fuelled fantasy or erotic daydream, is the unifying element and only means of escape. And everyone, staff, residents and visiting relatives want nothing more than to escape.

Dot’s here looking for Leonard. His mind has gone and after the incident with the horse, she knows she can’t cope alone. She follows him to Green Acres, which seems at odds with the pictures in the brochure. She’s on Ward B, not the best, but not the worst. The question remains, where is Leonard?

Populated by fascinating characters of both the endearing and repulsive kind, the bizarre power struggles at the heart of Green Acres lure the reader closer with sharp observation and dark humour. This book provokes thoughtful reflections on mortality, ageing and inevitability, but does so while making you laugh and occasionally grimace.

From a writer whose imaginative acrobatics are ably supported by his dexterity with language and voice, this book will get under your skin.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Hundred-Year Old Man Climbed Out Of A Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, The Works by Joseph Connolly, Epitaph for a Working Man by Erhard von Büren

Avoid if you don’t like: Some graphic physical descriptions of bodily functions, the truth about ageing, shifting realities

Ideal accompaniments: A pint of cloudy cider and a pork sausage grilled till the skin spilts.

Genre: Contemporary

Available on Amazon

Into The Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

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

What we thought: As a both a reader and a writer, I believe, characterisation is one of the hardest things in novel writing. And it’s characterisation that really brought this book alive for me. There’s a real art to creating a character who first off is a believable as your own sibling, and yet still allow the reader to discover the ‘real’ side of the character at the same time as the narrator does, without resorting to clichés or tiresome flashbacks.

I’m also not a huge fan of novels that portray women as weak victims, but although there are some brutal images here, it’s hidden and masked in the depth of the story and the people. Elizabeth Haynes has created here an excellent portrayal of one women’s desperate journey into an abusive relationship, but it’s also the story of that same women’s redemption and a lesson on how to confront your darkest fears and come out fighting into the light.

When Cathy Bailey meets and falls for the cool and handsome Lee Brightman she believes she is old enough and wise enough to know how to spot a bad apple. But is she? Cathy is one of life’s sparks, vivacious, outgoing and flirtatious - and sees no need to change. Lee is strong and silent, mysterious about his job and protective in the extreme. But there’s a strong connection and for a while Cathy’s life is bliss. Her friends are jealous and her future suddenly looks a whole lot rosier. But then odd things begin to happen, like items moved or missing from her house, like the increasing sense she’s being followed. By the end of the book Cathy won’t be the only one who has to check her front door is locked six times.

Cleverly narrated in two POVS – past and present – we follow Cathy’s journey right through to the chilling climax. Another art the author has mastered here is to engage the reader with the character, and I really felt myself drawn to Cathy, sympathising with her and willing her to get the future she deserved with the new man in her life, Stuart.

I found this book gripping and raced through to find out how the story would end. If it doesn’t make you look over your shoulder at least once while you’re reading it – then you’re doing something wrong!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: CL Taylor, Gillian Flynn, Clare Mackintosh

Avoid if you don’t like: Domestic violence

Ideal accompaniments: Extra strong double G&T

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon

Dead Wood by Chris Longmuir

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Dead Wood is the second in Chris Longmuir’s Dundee Crime series, and a winner of the Dundee International Book Prize.

Kara thinks it’s bad enough that two thugs are after her because her waster of a boyfriend owes their boss money. That is, until she escapes their clutches in the hands of the man who drags her into Templeton woods in the middle of the night.

What she finds there has strange echoes of a murder case from the 1970s. And for some of the police and social workers caught up in the case, it will drag them back into boyhood nightmares.

Inspired by a real life case from 1979, Dead Wood is a smart, scary and fast-paced police procedural. The novel makes effective use of multiple points of view to ramp up the drama. We see Kara, the young mother at the heart of the story, running scared from the thugs, from the killer, from the authorities. The drugs boss, who now has more than one reason to track Kara down. The police who, as past collides with present, may have reason to suspect one of their own. And peppered throughout, glimpses of the killer, whose warped mind serves as the will of Templeton Wood itself.

With so many characters at play, it would be easy for them to become two dimensional. But Longmuir creates strong individuals with their own quirks. Just when, like one of the young female coppers, we dare to feel sorry for the drugs boss Palmer, she finds a way to remind us how unpleasant he really is. The working girl Kara turns to for help is kind, but no ‘whore with a heart of gold.’

As all the best crime novels should be, Dead Wood is deeply rooted in its location. Even if we have never been to Dundee, we walk its streets along with the characters, explore its dark alleys, climb its hills, crawl through the dense undergrowth of Templeton Wood (and possibly feel the need for a good wash afterwards).

And excellent read for all lovers of Tartan Noir.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Gillian E Hamer

Avoid If You Dislike: Creepy serial killers

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of good malt whiskey and a slice of Dundee cake

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon