Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Natural Causes by James Oswald

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

What we thought: This writer is new to me and was recommended by a colleague who is a big fan of the author and knew I wrote and read crime fiction – and I can’t believe I’d never heard of him before! Natural Causes is the first book in the Inspector Mclean detective series, and I will certainly be continuing with the rest of the series.

There are multiple crimes under investigation by newly-promoted D.I Anthony Mclean and his team in this book, and all seem somehow linked to the mutilated fifty-year-old corpse of a young girl found in the basement of a house previously owned by a wealthy banking family. When a series of unconnected violent deaths leave the rest of the Edinburgh CID department at a loss, it’s Mclean who believes he can see a connection with the past and goes all out to solve the original crime – hoping it will lead him to their present day serial killer.

There was much to enjoy in this book, all the boxes needed from a strong police procedural were certainly ticked. I thought the characterisation was particularly well handled, and I can see from the hints dropped about D.I Mclean throughout the book that he is going to have many skeletons in his own closet that will be revealed during the rest of the series. There are many layers to this character, and he’s also not dripping with clich├ęs with I think is refreshing in this genre.

Good pacing, good plotting and excellent attention to detail in the research, results in an excellent start to this crime series. I’m really looking forward to reading more and would highly recommend James Oswald to any crime fiction readers out there.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Ann Cleeves, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid.

Avoid if you don’t like: Witchcraft and murder scenes.

Ideal accompaniments: Hearty beef stew and a single Scottish malt whisky.

Genre: Crime.

Available on Amazon

An Unreliable Guide to London by Various / Kit Caless

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

If you ever thought of London as one sprawling city, Influx Press’s Unreliable Guide will disabuse you.

Each one of these stories in set in a specific area of London. Taken together, they create the impression, not of an undifferentiated metropolis but a patchwork of neighbourhoods, each with its own character, instantly recognisable to those who come from its streets.

The authors have found different ways to play with the notion of an ‘unreliable guide.’ Some seek to capture the essence of place as known only to its residents. Others, like Eley Willams’ ‘In Pursuit of the Swan at Brentford Ait' – which might have been written by a 21st Century incarnation of Jerome K Jerome – tease us with the notion of what is real and what is not.

Still others depart from reality altogether. Will Wiles’s ‘Notes on the London Housing Crisis’ is an alt-hist vision of how London could have been. Noo Saro-Wiwa’s’s ‘Soft on the Inside’ is reminiscent of Andre Alexis’s Giller Prize-winning apologue, Fifteen Dogs, while Irenosen Okojie plunges us into a vision that marries Hieronymous Bosch with Salvador Dali.

Memories play an important role. Stephanie Victoire’s ‘Nightingale Lane’ distils Clapham South from recollections of an old soldier from Mauritius. Tim Wells’ ‘Heavy Manners’ captures Dalston through the record shops of his youth. The narrator of Koye Oyedeji’s ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ challenges the version of their personal history spun by his now-famous boyhood friend.

Others brush up against contemporary news. In Courttia Newlands’ ‘The Secret Life of Little Wormwood Scrubs’, a young jogger runs past an object that the next day will make the headlines. George F’s ‘Mother Blackcap’s Revenge’ describes a glorious fightback by the LGBT community against the gentrification of Camden.

Nor does the anthology ignore London’s less romantic corners – stories are spun from the unlikely locations of PC World at Staples Corner and the car park at Leyton Mills Retail Park.

Two of my favourites – Stephen Thompson’s ‘The Arches’ and Yvvette Edwards’ ‘Warm and Toastie’ – disclose hidden acts of practical kindness that belie the notion that London is a city of unfeeling anonymity.

At the end of the book, each author recommends three of their own favourite London reads – a further treasure trove of writing to delve into if you want to explore London through its stories.

This anthology may be, as the cover insists, "Bad Advice. Limited Scope. No Practical Use." But it reveals London as lived, loved and (sometimes) loathed by Londoners themselves.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Love Across a Broken Map by the Whole Kahani;

Avoid if you dislike: Short story anthologies the jump from one style of story to another

Perfect Accompaniment: Your favourite London street food

Genre: Short Stories, London fiction, Anthology

Available from Amazon

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

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

What we thought: Gregory is in full flow in this tale of the last of Henry VII's wives, Kateryn Parr. She is perhaps the lesser known of the six, for she was the one to survive him, being neither divorced nor beheaded. She married the English monarch at thirty years of age. Old perhaps considering Henry could choose any wife he wanted, but still much younger than the king himself.

She bore Henry no children, which is unsurprising given that she bore neither of her first two husbands any children either. Most fascinating is her scholarly work, being the first English queen to publish a book under her own name.

In The Taming of the Queen, Gregory paints a very intimate portrait of Kateryn, and her relationship with the king, whom she frequently refers to as a wife killer. Henry's character is one of a man in pain, lashing out as the mood takes him, who plays games both for his own amusement but also because he lives in fear of everyone around him, distrustful of his courtiers and advisers, quite rightly paranoid of who is plotting against him.

His method of ruling and staying at the top until his dying day is to be admired in Gregory's prose, as is the two faces of Kateryn, an educated, learned woman who strives for betterment of the court, the step-children she inherits, and the learning of everyone, whilst showing another face to the king; one of simple obedience, masking her constant fear.

For anyone wanted to live and breathe the last days of Henry's court, this is well worth immersing yourself in.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Anything to do with the Tudors, the English monarchy, biographical-style fiction

Avoid if you don’t like: grumpy, childish kings, female first person narratives

Ideal accompaniments: pigeon pie, small ale, warm blanket

Genre: historical fiction

Available on Amazon

The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: When Ruby learns, on her thirteenth birthday, that Barbara and Mick are not her real parents, she runs out into the garden and sings for joy. As she lights the candles on her birthday cake, she imagines the twin stars of her parents, orbiting her head. “Come and get me,” she whispers.

That day, Ruby becomes a soul hunter. But the truth, she learns, is never that simple. Especially when the dead (like Shadow) are eager to share their messages with her but are less than clear as to what those messages are.

In this dark tale, it’s not always clear who is real and who is either a figment of Ruby’s imagination or a glimpse into the paranormal. Nor is it clear, as Ruby cuts herself loose from her abusive stepfather and goes in search of her parents, who are her protectors and who the deceivers out to harm her.

In parallel with Ruby’s story, we see, in an earlier timeline, the unfolding story of her mother’s rocky relationship with Lewis, Ruby’s father - the path that will end with Ruby living with Mick and Barbara.

The book is set in the Forest of Dean, and forest itself is a powerful force in the novel, which both draws and repels the characters that live among it.

At bottom, this is a story about the true nature family –and how to rebuild it when your first, biological family has been broken beyond repair.

You can watch Kate Hamer talking about this and her debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat, at the Triskele Lit Fest in Sept 2016 here.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Closure by Gillian E Hamer [no relation]; Kate Hamer's debut novel: The Girl in the Red Coat

Avoid If You Dislike: A touch of paranormal with your psychological thrillers

Perfect Accompaniment: Rabbit stew

Genre: Psychological Thriller

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Necessary Deaths by David C Dawson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: When a young student journalist apparently tries to commit suicide, his mother enlists her neighbour, lawyer Dominic Delingpole, to investigate what lies behind his drugs overdose. Delingpole and his flamboyant partner, gardener and opera singer Jonathan McFadden, soon uncover a conspiracy that may extend to the furthest reaches of the British establishment.

I have been wracking my brains to decide where The Necessary Deaths fits in the spectrum of Crime Fiction. It is certainly not a gritty police procedural, in the style of Ian Rankin or Val McDiarmid. But nor is it the cosy crime of Agatha Raisin or Midsummer Murders. I've decided Dominic Delingpole may be the modern successor to Albert Campion, the detective created by Margery Allingham – the least known and most underrated crime queen from Britain’s golden age of detective fiction.

Like Campion, Delingpole is an accidental detective - neither a policeman, nor a PI nor a forensic professional. While Campion operated in pre- and post-War London, in a world of slightly down-at-heel aristocracy and East End eccentrics, Delingpole’s world is the 21st Century gay scene, as experienced by a middle class professional. Within that world, Dawson, like Allingham, delivers a plot that has its bizarre moments, but not one that stretches credulity to breaking point. And Delingpole’s sweet, sexy, romantic relationship with his Jonathan mirrors Campion’s surprisingly modern love affair with his beloved Amanda.

The Necessary Deaths is rooted in London, Brighton and the Chiltern Hills. Its American publisher has, for the most part, let it remain quintessentially British, but here and there they have found it necessary to ‘explain’ English terms. So mobiles become cell phones and the M25 is described as a freeway. It's mostly done with a light touch, but it can be a little disconcerting for a British reader.

It’s also firmly rooted in the gay community. Gay characters are a confident majority, not a marginalised minority. And male bodies, not female that are appreciatively checked out.

In defiance of the stereotype of the detective as a loner with a troubled past, The Necessary Deaths delivers a warm picture of friendship and love. There is real jeopardy here, but also an ending that is sure to make you smile.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham, Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle, Human Rites by JJ Marsh.

Avoid If You Dislike: Crime that is gentle but not cosy; joyful celebration of love between men.

Perfect Accompaniment: Handel’s Rodelinda and a glass of prosecco

Genre: Crime, LGBTQ fiction

Available on Amazon

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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

What We Thought: In 1922 Count Alexander Rostov is classed as a Former Person in Soviet Russia but is spared Siberia (or worse) and sentenced instead to house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. Denied his usual extensive suite, he is moved to a 10ft-square room in the attic. With his books and the few pieces of his own furniture he can squeeze in, Rostov settles in to a life of routine and constraint.

Through his friendship with the nine-year-old Nina, daughter of an often absent official, he discovers that there is more to the hotel than he ever imagined. As the unlikely pair explore the Metropol from attic to basement, Rostov realises that his life has expanded rather than contracted under house arrest. Always ebulliant, urbane and charming, he befriends waiters, desk clerks, barbers and seamstresses.

Later, he takes a position as Head Waiter in his favourite in-house restaurant. There he develops friendships with Emile, the head chef, and Andrey, the maitre d’. When a stricter manager, who toes the party line, takes over the hotel the Triumverate, as they are known, cook secret meals and generally rise above the shortages of good food and wine without labels. As an old student pal tells him, being placed under house arrest has made him the luckiest man in Russia.

Meanwhile, Nina has grown up. When her husband is sent to a corrective institution she moves away from Moscow to be nearer to him, leaving her little daughter with Rostov temporarily. Nina never comes back and the Count becomes a father to six-year-old Sofia. So begin the further adventures of Alexander Rostov.

A Gentleman in Moscow is at first delightful and whimsical. As the book (and it’s fairly long) progresses through the 1930s, 40s and 50s we learn what Alexander’s privileged life was like before the Revolution and we see how he copes with his reduced circumstances. He shows us, through his strong friendships and open-heartedness, what true communism can be and what it means to be a gentleman in all senses of the word.

Beautifully written, amusing and entertaining, this is also a thought-provoking book. It truly is one to curl up with on a winter’s night.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Night Circus.

Avoid if you dislike: Good manners and whimsy.

Ideal accompaniments: The obvious would be a shot of vodka and some caviar but the Count would probably prefer a glass of Margaux.

Genre: Literary / Historical Fiction

Available from Amazon

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

My Counterfeit Self by Jane Davis

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: Jane Davis’s sixth novel, My Counterfeit Self, has three main characters and three interweaving story strands.

The first strand is the story of a lifelong relationship between a poet, a critic and a photographer – the complexities of which reveal themselves, layer by layer, as the novel unfolds.

The second is the story of an extraordinary mind emerging out of a struggle with both childhood neglect and childhood polio.

And the final strand is an account of the British anti-nuclear movement, starting with the Aldermaston march in 1958, and in particular of the fight for justice for the professional soldiers and National Servicemen whose lives were wrecked when they were ordered to act as observers in Britain’s nuclear test programme in the central Pacific in the 1950s and 60s.

Davis’s central character, Lucy, is an ‘activist poet’ – and in later life, ‘our greatest living female poet’ and someone in grave danger of being considered a national treasure. Davis wisely refrains from attempting to write poetry that lives up to this, and apart from a few stanzas, gives us just a glimpse of Lucy’s juvenile efforts – ‘Machine Girl’, the verses she wrote about her time confined in an ‘iron lung.’

“Underneath this layer of skin
This sitting down girl is made of
Pinking shears
A garden rake
Bicycle chains...”

Lucy was one of the lucky ones. She survived polio with only a chronic weakness in one leg to show for it. Deceptively tough, she has a lifetime putting herself in the way of controversy and risk, and of eschewing convention and risk. She reminds me of a childhood heroine of mine, the Canadian painter, Emily Carr, author of Klee Wick. Almost certainly not an easy person to live with in real life, Lucy is a joy to spend time with between the pages of a book.

My Counterfeit Self is a book that packs a punch beyond the realm of fiction – a piece of ‘activist fiction’ to stand in for Lucy’s imagined activist poetry.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler; The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories about childhood illness

Perfect Accompaniment: A cafetiere of coffee with a jug of warm frothed milk

Genre: Literary fiction, activist fiction

Available on Amazon

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: As a McEwan fan, this short book enthused and irritated me by turns. It’s an extraordinary premise, a domestic crime narrated by an unborn, and a retelling of a Shakespearean tragedy with a comic flair.

Our narrator, physically uncomfortable inside the womb and awkwardly worldly whilst not yet in it, is privy to a plot. His mother and uncle plan to kill his father and leave his own place fragile. Yet this is not the Danish court but St John’s Wood, home to the middle classes; poets, property developers and pretty girls in summer sandals.

As our hero is confined to his in utero existence, the reader is confined to the house. The various floors, the waste, the dust, the dilapidation take the role of proscenium arch, upon which the action plays. Even the entrances and exits are theatrical.

Trudy and Claude want John dead, so they can inherit the crumbling 7K worth family home. She’s pregnant and heavy in the London summer heat. He’s dull and stupid but eminently practical.

Our narrator, whose turn of phrase and panoramic perception comes apparently from listening to radio and podcasts through the wall of the womb, has elder statesman opinions and an innate self-interest.

The plot unwinds with more or less plausibility, the voice convinces more as author than character, but the stage action absorbs through character, quirk and hothouse environment. You leave this book with the sense of leaving the theatre – the director delivered an experience, just not one you might have expected.

A bit like being born.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, The Wimbledon Poisoner by Nigel Williams, Look Back in Anger by John Osborne

Avoid if you don’t like
: An unborn MC, a claustrophobic atmosphere, authorial intrusion

Ideal accompaniments: A bottle of Sancerre, a hard-boiled egg and Bach’s Air on G String

Genre: Literary fiction, contemporary

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Pearl Harbor and More: Stories of WWII: December 1941

Contributing Authors: R. V. Doon, Vanessa Couchman, Alexa Kang, Dianne Ashcroft, Margaret Tanner, Marin Kummerow, Robyn Hobusch Echols, Robert A. Kingsley

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

What we thought: Taking its title from the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941 pivotal event that changed the face of WWII, these eight short stories are as diverse as the eight contributing authors hailing from all over the globe, each one a war-time fiction author.

All so different –– set in Pearl Harbour, other parts of the USA, Singapore and Europe –– each one is enjoyable and engaging in its own way. The authors evoke a vision of the war from many different points of view: soldiers, women, Jews, French, and Japanese Americans, amongst others.

My particular favourite was The List by Vanessa Couchman, which has great potential to be expanded into an intriguing novel. But I would highly recommend all the stories in Pearl Harbor and More to lovers of historical fiction tales, notably WWII.

I received a free copy of this book from the authors.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: diverse stories against a backdrop of WWII 

Avoid if you don’t like: Wartime Historical Fiction

Ideal accompaniments: NOTHING Ersatz!

Genre: Historical Fiction - Short Story Collection

Available on Amazon