Wednesday 22 February 2017

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

One of those books I always wanted to read because my friends – the well-read and passionate sort – said I’d love it. They weren’t wrong.

This odd, thoughtful and deeply endearing story doesn’t look like a charmer from the outside.
Yet this novel of a German poet and philosopher, whose absorption and passion echoes so many young thinkers of the time, hypnotises from the first page.
It’s about ideas, life and death, the sublime and the banal.
It's about love – some requited, some not  – and the value of family.
It's about how to face a dangerous and cruel world in harsh times.

18th century Germany and Fritz von Hardenberg brings a friend home from university. It’s washday and the family’s linen is drying in the wind. Fritz is a poet and thinker and seeker of truth. His youthful convictions are alternately uplifting and frustrating.

The writing is at once considered and lively, luring the reader into these families, these wonderful, peculiar but fascinating characters, and this particular time and place. Fitzgerald’s characterisation is so delicate and deft, even within the historical period, you feel you know these people, you used to.
Especially The Bernhard.

Thought and the suspicion of the lack of it, good humour, intelligence and pragmatism are the cornerstones of this bright, unusual but thoroughly enjoyable novel.

I will read this again.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier, Raven by Thomas Strittmatter, or The Walk by Robert Walser

Avoid if you don’t like: Thought-provoking discussion, historical settings, broken hearts

Ideal accompaniments: An overflowing Stein of Weissbier, some dried meat with pickles and Mahler's Kindertotenlieder

Genre: Historical fiction

Available on Amazon

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History was written as a companion to the BBC television series of the same name, and has been shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize.

I had only seen the first, introductory episode of the series, so I approached the book fresh. At 526 pages (not counting end notes) it’s quite a tome, but I found myself racing through it, eager to find the next twist in the story. Olusoga’s style is highly readable, and he is adept at focusing in on individual stories that capture the imagination while still giving the big picture.

The book shows how the Black presence in Britain can be traced back to Roman times and has been a feature of life, particularly in London and other big cities, since Tudor times. It demonstrates how British economic interest, first in the slave trade itself and then in slave-produced cotton, warred for centuries with a mixture of the exalted belief that British air was ‘too pure for slaves to breathe’ and genuine courageous humanitarianism. It shows how anti-slave trade activity post-1807 led Britain into a century of African colonisation. And it shows how the ugliness of scientific racism and ‘social Darwinism’ overturned the comparative tolerance of the Georgian and early Victorian periods – when mixed-race marriages were relatively unremarkable and former slaves like Frederick Douglass could command audiences of thousands across the country – and blighted attitudes for a hundred years or more.

Britain may have been one of the first countries to outlaw the slave trade, but in the years before abolition, it was also its biggest player. As Olusoga shows, British involvement in the slave trade began in the early 17th C and gained the Royal seal of approval in 1672. In just the 20 years before the slave trade was outlawed by Act of Parliament in 1807, three quarters of a million slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas aboard British ships.

Britain has things to be proud of in the history of relations with its Black citizens, but much to be ashamed of too. In 1948, when my father was writing his MA thesis on West Indian workers in Liverpool (and he and my mother were courting in the city’s West Indian dance halls), a series of organised attacks were carried out on West Indian homes and businesses. They echoed attacks in 1919 that led to the murder of Bermudan sailor, Charles Wootton. And they would be echoed again in attacks carried out by the National Front in the 1970s and 80s.

Reading this book has been the latest skirmish in a long round of thinking-I-know-quite-a-lot-then-finding-out-how-ignorant-I-really-am. The process is humbling but also rather exhilarating. Still so much to learn – even at my time of life!

A powerful, emotional and eye-opening read - and timely, given the rise in racially motivated attacks that has sadly accompanied the Brexit vote.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Balti Britain by Ziauddin Sardar, The Long Song by Andrea Levy, Windrush: The Irresistible Rise Of Multi-Racial Britain by Mike and Trevor Phillips.

Avoid If You Dislike: Having your eyes opened and your preconceptions overturned

Perfect Accompaniment: A mug of tea and an open mind

Genre: Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

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

What we thought: I have a real soft spot for coming of age novels, right back to my schooldays when To Kill A Mockingbird was the first book that really made me ‘think’ rather than just to read as a form of light-hearted entertainment. So, I have to say that I totally adored The Trouble with Goats And Sheep and can’t wait to read more books by this author in the future.

It’s hard to believe this book is a debut novel, it reads like the thoughtfully crafted novel of a seasoned pro, who has long ago found their own style and is enjoying the thrill of trying new things. I found the style engaging and intelligent, a story, though written mostly through the eyes of ten-year-old Grace, is still written with a warmth and understanding that connects you with each and every character. Grace's relationship with best friend Tilly is one of the highlights of the book, and the discovery of the meaning behind the title was a real heartwarming moment for me. I won’t spoil the surprise, but it’s a wonderfully thought provoking scenario perfectly described by these two inquisitive young girls.

Set in the summer heatwave of 1976, the suburban East Midlands’ street is buzzing with intrigue following the sudden disappearance of one of the residents, Margaret Creasy. Seen through the naivety of Tilly and Grace, each of the characters and their associated flaws are examined, on their hunt to find God among the sculptured hedgerows and buried secrets of the street.

In a style reminiscent of JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, the author zooms in on the miniscule details of everyday life, laying bare the flaws and prejudices of the characters, and revealing long concealed secrets. There was little to find fault with in this novel. Research was well handled, raising a smile at the memory of long-forgotten Jackie magazines or Space Hopper toys. The story moved along at a superb pace, effortlessly guided by the author through the differing layers and threads that came together to make the whole.

This is a novel that stays with you long after you close the last page and I can’t wait for the next book from Joanna Cannon.

Highly recommended!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Craig Silvey, Harper Lee, J.K Rowling.

Avoid if you don’t like: The 1970s

Ideal accompaniments: Fish finger sandwiches with ketchup and a can of Tizer.

Genre: Contemporary.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday 15 February 2017

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new release, The Silent Kookaburra.

What we thought: The first of Christos Tsiolkas’ books I’ve read, I thoroughly enjoyed the honest, raw, in-your-face style of The Slap. At a backyard barbecue in suburban Melbourne, a man loses his temper and slaps a badly misbehaving child. This slap sets off a whole range of opinions, in which friends and families find themselves in battle against each other when the child’s parents take the offender to court.

Told through eight different viewpoints, this highly-acclaimed Greek-Australian author depicts our dishonesty, brutality, vanity, infidelity and homophobia, along with a whole plethora of other ugly traits. Coupled with the unbridled profanity, this is perhaps what has alienated many reviewers who have reacted badly to this story and to its very flawed characters. I did not find any of the grossness gratuitous. For me, it is simply the cold, harsh truth about humankind. It is human nature laid bare. Like it or lump it, this is what we are. These are the messy, nasty complications of relationships and family life, and I see the story as the author making a plea to his readers for understanding and tolerance; to lay aside prejudices against those different from ourselves.

Quite simply, a great book.

Listen to JJ Marsh’s interview with Christos Tsiolkas on Words With Jam here.

You’ll like this if you enjoy:
honest accounts of human nature

Avoid if you don’t like: blunt criticisms of the people in today’s world, profanity, adultery, homophobia.

Ideal accompaniments: barbecued lamb chops, a schooner of beer and a comfy chair in a leafy Aussie backyard.

Genre: General Contemporary Fiction

Available on Amazon

No Place by Katharine D'Souza

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

What we thought: This book ticks many of my boxes – particularly nosing into the intricate details of other peoples' lives - and the excellent use of location around my home town of Birmingham!

D’Souza has a wonderful writing style, both down to earth and believable, whilst still fluid and lyrical. I like how she handles the toughest of subjects, with the most delicate of touches, and takes the reader on an emotional journey that ensures her book is a page turner.

In No Place, we are introduced to Tanya and Geena Gill, who along with their father, live an ordinary life in an ordinary semi, in an ordinary street, in a suburb of Birmingham. But even in the most routine of lives, what is ever normal?

Tanya works as a radiographer at a local hospital, but has a deep desire to escape her life, and her sister, Geena, works in a local watch repair shop, but longs to design her own jewellery. Both girls know something is missing from their lives, and the reader soon realises much of their happiness is tied to the loss of their mother. And when their elderly father is traumatised by a racist incident on the bus, his changes in behaviour force all of the family towards a crossroads in their lives. And the secrets that emerge rock the family to the core.

I totally enjoyed this read and become engaged with the characters and drawn into their lives. The pacing, the writing skill, and the attention to deal captured my imagination. I loved the fact that what on the surface is a light-hearted look at family life, becomes, once the author cleverly reveals the layers beneath – a real tear-jerker of a story that has morals and life lessons all of its own.

Highly recommended!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jan Ruth, Liz Fenwick, Jojo Moyes.

Avoid if you don’t like: Family secrets and hidden lives.

Ideal accompaniments: Toasted teacakes and a Cappuccino.

Genre: Contemporary.

Available on Amazon

The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross


Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
“Missa Digga, it look to me like everyone on Camaho searching for somebody.”

Two cold cases twist and turn through the pages of The Bone Readers. Michael ‘Digger’ Digson needs to find the truth behind the death of his mother, killed when he was a young boy. And his boss, Detective Superintendent Chilman, is obsessed with the case of Nathan, a young man who disappeared and whose mother is convinced he was murdered.

Digger can read the story of a death in bones of a corpse – but only at night, when a tight beam of light in the dark shuts out all distractions.

Written by Granadan born Jacob Ross, The Bone Readers is crime fiction set on a tiny, fictional Caribbean island. But any similarity with Death in Paradise begins and ends there. Death in Paradise is a British tourist’s dream of a Caribbean island. This is the Caribbean as experienced by those that have lived there for generations.

Perhaps to avoid such comparisons, Peepal Press have given the book a cover that both verbally and visually references Ian Rankin’s Rebus books. But I am not sure that’s not doing it a disservice of a different sort. If you come to The Bone Readers expecting a classically constructed crime novel you may be disappointed. The Bone Readers does not begin in media res. Nor, for a significant chunk of the book, does it focus on solving a single crime.

Instead, it takes place over several years, tracking Digger’s career from his unconventional recruitment into the police force by the ageing, rum-soaked Chilman, via his training in forensics in London, to the confrontation that may finally solve both mysteries.

The multiple strands of the book all play on themes of sexual violence, sexual exploitation, gender power struggles and corruption. The women in the book are tough, shrewd, emotionally intelligent and they speak their minds. Yet they are trapped by male prejudice, male violence and the male stranglehold on power. Many carry scars from the sexual violence they have experienced.

Digger is trying to break out of that cycle. And the person who may help him do that – the yin to his yang – is Miss Stanislaus. If Digger reads bones, then Miss Stanislaus reads people. Between them they make a formidable, fearless detective pairing.

An unconventional crime novel, and one that exposes the dark underbelly of ‘paradise.’ Shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize in 2017.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Avoid If You Dislike: Crime Fiction that doesn’t plunge straight into the action

Perfect Accompaniment: Pepper fish soup and a tot of rum

Genre: Crime Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday 8 February 2017

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Calcutta ... Our Star in the East. We’d built this city ... where previously there had only been jungle and thatch. We’d paid our price in blood and now, we proclaimed, Calcutta was a British city. Five minutes here would tell you it was no such thing. But that didn’t mean it was Indian.”

A Rising Man is set in Calcutta in 1919. This is a time, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when the “Quit India” movement was beginning to gain momentum. When calls for violent uprising were clashing with Gandhi’s approach of non-violent noncooperation. When the British were doubling down on their control with an oppressive set of laws called the Rowlatt Acts.

And in the midst of this, a senior British civil servant is found murdered in the ‘wrong’ part of town, with piece of paper stuffed in his mouth inscribed with a subversive slogan.

Like Leye Adenle in Easy Motion Tourist, Mukherjee has chosen an outsider to tell the story. Captain Sam Wyndham, scarred from his experiences in the trenches and the death of his wife, and newly arrived in India, doesn’t carry the same baggage at the old Imperial hands (though he is conscious of how easy it is to start absorbing their prejudices). He is still looking at things with a relatively open mind, seeing things that Calcutta residents – both British and Indian – might take for granted.

Every good fictional detective needs a sidekick, and Wyndham’s is Detective Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, known (because British tongues can’t manage anything too complicated) as Surrender-Not. English educated, intelligent and articulate, he is caught between ubiquitous Imperial contempt for ‘natives’ and his family’s disapproval of his working for British rule as part of the police force.

Thus the scene is set for an investigation continually hampered both by political infighting between civilian and military authorities, and by the distorting lens of colonialism and prejudice. What was a British civil servant doing outside a brothel in ‘Black Town’? Is his death really the work of terrorists and revolutionaries? And will Wyndham get to the truth before the military exercise their own brand of summary justice?

Mukherjee takes you down into the streets of Calcutta, from the stinking gullees of Black Town and the opium dens of Tiretta Bazaar, to the poky guesthouses for the itinerant British, where “the mores of Bournemouth were exported to the heat of Bengal,” the maroon-painted colonial neo-classical buildings of the Imperial civil service and the exclusive clubs of the rich, mini Blenheim Palaces sporting signs that declare ‘No dogs or Indians beyond this point.’ We hear the ‘cacophony of dogs, crows and cockerels’ that make up Calcutta’s dawn chorus. And we absorb the rigidly hierarchical attitudes that assign everyone a place and make sure they stay there.

This novel, shortlisted for the 2017 Jhalak Prize for fiction, will teach you a lot about British Imperialism. But it is also a damn fine thriller that keeps you turning the pages right to the very end. And, in Wyndham and Banerjee, sets up a promising partnership for future adventures.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Finding Takri by Palo Stickland, Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle, Devil’s Porridge by Chris Longmuir

Avoid if you dislike: Eye-opening history lessons with your crime fiction

Perfect Accompaniment: Hilsa and a glass of whisky

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

Unyielding: Love and Resistance in WWII Germany by Marion Kummerow

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new release, The Silent Kookaburra.

What we thought: After being very moved by Unrelenting, the author’s first non-fictional account in her WWII Love and Resistance trilogy, I was really looking forward to this sequel.

 Unyielding is as equally heart-breaking, informative and packed with suspense, tracing the story of her grandparents, who belonged to the German Resistance, in their battle against the Nazi regime. Through their friends and family, we also learn of the terrible hardships that faced not only the Jews, but most Germans, during WWII.

Infused with the love and humour of this most engaging couple, as they honeymoon in Europe, then start a family, and deal with different relatives, the author paints a very realistic view of that terrible era. The suspense of their resistance activities, coupled with the fact that people had to be careful about what they said, and to whom, since comments about the Nazi party often proved fatal, make this a riveting read.

And since Unyielding ends in such a suspenseful, terrifying situation, I can't wait to read the last book of this trilogy!

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Bravery tales about World War II resistance fighters. Book 1 in the trilogy: Unrelenting.

Avoid if you don’t like:
tragic war stories

Ideal accompaniments:
plate of Schlachtplatte and a stein of beer

Historical non-fiction

Available on Amazon

Ebbing Tides by F.K. Sewell

Reviewer: Jerome Griffin

What we thought: Ebbing Tides, the second instalment in the Black Feather Trilogy, is much darker and more sinister than the first novel, The Kestrel, and plots a course for Alex and his crewmates into the murky waters of uncharted territory.

The story opens with an unexpected and unwanted surprise: Captain Nathaniel Winters has disappeared and been replaced by the callous, vindictive and largely incompetent Captain Grahams. With nepotism being alive and well, Grahams has hand-picked a number of sycophantic associates to join the officers and crew on board and this motley collection of cretins and thugs see to it that the original crew are kept in check.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, The Kestrel is being hunted by the Vliet brothers looking for revenge, as well as the ghost of a ship that they had previously sunk. As the stakes rise and the new captain’s ineptitude leads to one disastrous decision after another, the original crew begin to plot a mutiny led by the fiery Vesta Calida.

The volatile former first mate, who has been demoted to the rank of quartermaster under the command of Grahams, really comes into her own in this book and her strength and courage continually shine through her battle-scarred body. She leads by example and intelligence and uses her expertise as a sailor to protect her crew and get them through many a sticky situation.

In the meantime, Alex and Kitty’s friendship blossoms into something more and adds depth to their characters. Indeed, one of Sewell’s strengths as an author is relationship development and she delicately plucks at the reader’s empathy strings with all the main characters.

In contrast to The Kestrel, Ebbing Tides has less action, but greater tension, which makes for a more gripping read. The plot and drama are still there, and even though it always feels as though it is the middle of the story, it still moves on apace and keeps the wind in its sails. In many ways, it put me in mind of The Empire Strikes Back as the real meat in the Star Wars story, with Ebbing Tides fulfilling a similar role in the Black Feather tale.

If the finale can deliver a Return of the Jedi, F.K. Sewell will have delivered a wonderfully accomplished saga.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Pirate tales and strong female characters.

Avoid if you dislike: Adventure series

Ideal accompaniments: Spiced rum punch and winter warming stew!

Genre: Historical fiction, adventure

Wednesday 1 February 2017

Here I Stand: Stories That Speak For Freedom by Amnesty International

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: A crucial collection of stories with the aim of bringing home the importance of human rights. The target audience is young adult, but these stories pack a pile-driver punch for any age group.

Artists such as Neil Gaiman, Jackie Kay, Matt Haig, Chibundu Onzuno, Amy Leon, John Boyne, A.L. Kennedy, Bali Rai, Chris Riddell and Sita Bramachari tackle subjects ranging across abuse, trafficking, asylum-seeking, FGM, religious extremism, women’s suffrage, indigenous people and pollution.

Through stories. Personal, individual stories, drawing the reader into empathy and loyalty when confronted by the struggles of the varied protagonists.

No lectures here, just slices of individual experience which underline the hardships and injustice suffered so many young people. It’s not neat, sweet or sparkly, but it is compelling. Good writing makes you feel and this book is stuffed with feeling.

The majority are short stories, interjected with poetry and visual narratives, ending with an interview with Chelsea Manning. Each piece is short, leaving you time to think and digest between. It’s not an easy read, but one you feel glad to have experienced. I would recommend for everyone.

This is a golden opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes and acknowledge one’s own responsibility and power. It’s also a salutary reminder of why we should never stop fighting for human rights.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Animal Farm, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, Nervous Conditions, A Thousand Splendid Suns, anything by Judy Blume.

Avoid if you don’t like: Harsh truths about the way some people are forced to live.

Ideal accompaniments: Unsweetened homemade lemonade, fish jerky and the sound of a distant train.

Available on Amazon

Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

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

What We Thought: When her mother is imprisoned for violent crimes against children, 15 year old Milly is sent to a foster home. Her foster father is a psychologist and it soon becomes apparent that he intends to make a study of Milly and her mother.

Traumatised by her home life Milly is more than happy to fit in to her new family in the hope that the arrangement will become permanent. With a flaky foster mother and a jealous foster sister, however, all is not plain sailing.

While Phoebe, her ‘sister’, who is in the same class at the private school the girls attend, does everything she can to make her life a misery, Milly attempts to rise above the challenges presented. Bullied by the other girls who side with Phoebe, Milly draws comfort from her friendship with a younger girl from the local sink estate. She is determined not to be like her mother and harms herself in an effort not to harm others.

Despite her best efforts things do not go smoothly. Humiliated after a crush on a teacher is repudiated, she discovers secrets which both anger her and give her power. Though outwardly well-behaved she finds ways to cause trouble for those who hurt her and shows through inner dialogue her dismissal of the adults who are trying to help her.

This is a novel with an unreliable narrator, where truths are hidden and instincts suppressed. The ending is shocking but once revealed it is obvious that everything has been leading up to this and that no other outcome could be possible. I was gripped throughout.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in return for an honest review.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Gone Girl, Girl on a Train etc

Avoid if you dislike: Books involving teenagers.

Ideal accompaniments: A bag of wine gums to chew anxiously.

Genre: Psychological Crime.

Available on Amazon