Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Yesterday by Felicia Yap

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

In the crowded field of Crime Thrillers, it is not easy to find a truly original concept, but Felicia Yap might have done just that.

I first came across Yap last year, when the opening chapter of Yesterday was one of two pieces chosen for the National Academy of Writing’s Public Edit. I loved the idea behind the book and told her so. Just a few weeks later, I wasn’t a bit surprised to learn that it had been the subject of a bidding war at the 2016 London Book Fair.

I am thrilled, therefore, to have the chance to read an Advance Review Copy of Yesterday.

In Yap’s world – in other respects indistinguishable from ours – people have total vivid recall of everything that happened to them in either the previous 24 hours (Monos) or 48 hours (Duos). Beyond that, they remember only the facts they record at the end of each day in their iDiaries.

Into this mix comes a woman whose memories work like ours. Sophia remembers the hurt that was done to her twenty years earlier, and she is bent on revenge. So why is she the one who ends up dead? And how can detective Hans Richardson solve her murder when he has less than twenty-four hours before his memories are wiped?

The story unfolds from four points of view: the detective, a husband and wife whose lives are somehow entangled with Sophia’s, and Sophia herself, speaking from the pages of her iDiary. The text is also peppered with newspaper articles and other extracts that serve to flesh out this world for us.

It’s good to see publishers embrace a book that dares to cross the boundary between Crime Thriller and SciFi. Yap has worked through the ramifications of her world – from the practical aspects of life through the social mores and hierarchies that develop, to the impact on love itself. The reader can relax and go along for the ride, knowing they are in confident hands.

Like Matt Haig’s The Humans, this debut is a fun read that manages to sneak in some penetrating questions - in this case, about how memory affects both our relationships and our sense of self. In the end, the least human character among them is the one most like ourselves.

This is the first of a trilogy and I look forward to seeing where Yap takes this next.

Watch Yap discuss her writing secrets with fellow authors at the Triskele Lit Fest, Sept 2016.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Humans by Matt Haig, The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, The Lives and Loves of a She Devil by Fay Wheldon

Avoid if You Dislike:
Crossing genres

Perfect Accompaniment: Bacon sandwich and a coffee

Genre: Crime, Sci Fi

Available on Amazon

False Rumours by Danae Penn

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

For lovers of history, this book will steep you in the society, politics, culture and environment of the fifteenth century of France and Britain. 

Belina Lansac works in the cathedral at Condom, a well-known stop for the pilgrims on the route to Santiago in Northern Spain. When her detective husband is summoned away, he leaves her with a task. Find out who poisoned the pilgrim. 

Belina is left to her own wits as she attempts to piece together any information about this atypical 'pilgrim' with precious coins sown into his cloak and suspiciously smooth skin. Her attempts are aided by a foreigner, Philippe Barvaux, a charming and well connected Fleming, whose interest in Belina and her activities are intense.

As her investigations progress, she begins to appreciate how complex the web of connections and political intrigue are and how the trail of influence goes all the way to the top. Powerful men and women are scheming to gain the throne of England and if that means murdering two young princes, so be it. Belina holds their fate in her hands.

A rich, dense story of cunning machinations, set in a fully realised historical setting, brought to vivid life through the eyes of Belina. Every element from weather to architecture feels authentic and vivid, as if you are stepping back in time. Hence the tension of the plot becomes as real as any detective story. One to absorb slowly and enjoy the attention to detail, before emerging stunned and blinking back into reality.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Auberge des Anges series by Liza Perrat, David Penny's Thomas Berrington historical mysteries or the intrigue and plot of Ann Swinfen.

Avoid if you don’t like: History and period detail, gradual plot development.

Ideal accompaniments: Honeycakes, a carafe of Bordeaux and a few Franco-Flemish Renaissance tunes

Genre: Historical fiction, historical crime

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Good Immigrant (ed: Nikesh Shukla)

How do I even begin to review a book like The Good Immigrant?

If you have been paying attention, you will know that the book began life as a crowdfunding enterprise on Unbound. As Shukla writes in his Editor’s Note, it exists “because <immigrants > are done justifying our place at the table.”

The book is a collection of 21 essays revealing the reality of the immigrant experience in Britain today. Its authors are novelists, playwrights, poets, journalists, actors, comedians and teachers. It clearly touched readers, because it won the Books Are My Bag Readers’ Awards Book of 2016, beating both Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Girl on the Train. And yet it undeniably makes [white] readers uncomfortable too. When three of the authors spoke on a panel at the 2017 Hay Festival, audience members walked out when they were challenged to reform their own communities. <From a thread by @chimenesuleyman on Twitter, 30th May 2017>.

The title itself is a swipe at the notion of the ‘good immigrant’ – that imagined exception to the rule that allows us to go on denigrating the rest.

The essays are as varied as the backgrounds of the authors. Nikesh Shukla’s ‘Namaste’ takes on the casual, shallow cultural appropriation that results in such absurdities as a menu offering Chicken Chuddhi (literally Chicken Underpants). Author Chimene Suleyman’s ‘My Name is My Name’ recounts her Turkish Cypriot family’s tragic history. Journalist Kieran Yates describes the culture shock of returning to India in ‘On Going Home’. While in ‘Is Nish Kumar a Confused Muslim?’ the comedian discovers he has accidentally become an internet meme.

Reni Eddo Lodge (author of the recently published Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race) – rebels against ‘respectability politics’. Teacher Darren Chetty describes the frustrations of convincing children that stories don’t have to be about white people. Coco Khan navigates the hazards of dating. Sabrina Mahfouz explores the relationship between immigration and the fashion industry. And Inua Ellams describes a journey across Africa pursuing the viral hashtag #IfAfricaWasABar.

If any group is erased more than any other in modern Britain, arguably it is those from East Asia (China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Thailand...) Actor Vera Chok and author Wei Ming Kam both tackle cultural stereotypes, while actor and screenwriter Daniel York Loh writes about the one childhood hero he felt he could identify with and how he lost his illusions.

If we British are tempted to feel smug that ‘at least we are not the USA,’ actor Riz Ahmed describes how, in the aftermath of 9/11, he was slammed up again the wall by the customs officer at Heathrow, and how he is still picked so regularly for ‘random’ searches at airport security he’s started to call some of the personnel ‘uncle’.

The book closes with poet and broadcaster Musa Okwonga growing weary of the constant expectation of gratitude. And indeed, as the book shows, if we take the scales from our eyes, the host country has as much and more to be grateful to its immigrants for – and shows it only too rarely.

This book is would be an important read at any time, but in a climate of increasing hostility to immigrants, when the country seems intent on putting up barriers instead of reaching out its hands, it is vital.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Country of Refuge (ed: Lucy Popescu) Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates

Avoid if you dislike: having your preconceptions challenged

Perfect Accompaniment: A sample of world cuisine you’ve never tried before (washed down with a slice of humble pie)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays

Available on Amazon

Her Deadly Secret by Chris Curran

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:
Curran's previous novels, Mindsight and Her Turn To Cry blend contemporary lives with the shadows of the past to unsettling effect. Her Deadly Secret creates the same insidious fear in the reader, building uncertainty and doubt in whom we can trust. Each novel is a standalone, so if this is your first, you have more treats in store.

Joe and Hannah's daughter is missing. Lily is only fourteen so they are in a blind panic. Naturally, the searchlight of suspicion falls on the family, turning up surprises. In a parallel storyline, Rose watches the news coverage of missing Lily, forcibly reminded of the loss of her own sister at a similar age. Murdered in the family home.

The two stories connect in a dark and uncomfortable echo, but it's not only the past which is threatened. The danger is present and closer than anyone realises.

The characters' determination to maintain a normal life despite their traumas draws the reader into the emotional tension and dials it up to breaking point.

This is book to devour in one greedy sitting, flipping the pages as the pace increases to the shocking conclusion. And if you're familiar with Hastings, you'll relish the detail of the setting. It adds both beauty and drama, rooting believable characters in a real place.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Mindsight, Her Turn To Cry, The Ellen Kelly Series by Sheila Bugler or The Gold Detective Series by Gillian E. Hamer.

Avoid if you don’t like: Psychological drama, police procedurals, the agony of losing a child.

Ideal accompaniments: Bitter lemon with ice, fish and chips in newspaper and a sea breeze blowing through your hair.

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon

Oppression by Dianne Noble

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new release, The Silent Kookaburra.
In the cold and foggy north of England, Beth tries, unsuccessfully, to prevent the abduction and forced marriage of 16-year-old Layla. She then defies her dominating and controlling husband, Duncan, and travels to Cairo. 
In the vast necropolis called the City of the Dead, she finds, and helps, Leyla, who is hiding from her abusive husband and inciting fellow Muslim women to rebel against the oppression under which they exist.
The author immediately drew me into this story of women battling the violence of men, both in the UK and Egypt, and their fight against traditions, religion and oppression. 
It shows us how women the world over can develop strong kinships despite their religion, race or upbringing. She also excellently evoked the political unrest in which Beth becomes caught up in, as well as the heat, squalor and smells of Egypt.
The reader can’t help but cheer on the well-drawn characters of Beth and Layla, and the other women in this story, in their battle. The realisation, once again, is drummed home of how fortunate I am not to live under such an oppressive regime.
This was the first novel I’d read by Dianne Noble, and I’m really looking forward to reading her other books. Very entertaining and educational!
You’ll like this if you enjoy: contemporary women's fiction set against exotic foreign backdrops.
Avoid if you don’t like: violence and injustice against females.

Ideal accompaniments: mashed fava beans on pita bread, washed down with mint tea.

Genre: Women’s Fiction, suspense.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear by James Shapiro

Review by Catriona Troth

What we thought:
I first heard the name James Shapiro when I was lucky enough to interview the curators of the 2012 exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World at the British Museum. They had cited 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare as an influential source and, inspired by that terrific exhibition, I bought the book.

1606, the follow-on book, again focuses on a single year – a remarkable one both for Britain and for Shakespeare.

As Shapiro notes, we think of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan playwright. But some of his greatest plays were written after the accession of James I, when as a member of the King’s Men, he had exceptional access to the goings-on at court.

1606 is three years into James’ reign. The country is still absorbing the shock of the Gunpowder Plot when, on the 5th November 1605, parliament and monarchy came within a whisker of being wiped out in a single night. In the year that follows that near miss, as the plotters are hunted down, Shakespeare writes not one, but three of his most important tragedies – King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra.

Shapiro’s fascinating narrative painstakingly uncovers the source material for those three plays and shows how the dangerous politics of the times interweave with the plays - and with Shakespeare’s own life.

Even if you know the plays well, it is easy, at more than 400 years’ remove, to miss the subtle references that Shakespeare stitched into his texts. Indeed he seems to have been exceptionally politically astute as – unlike his contemporaries Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe – he seems to have stayed largely out of trouble while still providing powerful commentary on events unfolding around him. Shapiro rebuilds those lost connections and allows us to glimpse how the plays must have been received by their first audiences – inside the court and out.

A compelling read for historians and Shakespeare lovers alike.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare by James Shapiro; Shakespeare: The World As A Stage by Bill Bryson

Avoid if you dislike immersing yourself in detailed scholarship. Or if you’re a Shakespeare conspiracy theorist.

Perfect Accompaniment: A mug of ale and a DVD of your favourite performance of Lear, Macbeth or Anthony and Cleopatra

Genre: Non-fiction, History

Available on Amazon

Frenchman's Creek by Daphne Du Maurier

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

What we thought: Spending a week near Falmouth, and enjoying the numerous nooks and creeks of the Helford river and the Lizard peninsular inspired me to download the audio version of Du Maurier’s famous novel.

Perhaps it was enhanced by being in the area, but I found the atmosphere and setting of the novel one of my favourite points. The description of the river, the bird life and stormy seas were as accurate today as back in the times when pirates roamed the woods and threatened the locals.

The plot itself also engaged me. Lady Donna St Colomb swaps a life in London that has become shallow and pointless, and buries herself away in her husband’s ancestral Cornish estate, Navron. Here she chooses life as a hermit, burying herself in nature and enjoying raising her children in a beautiful, natural environment. Her heady days of London seem a million miles ago and adventure is the last thing on her mind.

But when she stumbles across a pirate ship hidden in a creek on the estate, she becomes embroiled in the biggest adventure of her life. With her heart and brain set on two different roads, when her husband arrives from London to see her, she has to make some serious choices about where the rest of her life will take her. Which will win – head or heart?

The style of the writing, both in pace and style and POV, are very different to modern day novels but this only adds to the enjoyment of this wonderful classic. There is is still enough page-turning drama to keep the reader hooked right to the conclusion, but with a more sedate and delicate style than I am used to. Du Maurier’s writing is effortless, and the characters are perfectly drawn in both style and dialogue.

I’m already planning to try another novel by the author – and may well have to take another journey to Cornwall to accompany it!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jane Austen, Catherine Cookson, Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Avoid if you don’t like: Cornwall and pirates.

Ideal accompaniments: Cornish clotted cream and strawberry jam with scones.

Genre: Literary Fiction.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Close to Me by Amanda Reynolds

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

A woman wakes up, lying at the bottom of the stairs, her husband crouching beside her. And the only memories she has of the past twelve months come in a few tantalising flashes that cause her to doubt everything she knows about her life.

Jo and Rob have been married 24 years. They have two grown up children. They are happy, aren’t they? So why does she keep thinking, “I don’t want him near me!”

As Jo starts to piece together her fragments of memory and to chase down what happened during that lost year, the narrative unfolds in two parallel timelines – one starting the day of the fall and the other one year earlier, on the day they dropped their son off at university. In between, something fractured their marriage. Something Rob doesn’t want her to remember.

With Rob mediating everything she is told about the past, the familiar details of their lives take on a sinister cast and their dream home – a converted barn on top of a windswept hill – begins to feel like a prison. Is Rob caring and concerned? Or controlling and dangerous? And which one of them is responsible for poisoning their marriage? The glimpses Jo has of her own behaviour seem far from innocent. Reynolds skilfully manages the balance of doubt, right to the very end.

It’s refreshing to find a powerful psychological thriller whose lead character is a woman in her fifties. Reynolds creates an entirely believable portrait of a marriage and the pitfalls of ‘empty nest syndrome,’ when the cracks in a relationship are ruthlessly exposed.

A taut and thoroughly enjoyable debut.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Avoid If You Dislike: Narratives split over two timelines

Perfect Accompaniment:
Vodka and tonic

Genre: Psychological Thriller

Available on Amazon

These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett ( author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and Don’t Look Down.

What We Thought: Number 37 sits at the meeting of two streets in Paris’s 5th Arrondisement. The apartment block houses a variety of tenants including Edward, a young Englishman who is visiting his French girlfriend Emilie, who is currently away. Her aunt, Frederique, lives in another part of the block. Chantal and Cesar live on a lower floor and Anais lives on the second floor with her husband and children. The caretakers, the Marins live on the ground floor where Mme Marin has a hairdressing salon.

Frederique runs a hidden bookshop at the back of the inner courtyard. She always says hello to Josef, a homeless man who camps in a doorway across the street and lends him her newspapers. She seems to know his business as he does hers. Edward is intrigued by this.

New tenants, Muslims, move in. The residents are divided in their opinions; some like Mme Duval, being antagonistic and some are supportive; others, like Cesar, get caught up in things they did not intend. Against this background and the heat of a Paris summer secrets begin to be revealed, attitudes displayed and events unfold on the larger world stage.

An attack at Notre-Dame means all public buildings have to be evacuated, including the Louvre while Edward is there. Violence erupts and there is trouble on the streets. The tenants of No.37 cannot avoid being involved. People are hurt, passions run high and the new Muslim tenants are targeted. Meanwhile an affaire blossoms.

Will Chantal and Cesar ever recover from their estrangement? Will Anais find the strength to go on? Will Mme Duval leave the new tenants alone to get on with their lives? And will Edward finally realise where he needs to be?

This novel is a fascinating account of a varied cast of people, all with their own problems and destinies. It is well written and a very enjoyable read.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Plenty of different characters and plot strands.

Avoid if you dislike: A small amount of graphic violence.

Ideal accompaniments: Chilled gin and lime in a tall glass to roll across your brow.

Genre: General/Literary Fiction