Thursday, 20 December 2018

When Trouble Sleeps by Leye Adenle

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
Two years ago, when I interviewed Leye Adenle for Words with Jam, I was privileged to read an early draft of the opening scene of When Trouble Sleeps. He’s kept me waiting a long time to find out what happened next, but it was worth the wait!

For this second thriller, Adenle takes us back to Lagos, this time with Amaka taking centre stage as the main point of view character.

Amaka is the founder of Street Samaritans, an organisation that seeks to protect Lagos’s many sex workers. And she is on the trail of the men who runs The Harem, a secret brothel in the depths of the countryside that caters to the very worst tastes of the rich and powerful.

When, following a bizarre plane crash, one of these men unexpectedly becomes a candidate for governor of Lagos, Amaka’s quest becomes not just about preventing the sexual exploitation of young women, but about challenging corruption at the very heart of Nigerian politics.

And of course, Amaka is clever enough to fool them all. If she can only live long enough.

Adenle’s technique of using multiple points of view gives his writing a filmic quality. (And these are books that are surely crying out for adaptation.) Amaka’s Lagos is as brutal and unforgiving as The Wire’s Baltimore. But Adenle gives us a textured and multi-layered picture of Nigerian life, from the market stall holders to the mega-rich, from the police officers honouring one of their own, to the ruthless discarding of political failure. His compassion and respect for the sex workers of Lagos, so clear in Easy Motion Tourist, still shines through here.

This is a tale of one remarkable woman taking on Nigeria’s own House of Cards. If you haven’t yet sampled crime fiction from Africa, this is a great place to start.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle, The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal, Girl Zero by AA Dhand

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories that focus on sexual exploitation

Perfect Accompaniment: Pounded yam and a bottle of Guinness

Genre: Crime Fiction

Available on Amazon

Roma Nova Extra by Alison Morton

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

This is the perfect companion volume to The Roma Nova series. But even if you'd not read one of these alternative history books, you'd enjoy this as a standalone.

A selection of short stories which go off at a tangent from the novels, or fill in some of the gaps. Each has its own identity, characters and narrative arc, while nestling comfortably under the overarching premise of a Roman empire that never died, but run by men and women as equals.

The stories are divided into two sections - Glimpses from the Past, and Modern Times. The author's grasp on historical and imagined detail from AD 370 to the present and into the future of 2029 are convincingly grounded, allowing the reader a privileged insight into another world.

I was expecting intrigue, powerful women, action and excitement as an avid reader of the Roma Nova series, but the romantic element took me by surprise. Here is love: for one's family, country, potential partner and even a statue. It is touching and moves you when you least expect it.

One of the elements I enjoyed most was the connections between each tale. The reader recognises physical and personality traits through the generations, relishing how the protagonist of one tale becomes an influential ancestor in another. It is like being privy to a dynasty that never existed.
But you really wish it had.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Roma Nova Series, The Power by Naomi Alderman, or Code Name Lise by Larry Loftis

Avoid if you don’t like: Alternative history, wide-ranging timelines, strong women

Ideal accompaniments: Mead (powerful yet sweet), cheese, grapes and a crisp apple with Nabucco playing in the background.

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Karna’s Wheel by Michael Tobert

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett – author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn and other books

What We Thought: There are two Stephens in this book – the grandfather and the grandson – both from Dundee, the city of jute. Stephen the younger inherits his grandfather’s notebooks when his half-Indian mother mysteriously dies and decides he wants to work them up into a film script. He is assisted in this endeavour by the Leprechaun-like Séamus and at times it is unclear who is writing the script as Séamus takes on Stephen's writing persona and Stephen takes on Séamus’s version of himself. Identities are fluid it seems.

Stephen the grandfather works in the jute mills in the early 20th century but after falling out of favour moves to India, only to work in the jute mills there. He falls in love with Ranjana, a radical supporter of Home Rule and finds himself torn between the British Raj and the Indian people fighting for their rights.

Stephen the grandson lives in St Andrews and is obsessed with Julia who says she comes from Provideniye but Julia demands more honesty and openness from him than he is capable of giving. Only by revealing truths about himself and his estranged mother can he draw Julia back to him. However, Stephen’s obsession with himself is perhaps greater than his obsession with Julia.

His mother, Kitty, had her own secrets, in which Stephen seems largely uninterested, despite a police enquiry into her activities.

No one is quite who they seem in this book and everyone has secrets, or at least hidden aspects of themselves. The language is at times exquisite and at times prosaic. The novel experiments with dialect but gives it up as unnecessary – as indeed it is for the voices of different nationalities are clear enough without it. Form is also occasionally part of the experiment, as is structure, but this is not a difficult book to read. It hints at Joyce but never quite goes down that road.

Mysterious and compelling, the story draws one in and though the sections on Karna, the Hindu god, are often obscure, in the end it is a fulfilling read.

I received a free ebook from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Novels with various intertwining strands.
Avoid If You Dislike: Mildly experimental works.

Perfect Accompaniment: A pint at The Rook.

Genre: Literary/General Fiction

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Life After Men (A Silver Sex Kittens Short Story #1) by Jean Gill and Karen Charlton

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of the French Historical, The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new Australian 1970s series: The Silent Kookaburra and The Swooping Magpie.

What we thought: What a heart-warming and entertaining short story! Well, long short story really.

Being of a similar age, mid-50s, I could readily identify with the two main characters: Carys and Moira, just enjoying life and attempting to do the things they were always afraid of doing, or never got the opportunity, earlier in life.

We are introduced to other “Sex Kittens” in this story –– single, divorced or widowed women –– creating a humorous, warm-hearted and supportive circle of friends for future stories.

This story might not be long, but already we can see the characters changing, accepting their new life circumstances, and trying to make the best of them –– something with which many women of this age are faced. A situation that can be challenging, when one’s bloom of youth has faded, and when you lack the heart or stamina to “begin again”.

However, this story, the first of many in this series I believe, gives us hope that starting over is, in fact, possible. And maybe even enjoyable.

Funny, witty, laugh-out-loud, I would highly recommend Life After Men and I can’t wait for the next “Sex Kittens” story.

Avoid if you don’t like: Coming of Age stories featuring older women.

Ideal accompaniments: A glass of chilled white wine and some 80s music.

Genre: chick lit, humorous, short story

Available on Amazon

Distortion by Gautam Malkani

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Two elements combine in Gautam Malkani’s second novel to create a narrative as fractured and arresting as the image on its cover.

The first, drawn in part on his own personal experience, is the burden placed on the shoulders of young carers, distorting the parent-child relationship and forcing them to grow up well before their time.

The second is the insidious influence of the technology behind search engines and social media, which sucks in knowledge about us, our habits and preferences, and feeds back to us what we want to see – not what we need to know.

Dhilan’s mother has had cancer since he was nine years old. With an absent father and an NHS that can afford only limited home support, he has become her carer through a cycle of illness and remission so long-drawn out it has become his whole life. Now a university student, he has split his life into three: Dhilan, the carer, Dillon, who has a precarious relationship with his girlfriend Ramona, and Dylan, who earns money through a small start-up company digitising old analogue material like newspaper articles. Using these, and with a web of lies that go back so far even he doesn’t know where they begin, he walks a precarious tightrope between his different lives.

Each identity has its own online identity and search history, and so the data he sees fed back to him varies wildly. Perhaps that is why the mysterious ‘botched Botox man’ latches on to him as a person to lecture about the evils of the Internet. Or perhaps that has something to do with Dhilan’s father, a one-time journalist who seems to have left no footprint at all on the digital world.

As Dhilan’s mother enters the terminal stages of cancer, is Dillon/Dylan off chasing phantom’s, or is he about to uncover something of vital importance?

Malkani has always been a master of language. In his debut novel, Londonstani, he invented a hybrid language for his south London characters to prevent the novel from dating as fast as each generation’s slang. Here, Dhilan invents words that fill gaps in meaning that standard English cannot meet – like prettyful, which means neither pretty nor beautiful, but which he uses to describe his dying mother.

This book reads like a cry of rage – rage on the one hand at the expectations placed on young carers, and on the other, rage at the cynical exploitation, by mega-corporations and others, of the data we willingly and blindly feed them, and the distortion of the glorious possibility the Internet once offered.

Not an easy book to read, but a breathtaking one. One that feels timely and decisive and necessary.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Londonstani by Gautam Malkani, Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi, The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

Avoid If You Dislike:
Unflinching description of the last stages of death by cancer

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of milky tea and a digital detox.

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The Swooping Magpie by Liza Perrat

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett – author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn and other books

What We Thought: It's 1969 and 15 year-old Lindsay Townsend is ready to fall in love. She sets her sights on Jon Halliwell, a young teacher, and does everything she can to snare him. She succeeds in capturing his attention only to discover later that she is the one who has been snared. As the Swinging Sixties slide into the sexually liberated Seventies some things are still taboo.

This is a poignant story which points up the dark underbelly of the rock 'n roll years. Opportunities are opening up and conventions being ignored but for some, the new freedoms are an illusion.

Beautifully written, as is all of Liza Perrat's work, this novel is at times graphic in its exploration of the unpleasant, and lush in its descriptions of natural beauty. The sun, sand and heat of Australia are almost tangible but grime and sordidness are not far away. A gripping and emotional rollercoaster of a novel.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat.

Avoid If You Dislike: Depictions of childbirth.

Perfect Accompaniment: A long cool drink - but avoid the gin.

Genre: Domestic Drama/General Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

The Shattered Drum by C.P. Lesley (Legends of the Five Directions Book 5)

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of the French Historical, The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new Australian 1970s series: The Silent Kookaburra and The Swooping Magpie.

What we thought: If you want to immerse yourself in fast-paced, suspenseful adventures of 16th century Russia, look no further than C.P. Lesley’s five-part series, Legends of the Five Directions.

Set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible, I’ve enjoyed each one immensely, starting with The Golden Lynx, where we meet the main heroine of the series, Nasan Kolycheva, then The Winged Horse, The Swan Princess, The Vermilion Bird, and now, The Shattered Drum.

As an historian, and more particularly, one who specializes in 16th century Russia, the author’s detailed knowledge shines through in her prose and description. We truly feel we are there, in 16th century Russia, alongside her excellently-drawn characters, sharing their triumphs and their tragedies during this important historical time when the ascension of a child ruler threatened the state with internal dissension and outside intervention.

In The Shattered Drum, we follow the adventures of Nasan, as in The Golden Lynx. All the Tatar princess yearns for is a peaceful life with her Russian nobleman husband, Daniil, and their baby. However, this period of history in Russia wasn’t known for peace and serenity. Turmoil, treachery and the consequences of a Palace coup turn Nasan’s life upside down and she is forced to make a difficult choice.

The Shattered Drum is a great yarn, an adventure in which to lose oneself as you travel back through time to this age of conflict, treachery, power and politics. Highly recommended!

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Historical Fiction. The previous books in the Legends of the Five Directions series. Complex family saga adventure stories.

Avoid if you don’t like: Russian history. Strong heroines.

Ideal accompaniments: Vodka and Russian gingerbread.

Available on Amazon

Genre: Historical Fiction

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
George Washington Black – known as Wash – is born into slavery on a Barbados sugar plantation – a brutal life which only gets worse when the owner dies and the property is inherited by his nephew. Erasmus considers his slaves sub-human, controllable only with violence and cruelty. But the arrival of Erasmus’s brother, Christopher (or Titch) brings another change in circumstances for Wash.

Titch is a scientist and an abolitionist. He picks Wash to be his assistant because he is small and appears quick witted, and treats him with kindness – but nothing can change the fact that Wash lives or dies on the word of his white masters.

“And that, it seemed to me clearly, was the more obvious anguish – that life had never belonged to any f us, even when we sought to reclaim it by ending it. We had been estranged from the potential of our own bodies, from the revelation of everything our bodies and minds could accomplish.”
Wash’s life follows an extraordinary trajectory that will take him from Barbados to the Arctic, to the shores of the Canadian Maritimes, to London and finally to the deserts of North Africa. He will outlive slavery and play a key part in creating London Zoo’s first Aquarium. We will get some fascinating glimpses into the work of 19th Century scientists and naturalists.

Yet the terrible physical injuries Wash will sustain along the way – both accidental and deliberate - become a metaphor for the injuries that racism and white supremacy continue to inflict on black bodies. And Titch in the end stands for the eternal white liberal dilemma – the necessity to recognise one’s own privilege and the damage that it does even when you act with the best of intentions:

“He was a man who’d done far more than most to end the sufferings of a people whose toil was the very source of his power; he had risked his own good comfort, the love of his family, his name. ... His harm, I thought, was in now understanding that he still had the ability to cause it.”

A book that is at once a tale of adventure, a fascinating exploration of pioneering Victorian scientists, and an allegory of Black experience pre- and post-emancipation.

Washington Black was shortlisted for the 2018 Man BookerPrize and is the winner of the 2018 Giller prize (the second time Edugyan has won Canada's highest literary award).

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Long Song by Andrea Levy, The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, Black and British by David Olusogo, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Avoid If You Dislike: Novels written in quasi-Victorian voice.

Perfect Accompaniment: A visit to the Aquarium at London Zoo

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

For the Love of Luke by David C Dawson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

David C Dawson’s latest novel, lying somewhere between a thriller and a romance, is a light treatment of a serious subject, but nonetheless relevant for that.

If you are not aware of the realities behind this story, you might be inclined to class this as a dystopia, like The Handmaid’s Tale, or even to dismiss it altogether. Unfortunately, the grim truth is that gay conversion therapy is not only practised in various places around the world, often with the encouragement of various church groups – it has been advocated by the current Vice President of the United States.

Rupert Pendley-Evans is a successful London journalist, and the son of minor aristocracy. When water from his upstairs neighbour’s bathroom comes pouring through his bedroom ceiling, he rushes upstairs only to find the young man lying naked and unconscious on the floor. Thus begins his relationship with Luke who – as he himself says – is ‘complicated’. A very talented artist, he has no memory at all of his life before about six months ago. But it is clear that he has suffered a profound trauma. Together, Rupert and Luke must unravel what happened to him and confront a threat that has stalked him from the US to London.

For the Love of Luke is more sexually explicit than Dawson’s previous novels. However, the sex scenes are imbued with a tenderness that lifts them above the merely pornographic.

The fact that this is also a mixed-race relationship is less convincingly handled, though it barely impinges on the story. On the other hand, I enjoyed the treatment of Rupert’s parents, which added some comic relief and subverted expectations. And Dawson’s knowledge of the workings of the BBC lends credence to the newsroom scenes.

As a story of American-meets-Englishman-meets-British-aristocracy, this is reminiscent of Armistead Maupin’s Babycakes. But more than 40 years after Michael Tolliver first appeared in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, the thought that gay conversion therapy could still cast a shadow over Anna Madrigal’s ‘logical family’ should horrify us all.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Babycakes by Armistead Maupin, The Deadly Lies by David C Dawson

Avoid If You Dislike: Explicit gay sex scenes

Perfect Accompaniment: Game pie and a glass of Syrah

Genre: LGBTQ, Thriller, Romance

Available on Amazon