Wednesday 31 January 2018

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

We that are the youngest, the fastest, the democracy, the economy, the future technology of the world, the global Super Power coming soon to a cinema near you, we, hum panch, that are the five cousins of the five great rivers, everybody our brother-sister-lover, we that are divine: the echo of the ancient heroes of the old times, we that fight, we that love, we that are hungry, so, so hungry, we that are young.

Preti Taneja’s debut is a monumental novel that brings King Lear to modern India – specifically, India in the midst of the anti-corruption movement of 2011/12.

Here, Lear has become Devraj, known as Bapuji (honoured father), ageing CEO of a towering, all-encompassing Indian corporation, source of wealth and possibly also of corruption.

Like the play, it unfolds over five ‘acts’. But while we view Lear primarily through the lens of Lear himself, in this novel, each ‘act’ is written from the point of view of one of the five members of the younger generation - Jirvan, the illegitimate son of Devraj’s closest advisor (Edgar); Gargi, the eldest daughter (Goneril); Radha, the second daughter (Reagan); Jeet, legitimate son and Jirvan’s half-brother (Edmund/Tom O’Bedlam) and Sita, the youngest daughter (Cordelia). So when Devraj, like Lear, rails against the monsters his children have become, we know he is railing against natures he spent years nurturing, while they are struggling to hold together what he has smashed apart.

The book delivers the key events of the play beat by beat, but it manages to do so in such a way that even the most iconic moments remain shocking. And if you know the play tolerably well, you can match even the minor characters one-for-one. At first I thought that the exception was The Fool. Then I realised that his place had been taken by Nanu, Davraj’s mother – the one person who can speak truth to him, who speaks gnomically in riddles drawn from holy texts.

The text is rich with the black humour and startling imagery, such as Gargi’s portrait of her father:

“In his white singlet and saffron underpants, like a hard boiled egg cut in half she had thought, he stood among the rails of shirts and suits... while telling Gargi (as if his mouth was full of acid and nails) that he had heard all about that moment, almost two weeks aso, when ... she had sat on the pool deck with that boy, Ranjit’s returnee.”

Taneja drops regularly into Hindi and no translation or glossary is offered. You don’t need to know the translations, but if you take the time to Google the meanings, it will add to the richness of your experience.

This is a darkly comic study of a monstrously dysfunctional family that is also so, so much more. Directors of Shakespeare’s plays can suggest settings in time and place the give context to the drama. But in transporting the story to India and fleshing out the location through the rich medium of the novel, Taneja has at once breathed entirely new life into a classic text, held a mirror held up to the faults and frailties of modern India, and created a powerful metaphor for greed, cruelty and corruption everywhere.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James; If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here by Sarayu Srivatsa; The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Avoid If You Dislike: Long tomes; elements not translated into English; Shakespeare

Perfect Accompaniment: Aloo paranthe (flat bread stuffed with spiced potato) and a glass of whisky

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Song at Dawn by Jean Gill

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought:

An unusual blend of thrills and insight, this is historical fiction at its most complex, rich and absorbing. I read this book in two sittings and am already well into Bladesong, the second in the Troubador series.

The story takes place in 12th century France, following Estela, an abused woman with a voice and a passion. Her misfortune lands her in a ditch, but her talents lead her to the Queen’s court where she encounters Dragonetz, the Troubadour.

The book transports you to France in the Middle Ages, which should feel far distant to a modern reader, but the social upheavals caused by religious and geographical muscling for power feel unpleasantly familiar. This is well-researched, beautifully written storytelling which deserves full concentration.

Detailed descriptions are in abundance, both of the beautiful and the bloody. Some scenes are not for the squeamish. Characters are layered and complex, even minor players and I was particularly drawn to the role animals play in the story. The complicated politicking is intriguing as is the status of women, from queen to entertainer.

For a glimpse of the past in sharp focus, Song at Dawn is highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Overlord series by JD Smith, Michelle Moran's historical fiction or Blood Rose Angel, by Liza Perrat.

Avoid if you don’t like: Some gory moments, emotional upheaval, addictive series.

Ideal accompaniments: Bitter black tea and roasted goose eaten off the blade of a dagger.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday 24 January 2018

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

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

What we thought: Set in 1930’s London, we are introduced to world-famous Christopher Banks through a series of superbly crafted scenes which switch between the protagonist’s past and present lives. We meet his childhood friends, introduced to his latest love interest. We learn about his early days in London, and discover his latest criminal cases.

Intertwined throughout all of this rich scene setting, is the knowledge that a piece of the puzzle is missing, and for the reader that is like a delicious expectation of what is to come.

And when that arrives, the tone of the novel takes an abrupt change. Banks is determined to solve the one case that has so far eluded him, the one case that his whole career has been built on – the discovery of what happened to his parents who both went missing whilst living in the International Settlement in Shanghai before Banks's return to live with a distant relative in England.

Banks returns to Shanghai, to find the city greatly changed and in the midst of war. We follow the twists and turns of his journey as he struggles to solve the mystery in a city torn apart by conflict. It is gripping, emotive and for me this is Ishiguro at his stunning best.

I loved this novel, it is a masterclass in novel writing. From characters that spring from the page, either in bright, bold colour or subtle shaded greys. The tone is exquisite and the narrative as complex as it is entertaining. The landscape and settings – be it the greyness of London or the explosive reality of war torn Shanghai – are perfectly drawn and as real as opening your curtains on the world each day.

When you find a novel that touches a part of you, it’s with a certain sadness that you close the final page. I hope the next Ishiguro novel I read will have the same effect.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Ali Smith, Robert Harris.

Avoid if you don’t like : War torn countries and childhood secrets.

Ideal accompaniments: Beef Wellington served with greens and a glass of Port.

Genre : Literary.

Available on Amazon

The Vermilion Bird by CP Lesley (Legends of the Five Directions Book 4)

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: An excellent and entertaining addition to CP Lesley’s 16th century Russian historical series, Legends of the Five Directions. I was really looking forward to The Vermilion Bird as I have read and loved the first three in this series, which I have also reviewed: The Golden Lynx, The Winged Horse and The Swan Princess.

Once again, the author brings to life 16th century Russian court and politics through the unlikely couple of the scheming and snappy Maria Koshkina and her Tatar sultan husband. A seemingly mismatched couple, the pair attempt to get along before they are caught up in the clash between their two warring cultures: the Russians and the Tatars.

As in the previous Legends of the Five Directions books, the reader is drawn into sixteenth century Russian life via the author’s attention to detail and the research involved in recreating such a world. Then love, romance, adventure and intrigue render this story a spell-binding page turner. The characters we have come to know and love in previous books, such as Nasan and Daniil, leap off the page once more, interwoven with real characters, to portray this distant nook of sixteenth-century Moscow.

In The Vermilion Bird, I felt I was experiencing sixteenth-century Russia firsthand, and I am now eagerly awaiting the last book in the Legends of the Five Directions series, The Shattered Drum, which will be published shortly, I believe.

The author’s notes explaining the reason why she chose the Vermilion Bird phoenix for Maria are of great interest too.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: tales of romance and adventure that feature strong-willed women.

Avoid if you don’t like: action-packed, fast-paced historical political intrigue.

Ideal accompaniments: Vodka and Russian gingerbread.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Calling Major Tom by David M Barnett

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: I started reading Calling Major Tom and after a couple of chapters almost put it aside to read at some other time. I didn't though, and I'm glad because it turned out to be one of the nicest books I've read this year. It's been described as 'heartwarming', 'life affirming', 'feel-good' and 'charming', and it's all of those things. It's also about loneliness and being a misfit.

Thomas Major, a grumpy scientist, manages to get himself appointed as the first man to go to Mars. The announcement is made the day David Bowie dies and, of course, the media instantly call him Major Tom. Thomas wants to go to Mars because he's had it with Earth and all its inhabitants. Having fallen out with his father, been manipulated by his mother and had nothing but failed relationships, he's happy - in a miserable sort of way - to leave the human race behind. On Mars, he'll build habitations and domes and get some crops established, ready for the first inhabitants who will arrive in ten or fifteen years. In the meantime, he will be blissfully on his own.

Sitting in his tincan far above the world, he refuses to engage in publicity stunts, read the manuals about spacewalks, or brush up on growing potatoes on Mars. He prefers instead to do his crossword puzzles and annoy the Head of the British Space Agency via the communications link. Until, that is, he encounters Gladys Ormerod. Gladys is a pensioner at the start of her dementia journey, who Thomas accidentally phones, and he is soon sucked into her problems. She is supposed to be looking after her grandchildren, James and Ellie, because their mum is dead and their dad is in gaol. However, the burden of care tends to fall on 15 year old Ellie.

As he becomes more and more drawn into the Ormerods' lives, Thomas relives his own experiences as a child and as a young man. He begins to understand things about himself and comes to various realisations.

Sad, funny, and filled with references to popular culture, Calling Major Tom is a little beauty.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Stories that make you laugh and maybe even cry a little.

Avoid if you dislike: Feel-good books that manipulate your emotions.

Ideal accompaniments: Bowie's Space Oddity on the turntable and a determination to keep on reading.

Genre: General Fiction

The Deadly Lies by David C Dawson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

David Dawson’s sequel to his debut crime novel, The Necessary Deaths, makes for another entertaining read.

Dominic Delingpole is on honeymoon with his beloved Jonathan, but neither in life nor in love are things allowed to go entirely smoothly. When a former lover sends a cryptic message to Dominic minutes before a fatal car crash, it puts both their lives and their barely-formed marriage in peril.

With the help of maverick student programmer, Steve, can they solve the riddle before anyone else is killed? And can Dominic and Jonathan's marriage survive its first big hurdle?

The theme of lies runs through the novel. The main plot concerns a chip that could allow the mysterious Charter 99 to rewrite online history – with little regard to the lives they would turn upside down. At the same time, as Dominic and Jonathan navigate the new territory of marriage, the impact of lies – even innocent lies - on relationships is thrown into relief.

The action moves between two long-established gay communities - Sitges in Spain and San Francisco in California. If Dawson’s first novel showed us his relatively conventional hero at home and at work, here he is on holiday, and like Dominic himself, the text has become a little more unbuttoned. There is more explicit (though still not graphic) sex than in the first book.

Last time I compared Dawson’s writing to Margery Allingham. This time, there is an echo or two of Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. But Dawson writes with a lighter touch than Sayers. There are no great intellectual challenges here. It remains, however, an affectionate portrait of the manners and mores of gay relationships, as well as fast-paced study in cyber-crime.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Necessary Deaths by David C Dawson, Babycakes by Armistead Maupin, Cold Pressed by JJ Marsh.

Avoid If You Dislike: Light-weight crime fiction. Explicit references to gay sex.

Perfect Accompaniment: Albondigas en salsa and a glass of Cava

Genre: Crime, LGBTQ fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday 10 January 2018

The Seagull by Ann Cleeves

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

What we thought: I am a huge fan of both author, Ann Cleeves and the central character in this detective series, Vera Stanhope – so I have been waiting in anticipation for the eighth book of the series to be published.

And it’s another cracker! 

Here we see DCI Stanhope at her formidable best. Always one to acknowledge that she doesn’t look like the most professional DCI in the business, here she uses that to maximum advantage to solve a crime whose roots are buried twenty-seven years in the past.

When convicted former CID officer John Brace offers to do a deal with Vera – she looks after his vulnerable daughter outside in the real world in exchange for the whereabouts of the body of a missing man – her loyalties are tested. But as ever, Vera shows herself to be the shrewdest in the crowd as she investigates his claims about a cold case which seems to have its roots buried in a long-ago demolished nightclub in Whitley Bay called The Seagull. 

When Vera’s past life collides with her current enquiry, she is forced to examine whether her own father might be involved in more than just the dodgy trade of rare birds eggs. Could he have been a murderer too?

It was brilliant to be back in Vera’s world again, interacting with the detective team and immersing ourselves in the North East landscape through the author’s superb descriptive talents. There’s nothing I would change about this series and I hope it continues for many years and many books to come! 

You’ll enjoy this if you like : P.D James, Peter May, Ian Rankin.

Avoid if you don’t like : Cold case investigations.

Ideal accompaniments: Pot of tea and hot buttered teacake.

Genre : Crime.

Available on Amazon

French Collection by Vanessa Couchman

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

What we thought: For Francophiles, French Collection: Twelve Short Stories is an anthology of short stories from Vanessa Couchman, author of The House at Zaronza, which I immensely enjoyed and reviewed here.

This eclectic collection of twelve short stories is inspired by the history and culture of the author’s adopted country, France. The descriptions, emotions and savoir-faire portray her love for the history, people and traditions of France, and the characters are so well-drawn that the reader comes to know and care about them in a matter of a few short pages.

Not all, but most of the stories are historical, and, as an author of French-based historical fiction novels, I admired and enjoyed all of them. My personal favourite was the 17th century plague story, The Visitation, but there’s something for everyone in this mix: historical, contemporary, romance, art, ghosts, all of them entertaining vignettes of French life across the ages.

Included at the end of the collection is Chapter 1 of the author’s next novel, The Corsican Widow, which whet my appetite. After Vanessa Couchman's most entertaining debut novel, The House at Zaronza, I'm really looking forward to reading this new one!

You’ll like this if you enjoy:
literary historical and contemporary fiction; a touch of the supernatural.

Avoid if you don’t like: historical and modern-day short stories.

Ideal accompaniments: French baguette and camembert, washed down with a glass of sturdy red Bordeaux.

Genre: Short stories. Literary fiction. Historical fiction.

Available on Amazon