Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gower

Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought:

Two earthly lives intertwine, drawn to each other by creatures of the sea.

In the 18th century, women must be either lucky or clever. Angelica Neal is a courtesan, experienced in the arts of love, protected by her madam until one client takes her under his protection.
Jonah Hancock is a Deptford merchant, risking all he has on sea voyages to Macau and Java to procure fine china and profitable cargo.

His captain returns, without his ship. He sold the Calypso for the most unusual curiosity. A dessicated, furious sea-sprite, the furthest removed from one's idea of a mermaid imaginable. Yet the dreadful husk strikes fear into the populace of London, drawing folk of all ages and social class to witness its death mask. Mr Hancock profits handsomely and finds himself drawn into a wholly different world. Mrs Chappell's 'nunnery' or well-regarded whorehouse wishes to host the mermaid for a week of revelries. Mr Hancock is guest of honour. Things do not go according to plan.

Historical fiction doesn't get much better than this. The author's sympathies with the lot of women and comprehension of class permeate every chapter. Limited opportunities, social judgement and the currency of beauty is a delicate balance for a woman with no means other than looks and intellect. The ladies refer to their genitals as 'the commodity'.

This book fascinates and wears its research lightly. Stays, pins, phaetons, milk-soaked sheaths and powder capes are as incidental as the weather. Yet the things-we-do-not-understand loom large over the novel.

Taking something from its rightful place will curse you and yours. Shifting from one status to another is fraught with difficulty. In the final analysis, one must feel content in one's confinement or be released.

Gower builds a London as it was, and a cast of characters so real, spiteful, snobbish, kindly, humble, capricious and arrogant, one cannot help but want more.

You'll like this if you enjoyed: Sarah Waters, Rosie Garland, Angela Carter

Avoid if you dislike: The grim injustice of the female situation in the 18th century.

Ideal Accompaniments: Millefeuilles and sweet wine, or freshly shucked oysters and brine.

Genre: Literary fiction, historical fiction

Available on Amazon

Connectedness (Identity Detective Book 2) by Sandra Danby

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: I absolutely adored this extremely well-written mystery-family saga. It’s the second in Sandra Danby’s Identity Detective series and I have not read the first (yet!), but this did not deter at all from my enjoyment.

Justine Tree, successful collage artist, asks identity detective Rose Haldane to search for the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1983.Will this terrible secret that Justine carries close to her heart threaten her art career?

The story is told mainly through Justine’s viewpoint, flitting effortlessly between present-day London’s art world to isolated Yorkshire, and the hot streets of Málaga, Spain in the early 80s, where Justine went to study art. And where she found love.

With her well-defined, sympathetic characters, layers of meaning, and sensual, all-engaging descriptions, the author takes us on a highly-emotional and gripping journey through the art world, exploring love, loss and human weakness, all coming together in a truly heartfelt conclusion.

Highly recommended to readers who enjoy a very well-written story.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: family mystery stories. Books by Maggie O’Farrell and Rachel Hore.

Avoid if you don’t like: emotional stories about love and loss.

Ideal accompaniments: jug of sangria and assorted tapas.

Genre: Literary women’s fiction.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

If Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young relocates Shakespeare’s King Lear to modern India, then Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire takes as its inspiration an even older play – Sophocles’ Antigone – the tragic tale of a sister forbidden to bury the body of her rebel brother.

Like We That Are Young, Home Fire unfolds through a progression of points of view – two sisters of a brother induced to travel to Syria to work with the so-called Islamic State, the brother himself, the son of the British Home Secretary, and the Home Secretary.

Western media has been quick to paint all those who have been drawn into the net of the Islamic State as uniformly evil – and their families as either equally evil or ignorant dupes. Home Fire dares to look beyond the headlines at the human beings caught up in the apparently unending cycle of violence unleashed by terrorism and the ‘War on Terror.’

Layer upon layer, Shamsie peels back causes and connections, showing - but on a very human level - how ignorance and hatred on one side feed ignorance and hatred on the other. The actions of the terrorists cast the shadow of suspicion over every Muslim living in the West, affecting their daily lives in ways most of the rest of us never stop to think about. (Googling While Muslim, as the younger sister points out, is an activity fraught with risk, where you must avoid appearing curious about the ‘wrong’ sort of thing.) And on the other side, atrocities perpetrated in Abu Graib and Guantanamo become potent recruiting tools for the very terrorist organisations they were meant to defeat.

With an odd twist of prescience, Shamsie has created a Home Secretary who is UK’s first from a British Asian background – something which came to pass in real life while Home Fire was on the 2018 Bailey’s Prize shortlist. She nails some of the character and compromises that would be necessary to allow that to happen - the racist backlash that is unleashed the moment he appears compromised in the slightest way.

The final scene of the book is profoundly moving. Its central character is given a dignity in the face of impossible odds that mirrors that in the Greek tragedies that inspired it.

A powerful and important book that should be read by anyone wanting to find humanity beyond the headlines.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie; Antigone by Jean Anouilh, The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam

Avoid If You Dislike: Looking beyond tabloid headlines about terrorism

Perfect Accompaniment: A mug of the best coffee you can find and a quiet corner to drink it in

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Sight, by Jessie Greengrass

Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought:

This was a tough one to like but eventually, I did. Greengrass allows her character to meander and ponder and consider the human condition in every aspect.

Relating the plot is pointless: a pregnant woman analyses herself, her reasons for wanting a second child, her reasons for wanting a first child, her inadequacies, her relationships with her own mother and psychoanalytical grandmother. She intersperses these reflections with other discoveries enabling insights into human beings. Röntgen, and the very first X-Ray of his wife's hand. He could see inside.

It's hugely introspective and at the same time inclusive, allowing the reader to develop thoughts and wander off on personal tangets. This book took far longer to read than the page count demanded.

The language arcs and swoops with such grace to leave one awed or occasionally confused.

'Revelation pended, the veil between myself and understanding was in a constant state of almost-rending, and I thought I could see shadows through it, the outlines of an as-yet uncomprehended truth, until all at once the mania crested and what came out of it, in place of elucidation, was agony, my head pinned in a vice, my body hanging limp below it, a disarticulated sack of bones and blood around which my limbs curled, stiff and liable to snap.'

Her analyses of other human-inspectors - Freud, Thompson, Röntgen - provides a wider perspective to this unnamed introvert as ballast to this vacillating between opinions, time and personal philosophy.

Stream-of-consciousness is a term often over-used and patronised, but here Greengrass uses it to best effect. Self-awareness is the only way to X-Ray the mind.

You'll enjoy this if you liked: Mrs Dalloway, Zoë Jenny, Scarlett Thomas

Avoid if you dislike: Self-examining narrators and lack of narrative

Ideal accompaniments: A fried egg, camomile tea and a still pond.

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It seems this is the year for revisiting classics. Hot on the heels of Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young (a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear) and Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone) comes The Idiot by Elif Batuman. The Idiot is not precisely a retelling of Dostoevsky’s novel by the same name – but it clearly flows from the same well-spring.

The ‘idiot’ (or innocent) in this case is a young Turkish American woman arriving for her Freshman Year at Harvard University in the 1990s. The time period is important. Email is still a novelty – widely available at university but still a rarity in the wider world. Smart phones – or even cell phones – non-existent.

Free to choose what subjects to study, she makes an eclectic selection: linguistics, maths, ‘Constructed Worlds’ (a creative arts module), and Russian. On the Russian course, she acquires a new name (Sonya) and she also meets William, a Hungarian student in his senior year. She and William seem unable to hold a conversation face to face. But taking on the characters from a text they are studying in Russian, they begin a correspondence over email that becomes an obsession.

The Idiot perfectly captures that nihilistic stage of late adolescence. That feeling of being out of phase with the rest of the world. Desperately seeking meaning in the most mundane of words and actions – and feeling depressed because you fail to find it. The inevitable passion for someone just out of reach. Mistaking sophistry for sophistication.

The novel moves from Harvard in the depths of winter to Hungary in the summer, where ‘Sonya’ goes for a working holiday. The mood echoes that of a lot of 19th C Russian literature – that sense never quite living in the present but always longing for something that is just out of reach.

The novel also plays with ideas of what language is and what it can convey. The narrator at one point takes issue with her linguistics lecturer’s rejection of the notion that the language you speak affects the way you think. Turkish, she points out, has a case that is used specifically to convey that what you are saying is reported information, not firsthand knowledge. She argues that it forces you to constantly question your own objectivity.

An unusual first novel from someone who has previously explored similar themes in a non-fiction format.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Idiot by Dostoevsky, The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician by Tendai Huchu, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Avoid If You Dislike: Story lines that drift rather than drive

Perfect Accompaniment: Hungarian vodka

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

He Said / She Said by Erin Kelly

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

What we thought : There’s nothing better than discovering exciting new authors whose work you soon become addicted to – and that is certainly the case with Erin Kelly.

He Said / She Said takes the reader on a complex journey starting at a lunar eclipse festival in Cornwall through to eighteen years down the line when everyone involved has lived with the shadow of that weekend for the rest of their lives. But what is the truth?

When Laura, our lead protagonist, witnesses a sexual attack and intervenes, resulting in a gruelling court case, her comfortable life seems over for good. She becomes involved in a dependency-style friendship with Beth, the victim of the assault, and when her actions turn bizarre and then dangerous, Laura and husband Kit, change their names and move home. But Laura suffers several years of anxiety and PTSD, and when the story begins in the current day, with her pregnant with twins, it’s only now her life feels normal again.

But the shadow of the past is never far away, and when Kit travels to the Pharaoh Islands in search of his latest eclipse siting, pregnant Laura is left alone feeling more anxious than ever. And when Beth turn up on her doorstep, spilling secrets Laura could never have imagined, the reader is gripped to see where this twisting tale will end.

The switches in POV and periods here make this quite a challenging read, but for me it is worth it. The characters are crystal clear, the pace works really well, and some of the court scene dialogue was brilliantly written. I’ve already downloaded another book by this author and I hope it is as gripping a read as this one.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Clare MacKintosh, B.A. Paris, Louise Doughty.

Avoid if you don’t like : Not knowing what is round the next corner.

Ideal accompaniments : Pear cider and a Ploughman’s lunch.

Genre : Thriller.

Available on Amazon

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought

To state what happens in the book would give an impression of dark, bleak hopelessness, which is not the feeling it engenders in the process of reading. Ward's lyrical prose and descriptive talent transport the reader to the dusty yard, hot car, bland gas station, prison plantation and guarantees our sympathy. Somehow, no matter how miserable the situation, she manages to sustain hope.

The story is told through the eyes of a young boy, Jojo, and his mother, Leonie. From the start, there is a haunted atmosphere of loss, an absence of someone who should be there, but that someone is different for each of them. Leonie is a drug addict and neglectful mother, so that the most influential figure in Jojo's life is Pop, his grandfather. Pop teaches Jojo how to work the farm and tells him about the harsh days when he was in Parchman Penitentiary. Pop's sadness is both for the past and the present, as his wife is dying of cancer. Meanwhile, Leonie is preparing to drive across the state to meet Michael, her lover and father of her children, when he gets out of jail. And she wants to take Jojo and his little sister Kayla with her.

Part road trip, part social critique, part American nightmare, this beautifully written novel makes us feel the weight of the past in a visceral sense. There is an inexorable feeling of tragedy, as if we know what must happen in the end, but cannot help hoping things will turn out differently. The book won America's National Book Award 2017 and was selected as Book of the Year by The New York Times amongst others. I can see why.

You'll like this if you enjoyed: Beloved by Toni Morrison, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward or Meridian by Alice Walker.

Avoid if you dislike: Dysfunctional families, violence, ghosts.

Ideal accompaniments: Gravy and biscuits with a glass of cold water

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Smash all the Windows by Jane Davis

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: I have loved all of Jane Davis’s novels, and her latest, Smash all the Windows, was no exception. This story starts twenty years after a terrible disaster, which I could easily visualise occurring in our times. It explores it effects on different people, and helps us to imagine how we might be equipped, or not, to cope with, and survive, such tragedy.

As usual, the author tells the story from the viewpoint of several excellently portrayed characters, her remarkable observational skills making us identify and sympathise with each character.

I enjoyed every character, admiring some more than others. Some simply struggle to get through each day as best they can. Others constantly search and dig, others lose their childhood during the years of grief. Jules was probably my favourite though, a poignant character; an artist able to pick apart the wreckage and rubble, and create something incredibly beautiful and defined. An exhibition entirely fitting for the Tate Modern art gallery in London.

Weaving between the past and the present, Smash all the Windows manages, somehow, to be both heartbreaking and hopeful. It does not give the reader resolution, but it does offer acceptance and the ability to attain a certain type of harmony with the tragedy.

I cannot recommend Smash All The Windows highly enough!

You’ll like this if you enjoy: character-driven, emotional tales.
Avoid if you don’t like: poignant literary fiction.

Ideal accompaniments: comfort food such as dark chocolate.

Genre: Literary fiction.

Available on Amazon