Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Golden Age of detective fiction, before Police Procedurals and hard-bitten PIs came to dominate the genre, was the era of the amateur detective. The (usually aristocratic) detective could open doors and blend in where the flatfooted policeman could only blunder around. Since then, amateur detection has largely been the preserve of latter-day Miss Marples, sniffing around the social hierarchies of English country village. In Brothers in Blood, Amer Anwar turns the concept on its head..

Zaqir Khan (known as Zaq) is an intelligent, hard-working young man who threw an unlucky punch and ended up in prison for manslaughter. Now out of prison again, he’s working in a dead-end job for a man who has most of Southall in his pocket. But when Mr Brar calls him into his office and orders Zaq to find his missing daughter, life just gets a whole lot more difficult. The Brar’s make it quite clear that if he fails, they’ll find a way of sending him back to prison. But how is he supposed to find a young woman he’s never even met? And does he want any part in forcing her into a marriage she clearly doesn’t want?

The story unfolds in the backstreets around Heathrow airport, in the Muslim and Sikh dominated communities of Southall and Hounslow. It’s Zaq’s home turf and he blends in perfectly – but that doesn’t mean he stays out of trouble.

Zaq’s best mate, Jags, is living the life Zaq was meant to have, working in IT, living in a nice house and driving a BMW. But he won’t turn his back on Zaq. Together they uncover some very nasty dealings indeed and hatch a plot to turn the villains on one  another.

Zaq and Jags are a great double act – likeable, solid and real. And Zaq, like AA Dhand’s Harry Virdee, is tough, courageous and more than able to handle himself in a fight. And if his moral code is flexible enough to allow him to survive the mean streets of Southall, nevertheless when push comes to shove, he can be relied upon to do the right thing – even at his own expense.

A page-turner filled with both action and humour. Here’s hoping we’ll be seeing more of Zaq and Jags in the future.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
A.A. Dhand, Dreda Say Mitchell

Avoid If You Dislike:
Blow by blow accounts of violent fist fights

Perfect Accompaniment: Aloo Paratha

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

The Prince of Mirrors by Alan Robert Clark

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

What We Thought: Prince Albert Victor, known as Eddy, is next in line to the throne after his father, Bertie. But his grandmother is Queen Victoria and she’s not going anywhere yet. His father considers Eddy an unsuitable candidate for future glory and Eddy himself is not all that keen. Sent away to sea, tutored rigorously, shoehorned into Cambridge, Eddy tries his best. Not that his best is ever good enough. His younger brother, Georgie, though no intellectual, has far more go about him which is just as well since Albert Edward is the king that never was.

Though his life is short it is filled with rumours and speculation. Did he attend the house in Cleveland Street where the girls are all Mary-Anns? Does he enjoy rough trade? Is he in fact Jack the Ripper? The Ripper nonsense does not feature largely in this book – this novel is a benevolent portrait of a young, dreamy and inadequate prince.

Eddy drifts through his life incapable of the concentration required for serious study and not sufficiently interested to apply himself. He is an outsider – required to pretend to be a normal student, which he isn’t, and expected to act like an heir to the throne, which is beyond him. When Jem Stephen is hired as his personal tutor though, Eddy’s life perks up. Jem is the ace face. Handsome, clever, witty, sporty, big, blue eyed and poetic, he is all things to all men. Eddy is smitten. All he wants is Jem’s love, which Jem is willing to give – as long as things don’t get physical. Jem is perfectly happy to get physical with other young men, just not the prince.

Years go by. Jem suffers an accident which affects his brain. Eddy is required to choose a wife. Neither of these events will have happy consequences. Ultimately, Jem is confined to an asylum and Eddy contracts influenza. This is not a spoiler as the endings to their stories are already in the public domain. The way those endings are reached and the twists and turns along the way are the meat of this novel. Eddy is a sympathetic character – so privileged, yet having no real life of his own and no one in his own sphere who loves him for who he is. His father is either angry, despairing or distant, and even his mother would be disgusted by his true character if she knew it. Only Jem Stephen, a man now out of his reach, accepts the real Eddy.

Written in the present tense, this book is easy to read, both funny and sad, and fascinating from an historical perspective. It is also a sensitive account of a young man who is incapable of conforming to the outwardly expressed mores of his circle and age. Of course, it is heavily fictionalised and we can never know the innermost truths of the matter, but this is certainly an enjoyable account of what might have gone on behind the scenes at Sandringham.

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

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Fictionalised biography with a twist.

Avoid If You Dislike: Sympathetic accounts of Royals.

Perfect Accompaniment: Boiled eggs stuffed with truffles.

Genre: Historical Fiction/LGBT

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Unfurled by Michelle Bailat-Jones

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

The title struck me first as an umbrella - a tightly wound spiky bat-like device to be unfurled when the rain comes in. But the reading of this beautiful novel led me to sails, and the thought that only when the wind fills them is motion possible.

Ella's mother left them years ago, in the grip of a mental illness. She hardly thinks of her at all. She has her dad, her anchor and ferryman; her job as a vet; and her rock, husband Neil. Now she is expecting a child of her own and motherhood is her next challenge.
After a sudden accident kills her father, Ella is undone. All the more so when she discovers her mother and father maintained contact over the years. She questions the story of her life and her understanding of who she is.

This is a gracefully written novel which packs a huge punch. Grief, identity and acceptance of change are bundled up into this atmospheric story of how one woman grows to interpret and understand her role in the story of her life.

Bailat-Jones writes with elegance and precision, much like a ballet dancer, using imagery of sea, storms, knots and a sailor's respect for the ocean. But like a dancer, the artistry comes from strength. One of the loveliest and most haunting books I've read this year.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Fog Island Mountains, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, or Spilt Milk by Amanda Hodgkinson

Avoid if you don’t like: Stories of grief, loss and the realities of a veterinarian's day

Ideal accompaniments
: Gentleman's Relish on warm buttered toast, sparkling water with a dash of Angostura Bitters and Haevn's The Sea playing in the background.

Available on Amazon

Friday, 4 January 2019

One Woman's Struggle in Iran by Nasrin Parvaz

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

In 1979, Nasrin Parvaz returned from England, where she had been studying, and became a member of a socialist party in Iran fighting for a non-Islamic state in which women had the same rights as men. Three years later, at the age of 23, she was betrayed by a comrade and arrested by the regime’s secret police.

Nasrin spent the next eight years in Iran’s prison system. She was systematically tortured, threatened with execution, starved and forced to live in appalling, horribly overcrowded conditions. One Woman’s Struggle is both an account of what happened to her during those eight years, and evidence that her spirit was never broken.

One Woman’s Struggle is not an easy book to read. The opening chapters, which detail her interrogation under torture, are devastating. This is the reality of which dystopian depictions of totalitarianism, like V for Vendetta, merely skim the surface. Small wonder that many break under torture. Far more extraordinary are those who find within themselves the strength to endure.

Once the interrogations end, the hardships and degradations of daily prison life begin. The dirtiest trick of totalitarianism is to persuade its followers that those who it oppresses are no longer entirely human. The regime in Iran played this trick with brutal effectiveness. But Nasrin’s memoir also shows how the humanity of the women in prison nonetheless survived. It is a story of friendship and mutual support, of how the women drew strength from one another and found endless small ways to show kindness and even find tiny specks of joy.

The book begins and ends with fleeting encounter, when Nasrin recognises one of her tormentors in a London supermarket. The guard is terrified, but Nasrin turns and walks out into the spring sunshine.

Some things in Iran have changed since Nasrin was released. The interrogation centre where she was first held has been turned into a museum. School children are taken there on tours, but they are told that it was only used in the Shah’s time. Other things remain. In an echo of an incident described in the book, when international ambassadors visited Evin Prison earlier this year, political prisoners were hidden away where they could not be seen.

This book, however, is not simply about the prison system in Iran. It is about oppression – and especially the oppression of women – wherever it takes place. It deserves to stand with Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man as an indictment of cruelty, brutality and the dehumanising of fellow human beings.

You can read Catriona Troth's interview with Nasrin Parvaz on Words with Jam.

Parvaz has written a novel based on her experiences - The Secret Letters from X to A - which is also published by Victorina

You'll Enjoy This If You Loved: If This Is Man by Primo Levi, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Avoid If You Dislike: Reading details of torture

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of tea and a donation to Freedom From Torture

Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir

Available on Amazon