Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

This book seems to reflect what undercover work in wartime must have been like. Much drudgery and the occasional drama. Yet when you have a cast of characters as well developed as this and Atkinson's flair with luring the reader in via a chopped-up timeline, your curiosity is piqued.

Juliet works for MI5. Sounds glamorous, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Her job is transcribing conversations between a British agent posing as a German spy and a gaggle of humdrum Nazi sympathisers. Recruited by Peregrine Gibbons, she half hopes he’ll try to seduce her, but he’s got other ideas. The job is dull and monotonous, leading her to wander down thought processes at her own received expressions.

The narrative flits back and forth between the 1940s and the post-war period when Juliet is working for the BBC. Ghosts from the past reappear and she begins to realise that she can never truly leave it all behind.

Juliet is a character one warms to, if slowly. She’s pragmatic, given to fanciful whims but essentially rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the job.

Each character reflects that wartime sense of no one being who they pretend to be and the façade is flimsy to the point of transparency. Everyone knows everyone else is lying, hiding and deceiving, but determined to get on with it anyway.

This is a different Atkinson to Jackson Brodie or Life After Life, yet still with the sparkling wit, light touch with deep characters, atmospheric evocation of time and place, underpinned by a resigned fatality.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: A God in Ruins, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters or Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks

Avoid if you don’t like: Detail of transcribed conversations, changing timelines, London in wartime

Ideal accompaniments: A strong cup of tea, some hot buttered toast and Vera Lynn’s version of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square

Available on Amazon

You’ll enjoy this if you liked:

Avoid if you don’t like:

Ideal accompaniments:

This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Ayisha Malik has a way of luring you in with a book that appears to be a comedy of manners and then sucker punching you with something much deeper.

This time, Malik takes us away from cosmopolitan London to a sleepy English village of Babbel’s End where Bilal has moved with his young wife and step-son, and where apparently little has changed for hundreds of years

Bilal is the model of what Nikesh Shukla has dubbed the Good Immigrant – educated, integrated, a member of the parish council. His neighbours even call him Bill. But all that changes when a deathbed promise to his mother prompts Bilal to propose building a mosque in the village.

There are echoes here of two much-loved comedy programmes – Little Mosque on the Prairie and The Vicar of Dibley. But as always, inside the velvet glove of Malik’s humour is an iron fist of social commentary. She ruthlessly exposes that veneer that glosses over what Afua Hirsch describes in Brit(ish) as “classic British racism, only half said and half implied a kind of polite prejudice that is only more pernicious for its subtlety.”

Straight after Bilal’s announcement, Shelley, the doyen of the parish council, swings into action. Of course she’s not a racist. It has nothing to do with Bilal’s skin colour. But there was a certain way of doing things in these parts and it doesn’t include the building of mosques!

As the village takes sides between Shelley and Bilal,and the protests get nastier, things are complicated by the arrival of Khala, Bilal’s auntie, recovering after a fall. Khala is everything that Bilal and his wife were not – a visibly Muslim woman with limited English who has lived much of her life in Britain without apparently 'integrating' at all. Yet could she be the one who succeeds in building the bridges that will heal this fractured community?

Malik’s humour is as tender and bittersweet as ever. And the book is surely a foretaste of things to come, as the diversity of Britain’s big cities spreads inexorably out into the countryside. Here’s hoping that voices like Malik’s will help convince everyone that there is nothing to fear from this and everything to celebrate.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved
: Sofia Kahn is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik, The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, Little Mosque on the Prairie (Canadian television show)

Avoid If You Dislike: Exploring the seamier side of English country life

Perfect Accompaniment: Zarda (sweet rice dish with raisins and almonds)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Humour

Available on Amazon

Friday, 22 March 2019

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Tomi Adeyemi is a part of a new wave of authors who – like Cherie Dimaline and Daniel Jose Older –are creating fantasy novels not rooted in Western European folklore and mythology but which draw upon their own particular heritage. In doing do, they are breathing a new and exciting life into the genre.

In Adeyemi’s case, this is a Yoruba heritage from Nigeria.

The story takes place in Orïsha, a beautiful but dystopian world, divided between dark-skinned, white haired divîners and the lighter skinned kosidán. The divîners were once majis, the descendents of ten clans who could control the natural forces of the world. But magic has been stolen from the world, destroyed by the King, Saran, who fears its power and hates those that wield it. And now divîners are little more than slaves, despised, abused – referred to as maggots.

But then the king’s daughter, Amari, finds there are three artefacts that could bring magic back into the world. When she stumbles into the arms of Zélie, the daughter of a powerful maji killed by Saran when he tried to wipe magic from the earth, the two of them may just have a chance to change Orïsha forever.

It is not only traditional Yoruba stories that Adeyemi has drawn on in creating this story. As she makes clear in her Afterword, everything that happens to her characters has been visited upon Black bodies in the not-so-distant past and much of it is still being visited upon them today.

No one is the villain of their own story. And some of the power of Adeyemi’s story telling is the credible fear of magic she creates through the point of view of Inan, Saran’s son and Amari’s sister. He too wants to change Orïsha, but his vision is very different from Zélie’s.

It is the mutual fear and distrust between divîners and kosidán– between those with the power to wield magic and those who have used brute force to suppress it – that will stand in the path of a new and more equal Orïsha.

A fresh new new voice in the fantasy genre - and a powerful and beautiful allegorical tale for our times.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Avoid If You Dislike: Scenes of violence and torture

Perfect Accompaniment: Fried plantain and jollof rice

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The Secret Letters from X to A by Nasrin Parvaz

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It is about a year now since I read Nasrin Parvaz’s powerful memo of her experience of torture and imprisonment in Iran, One Woman’s Struggle in Iran.

Parvaz’s memoir showed how the humanity of the women in prison nonetheless survived. It was 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.

This novel is drawn from the same brutal experience, but is necessarily a different beast. It takes as its starting point the decision of the Iranian government to turn its centre for interrogation and torture into a museum – erasing its own role and showing only how torture was used in the same building by the Shah’s regime, overthrown in 1979.

Faraz is a young history teacher whose cousin was turned in by his own father and executed by the regime of the Islamic Republic. When his uncle offers him a job helping to prepare the building for its transformation into a museum, his family are horrified – won’t he be collaborating in the erasure of history? But believing this may be his only chance to find out what happened to his cousin, Faraz accepts the job.

What he finds inside the prison is not a trace of his cousin, but a series of secret letters, written by a young woman X to her husband A, and hidden in cracks in the walls and under the floor. As Faraz uncovers more and more of the tiny, fragile hand-sewn notebooks, he pieces together a picture of X’s terrible treatment inside the prison. But will he ever find out her final fate? And what will happen if he unveils the truth behind the regime's banal lies?

X’s letters to her husband are full of tenderness and love – a love that gives her courage and keeps her going in the darkest of circumstances. Like Faraz, we are drawn into her story, as desperate as he to find the next cache of letters. And we know that Parvaz is writing from the depths of her own experience, the details drawn from her own eight years in prison.

The Secret Letters from X to A not only unmasks what happened inside one of Iran’s notorious prisons (the Joint Committee Interrogation Centre, also known as Towhid), and the hypocrisy of the regime in trying to cover it up. It shows the pressures facing young people in Iran today, trying to cling onto some kind of normal life. And it portrays Iran as a deeply divided society, with rules that only apply to those not part of the privileged elite.

Nonetheless, we in the West should be careful not to place ourselves on some kind of blame-free moral high ground. From complicity in torture to indefinite detention to our whitewashing of atrocities from our Imperial past, our hands are far from clean. This book has lessons for us all.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: One Woman’s Struggle in Iran by Nasrin Parvaz, Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of imprisonment and torture

Perfect Accompaniment: Coffee and Mirzagasemi (smoked aubergine and garlic)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Epistolary Novel

Available on Amazon

Lindisfarne by Terry Tyler

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

What we thought: I love Terry Tyler’s books, she’s a great storyteller and develops very real characters. That’s why, even though I’m not generally a fan of post-apocalyptic/dystopian stories, I read Tipping Point, book 1 in the author’s Project Renova series (My review of Tipping Point). And I’m so glad I did. It was scarily plausible and realistic, and in this second novel in the series, Lindisfarne, the fear that this could actually happen, is once again evoked.

The series begins, in Tipping Point, when a lethal virus reaches the UK, and a nationwide vaccination programme is announced. However, it soon becomes obvious that not everyone is being offered the vaccination, for example, the ill, old, mentally ill and unemployed are not entitled.

Six months down the track, the people we met in Tipping Point ––Vicky and her group –– have left their safe house in Northumberland, and have reached the island of Lindisfarne, where they join an existing community.

We are introduced to Dex, Vicky’s partner, and to other old, and new, relationships. And, as with all Terry Tyler’s excellently-drawn characters, we grow to love, like or loathe them.

The new colony seems fairly organized and efficient under the leadership of Marcus. The survivors find the strength to adapt to their new world, but for those who cannot accept that the rules have changed, the opportunity to seize power is too great. Then, when one of the Northumberland group is elected leader, everything falls apart.

Another gripping read that had me turning the pages with each turn of events, Lindisfarne shows us that with power comes responsibility, but that it also comes with the opportunity for corruption.

Like Tipping Point, Lindisfarne is far from a simple dystopian horror story. It rather evokes the very real side of human behaviour when society as we know it breaks down: both positive and negative,

Lindisfarne is an outstanding read; a compelling addition to the Project Renova series and I look forward to reading the next one, UK2.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Plausible and feasible dystopian tales.

Avoid if you don’t like: What might truly happen to our world in the near future.

Ideal accompaniments: just any kind of food that is available, as tomorrow there may be none.

Genre: Post Apocalyptic/Dystopian

Available on Amazon

Monday, 18 March 2019

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Dreams get caught in the webs woven in your bones. That’s where they live, in that marrow there.”

It’s the mid 21st Century and the world’s freshwater supplies have been polluted beyond repair. The icecaps have melted, swallowing both the coastal cities and much of traditional lands of indigenous people. And now people have stopped dreaming – all that is except indigenous people. Not being able to dream has induced a kind of madness – and the world has turned to indigenous people to try to find a cure. To begin with, they come with curiosity, seeking to learn. But then scientists discover that the secret may lie in bone marrow. And they will take it, by any means necessary.

Settlers turn back to the infamous system of residential schools, where children were snatched from their parents and housed far away, with the aim of stripping them of their Indian identity. Only now, what the revived ‘schools’ want to strip is bone marrow.

French and his brother have already lost their parents. They are running for their lives, using everything they have ever learnt to stay ahead of the terrifying Recruiters.

“It probably started with the first pop of air against metallic plastic, no louder than a champagne cork. I imagined the school truancy officers – Recruiters, we called them – coming for us, noses to the wind, sunglasses reflecting the row of house behind which we were nestled.”

French will lose more, and gain more, than he can possibly imagine before a reckoning becomes possible.

Cherie Dimaline is from the Georgian Bay Metis community in Canada. I suspect if a non-indigenous author had written about Ceremony (for example), they would have felt they had to describe and explain. Dimaline, by contrast, treats it as part of the fabric of life. She doesn’t need to spell it out; she concentrates instead on how her characters relate to it – emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

Dark as the central theme is, The Marrow Thieves is also about family – the families we are born into and the families we make for ourselves – about loyalty and sacrifice in extreme circumstances, and about the agonies and ecstasies of young love.

“How could anything be as bad as it was when this moment existed in the span of eternity? How could I have fear when this girl would allow me this close? How could anything matter but this small miracle of having someone I could love?”

The Marrow Thieves a truly terrifying dystopia that is also an indictment of the on-going exploitation of indigenous people by settler communities. It demonstrates how voices that have traditionally been ignored have entirely new stories to tell. And how important it is that those stories are told by those to whom they belong.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Technologies of the Self by Haris A Durrani, Shadow Shaper by Daniel Jose Older, Rats by JW Hicks, Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese.

Avoid If You Dislike: Post-apocalyptic dystopias

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of fresh, clean water – while we still can!

Genre: Young Adult, SciFi

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

One of those books which gently washes away your expectations and impatience, drawing you into a strange and semi-familiar world of souls and stories. I confess, I started this, gave up and tried again. The prose is lyrical and the style almost magical realism or fable, and if it catches you in the right mood, you will fall into its pools.

Marvellous Ways lives in a caravan in Cornwall. She’s lived a long life and seen many extraordinary things. Her relationship to the world around her is fluid, making the reader wonder what is real and what is imaginary. Thoughts and speech sometimes blur into one another which feels entirely natural once you get used to the convention.

Francis Drake, back from the war, is looking for someone else when he encounters Marvellous Ways. A friendship and understanding develops between the two allowing an exceptional exchange.

Winman’s prose is the definition of mindfulness. She slows down, looks and really sees. Her imaginative language weaves itself into nature, so that the book feels like the movement of the water up the creek.

Not a book to rush, this is like a poem. Sit down, relax and let this writer work her magic.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: When God Was A Rabbit, Spilt Milk by Amanda Hodgkinson, or The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Avoid if you don’t like: Non-linear narratives, magical realism, relaxed pace

Ideal accompaniments: Sparkling water, crab cakes and whalesong

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rhaman

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Somewhere in the territory between The Little Drummer Girl and Kingsman lies East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rhaman.

This is the story of hapless small-time drug dealer, Javid (‘call me Jay’) Qasim who, against all probability, is recruited by MI5 to infiltrate what they believe is a dangerous terrorist cell at his local mosque.

He is – apparently – the perfect candidate. At a turning point in his life. Credible as someone who could be sucked into extremism. But why did MI5 pick him over all other candidates? And why exactly is the leader of the cell so keen to have him along?

Rhaman’s MI5 is a bit shoddy and rundown – nothing like the hi-tech world of programmes like Spooks. And his terrorists are a long way from the extremist stereotypes and the bogeymen of the tabloid press. And yet the threat they pose is real enough. Will Jay be able to stop them? And at what cost to himself?

Rhaman’s world is an uneasy balance between the absurd and the all-too-probable – a reflection of our society and its fears that creates a kind of uncanny valley. You’ll laugh, and then wonder maybe if you should be laughing – and then laugh again because sometimes laughter is the best weapon against fear.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Dear Infidel by Tamim Sadikali, Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar, Three Lions (film).

Avoid If You Dislike: Finding humour in terrorism and counter-terrorism

Perfect Accompaniment: A pint of San Miguel

Genre: Thriller, Humour

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 7 March 2019

The Other Half of Happiness by Ayisha Malik

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

If Sofia Khan thought dating was hard, she is about to find out that marriage is even harder – especially when you haven’t spend quite enough time finding out about each other before tying the knot in a Karachi mosque.

Sofia’s mother won’t believe she is married unless they have a proper wedding ceremony back home, her husband is turning out to be a much more complicated creature than she’d imagined and now her publisher wants her to follow her book about Muslim dating with one about Muslim marriage. Just how many more problems can Sofia handle?

As ever, it is Sofia’s circle of irrepressible friends, Suj, Foz, Hannah and her sister Maars, who uphold her and sustain her through what will turn out to be the toughest time of her life.

Sofia Khan continues to demolish every stereotype of Muslim women. She is sexy, funny, with a huge heart - and just as confused about life as any modern woman. And she is absolutely nobody’s pushover.

Along the way, The Other Half of Happiness encompasses the pitfalls of book promotion for a Muslim woman, the manners and mores of Asian weddings and several things-you-never-knew about Ramadan.

From the opening lines to its unexpected ending, The Other Half of Happiness veers from bittersweet to laugh-out-loud funny. At the end, Sofia appears to be poised on the edge of another new adventure. But it may be a while (if ever) before we find out what happens next. Ayisha Malik is working on new book about building a mosque in an English country village that, sadly, doesn’t feature Sofia at all.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Sofia Khan is not Obliged by Ayisha Malik, Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee by Meera Syall, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Avoid If You Dislike: Romantic Comedy tinged with an edge of sadness

Perfect Accompaniment: Masala chai and a lot of biscuits

Genre: Romance, Comedy

Available on Amazon

Saturday, 2 March 2019

The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer

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

What we thought: Another fabulous read from this talented writer! After the success of her debut novel, there was a lot of expectation on the author to deliver with her second novel and she does not disappoint.

There are elements of the supernatural, historical, crime … all wound into a superbly crafted character driven novel that wraps you in its embrace from the opening page and doesn’t let you go until you arrive bruised and shaken at the final chapter.

The main protagonist is Ruby – a troubled teenage girl living an unhappy half-life existence as the adopted daughter of Mick and Barbara. Ruby has long ago learned to hide her bruises and mask her pain. When she creates imaginary childhood friends therefore – is it any real surprise? But who or what is Shadow? Is he real or a figment of Ruby’s scarred imagination?

The novel leads us on a journey through Ruby’s formative years and the search for her real family which leads to some shocking revelations. The dramas and characters she encounters along the way are brilliantly written in this author’s engaging style. I thought each character was so perfectly crafted they could have stepped straight from the page. Pace was handled to perfection – the highs and lows matched the tone of the novel so no section every felt too rushed or too slow.

There’s not an emotion left unexplored in this novel and you will turn the final page with a mixture of regret and joy. I admire this author’s writing even more so now and the topics she chooses to confront take real bravery.

Highly recommended!

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Joanna Cannon, Gail Honeyman, Celia Imrie.

Avoid if you don’t like : Teenage angst and family secrets.

Ideal accompaniments: Cheese platter and crackers with a glass of Pinot Noir.

Genre : Contemporary.

Available on Amazon