Friday, 31 January 2014

Spilt Milk by Amanda Hodgkinson

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter  (

What we thought : "Their eyes were the colour of the river. Grey as rain-swilled waters. It was how you knew the three of them were related. Nellie, Vivian and Rose Marsh." 

From the opening line of this novel, the scene is set. The importance of the river, the importance of the characters, and the importance of relationships. It also lays the first hint that not all may be as it seems within this family story.

Spilt Milk is the story of sisterhood and motherhood through the generations of a single family. Starting in 1913 with three sisters living an idyllic life in a cottage near a river in rural Suffolk. As the two youngest, Nellie and Vivian, blossom, their innocent existence is blown apart when a stranger, Joe Feriers, arrives in town. Both Nellie and Vivian fall for Joe and the consequences are devastating, creating a secret the sisters will be forced to carry to their graves, overshadowing everything else life presents them.

We follow Vivian and Nellie’s life stories right through into the 1960s. From their unusual start in life, they do go on to marry and create lives of their own, apart from one another – a fact that would have shocked the women at the outset. The author manages to convey wonderfully that not only do the sins of the father (or mother) echo on through time, but that generations of the same family can often inexplicably face similar life events, and it is interesting to see how each generation deals differently with them as time rolls on.

I thought Amanda’s first novel, 22 Britannia Road, was beautifully written and have eagerly awaited her second. And it doesn’t disappoint. There’s even more of a lyrical quality to Amanda’s writing here, which works perfectly, some scenes are so intense they are almost cinematic. The setting is perfectly described and the sense of time, as we move through the war years and onwards, is breathtakingly detailed and accurate. You feel as if you have stepped right into the character’s shoes and are seeing the world just as they knew it – whether it be the grime and danger of war-ravaged London or the open spaces and simple beauty of rural Suffolk. At the same time, while time moves on, you have a sense the author really wants to bring home the message that age is just a number, a date is just a reference, and that nothing really changes. 
I was captivated by the story of the generations of this family and the shadows they carried, and I'm sure you will be too.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Stories of families, secrets and lies.

Avoid if you don’t like : Beautiful writing!

Ideal accompaniments : Strawberries and cream and a bottle of pear cider.

Genre : Literary fiction




The Jewish Messiah by Arnon Grunberg (translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett)

What We Thought: 

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

Growing up in Basel, Xavier Radek feels a calling, so undertakes to comfort the Jews. He decides to convert to Judaism, learn Yiddish and get circumcised. Awromele, the local rabbi’s son agrees to help him. The Yiddish goes well, the circumcision less so. Mr Schwartz, a cheese importer with failing eyesight, botches the operation and Xavier loses a testicle.

With his unattached testicle (christened King David) in a jar, and thinking only of Awromele, Xavier returns home. But his mother’s new boyfriend thinks only of Xavier, so she embarks on a new sexual adventure. With a kitchen knife.

Awromele and Xavier’s relationship grows, on the condition that neither allows himself to feel anything. Their new project is translating Mein Kampf into Yiddish. "It's a fascinating book," Awromele said. "It's got pace, it's got momentum, it's full of humour, and I think the writer has a good story to tell. We've struck gold."

Such an audacious premise takes true skill to balance prejudice, religious sensitivity, and historical memory with gorgeously crafted writing, character and pace. The former Grunberg handles perfectly. The themes provoke consideration, and many set pieces make you laugh aloud while wincing in pain. And all the while, you’re checking over your shoulder for the political correctness police.

It is a satirical farce, written with an acidic intelligence which rejects kid gloves, taking on subjects most writers would not touch with rubber ones. Grunberg is an astounding writer, but his best may be yet to come.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: pitch-black comedy, Ned Beauman, transgressing taboos

Avoid if you dislike: irreverence towards religion/history, gay romance, the grotesque

Ideal accompaniments: Pickles, sloe gin and Kurt Weill

Genre: Contemporary, literary fiction

Accabadora by Michela Murgia (translated by Silvester Mazzarella)

What We Thought:

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

Beautiful, magical, with a subtle evocation of island culture in a period gone by.

For a mother with too many daughters, it's a neat solution to make a bargain with a sterile woman. A better life for the girl and for the lonely woman.
So Maria is a fill'e anima - a soul child.
Bonaria is the accabadora, the opposite to a midwife. She assists souls on their way out.

Maria and Bonaria Urrai grow to understand each other and their place in the unspoken culture of Sardinia in the 1950s.
The rural landscape and way of life is traditional, charming and brutal. The story of growing awareness and a broadening perspective is not restricted to Maria. The reader learns much, absorbed by the atmosphere of this complicit, tight community, about how right and wrong are dependent on the eye of the beholder.

It's a delightful book, characterised by evocative images and subtle personalities. And Murcia's writing is enough to make you stop and catch your breath. Maria is six years old and making a mud tart full of live ants, decorated with sand and wild flowers.
"Under the fierce July sun Maria's pudding grew in her hands with the beauty that sometimes characterises evil things."
And that's on page one.
Hats off to the translator, because this book is a thing of beauty.

You’ll enjoy this is you like: JM Synge, Watership Down, Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources

Avoid if: your perception of southern Italy is directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Ideal accompaniments: Limoncello, chiacchiere (angel wings) and a classic tarantella, ideally by Schubert.

Genre: Literary fiction, historical

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
What We Thought:

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

Chevalier has a real talent for painting women (no pun intended). This novel, with absorbing themes of science, the legacy of nature and the meaning of discovery is the story of two extraordinary women. It is based on real people and events. Working-class fossil hunter Mary Anning has an expertise and an eye to envy. Elizabeth Philpot, one of the middle-class spinster sisters, finds a like mind in Mary, as they seek to uncover the wealth of treasures buried in the rocks of Lyme Regis. Their talents attract attention, and not only of scientific interest.

I don’t know how Tracy Chevalier does it, but in a few pages, you are entirely transported to a wet, windswept beach in the early 1800s, held rapt by her gift for storytelling. The mood, the ambience of the age, the environment and the tension between the characters all spring to life with a few deft touches.

Along the way, the reader picks up a great deal about the gender imbalance of the period, the class system, the detail of fossil collecting and importance of reputation.

This book is one to savour and appreciate in small chunks, to absorb yourself in the world and remember that these creatures were not only remarkable, they were real.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Kate Summerscale, Sarah Waters, Peter Ho Davies

Avoid if you’re looking for: a bodice-ripping, rollicking saucy seaside romp

Ideal accompaniments: dry Sauvignon Blanc, a punnet of whelks and Benjamin Britten’s Cello Suite No. 1

Genre: Historical fiction

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

What We Thought:

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

Epic, intelligent, hilarious, poignant in its perversity, The Teleportation Accident shows that Boxer, Beetle was certainly no one-off success. Ned Beauman’s soaring imagination is an eclectic cultural mugger with a swooping intellect and virtuoso wit. I could fill this entire review with quotes from the book: extended metaphors which become riffs for a solo instrument, unforgettable graphic similies and a daring smash-and-grab attitude to language, literary convention and likeable characters.

Humour, dark and mischevious, permeates the entire novel. If you relinquish control and throw yourself into this wild and unpredictable tale, you’ll have one hell of an adventure. Beauman’s writing sits at that wonderful juncture between rollicking, rebellious, unfettered imagination and mature references from a well-educated mind. His almost teenage glee at punning names is juxtaposed with the references to cultural off-stage personae such as Brecht, Lovecraft and Sartre culminate in a breathlessly exciting bobsleigh run through the previous century.

Read this for the rich and convoluted descriptions, superb counterpoint to social European history and its kaleidoscopic contradiction of Rackenham’s assertion. “English fiction is dead.”

You’ll enjoy this if you like
: David Foster Wallace, Monty Python, Mikhail Bulgakov

Avoid if you dislike: Genre-bending, drugs and alternative approaches to history

Ideal accompaniments: Champagne cocktails, bratwurst with sweet mustard, and Phil Spector’s back catalogue

Genre: Contemporary fiction, literary fiction

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (
The Baileys Prize Shortlist

What we thought : One of those books that you so don't want to finish!
As I grow older, I find I increasingly yearn for flawed characters, those who have so many layers that as you unpeel them, you go from shocked to emotive to repulsed and back again. Here, we are spoiled. We have Theo Decker, who to say is troubled is the biggest understatement of the year. We have Boris, whose life story was so complex he'd lost sight of his moral compass at birth. We have darkly secretive art dealers, darkly secretive women, and the adorable Hobie. And I loved them all.

This is an epic novel, ten years in the making, and you can see how the layers have been honed, polished and perfected over time. This is a how-to example of perfection in literary fiction for me. The depth and attention to detail, the perfect characterisation and the rambling narrative and dialogue that suits every scene to perfection. Even the accents! Boris was sublime.

Theo Decker must have been a wonderful character to create. Left alone after the loss of his mother at a young age in the most dramatic of circumstances. Passed into the guardian-ship of the Barbour family whose imprint lasted right through his turbulent years in Vegas with his father. A relationship with Boris that fell under no distinct category. His return to Hobie whose paths crossed via a life changing moment. Bound by layers of guilt that he carries for life and almost lead to his destruction. I could almost weep I didn't have chance to create and live this life with him.

Without doubt, this is a lesson in excellent writing, and one that will stay with me for a long, long time.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Donna Tartt (I don’t honestly have a comparison).

Avoid if you don’t like :  Vegas, New York, Amsterdam. And art.

Ideal accompaniments : A tea-total mint infusion (you will never want to touch alcohol again) and a detox smoothie.

Genre : Contemporary, literary fiction

Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

cover art

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels and Wolfsangel (

What we thought: Amusing and thought-provoking. Set in 1290, Catherine Called Birdy is told through 14-year old Catherine’s quirky diary entries. The daughter of a minor nobleman, Catherine would prefer to play outdoors with the wild peasants, rather than pursuing the usual occupations of a noble girl, such as embroidering and sewing. In fact, she truly wishes she’d been born a boy. But Catherine is approaching the age of marriage, and her hateful father invites one suitor after another, all of whom the girl finds repulsive. She wants none of this marriage lark, and makes a game of turning away each potential husband. That is, until she meets her match – the ugliest of all the men – who seems determined to make Catherine his wife. Catherine’s life is starkly different from that of a modern child, though her reactions are spookily familiar.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Books for age 9 upwards, Beowulf, Robin Hood & his Merry Men.

Avoid if you don’t like: Medieval tales, arranged marriage, horrible fathers.

Ideal accompaniments:
A mug of ale with a trencher of heron roasted with pepper and cloves.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A Parachute in the Lime Tree by Annemarie Neary

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (

What we thought : What a beautiful ending! *wipes away a tear*
This was a super read, with evocative language and well-drawn characters that carried this intelligent story of love and loss during WWII.
Have to admit I knew little about Irish history of this period, so found the whole transportation of Jewish people from Germany really informative. I found myself drawn to Oscar and Elsa more so than Kitty and Charles, although I'm not entirely sure why. I felt Kitty was a little blurred as a character, and I never felt a connection with Charles, whereas both German characters really lived and breathed the story.
The tone and language reminded me of another of my favourite WWII novels, 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson. There is something compelling yet almost innocent about the writing that seems to suit the chaos of the setting. My only real complaint was that maybe the stories ended too soon, I felt the characters had more to say and although the summary covered all important points, I was still left with a sense of their stories being incomplete somehow. Or maybe I was just sad to say goodbye!

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Amanda Hodgkinson, Sarah Waters, Barbara Erskine.

Avoid if you don’t like :  Love stories, war stories and weeping like a girl.

Ideal accompaniments : A cup of Ovaltine and choc-chip cookies.

Genre : Literary Fiction





Monday, 27 January 2014

Orla's Code by Fiona Pearse

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (

What we thought : A contemporary women's fiction written around the mainly male world of high finance and computer programming. Orla Hanlon is a new recruit at investment bank, Couperdaye, recently moved from her home town of Dublin to London. The story follows Orla's career from high points to low points, and deals with the atmosphere of company politics and how she deals with the situation when Orla finds herself a scapegoated following a major systems failure.
She also has a casual relationship with someone from Couperdaye, known only as ‘Columbus’ who remains a mystery until the very end of the book - and my guesses all proved wrong!

Fiona Pearse is a competent writer, the story well planned, and the book well edited. She clearly knows what’s she’s talking about and writer from experience. She slips easily into Orla's character, creates believable dialogue and interesting minor characters. I found some of the computer terminology and detail a bit of a struggle, but I'm sure to those in the know it was all perfectly accurate and added validity to Orla's work struggles.
An enjoyable read and well recommended as a new name in contemporary writing.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Kate Morton, Nora Roberts, Jojo Moyes.

Avoid if you don’t like :  Computers!

Ideal accompaniments : A banana and passion fruit smoothie and sandwich from Pret-a-Manger..

Genre : Contemporary

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Killing #1 (audio version) by David Hewson

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (

What we thought : A page turning adaptation of the first season of the Danish television series, The Killing, written by commission by crime writer, David Hewson.
I was a huge fan of the television series, although I came to it a little late and had to play catch up - so I came to the audio version of the novel with more than a little trepidation.
However, I was hooked by the blurb ...
Through the dark wood where the dead trees give no shelter, Nanna Birk Larsen runs ... There is a monocular eye that follows, like a hunter after wounded dear. It moves in a slow approaching zigzag, marching through the Pineseskoven wasteland, through the Pentecost Forest. The chill water, the fear, his presence not so far away ... There is one torchlight on her now, the single blazing eye. And it is here.

Tense, gripping, complex and every bit as good as the TV series. David Hewson took a difficult, nigh impossible, job in retelling this in novel form - and made it look easy. If anything, without the issue of translation to contend with, I think the characters came across better in the novel. The complexity of Sara Lunt and her interaction in both her personal and professional life was brilliantly written. Even though I knew the story, this kept me gripped, and I was thrilled with the ending. Good stuff.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larsson, Tess Gerritsen .

Avoid if you don’t like : Denmark, Danish accents, Danish names, all things Danish. And woolly jumpers.

Ideal accompaniments : A bottle of Akvavit (Danish Vodka) and some pickled herrings.

Genre : Crime


A Kettle of Fish by Ali Bacon

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (

What we thought : It was a move from the norm for me to read this novel of the gritty teenage life of lead character, Ailsa, and her ‘Coming of Age’ story.

Ailsa is a typical teenager when the book opens, real and likable in her own way, with the endearing quality of admittedly not knowing her own mind from one day to the next. Does she want a Uni life, does she want a fiance? Can she leave her secretive, demanding mother to start her own life, or should she stick with what she knows and settle down as a shopworker.

I found Ailsa a difficult character to connect with, but that doesn't mean I didn't find her completely true to life. I'm pretty sure I'd have trouble connecting with teenagers in real life, so that only added to the realism. As a reader, we roll our eyes and tut as she makes one bad decision after another, but secretively cross our fingers and hope for a happy ending. As a mystery buff, the grey mist that hangs over Ailsa's past, the story of her father, and the resolution of her own demons, were all things that kept me hooked right to the unexpected ending.

The quality of the writing was top class. Wonderful settings, from rural Scotland to the bustle of Edinburgh, that brought to life the story, led by strong, realistic characters and superb dialogue gave an effortless reading experience.

I enjoyed this book from start to finish and would have no hesitation in recommending it.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Katie Fforde, Kate Morton, Donna Tartt .

Avoid if you don’t like : Troubled teenagers, fish and Scotland (yes, there is a pattern forming!)

Ideal accompaniments : A bottle of Irn-Bru, white cider(or the latest cool drink with youngsters) and a McDonalds.

Genre : Contemporary


Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Safe House by Chris Ewan

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter

What we thought : Lots to like here. An absorbing start with a motorcycle crash and unexplained missing passenger. An interesting and unusual location on the Isle of Man that added to the narrative and characters. And a gritty, sometimes intense, story of espionage, money and blackmail. The end was well thought out and kept me on the edge of my seat.

As I writer, I’ll get on my podium and have a bit of a whinge. At times the narrative was over-loaded with detail, when all we really wanted as readers was to get on with the story. One example, two people, badly injured (another point of contention in terms of believability for me and the amount of action they are involved with) are trapped in a garage, plotting an attack on their kidnapper. High drama, tight with tension, we then have almost three pages of explanation of cupboards, door positions, and details we had no need of knowing. I must admit this was one of a few areas I skimmed over. We just wanted them to get on and wallop the man when he opened the door!

But, overall, an enjoyable read by a competent writer. I shall look out for Chris Ewan in the future as I enjoy discovering new authors in crime fiction – and it’s the first book I’ve read set on the Isle of Man (and perhaps the last!)
You’ll enjoy this if you like : Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Ann Cleeves.

Avoid if you don’t like : The Isle of Man.

Ideal accompaniments : A nice cup of tea and a packet of chocolate digestives.

Genre : Crime

The House of Silk : A Sherlock Holmes Story by Anthony Horowitz

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter

What we thought : I was half looking forward to this and half dreading that it wouldn't live up to my high expectations of one of my all-time favourite crime characters. But I have to say I was delighted with the tone, voice and content of the story. The author has done a wonderful job of recreating the world of Holmes and Watson, plus supplied an intricate, complex tale along the way that un-weaves at just the right pace to keep us engrossed. Unusually for me, I lost myself in the story and I hope Mr Horowitz is proud of his homage to Conan Doyle - and I also hope he can be persuade to write another. Excellent!
Only thing lacking for me. Mr Cumberbatch.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Arthur Conan Doyle (there’s nothing else comparible).

Avoid if you don’t like : Clever folk who patronise you, Victorian London, Violins.
Ideal accompaniments : Elgar’s Fifth Symphony and Coke (?)

Genre : Crime


A Delicate Truth (audio version) by John Le Carre

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter

What we thought : I listened to this on audio book and found it an entertaining novel. This is the first novel I've read by John Le Carre, but after seeing some rave reviews by writers I rate, I decided to give a spy novel a go!

There is some superb writing here and great characterisation that really pull you into the story. The writing is effortless and in places took my breath away. However, the story I felt was a little weak, without the twists and turns I'd been expecting. We follow two men, Toby Bell and Kit, who in two separate ways are embroiled in a failed anti-terrorist raid that endangers both the people involved and the British Government. There are the usual murders made to look like suicides, and the usual kidnaps and beatings, but the end left me disappointed. Yes, we're lead to believe justice would be done and good would prevail, but I must admit I was left with a sense of dissatisfaction at the end of this novel. Somehow, I wanted more.

Would I try another Le Carre? Yes, probably. I did like the fact the author took the plunge and read his own work. But I'd hope that there was more edge of the seat intrigue that I found here. Good but not great would be my summary – but maybe endless hours of watching duff James Bond films have tainted my view of spy thrillers forever
You’ll enjoy this if you like : James Bond and similar stuff. (ie not girly stuff)

Avoid if you don’t like : Spies, espionage, counter-terrorism plots, posh folk.
Ideal accompaniments : A dry Martini. Shaken not stirred.

Genre : Thriller


Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter

What we thought : Rebus is back! Retirement doesn’t suit him despite his best attempts. Here we see him in his new position in SRCU (Edinburgh’s version of a cold case team) – and as usual his mixture of curmudgeonly stubbornness and genuine insightfulness work both for and against his career.
There’s something about Ian Rankin’s writing that always consumes me from the opening page. There’s a saying about the real art in anything is being to make something incredibly hard seem incredible easy - and that’s certainly true here. I have always loved Rebus’s wit and there are even more funny moments in this novel to enjoy. The dialogue is effortless and there’s never a second that something feels unreal or out of context. For me, that’s the sign of a truly gifted writer.
And as an added bonus, in this novel, the author brings alive some wonderful settings – whether it’s the traffic-jammed streets of Edinburgh or the backdrop of the Black Isle, it’s impossible not to have a running mental image in your head. Rankin’s pride of his own country is obvious.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Rankin’s writing, and even after twenty-five years of John Rebus, I never tire of his character. And Rankin never fails to keep the storylines fresh and engaging. There are twists and turns, dead ends and brick walls a-plenty here, but you’re never left in a shadow of doubt that it will all come good for Rebus in the end.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : PD James, Agatha Christie, Peter May & Val McDermid.
Avoid if you don’t like : Scottish folk, Scottish weather, Scottish accent, Scottish cities, Scottish traditions or anything generally north of the border. (I am sensing a running theme in my reviews.)

Ideal accompaniments : A shot of 12 year old malt, fried Mars Bar and The Proclaimers.
Genre : Crime

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

What we thought: 1850s. Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired guns on their way out west to kill a man called Herman Kermit Warm. The story is narrated by Eli, whose quirky deadpan style belies a surprising sensitivity. The two men are practical and efficient when it comes to violence, but Eli has a sentimental streak, which starts to affect the way he feels about his work.

The ambience of a lawless frontier where life is precarious is beautifully brought to life. DeWitt doesn’t shy from stark depictions of violence, but the book is shot through with a dry humour and human sympathy. Particular moments, such as Eli’s introduction to dental hygiene, are laugh-aloud funny and some of his philosophical ponderings are truly touching.

But what I loved most about this is the powerful voice that makes us view the world through Eli’s distinctive standpoint. Through his personality, we observe kindnesses and cruelties, power and greed, and reflections of the two brothers in other characters’ eyes. Unusual, unpredictable and unforgettable.

You’ll enjoy if you like: Joseph Heller, The Coen Brothers’ films, Thomas Strittmatter, Tibor Fischer.

Avoid if you don’t like: Violence, cowboys, black humour.

Ideal accompaniments: Beef jerky, toothpaste, Jack Daniels and Ennio Morricone.

Genre: Historical Fiction

The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Dating and Sex by Joshua Piven, Jennifer Worick, David Borgenicht

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

What We Thought: I’ve never read anything quite like it. Honestly.

I started out laughing, particularly at ‘How to Treat a Pimple’, ‘How to Have Sex in a Small Space’ and the diagrams of ‘How to Remove a Back-Clasping Bra with One Hand’.

Then I read the The Experts and realised they were serious. I started to get angry. This kind of paranoia-inducing, suspicion-fanning farce is a genuine handbook?

‘How to Determine if Your Date is an Axe-Murderer’: watch out for any three of the following …

A Caucasian male in his 20s or 30s / Obsession with fire or matches / Cruelty to animals / History of bed-wetting / Sexually abused as a child / Middle-class background / Difficulty maintaining relationships

(How are you supposed to winkle out all those vital details over Scampi in a Basket and a Knickerbocker Glory? Most ex-boyfriends had at least 1, 6 and 7 in common, and each was obsessed with something. Fire, tractors, Howard Devoto …)

Subsequent chapters tipped me back into Irony-Land. ‘How to Determine if Your Date is Married / A Con-Man / Pick-Up Artist.’ Yet the laughs are still thin on the ground, until ‘How to Determine the Gender of Your Date’ had me rolling on my ass, laughing my floor off. Or something.

It IS a joke. So subtle I almost thought it was real.

Hang on … serious chapters on how to escape unwanted attention (including excellent line-drawing of how to smash a bathroom window with a bin to escape a restaurant – obviously the simplest option).

Now angry again. This kind of ‘help’ will turn people into freakish, suspicious weirdos. (How to Spot Fake Breasts/ a Toupee). If a woman over thirty has full breasts which sit high on her chest, you have reason to be suspicious.

Or impressed.

‘How to Bribe a Maitre d’ for an Emergency Reservation’, ‘How to Stop Your Date from Choking’, and the position (I swear this is true) to adopt in the bathroom to expel excess gas. There’s a sketch of a pained bloke doing the Salute to the Sun on a tiled toilet floor in a desperate attempt to guff.

I’m crying again.

I still don’t know if this is the most ridiculous or subtly ironic book I’ve ever read, but the earnest diagrams are funnier than The Simpsons and the advice is entertaining, for the majority. Actively dangerous for the mildly unhinged.

At the end, I take away certain nuggets of wisdom such as the right way to squeeze a zit, how to lift a drunk, and most importantly, if I’m the type to detest snoring, I should avoid the obese, short-necked, sniffers, drinkers, and the tired.

No wonder I can’t get a date.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Toilet books such as The Grumpy Driver’s Handbook, Bridget Jones Guide to Life, Tingo and The Meaning of Liff
Avoid if: You’re the type to believe everything you read.

Ideal accompaniments: Decent quality lavatory paper and Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust on repeat.

Genre: Non-Fiction, Satire

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

What We Thought: The narrator returns back to the lane where he grew up, and sitting on a bench by a pond, remembers how much he has forgotten. The adult and his seven-year-old self relate the fantastical recollections of his childhood, his encounters with the Hempstock women, his battles with Ursula the usurper and some startling moments of domestic drama.

Gaiman’s story is freighted with symbolism, imagination, memory, reality and invention, stories and myth, while rooted in the Sussex countryside of the 1960s. Full of extraordinary images and ideas, I will revisit The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This is not a long book, but one to savour and remember how powerful a thing is the childhood imagination.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Neil Gaiman, magical realism, Susanna Clarke, Philip Pullman, Douglas Adams.

Avoid if you don’t like: Symbolism, shifting realities, repeated motifs.

Ideal accompaniments: Dandelion and burdock, a sherbert fountain and Dew by Don Robertson.

Genre: Young Adult, literary magical realism.

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

What We Thought: It took me a while to get into the world of this book, but once I had, I didn’t want to leave. The characters and the village of Pagford come brilliantly to life, and not always in a good way. I felt positively murderous towards Si-Pie, wanted to slap Fats and would happily rip part of Obbo’s anatomy off. At the same time, I willed Krystal to find some kind of haven, kept my fingers crossed for Andrew and Gaia, and experienced the frustration which leads Parminder to her outburst.

The plot is expertly woven, and the reader is drawn into the petty battles, the daily cruelties, and the crushing hopelessness with omniscient knowledge. Rowling’s skill is such that she makes us root for characters such as Samantha when we are in her head, but judge her with the sneering superiority when we perceive her from an external perspective. It’s a clever feat of characterisation.

And the book works superbly as a highly unattractive depiction of the selfishness and absolution of responsibility engendered by the Big Society. The NIMBY mindset and judgemental blinkers are shown up as brutally self-serving and inhumane by one masterful set-piece towards the end.

This is a surprisingly powerful piece of storytelling, which forces us, by stealth, to care.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Kathryn Stockett, Polly Courtney, Sarah Waters, Ray Bradbury.

Avoid if: You’re expecting adult Potter, you dislike politics, you have no patience.

Ideal accompaniments: Lapsang Souchong tea, crumpets with Gentleman’s Relish and the theme tune to The Archers played by Urban Orchestra.

Genre: Literary fiction, Contemporary Fiction

Snowdrops by AD Miller

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

What We Thought: The eponymous snowdrop refers to a body buried under the winter snow which only comes to light in the thaw. The image is relevant both literally and metaphorically to AD Miller’s Moscow tale of corruption and moral erosion.

The book is ostensibly a letter from Nick to his fiancĂ©e, cleaning the slate by confessing his past. During the early years of the millennium, he’s working as a lawyer in Moscow, where he meets Masha and Katya, and so begins his decay.

It’s difficult to talk about the book without giving too much away, but it makes you think. The author uses the setting of wintry Moscow, and the period just before the credit crunch, to great reflective effect. Nick’s moral choices are underpinned by a sense of ‘Right here, right now, this is just how it works’. But one day, the snow will melt ...

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Gorky Park (Martin Cruz Smith), Closer/Notes on a Scandal (Patrick Marber), Icon (Frederick Forsyth).

Avoid if you don’t like: Dubious decisions, unreliable narrators, erosion of morality.

Ideal accompaniments: Stolichnaya, fishy dumplings and Polyushka Polye by Origa.

Genre: Literary fiction, Noir

Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

What We Thought: It’s a story that drags you into a world all too readily prejudged and forces you to look at life another way. The character of John-John Wisdom is sympathetic, deep, dignified and endearing, even when he’s pounding another man to a pulp.

It’s hard and brutal and contains several graphic scenes of violence or cruelty, but these are not gratuitous. Shocking, yes, but crucial to both storyline and character. There are also tender moments, where we see the hope and love creeping through the cracks in both toughened facades.

The split narrative is an intelligent device which compounds one of the novel’s themes, that of the inescapability of the past. The second narrator, whom I won’t name for fear of spoilers, gradually reveals what happened in the past. There is a tragic fatalism in this for the reader, as we know how it ends up. Or think we do. Whereas John-John’s story is just beginning, and we’re willing him to sidestep all the traps.

The weaving of the two stories to the climax is perfectly done, and although horrifying, feels right and strangely satisfying. It explains a lot. The final image is one of optimism, albeit tinged with inescapable despair.

The author uses a rich vernacular for both the voices, which on the whole, works well. The accent and localised expressions take a while to get used to, but are not overdone.

Overall, this is not an easy read but it’s fascinating, well-constructed, intelligently written and absolutely worth the effort.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Trainspotting (Irvine Welsh), Once Were Warriors (Alan Duff), Twelve Bar Blues (Patrick Neate), The Casual Vacancy (JK Rowling).

Avoid if you don’t like: Use of dialect, violence, dissection of social prejudice.

Ideal accompaniments: Cider, ice-cream, Elvis Costello.
Genre: Literary fiction, coming-of-age.

Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

What We Thought: A psychological thriller, masquerading as a domestic coming of age story.
Josephine Hurst is the eponymous Mother, whose two children relate their experiences from their own points of view. William and Violet are damaged, but neither has any idea how much. Their older sister Rose has run away, so now their mother’s full attention falls on them. It’s something they both crave and fear.
Rightly so.

Josephine is a sinister creation, manipulative and cruel, behind a facade of suburban bliss. The author creates layer upon layer of unreliable narrator, disturbing and unsettling until the fractured jigsaw puzzle of individual narratives begin to form an ugly shape.

There are one or two bum notes – a misunderstanding between father and son, plus a remarkable coincidence which furthers the plot – but overall, this is a writer exercising remarkable control over her narrative.

Not so much ‘makes your blood run cold’ but this story gradually chills you to the bone. We Need To Talk About Kevin in reverse.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Lionel Shriver, Helen Fitzgerald, Alice Sebold, Jon Ronson.

Avoid if you dislike: Psychological cruelty, dysfunctional families, details of addiction.

Ideal accompaniments: Gin, persimmon and Richter’s version of Rachmaninoff’s Etude Tableaux Op.33 No.5.
Genre: Psychological thriller

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of Behind Closed Doors

What We Thought: This is a story of a family. The shadow – or perhaps footprint – of Kweku Sai, whose death opens the narrative, marks the remaining characters like a bruise. The past is part of the present for the cast of complex, damaged individuals who draw you into their worlds.

The fractured structure, the geographical spread, the atmospheric evocation of locations and relations are handled with confidence and grace. For a debut novelist, Selasi’s talent cannot fail to impress. This story is beautifully written and reaches the reader’s sensibilities via sensory and emotional faculties.

The gradual reveals of how-we-got-here is handled with all the subtlety and sleight-of-hand of a classic crime writer, while the revelations of how familial and cultural ties leave (in)visible marks touched me and made me think, as does the very best literary fiction.

These characters are certainly interesting to the reader, but so much more so to themselves. So I finished this with a sense of privilege of having being allowed into these heads, but also a sense of gratitude for being allowed back into the wider world. Taiye Selasi has undeniable talent and I will be eager to see how she develops.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe), Brick Lane (Monica Ali), On Beauty (Zadie Smith), Ghost Town (Catriona Troth)

Avoid if you don’t like: Jumping narrative, introspective writing, epic family sagas

Ideal accompaniments: Gin and tonic, tropical fruit salad and Youssou N’Dour

Genre: Literary fiction

My Memories of a Future Life by Roz Morris

Reviewer: Catriona Troth, author of Ghost Town

What We Thought: On the surface, this is a tale of a classical pianist suffering from RSI who, when all conventional medicine fails, resorts to hypnotism in order to be able to play once more.

But hypnotism takes Carol not into a past life, but into a far distant future, when a human elite lives a pampered life in undersea domes, fuelled by power stations left on a barren surface.

Is this Carol’s subconscious finding a way to cope, or is she really channelling some spirit from the future? Everyone from her best friend through to the local spiritualists seem to have an opinion.

My Memories of a Future Life begins with some of the most sumptuous and specific descriptions of what it is like to draw music from a piano that I have ever read. As someone who has listened to classical music all my life but never played an instrument, it allowed me to slip into Carol’s shoes and empathise with what she’s lost.

The future world is lightly but deftly drawn, original and intriguing. And Carol’s problems are given no facile answers. In the end, she must dig deep within herself to find the origins of her pain.

A deeply satisfying book written by someone who understands the music of words as well as she does the music of the piano.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Like: Scarlett Thomas, Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam Trilogy,

Avoid If You Don’t Like: A blend of realism and surrealism blended; highly literate prose

Ideal Accompaniment: Chilled champagne in a tall glass; Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Grieg's piano concerto in A minor.

Genre: Literary Fiction with a dash of Sci-Fi.

Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

Reviewer: Catriona Troth, author of Ghost Town

What We Thought: Having heard Elif Shafak speak eloquently at the London Book Fair, both about literature in translation and about the political situation in her native Turkey, I was sure this was a book I was going to enjoy. What I hadn’t expected was that I would find it so funny.

Asya is a young Turkish woman living in Istanbul. Armanoush is an Armenian woman from San Francisco. Both come from large families dominated by eccentric women. When Armanoush decides to explore her exiled family’s history in Turkey, who else would she stay with in Istanbul but the family of her stepfather, Asya’s uncle?

The unexpected friendship between the two women leads both to confront and question what really happened during the early years of the Turkish republic, when so many Armenians fled the country. And then it begins to unravel some very personal family secrets indeed.

Shafak wrote The Bastard of Istanbul in English, but the book plays with Turkish and Armenian phrases, sayings and stories, using language to immerse the reader effortlessly in a different culture. She constantly challenges the assumptions of both women, showing at the same time how deeply divided the two cultures are – and how closely intertwined.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Like: Ann Tyler, Kamila Shamsie, Amy Tam

Avoid If You Don’t Like: Literature in translation, casts of eccentric female characters, having your cultural assumptions challenged

Ideal Accompaniments: hummus, baba ghanous, churek

Genre: Literary Fiction from outside the Anglo-American tradition

Agatha Raisin and the Perfect Paragon (audio version) by M C Beaton

Reviewer: Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter

What we thought: Agatha Raisin is, I admit, a secret vice of mine. I have fallen in love with the adventures of this middle aged female amateur detective, who lives in the beautiful Cotswolds, but is completely oblivious to the stunning surroundings and goes through life as ratty as a rat’s bottom. Helped along the way by the linguistic talents of Dame Penelope Keith (I cannot imagine Agatha being voiced by anyone else) the Agatha Raisin audiobook series is a joy to me. The crimes are all what would nowadays be classed as ‘cosy’ – not a term I particularly care for, but there’s certainly very little gore and even fewer profanities. But what there is, is a very talented writer who has created a bunch of misfit characters who charm and muddle their way through a variety of mysterious deaths in each novel. Agatha Raisin uses all of her savvy as a retired PR executive, and a bundle of ‘women’s intuition’ in a humorous and believable way. Although she’s razor sharp on the outside, inside she’s a boiling pit of regret and insecurity, and falls for the wrong men time after time. If you want psychological intrigue and edge of the seat action, you must look elsewhere, but for something to make you smile and a cast of characters you soon see as friends, I totally recommend indulging in this series.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: PD James, Agatha Christie, Midsomer Murders.

Avoid if you don’t like: Sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Ideal accompaniments: A large G&T or glass of Pimms and a bowl of strawberries.

Genre: Crime

Darkfall by Dean Koontz

Reviewer: Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter

What we thought: There’s something under the little girl’s bed, scuffling, tugging at the lamp lead. Eyes that glow silvery in the dark. Bodies found with hundreds of bite marks. Rats. But not rats. Someone – or something – is taking revenge on the drug dealing scum of New York City. Yes, we’re reading horror. But this time with a mix of American detective fiction. Does it work? You know I rather think it does. The cops are bumbling along as only US cops can do, missing leads and tripping over their own feet while worrying about voodoo and the like. But of course, there’s always one good cop who will save the day – especially when his own family are at risk. I can’t really discuss the denouement at all without spoiling the story, so I won’t, but trust me it’s worth the wait. I really enjoyed this book, and other than the occasional slip into horror clichĂ©, it’s well worth a read for any fans of this genre.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Stephen King, Shaun Hutson, Catherine Cookson.

Avoid if you don’t like: Blood and gore. Rats that aren’t rats. American cops.

Ideal accompaniments: Shot of Jack Daniels and a cushion to hide behind.

Genre: Horror

Available from Amazon

Thursday, 9 January 2014

White Nights by Anne Cleeves

Reviewer: Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter

What we thought: Murder, mystery, mayhem, a dead ‘Southerner’ and a collection of eclectic Scots on a remote Shetland isle makes for an entertaining read. When an unidentified body is found hanging in a tool shed, locals in the small community start questioning each other rather than the outsiders. As the body count rises, DI Jimmy Perez finds less and less evidence or motive. To be fair, there’s less bad language than you’d hear in your average Scottish hostelry, but the same amount of back-stabbing and hostility. And for me, the ending was a genuine surprise, which I’ll admit is a rarity. I rate Ann Cleeves among the best of today’s new generation of crime writers.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: PD James, Agatha Christie, Peter May & Vera Stanhope.

Avoid if you don’t like: Scottish folk, Scottish islands, Scottish weather, Scottish accent, Scottish traditions or anything generally north of the border.

Ideal accompaniments: Mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows, a thick, warm blanket and The Proclaimers.

Genre: Crime