Thursday, 29 May 2014

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Review by JJ Marsh

The Baileys Prize Shortlist

What We Thought:1828 Iceland. A woman, with one male and one female accomplice, murders her lover. Convicted by the court, she is sentenced to death by beheading.

Icelandic custom involves sending its criminals to Denmark for their punishment, but here, the District Council decides to make an example of the three. They will meet their fate on Icelandic soil.

The system entails several appeals and deliberations, meaning a potential delay of months, even years before the sentence can be applied. So the three convicts are put to work on District Officers’ farms.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir is sent to Kornsá, and the farm of Jón Jónsson. She is to work alongside Jón, his wife Margrét and his daughters, Lauga and Steina. The shock of hosting a murderess throws ripples of confusion through the family. When news reaches novice priest, Reverend Tóti, that he is to be her spiritual counsellor, even the servant says, ‘Good Lord, they pick a mouse to tame a cat’.

The presence of the criminal excites and alarms the neighbours, but the household finds its own way of dealing with the unwanted guest. Steina is bewitched, Lauga is detached and Margrét sees Agnes for what she is – a woman, suffering.

The subtle change and adaptation of each character to the circumstances reminds me of the so-subtle-you-don’t-notice shifts in Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín. In addition, the author’s choice of changing points of view, evocative detail of Icelandic peasant hardships and use of letters, documents and storytelling allows the reader to piece together a very different account to the official rendering of events.

A delicate, understated, hot under a cold surface story that had me in heaving sobs at the end. By which I mean to say, I loved it.

You'll enjoy this if you liked: The Tenderness of Wolves, My Ántonia, Dead Man Walking

Avoid if you dislike: Icelandic culture, evocation  of cold winters, based on true stories

Ideal accompaniments: Skyr, coffee with a slug of akvavit, Jan Garbarek's Rites

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanahReview by JJ Marsh

What We Thought:
This is a love story. 
Not just between Ifemelu and Obinze, but for a country. 
Adichie’s observations on America and Britain are cool, in both senses of the word. Precise, amused, sardonic and aware. Yet when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, the reader can sense passion. 

Young lovers Ifemelu and Obinze are well-off, educated and intelligent individuals, who love their country. But only by leaving do they realise how well off they are. Ifemelu takes up a scholarship in the US and learns some harsh lessons about racial attitudes (NAB v AA), principles (how the word ‘relax’ differs when it comes to hair and tennis coaches) and the influence of class.

Obinze opts for a less secure route in Britain. Whereas Ifemelu, who’s started a blog, sees the funny side of assumption and prejudgement, Obinze’s treatment at the hands of authority and associates, leaves deep scars on his sense of self. 

One feature I found especially endearing is the significance of the written word. Our hero and heroine share books, letters, emails and maintain a connection through words on a page. Reading, writing and books are doorways for these characters.

An articulate, broad and sharp analysis of the state we’re in, this is a beautifully written story about two people and a love that will always bring them back.

Read this if you enjoyed: Half of a Yellow Sun, Nervous Conditions, The Namesake

Avoid if you dislike: observations on race, puncturing of liberal lip-service, realities of immigration

Ideal accompaniments: Salted cashews, Zobo, and Brian Eno's On Land

Genre: Literary Fiction

Read JJ Marsh's exclusive interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the June 2014 edition of Words with JAM

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

lowlandReview by JJ Marsh

The Baileys Prize Shortlist

What We Thought:
Two brothers, born in Calcutta, live just behind the lowland – two ponds which fill and become one when the rains come. Subhash is studious and obedient, Udayan is a rule-breaker. Their complicit stealing into the private members’ Tolly Club (Udayan’s idea) results in Subhash being beaten. The brothers’ lives take different directions. Subhash takes up a scholarship in Rhode Island. Udayan, politicised and passionate, becomes involved with the Naxalite movement.

Without giving away spoilers, this is a book about absences. Brothers separated, a husband replaced, a mother abandoning a child. Ghosts loom large and the presence of some of the living is ethereal. Lahiri weaves a tale of loss and identity, secrets and guilt. The whole truth and the weight it bears on the characters is only fully uncovered towards the end.

I found the depiction of place powerful – a house, a wasteland, a terrace, a path – each holds far greater meaning when loaded with emotional identification. Small wonder our youngest character rejects roots and becomes transient, working the land, shifting with the seasons, forming and losing groups, but always moving.

However, for me, this book felt distanced and removed. I actually wished for a little dialogue, allowing me to interpret the behaviour and motivations of the key players, rather than reported actions and emotions. The ice creep of disintegrating marriages, withdrawal of affection and a gradual loss of sanity are not easy subjects to address as they lack drama. Yet as truths of life, they do require engagement.

Read this if you like: Barbara Trapido's The Travelling Hornplayer, Isabel Allende's Portrait in Sepia, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss

Avoid if you don't like: Family stories, Indian politics and culture

Ideal accompaniments: Iced Tea,  vegetable samosas and From the Flagstones by The Cocteau Twins

Genre: Literary Fiction

The Undertaking, by Audrey Magee

the undertakingReview by JJ Marsh

The Baileys Prize Shortlist

What We Thought:
The literature of war is written by the victors. Later, the victims, and eventually, the vanquished. There is a space in which to explore how ordinary housewives, everyday soldiers and those who conform to socially accepted norms of civilisation behave in times of conflict. Do they gradually succumb to an erosion of those values, becoming cruel and cynical in order to survive? If so, what do they still hold dear?

This is a story of WWII from two German characters’ perspectives. At first they are strangers, then lovers, then talismanic memories.
Soldier Peter Faber weds a woman’s photograph in the bitter cold of the Eastern Front. Katharina performs the same ceremony with Peter’s picture in Berlin. The undertaking confers favours on both. Peter gets three weeks’ leave from the German army, Katharina gains a soldier husband (and his pension). Yet when they meet in person, their mutual attraction surprises them.

Katharina’s family has connections. Sheltered by powerful friends in the Führer’s inner circle, Peter is co-opted to the cause. It doesn’t take much. Two weeks into his marriage and he’s smashing down doors to drag Jewish children into cattle trucks.

The story is bleak and brutal. Peter’s return to the hopeless advance on Stalingrad through a Russian winter is contrasted with the selfish opportunism and weakness of Katharina’s own family as they enjoy the privileges of Berlin’s protection. Until even that is stripped away.

This is a harsh, grim tale of the horrors of war. The use of dialogue places the reader in the heads of the characters most effectively. But sometimes, that’s the last place you want to be.

You'll like this if you enjoyed: Suite Française, The Siege, The Zookeeper's War

Avoid if you dislike: realities of conflict, cruelty as pragmatism and a reminder of humanity

Ideal accompaniments: Dried horsemeat, a shot of Underberg and Mahler's Kindertotenlieder

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride

Review by JJ Marsh 

The Baileys Prize Shortlist

The first thing everyone says about this book is ‘it’s a hard read’.
It is. Unconventional in its prose style: confrontational in its subject. McBride’s fractured rendition of conversations and distinctively Irish English, plus the disregard for the norms of punctuation, dialogue tags or attribution makes the reader either work hard or relax.
I recommend the latter. Forget the fact standard reader-signposts are absent and realise you are not being told a story, but being drawn into an experience.

Our unnamed narrator expresses herself and her formative experiences with feeling rather than eloquence– as the author puts it, ‘balancing on the moment just before language becomes formatted thought’.

There is much to think about; familial bonds, the strictures and comforts of religion, the unfairness of disease, perceptions of self and identity as defined in the eyes of others and female sexuality and how it can be (ab)used. McBride neither shows nor tells of the love, shame and guilt battling within our protagonist. By dint of brutal poetry and risky narration, she makes the reader feel it too.

This is the third book I’ve read from independent small publishers Galley Beggar Press, and I’m so glad they exist. Otherwise books like this would not.

You'll like this if you enjoy: James Joyce, Sarah Kane, Samuel Beckett

Avoid if you dislike: risk-taking, no stabilisers, experiential writing

Ideal accompaniments:  Hard green apples, sipping vodka and silence so you can hear the music in these words.

Genre: Literary fiction

Addendum: Congratulations, Eimear!!!!

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Born Twice

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series.

What We Thought: This is a surprising book. To be honest, I suspected something mawkish and trite, push-button emotional manipulation which causes uncontrollable sobbing and leaves you no wiser than when you started. I was wrong.

The book is a collection of episodes from the life of Professor Frigerio (a name I found resonant) and his son Paolo. Each is told in spare prose, in beautifully crafted sentences – I was already reaching for the Post-Its in Chapter Two. Pontiggia achieves a clinical detachment through his precise, curt chapters, inviting the reader to observe, learn, judge, accept or rail against the circumstances.

Paolo is born severely disabled. This appears to be partly the fault of the medical profession, partly the fault of his wife and her family. The story explores how the professor learns about his own special needs while coming to terms with those of his son. Frigerio suffers guilt surrounding his own infidelity, tests his theoretical opposition to prejudice against disabled people versus his will to have his son conform, battles with his own resentments towards authority, clashes with his wife and older son regarding how to treat Paolo and discovers how much his younger son has to teach him.

It’s not an easy read. It’s sharply painful and the author’s laser-pointed language doesn’t allow for evasion. You are drawn into this world, constantly comparing ‘What would I do?’ while vacillating between sympathy and infuriation with the narrator. It moved me deeply, but more importantly, made me question my own attitudes. Highly recommended for those who, just once in a while, want to examine what a principle really means.

You'll enjoy this if you liked: Oscar Moore's PWA, Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon, Dr Jamison's An Unquiet Mind.

Avoid if you want: a saccharine weepie with a feelgood ending.

Ideal accompaniments: Iced water with lime, grapefruit and feta salad, and Chopin's Nocturnes.

Genre: Contemporary, in translation

The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen

Reviewer: Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (

What we thought: I’ve enjoyed a few of Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli & Isles detective novels, and was interested to see this stand-alone novel had a cross-genre tag which tempted me to give it a try – and I wasn’t disappointed.

Like some of my own novels (The Charter and Complicit) Gerritsen writes here both in the present and the past.

Present: Julia Hamill purchases an abandoned property, and after finding human remains in the garden, becomes involved with the history of the house through old letters discovered by the former owner. Past: 1831, Irish immigrant, Rose Connolly struggles to raise her niece Meggie after the childbirth death of her sister. A serial killer roams the streets of Boston, leaving mutilated corpses in its wake, but what connection can the murderer have to a new born infant?

I found both stories satisfying, but the period writing and characters really drew me into the historical thread, and I thought the denouement was very well plotted and all of the strings pulled together cleverly in the finale.

It’s refreshing to read a fellow crime writer who’s not afraid to break a few rules and try her hand a different genre. I think this novel will appeal not only to readers of thrillers, with Gerritsen’s usual amount of shock and gore, but also readers of historical fiction who enjoy period crime writing.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Barbara Erskine, Susan Hill, Karin Slaughter.

Avoid if you don’t like: Serial killers and Victoriana.

Ideal accompaniments: Dublin Bay prawns, real ale and suet pudding.

Genre: Crime, historical.

The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville

Reviewer: JD Smith

What We Thought: This is probably the millionth time someone has referred to Afrika Reich and Fatherland in the same sentence, but I'll do it again. The similarities between the two start with an alternative history novel and end with two outstanding plots. I was one of the idiots who, when reading Fatherland, didn't read the jacket blurb before the actual book and got about half way through before realising something wasn't quite right, because the Germans definitely didn't win the war. That's how convincing the narrative and detail were, and that's how believable Afrika Reich is when exploring an Africa under Nazi control.
I had been warned before embarking on reading Saville's work that some of the scenes would make uncomfortable reading, but each one is crafted beautifully, pacey, heart-warming in places, descriptive and the violence necessary to the overall story and the situations the lead duo Cole and Whaler find themselves.

Afrika Reich also has one of the most ruthless and disturbed villains. But even here there's a softer side which is gradually unveiled to the reader, telling of a past that gives his action not an excuse, but meaning, creating an unsettling empathy.

There's a lot of depth, vast amounts of research that make it believable whilst not overwhelming the reader, a love interest, conflict, blood, death and a chase that could rival the best of them. If you like a thriller, you love this. Bloody addictive reading.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Robert Harris, turning pages quickly, WW2 themes, action.

Avoid if you dislike: Skulls, a cliffhanger, historical fiction, uncomfortable reading.

Ideal accompaniments: A stiff drink and roast beef baguette.

Genre: Historical fiction.

Friday, 16 May 2014

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of The Land Beyond Goodbye, Don’t Look Down and the soon to be published Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion.

What We Thought: I'm in two minds about this novel. On one hand it is a beautiful story with a timely message that needs to be heard, but on the other hand the writing sometimes lets it down.

All the many historical voices sound the same to me - a lost opportunity to give greater insight into the minds of the different narrators. Without looking at the chapter headings, it was impossible to know which character was narrating at any particular time. With characters as disparate as virgin brides, wild dervishes, violent thugs and old drunks, there should have been at least some verbal tics to distinguish them. The only really distinctive voice is that of the modern day character Ella.

This is a novel that, on the face of it, is right up my street. Ella is a publisher’s reader working her way through a book on Sufism. Throughout the book the Koranic ‘forty rules of love’ are explored along with stories from the lives of the poet Rumi and Shams the mystic. It’s a shame, therefore, that I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would.

The Forty Rules of Love is still well worth reading though and it won't put me off Shafak’s first book - which I probably should have read first.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Mysticism, exoticism, poetry, historical settings.

Avoid if you dislike: Multiple characters, bored housewives reading novels for publishers; anything religious.

Ideal accompaniments: Mediaeval Turkish lute music; Sufi meditation music; mint tea.

Genre: Literary, Metaphysical

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought:

Not quite Bombay's Trainspotting, but close.

Thayil has Welsh's ear for dialect and idiolect but makes poetry with his eye for beautiful juxtaposition. More Bolaño than Begbie.

He also has a sly line in dark humour, ensuring the underbelly of drug addiction and slum life, the constant draw of hit and hypnotism, all work their magic on the reader.

Characterisation is a real strength, so that we hope Dimple is happy and care about Rashid. But most of all, we will our narrator to chase another kind of dragon.

This is a story of escape and redemption, but the strongest chord in this fabulously populated, gorgeously written novel, is one of regret.

Read it.

Read it for the joy of language and sensory heady prose.

After that incredible one-sentence first chapter, you'll be hooked.

You'll like this if you enjoy: Hunter S Thompson, William Burroughs, Dennis Johnson, soaring poetic writing.

Avoid if you dislike
: details of addiction, ambiguous sexuality, realities of Indian city life, no easy answers.

Ideal accompaniments: Lassi laced with absinthe, freshly peeled lychees with rose petals and an album by Tavlin Singh & Niladri Kumar

Genre: Literary fiction, contemporary

House of Silence by Linda Gillard

Title : House of Silence 

Author : Linda Gillard

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (

What we thought: Lead character, Gwen Rowland is invited to spend Christmas at her boyfriend Alfie's family home, Creake Hall, a neglected Tudor manor in Norfolk, with the strange family he seems desperate to keep her apart from. It’s not long before Gwen feels things are not as they seem, but can’t put her finger on the problem. Alfie acts strangely toward his family and is reluctant to talk about the past, something that’s important to Gwen because of her own childhood. As Gwen begins to piece together the complex family history, including Alfie’s role as a fictional character in his mother’s children’s books, she feels more and more out of her depth and turns to the brooding Polish gardener, Marek, for support.

There’s a haunting quality to this book, not quite ghostly, and yet quite ethereal – and it’s quite difficult to pinpoint down to one genre. There’s a mix of mystery and romance and yet, I had a feeling that Creake Hall was surrounded by ghosts – but living ones, not yet dead. Gillard creates some superb characters here, complex and damaged in so many different ways, and yet all totally believable.

I also loved the twists and turns as the plot unravelled, feeling confident for one moment that you knew where the story was headed, only to be disarmed and taken in an opposite direction. There was something about this novel that reminded me of two classics, Rebecca and Wuthering Heights, and it left me with that same disorientation, that although everything had been settled and all questions answered, there was still an element of the unknown left dangling.

This was the first book I’d read by this author, and I very much look forward to making my way through her catalogue of novels.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Emily Bronte, Daphne Du Maurier, Catherine Cookson

Avoid if you don’t like : Complex family histories 

Ideal accompaniments : Box of Belgian chocolates and a sparkling Prosecco.

Genre : Contemporary

Friday, 9 May 2014

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of The Land Beyond Goodbye, Don’t Look Down and the soon to be published Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion.

What We Thought: This unusual novel tells the life story of a woman, Alma Whittaker, born at the beginning of the 19th century. It's a bit of a Moby Dick of a book except that we learn a lot about bryology (mosses) instead of cetology (whales). And that's praise by the way – I love Moby Dick.

Alma Whittaker is highly intelligent, not considered attractive, focussed on her studies and at the beck and call of her father, the adventurer and self-made man Henry Whittaker. She falls in love twice during the course of the book but neither emotional attachment ends well.

This is a book about love and sacrifice, a woman's sexuality, the pleasures of study and the evolution of the species. We learn about Sir Joseph Banks, Captain Cook and Charles Darwin, while visiting a variety of locations: Philadelphia, London, Amsterdam, Tahiti. In some ways, this book is a mishmash of ideas but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I have a suspicion however that if Elizabeth Gilbert had not already had a massive success with Eat Pray Love (an altogether different type of book I believe) this novel, The Signature of All Things, would have had a harder time getting a publisher. That's not to say it's bad – it isn't – but it disobeys one of the so-called 'rules' of writing – there's a lot of 'telling' as opposed to 'showing'. This is done well, however, and doesn't detract from the book's readability. And it certainly shortens an already long book.

I found this novel both entertaining and educational and it has certainly made me look at moss in a whole different light.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Learning while you read; obscure facts; The Goldfinch; Moby Dick.

Avoid if you dislike: Longish novels that seem not to have any particular focus. Long passages without dialogue.

Ideal accompaniments: A stiff drink most of the time.

Genre: Literary, Historical

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought

I spent some of my formative years living in Nigeria, so I read Half of a Yellow Sun for some insight into what I had seen, but never understood. It's now on my top shelf all-time best-loved books.

Recent tragedies in Nigeria add to an unhappy history. One of its saddest chapters is the Biafran War. In 1967, when the Igbo people broke away to form the independent nation of Biafra, a brutal civil war followed, lasting three years and claiming over a million lives. But Half of a Yellow Sun is so much more than an important history lesson.

This evocative and emotionally absorbing book opens the door on a country and a people faced with irreversible change. Many characters in historical novels are depicted as innocent victims, battered and buffeted by the forces of politics. Adichie shows how sufferers can also be perpetrators and how people retain humanity under inhuman circumstances. The realities of war and actual events are not simply told but experienced through the lives of upper-class, educated and passionate Nigerians. When their bourgeois world explodes, complex moral layers of identity and belonging unfold. Her characters, complete with flaws and sometimes erroneous judgement, inspire great affection.

Considering the subject matter and the fact the author was under thirty when she wrote this, it’s astounding how she simply observes, never sliding into bitterness or polemic. As well as her unflinching look at the legacy of colonialism, Adichie's novel exposes the range and depth of African prejudices; religious, class, tribal, territorial and familial.

A restrained and beautiful writer, she never shows off, telling her story in understated crisp prose. The title of the book refers to the symbol on the Biafran flag, intended to represent the dawn of a new nation. Despite the tragic death of the Biafran dream, the horrors and the heartbreak, Half of a Yellow Sun is uplifting; more sunrise than sunset.

You'll enjoy this if you liked: The Inheritance of Loss, In the Name of the Father, Disgrace.

Avoid if you dislike: Unpalatable truths about colonialism, prejudice and human nature.

Ideal accompaniments: Plantain Moi Moi, a Chapman cocktail and Femi Kuti.

Genre: Literary fiction

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit  (

What we thought : From reviews and comments I’d read online, I was expecting a cosy crime novel in the style of say, MC Beaton, when in fact The Cuckoo’s Calling is actually an intelligent and well-paced read, graphic where needed and appropriate, without being over-the-top gratuitous in the style so in fashion at the moment.

As with Harry Potter and The Casual Vacancy, here Rowling continues to exploit her skills to their best. Her wonderfully vivid imagination helps with the twists and turns required for a strong crime storyline, and her ability to drill down and examine scenes under the microscope is as engaging here as in all her previous works. Characterisation as ever is superb. Cormoran Strike is the most individual and in-depth detective I’ve read in many years. Even the lesser known characters, like for me, Rochelle Onifade were perfectly drawn and brought to life with an ease that I guess years creating characters like Snape and Dumbledore have polished to perfection.

The plot line was at first glance relatively simple. A grieving brother wants to prove that the suicide death of his supermodel sister was actually murder. And the task of solving this case was given to Cormoran Strike, without initially either the brother, the reader, or indeed Strike himself believing he had much chance of success.

But as the web untangled and the reader ventured further inside Strike’s world, I found myself gripped, fascinated and entertained in equal measure. I pride myself on usually guessing who-dunnit long before the reveal. Here, I’d say I was 99.9 sure about 75% way through, but still unclear on motivation right up until the climatic scene.

It goes without saying that I’d recommend this book to readers of crime and also readers who don’t feel in touch with the genre. I have a feeling Rowling may be responsible in bringing a new audience to my beloved genre in the same way Harry Potter put a new generation in touch with books. If you’re not a Harry fan, put all thoughts of the author aside and simply allow yourself to sink into the wonderful world of Cormoran Strike.

Bring on The Silkworm!

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Agatha Christie, PD James, Margery Allingham, Ann Cleeves.

Avoid if you don’t like : Private Detectives, London, Supermodels or are expecting a Boy Wizard.

Ideal accompaniments : A pint of Doom Bar and a Pot Noodle.

Genre : Crime.