Friday, 25 July 2014

Scherzo by Jim Williams

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: The 18th century Venice of Scherzo by Jim Williams is hallucinatory and filled with intrigue. La Serenissima hides in the mists and miasmas that hover over her canals and seep into her alleyways; her citizens creep through her streets cloaked and masked. Dark deeds are performed by hidden hands and mystery abounds.

Scherzo is ostensibly the story of a murder and its investigation but it is also the evocation of a particular time and a particular place brought to life in fascinating detail.

The protagonist is Ludovico, a castrato, mutilated as a boy to enable him to pursue a musical career. Ludovico is a colourful character who mixes with both high and low Venetians. He makes the acquaintance of the mysterious Monsieur Arouet, who may or may not be Voltaire and the pair attempt to solve the murder of a high-born citizen found hanging from a bridge, gutted.

Written in Williams’ gloriously flamboyant style, this is a romp through the lives of a variety of characters (including Casanova) taking in art, philosophy and secret societies along the way.

Though a possible culprit is found, there may not be a definitive solution to the murder mystery. Indeed there may not have been a murder at all.

The language is rich, the intrigue is tangled and the characters may not be who they claim to be. This is a wild tale about lies and illusion, with a narrator so unreliable even he doesn’t know when he’s telling the truth.

It’s worth bearing in mind that ‘scherzo’ means ‘joke’ (and ‘Ludo’ means ‘I play’) and there is much joking and playfulness in this wonderful book.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Historical fiction with a twist, playful writing, extravagant language.

Avoid if you dislike: Language rich with allusion, illusion and elusion.

Ideal accompaniments: Drinking full bodied Italian wine while wearing a carnivale mask and a cloak.

Genre: Literary fiction, Historical fiction.

Diary of a Small Fish by Pete Morin

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What We Thought: What exactly IS this book? Yes, it’s a political mystery. It’s also a love story. It explores corruption, honour and integrity. And it’s funny. But how to define it?

Paul Forte is the small fish; general counsel for the Boston Transport System, unhappily divorced, recently bereaved and possessor of a smart mouth. Oh, and he loves golf. A true sportsman, he respects the code of conduct. It’s how he was raised. Paul’s skills on the green have made him some powerful friends, a fact about to bite him in the ass.

As a governmental employee, accepting gifts such as a round of golf, followed by a fine meal, can amount to a federal crime. If you want to be petty about it. And Bernard Kilroy, FBI prosecutor, takes petty to new lows. He wants to run for Attorney General and has a score to settle. And worst of all, Paul calls him Bernie.

There is an upside to being subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury, however. A dark-haired juror with a wicked smile called Shannon.

The book follows Paul’s attempts to understand the net closing around him and who’s pulling the strings, while trying to start a relationship with the most elusive woman in Massachusetts.

Despite having no real interest in legal machinations, and even less in golf, this book hooked me from the start. The fast-paced twists and turns, the huge cast of vivid characters, the intriguing world of politics and corruption, the rich detail of the Boston setting and the whipsmart dialogue all collude to reel you in. I found myself thinking about this world and these characters for days after I finished the novel.

So far, so good. Morin’s background in law and government provide an expert’s safe hands and his storytelling abilities make the novel fly.

Yet in my view, where Diary of a Small Fish reaches another level is in its emotional honesty. The character of Paul Forte shows a touching openness to people and a vulnerability to grief which had me in hiccupping sobs by chapter 25. And by the time I’d finished the epilogue, I was grinning with satisfaction and wishing I could start all over again.

So how to define it? As a damn good read.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Legal manoevuring, wisecracks, Boston, great storytelling

Avoid if you dislike: Politics, law, complexity

Ideal accompaniments: Drink Johnny Walker Blue, eat a Club Sandwich and listen to Two Against One

Genre: Crime, literary fiction

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: In a sleazy cafe somewhere in Tokyo, a Japanese schoolgirl called Nao begins writing a diary in English. The diary is disguised inside the covers of an old copy of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, and she is apparently writing for one special but unknown reader.

As Nao explains, we are all Time Beings, living in the flow of time. Perhaps because of the sound of her name, Nao is fascinated with the idea of ‘now’, with capturing one of the 6,400,099,980 moments that make up each individual day.

Thousands of miles away, on an island in Vancouver Sound, a Japanese American woman called Ruth finds a barnacle-encrusted plastic bag washed up on a beach. Inside is a Hello Kitty lunch box, some Japanese letters written in old-fashioned Kanji, a small composition book written in French – and Nao’s diary.

Ruth becomes obsessed with the diary. How did it get there? Is she the mysterious reader for whom Nao was writing? Is the apparently suicidal teenager reaching out to her and if so, is she still in time to save her? And what is contained in the letters and composition book?

Between the two of them they must unravel the story of Haruki #1, Nao’s uncle who died in the Second World War, find out why Nao’s father, Haruki#2, keeps trying to kill himself, and maybe, just maybe, save Nao herself.

To help them, there is Oliver, Ruth’s husband, an artist and environmentalist ‘with a mind that opened up the world for her, cracking it open like a cosmic egg to reveal things she would never have noticed on her own.’ And Nao’s 104 year old grandmother, Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun who lives in a temple in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, but who was once a feminist, an anarchist and a novelist.

A Tale for the Time Being is a sparkling jewel of a book. Its broad sweep takes in Zen Buddhism, the ecology of the Pacific Ocean, 9/11, the Japanese Tsunami, the kamikaze ‘sky soldiers’ of the Second World War and Quantum Physics. There is a plot, but as in a kaleidoscope, the reader must discover its pattern amidst a dance of colours and ideas.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Jostein Gardner, Elif Shafak, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,

Avoid if you dislike: Stories that grow like coral, rather than having a strong narrative line

Ideal accompaniments: Sweet rice balls and chocolate while sitting zazen on a beach

Genre: Literary Fiction

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Until the Robin Walks on Snow by Bernice L. Rocque

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

What we thought: From the moment I opened my copy of Until the Robin Walks on Snow I was hooked by the author’s eloquent prose, as she creatively marries fact and fiction. The story follows the birth of a premature baby, Antoni in the early twentieth century, “the smallest baby the doctor has ever seen––dead or alive”, and continues with the family's struggle to save this 1.5lb child during an extremely cold winter.

As well as precise details of how the family battles to save the baby, we also learn much about the culture, religion and celebrations of the author’s Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian ancestors, allowing the reader to truly feel a part of this 1920s community. And for me, this family’s long battle to save their child symbolises that same long struggle many immigrants face when they arrive in a new country.

Great storytelling, coupled with impressive genealogical research, family stories and local history, I would highly recommend this captivating story about love, hope and faith, and the unwavering determination of a family to sustain one fragile life.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: heart-warming family stories based on fact.

Avoid if you don’t like: stories about premature babies and hardship

Ideal accompaniments: Bowl of hot porridge.

Genre: Historical Faction

The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: This was my first chance to catch up with post-Rebus Rankin and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The opening was a little slow – how exciting could a story about investigating an accusation of sexual misconduct really be? But I needn’t have worried. Before long the lead officer of the ‘Complaints’ team has stumbled on a link with a possible political assassination from the 1980s, and the story is off and away with the usual Rankin panache.

In lesser hands this could have degenerated into a Boy’s Own spy story, but Rankin’s deep understanding of Scottish politics and history shines through, giving the story heft without ever letting it become polemical.

Malcolm Fox is a very different character to John Rebus – a non-drinker with an aging father to care for and a choppy relationship with his sister. Rankin evokes the jokey camaraderie within the three-man team, the hostile relationship between ‘Complaints’ and the rest of the police force and the sometimes strained but always tender bond between father and son.

Most of the action here takes place not in Edinburgh but in Kirkcaldy, a coastal town the far side of the Forth Bridge. Fox is an Edinburgh cop, but he is brought in here as an outsider. The Forth Bridge doesn’t quite work here like the Oresund Bridge in the Scandi noir series, The Bridge, but it does create some of the same duality of closeness and separation.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Peter May, Simon Beckett and of course any earlier Rankin

Avoid if you dislike: a dash of history and politics with your crime.

Ideal accompaniments: A nip of whisky and Steeleye Span’s A Parcel of Rogues

Genre: crime fiction

Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister

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: It’s always a pleasure to find a novel with a truly original concept; the premise of Little Egypt is, as far as I am aware, unique.

Isis and Osiris are twins growing up in their absent Egyptologist parent’s grand house, the Little Egypt of the title. As their parents spend most of their time in the real Egypt searching for a lost tomb, Isis and Osi are looked after by the housekeeper Mary and their Uncle Victor, a hero of the first world war. The care they receive from the love-spurned Mary and the damaged Victor with his night terrors, is hit and miss at best.

A trip to Egypt to visit their parents ends (and indeed starts) in chaos. The fabled tomb is never found and the parents are months late in showing up to see their children. After a disturbing incident she cannot quite recall, Isis returns home with her uncle and brother, not having made the emotional connection with her parents she desired. As she struggles with her burgeoning womanhood and Osi grows ever more odd and withdrawn, the house and their lives, slowly fall apart around them.

The book is set partly in the late 1920s and partly in the early 2000s when Isis and Osi are old. In the more contemporary part Isis, now calling herself Sisi, makes friends with a young American, Spike. Together they raid the bins of the supermarket that constantly pressures Sisi to sell the decaying Little Egypt to make way for an even grander superstore. But there is a secret hidden in the grounds which may be revealed if the superstore is built.

Lesley Glaister’s writing is delightful; she has some superb turns of phrases and despite the subject matter this is not a book without humour. The characters are beautifully drawn (though the strange Osi remains in the background as something of a mystery), and the ‘crime’ committed is certainly not one I’ve come across before.

Highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Coming of age novels with a difference, feisty old women.

Avoid if you dislike: Gothic horror and child neglect.

Ideal accompaniments: A Bacardi Breezer and a ready meal fished out of a supermarket bin.

Genre: Literary fiction, Contemporary fiction.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Entry Island by Peter May

Reviewer: Catriona Troth, author of Ghost Town

What we thought: I was a massive fan on Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, and most especially of the brilliantly constructed middle book of the series, Lewis Man. I love the way he weaves together a modern-day crime story with the history and social fabric of the Hebrides. And his descriptions of the landscapes and ever-changing weather of the islands make me feel as if I am right there among the heather and the blackhouses.

So I was very excited when I heard that he had a new book coming out – and even more excited when I learnt that the story would also take me back across the Atlantic Ocean, to the parts of Canada where Scottish, Acadie and Quebecois culture bump up against one another in patterns almost unchanged since the days of the early pioneers.

Entry Island brings to life the story of the Highland Clearances, a time when ruthless landlords forced crofters off the land to make room for more profitable sheep, and families were transported in appalling conditions across the sea to make a new life in Canada.

In the present day, one of the descendents of these displaced Highlanders is now a detective with the francophone Sûreté de Québec. When a murder is committed on one of a string of tiny islands in the mouth of the St Lawrence which, though part of Quebec, has remained stubbornly anglophone, Sime (pronounced Sheem) is sent as interpreter and interviewer. But the wife of the deceased is oddly familiar to him – and even more strangely, she possesses a pendant which is an exact match for the signet ring he inherited.

May skilfully weaves together the diaries of Sime’s forebear, dimly remembered from a time when his grandmother would read aloud from them, with the battle to solve a crime where all the evidence seems to point to the strange, rather ethereal woman to whom he feels inexplicably connected.

This is a both a sophisticated mystery in an unusual setting, and a powerful piece of historical fiction that tells a shameful story too little known.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Peter May’s Lewis trilogy, Gillian Hamer’s Anglesey crime series, any crime novels with a strong sense of place and history

Avoid if you dislike: blending crime novels with historical fiction.

Ideal accompaniments: A storm outside with a view of the sea, a good glass of whisky inside

Genre: crime fiction, historical fiction

Recherche: A Tale of Memories, Murder and Vampires by Jim Williams

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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 hadn’t come across Jim Williams before I discovered this book and I am so glad I did. I now have the pleasure of looking forward to reading the rest of his work.

Recherche is the sort of novel I would love to have written myself. It’s deeply weird, is told in several voices and leaves you wondering at the end. It is, on one level, a murder mystery but the mystery isn’t who did it, it’s whether it was ever done at all.

Lawyer, John Harper has left his wife and is spending the summer in France with his secretary/lover Lucy. When Lucy disappears Harper is suspected of her murder though no evidence can be found.

Alongside the present day mystery (set sometime in the 90s) runs the bizarre tale of an old man, Harry Haze, who claims to be a vampire. Be warned though - this isn’t Twilight. It’s a fascinating romp through the history of the last hundred years or so which mixes Proust with Dorian Grey, Churchill with Rudolf Hess, takes a detour into Lolita country, and throws in asides on Rasputin and Bela Lugosi for good measure. Harry Haze tells fantastic (in the original sense of fanciful and absurd) tales of having been (among other things) a war criminal, a Jewish stand-up comedian and a friend of J. Edgar Hoover - but can he ever be believed?

John Harper doesn’t think so. But then, ultimately, he doesn’t know what to believe.

If you enjoy literary allusions, swooping language and mysteries that stay mysterious, this book is for you.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Playful and extravagant writing. The Magus and suchlike novels.

Avoid if you dislike: Anything too flamboyant. Fantastical tales couched in reality.

Ideal accompaniments: Copious amounts of French wine and a joint or three.

Genre: Literary fiction, Contemporary fiction.

The 7th Day by Nika Lubitsch

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: Nika Lubitsch’s Germany-set crime novel is a page-turning adventure that sticks in your mind.

Sybille is on trial for her husband’s murder. While on trial, as witnesses queue up to defame the once-glamorous darling of the society pages, flashbacks tell the story up till now. The structure is reminiscent of Memento, as our central character, and the reader, try to make sense of what has happened. The question also arises, can we trust our narrator?

As her lawyer, Ulli, battles to prove her innocence over six days of legal proceedings, Sybille recalls how she met Michael, their life together and how it all fell apart in such spectacular fashion. The young heady days of falling in love, the resilience of their romance in overcoming obstacles, their joys and triumphs are believable and enjoyable.

So well are Lubitsch’s characters drawn, that you feel you know them as good friends. So when Sybille’s world collapsed, I found myself saying, ‘But how could he? That’s just not like him.’

The clues are expertly woven and the tension increases over this taut, lean thriller till we discover the truth of the tale on the seventh day. The ending is atmospheric and exciting, not to mention brilliantly executed. Unsurprisingly, a Kindle bestseller.

One of my favourite elements of this books was the use of setting. Berlin society comes vividly to life and after I put the book down, I started planning my next mini-break. This is the perfect book for a long train journey, as it’s short enough to devour in one sitting. But woe betide anyone who tries to talk to you before you get to the end.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Kate Atkinson, Peter James, Mark Billingham.

Avoid if you don’t like: Germany, whodunnits, retro timelines.

Ideal accompaniments: Weissbier, bloodandliverwurst with sweet mustard and Max Richter.

Genre: Crime, In Translation.

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Bastard Pleasure by Sean McGrady

Reviewer: Rebecca Johnson Bista, winner of WWJ’s inaugural First Page Competition and now writing a novel set in India. She blogs very erratically at: when she isn’t painting fences, watching Bollywood movies, Googling terrorists and pirates, or entertaining cats.

What we thought: Short, dark, mordantly funny, poetic and philosophical. Not an easy read but a rewarding one. The novel centres around a single event – a raid on a Belfast bakery by a sectarian organisation – and its aftermath, but explores the passage to self-knowledge and adulthood of its narrator, Seamus, through his relationships with family, colleagues, his faith and his work at the bakery.

Sean McGrady’s novel falls into the genre of “Belfast Noir” – intense, gritty, laconic, violent stories of the ‘Troubles’ of the 1970s and ‘80s, delivering gallows humour in a rasping Belfast accent. Yet it is also more than this. It’s a novel about words and ideas and identity. It’s an investigation of evil, a meditation on the effects of religion on society, and on the darkness of spirit that emerges from lives dominated by oppression and brutality. It is a story of fear and defiance, of the locked-tight repression of emotion in a violent city, of a will to freedom and power, and of raw survival instinct. What choices have to be made to survive – who does one have to be – to be victor not victim in the midst of conflict? And at what cost to the human soul? Why do some people choose lives of violence and what motivates their acts of calculated ruthlessness? How does language control and shape those identities?

The plot follows the thoughts and confessions of a young man who works in the bakery as a slave of the production line, and is seduced into an abusive relationship by an older colleague whom he eventually turns on and betrays. His first person narrative is a rationalisation of this bloody act. The impact is devastating.

McGrady’s language is magical, in contrast with the bleakness of setting and action. It is shot through with strands of philosophical dialectic, acerbic character assessment and salty dialogue. The darkness of the subject matter is pierced with diamond flashes of humour and the caustic music of Ulster speech. It’s impossible, even in your head, not to read it in a broad Belfast accent. It is also powerful and profound, turning and twisting different concepts, wrestling and bending them with metaphor, transforming them alchemically into something else.

“The father gave me what almost amounted to formal lectures in weaponry as we listened on still evenings to the gun battles raging around the city. His verbiage was delivered, like an artillery barrage of the trenches in World War One, pounding me with words and exploding spittle, until I was ready to offer my unconditional surrender on the grounds of hygiene.”

I was blown away by this flawed but dazzling novel. The first chapter is hard to get into but once the plot kicks into action with the virtuoso set-piece of the bakery scene I was transfixed by its brilliance. It is visceral, dark and captivating, sulphurously lyrical, perverse and triumphant, challenging, witty, brutal and unforgettable.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Spinoza, Nietzsche, film noir, metaphysics, Samuel Beckett, Glen Patterson, Elmore Leonard.

Avoid if you don’t like: bad language, violence, philosophy, graphic sexual depiction, Belfast accents, the dark side of human motivation, fire and brimstone or bakery goods.

Ideal accompaniments: Full Ulster fry, pint of Guinness, and chocolate éclairs, consumed to a soundtrack of Rum Sodomy and the Lash by the Pogues, or Stiff Little Fingers’ Alternative Ulster.

Genre: Belfast noir, literary fiction.

[Sean McGrady is a former philosophy lecturer born and bred in the Belfast of the Troubles and now living Yorkshire.]

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What We Thought: "The condition of native is a nervous condition." - Jean-Paul Sartre in his introduction to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth

How come no one told me about this before?

A coming-of-age, but in such a very special age. Dangarembga tackles post-colonial attitudes and sexual politics in patriarchal Zimbabwe, set against a backdrop of rural, brutal poverty.

Tambu’s not stupid. She can see the only escape from a life of bearing water, babies and burdens of injustice must be education. Look at Uncle Babamukuru, who went to England and is now running a mission school. She can’t attend. She’s a girl. An intelligent, enterprising, ferocious girl.

Her determination bears fruit, or mealies, and her future is wide open. Babamukuru offers an opportunity and Tambu takes it. Despite her nerves, and her confused relationship with her cousin, Nyasha.

This is an extraordinary book, with a powerful voice and distinct perspective. All the scents, sounds, textures, tastes, images and social structures are not presented as an insight to a voyeur, but as an immersion into another life, another way of thinking. The reader is placed within the normality of a small African village, observing and experiencing deception, power, corruption, generosity, loyalty and how the hangover of colonialism is open to interpretation.

You’ll like this if you enjoyed: Wild Swans, Things Fall Apart, A Thousand Splendid Suns

Avoid if you dislike: Realities of rural African life, injustice, hard questions

Ideal accompaniments: Sweet potatoes with chilli and ginger, mango juice and Thomas Mapfumo’s Nidwe Chete.

Genre: Literary fiction.

Silver Rain by Jan Ruth

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

What we thought: Jan Ruth’s novels are all set in one of my most favourite parts of the world, so before we get onto plot and characterisation we’re already onto a winner for me.

Protagonists, Kate and Al are poles apart as people and yet similar in many ways. Both approaching middle age, with the baggage and trauma that comes with extended families. Sensible, mature Kate is the antithesis of reckless, immature Al and yet … and yet …

It’s a clichéd love story in many ways … but without any of the clichés. Instead there are lots of secrets, intrigues, twists and turns along the way – guided by what feels a very competent author’s hand. It’s impossible not to bond with both of the lead characters, and like them as much for their flaws and failings as for their strengths. Somehow the fact we see both sides of their personalities makes them all so much more believable. Even the side characters – Fran, Jo, George and Maisie in particular – all leap from the page fully-formed and crystal clear.

The author uses her knowledge and love of Snowdonia and North Wales to full effect, not relying on postcard views to strengthen the scene, but showing us the area is all of its guises, from swollen rivers to windswept beaches to cloud-topped mountain landscapes.

Contemporary women’s fiction is not usually top of my reading pile but I loved this book. It was the first book I’d read by this author, but having sped through the novel in three sittings, I can’t wait to try another!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jo Jo Moyes, Catherine Cookson, Linda Gillard.

Avoid if you don’t like: Tangled family secrets and mid-life passions.

Ideal accompaniments: A cold, crisp Sauvingnon Blanc and a slice of bara brith.

Genre: Contemporary Fiction.