Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Mother by Yvvette Edwards

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Today is the first day of the trial of the man – well, boy, really – accused of the murder of our son and, as a result, instead of a regular cup of tea on the bedside table, it is a steaming act of phenomenal cowardice and I will not touch or drink it.”

Just this sentence at the end of the opening paragraph of The Mother made me stop, gasp and read it again to savour the intense distillation of emotion it represented.

The eponymous mother’s son has been murdered, stabbed to death by a boy his own age. The novel begins on the morning of the first day of the boy’s trial, and unfolds in a few short days. But as readers we are so tightly inside the head of the mother, living every heartbeat alongside her, that time seems to slow down.

The mother has done everything in her power to keep her son safe, in a world that is full of dangers. At one point she goes over in her mind the thousand and one things she did – that every mother does – to try and keep her child safe, from teaching him to tie his shoelaces to rehearsing every detail of his first solo trip on public transport.

“I read about young people, crime, knives, gangs, guns, killings over nonsense, but they were nothing to do with the tiny safe haven I thought I’d created to insulate myself and mine.”

Despite all the mother’s care, that other world has broken through and stolen her child. In the space of a few moments, her safe haven has been ripped apart and her world has collapsed to a point of grief. What she does not expect is that, during the course of the trial, that world would begin to open up again. Her understanding and her empathy expands and with it, ours.

The Mother is about the tragedy and outrage of having a loved one’s life stolen through violence. It’s a novel, set in England and revolving around knife crime, but the mother’s story stands alongside those of the young men dead from gun violence, researched and retold by Gary Younge in Another Day in the Death of America.

It is a book of extraordinary compassion. Compassion for the victims of crime, and the different ways it can affect different members of a family. And compassion for the children growing up in a wealthy first world country, and yet living in circumstances that are closer to those of a war zone. An important read for all of us who live in safe havens and blinker ourselves to those on the outside.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge, Unless by Carol Shields, A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

Avoid If You Dislike: Intimate portraits of the aftermath of violent crime

Perfect Accompaniment: Strong English Breakfast tea

Genre: Literary Fiction, Grip Lit

Available on Amazon

Cast Iron: Enzo Macleod 6 by Peter May

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

What we thought: An exciting return into the life of Enzo Macleod, with the usual highs and lows we expect from Peter May, and a superbly balanced way of carrying forward all the baggage and backstory that accompanies this character, without slowing the tension or the pace of the plot.

Still determined to complete his quest and solve all of the cold case enquiries in Roger Raffin's book of unsolved crimes, Enzo investigates the enquiry into the murder of a young charity worker, Lucie Martin. Was she a victim of serial killer, Regis Blanc, as everyone believes or are there more sinister secrets closer to home?

Someone is determined to put a stop to Enzo’s investigations, and has made several attempts on his life to do so. But when the threats move to his closest family, Enzo has no choice but to re-examine who he can trust and who must be a potential enemy. The discoveries will shock the foundation of his life to the very core.

I’m a big fan of this author. I love his writing style and characterisation, and I wasn’t disappointed by this book. Enzo Macleod is a complex, and brilliantly written, character who somehow connects with the reader, despite all of his hot-headed faults.

The tension and drama were ramped up high in this book, it’s a real page turner, and I found myself racing towards the end, dreading the final page, and was totally thrown by the final reveal.

Superb writing once again from May and as ever I await the next book in anticipation.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Ann Cleeves.

Avoid if you don’t like: Family secrets and hidden lives.

Ideal accompaniments: Almond croissant and a double espresso.

Genre: Crime.

Available on Amazon


The Words in my Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Land Beyond Goodbye and Don’t Look Down (

What We Thought: Amsterdam 1634: French Philosopher Rene Descartes takes a room above Mr Sergeant’s bookshop to work on his Discourse. Helena Jans, sixteen years old, is the maid who takes his eye. Helena is an intelligent girl and, unusually for one of her class, can read and write. Slowly, through a very natural sharing of small events they come together. The Monsieur, as Descartes is known, is 20 years older, a controversial thinker, and a Catholic.

When the inevitable happens, Helena is sent away to hide her pregnancy while the Monsieur goes to live in Utrecht. Will he ever return? Will the child Helena bears ever know her father?

Based, very loosely, on what little is known of true events, this is the story of Descartes’ and Jans’ relationship over a number of years. Helena is portrayed as an almost modern-thinking woman, wanting to write, draw, create and be more than the skivvy she is. She must scrimp on paper, salvage quills and make her own ink. She must fit her learning in between her household duties. Trapped in her time, she is at the mercy of men and even the loving ones do not accord her full status. The frustrations of women’s lives are starkly drawn, constrasting with sensuous descriptive pieces.

Beautifully written, this is a fascinating story. I found the first part of the book to be more involving than the latter part but this did not at all spoil my great enjoyment of it.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Tracy Chevalier, Jessie Burton etc

Avoid if you dislike: The realities of life for women in earlier centuries.

Ideal accompaniments:
Experimenting with beetroot ink.

Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought:

An almighty rippling beast of a book which spans centuries of American history, taking in its stride such subjects as eugenics, slavery, sexual politics, lineage and morality.

Set in the state of Kentucky, the book traces the fortunes of the Forge family starting with young Henry, growing up on his father's tobacco farm. With glances back at his ancestors who settled on this land and claimed it as their own, Henry makes up his mind to forge his own path and turn the land to breeding racehorses.

The novel progresses in a relatively conventional sense to the next generation and Henrietta, who is groomed by her father to continue the family business. One day, while interviewing potential farmhands, she encounters Allmon Shaughnessy, son of a black mother and white father, who claims he's good with horses.

This is where the book loops away from the typical saga and flips back to follow the misfortunes of Allmon's upbringing. An absentee father, a sick mother who cannot afford healthcare and a lack of choices lead Allmon from the wrong side of the tracks to the wrong side of the law.

Morgan embraces the unpredictable in her storytelling, using flashbacks, excerpts, playscripts, speeches and rewritten parables to reinforce her themes. The juxtaposition of theory beside the brutal realities described in her prose jar the reader into an uncomfortable awareness. Her language is exceptional when she gives herself free rein to encompass the geography and natural wonders of the Bluegrass State, but also when evoking the smallest detail of equine or human.

It's not an easy read, often harrowing and dark, disturbing and shocking, leavened with excitement and suspense of the races and some wonderfully entertaining characters; a jockey, a preacher, a chain-smoking neighbour. It's also huge not only in number of pages but scope. That said, it's a book that will stay with you a long, long time and very likely lure you back again.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Underworld by Don de Lillo, Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.

Avoid if you don’t like: Stories of extreme suffering by humans and animals, long descriptive passages, unconventional structures.

Ideal accompaniments: Derby pie and a mint julep. And a shot of bourbon after the river crossing.

 Genre:  Literary fiction, Bailey's Prize shortlist 

Available on Amazon

My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream by Janine Marsh

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new release, The Silent Kookaburra.

What we thought: I might not be brave enough to renovate a run-down barn in rural France, but as an ex-pat living in a French village, I can totally relate to Janine Marsh’s book, My Good Life in France.

The author’s new life in France started out quite differently to most ex-pats though: whilst on one of her regular day trips to pick up cheap wine in northern France, she purchased an old barn in the rural Seven Valleys area of Pas de Calais. It seems no one was more surprised at this purchase than the author herself.

Her French adventure began as weekend trips to renovate her new home which lacked mains drainage, heating, proper rooms, and had not the slightest of comforts. It turned into a life-time project requiring far more time, money and energy than she could ever have imagined.

Several years ago, Janine eventually gave up her top corporate banking job in London to move with her husband to their still quite run-down French barn. In My Good Life in France, she narrates the true story of negotiating the local inhabitants, French bureaucracy, tradesmen, culture and etiquette. No easy feat for a born and bred British girl from the city!

I loved reading about all of her adventures: the good, the bad, the ugly. And the incredible, one of which resulted in the neighbours nicknaming her “Madame Merde”. I’ll let you read the story for yourself to find out why!

The author’s joy, frustration, enthusiasm and curiosity for her new homeland shines through as she recounts her experiences with humour, from administrative struggles to homesickness and personal tragedy, to her love for chickens and stray animals. And, finally, love for her life in France.

Towards the end of the book, Janine includes a lot of useful information for adapting to the French lifestyle and negotiating French rules –– both written and unwritten!

Highly recommended for Francophiles and anyone thinking of impulse-buying a run-down property in a region where it rains all the time.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Humorous ex-pat stories, such as Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and the sequels: Toujours Provence and Encore Provence.

Avoid if you don’t like: tales of travel and home renovation.

Ideal accompaniments: Gratin de Maroilles aux lardons washed down with a cool glass of Chardonnay.

Genre: memoir, travel book.

Available on Amazon

The Break by Katherena Vermette

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Once again, the annual Canada Reads event from CBC Books has connected me with a brilliant indigenous author I might otherwise have missed from this side of the Atlantic.

The Break is an area of rough ground on the edge of an unnamed city between the Canadian Shield at the Prairies. It abuts a neighbourhood home to many Métis and ‘status Indians,’ written off by the local police as ‘nates’ or ‘May-tee’.

When one Métis woman witnesses a brutal attack – a rape, she says – on the Break, the police are reluctant to believe her. Sexual attacks just don’t happen in snow drifts in the middle of winter. But then a young girl shows up at hospital with a story that matches her account.

The novel unfolds in a series of overlapping points of view – most of them women across three generations of the same family - the matriarch, Kookum (grandmother), her daughters and granddaughters.

They have a strength forged by a lifetime of tough experience, and the bonds of love between them are warm and tangible. They have made their lives and homes in the city, supporting their families while their men, for the most part, have retreated to the bush. Between them, their voices draw us, not just into the tragic events on the Break but into a family history that encapsulates the experience of Métis women.

A tender exploration of the impact of sexual assault on an extended family, and of the resilience of indigenous women. A story that will stay with you long after you have closed the final page.

Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer from Manitoba, the heart of the Métis nation. Her book, North End Love Songs previously won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. The Break, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Avoid if You Dislike: Stories centred around sexual assault

Perfect Accompaniment: Tomato soup with bannock bread

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fiction from Indigenous Authors

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Power by Naomi Alderman

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought:

One of those concepts that's so simple yet so mind-altering, you can't believe this is the first time anyone's done it.

Teenage girls begin developing an electrical force. It can hurt, maim and kill. Young girls teach older women and an age-old imbalance tilts. Now the men are afraid, rushing home before dark, segregated into private schools, vulnerable in the face of female retribution.

Alderman tells the story from four strategic viewpoints: the religious icon, the journalist, the politician, the business dealer, each character formed by the previous status quo. When social norms turn, so do people, politics, international relations, sexuality and human behaviour.

Utopian ideals regarding nature prove unpredictable when centuries of oppression are overturned and the victims can choose forgiveness or retaliation. Power in the wrong hands is lethal. Four characters experience the best and worst of such a new order, allowing the reader a wide-angle lens on how good/bad it could get.

The scope of this book is breathtaking. There is a joy and a terror in imagining irresistible might, accompanied by all the unavoidable decisions as how to use it.

Terrifying, fascinating and one to ponder for many, many years.
And then read it again.
You might change your mind.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Roma Nova Series by Alison Morton

Avoid if you don’t like: World views and status quo overturned, thinking

Ideal accompaniments: Pepper vodka, Bombay Duck and Amanda Palmer's Grown Man Cry

Genre: Literary Fiction, Bailey's Prize Shortlister

Available on Amazon

A Discarded Life by Alexander Masters

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett ( author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and Don’t Look Down.

What We Thought: I have read several excellent books since I've been reviewing for Netgalley and to be honest when I chose this one I thought it was a novel. It isn't. It's quite unlike anything else and must occupy a category of its own.

Some years ago several boxes of diaries were found in a skip in Cambridge by friends of the writer Alexander Masters. After a another few years he ended up as custodian of the unknown diarist's work. He ignored them for a while but on eventually dipping into them, became intrigued. Who is this unnamed person? Why were the diaries thrown out? Who is the oft-mentioned E?

In a manner befitting a detective novel Masters begins his investigation. Picking up the odd clue in the writing, he discovers where the writer lived, details of work done and schools attended and passions felt. He does not at first read the diaries in date order but gathers information sometimes from the early years - the fifties - and sometimes from the later ones.

Assuming the writer must be dead - or why would the books have been in a skip? - he pursues his mysterious quarry from Cambridge to London to the Wirral and back again.

The diarist is an artist - a painter, a pianist, a writer; great symphonies will be composed, novels will be published, the world will one day know this person. There is passion for life - and an inability to do anything other than write about it. The diaries move from teenage fantasies full of sketches, to adult depression; from a head-in-the-clouds inability to concentrate on mundane work, to an obsession with television personalities.

The writer is spiteful, hateful, loving, vulnerable, weak, full of grandiose ideas and ultimately ineffectual. There is hunger for acceptance and the refusal to act in an acceptable manner. An odd attraction to elderly women reveals itself.

This is an amazing book. It has the grip of a detective novel combined with the fascination of a biography. Covering over fifty years, it allows us to see into the mind of another person - to see all the grand schemes and petty annoyances, to gain insight to the private thoughts and private language of another human being in way I have never before encountered. Most published diarists write from the start with an eye on publication. This one did not.

Masters has a warm and human style. He both likes and dislikes the subject of his 'biography' and tells the tale with humour and self-deprecation. All life is here - ordinary life - a life discarded in a skip.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Lady in the Van

Avoid if you dislike:
Warts and all investigations of another person’s private life.

Ideal accompaniments: A very open mind.

Genre: Biography / Diary

Strawberry Sky by Jan Ruth

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

What we thought: I was looking forward to this book having enjoyed the first two in the series, and I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed. The novel emerges you right into the heart of the complex lives of sisters, Laura and Maggie, as we follow the next chapter of their story. And it’s an emotional one!

The author embraces the world we find ourselves, amid the wild open hills of North Wales, and that confidence shines through in her writing. Well-paced, this story plays with the reader’s sympathies and loyalties, reeling you in right from the start, into their world so we care about the outcome of the characters. I particularly enjoyed the excellent twist in the tale.

Laura has lots to celebrate in her life. James is on the road to recovery following his near death accident, and the equine business is booming with plans for further expansion. But there are dark shadows also; her desire to get pregnant threatens her marriage, plus her worries about family ‘bad blood’ remain unresolved.

Maggie has her own family crisis to manage. Her daughter, Jess, flees to America leaving her (literally) holding baby, Krystal, and Pete has a health scare that could shatter their world. But with Jess, nothing is ever simple, and trying to keep the family together and find time for herself becomes a challenge.

It was a real joy to be back in this equine-based world and in the remoteness and beauty of the North Wales setting. The location and local characters as always brought another dimension to the story. And this story is a page turner, full of dramatic highs and lows, it grips the reader to the very end. I read the whole book over one weekend, with the need to read more mixed with the dread of reaching the final page.

Knowing it was the final book of the series, I thought the author did a brilliant job in bringing all of the threads together into a satisfying conclusion – although I secretly hope she decides to write more in the series in the future.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jojo Moyes, Dick Francis, Clare Chambers.

Avoid if you don’t like: Horses.

Ideal accompaniments: Strawberries with ice cream and a glass of Prosecco.

Genre: Contemporary.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Retalio by Alison Morton

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: A read so painfully pertinent you could almost wish it were true. If you haven’t come across this alternative history series yet, I almost envy you. This is Roma Nova, what could have happened if the remnants of Roman empire was run by women.

But Roma Nova is now in trouble. One deceitful, vain and amoral man - Caius Tellus - has taken power and intends to ‘restore order’. In making Roma Nova great again, he reverses all the progress of decades and brings the land to its knees, driving a wedge between those loyal to the previous regime and his own macho cohort intent on rolling back progressive rights.

Aurelia Mitela, a senior government minister, is in exile in Vienna. But she is not alone. The people and ethics she defends are alive and well, and her supporters are legion. It’s time to get organised and fight to regain control of the country they love.

This is a love story for a country and its principles, as well as a relationship, a political and military adventure, a commitment to beliefs and a cast of unexpectedly detailed characters. Tension runs throughout as no one can be sure an ally is trustworthy until it’s too late. A page-turning pile-driver of a novel, it explores the nature of power, and those who use it for self-aggrandisement or common good.

Read it now, then go buy some horses.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Roma Nova series, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters or Women Without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran by Shahrnush Parsipur

Avoid if you don’t like: Feminism, military strategy, contemporary echoes

Ideal accompaniments: Salmon with horseradish on brown bread, a mug of Gluhwein and Think, by Aretha Franklin

Genre: Historical fiction, alternative history

Available on Amazon

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“That is my fate,” Wen the Dreamer told me, “To escape and continue this story, to make infinite copies, to let these stories permeate the soil, invisible and undeniable.”

Like an intricate carving of concentric interlocking elements, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a story within a story within a story.

The first, outermost shell of the story is that of a young Canadian girl, Marie/Li-Ling, who, after the suicide of her father, is visited by the daughter of one of her father’s oldest friends, a fellow Chinese musician and his tutor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

The second is the story Ai-Ming, the visitor, reveals – the tale of how their two families came to be intertwined.

The third is the Book of Records – the story laboriously copied out by hand in numerous notebooks, hidden over and over and used to conceal buried messages between loved ones.

Together the three stories reveal the terrible history of the Chinese Revolution, from the Japanese occupation of China during the Second World War, through to the events in Tianamen Square in 1989 that were watched around the world.

Ai-Ming is an engineer and Marie is a mathematician, but their fathers were musicians and Ai Ming comes from a long line of musicians. Music, Chinese and Western, twists and twines its way through the narrative, and one of the novel’s central tragedies springs from the way music was ripped from their lives by the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

The names of the characters – Sparrow, Wen the Dreamer, Big Mother Knife, Comrade Glass Eye – are like names from a fairytale, and when Ai-Ming begins to tell the story, that is how it seems to Marie But the closer events move in time, the less dreamlike they appear until, by the time we reach the occupation of Tianamen Square in April 1989, it is as if we are there on the streets with the protesting students and workers who supported them.

For those of us who find it impossible to imagine what it must be like to live in a society that tries to control, not just everything you do, but everything you think, this opens a window on both compliance and rebellion, and reveals that price that is paid that your inner and outer selves become not merely different, but incompatible.

A deeply personal story of love, friendship and dedication that nevertheless reveals, in breathtaking panorama, a segment of 20th C history too little understood in the West.

As the author reminds us: “Throughout the world, for thousands of years, those whom we call good men, righteous men, have been accustomed to the sight of such things ... have not demanded justice for the victims or offered to help them.”

Winner of the 2016 Giller Prize and shortlisted for the 2017 Baileys Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamshie, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories that spin out over decades / generations

Perfect Accompaniment: Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played by Glenn Gould; Shostakovitch’s Symphony No 5.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Modern Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“I understand how a word others use every day can become something whispered in the dark to sooth a wound that just won’t heal.”

Stay With Me is the Baileys’ shortlisted debut novel by Nigerian author Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀. Rotimi, ‘Stay With Me’, is the name given to a child who is expected to die in infancy and Stay With Me recounts a heartbreaking cycle of sexual dysfunction, sexual ignorance, barrenness and infant mortality, within a family and a community that values bearing and rearing healthy children above all else.

Its point of view is split between Yejide and her husband Akin. The timeframe, too, is split between 2008, when the couple have been separated for many years and Yejide is steeling herself to return for the father-in-law’s funeral, and the 1980s, when, as a childless married couple, they feel the pressure piled on them by their two families. What follows unrolls against the backdrop of political disintegration and Nigeria’s second military dictatorship.

Yejide is driven almost to madness by the relentless need to get pregnant. Akin’s pride blinkers him to the truth of what is happening and builds a barrier between himself and Yejide that love simply is not enough to overcome. And even it seems their hopes have been realised, more sadness awaits.

Tragic as their story is, the novel is shot through dark humour. The chatter of the women in Yejide’s hairdressing salon is rich with practical wisdom, superstition, dry wit and sexual innuendo.

“Just wait until her breasts are sweet orange and all the men that see her start standing still like soldiers. Small time, pregnancy will come.”

A universal story set in a richly realised world. A welcome new African voice and a writer to watch.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta, The Mother by Yvvette Edwards

Avoid If You Dislike: Reading about the deaths of small children

Perfect Accompaniment: Jollof rice

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fiction from Africa

Available on Amazon

Scatterwood by Piers Alexander

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:
If you have read The Bitter Trade, you'll relish seeing what happens to quick-witted dodger and diver Calumny Spinks. If you haven't, no matter, this book will drag you in by the scruff and haul you away to 17th Jamaica, where politicking, force and cunning are in a deadly struggle for power.

From  the wharves of London to the slave markets of Port Royal, the reader is immersed in the desperate fight to survive against a backdrop of inequality, brute force and the shadow of civil war. In order to save his family, Spinks collaborates with servants of the Crown. His skill with accents, combined with an ability to befriend the noblest and roughest earn him the assignment of spy. But at a cost. He is an indentured man, a slave for seven years to a cruel master.

By keeping his ear to the ground, Spinks discovers the rumoured plot is further advanced than he suspected. His mission to murder a powerful leader cannot wait. He needs allies, and who better than the similarly downtrodden Maroons?

Fast-paced and intense, this crackling adventure brings the Caribbean of 1692 to sparkling sensory life, with all its harshness and deprivation. Alexander's prose is once again rich and robust, his characters layered and believable - even sadistic overseer Kiet - and the story world so fully realised you feel you are there.

Read it when there's nothing else you have to do. It's a feast to devour in one sitting.
You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Bitter Trade, The Plague Road by LC Tyler, Birthright by David Hingley

Avoid if you don’t like: Violence, cruelty, the iniquities of slavery

Ideal accompaniments: Rum punch, herb-scented dumplings and Eleanor Alberga's Suite from Dancing with the Shadow

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Choke Chain by Jason Donald

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought:

Against a background of apartheid South Africa, Alex's family are poor and helpless. But white. That means their father Bruce gets to be a brute through no other qualification than his skin colour and sense of entitlement.

For a teenage boy attempting to comprehend power and social structure, his father is a role model, if Alex wants the role of liar, cheat and bully. He can play the strongman and protect his brother, fighting in the playground to prove how force can win. Or he can try to understand via a wider lens and break the mould.

Two young white brothers grow up in 1980s' Pretoria, trying to make sense of their place in the world. Who are they? In relation to Dad, to their mother, their peers, their countrymen, each other? Alex is on the cusp of adulthood and has to make a choice of what kind a man he's going to be.

A layered novel with battened down emotions, frustrations and a strange disconnect from the political climate, which rumbles in the background like a low growl. This book encapsulates young adult experience, such as inarticulacy and frustration with his environment, but adds another level of tension via the background of imbalance as the status quo.

Donald writes with exceptional delicacy, using metaphor and understatement with precision and drawing the reader into an unfamiliar world we cannot help but understand.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, Disgrace by JM Coetzee and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

Avoid if you don’t like:  Dysfunctional families, harsh lives, a teenage perspective.  

Ideal accompaniments: Potjiekos, Rock Shandy and Should I Stay or Should I Go by The Clash

Genre: Literary fiction, coming-of-age

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Harmless Like You begins and ends with a meeting between mother and son, thirty years after the mother walked out on her family without an explanation.

In the pages between, two timelines unfold towards each other – the mother’s unveiling her damaged life in New York; the son’s, thirty years on, revealing him coping (badly) with both the death of his father and the birth of his daughter.

Yuki is an artist. Each of her chapters begins with the name of an artist’s colour, how it got that name, how it is made and how it is used. Yet for most of her life, Yuki’s artistic vision is stifled, and her sense of self distorted by her relationships with three men – her Japanese father who would never accept ‘artist’ as a valid future for his daughter; her older lover, who veers between off-hand encouragement and a toxic mix of abuse and contempt; and her doggedly loyal friend, whose kindness and support can seem like being smothered in cotton candy.

The book’s title, shared with Yuki’s first photographic exhibition, comes from a remark made by her lover, Lou, talking about his opposition to the Vietnam War.

“I think the cowards are the ones over there, killing harmless little girls like you.”

There is a casual racism in the way her equates her to the Vietnamese girls. Even more, a paternalism in the way he underestimates Yuki. She is not a little girl and she is not harmless!

Yuki’s life apparently contrasts with that of her one-time best friend, Odile. Odile’s outwardly more successful existence as a model is played out in front of the camera rather than behind it. But that life, too, began with an act of male abuse, an act that fractured their friendship.

The other half of the novel is, in essence, the story of two kind men. Men who would never be abusive in the way that Lou was. But is that kindness in itself a form of paternalism? Does it do its own unintentional damage? Or it is the fact that Yuki is already damaged that skews her responses? And what damage did Yuki herself do when she abandoned her son?

Harmless Like You is a study in close focus of the harm we do, casually or deliberately, and how that harm spreads outwards and passes from generation to generation.

It was longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Avoid If You Dislike: Unmotherly mothers

Perfect Accompaniment: New York bagel with lox

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel by Jessica Bell

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and new release, The Silent Kookaburra.

What we thought:
Jessica Bell’s unflinching and unbridled memoir is set in 1980s Melbourne, where she grew up with rocker parents who encouraged her to play her own guitar and write her own songs. This might sound exotic and exciting, but proved to be just the opposite. Her mother’s medical problems led her to abuse pills, alcohol and, during withdrawals, to suffer terrible anxiety and psychotic attacks. Fearful of these reactions, her step-father retreated into silence. Having no one to confide in, and to rely on, Jessica turned inwards, to her own reflection.

But her mirror proved not to be a friend, but her enemy, and she stumbled into alcoholism, depression and self-destruction. She became a rebel. Until, one day, the alcohol literally almost killed Jessica and she was forced to ask herself honestly, why she kept running from reality. And from herself.

This memoir is a raw and brutally honest account of Jessica’s damaged years, and the inspirational self-determination she was able to muster to break free from this destructive wave. It portrays how her highly creative powers, both in music and writing, helped her rebuild the love, shattered by illness and medication, between a daughter and her mother.

This is a moving, frightening, intense and beautifully-narrated page-turner, where the reader can’t help but sympathise with Jessica, and hope she finds her way out of the black hole. Highly recommended.

You’ll like this if you enjoy:
honest childhood memoirs, or for anyone who’s dealt with disturbed adolescents.

Avoid if you don’t like: highly emotional stories about deeply troubled children and teenagers.

Ideal accompaniments: non-alcoholic beverage and a playlist of Jessica’s songs.

Genre: Memoir

Available on Amazon

Disposable People by Ezekel Alan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

How do you begin to describe a book like Disposable People?

I bought Disposable People several years ago, when it was the Caribbean regional winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize, and somehow never got around to reading it. At that point, it was a self-published book, though it has since been brought out by Peepal Tree, who also published Jacob Ross’s The Bone Readers, winner of this year’s Jhalak Prize.

Disposable People is fiction, but it is constructed as if it were a memoir, and as Alan himself reveals on his Goodreads Author Page:

“This was a very difficult story for me to write, and for a lot of reasons. Many of the stories in the novel are based on things that happened in the village where I grew up, and were hard to revisit and come to terms with.”

The narrator is Kenny Lovelace, who grew up in rural Jamaica in the 1970s and 80s, in a village he calls only ‘That hateful f –– place.” On one level, Kenny is one of the lucky ones. An escapee, now a successful international business consultant. But ‘that hateful f –– place” does not let go so easily.

Even as a memoir, the book’s construction is not straightforward. Some chapters read like shot stories, some more like ruminations. The narrative is pierced with journal entries, poems, sketches... At times the narrator stares out of the page to address his notional reader, the love of his life, whom he refers to as ‘Semicolon.’

The whole is pieced together like a patchwork quilt, moving apparently randomly back and forth in time, sometimes picking up threads from earlier instalments. The register of the voice slides between standard English and Jamaican patois. Often the (brutal) conclusion of a scene is left to the reader to infer.

Like other recent Caribbean authors, such as Marlon James and Jacob Ross, Alan ruthlessly exposes the dark underbelly of what wealthy tourists imagine to be paradise. The poverty in which his narrator grows up is ugly, grinding, demeaning. Alan does not flinch from showing the result – be it disease, parasites, sexual violence or murder.

Not an easy read but a powerful one. Darkly funny, shocking, and moving, right up to the gut-wrenching conclusion.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Marlon James, Kei Miller, Jacob Ross

Avoid If You Dislike: Visceral description of the brutalising consequences of ingrained poverty

Perfect Accompaniment: Jerk Chicken and Lemonade (home-made)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Caribbean Fiction

Available on Amazon

Friday, 31 March 2017

Displacement by Anne Stormont

Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought:

A fresh take on the romance genre with a large dollop of intelligence.
Rachel has baggage. Her son died in combat, her marriage collapsed and since her parents' death, she feels very much alone. She works her croft on the Isle of Skye and manages. Just manages.
Jack is an ex-detective, retired early from the force and preparing to do up an old property on the island. He has baggage of his own. After he meets Rachel in unconventional circumstances, a friendship begins, which has the potential to become something more.

Until Rachel goes to Israel.
She decides to discover more about her Jewish heritage and visits her brother in Israel, where she meets Eitan. His charm and interest help thaw the permafrost around her emotions while the political situation arouses her anger.
When she returns to Skye, her nascent relationship with Jack must be rebuilt. However, the foundations have shifted.

A delightful, evocative and believable tale of rediscovery through the eyes of two complex characters. Two-dimensional chick-lit this is most certainly not. Stormont tackles politics, grief, loss, familial love, friendship in rural communities and mature relationships with clear-eyed observations. Her descriptions of Skye and Jerusalem come to full sensory life and a dry humour bubbles through the dialogue, making this an absorbing, enjoyable read you are sorry to leave. I hope this will not be the last of these tales. Like Alexander McCall Smith, I can see this becoming a well-loved series of an unusual community.

You enjoy this if you liked: Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard, The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank or Summer in Tintagel by Amanda James

Avoid if you dislike: Romance, political opinions, relaxed pace

Ideal accompaniments: A glass of Talisker, oatcakes with Lanark Blue and Teardrop by Massive Attack with Liz Fraser

Genre: Romance

Available on Amazon