Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Best Murder in Show by Debbie Young

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Sophie Sayers moves to the small English village of Wendlebury Barrow, to take up the legacy of a beautiful country cottage. Against the wishes of her soon-to-be-ex Damian, who thinks small English villages are full of madmen and murderers. Sophie ignores him and begins a new life as a young, single writer embracing the peace and quiet of village life.

Her dream is to be a successful author, like her dear Great-aunt May, whose travel writing made her famous. The only problem is, she has no idea where to start. Her attention is distracted by getting a new job at the bookshop, meeting the locals and joining the planning committee for the highlight of the year, the village show.


All is going smoothly until one of the Wendlebury players is murdered on the Henry VIII and his Six wives float during the show. Suspects are everywhere Sophie begins to wonder if Damian's words were truer than she thought.

With a cast of eccentric characters such as the quirky local shopkeeper, the amiable drunk, the lecherous amateur dramatist, the bookseller with a secret and the writing group which fines members 10p per cliché, this gentle crime caper is lively, funny and the perfect antidote to watching the news.
What's more, it would make the ideal Radio Four serial or BBC Sunday evening programme.

You'll enjoy this if you like: The Janice Gentle books by Mavis Cheek, Agatha Raisin mysteries, Lilian Jackson's cat mysteries.

Avoid if you dislike: very English settings, cosy crime.

Ideal accompaniments: Scones and honey, 'special' tea and summer birdsong through an open window.

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon




Winter Downs by Jan Edwards

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett (http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.co.uk/) author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and Don’t Look Down.

What We Thought: Rose Courtney, nicknamed Bunch, is in charge of the Courtney estate while her parents are away. It is 1940 and the Ministry of Defence has commandeered Perringham House so Rose has to move into the Dower House with her grandmother. Her recently widowed sister Dodo is staying with her in-laws but is not happy there and would prefer to be with Rose.

When Rose comes across the body of her friend and former lover, Jonathan Frampton, in an attitude suggesting suicide, she does not believe he has taken his own life. To do so would be against all he believed. The Coroner and the police think otherwise, however.

Rose is determined to prove Jonathan was murdered and when further bodies turn up it seems she has been vindicated. Chief Inspector Wright now agrees with her, though his investigations are hampered by the army activity at Perringham House. Meanwhile, sheep are being rustled and there is a suspicion of black market activity in the community.

Set against a wartime background, which is well-conveyed, this novel is written in the style of early 20th century writers such as Josephine Tey, Dorothy L. Sayers et al. Though a little slow at the start, the characterisation is especially good and the descriptions are vivid and apt.

Rose (Bunch) is a strong and determined character and there is a suggestion of a relationship brewing with the policeman. There are shocks and discoveries for everyone and though occasionally a little loose, the plot moves forward once the book gets going.

The text is marred by a number of typographical errors, missing or extraneous words and the occasional grammatical error. I read an Advance Readers' Copy, however, and presumably these things will have been dealt with before publication.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Cosyish Crime, early 20th century crime novels.

Avoid if you dislike: Books written in the style of a former age.

Ideal accompaniments: Black market coffee.

Genre: Crime Fiction

Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

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

What we thought: I listened the audio version of this book, and have to admit I found it a little slow to get into because each lead character had its own narrator, but because they had different voices for the characters around them I found it confusing. However, by the end of the book, I was totally enthralled by the approach, and found it added an extra layer to the story.

Whilst I enjoyed the author’s bestselling novel, The Girl on the Train, I hadn’t been as blown away by it as some reviewers, so I came to this book with a degree of trepidation, hoping that she’d achieved success again with the ‘difficult second book.’

And I wasn’t disappointed.

After the mysterious deaths of a school girl and a local woman who was investigating the legend of the drowning pool in the local river, this novel retells the stories of a group of people surrounded with the tragedy. Lena lost her mother and her best friend in a double tragedy, and seems to be at the heart of the mystery, but when her aunt arrives to care for her, the story seems confusing and fractured. The police investigation follows two separate detectives, and I loved the way their paths crossed and twisted, and as a reader we were open to secrets from both sides. A really clever tactic that worked well for me.

Strong character, excellent paced, and twists and turns galore. A definite winner!


You’ll enjoy this if you like : Clare Mackintosh, Kate Hamer, Peter James.

Avoid if you don’t like : Complex storylines and multiple narrators.

Ideal accompaniments: BBQ meats and salad.

Genre : Contemporary.

Available on Amazon




Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Kings and Queens by Terry Tyler

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: Kings and Queens by Terry Tyler is a unique and highly entertaining story that brings to life Henry VIII and his six wives via a contemporary setting. Through a clever storyline, each well-drawn character parallels the life and times of this infamous historical ruler. Each of the six wives were so different, and totally modern, whilst being the perfect reflection of her historical counterpart.

I really enjoyed how the multiple viewpoints gave me the opportunity to see Harry Lanchester (Henry VIII’s modern-day counterpart) through many different eyes. And, of course, not all of those were totally flattering!

This novel brought home to me the point that human behavior remains the same, across the ages.

While many readers of Kings and Queens will be well-acquainted with Tudor history, and more particularly, the fate of Henry VIII’s wives, I found it the way the author managed these stories in a modern-day setting turned the story into something quite unique and special.

I’m not sure what genre this book could be classified as. We are certainly enjoying alternative history and historical fantasy these days. So why not parallel history?

I love a compelling and gripping historical fiction novel. I also love good contemporary fiction, and Kings and Queens enormously satisfied these two readers in me. Highly recommended.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Great fiction, both historical and contemporary.

Avoid if you don’t like: A modern take on historical stories.

Ideal accompaniments: Swan pie (kidding!) with a huge glass of mead.

Genre: Parallel History, I’d say.

Available on Amazon


The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I read Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s enchanting The Girl of Ink and Stars when it was shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize earlier this year. I wasn’t a bit surprised when it won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for 2017 – and was delighted when they brought forward the publication of her second book, The Island at the End of Everything, by way of celebration.

The two books share an island setting – and of course Millwood Hargrave’s wonderful, lyrical prose – but they have very different starting points. Joya, the floating island that is Isa’s home in The Girl of Ink and Stars, is a fantasy. Culion, where Ami’s story begins and ends, is a real island in the Philippines.

“There are some places you would not want to go. Even if I told you that we have oceans filled with sea turtles and dolphins, or forests lush with parrots that call through air thick with warmth. Nobody comes here because they want to. The island of no return.”

From 1906 to 1998, Culion became with world’s biggest leper colony. In the early part of the 20th C, thousands of those touched by the disease were forcibly transported to the island, their healthy children taken from them by government authorities to avoid further contamination. It is a story that has been repeated in varying forms in different parts of the world – from the Irish laundries to the Indian Residential Schools. A story of cruelty promulgated by arrogant authorities believing they know best and failing utterly to see the subjects of their experiments as whole people. Millwood Hargrave takes us into the heart of the story by showing it to us through the eyes of one of those children.

Butterflies dance over the cover of the book and butterflies form a thread that winds through the story. Mr Zamora – the man who comes to take the children away, and a villain quite as detestable as Dolores Umbrage – is a butterfly collector, someone who can only see the beauty of the butterflies once they are dead and pinned in one of his display cases. But it is the living butterflies who will connect mother with daughter, and Ami with her friend Marisol – the girl whose name means butterfly.

A story of love and trust, hope and reconciliation, told in language that is both simple and utterly poetic. A must-read for children and adults alike.

You'll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave; My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson; The Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara.

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of children taken from their parents. Confronting the realities of arrogant decision making.

Perfect Accompaniment: Dragon Fruit

Genre: Children's Fiction (9-12yrs)

Available on Amazon

The Secret Wife by Gill Paul

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

What we thought: My first read from this author and I thoroughly enjoyed The Secret Wife, with the use of past and present threads to carry the reader effortlessly though the tale of romance between cavalry officer Dmitri Malama and Grand Duchess Tatiana, the second daughter of Russia’s last tsar. And also threaded through the historical tale was a modern story of one woman’s journey while deciding whether to forgive her husband after an infidelity.

There was much to like in the storyline. I really enjoy tales that intertwine real-life history into fictional stories, it’s something I’ve done in my own writing, and I think the balance here is spot on. The attention to detail in the 1914-1923 chapters was excellent, the subject had clearly been well researched, and as the tension built in the story I was totally swept along by the pace and emotion in the writing.

Characters were well-developed and ready to step from the page, dialogue and style was superbly written, and the pacing held its own throughout. As I said, I am new to the author, but I have no hesitation in recommending this book and look forward to more from the author in the future.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Amanda Hodgkinson, Elizabeth Chadwick, Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Avoid if you don’t like : Family secrets.

Ideal accompaniments: Vodka.

Genre : Contemporary.



Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Holding by Graham Norton


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

What we thought: I listened the audio version of this book, narrated by the author, which I found added to the overall enjoyment as Graham Norton clearly loves his book and enjoyed adding the character’s voices and animation.

A slow burn in the early chapters, I found this story became increasingly engaging as the mystery deepened and the characters developed. When a jumble of human bones are found at a building site near the small Irish town of Duneen, it’s down to local Garda to investigate the cold crime.

As ever, the ghosts of the past soon come back to haunt the villagers, and many long-buried secrets are revisited. As the story unravels, and the identity of the body is revealed, the tensions builds to a point where I was eagerly awaiting the next chapter.

Norton writes in an engaging style that suits the book. Atmosphere, setting and characterisation all work very well, with an added layer of dark humour and human observation which I found superb. Other than an odd aversion to any kind of POV, I had little criticism with the pace of style of the writing, and the story held my attention throughout.

I’ve no doubt this book will have its negative reviews, but I admire anyone who can finish a novel of this quality, and for those who enjoy cosy crime mysteries, this will suit their tastes. I’d recommend this read and hope we see more of Garda P.J. Collins after his move to Cork and promotion to CID.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : MC Beaton, Deidre Purcell, Kate Hamer.

Avoid if you don’t like : Ireland.

Ideal accompaniments: Cheese and potato pie with a pint of Guinness.

Genre : Contemporary.


Available on Amazon










Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Land Beyond Goodbye and Don’t Look Down (http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.co.uk/)

What We Thought: Every now and then a book comes along that is written in a style unlike any other. This is one of those books. Reservoir 13 is intimate, conversational, gossipy, nosy, and reads at times like a soap opera, at times like a country music song with a story to tell. Neither of those last two descriptions accurately convey its brilliance though. While seemingly detached, the style gets right under the skin. Sometimes it seems too much and one wishes for a break into direct speech or action, but it goes relentlessly on, poking its nose into other people’s business.

A young teenager goes missing in the hills around Reservoir 13. The girl was last seen out walking with her parents but became separated from them. Naturally, the parents are suspected but there are others in the village with secrets to keep and information to hide. The girl’s friends have not revealed all they could have done about the relationships between them. There are those in the village who have dark interests in young persons. There are philanderers and secret lovers and those who never manage to connect. There are marriages, divorces and violence. There are births and deaths and illnesses – indeed, all life is here. And underlying it all is the girl who disappeared.

Time goes by and the girl is still missing. This is the story of how such an event impacts on a community, how they deal with it, respond to it and incorporate it into their reality.

Truly unique and a fascinating read.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Explorations of the effects of crime on a community.

Avoid if you dislike: Experimental Crime Novels

Ideal accompaniments:
A pair of binoculars and a net curtain to hide behind.

Genre: Crime Fiction

The Expansion by Christoph Martin

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

A fast-paced thriller set in the world of international politics and big business, this book stands out from its peers for two reasons. One, its complex characters and their choices. Two, its fascinating setting – the eponymous expansion refers to the Panama Canal.

Max Burns, geomatic engineer, gets the opportunity of a lifetime when an old schoolfriend asks him to head a bid for the hugely competitive project of expanding the canal. He’s got his work cut out, not just in outperforming the other countries in the running, but dealing with his employers’ unusual managerial style. With parties, prostitutes and politics, he’s out of his depth.

When he meets Karis Deen, Smithsonian researcher, his feet touch bottom. She’s different, someone he can trust. But Karis is not exactly who she seems.

A crackling global adventure which dives into the murky waters of geopolitics, the business of construction, environmental effects, human greed and weakness. Add to this a colourful supporting cast of not-all-good-or-bad guys who alternately exasperate and delight, and you are onto a winner.
This demands to be read in one heart-thumping go.


You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Expats by Chris Pavone, Deception Point by Dan Brown or The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Avoid if you don’t like: Complex plots, international finance, surprises

Ideal accompaniments: Gasoline tea, fried plantain and a warm breeze blowing through the curtains

Genre: Thriller



Available on Amazon




Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

For a post-war historical fiction novel, this book is strikingly relevant at this moment in time.

It begins with a demonstration in Trafalgar Square. A speaker stands up and rails against the influx of Jews to an angry, disaffected crowd. Lenny Lynskey, on his way to a medical before joining the army, catches a hint of anti-Semitic hate speech and hurls his packed lunch at the speaker. At risk of violent retaliation, he’s saved by his twin sister Miriam, apprentice florist and impulsive bouquet-wielder. Today, the incident would be on YouTube.

It’s 1950 and the teenage Jewish twins are diagnosed with tuberculosis, sent to a sanatorium and left to the whims of hope and rumour. The disease is a killer and no respecter of class. A rest cure involves boredom, fresh air and close proximity to other sufferers, some of whom the East End siblings would never otherwise have encountered.

Those elements of fortune – birth, achievements, wits, humour or intelligence – which brought our characters thus far no longer count. What matters at The Gwendo is your temperature, your lungs and your willingness to become A Patient.

The book is uneven and requires commitment from the reader in its slower sections. Yet it provokes thought about how recently people died from a disease now eradicated and leaves us with some hope for the future.

Thematically, Grant’s tale could act as a commentary on current governmental manifestos. Healthcare and the fallout from military conflict, prejudice towards class and race, alliances under pressure and who appeals most to the fearful – entertainer or reformer, faith or science?



You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, PWA by Oscar Moore or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Avoid if you don’t like: Slow moving narrative, descriptions of disease

Ideal accompaniments: Fresh air, a Bloody Mary and a roast beef and horseradish bagel



Genre: Historical fiction, literary fiction


Available on Amazon




Scotland Yardie by Bobby Joseph; illus Joseph Samuels

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Graphic novels aren’t usually my thing, but when I read that it was “the first UK, Black, urban graphic novel that takes on institutionalised racism, police brutality, Brexit and the gentrification of London through the lens of satire,” I couldn’t resist.

Scotland Yardie is a spliff-smoking, gun-toting Jamaican police officer parachuted into Brixton cop shop as part of the latest drive against institutionalised racism. He is partnered with PC Ackee-Saltfish, a home-grown black police officer determined to follow all the rules and be better than all the rest.

Together they must combat racism, corrupt police officers and a dangerous new drug taking over Brixton's streets.

Scotland Yardie plays on tropes that have been the mainstay of cop buddy films and TV shows from Lethal Weapon to Due South. But Joseph turns them on its head, makes fun of their conventions and pushes them to their most illogical extreme in order to satirise racism, ham-fisted anti-racism and modern British policing.

The delight of the graphic novel lies in a large measure in the illustrations by Joseph Samuels. The often quite crowded background images are packed with pop-culture references – such as the school gates where the teachers on show range from Jack Whitehall from Bad Education to Snape from Harry Potter. Or the taxi driver who is straight out of Taxi Driver.

The main pop-culture crossover in Scotland Yardie, however, is with Breaking Bad. I don’t want to give too much away, but if you are a fan of the show (especially a British fan), you will love the spin Joseph has put on it.

Scotland Yardie may be a revival of a comic originally created for Skank magazine in the 1990s, but it is bang up-to-date. It brings in Boris Johnson, Brexit - even Broadchurch.

Outrageous, irreverent and needle sharp.


You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle, Breaking Bad, 2000AD

Avoid If You Dislike: Politics in your graphic novels

Perfect Accompaniment: Fried Chicken

Genre: Graphic Novel

Available on Amazon

First Love by Gwendoline Riley


Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:


Intense, short, focused and poetic, the subject matter is a relationship souring with disappointment. Riley draws us into the character of Neve, a writer whose gaze is turned inwards.  

She lives with and depends on Edwyn, an older man whose age, physical difficulties and mood swings make him volatile and yet predictable. Their (dis)affection is more of a clinging resentment, rabbitty habits of nose-rubbing and pet names collide with violent outbursts of verbal abuse.

Her prose, when reflecting Neve's inner thoughts, is lucid and beautiful. Contrasted with Edwyn's brutal, circular rants, her mother's self-indulgent monologues and memories of her father's narcissism. It's an uncomfortable place to be, mostly passive and voiceless in the face of all this noise.

The timeline jumps, adding to the circularity and lack of progress, convincing the reader there is no escape, no emotional terminal. Riley's work veers close to fictionalised memoir or at least is drawn to personal themes.

It's precise, bleak and demonstrates the writer's skill at evoking the imaginary but no less restrictive bars of a cage. In one exchange, a character explains that the expression “I fell in love at first sight” translates in Russian as “I fell down”.
At the end of this book, there's a sense of "I fell in and will never get out."

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Sky is Changing by Zoe Jenny, String Bridge by Jessica Bell, Cold Water/Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley

Avoid if you don’t like: Introspection, repetitive behavioural patterns, langour

Ideal accompaniments: A pot of camomile tea, a tin of toffees and Don't Speak by No Doubt

Genre: Literary fiction
 


Available on Amazon

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. (www.gillianhamer.com)

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 (http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.co.uk/)

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 (http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.co.uk/) 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 (www.gillianhamer.com)

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