Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

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

What we thought: I have been looking forward to this book since its release, having adored the debut novel from Joanna Cannon – The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. And I’m pleased to say this didn’t disappoint! I actually wiped away a tear as I turned the final page and said goodbye to a collection of wonderful characters.

From a teenage world of the 1970’s in the first novel from this author, here we’re taken to Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly and introduced into the life of some of the inhabitants, including our lead protagonist 84-year-old Florence - and her lifelong best friend Elsie.

This book makes the reader work, and that’s no bad thing. In one thread, Florence is lying alone, having had a fall in her flat, and the author cleverly uses this to introduce flashbacks and info needed to move the story along. In others, there’s a degree of confusion as Florence’s episodes of dementia muddy the water between reality and fiction. But as ever, she has her best friend Elsie at her side to hold her hand, calm down and say the right thing.

There’s also a degree of mystery when a strange man arrives at Cherry Tree, and his appearance rocks Florence to her roots. If this is the person she thinks it is, then he drowned over fifty years ago. And when odd things begin to happen to Florence – including a fire in her flat and a curious incident with Battenberg cakes – she knows some of her own secrets have come back to haunt her.

There is everything in this book; mystery, intrigue, compassion, humour and empathy. The characters are superb, the pace handled with a delicate balance, and the voice and tone are a lesson in the craft of writing. By the time you get to the end you will have experienced every emotion known to human kind.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ll be pondering the third thing about Elsie for a long time to come.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Kate Hamer, Gail Honeyman, Celia Imrie.

Avoid if you don’t like : Dementia and the strength of the human spirit.

Ideal accompaniments: Fish and chips with extra salt and vinegar and a can of Dr Pepper.

Genre : Contemporary.

Available on Amazon

Can You Brexit without Breaking Britain? By Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought:

An interactive gamebook which puts the reader in to the Prime Minister's shoes. Every decision you make has an effect and you must deal with the consequences. For such a polarising issue, this is accessible to all and good fun while making you think.

You wake up on the morning after the Brexit vote and choose your first move. Flip to the relevant page and pick your next option. When you hit a dead-end, go back to the fork in the road and have another go. This is not just about running the country, but maintaining control of your party and shining a light on yourself.

The PM must deal with quandary after crisis, all the while keeping tally of one's score under four headings: Authority, Economy, Goodwill and Popularity. Who must you keep happy? Who do you listen to? Where can you find friends? What advice dare you trust?

While witty and acerbic with a sly dig at the contemporary players in the Brexit drama, this is well researched and intelligently thought out. Facts and realities underpin every move and you cannot claim a lack of knowledge as all the implications are there on paper.

Bear in mind the British media are watching, ready to criticise everything from your choice of holiday to frivolous footwear. Reading this while watching the reality play out on our TV screens is a bizarre experience.

Highly recommended for anyone who wonders what the hell is going on and why. Warning: might possibly make you feel sorry for Theresa May.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Witty political drama such as The Thick of It; Yes, Minister; Dear Bill

Avoid if you don’t like: Politics, the British, having to deal with the fallout of your decisions

Ideal accompaniments: Full English breakfast, a pint of British Bulldog and Bach's St John Passion

Genre: Humour, Contemporary

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Almost Love by Louise O'Neill

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought:

One of those rare reads you can't stop thinking about.
O'Neill's previous two novels - Only Ever Yours and Asking For It - are both pitched as YA and dive right to the heart of the female condition. Their protagonists are flawed and human and the damage unfolds in front of our eyes.

But with Sarah Fitzpatrick in Almost Love the damage is already done. This young woman is selfish, demanding, ungrateful, judgemental and throws her self-respect on and off like a cape.

The story switches between now and then.

Now Sarah's a lucky girl, living with her boyfriend Oisín in a house given them by his mother. She has a good job as an art teacher in Dublin and looks down on her country background and small-town friends. That doesn't stop her despising the glamorous crowd she hangs out with at the same time.

Then was different. Then, she met Matthew Brennan, successful estate agent and father to one of her pupils. Flirtation becomes an affair, strictly on his terms, but like any addict, she will sacrifice anything for a summons to that shabby hotel room. Her father, her friends and the man who loves her for who she is, Fionn, are all cast aside in her craving for Matthew's affection. Her betrayals get harsher as her need grows. Simultaneously, a sense of discomfort builds in the reader. It's like watching a car crash in slow-motion in the full knowledge there is nothing you can do.

Much has been made of Sarah as an unlikable protagonist, but I think we react against her because she reminds us of ourselves at our worst. Alarming and powerful, this book is a reminder of how your worst enemy might be yourself.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Psychological shadows such as in Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas, We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver or Involved by Kate O'Riordan

Avoid if you don’t like: The realities of obsession/addiction or a heroine you want to shake

Ideal accompaniments: Vodka Red Bull, fizzy colas and Human Behaviour by Bjork

Genre: Contemporary, literary fiction

Available on Amazon

The Beasts of Electra Drive by Rohan Quine

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Beasts of Electra Drive is the story of a games designer who becomes deeply disenchanted with the ‘lowest common denominator’ mentality of the big corporation he works for, and leaves it in order to create a game of his own. But when his former employers refuse to take his desertion lying down, something rather strange happens, and the characters from Jaymi’s game start to cross over into ‘meat space’ and become the arms of Jaymi’s revenge.

Quine’s narrative challenges the arbitrariness of commercial gate-keepers and the randomness of success – and has a lot of fun in the process. It’s an odd mixture of dark – verging on horror – with more than a bit of kitsch. Some of the characters overlap with characters from Quine’s earlier work (like The Platinum Raven), though this is not strictly a prequel.

The Beasts of Electra Drive makes use of passages of almost incantatory repetition – something we accept quite happily in music and in books for young children, but which is unexpected in a book written for adults. It’s used primarily when Jaymi builds each of his characters and draws then through into ‘meatspace’, giving the act the feel of a creation myth.

It’s a very visual novel too. Quine gives his narrative voice (and sometimes his characters), the eye of a camera mounted on a drone, able to fly across valley in zoom in on details miles in the distance – like a tiny reflection in the pupil of someone’s eye. It’s set in and around Los Angeles and swoops from the Hollywood Hills mansions of the mega-rich, through the glass-sided towers of business districts, down into the slums and back again.

Reading this book is a little like watching a particularly unsettling art house movie. You will be, in turn, disoriented, enchanted and repelled.

For all the technology involved, this is more magic realism than science fiction. It deliberately pushes the boundaries of the outrageous and challenges you to go along for the ride.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, The Imagination Thief by Rohan Quine, Delirium by Barbara Scott Emmett

Avoid if You Dislike: Surrealism, incantatory prose

Perfect Accompaniment: A Tequila Sunrise

Genre: Literary Fiction, Magic Realism

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Temptation: A User’s Guide by Vesna Main

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Land Beyond Goodbye and The Man with the Horn (

What We Thought: Vesna Main's short stories are unlike anything I have read before. I was occasionally reminded of Beckett and Pinter - though for me these stories lacked the dramatic tension of the plays. They vary in length from a page or two to interminable. Well, those long ones do actually end eventually but often without a conclusion.

These stories are irritating, bewildering, annoying, bemusing, challenging and enraging. The thing is, that appears to be the intention. They prod you and poke you and generally disturb you until you want to fling them aside in a fit of pique.

I made the mistake of reading some of these before bed - something I would strongly advise against as I was kept awake trying to puzzle out what they were about and what they might mean. Or, if they weren't about anything, what the fact that they weren't about anything might mean. I had to stop reading a couple of the more repetitive ones for the sake of my sanity.

Many of the stories feature people who are obsessed with something, though often that something is not obvious. Some seem obsessed with overthinking and others with having no particular thoughts at all. The characters are not particularly rounded and often there is little or no description or dialogue. Indeed, these pieces conform to no conventions of short fiction at all. Now, this is not to say they are bad. Or badly written. If the intention is to frustrate the reader and provoke a reaction, they are very good indeed.

Now, I expect some people will think these are rubbish and that the publishers are suffering from Emperor's New Clothes syndrome. Being the sophisticated consumer of modern fiction that I am, however, (or that I imagine myself to be) I am determined to avoid falling into this trap. I can't honestly say I enjoyed them and they certainly weren't relaxing - but then neither is Picasso's Guernica.

Anyway, you will have to read them yourself in order to decide whether they are good or not. Go on - give them a go. I dare you.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Unconventional fiction that challenges and provokes not because of its subject matter but because of the way it is written.

Avoid if you dislike: Being rubbed up the wrong way by a writer you've never met.

Ideal accompaniments: A couple of paracetamol.

Genre: Short Fiction.

The Chalky Sea by Clare Flynn

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

What we thought: A well crafted WWII story of love, loss and acceptance. We follow twin stories of Jim from Canada and Gwen from Eastbourne, UK. Poles apart in terms of their lives before the war, both haunted by memories and tragedies of the past ... and both of them about to experience passion for the first time in their lives in the most unlikely of circumstances.

The two threads run separately for two thirds of the novel, but there’s a rich intensity in knowing that at some point the character’s paths will cross. And when Jim runs away from home and joins the army, he’s soon sent, via a training camp in Aldershot, to the UK town of Eastbourne to help with the coastal defences.

Gwen is alone in a large house, her husband away at war, and finds herself helping others for the first time in her life - and feeling more useful than she has ever felt. She takes in a homeless family bombed out of their home, and soon finds herself housing three Canadian soldiers – one of them being Jim.

The story is told at a gripping and emotive pace, with highs and lows, and with attention of detail and location accuracy that added another level to the book. By the end, I was desperate to know if either of the characters would get the happy ending they deserved – and I’m delighted there’s a sequel for us to enjoy too.

If you’re a fan of romantic drama and historical fiction, this is one not to be missed.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Maggie Hope, Pam Howes, Grace Thompson.

Avoid if you don’t like : Wartime stories.

Ideal accompaniments: Corned beef and mash with half a pint of Mild.

Genre : Historical.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

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

What we thought: I have come to expect a lot from Mr Horowitz, never one to take the easy route, always clever and entertaining, and yet again with a new twist, this book certainly did not lower my expectations.

Like his last book, The Magpie Murders, Horowitz gives us POV with a twist. This time the twist is that he’s chosen himself as the narrator and central to the plot. I loved the effort he went to in order to create something yet again so original.

Here we meet Hawthorn, an ex-CID detective with a shadowed past, who in the style of Morse, chooses to go by his surname only. Horowitz becomes acquainted with him as an advisor on his crime TV work, and when Hawthorne asks our author to write a book about him … it’s not long before he wishes he’d taken his own initial advice and stayed well clear.

It’s a complex and entertaining plot. A woman arranges her own funeral on the day she is brutally murdered. Was this a portent? A clever suicide? A cry for help? Or something much more sinister.

Hawthorn and our long-suffering author set out to solve the crime and produce a gripping biographical work at the same time. Not easy you may think … and you’d be right. Like chalk and cheese on the personality front, it's not long before the detective duo run into trouble and form an instant dislike to each other. But as in many of these stories, they both come good for each other in the end. Indeed, was this the end ...

There was so much to enjoy here, from the twists and turns of a gripping crime plot to the clever POV and behind the scenes glimpses into life as a best-selling author. One of the books where I dreaded the end coming too soon and certainly one to read for any crime fans out there.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : P.D James, Peter May, Ian Rankin.

Avoid if you don’t like : Surly detectives and stubborn writers.

Ideal accompaniments: Full English breakfast and a mug of builders’ tea.

Genre : Crime.

Available on Amazon

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

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

What We Thought: When clergyman’s daughter, Hester White is orphaned she is taken in by her parents’ gardener Joe and his wife Meg. However, Joe and Meg struggle to find another position and sink ever deeper into the mire of poverty. At 17, Hester is scraping a living with them in a clay-floored room in East London. It is 1831 and fear stalks the streets as people go missing and are never heard from again. A cousin of Hester’s, whom she had hoped would help her rise out of her wretchedness, disappears, along with her friend Annie.

When Hester is run over by a carriage, the doctor who owns it takes her in to treat her damaged leg. Calder Brock is an amiable gentleman and allows her to stay in his London home until she is well. After that, he packs her off to his Uncle Septimus’s country residence at Waterford Hall He arranges for his sister Rebekah to teach Hester in an experiment to prove the lower orders can learn. Hester has already been educated up to the time when her parents died but pretends she is untutored in order to remain at Waterford. She discovers that two maids have disappeared from the household and that Rebekah is looking into their disappearance.

Hester becomes fond of Rebekah and allows herself to believe Rebekah has feelings for her too but when she overhears a conversation about sending her to the “dicity” – the Mendicity Society, who will likely ship her to Australia – she runs away.

Back in London things turn very dark. Hester is pursued by two rough-looking men and is fearful for her life. She manages to hook up with Rebekah again, and the pair investigate the various disappearances. The plot leads through various byways and seeming coincidences and convolutions. The New Metropolitan Police force is involved but, of course, it is the women themselves who hunt out the baddies.

There is a major coincidence in the plot but if that is overlooked then this is a good read. The writing is by turns lyrical and gruesome, sometimes conveying the poetry of the natural world and sometimes the degradation of poverty and cruelty. The relationship between Hester and Rebekah is conveyed with great sensitivity. A good Gothic read.

You’ll enjoy this if you like:
Sarah Waters, Emma Donoghue.

Avoid if you dislike: Coincidences.

Ideal accompaniments: A strong stomach at times.

Genre: Historical/LGBT

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson

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

What we thought: As an avid crime reader, I have been meaning to read this author for some time, and I decided it would be best to start at the beginning of the series with book one, Snow Blind. Here we are introduced to rookie new recruit policeman Ari Thór Arason on his first posting to a bleak town in northern Iceland, forcing him to leave behind his girlfriend and comfortable life in Reykjavik.

When a young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and an elderly writer falls to his death in the local theatre, all in his first week, Ari is dragged straight into the middle of a town where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies appear to be a way of life.

After an avalanche closes the mountain pass and the 24-hour darkness threatens to push Ari over the edge, the locals become more hostile, and his investigation becomes increasingly complex, chilling and personal. Who or what will break first – the conclusion of the case or Ari’s reputation?

The writing here is page turning and as in many Nordic Noir novels the locations add atmosphere to the story. I connected with the characters and already plan on downloading the next in the series. 

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Karin Slaughter, Peter James, David Hewson.

Avoid if you don’t like : Snow and secrets.

Ideal accompaniments: Fish pie with greens and mulled wine.

Genre : Crime.

Available on Amazon

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

"I think we all wait for that one time, that one time when it ends right."

Starr remembers having ‘the talk’ with her parents – the talk every Black parent must have with their child, about what to do if you are stopped by the police.

“Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do. Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.”

But either her friend, Khalil, never had the talk, or he didn’t pay attention.

The Hate U Give is a fictional account of what has become an all too common story – the shooting dead of a young black man by a police officer because he was wrongly perceived as a threat.

But this time there is a witness. Starr was in the car with Khalil when they were stopped. And Starr has a voice. A voice that is going to be heard.

Everyone has an opinion about Khalil, even if they’d never heard of him before the night of the shooting. Starr’s largely Black neighbourhood is ready to explode with anger. While to the white kids at her school, he’s either a drug dealer who got what was coming, or an excuse for a protest that gets them out of class. Can anyone – even her parents, ever her best friends, even her boyfriend – understand how she feels or who Khalil really was?

The novel is replete with details that sing of lived experience. From the attitude of her Black parents, and the role of the religion, to the tightrope Starr walks between her Black neighbourhood and her mostly white school. Thomas perfectly captures that stage of adolescence when the stubborn defiance is still all there, but awareness is growing that maybe you don’t quite know everything yet.

The title comes from a line written by the rapper, Tupac. ‘The hate u give little infants f***s everyone.’ (THUG LIFE). This might sound like Larkin’s ‘The f*** you up, your mum and dad.’ But as the book shows, it has a much wider meaning too – that hurting or oppressing anyone harms the whole world.

If Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is the voice of a Black parent desperate to protect their child, here is the voice of a child growing up in that world. Someone who has seen two friends die by the time their sixteen. Someone with a burning sense of injustice who wants things to change.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Orange Boy by Patrice Lawrence; Out of Heart by Irfan Master; The Mother by Yvvette Edwards; Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

Avoid If You Dislike: Depiction of the impact of violence on young lives

Perfect Accompaniment: A stack of pancakes and Cupid Shuffle by Cupid

Genre: Young Adult

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I love listening to poetry in performance, but I am not always good at reading it on the page. Too often, inside my head, the poet’s voice turns into a meaningless sing-song. Fortunately for me, the voice in Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda was strong enough to override even my cloth ear.

Chinogonyi was born in Zambia in 1987 and came to the UK in 1993. The title of this debut volume of poetry, Kumukanda, refers to the initiation rites that young boys of the Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi and Mbunda people in north western Zambia must pass through to be considered a man.

“Tata’s people would think me unfinished – a child who never sloughed off the childish estate to cross the river boys of our tribe must cross in order to die and come back grown.”

As the author says, ‘This book approximates such rites of passage in the absence of my original culture.’

The book begins with poems about growing up in south London and a ‘white flight’ town outside London, about his relationship with music and rap and how that helped forge his identity. But Chingonyi moves on from that. In poems such as The ‘N’ word, Casting and Callbacks, he addresses casual racism. In Legerdemain and How To Build Cathedrals, he confronts colonialism and in Kung’anda (home) the Western eye view of Africa reduced to the image of a dying child.

The Nod, Loch Long by Ardarten, Argyll and In Defence of Darkness are love poems of breathtaking tenderness and sensuality. In Curfew, he glimpses the rebellious young woman who is now is Auntie.

A whole group of poems, including the title poem, Kumukanda, address the loss at a young age of both his mother and his father. There is humour here as in the description of his father, “him stood, sequoia among lesser trees, looking good in denim.” And heartbreak, as when he writes of his terminally ill mother, “She’s dying but I won’t call her dead, can’t let mum become a body, a stone, an empty hospital bed.”

Chingonyi said, in an interview with the ICA Bulletin in 2016, that one of his aims in writing is to “chip away at the motion that whiteness is the normative unmediated position from which all other subjectivities deviate.” Which makes him a perfect fit for the Jhalak Prize shortlist.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lemn Sissay, Tendai Huchu, Malika Booker

Avoid If You Dislike: Poems that combine lyrical beauty with razor-sharp political commentary

Perfect Accompaniment: Mussels and dry white wine

Genre: Poetry

Available on Amazon

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Where do I start? This is huge. Not only a broad range of geopolitical considerations, but stuffed with thematic issues and dense with cultural references. If this were a cake, you’d pour brandy on it and set it on fire.

In the historic New York district of The Gardens, a stranger moves in. He seems to have no past and has reinvented himself and his three sons. Nero Golden is a powerful, rich widower, who has adopted Roman monikers for himself and his family.

Against a backdrop of an America electing its first black president, there is a sense of “Yes, we can!” both in the country and this particular family.

The reader gains a unique insight as to how the Goldens (mal)function from their neighbour/friend Rene, orphan, documentary-maker and narrator of this tale. Tragedy in the classical sense alters the fate of the Golden boys while Rene falls victims to cynical manipulation, binding him inextricably to the figure of Nero.

Then a new election looms and this time the front runner is The Joker, a super villain who can work a crowd. Does Batwoman have a chance against such a highly coloured, grinning, bouffant showman?

Rushdie is in his element, cramming in fruity phrases and toothsome allusions, tackling identity, freedom of speech, the American Dream, globalisation, image and delusions of how much control anyone has over their destiny.

Commenting on his Booker of Bookers prizewinner Midnight’s Children, Rushdie said he could not use the cool English of Forster because India was hot. He needed to use language in a way that reflected that. In The Golden House, he has taken the US and the whimsical mood of social media and concocted a rich reflection of itself. A portrait you might put up on Instagram, revealing far more than you realise.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: A Bonfire of the Vanities, Midnight’s Children

Avoid if you don’t like: Epic sagas with contemporary references, a sense of tragedy which will come for you too

Ideal accompaniments: A litre of mineral water and an eight-hour flight east

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

When I Hit You Or Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I climb into the incredible sadness of silence. Wrap its slowness around my shoulders, conceal its shame within the folds of my sari.

If Winnie M Li’s award winning Dark Chapter is the fictionalised account of the author’s brutal rape by a stranger, this is a fictionalised account of another, perhaps more common type of sexual abuse – domestic violence and rape within a marriage.

Kandasamy wrote about the abuse within her own short but brutal marriage in an article for Outlook magazine in 2012. This is not, however, a memoir. Like her unnamed narrator, Kandasamy is a writer – articulate, politically aware, a feminist. As her narrator uses the tools of the writer to survive, to plot her escape and eventually to get away and start life again, so Kandasamy uses fiction to make it possible to tell her story fully and intimately. As the narrator says towards the end of the book:

I am the woman who stands in place of the woman who loathes to enter this story in any of its narrations ... I am the woman conjured up to take on the life of a woman afraid of facing her own reality.

The story is told through many different lenses. It begins with the mother recounting, over and over, the state of her daughter’s feet when she fled home. It covers letters written to imaginary lovers, and deleted before her husband can come home and read them. It goes through story boards of films she will make of her experiences, before dropping, intermittently into unvarnished accounts of a classic pattern of domestic abuse – control, isolation, verbal abuse, physical, sexual, and finally death threats.

This male psychological logic looks at penetration as punishment. This is the rape that disciplines, the rape that penalizes me for the life I have presumably led. This is the rape that tames, the rape that puts me on the path of being a good wife.

There is poetry in this prose, and a humour so dark it’s like pepper on the tongue.

When the narrator finally escapes and speaks about what has happened to her, she faces the shaming women in her position so often meet. Why did she not run away? Why did she stay, if things were as bad as she says? How much of this was really not consensual? Kandasamy answers these questions squarely within the narrative, taking you so deep inside her narrator's head you are forced to understand, to acknowledge the funnelling of her choices into just one, narrow conduit.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li,  A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards, Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Avoid If You Dislike:
Frank and intimate depiction of domestic and sexual violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Cumin and coconut, turmeric and chilli flakes, cinnamon and star anise

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Once Upon A Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize 2018, this is a memoir of growing up in China, of peasant existence in the 1970s, and the immense changes that have swept over China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. It is also the story of a struggle to develop an identity and a creative voice, first in a collective society, and then later, marooned and isolated as an immigrant in a foreign country.

The memoir overlaps, chronologically, with Madeleine Thien’s sweeping epic, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. But Xiaolu Guo’s family was not one with a long cultural and artistic heritage. Although her father was a state-sanctioned artist, for the most part, her family were illiterate peasants and fishermen, living in the rural and industrial fringes of China, far away from the cultural centres of Shanghai and Beijing.

Despite the declared feminism of Communist doctrine, this was a society where women were treated brutally. Domestic and sexual abuse was rife. Her grandmother, who brought her up for the first few years of her life, was regularly and savagely beaten by her grandfather, and nobody thought it was anything unusual. And when Xiaolu speaks up about her own sexual abuse at the hands of a colleague of her father’s, she finds every one of her university dorm-mates has a parallel story to tell.

Fascinating as Guo’s account of her life in China is, it is her struggle to find a creative voice in a strange country and in an unknown tongue that I found most absorbing. It always seems extraordinary to us stubbornly monoglot Anglophones when someone expresses themselves creatively in a language they did not grow up with. But the gulf that Guo had to cross was far more than merely linguistic. It required an entirely new mode of thinking.

“How could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first person singular all the time? The habitual use of ‘I’ requires thinking of yourself as a separate entity in a society of separate entities.”

I haven’t read any of Guo’s novels, but I am excited to try one now.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Avoid if You Dislike: Frank discussion of sexual and domestic abuse

Perfect Accompaniment: Noodles and tofu

Genre: Autobiography, Memoir, Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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

What we thought: This is an outstanding debut novel and it’s no surprise to me it’s become one of the year’s bestsellers and that Hollywood have already snapped up the film rights.

Eleanor Oliphant is a complex human being. She survives each day, locked into her routine, without ever experiencing most of the emotions and sensations we as human beings take for granted. Monday to Friday she does her 9-5 job, eating lunch alone, avoiding human contact, and her weekends start with vodka to help her sleep through till Monday when her working week starts again.

The story joins Eleanor as the rigid routine of the past two decades begins to change when she finds herself drawn into other people’s world and is amazed by the kindness and compassion she finds there. And this is the beginning of both Eleanor discovering herself and the reader discovering the truth of her troubled past. Both of which result in a shocking and dramatic conclusion.

The writing here is superb and it’s hard to believe it’s a first novel. Pace moves us along at a cracking rate and the characters are beyond brilliant. The deeper messages about society in general, our attitudes to mental health, were unmissable - and the humorous traits described from Eleanor’s perspective had me laughing aloud more than once. Her first bikini wax will bring tears to your eyes as well as the characters!

I found myself beyond sad when I got to the final page and had to say goodbye to Eleanor. I hope  she finds happiness in her future and more than anything I hope the author is planning a sequel!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Ruth Hogan, Jo Jo Moyes, Matt Haig.

Avoid if you don’t like: Human beings.

Ideal accompaniments: Magners cider and ice with vol-au-vents and party nibbles.

Genre: Contemporary

Available on Amazon

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Many years ago, when I was doing research in Coventry Central Library, I came across a list they were promoting of books by British Asian authors. One of those books was Maps for Lost Lovers, Nadeem Aslam’s novel set among the Pakistani community in Bradford, West Yorkshire. It became one of the first novels I read by a British Asian author.

In the intervening years, I lost track of Aslam, so I was delighted to be reintroduced to him via the Jhalak Prize shortlist, which this year includes his novel – the first for many years to be set in Pakistan – The Golden Legend.

The novel opens with the accidental shooting of Massud, one of a husband-and-wife team of architects, by an American. His widow, Nargis, is quickly caught up in the cross-currents of political expediency and religious extremism. As feelings run high, two Christian friends, Helen, whom they have brought up almost as their daughter, and her father Lily, are ensnared in accusations of blasphemy. When the Christian quarter of Badami Bagh is attacked, Helen and Nargis flee to a hidden island when Nargis and Massud once tried to build and mosque that would reconcile the four sects of Islam. Lily has vanished, but they are helped by a disillusioned Kashmiri insurgent, Imran.

The novel contains images of such lyricism they feel almost like the creations of a magical realist – beginning with scale models of two of the world’s most famous mosques, which in the winter form cosy work cabins for the two architects and in summer are winched up into the rafters out of the way. But the novel is in fact rooted firmly – and grimly – in reality. Key events in the novel – the shooting incident involving a CIA contractor with which the book opens, the attack on the Sufi shrine, the death of a Catholic Bishop – all are based on real events. One of the central characters, the Kashmiri Imran, is based on a young man the author met in Pakistan.

The Golden Legend examines religious extremism, intolerance, the concept of blasphemy, and the consequences of India and Pakistan’s long tug of war over Kashmir. Its portrayal of modern day Pakistan is brutal – a searing indictment of the ever-narrowing definition of ‘purity’ applied to determine who belongs in ‘The Land of the Pure’ – first rooting out Hindus and Sikhs, then all-but eliminating other minority religions, and now turning equally ruthlessly on sects within Islam. But just as importantly, The Golden Legend holds up a mirror to Britain and the USA, warning them of the consequences path they have both embarked on, of narrowing what it means to be British or American.

For Aslam, hope for the future lies in the people who are still prepared to struggle for something better. As one of his characters says:

“I am only speaking for myself when I say that despair has to be earned. I personally have not done all that I can to change things. I have not yet earned the right to despair.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: We That Are Young by Preti Taneja; A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories centred round religious and political extremism; lyrical, haunting prose

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of tea and a kulcha (Punjabi naan)

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari, Illus Jane Ray

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

My next review from the Jhalak Prize 2018 longlist is another children’s book, this time for young readers.

Two very different young girls, both facing massive life changes, are eased into their new Secondary School by the wonderful Grace Nuala and her messy colourful art house.

Amy-May’s parents have split up. Her father has gone to live in a tumbledown cottage on a remote hillside, and she’s not sure if that means he doesn’t want her any more. He’s been home schooling her up till now, but she and her mother have moved to the city, and she has to face the prospect of going to a big new school.

We stand and stare at the metal and glass building that looks more like and art gallery than a school. The outlines of hundreds of children move like ants along the corridors. “I can’t come here, mum,” I say, and turn away.

Rima’s journey has been even more difficult. She’s travelled all the way from Syria. She’s known hunger and fear, and her little brother’s leg has been crushed by a bomb. She feels guilty because she’s alive and safe, but she doesn’t want people to see her only as a refugee. She wants people to see who she is.

With the help of Grace, and the volunteer translator Iman, Amy learns that there are so many ways to talk to someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you:

With your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand...You act things out... you let the feeling show in your whole body... whatever way you can to show them you want to be their friend.

Grace makes Worry Angels, little figures to represent her young charges, and when they are ready to fly up to the big school, she gives the angels their wings.

Written in clear, simple English and beautifully illustrated by Jane Ray, this would suit young readers struggling with anxiety or those learning about refugees. But equally, it would be an excellent book for slightly older children learning English as an additional language. Worry Angels is full of warmth and empathy and above all, hope.

You’ll enjoy this if you loved: Azzi In Between by Sarah Garland, The Lost and Found Cat by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories about family breakup or children that have undergone trauma

Perfect Accompaniment: Chocolate Cake

Genre: Children, New Readers

Available on Amazon

Tipping Point 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: I am a great fan of Terry Tyler’s books, mainly due to her great storytelling and character development. That’s the reason I tried Tipping Point even though I’m not generally a fan of post-apocalyptic/dystopian stories. And I’m so glad I did! I found this story scarily plausible and realistic, and could totally imagine it happening, especially since it’s set in 2024, not so far into our future. 

It all stems from the new and highly popular social networking site, Private Life, something most of us are readily familiar with today. Our privacy is ensured, but is that what happens? 

When a lethal and rapidly-spreading virus is discovered in Africa, and spreads through the UK, a nationwide vaccination programme is announced. However it soon becomes obvious that not everyone is being offered the vaccination, for example, the ill, old, mentally ill and unemployed are not entitled. 

In the roller-coaster ride of this thriller that follows, the author deftly explores the vast conspiracy theory and evokes a sense of real fear into the reader, about gaining data from social media and that information being used against us. It is a worrying scenario, with terrifying consequences, that I can easily imagine happening.

That’s not to say this story is simply a dystopian horror tale, far from it. It also shows us, very realistically, human behaviour: how people behave in both negative and positive ways when society as we know it breaks down.

As in all her books, the author has created some compelling characters with whom I could readily identify and care about.  

Tipping Point is the first book in what promises to be an excellent series, the Project Renova series and I’m eagerly looking forward to reading the second, Lindisfarne, which is waiting for me on my Kindle!

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Plausible and feasible dystopian tales.
Avoid if you don’t like: the idea of what might truly happen to our world in the near future.

Ideal accompaniments: just any kind of food that is available, as tomorrow it might not be.

Genre: Post Apocalyptic/Dystopian

Available on Amazon

My Bookmuse reviews of more of Terry Tyler’s books:

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Come All You Little Persons by John Agard, illus Jessica Courtney-Tickle

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It’s lovely to start the Jhalak Prize longlist for 2018 with this picture book by John Agard.

We’ve always been fans of Agard in this house. My daughter had a poetry anthology when she was small that included his delightful ‘Got a Date With Spring’. And his poem ‘Half Caste’ is a punch in the gut must-read for older children and adults. Sot to find a new poem by him is a delight.

The first test for a picture book is how it reads out loud. And, as you would expect from a poet like Agard, Come All You Little Persons has the rhythm that makes that a joy.

Each little person that is called forth is described by their clothing, and each summoning introduces different words – from a feathered cape, to a shirt made of spray, from an apron that shines, to an invisible gown – so there is plenty to talk about.

Jessica Courtney-Tickle’s illustrations are filled with detail that can be pored over night after night. The style edges towards pointillist and the colour palette is rich but soft and slightly muted. Most importantly, the little persons called forth come in all shapes and sizes – male and female, tall and short, chubby and slim – and with every shade of skin from pale to dark, so every little reader can see themselves reflected.

The final page shows all the little persons circling the earth in a great dance – those we have seen called forth and many more besides that you can have fun creating identities for yourself.

The second great test for a picture book is whether is stands being read again and again, with enough to hold the interest of both adult and child. Come All You Little Persons passes that test with flying colours.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lullaby Hullabaloo by Mick Inkpen, Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

Avoid If You Dislike: Rhythm, Dance, Reading Out Loud

Perfect Accompaniment: Bedtime cuddles

Genre: Picture book. Children's

Available on Amazon