Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

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

What We Thought: The Black-Eyed Blonde is the follow up to Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, except it isn’t by Chandler. It’s by Benjamin Black who is, of course, John Banville by another name. Writing in the style of such a cult writer can’t have been easy, even for Booker prizewinner Banville. Chandler is a hard act to follow and his devotees are difficult to please. I know, because I’m married to one.

So when I say this book is a success, you can believe me. If it hadn’t been a reasonable pastiche my husband would have abandoned it halfway through. When I came to read it myself, I had my doubts at first. Could Black/Banville capture the wry humour, the sardonic one-liners, the world-weary essential goodness of Philip Marlowe? Well, he’s done a pretty good job of it.

It’s probably best to have read The Long Goodbye before approaching this book – but then, who would read a ‘new’ Chandler without having read the originals? The Black-Eyed Blonde features many of Marlowe’s previous sparring partners – villain Mendy Menendez, police officer pals Bernie Ohls and Joe Green. The plot is reminiscent of The Long Goodbye but I won’t say too much about it for fear of giving the game away.

There’s a femme fatale of course, the black-eyed blonde herself, who Marlowe falls for; there’s suspicious death in the form of a hit and run, there are vicious Mexicans and high-powered wealthy men who aren’t as squeaky clean as they could be. All the elements are there. It’ll never actually be Chandler, but in the absence of a discovery of a long lost manuscript, this will certainly fill the gap.

You'll enjoy this if you like: Raymond Chandler and other noir detective fiction.

Avoid if you dislike: Reports of gruesome deaths; violence against women (and men).

Ideal accompaniments: A bottle of bourbon hidden in a desk drawer.

Crime, Noir.

Available from Amazon.

Pompeii by Robert Harris

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

What we thought: In a sweltering week of August A.D. 79, the wealthy of Rome are enjoying the summer in their sumptuous villas around Pompeii and Herculaneum. But when the water flow from springs and wells start to falter, and the greatest aqueduct in the world––the Aqua Augusta––ceases to flow, the aquarius, Marcus Attilius Primus, fears these ominous signs point to some greater impending disaster.

When water flow to the coastal town of Misenum is interrupted, Attilius convinces the admiral of the Roman fleet––the scholar, Pliny the Elder––to give him a fast ship to Pompeii, where he locates the source of the problem. Attilius vows to Pliny he’ll repair the damaged aqueduct in two days.

Meanwhile, Attilius meets Corelia, daughter of a corrupt millionaire, who gives him documents implicating her father in a water embezzlement scheme. Tremors start to be felt in Pompeii, and the people fear that the god Vulcan is angry and may send an earthquake like the one seventeen years before.

Attilius successfully repairs the aqueduct, but the air, now filled with grey dust, begins to rain pumice, and Vesuvius explodes. In a fast-paced, exciting narrative style, Attilius fights his way back to Pompeii in an attempt to rescue Corelia and the story rushes towards its thrilling climax.

With his detailed research of time, place and circumstance, Robert Harris has brilliantly recreated the luxurious world around the Bay of Naples, on the brink of destruction from this well-known catastrophe.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Fast-paced action and adventure historical stories based on factual events.

Avoid if you don’t like: natural disasters.

Ideal accompaniments: wine and grapes in a cool bath

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available from Amazon.

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Gift of Looking Closely by Al Brookes

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: The Gift of Looking Closely is an embodiment of what the self-publishing revolution should embrace. It would take a brave editor, in these straitened times, to take a book about assisted suicide, written in the second person, to their marketing department and try to convince them it would sell.

But this is not a 'difficult' or 'experimental' book. If you are used to reading literary fiction of any kind, it will only be a few pages after the narrator exhorts you, "You be Claire, then, and I'll watch," before the 'device' of the second person narrative fades into the background and you forget it is there at all.

Devastated by the way her terminally-ill mother tricked her, when she was still a child, into helping her commit suicide, Claire has build a shell around herself with small acts of shoplifting. When she is finally caught and sentenced to a period of community service, she finds herself committed to weekly visits to Evie, an elderly woman all-but completely paralysed, but whose mind is still sharp and clear. Evie draws Claire in, making her feel special. But is Evie luring her into making the same terrible decision again, or does she have a different agenda altogether?

There is a delicate interplay in the relationship between Claire and Evie, and in their not-quite-equal exchange of secrets. As the seasons shift from spring to summer to autumn, Claire's perceptions alter - or rather yours do, as you are seeing through Claire's eyes!

Claire does indeed have 'the gift of looking closely.' Uncomfortable with human connections, and with the bigger picture around her, she focus on tiny details like the pebbles, snailshells and seed pods she collects on her kitchen table. Brookes writing reflects this - using words like tiny brushstrokes to paint a picture of what Claire sees and feels.

This is a powerful literary psychological thriller written with great sensitivity.

Click here to read my interview with Al Brookes.

The Gift of Looking Closely was the third winner of the Guardian Self-Publishing Book of the Month [July 2014]

You'll enjoy this if you like: Before You Go To Sleep by SJ Watson; Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale.

Avoid if you dislike: narratives that push the boundaries of how a story can be told; stories about tricky subjects like assisted suicide.

Ideal accompaniments: a cold glass of fresh pressed lemonade; a bowl filled with natural objects to contemplate.

Genre: Literary Fiction; Psychological Thriller

Friday, 22 August 2014

Blood Diva by VM Gautier

Reviewer: JW Hicks, author of Rats

What we thought: The prologue sets the tone; hunter traps victim. But this weak-seeming victim proves to be an experienced, far more successful killer. A sweet turnabout, indeed, and it’s not the only one you’ll find in this intriguing novel.

The successful killer, Alphonsine, is a forever youthful divo, a hedonistic, blood-sucking vampire, one of the society of undead living cheek by jowl with their unsuspecting human prey. Through the ages vampires have used their powers to amass wealth, hide crimes and make inquisitive humans disappear.

Blood Diva tells of Alphonsine’s turning in 1846, and of her flamboyant life leading to the present day. With her we experience the vampiric joy of drinking sacramental blood. We taste of the victim’s soul – the sweetness of a child’s, the candied grape flavour of young men, the remnant of innocence-lost in the blood of a serial killer, and the sadness and defeat in the blood of the old. We learn how human death can be softened, made easy, even joyful by the venom secreted by their killer. Alphonsine presents the sympathetic face of vampirism.

But modern times bring changes. Twenty-first century vampires, being in a minority and practically defenseless in the daytime, keep a low profile. And the myth of not being captured on film or video is exactly that – a myth. This means that with the rise of internet use and the spread of social networks, photographic images remain a permanent record of this long-living species; threatening exposure. Also, with the highly sophisticated medical tests adopted by police forces, vampires have to acknowledge that detection is inevitable.

How long will they be able to remain invisible? Is the new technology the ultimate threat to the vampire way of life?

When Alphonsine falls totally in love with a human, she becomes aware of the futility inherent in a stagnant, never changing existence, and starts to think the unthinkable – vampires are not the superior beings. For the first time in many blood-soaked years, she sees vampires from the human point of view: sordid killers seeking discountable prey – prostitutes and down-and-outs. She has hunted humans in a ravening pack, both in dark streets and at sacrificial blood-feasts. She has killed children, killed uncountable lovers. How dare she imagine herself superior?

Loving Dashiell, she sees exactly what she has become, and contemplates a shorter lifespan. She decides to endure the harrowing, possibly fatal treatment that will return her humanity, and allow her to marry Dashiell and spend her final years with her lover.

But when her past catches up with her, all bets are off.

Blood Diva is a compelling tale that walks with Alphonsine from decadence and pleasure seeking to despair and a desperate search for purpose that will inject meaning into an unsatisfying existence.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The novels of Anne Rice and Freda Warrington

Avoid if you don’t like: explicit sex scenes written in deliciously lubricious prose

Ideal accompaniments: a box of luxury chocolates and a well-lit room.

Genre: Literary fiction, Noir, Vampire chic

Available from Amazon.

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

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

What we thought: Having enjoyed Cormoran Strike's debut appearance in The Cuckoo's Calling, I looked forward to dipping my toe back into his slightly grubby, and borderline legal, world in the follow-up novel. I'm delighted to say I wasn't disappointed. Although I hope Mr Galbraith has good lawyers as I'm considering legal action. Some of the words of those disillusioned writers surely came from my own mouth ... or maybe writers really are as paranoid as portrayed here!

In The Silkworm we delve the murky depths of the publishing industry and surely there cannot be a more qualified author to tackle this subject (for those of you who have been on Planet Zog for the past eighteen months, R Galbraith is actually the pseudonym of JK Rowling. Yes. THAT JK Rowling.) Without doubt Ms Rowling has experienced the widest extremes of any writer, and I'm sure her personal lows have had as much impact as her obvious highs and give her a perfect vantage point to describe the world many of us have dabbled in over the years.

Here, we meet a cross-section of publishing folk, and just as much as I wondered who the fictional author, who sadly is killed before the book opens, is describing in his cruel characterisation, an even bigger part of me wondered if any of the characters were based on people from Ms Rowling's publishing past as they seemed just TOO true to life. From the bullying, aged (and bitter) literary agent to the pretty young (but bitter) publishing assistant, to the harmless, alcoholic (and bitter) editor - the characterisation was spot on.

Cormoran Strike was not on top form in this novel - and I'm sure he'd be the first to admit it. Finally moving on from his broken relationship, he's troubled by his war injury, his general fitness and his emotionally confused state. And yet, his ruthless organisation skills, ability to read human fraility, not to mention his almost super-human gut instinct, again proves too much for a calculated killer who took revenge on an egotistical writer in the most elaborate manner.

And on the topic of writers, don't imagine for one moment they escape Ms Rowlings dissection. The pitfalls of writing, and the insecurities of writers, are opened up for the world to see and pity. Some lines really did have me reaching for the hand mirror to examine my own failings.

This is another superbly crafted crime novel. This time I was DETERMINED to correctly identify whodunnit. And I failed. With some clever sleight of hand that maybe came close to deliberate deception, my suspicions proved wrong and I was blindsided once again. As with every other novel JK Rowling has written, I remain in awe of her imaginative and storytelling skills. There were slight glimpses of the power of imagination that created Hogwarts and the Death Eaters here when JKR slipped into the role of Owen Quine and the perverted plot of his controversial novel, Bombyx Mori, came under the spotlight. The names, images, ideas and themes come from the mind of a brilliant storyteller and more than once I paused in open-mouthed admiration.

Whether you read this because you love crime or love Harry Potter, no matter. Just make sure you read it.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Val McDermid, Peter May, Ian Rankin.

Avoid if you don’t like: Writers and the world of publishing.

Ideal accompaniments: Steak and chips and a pint of Doom Bar.

Genre: Crime

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available from Amazon.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion by Barbara Scott-Emmett

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

What we thought: If you are looking for something completely different; a novel like nothing you’ve read before, Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion is for you. Revolving around the lost manuscript of poet, Arthur Rimbaud’s La Chasse Spirituelle, the quest to locate it takes the reader back to 1872, and the explosive love affair between Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Then, when a lawyer’s clerk salvages it from a deed box, we follow the manuscript on its journey down through the decades, and learn of the sins and secrets of its different guardians.

Meanwhile, modern-day Andrea Mann is driven to France by her obsession with Rimbaud and this missing manuscript. Beside the poet’s grave at Charleville-Mézières, she meets a young man who shows her a single page, supposedly from La Chasse Spirituelle and, her curiosity piqued, Andrea embarks on a dangerous quest to locate the manuscript.

I devoured this story, eagerly turning the pages to learn more about the different keepers of the manuscript, as well as to discover whether Andrea had truly found the lost masterpiece. If you love history, intrigue, beautiful prose and great characterisation, you’ll enjoy Delirium: The Rimbaud Illusion. 

You’ll enjoy this if you like: spiritual mystery stories

Avoid if you don’t like: gay scandals

Ideal accompaniments: Several glasses of absinthe

Genre: Historical Fiction