Friday, 31 July 2015

Little God Blues by Jeffrey M. Anderson

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

What We Thought: American cult rocker Jim Shalabon, former frontman of The Eyebeams, comes to London to visit the site of bandmate Kirk’s death. Kirk died of a drug overdose, something that strikes Jim as odd as Kirk never did drugs – being wild enough without, he never needed to.

When he stays in a flat arranged for him by his British manager, Jim meets a 13 year old girl whose mother has disappeared. Realising Kirk must have met the missing Claudia, who lived in the flat downstairs, he begins to suspect that the two events, Kirk’s death and Claudia’s disappearance, are somehow connected.

He starts with a little light investigation but soon realises he has, as he says, become a shamus, a private investigator, albeit one who doesn’t fully know the lie of the land or fully get the nuances inherent in London speech and London life.

In the course of his investigations into Kirk’s death and Claudia’s disappearance he meets and questions a variety of people – including Kirk’s uncle, a stiff physics professor, and his student, Sula who, if Jim takes it nice and slow, may become a love interest. He also visits the senile Hardcastle in a nursing home and his absent landlord, the imprisoned barrister Sir Clive Wormsleigh. From Wormsleigh he discovers that Claudia was a member of an unusual club called NE1 (anyone) which sets up meetings involving roleplay. A further sideline leads Jim to investigate how a book of Russian poems happened to be in Kirk’s hands when he died. Tnese, and other strands, wind through the novel forming a complex plot.

Jim Shalabon has the sardonic wit of a literary PI – Marlowe with a guitar maybe. Written in the first person the novel takes us through the stream of vague investigations, blurring the way with philosophical asides and personal insights. The language is sinuous and at times obscure, winding through byways of thoughts and memories and snatches of conversation. Snippets of appropriate Eyebeams’ songs and song titles are used throughout to add extra depth and meaning.

I found Little God Blues intriguing and entertaining and a delight to read though often puzzling as the ideas jumped suddenly from one thing to another – presumably only connected in Jim Shalabon’s mind. It was an interesting mind to be lost in, though, and if you enjoy books that venture off down the alleyways of consciousness as well as the more prosaic London side streets, this could well be for you.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Philosophical Pis; meandering mysteries; words.

Avoid if you dislike: Complex plots with lots of characters and many sidetracks.

Ideal accompaniments: Drinking Jack Daniels in a heavy crystal tumbler while listening to Nirvana.

Genre: Crime, Mystery, Literary/General Fiction.

Available on Amazon

Dear Infidel by Tamim Sadikali

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Families gathering for a traditional celebration provide a familiar cauldron of emotions in which to brew up a story. But here, the setting is not Christmas or Thanksgiving, but Eid ul-Fitr, the Islamic feast that marks the end of Ramazan, the month of fasting. The place is northwest London and the time is November 2004, eighteen months into the second Iraq war and seven months before London’s 7/7 bombings.

Four cousins – two pairs of brothers who rarely see each other – assemble at the house of one of their parents. They grew up together, but adulthood has taken then in very different directions. There is Pasha, living in leafy Cheshire with his English girlfriend, disillusioned with Islam but nostalgic for the trappings of his culture. Aadam, successful enough, fond of the British, but tormented by the daily bombardment of news from the war. Nasneen, his wife, a sexually frustrated feminist in the process of rediscovering her religion. Salman, the most religious of the four men, desperate to bring his children up in a true understanding of Islam. And poor, lost Imtiaz, locked in a cage of his own making.

The story shifts between these five points of view, as well as moving back and forth between memory and the present day. It takes a few chapters to get into the rhythm of that, but each character is powerfully drawn, their perspective distinct and, before long, recognisable.

We get a taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end of endless news stories that magnify the impact of injuries to one group, while glossing over or ignoring injuries to another. But the book also celebrates the glorious amalgam that is second-generation immigrant culture. The first course of an otherwise tradition Eid dinner is leek and potato soup. An argument about Islamic dress is interrupted by a nostalgic viewing of Carry On Matron, before the cousins seize on the discovery of a favourite Bollywood film.

Sadikali does what the media has so singularly failed to do - show us shades and variations within the British Muslim community. Not between extremists and others – but within one ordinary family. The events of the previous three years have shifted their relationship, not just with the country but with their faith and, one way or another, they are still adjusting. Unsurprisingly, the novel provides no easy answers. There is no real resolution for any of them.

Sadikali says in his author’s note at the start that the best writing advice he received was to ‘make every word count.’ I’d say, in this case, he has.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Londonstani by Gautam Malkani, Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi, The Namesake by Jumpa Lahiri .

Avoid if you don’t like: Novels that jump between different points of view, stories centred around a day of family celebration.

Ideal accompaniments: Halwa with masala chai

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

The Madagaskar Plan by Guy Saville

Reviewer: Sarah Bower

What We Thought: To be honest, my involvement with Guy Saville’s dystopic alternative Nazi Afrika is a bit accidental. I would not normally pick up a book with a black and silver livery, a hero with a macho moniker like Burton Cole and a quite breath-taking number of things being shot at, blown up and smashed to pieces in worryingly creative ways. I’m far too much of a girl. However, I was invited by The Historical Novels Review to review the first in this sequence of novels, The Afrika Reich, published in 2011 but currently on special offer with various online outlets in the run-up to the publication of The Madagaskar Plan. To my surprise, I absolutely loved it, so was keen to see this sequel as soon as possible, and I haven’t been disappointed.

Although The Madagaskar Plan is a sequel, and features many characters who first appeared in The Afrika Reich, it works perfectly well as a stand-alone read. There is a useful prologue which gives a concise explanation of Saville’s alternative world, as well as a scholarly author’s note which relates the novel’s history to the real history behind it. While some elements of the story follow on from the first book, others run in parallel, or prequel.

The action is high-octane, but don’t let that fool you. This is multi-layered story-telling of great sophistication. The plotting, while complex, is never difficult to follow, and the pace is perfect, breathless page-turners interspersed with more thoughtful and lyrical passages. The book is packed with wonderful characters. I have a particular fondness for Burton Cole’s nemesis, Walter Hochburg, governor of Kongo – sadistic, but stylish with it and redeemed by a terrific intellect and a liking for Schubert and butterscotch. His sidekick, Kepplar, is so deliciously camp he might have stepped straight out of The Producers. Unusually for a writer in this genre, Saville also knows how to create strong female characters, most notably Cole’s touchingly courageous lover, Madeleine, and her redoubtable ally, Jacoba, who, even while enslaved in an abattoir, manages to affect a glorious snobbery.

The novel takes place in April 1953. The Allies capitulated after Dunkirk in 1940, and Adolf Hitler, about to celebrate his 64th birthday, rules an empire which covers half the globe and whose economic powerhouse is Afrika, with its rich agricultural land and mineral wealth. There has been no Holocaust, but Europe’s Jews have been forcibly resettled in Madagaskar, where revolt is brewing against the brutal governor, Odilo Globocnik (one of the characters Saville has imported from real history, who is ‘credited’ with pitching the idea of extermination camps to Himmler) The United States maintains a queasy neutrality under a president who owes his election to the Jewish lobby. (As Globocnik remarks at one point, “’Americans draw their red lines…then do nothing.’” Ouch.)

Into this physical, moral and metaphorical swamp steps ex soldier and foreign legionnaire, Cole, returned home at the beginning of the novel from an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hochburg, which is the main plot of The Afrika Reich, to find the pregnant Madeleine has disappeared. His search for her takes him to Madagaskar, to a second, devastating encounter with Hochburg and arch-villain Jared Cranley, Madeleine’s former husband.

Which brings me to the heart of this novel and everything which makes it surprising, moving and far more than a page-turning thriller. It is, in the end, a perceptive examination of human love in its many forms and one which, despite some exquisite scenes of tenderness and romance, eschews easy answers. For all its wild improbabilities this is a novel which excavates the deep truths of human nature with unflinching clarity.

A must read, for girls as well as boys. And anyone from HBO who’s looking for their next blockbuster mini-series.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Thrillers, alternate history, anything with Nazis in it, Wilbur Smith but also Dickens, Tolstoy, Homer and the movies of Sergio Leone.

Avoid if you don’t like: violence, torture, complex plotting, anything with Nazis in it.

Listen to while reading: Wagner, Schubert’s ‘Hungarian Melody’, heavy metal, klezmer

Eat and drink while reading: (As long as you have a strong stomach!) Cold beer, VSOP cognac, hot pork sandwiches, ice cream sundaes with butterscotch sauce, Battenburg. 

Available on Amazon

Sarah Bower is the author of two acclaimed historical novels. Her first, The Needle in the Blood, won the Susan Hill Award 2007 and was nominated for the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction. Her second, Sins of the House of Borgia, was an international bestseller. She has also published a contemporary psychological thriller, Erosion, under the penname S. A. Hemmings. She is currently working on a novel entitled Love Can Kill People, Can’t It?, inspired by the history of 20th century Palestine. Her work has been translated into ten languages.

Friday, 24 July 2015

La Frontera by Sam Hawken

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: 
A well-constructed, thoughtful book which looks as if it’s a crime novel but is really about the human face of migration. Set in the US, a Mexican border town and a small mountain town in El Salvador, at the heart of the story is a mystery. A man is found shot in the back in a remote spot. Nearby is a rape tree.

The lives of three people play a part in the events of that night. Ana is a Texas Ranger patrolling the US border, keeping angry ranchers happy and trying not to fall in love with Presidio or her married colleague.

In Ojinaga, Luis seeks the quiet life, since retiring as a coyote, or people smuggler. He’s got his dogs and he’s got high hopes of dental assistant Adriana. But Luis was one of the best coyotes around and someone makes him an offer he cannot refuse. Marisol has spent her whole life in Perquín, dreaming of the United States. Finally, it’s time to leave. She sells her house and begins the long trek through all the places on her well-worn map to the Mexican-US border.

The reader is drawn to each of these people, sympathising with their circumstances and willing them all to get what they want. Which is, of course, impossible. The author makes full use of the setting, bringing the places to hot, dry, dusty, steamy life through the eyes of his characters. Unpredictable and touching, the story by turns wrenches and warms your heart, not to mention saying a great deal about human nature. The construction of this book and its conclusion in particular are superb. Essential reading for anyone with an opinion on immigration.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris, Tequila Sunset by Sam Hawken.

Avoid if you don’t like
: The realities of human trafficking, having prejudices challenged

Ideal accompaniments: Eat pupusas revueltas, drink a cold bottle of Lone Star and the soundtrack to Once Upon A Time in America by Ennio Morricone

Genre: Contemporary, Crime, Mystery

Available from Amazon

The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: When I was pregnant with my first child, my uncle handed me a copy of Tales of the City. “Perfect when you can’t concentrate for long,” he said. He was right. It was also the beginning of a love affair that has lasted over twenty years.

This week I have had the pleasure and the pain of listening to the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Significant Others (the 5th volume of the series) by day, while reading the 9th and apparently final volume, The Days of Anna Madrigal, by night.

Tales of the City is the granddaddy the modern serial novel, beginning life as a weekly column in the San Francisco Examiner. Like Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street or Todd Babiak’s The Book of Stanley, it brings together an ensemble of eccentric characters, one of which is the city in which it is set.

If you haven’t read any Tales before, this is not the place to start. You need to go back to the beginning, climb the wooden steps to 28 Barbary Lane in 1976, meet the young Mrs Madrigal as, one by one, she gathers her ‘logical family’ around her. As Brian tells his new wife, “It makes more sense if you’ve lived it”

It is, however, a fitting swansong for the series. Anna Madrigal, now 92, is determined she will “leave like a lady.” But first she has some unfinished business. While Michael, Shawna, Ben and Jake make their way to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada (“a Fellini carnival on Mars,” as Michael dubs it), she travels with Brian and Wren back to the town of Winnemucca and the Blue Moon whorehouse where it all began.

Male, female, gay, straight, transsexual – Anna Madrigal loves all her children. Her reflections on Michael (“In no time at all an entire orchestra of gender traits were at Michael’s command and he took joy in the mix.”) would serve equally as a metaphor for the whole tolerant, quirky, creative community that surrounds her.

For forty years, Maupin has charted the history of the San Francisco gay community, from the hedonistic beginnings of the Gay Pride movement in the 70s, through the first wave of AIDS deaths in the 80s, to survival into a middle age that neither Maupin nor his creation, Michael Tolliver, expected to have. Now in his sixties, Michael is embracing, a little reluctantly and from the perspective of a slightly bemused uncle, a new decade – financially impoverished, social media savvy – but in its own way, as bravely experimental as the first.

As this story closes, there are hints that the fourth generation of this 'logical family' is on its way. But it seems that Maupin is leaving it to someone else to write their story. He and Michael are bowing out.

In many ways, the Tales are novels of manners. This book, like the previous ones, is sprinkled with pop-culture references (Game of Thrones, True Blood...) that will no doubt baffle future generations of readers. Before long, the world Maupin describes will seem as outmoded as Jane Austen’s.

His characters, though, will live on, as vivid and loveable as ever. Anna Madrigal, Michael Tolliver: we salute you.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Tales of the City vols 1-8, 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith, The Open Arms of the Sea by Jasper Dorgan.

Avoid if you don’t like: Serial novels with ensemble casts and negligible plots, casual references to gay sex and drug use.

Ideal accompaniments: A cup of Arabian Mocha, “the sinsemilla of coffees."

Genre: LGBT fiction, Humour

Available from Amazon

Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye by Marius Gabriel

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

What we thought: This was the first novel I have read by Marius Gabriel, and I was instantly hooked by his writing style. This is a confident author, and his talent is evident in the effortless way he weaves the storyline around the characters and draws the reader along on their journey.

The novel embarks on the closely-woven stories of three sisters, connected by blood but very little else in terms of character and personality, initially set against the background of the Spanish Civil War before moving onto WWII in London.

Isobel is the eldest sister, and at the start of the novel she is fascinated by the Fascism movement, and finds herself, along with youngest sister Felicity, the youngest (set to enter a convent, at the age of nineteen) trapped in the middle of the civil war. They are rescued by an American serving with the International Brigades. The story-line then switches to London, where we discover the life of middle sister Chiara. As WWII progresses, the sisters are reunited, and the consequences have a massive effect on all of their lives.

The lives and loves of the three sisters intertwine against the backdrop of the historical drama being played out. The author’s attention to detail and quiet authority about the period are very clever, so much so that they blend into the background, so you are totally immersed in the time.

The book ends on a real cliff-hanger and came far too soon! I look forward eagerly to reading more about the life stories of the sisters … and discovering more books from this author.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Amanda Hodgkinson, Sarah Waters, Freda Lightfoot.

Avoid if you don’t like: War time stories and family conflict.

Ideal accompaniments: Bully beef rations and G&Ts.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Available on Amazon

Friday, 17 July 2015

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I knew nothing about The Tiger’s Wife other than the fact that it had made a big splash when it won the Orange Prize in 2011. Based on the title and the line drawing on the cover, I had made the lazy assumption that it must be based somewhere in the Far East. So I was taken aback, when I started to read, to find myself on a fictionalised version of the Serbian-Bosnian border, shortly after the end of the war and the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Natalia is a young doctor on a mission to inoculate children in an orphanage ‘over the border,’ when she learns that her grandfather has died in a clinic far from home where he has no business to be. His body has been returned to the family but not his possessions – including his beloved copy of The Jungle Book, with its illustration of Shere Khan, the tiger.

Her grandmother is distraught. She knows that for forty days after death, the soul wanders the earth, revisiting the places that it has known during life. During that time, the deceased’s possessions must be left undisturbed, to draw the soul back to where it belongs. Without that, it may get lost and wander forever.

And so the story starts to wander, back through Natalia’s memories of her grandfather and her experiences of war, through his life as a doctor, to his beginning in the tiny village of Galina. On the way, real life becomes entangled with folklore and the supernatural –in particular, the tale of the Tiger’s Wife and the tale of the Deathless Man.

The Tiger’s Wife is blackly comic, inhabited by larger than life characters – Luka the Butcher, Dariša the Bear, the Apothecary. As in Brecht’s Mother Courage, war is ever present, returning again and again to scar another generation. The characters are exhausted and numbed by it, carrying out what can seem like displacement activity, taking refuge in old superstitions. If they do not believe themselves, they are indulging those that do, allowing them what little comfort they can glean.

Natalia’s grandfather, the rationalist, mourns the fracturing of a country, the emergence of borders where none were before. He, an Orthodox Christian, married a Muslim woman from what is now a different country. When ‘his’ side are about the bomb the city where they met, that is where he returns.

Téa Obreht’s use of language is a delight. Perhaps because English is her second language (she learnt it after her family left Yugoslavia) her imagery is fresh and vivid. But perhaps because she left so young, and at the very start of the war, this is more about the myth of war that its specifics. This is not the place to come to learn about the history of the Balkans.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Avoid if you don’t like: Wandering narratives, mixing folklore with real life, mythologizing war.

Ideal accompaniments: Grilled John Dory with potatoes and chard, followed by baklava with quince rakija

Genre: literary fiction

Available from Amazon

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by PD James

Reviewer: JD Smith

What we thought: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman strikes of a dated title. Indeed the book was first published in 1972, and you get a feel for that period throughout the novel in both the opinions of women throughout, as well as the scenery. Written now, I dare say our MC would have been sporting a more outwardly brash and feminist persona to the Cordelia Gray we read about here. She's young, tough and intelligent ... or so the blurb tells us. In fact our third person narrator describes a more complex character than that, one which shows every facet of our keen if a little unworldly detective.

Grey has inherited the Pryde Detective Agency, and what we discover of it's previous proprietor is enough to make you want to go back and discover the novels preceding this tale. Grey has her first assignment in the form of a Why-dunnit? rather than a Who-dunnit? She's to discover the reason young Cambridge student Mark Callender hanged himself.

Grey sets about delving into the life of the Callender family and Mark's friends, hired by Sir Ronald Callender, father of the diseased, himself.

With a diverse and wholly believable cast, many of them potentially guilty of a variety of 'crimes', all is not what it seems and the truth is far more sinister than originally suspected.

This is the first novel in the series I've had the pleasure of reading and I would certainly dip back into the world of Cordelia Grey and another mystery soon.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Good old fashioned detective stories, Sherlock Holmes, female leads.

Avoid if you don’t like: Murder mysteries.

Ideal accompaniments: tea, half a pint of old ale, small sandwiches cut into perfect squares.

Genre: Mystery, Crime.

Available from Amazon

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought: Like an old-fashioned kettle on the stove, this takes a while to come to the boil. But when it does, the steam and whistles could blow your head off.

Her father and brothers are all dead after the First World War and the servants have long departed. Frances Wray is left to cope with the house, her mother and her own disappointments alone. Her father’s poor money management has left them little. Ever practical, Frances decides to take in lodgers.

It’s an awkward fit, at first. The Barbers, of the ‘clerk’ class, have a different way of comporting themselves. She assumes the upstairs noises, interruptions to use the outdoor privy and sense of invasion must subside and for the sake of twenty-nine shillings a week, they’ll learn to ‘rub along together’.

And rub along they do.

Waters excels at the minute detail of life in 1922: the complexities of class and gender, the snobbery of social interactions, the collective weariness of post-war austerity, the eternal judgement. Interwoven between such stiffness is human heat – love, passion, frustration, anger and guilt. One night, the quiet household and its secrets explode, changing everything.

The pace builds slowly to a series of dramatic central events, leading to a long tense outcome, so that you feel in a similar kind of stasis, unable to move and gripped by the steady, unhurried unfolding of the story.

It’s classic Sarah Waters – brilliantly observed historical detail brought to sensory life, characters you understand and a situation whose elements lock into place like a Shakespearean tragedy. Epic drama on the smallest stage.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Night Watch, Tipping the Velvet, Birdsong

Avoid if you dislike: slow burners, early 1920s London, the unexpected

Ideal accompaniments: Wild strawberries, port and lemon, and Marie Lloyd’s Every Little Movement has a Meaning of its Own.

Available from Amazon

Friday, 10 July 2015

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought: One of those books you really want to talk about. With earnest persistence and a certain amount personal involvement, Ronson observes the renaissance of public shaming. Gone are the stocks and whippings of previous centuries, to be replaced by social media. In particular, Twitter.
Using case studies such as Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco, Max Mosley and a myriad of flash-in-the-pan (for us) scandals, he demonstrates how mob justice can be disproportionate, abusive and ruin lives.

With his humble-bumble Louis Theroux-style investigative techniques, he inveigles his way closer to the shamed. His curiosity may not be prurient, but he knows ours is. He enquires as to why we tend to gleefully pile in when someone who’s down and whether we all have the bullying chip. He asks if men can ride out sex scandals while women, regardless of their offence, are ritually subjected to rape threats. He tackles the question of deep-seated shame as a root cause of violent behaviour and if radical honesty is likely to get you arrested. He ends with a sobering conclusion – does public shaming have anything to do with public accountability or is it more to do with reinforcing the individual’s limited world view? Via a cast of real people quoted in their own words, he adds a slyly entertaining subtext to the subject.

This is an excellent read with much to ponder.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson, The Call of the Weird by Louis Theroux, Confessions of a Sociopath by ME Thomas

Avoid if you dislike: Social media, psychology, sociology, detail of abusive tweets

Ideal accompaniments: Sushi with ginger and wasabi, a Tom Collins and Walking on Thin Ice by Yoko Ono (Pet Shop Boys Remix)

Available from Amazon

Letters from Malta by Mary Rensten

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: Early on in this book, Rensten drops the jaw-dropping fact that more bombs were dropped on the tiny island of Malta in two months during 1942 than were dropped on London in a whole year of the Blitz.

Such was Malta’s strategic importance that, once they joined the War in 1940, the Luftwaffe threw everything it could at the island. The fact that the islanders withstood the bombardment is one of the most extraordinary stories of the War. In the midst of the consequent chaos and deprivation, acts of heroism and bravery inevitably tangle with acts of recklessness and deceit.

Jane Thornfield’s father served in Malta in the Royal Artillery during the War. That much she knows – or thinks she knows. But when her elderly mother has a fall and ends up in hospital, Jane stumbles on an envelope containing three letters that turn her life upside down. The man she thought was her father may not be her father at all. Instead, she is the daughter of another gunner – a man called Peter Andersen who died in 1942 at the age of 23.

On impulse, Jane takes a holiday in Malta to find out more about this unknown father and how he died. But on this small island, wartime secrets turn out to be more complicated – and cast a longer shadow – than she could possibly have imagined.

The accidental discovery of family secrets via letters or photographs is hardly a new idea, but it is a rich seam to mine. And Rensten’s use of Malta as a setting gives a fresh take on an old theme. The author doesn’t weigh the contemporary story down with wartime backstory, but she makes effective use of the details she does reveal – like the reusable tin coffins.

Jane is that relatively rare thing in contemporary literature – a middle aged heroine with plenty of spark left in her. She is a warm likeable protagonist who sets off to tackle the mystery as if it were just another piece of research.  As complications pile up and doubts set in, it is easy for the reader to empathise with her dilemma.

All in all, an ideal holiday read.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Family Album by Penelope Lively; Private Papers by Margaret Forster; The Sex Life of My Aunt by Mavis Cheek

Avoid if you don’t like: Digging up family secrets

Ideal accompaniments: Torta tal-lampuki (fish and spinach pie) and a chilled glass of Maltese Chardonnay

Genre: Contemporary, Women's, Family Secrets

Available from Amazon

I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb

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

What we thought: Forty-year old narrator Dominick Birdsey, former high-school history teacher and now house-painter, tells the story that led to his identical twin Thomas’s paranoia, and the resulting chaos that caused for both of them. As the “uncrazy” twin, Dominick feels a lifelong responsibility for his paranoid schizophrenic sibling, evoking the dilemma of a twin whose love for his afflicted brother simmers in a volatile mixture of resentment, guilt and bitterness.

Juxtaposed with Dominick’s present day life of his change of profession, his frustrating relationship with his partner, Joy, his everlasting love for his ex-wife, Dessa and the tragic reason behind their breakup, the twins’ difficult childhood is illustrated through flashbacks. The boys never knew their father, and Thomas was abused by their bullying stepfather, Ray, who also terrorized the twins’ mother. There is also the further-back story, of the twins’ grandfather, which too, has dramatic consequences on their lives.

All this history unravels against Dominick’s present-day, pressing desire to remove Thomas from a mental institution he is convinced is not the right place for his brother. But at this very institution, Dominick winds up having his own psychiatric counselling, finally forcing him to acknowledge his self-destructive behavior and come to terms with his past and present existence.

In mixing the past and the present, the author excellently portrays Dominick’s helplessness against the abuse of power, evoking a flawed, but basically decent, man. In a candid exploration of mental illness, dysfunctional families, domestic and child abuse, I found this a masterful, multi-layered story. The lyrical style, realistic dialogue, excellent imagery and well-drawn characters bring the story to life, and I would highly recommend it for all lovers of literary fiction.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: character-driven stories about dysfunctional families.

Avoid if you don’t like: stories about child and domestic abuse, or mental illness.

Ideal accompaniments: very comfy armchair, it’s 900 pages long!

Genre: Literary Fiction.

Available from Amazon

Friday, 3 July 2015

The Yanks Are Starving by Glen Craney

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: This is a sprawling epic of a novel which has at its core a shameful episode of American history – the story of the Bonus Army.

The Bonus Army were a group of veterans who had all served in the trenches during the First World War. In 1932, at the height of the depression, out of work and on the brink of starvation, they converged on Washington to demand the ‘bonus’ they had been promised for their service. For weeks, while Congress and Senate debated their fate, they lived in squalid camps around the city, only to be driven out by the army in a show of brutal force.

But The Yanks Are Starving is more than just the tale of that summer. In its scale and scope, it is reminiscent of Russian novels like Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which takes a similarly long view of the Siege of Leningrad.

The early chapters read like a series of short stories as, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, Craney assembles his cast of characters, both historical and invented. One by one, we meet young Westpoint officers like Macarthur, Pershing and Glassford, future President Herbert Hoover, notorious journalist, Floyd Gibbons, as well as those who will become nurses, stretcher bearers and the soldiers of the Rainbow Division and the Harlem Hellfighters.

It is only as the US enters the war in 1917 that the lives of these characters begin to intersect and we enter the hell of the trenches. Others perhaps have done more to show the scarring effect of that experience on the young soldiers. Craney’s characters are by and large a gung-ho lot.Yet Craney does not flinch from showing us the ugliness of war, nor the racism with which black soldiers were subjected, nor the brutal treatment meted out to conscientious objectors.

The first half of the book ends in 1919, with the soldiers returning to a parade on Fifth Avenue. The story then jumps to 1931, with Hoover in the White House, and the economy in the stranglehold of the Great Depression. It now becomes the tale of how a ragtag bunch of veterans, driven to desperation by poverty and starvation, try to take on Washington. And how the officers who once led them into battle turn their guns on them.

Craney has clearly done an enormous amount of research, and chosen from the lives of his historical characters incidents that make powerful scenes. He paints characters who are individual, often highly eccentric, in language that is rich and earthy.

The character who most frustrated me was Hoover. I would have liked to understand better how the man who organised famine relief in Europe during the War and who protested the draconian settlement with Germany at Versailles could, just over a decade later, so signally fail to provide the same help to his own people. Was he surrounded by the wrong people and badly advised? Or was it simply inconceivable to him that large scale starvation was possible within the United States?

At almost 550 pages*, this is not a read to be undertaken lightly. It is, however, a powerful story of a landmark event in history - one that made me both sad and angry. The novel feels timely, too, when once again the poor are asked to carry the can for the mistakes of rich men. If you believe in learning the lessons of history, this is one for you.

*paperback edition

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy

Avoid if you don’t like: Epic dramas, fictionalised historical figures, war stories

Ideal accompaniments: Vegetable stew, a tin mug of tea and an oboe playing ragtime.

Genre: historical fiction, war stories, saga

Available from Amazon

The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins

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

What we thought: I read a lot of positive comments and reviews on various online book clubs and sites about this book and so decided to read it before someone gave away the storyline! It’s an excellent psychological thriller, along the lines of Gone Girl and Before I Go to Sleep, but, for me, with a more layered plot and stronger characters.

Told through the eyes of three female characters, the story centres on the disappearance of Megan, a woman who from the outside has a perfect life and yet from the inside lives in a spiders' web of complications. We skip around a little in time to see the lead up to her disappearance, so one word of advice with this novel, is to always take note of the date at the beginning of each chapter, or you can find yourself somewhat confused!

Rachel, the main protagonist, watches Megan from afar to begin with, passing her garden each day on her train commute into London. But as Rachel’s life unravels as she struggles to conquer an alcohol addiction, her realities seem to merge into the black outs she suffers and she finds herself pulled into the police investigation by being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

With a cleverly driven plot that sees the lives of the three women intricately linked and finally ends in a page-turning finale that kept me hooked, there’s everything in this novel for readers of high tension thrillers.

As a writer, I particularly appreciated the clever handling of the first person POV and know how hard maintaining an unreliable narrator can be. But is she really unreliable, or does she just think she is? That was the question that kept be hooked.

This was the first novel I’d read by Paula Hawkins and I look forward to reading more soon.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Gillian Flynn, Joanne Clancy, SJ Watson.

Avoid if you don’t like: Complicated love lives and the 'evil of alcohol!'.

Ideal accompaniments: Bottle of Merlot, cheeseboard and grapes.

Genre: Literary fiction.

Available from Amazon

1066: What Fates Impose by Glynn Holloway

Reviewer: JW Hicks

What we thought: A book I wish I’d read when studying A Level History.

Want to know how the Norman’s conquered England in 1066? How the bastard offspring of Duke Robert the Magnificent of Normandy became King William 1? Then plunge into this fly-on-the-wall historical documentary-style novel.

Read What Fates Impose and learn how the plots and schemes of claimants to the English throne, and the enmities fostered by an indecisive, easily influenced monarch led to an invasion that changed the face of England, forever.

William’s reign saw the end of England’s freedom: the total subjection of its people and the wholesale transfer of lands and wealth to a Norman hierarchy. From 1066 onward, Norman rule would be absolute – the king’s word was the law. No longer would the Witenagemot, the Anglo-Saxon version of parliament, which saw disputes settled in a peaceable manner, and had advised kings for almost four centuries, exist. In Norman England justice would be delivered by the sword.

This well-researched book reads with total authenticity, the characters painted in fine detail, the tangled politics of 11th century England teased smooth, and the brutality of the time never shirked.

A recommended read.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Books by Robert Graves, Bernard Cornwell, James Clavell

Avoid if you don’t like: Gruesomely realistic scenes of battle and rape

Ideal accompaniments: A jug of mead and a plate of oat cakes.

Genre: Historical Novel

Available from Amazon