Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: Your enjoyment of this book will depend very much on your disposition towards crime novels. It’s clever, full of in-jokes and so meta, it could eat itself. Horowitz leads us into not one but two crime dramas, with all the sly cunning and knowing winks of a truly accomplished Master of Ceremonies.

Magpie Murders, the latest manuscript of the bestselling Atticus Pund series of crime novels, is waiting on editor Susan Ryeland’s desk. She takes it home and begins to read. With her, we become absorbed in the novel and forget the framing device. So that when the end is missing, we are as frustrated as she is, demanding to know what happens next.

Susan hunts for the missing chapters, but the author has committed suicide. Or has he? The whodunnit around a whodunnit creates an echo chamber of characters, clues, insights into the world of publishing, literature and the classic tropes of crime writing. Who better to investigate the crime scene than an editor of fiction with an eye for detail?

The pace is country house drama, the characters plentiful and the setting exactly as it should be, both in the contemporary tale and the post-war murder mystery. Puzzles, hints and vital information in the Pund novel are examined by Susan as the reader cannot help but do the same with Susan’s own situation. In this way, Horowitz includes the reader as a central character in this familiar-yet-fresh drama. After all, where would crime fiction be without its readers?

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Crime fiction from Christie to Morse

Avoid if you don’t like: Long novels, classic crime, a book-within-a-book

Ideal accompaniments: A slice of layer cake, cocoa with a kick of rum and Aphex Twin’s Next Heap With

Available from Amazon

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

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

What we thought: Hands up to being a huge fan of this talented author after adoring her debut novel last year, Our Endless Numbered Days. The follow up novel, Swimming Lessons, is equally engaging, both in the interesting premise and the captivating characters.
One of the best openings hooks I’ve read in a while. Gil Coleman sees his dead wife, alive and well, it seems, and follows her until she disappears for a second time. But while the reader is still trying to work out what we are dealing with – unreliable narrator, confused character – we are taken back in time through the assortment of letters left behind by his wife before she went missing decades earlier. Is the real truth behind the assumed suicide hidden within these letters?
As both plots begin to unwind, past and present, the reader cannot help but be engaged by not only Gil, but also his two daughters, Flora and Nan, whose lives have been hugely affected by the absence of their mother. 
Part of the premise of the story is Gil’s fascination with secrets hidden inside books, not hidden meanings within the text, but real life secrets – words scrawled in the margins, perhaps, or hidden notes folded carefully within the pages. It’s this obsession that leads him to learn the truth about his wife’s disappearance, and the denouement to his guilt leads to a dramatic conclusion.
I loved these characters, damaged and layered, and yet fragile and vulnerable, there something there to engage everyone. And as someone who believes location is a vital ingredient in the recipe of a top quality novel, I loved the landscape created here. A house on the edge of a beach, amid sand dunes and wild open seas, it was just the perfect setting for me.
This novel will be released in January 2017 and I have absolutely no doubt it will replicate the success of Fuller’s debut novel.
Highly recommended!
You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jojo Moyes, Amanda Hodgkinson, Jennifer Egan.
Avoid if you don’t like: Complex lives and infidelity.
Ideal accompaniments: Scones with cream and jam served with Earl Grey tea.
Genre: Contemporary Fiction.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Sea of Straw by Julia Sutton

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought: A novel that will stay with you a long, long time.

Everything about this book is precise, emotional and beautifully judged, just like the craftsman’s cobblestones on the cover.

In the mid-60s London is swinging, while Portugal is under the grip of a cruel and controlling dictator. Jody leaves Lancashire for a holiday in the sun. Her interest is in the climate, meteorological, not political. Only when she meets young artist Zé does she realise a fraction of what it means to live under oppression and observation by the secret police.

Their passion thrives amongst the colours, scents and sensations of the beach, but when Jody has to return to monochrome Lancashire and Zé is called to do his military duty, their bond is stretched to breaking point.

This is a love story between two people and one country. Insights on the Salazar regime in such recent history come as a shock, yet the reader basks in the sensory, detailed settings, the gradual growth of our characters and an awareness of being given a Technicolor vision of a time, a place and a human bond.

Superbly written, this story conjures high emotion without mawkish sentiment, and takes you on a journey of extraordinary personal courage.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Shadow of the Wind, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Hungry Tide

Avoid if you don’t like: Realities of life under dictatorships, marital strife

Ideal accompaniments: Sardines grilled on the beach, vinho verde and Mariza singing  Ó gente da minha terra

Available on Amazon

The Bat by Jo Nesbo

Reviewer: Gillian Hamer

What we thought: Over the Christmas period, I decided I was going to try a crime novel by an author previously unknown to me. I do this often, and if I can, I prefer to go back to book one and start the series in order. Despite the popularity of Nesbo's bestselling novel, The Snowman, the English speaking version of The Bat - although book one in the Hary Hole thriller series - was not published in English until 2012 when it was actually written in 1997 - so for UK fans of the author, this must have been quite odd at the time.

However, this was a strong introduction to the central character of Harry Hole. In The Bat, Harry travels from his native country to Australia to assist in the investigation of a Norwegian girl in Sydney. Nesbo has a very strong sense of place in this book, set in the sleazier areas of the city, and dealing with a colourful collection of underworld characters, really brought the story alive for me. Favourite characters in particular were Otto, a multi-layered transvestite, and Joseph, a fellow detective from an indigenous background who was fighting a battle with alcoholism.

In this novel, the author pulls no punches when describing Harry Hole's own battles with alcoholism, and I found the author's depiction of the lows his characters encounter both gritty and moving. There's something very real about many of the scenes, which even if we haven't been through similar things ourselves, we have no problem empathising with the character.

In terms of plot, the author has a real talent for the twists and turns we have come to expect in Noir crime fiction. There are many changes in direction, red herrings, dark humour and interesting research in the Aborigine culture - that added an extra dimension to a standard crime storyline.

And the ending, although dark and one of the more graphic of scenes, was a real page turner and brought the story to a satisfying conclusion.

I've bonded with Harry Hole, and despite his flaws, I like the character. And the biggest compliment I can pay him and the author, is that I've already downloaded book two.

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

Avoid if you don’t like: Nordic crime, Australia, serial killers and alcoholism.

Ideal accompaniments: Salted cod and ice cold lager.

Genre: Crime thriller

Available on Amazon

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Many by Wyl Menmuir

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought:

Eerie, claustrophobic, layered and symbolic, this Booker-longlister is a thoughtful read. For something so short, it carries the weight of many interpretations. For the plot is simple enough.

Outsider Timothy takes occupation of an abandoned house on the Cornish coast. He’s treated with suspicion by the close-mouthed locals and the dour fishermen who trawl the seas for mutant fish.

The house belonged to Perran, who apparently drowned in an accident, but his presence lingers over the village ten years after the event.

Timothy’s isolation, delirious dreams and obsessive search for information on Perran blends with the discomfiting sense of exclusion from an unhappy, grieving society.

The novella, like its landscape, begins to fracture towards the end and in the cracks we begin to understand the construct it obscures.

Without spoilers, one can read this as an exploration of grief and its effect on the mind; a chilling tale of ecological horror; a parable of a fractured country where country and city folk think (and vote) in different ways; a dive into the underwater caves of masculine identity or simply as a surge of many images, taking shape or meaning as each wave breaks over you, the reader.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Wicker Man, Watership Down, Rebecca

Avoid if you don’t like: Unresolved questions, shifting realities, dreams

Ideal accompaniments: Gin and bitter lemon, star-gazy pie and On the Nature of Daylight by Max Richter

Read an interview with Wyl here.

Available on Amazon

Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson

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

What We Thought:
It is 1965 and Anna Treadway, a theatre dresser, lives above a Turkish Cypriot cafe in Covent Garden. Her boss, a theatre impressario who is (illegally, for the time) gay, also lives there. One night Iolanthe Green, an American actress working in London, goes missing after leaving the theatre. Speculation is rife and the story dominates the news for a short time.

The authorities soon lose interest in the case, however. Brennan Hayes, the detective sergeant (who has changed his name to Barnaby to sound less Irish), is hamstrung by his boss’s insistence that the ‘stupid woman has done herself in’ and it’s pointless wasting too much effort on her. Worried that Iolanthe’s disappearance is no longer news, Anna starts to make her own enquiries. In the course of her somewhat erratic investigations in the underground music clubs favoured by Iolanthe, she meets Aloyisius, a Jamaican accountant who agrees to help her.

As the unlikely pair trawl through the underbelly of Swingin’ London they suffer racist behaviour, face police brutality, and encounter back-street abortionists. At one point they are mistaken for prostitute and pimp – for why else would a white woman associate with a black man? All the prejudices of this newly enlightened time are laid bare. People are afraid to speak out because they have something to hide or something to lose. And it seems Anna, too, has her secrets. Meanwhile, Iolanthe is still missing, Barnaby’s marriage is disintegrating and Ottmar, the Turkish cafe owner is having trouble with his freedom-demanding daughter.

Though it exposes the bleakness that hid beneath the gaiety of the 60s, Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars is certainly not all misery. There is warmth and compassion here, and humour. Miranda Emmerson’s writing is glorious, the dialogue and characterisation superb and the background details spot on. This is a wonderful portrayal of a society in upheaval. Attitudes may be changing, women may be breaking free, understanding of other cultures and lifestyles is on the horizon, and a love affair may be developing between Anna and Aloyisius. Let’s hope we never go back to the dark impoverished days when such things were too shocking to contemplate.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in return for an honest review.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Her Turn to Cry by Chris Curran, Ghost Town by Catriona Troth

Avoid if you dislike: Human beings and all their wonderful frailties.

Ideal accompaniments: Turkish coffee with a shot of something bracing in it.

Genre: Literary Mystery

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

An Unknown Woman by Jane Davis

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: An Unknown Woman is a novel about the mutability of identity.

What happens to our sense of self when every material thing that defines us is taken away? We may not think that possessions matter all that much, but how many of our memories are captured in objects that remind us who we used to be?

Anita and Ed have been living together happily in a quirky old house in Surrey for years. But when a sudden and devastating fire destroys their home and all their possessions, cracks appear in their relationship. And when Anita flees home to Liverpool to find solace with her parents, she finds not everything there is as she supposed, either.

Davis takes the ‘unknown woman’ of the title, twists it and turns it and imbues it with shifting meaning like a poet playing with the stress in a line or a musician changing keys mid-composition. Is she the mysterious portrait at Hampton Court, where Anita works, who may or may not be Queen Elizabeth I? Is she Anita’s mother, revealing more or herself than Anita is ready to accept? Or is she Anita herself, facing a reflection in the mirror she no longer recognises?

As ever, Davis's vivid writing plunges us into the midst of scenes – whether watching a house go up in flames, or laying out the last remnants of childhood on a bed.

The relationships in this novel feel real and recognisable. And Anita’s crisis is one that could engulf any one of us. Reading it throws down the challenge: when everything you think you know has been destroyed, how do you find yourself again? And can you ever carry on where you left off?

You Enjoy This If You Loved: Margaret Forster’s Keeping the World Away; Penelope Lively’s Family Album

Avoid If You Dislike: Delicate explorations of ordinary lives and relationships

Perfect Accompaniment: Bushmills. No ice.

Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

A Hundred Hands by Dianne Noble

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought:

A Hundred Hands treads familiar territory to Noble’s previous novel, Outcast. A disturbing incident propels a middle-aged woman to leave a comfortable existence in Britain to engage with India, its children and all the cultural shocks that must entail.

The arc of change is at the heart of both books, but this novel is broader, encompassing Kolkata orphans, a Welsh gran and a whole range of easy prejudices turned on their heads.

Noble’s skill is in sensory description and the increments of change, acceptance, affection and assumption. Relationships develop with a natural feel and her characters are lively and memorable. Kolkata backstreets come to life with startling clarity and the reader is dropped right into the centre of things, as much out of any kind of comfort zone as our protagonist.

Female friendships, associations, love and loyalties are the visible elements of this story, but it is built on the foundations of human empathy.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Eat, Pray, Love; Outcast or Heat and Dust

Avoid if you don’t like: Realities of poverty and street life

Ideal accompaniments: Dhal or laverbread, with some cold water

Available on Amazon