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Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter




By A E Moorat

This novel has one of the best opening lines I’ve read for a long time.

‘Much later, as he watched his manservant, Perkins, eating the dog, Quimby gloomily reflected on the unusual events of the evening.’

This pretty much sets the scene for what is to come: a tale of zombies, succubi and demons. What lifts it out of the ordinary is the identity of the chief Demon Hunter – Queen Victoria herself.

A E Moorat has taken historical facts and characters and woven around them a jaw-dropping supernatural fiction. You’ll recognise many of the players - from Victoria and Albert, to John Brown and Lord Melbourne – what you won’t recognise are the things they are getting up to.

It’s only fair to warn you that this book is very gory. It’s definitely not one for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached. But if you can cope with the rats, the entrails and the unpleasant eating habits of some of the characters, you’ll be rewarded by an interesting and, in places, very comic read.

One of the most engaging parts of the storyline covers the developing relationship between Victoria and the young Albert. As I read it, I couldn’t help thinking – ‘yes, that’s exactly how it could have been …’.

Moorat also explains the true origins of the queen’s catchphrase, ‘We are not amused’. Again, it could have happened that way – but you need to bear in mind the ‘note on historical accuracy’ which appears at the end of the book in respect of all these revelations.

For anyone who is interested in the period and wants to read a refreshing take on it, or for anyone who likes bucket-loads of blood and guts built around a strong and intriguing plot, this is the book for you!

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Monday, 14 December 2009

First Drop




by Zoe Sharp

First Drop is the first book in the thriller series featuring the heroine Charlie Fox, an ex-army sharp-shooter turned private bodyguard. The story follows her first assignment as a close protection specialist for the teenage son of a wealthy American businessman. Needless to say, things start to go wrong very quickly...


After meeting the author at the Writers' Holiday at Caerleon, and listening to her give a very interesting talk about her life as a novelist, I was a little disappointed with this book.

Don't get me wrong, it's certainly a good thriller and has plenty of action and pace. The style was interesting too, a kind of sardonic "gum-shoe" dry humour. I liked this at first but it did get a little bit tired towards the end. The clipped, minimalist rendition of speech and thoughts began to grate and make me work harder to read it.

I had no difficulty with the plot, which rarely strayed from the linear. This was probably a result of the book being written in the first-person voice of Charlie, which gives the story a good flow but denies it any real complexity. I did not see all the plot twists coming but those that I did spot were telegraphed well in advance. In the end it did not matter too much because most of the other characters were vaguely "bad guys" anyway, even the ones who were not the ultimate criminals.

First Drop is available from St. Martin's Paperbacks, ISBN 978-0-312-93704-1.

Reviewed by Captain Black

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Under The Dome




By Stephen King


There are people who say that Stephen King is past his best. There are people who say that he has become less sympathetic, more misanthropic since his accident at the turn of the last decade. There are people who say that he can’t write endings. And then he goes and writes “Under The Dome”.

At 877 pages, this is a big book with a capital B, I & G, bigger even than “The Stand” (a lot of people’s favorite King book). But even at that length it doesn’t feel underpowered, slow, or tricked out with padding and accessories. Uh-uh, this book is a souped-up, stripped-down custom car, pedal-to-the-metal, no time for sight-seeing, barely a stop to refill the tanks.

Its size begs comparison with “The Stand”, but the similarities don’t stop there. King has said elsewhere that the failing of “The Stand” was that it had too much space, that the survivors of the Captain Trips flu had the whole of the country’s resources with which to rebuild society. So, in “Under The Dome” he re-addresses the themes of the earlier book, but in a highly compressed environment. Instead of the whole country, the setting is a town of a few thousand people cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious invisible, unbreakable wall. Instead of the months it takes for events to come to a head, the whole passage of this book is less than a week. Instead of unlimited resources, the inhabitants have the contents of the local supermarket, and a rapidly staling air supply.

Spot the other similarities: an outsider/drifter hero, a man with a burden of guilt on his conscience; a religious maniac; an upright, courageous heroine; a sympathetic police chief; a plucky kid genius; a song that is on everyone’s lips; a society that is devolving into Civil War, because of one man’s lust for power.

But “Under The Dome” is more, much more than a rehash. It is also a parable about isolationism, pollution, about politicians claiming the mandate of God, about seeing terrorists in every shadow, and using the threat of terrorism to promote fear, force through fascist policies and take an ever tighter grip on the people.

And more than this, it is a gripping read, and King, whatever failings he may be accused of, is never less than a master of readable prose. As a plot mechanic, he weaves his multiple strands to keep the reader turning the page (and, in this reader’s case, actually shouting out warnings to the characters of what lies around the corner). The characters themselves are warmer than King has created of late - “Duma Key” being a notable example of a less-than-sympathetic lead - and King’s habit of killing his cast offhand and callously that was demonstrated in that book is reined in tightly here. That is not to say that anyone is safe, far from it; but in “Under the Dome”, when King has someone die it serves a purpose both to the narrative and to the reader’s sense of the inevitable (and sometime unjust) nature of death.

King is often dismissed as a “horror” writer. In truth, with books like this he is much closer to the British “disaster” SF novelists of the Fifties (John Christopher and Wyndham, for example), and perhaps “Under The Dome” will go some way to making him appreciated as something more than a horror comic writer with delusions of grandeur.

He still can’t write endings, though. But sometimes it is the journey that counts, not the destination.

Reviewed by Mike Deller

Friday, 27 November 2009

Constance




by Rosie Thomas

Rosie Thomas writes prolifically, and I’ve not read one of her stories that didn’t delight me.

Constance is Connie Thorne, a woman in her forties constantly haunted by her origins. She was a foundling, abandoned by her mother at birth, but her efforts to trace her mother are fruitless. She clings to a little earring placed in her swaddling clothes, her most precious possession worn close to her heart.

Constance is beautifully written, a tale of love, betrayal and forgiveness, with Thomas moving the reader seamlessly between the years, the characters and the settings.

Deeply unhappy in her adoptive family, Connie finds a job and leaves home the day after her sixteenth birthday. Always competitive with her deaf sister, Connie falls in love with Bill, her sister Jeanette’s boyfriend. The feeling is mutual, and Bill often comments: ‘I’ve married the wrong sister.’

Their illicit love continues through the years, with Connie and Bill undertaking a lengthy affair until they are discovered. The family is driven apart and Connie, rejected, moves from London to a peaceful hideaway in Bali, conducting her musical career from this idyllic paradise. Thomas’ description of Connie’s house in Bali with its ‘feathery leaves against broad blades against sharp spikes, a lush billow of textured greenery’ had me swooning. Yet into this paradise technology intervenes when Jeanette sends an email telling Connie she is dying. They must face the past, put the bitterness of betrayal behind them.

Constance is beautifully written with a cast of characters who the reader can identify with. Connie, the heroine, is definitely flawed, yet extremely likeable. I admire her easy acceptance of others, such as Roxana, her nephew Noah’s feisty young girlfriend from Uzbekistan. Also, even when committing the ultimate betrayal she seems to be considering others on some level.

Thomas tackles several themes in this novel, displaying her understanding of the human condition. As well as infidelity, the search for identity, love and forgiveness, she also explores the difficult subject of impending death. Instead of being dark and depressing, it is dealt a deft hand, with the cremation scene in Bali and Jeanette’s reaction to it a brilliant, uplifting touch.

With very different locations – London, Surrey, Suffolk, Bali and Uzbekistan, Constance is quite a revelation with Thomas obviously having done her research. Balinese customs are intricately explained and Connie’s dealings with the native Balinese sensitively portrayed, as are those in Uzbekistan. Connie and Roxana’s visit to the Hammam in Uzbekistan where they partake in a bathing ritual similar to those in ancient Rome, is an amazing insight into the culture of women in this politically troubled country caught between ‘Marx and Mohammed.’

Able to be enjoyed on several levels, Constance is a thoroughly entertaining read, but at times you will be moved to tears.

Reviewed by Denise Covey who blogs at L’Aussie

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Nine Dragons





By Michael Connelly


“Harry Bosch is back” - four words that will get a queue of fans forming outside the bookshops. But is there enough in “Nine Dragons” to draw in the new reader?

The answer is “yes”. Anyone reading this as a standalone novel, and their first introduction to the cast of Michael Connelly’s world, will find more than enough excitement and mystery to carry them through.

What starts out as almost a routine murder investigation (albeit one that throws echoes back from Harry’s earlier days) becomes complicated and deadly as the Triads get involved, Harry’s daughter’s life is placed in jeopardy, and Harry is forced to operate outside the strict boundaries of the law. Mysteries baffle, heads roll, blood flows, the plot twists back on itself like a dragon in a Chinese New Year celebration, and the end of the novel finds Bosch looking at a life that has changed considerably.

Connelly has been writing about Bosch for almost twenty years, and the character ages at the same rate as the author; the Harry of “Nine Dragons” has grown older, but perhaps little wiser, since his debut in 1992’s “The Black Echo”. In this latest novel, we see Harry as a less sympathetic character than before. His obsession with “the mission” puts him at odds with his co-workers from the outset, and the threat to his daughter magnifies his sense of purpose (and consequent disregard for the feelings of others) to the point where the reader can see him for what he is; not a knight in shining armour, but a flawed, complex human being.

The Harry-verse is populated by recurring characters and, indeed, characters who have their own separate literary existence in which Bosch may occasionally make a guest appearance. In one Connelly novel the hero even proves to be on nodding acquaintanceship with Elvis Cole, a private detective created by a completely different author. So, for the seasoned Bosch reader, there is the added delight of seeing old friends come and go. The delight for the new reader will, of course, be when they delve into the back catalogue and catch up on the back stories, as they undoubtedly will after reading “Nine Dragons”.

Reviewed by Mike Deller

Friday, 30 October 2009

Heaven Can Wait



By Cally Taylor

If you like romantic comedies, you’re going to love this. But even if you’ve never read a romantic comedy before, and you think they’re not really your thing, you should still read this one.

Heaven Can Wait is the story of Lucy, who dies just as she is about to marry her fiance Dan. It is a story of loss, longing and the overwhelming power of love. The story starts just before Lucy dies, and although the blurb lets you know that’s going to happen, it’s still a dramatic moment.

Lucy’s status as a ‘dead girl’ gives the story its supernatural slant, and skilful use of flashback fills in the details of Lucy’s life before death to poignant effect.

The story is told with a light touch and buckets of humour. Beware – once you have started it, you will not be able to put it down. Expect late nights until you’ve finished it.

I loved the romantic tale of Lucy’s quest to be reunited with Dan, but I also adored the story of her growing affection for her fellow residents in the ‘house of wannabe ghosts’, Claire and Brian. Despite getting off to a bad start, especially with Claire, Lucy’s journey towards understanding her two housemates gives the story an extra dimension and lifts it out of the ordinary.

There are some great cameo roles as well. Lucy’s geeky colleagues and Sally the eccentric sandwich girl particularly stand out.

Lucy manages to get herself into some hilarious situations and also some heartbreaking ones. This book really will have you laughing one minute and crying the next.

As you get towards the end of the book it becomes even more impossible to put down. You’ll be desperate to know what eventually happens to Lucy.

This novel is a real treat to savour.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Double Cross



by James Patterson

Double Cross is a recent book in a long-running series of thrillers featuring the forensic profiler Alex Cross. Two of the earlier books, Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider have been made into films, featuring Morgan Freeman in the lead role.

This latest one sees Cross pitted against his old enemy Kyle Craig, as well as another new and ruthless criminal called the Audience Killer.

The pace seems relentless at times. I say seems relentless because Patterson writes in very short chapters, one of his trademarks. As a result of this, I found the book too easy to pick up and put down, despite the fast-moving story. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it did lose some of its grip on me.

I'm sure newcomers to the series will enjoy this book; it's a powerful thriller with many twists and turns. My problem is that I'm getting used to them and I felt that Patterson is now churning them out according to a formula, albeit a winning one in terms of book sales. The criminals were suitably extreme and shocking, well drawn characters but I felt that Alex Cross and the other good guys were somewhat bored with the whole thing.

Double Cross is available from Headline, ISBN 978-0-7553-4941-8.

Reviewed by Captain Black

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Book news: The Man Booker winner is...

As widely predicted, Hilary Mantel was last night awarded the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for her novel Wolf Hall. The novel takes the reader behind the scenes of a tunultuous period of history, the reign of King Henry VIII.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Glasshopper




by Isabel Ashdown



In Glasshopper, Isabel Ashdown has created a beautifully poignant, multi-layered family story.

The novel presents a vivid portrayal of dysfunction as it is handed down through generations, and of the little accidents of life that make us what we are. Questions are raised about what causes dysfunction in a family or an individual and what aggravates it.

Throughout the unfolding story, echoes of tragedy are counterpointed with moments of ecstasy where it seems that everything must inevitably turn out all right.

The story is told from two points of view, that of Jake and that of Mary. We start with Jake in his teenage years and then move backwards and forwards between his narrative and that of Mary, starting when she is a young girl.

For me, one of the most beautiful things in the novel is the depiction of the relationship between Mary and her sister Rachel. But this relationship holds the seeds of the tragedy that unfolds later in the narrative. One of the strengths of the story is the way that its shocking revelations are cleverly and subtly placed within the action.

At heart, this is Jake's story and the story of his complex family. But there are also some achingly good cameos. Some of the best are: Mr Horrocks and his dog Griffin (we get some great glimpses into his world); Sandy – 'nice enough, but a bit rough'; and the ultimate fly in the ointment, Gypsy.

Isabel Ashdown's writing is full of beautiful language and evocative symbolism. We understand the story better through the imagery of birds flying free, moths getting trapped and Icarus being burnt. There is glorious detail in the writing - like the description of the gob-stopper falling out of Jake's mouth and onto the pavement – which renders it truly memorable.

I was very impressed by the masterful handling of the chronology and the weaving of the two different points of view in the story as it rushes towards its climax.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Friday, 25 September 2009

Molly's Millions



by Victoria Connelly


Molly’s Millions is Victoria Connelly’s fourth book, and even though one of her books has already been made into a film, this is her first book to be published in the UK.

The bright pink cover is the first thing that attracts with this book. The second is the beginning of the first chapter where you’ll be drawn into a fun, fast-paced romantic comedy that leaves you with a smile on your face and a feeling that although Molly makes choices that we might not automatically make, they were definitely the right ones.

When hard up Molly Bailey wins £4.2 million in the lottery, rather than go on a mad spending spree, she packs up her terrier pup, Fizz into her ancient yellow Beetle and sets off on a road trip. With few plans, an unsuspecting miserly family who she knows would be horrified by her actions and would want to stop her giving away her money at all costs, and a determined journalist chasing her, she has to use her wits if she is to stay one step ahead of them.

Intent on being the one to discover the next big story, Tom Mackenzie has a companion of his own when his ten-year-old daughter is left with him by her mother. He becomes absorbed by Molly’s motives behind her generosity and, helped by tip-offs and grateful benefactors, manages to stick to her trail.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this wonderful book and can imagine it would make an excellent film too.

Reviewed by Debs Carr

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Sleeping Doll



by Jeffery Deaver

The Sleeping Doll is a crime thriller, the first one featuring Special Agent Kathryn Dance, whose speciality is interviewing suspects and using kinesics to read their body language. Anyone who's seen the TV series Lie To Me with Tim Roth will know the sort of thing I'm talking about.
I found this to be a fascinating new approach to crime fiction - new to me, anyway. The plot, as I've now come to expect with this author, was very tight and had plenty of unexpected twists and turns. You do expect there to be some twists, but you'll never second guess what they are.
Despite the engaging plot and story development, I found the overall pace to be a bit slow. This was particularly noticeable near the beginning, once the excitement of the initial events wore off (I won't spoil it by saying what happens). Later on it picks up and then accelerates even further towards the end. This more than made up for the earlier dip.
Although the book is subtitled "Introducing Kathryn Dance", Deaver fans will have met her once before in The Cold Moon, one of the Lincoln Rhyme novels. Rhyme makes a brief cameo in The Sleeping Doll as well.
That said, The Sleeping Doll feels like a spin-off and slightly inferior to the Rhyme series. Perhaps, given time, the Dance series will gain the same status. A disappointment for me, and it's a relatively small one, was that the supporting cast seem rather two-dimensional compared with the well-developed main characters. The principal criminal, Daniel Pell, was particularly well drawn. A very nasty piece of work but scarily believable!

Reviewed by Captain Black

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Book news - Man Booker Prize

The shortlist for the Man Booker prize 2009 has just been announced:

The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt
Summertime - J. M. Coetzee
The Quickening Maze - Adam Foulds
Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
The Glass Room - Simon Mawer
The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters

More details can be found here.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Cut Short



By Leigh Russell


This is my kind of book; intelligently written, gripping crime fiction.

The crime, and its detection, are at the heart of the story, but rather than just being plot-driven, the novel is also notable for its large cast of well-drawn characters.

The intricacy of the plot relies on a delicate placing of events and characters. Nothing is wasted and nothing feels out of place.

There is an extra something – almost undefinable – that lifts Cut Short above the run of the mill. In particular, it has a clever and unexpected extra plot strand which leads to a genuine surprise at the end when it is eventually revealed. This lifts it above the ordinary and makes the story both poignant and haunting, providing a truly memorable read.

This novel also has great atmosphere and sense of place. The reader really gets to know the place where it is set and that knowledge adds depth to the plot. It really matters to the protagonists where certain events happen – and so it matters to the reader as well.

The characters do not exist just to further the plot, but are vividly painted and memorable. The young girls who become victims are not just victims – they are real people with reasons to be grieved. DI Geraldine Steel is a gripping main character who increases the reader’s empathy and interest in the plot. I also really enjoyed the skilfully created character of DCI Kathryn Gordon and the realistic interaction between Geraldine and other members of the investigating team.

I’m sure that, like me, you will enjoy Cut Short and look forward to Leigh Russell’s forthcoming books Road Closed and Dead End.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Warrior's Princess




by Barbara Erskine


Anyone who has read any of Barbara Erskine’s previous books will already be familiar with the skilful way she interweaves the present, the far past and the supernatural, and this novel is no exception.

When Jess, a young English teacher, wakes one morning to realise she has been drugged and raped at her London flat, a combination of fear and shame impel her to take refuge in her sister’s cottage on the Welsh Borders. Her sister, coping with problems of her own, is staying with friends in Rome, so that Jess is in the house alone, albeit with the reassuring – if unsettling - presence of a burly opera singer at the neighbouring farm.

It turns out that the house is haunted by the spirit of a young girl, Eigon, daughter of Caractacus, a British tribal king injured in battle by the Romans. Before the family were captured and taken to Rome, Eigon suffered her own horribly traumatic experience, and her spirit latches onto Jess in their shared pain.

Jess’s attacker comes to the cottage to seek her out. To escape him, and also to follow Eigon’s story, she joins her sister and their friends in Rome, but there is no easy way out. More malevolent spirits from the days of the Romans have been awoken by the turbulent emotions surrounding her, and her attacker is still on her trail. The web is quickly spun, from which Jess’s growing obsession with Eigon’s fate prevents her extricating herself, despite the ever more desperate efforts of her friends, including a Tarot reader, Carmella.

This isn’t a ‘literary’ novel, and doesn’t pretend to be. But it isn’t trashy, either, and makes a good, solid holiday read. Barbara Erskine is arguably the mistress of this type of story, and readers of her previous book ‘Daughters of Fire’ will recognise a couple of characters from that slipping into this.

As the plot became more and more involved and, frankly, dark in places, with extra twists towards the end, I found myself getting annoyed whenever my reading was interrupted. By my reckoning, that’s a recommendation.

Reviewed by Rebecca Holmes

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Tender




by Mark Illis


Bookersatz readers will have heard of the Just One Book campaign devised by independent publishers Salt to save them from financial meltdown. Salt publish mostly poetry and short stories. I read both, but have quite a bit of each on my To Be Read pile and find I get through novels more quickly. So for my Just One Book, I chose one of the few novels published by Salt.

I was surprised to find that Tender is a short book. I haven’t actually counted the words – even I am not obsessive enough for that – but I would guess the total is around 50,000. And yet it’s a family saga, covering 30 years in the life of the Dax family: Ali and Bill, and their children Sean and Rosa. I wouldn’t have believed it possible to fit a saga into such a short book without leaving the reader feeling short-changed, until I read Tender.

The structure is unusual. Each chapter is from a different viewpoint, almost like a self-contained short story – but not quite. The characterisation is excellent, and I very much enjoyed the strength of Illis’s observational powers. The plotting is gentle, with no enormous drama or cliff-hanger endings. The book tells the story of an ordinary family, yet Illis draws out their uniqueness in such a way that the narrative is compelling. I read the book in a single sitting because the development of the characters, and the relationships between them, drew me along. Illis moves smoothly between dialogue, description and internal monologue, and between close-up, mid-range view and full zoom. He is a very skilful writer and I found Tender a pleasure to read.

The production of the book is also pleasing. The cover seems a little flimsy, but the paper used for the printed pages is a good weight, the text is large and well laid out, and I didn’t spot a single typo which is unusual for this ex-professional proof-reader (see ‘obsessive’, above).

So, if you want to support Salt Publishing, but don’t fancy poetry or short stories, I would strongly recommend buying Tender.


Reviewed by Queenie

Sunday, 9 August 2009

One Apple Tasted




By Josa Young

As you read this novel, you’ll love spending time in the company of Dora Jerusalem, Guy Boleyn and the rest of the large and well-drawn cast.

The quirky and inspired story takes us backwards and forwards in time, and right across the world to India and back. Each era and each place is lovingly created with delicious detail.

Josa Young’s powers of description really bring the narrative to life. In one scene Dora is dressing for a pivotal moment in her life and the description is so vivid that I found myself thinking, ‘But she’ll never be able to drive in those shoes!’ For me, that level of involvement is a sign of a truly gripping novel.

Josa Young’s background in magazines such as Vogue shines through in the stunning visual quality of the writing. As well as the scene involving Dora, mentioned above, there is a scene involving the young Hilly and Thirza dressing for a ball which is so beautifully drawn that you will be able to see the girls walking in to the room and feel all heads turning to look at them as clearly as if you were there.

The plot of ‘One Apple Tasted’ is complex, and carefully takes threads from different times and generations in order to weave them into a satisfying whole. It is essentially a love story, but with a long-hidden mystery at its heart.

Dora and Guy, and their relationship are pivotal to the novel, but Josa Young takes as much trouble drawing all the other characters and breathing life into them. In particular I loved Hilly, Uncle Eric and Emma Vane, but every character – however minor – earns their keep in the story.

As the story powers towards the end it is genuinely impossible to put down. The intrigue around Dora’s relationship with the troubled Guy Boleyn leads the reader through the novel and as we’re taken back in time more and more layers peel back to reveal the true complexity of the past.

Expect to be on the edge of your seat as you read the last few chapters of this skilfully structured novel, and whatever you do, don’t miss out on reading this one.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Cloths Of Heaven




By Sue Eckstein

The Cloths Of Heaven is a fantastically well-executed novel. Sue Eckstein has created a mosaic of storylines and characters in which pieces of different hues are cleverly constructed into a whole that sparkles with life and colour.

Carefully placed changes of point of view serve to draw the reader into the novel and forward through the narrative and change of tense is also used to great effect.

A huge cast of characters have all been drawn so vividly and individually that they have a life of their own. Impossible to pick favourites from such a huge and engaging cast, but I suspect the characters of Daniel and Rachel with stay with me for a long time.

The narrative switches backward and forward in time adding an extra dimension to the story and cleverly placed ‘postcards’ with snippets of extra information sit between chapters and give the reader a glance into the future.

The motif of many-coloured cloths, based on a quotation from Yeats, runs through the novel and is accentuated by Sue Eckstein’s beautiful use of colour to bring description alive.

Splashes of exquisite humour are used as a counterpoint to the drama and high emotion. Many of them had me laughing out loud.

Overall, the book is a joy to read. It is intriguing, exciting and just beautifully written.

You can read a sample chapter here.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Booker Prize longlist

Thirteen books have been longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, including the latest novels by Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantel, Colm Toibin and A.S.Byatt.

The full longlist can be seen here.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The House Of Thunder



by Dean Koontz

The House of Thunder is a mystery, a suspense and a thriller. For me, it was also a master class in "show, don't tell". The story follows Susan Thornton, who wakes up from a coma in hospital and has amnesia following a car accident. If you're thinking yeah, yeah, cliché, then think again. This beginning premise is the only thing about the story that might be considered "traditional". Everything that follows is nothing like you would expect.

It had me gripped from start to finish. I couldn't wait to find out what happens next. Koontz cleverly unravels the mystery entirely from Susan's point of view, as we follow her physical recovery and mental descent. Have her long-dead enemies from a college hazing, years ago, come back to life? Or is there something more strange and sinister going on? Obviously, given that it's a mystery story, I can't give away too much. Readers will not be disappointed, both existing fans and newcomers. I can highly recommend it.

The House of Thunder is available from Headline Fiction, ISBN 978-0-7472-3661-0. It was originally published under the pseudonym Leigh Nichols.

Reviewed by Captain Black

Sunday, 19 July 2009

A Spell Of Swallows



by Sarah Harrison

I bought this book because I had read several excellent reviews on it, and also because it’s based on a period that I’m presently researching. I had read Sarah Harrison’s 'Flowers of the Field' years ago, but for some reason had not read any of her books for a while. I shall now be remedying that fact.

The book is so beautifully written and as soon as you start reading you are instantly drawn in to the beauty of England in the early part of the last century. We soon realize that the protagonist, John Ashe is both intriguing and has scores to settle. He has been horribly disfigured during the Great War, but it is not until the end that we actually find out what happened.

He ingratiates himself into the small village of Eadenford and despite the local people being initially repelled by his appearance, and all that it reminds them of, they are unable to find fault with someone who gives them no reason to. He is both clever and manipulative, soon ingratiating himself into the lives of the unpopular vicar and his gentle wife, who, although she loves her husband, is unable to help being pulled under John Ashe’s spell. Unfortunately for them, his intentions are not as honourable as they originally appear to be.

The book intersperses chapters from the present(a year after the Great War) with John Ashe’s experiences in Mesopotamia, where he fought alongside Captain Christopher Jarvis. It is through this that we begin to understand why he has such a basic cruelty within his character, and slowly we understand what happened in his past to damage him so deeply, both physically and emotionally, bringing this story to a thrilling and shocking climax.

I read the book in twenty-four hours, and could not put it down. I have now found that another book by Sarah Harrison, 'The Nightingale’s Nest', tells us about John Ashe ten years after the Great War, and his relationship with Christopher Jarvis and his family.

Reviewed by Debs Carr

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Nano Flower




by Peter F Hamilton

The Nano Flower is the third book in the Greg Mandel series, set in a not-too-distant future following global warming, economic and political crises. The novel can be read as part of the series but also stands well by itself. Unlike some of Hamilton's more epic works, these stories are not quite so "hard" Science Fiction. They're more like murder mysteries and other crime tales, though set in a future world. Don't worry, hard SF fans will still enjoy the big ideas and big hardware, though they're not so up-front as in the Confederation or Commonwealth series.

The Nano Flower, like the previous two, features Greg Mandel, a psychic with artificially enhanced abilities who helps to solve crimes. This one has the additional feature of involving humans' first encounter with an alien species. This first contact is by no means conventional and certainly far from some of the clichés in lesser tales. Characters are very real and very diverse. The new world is clearly painted; a recovering and hopeful one, following the Warming and its associated troubles.

Anyone who still thinks SF is full of cardboard characters, spaceships, bug-eyed monsters and girls in bikinis is in for a big shock: the genre has moved on and grown exponentially since the "B movie" days (where have you been for the last six decades?). I can highly recommend this and all of Hamilton's work for the great stories, great characters and huge ideas. Open your minds and find out what you've been missing.

The Nano Flower is available from Pan Books, ISBN 978-0-330-33044-2
See also Mindstar Rising (978-0-330-32376-8) and A Quantum Murder (978-0-330-33045-9).

Reviewed by Captain Black

Sunday, 5 July 2009

The Letters

By Fiona Robyn

I was lucky enough to meet Fiona Robyn when she came to town to read some of her poetry on a Tongues and Grooves evening.

Fiona's poetry is exquisite; the words are almost palpable, ripe, warm and juicy like blackberries eaten as fast as they can be picked off the sun warmed brambles.

Much to my delight her fiction has the same cadence...one which, to my mind, is reminiscent of Gregorian Monks chanting their prayers.

The Letters flings the reader up onto an edge of adrenaline fuelled frisson before dropping you into fur lined ruts where you could happily luxuriate forever.

There is a decadent syncopation to The Letters.

The Letters, published by the wonderful world of Snowbooks, is a treat from start to finish. You can buy a copy here, here or here as well as any good book store and you can find out more about Fiona here.


Reviewed by DJ Kirkby

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Madonna Of The Almonds




by Marina Fiorato



The opening of this novel has a dreamlike, almost trancelike quality to it. The writing holds you suspended in a bubble and keeps you focussed on the events unfolding before you.

However, it is when Amaria Sant’Ambrogio bounces on to the page that the novel really takes off. Vividly drawn, she is a character so full of life that the narrative can barely contain her.

If you take these elements and add to them financial intrigue, war and a romp through the world of Leonardo da Vinci, you have a truly original novel.

One of the things that works really well in this story is the contrast between the two female lead characters. Amaria represents nature and simplicity, whereas her counterpart, the ‘limpid and moon-distant’ Simonetta di Saronno (the Madonna of the title) represents all that is cultured and sophisticated.

The very different love stories of Simonetta and Amaria run in parallel through the book only colliding as they rush towards the climax.

Many intriguing themes are used to good effect in moving the story along. The theme of people pretending, or appearing to be something they are not is explored throughout the novel. Religion forms another theme. The iconography of Christianity illustrates and illuminates many scenes and an unflinching view is offered of the horrors and evils of anti-semitism. The heartbreaking conclusion of this theme brought tears flooding to my eyes.

The scent of the almonds themselves pervades the text. The use of language and imagery is powerful as Simonetta is likened to the almond trees. She employs their sweetness to her own ends, and eventually she also finds a fitting use for the bitterness of almonds.

There is a certain inevitability about the ending which brings all the elements of the tale to a satisfying conclusion.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Sunday, 14 June 2009

The Spare Room




by Helen Garner


The Spare Room begins with a quote from Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley: ‘It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep.’ This quote quieted my spirit, as did the description of Helen preparing a room for her soon-to-arrive terminally ill friend Nicola, before throwing me into what is a very intimate examination of the burden imminent death can put on the living.

The Spare Room didn’t read like a work of fiction; it seemed a factual account of two friends tested beyond endurance. I’ve learned that the writer Helen Garner had nursed a terminally ill friend. Maybe that is why The Spare Room is not at all sentimental; rather it’s cruelly down to earth, a tide that surges between tenderness and brutal truth as for three harrowing weeks the women battle with each other.

When her bohemian friend Nicola arrives, weak and ill, Helen is launched into nursing care. She puts her life on hold and at first pretends to share Nicola's hopes for a miracle cure. Nicola has come to undergo a three-week program of quack treatments. On seeing the clinic, Helen’s description is telling: it ‘is painted a strange yellow, the color of controlled panic.’ She keeps her murderous anger to herself while seeing her friend naked in an ‘ozone sauna’ while charlatans chatter about the miracle of vitamin C injections which ‘sort of scoop the cancer cells out of your body.’ Nicola laughs at Helen's skepticism and explains that the devastation done to her body is ‘only the vitamin C savaging the tumors and driving them out.’

The Spare Room is powerful. The illness of Nicola, the anger of Helen – it is all over quickly, a few weeks gone by in a few reading hours. Helen shares insights on death: ‘It leaches out virtue. It injects poison into friendship, and makes a mockery of love.’ She is so honest in the telling.

Carers are usually portrayed as saintly, but Helen doesn’t hide her irritation at having her life disturbed, often making interjections about trips she must take. Nicola’s refusal to face reality and the impact this has on those around her is told very honestly, not a saint in sight.

This novel will haunt me for years for the things that may be ahead – illnesses of loved ones, friendships tested, loneliness, frustration, anger. Maybe there will be a house with a spare room I will be setting up, or perhaps someone will be setting one up for me.

Reviewed by Denise Covey who blogs at L'Aussie's Writing Blog

Thursday, 4 June 2009

December



by Elizabeth H Winthrop



I have to confess I nearly didn’t buy this book after a glance at the text showed it was told in the present tense – something, in my view, very few writers can carry off. Still, I bought the book anyway, and I’m glad I did.

The story, told simply and without exaggeration, is about Wilson Carter, his wife Ruth and their 11-year old, intelligent and imaginative daughter, Isabelle, who hasn’t spoken for 9 months. Doctors and psychiatrists haven’t helped, with the most recent pronouncing her a ‘lost cause’.

Wilson, haunted by memories of happier times, tries to come up with plans to bring those times back. Ruth, who has given up her job to look after Isabelle, feels she must have done something wrong as a parent. And Isabelle, though sorry for the grief she is causing, can no longer find a way through her self-imposed barrier.

As the title suggests, the story takes place over the month of December. The family is preparing for Christmas, trying to put a brave face on the situation while at the same time finding it more and more unbearable. Wilson and Ruth have conflicting ideas of how to help their daughter and what to say in front of her. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that Ruth’s brother, a former soldier, is convinced he’s being spied on. On top of that, Isabelle’s beloved dog has cancer - something her parents try to keep from her, worried about her mental state.

For all the angst, this is a warm book, without slipping into sentiment. I found myself identifying with the characters’ fears and frustrations, with a sense of bewilderment that something like this should happen to a perfectly nice, ordinary family.

And it doesn’t suffer at all from being in the present tense.

Reviewed by Rebecca Holmes

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Book news - The Orange Prize


This year's Orange Prize for Fiction has been won by Marilynne Robinson for Home.

The New Writers award was won by Francesca Kay for An Equal Stillness

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Book news - Man Booker International Prize

I was delighted to see that Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer has won the biannual Man Booker International Prize.

If you have not yet discovered Alice Munro, do investigate her stories. Always very readable, they often encapsulate as much narrative and characterisation as a novel.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

As You Do




by Richard Hammond

Those of you who read my blog know that I have rather a soft spot for Mr. Hammond. And I confess that I bought the book because he wrote it and there’s a cute photo of him on the front. However it is a very entertaining and well written book.

Unlike ‘On the Edge’ which was about his accident and the aftermath, ‘As You Do’ is a behind the scenes look at some of the television projects he has been involved in. Although it reads well on its own, it is helpful if you are a Top Gear fan. But even if you’re not, it’s interesting to see what goes on when the cameras stop rolling. There is a lot about boys being silly, which you might expect I suppose. But this is peppered with a look into the home life and emotional ties of one of television’s most popular presenters. He openly talks about his wife and family, and the effect his being away from home so long can have.

It’s refreshing when someone in the public eye writes something about themselves that isn’t full of ego. The style is easy and chatty, almost as if he was sitting telling you these stories over a cup of tea.

No book is ever going to be to everyone’s taste, and I expect this is no exception. But if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to travel to the North Pole or cross Botswana by car, then this might be up your street.

Reviewed by Claire Potts

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Crossed Wires




By Rosy Thornton

In this novel, Rosy Thornton has created a cast of characters you’ll love so much that you won’t want to leave them behind when you finish the book.

Call centre worker Mina, struggling to bring up her daughter and sister, and academic Peter, struggling to recover from a devastating incident in his life, will have you gripped from the first page. But what made this novel outstanding for me was the way in which the supporting cast was drawn.

There are some exquisite characters in this story. Peter’s neighbour Jeremy who spends his days drawing cockroaches for a living, but can always be relied on in a crisis, his student Trish who obsesses over her dissertation and teaches his nine year old daughters to play cards for money, and Ollie the hermaphrodite dog, are all an absolute joy.

The quirky cast inhabit a world that has been skilfully and beautifully drawn. Throughout the story, descriptive details are lushly filled in, giving the story a background that springs off the page.

Rosy Thornton covers a number of important themes in this novel with a sure touch. Loss, and how people deal with it, is high on the list, but also we have the highs and lows of parenting, the power of coincidence, the pressure to conform and live life by the expectations of others, and the fear and inevitability of change.

I found this novel compelling and emotionally satisfying. I wanted to get to the end to see what happened, but at the same time I wanted not to ever get to the end because I didn’t want to leave the lives of Peter and Mina behind.

The story is intellectually satisfying in a way that reminded me of Kate Atkinson. It is a love story – but it is so much more than that. It is also a story that makes you think.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Saturday, 2 May 2009

9987




By Nik Jones


I now understand why Caroline Smailes referred to this book as 'Cinematic'. This is one to watch and I mean that quite literally. I wouldn't be surprised if this book was made into a movie in the next few years.

The main character is most endearingly disturbed. I know such a thing should be impossible but I challenge you to read the book without thinking the same thing...well for the first half of the novel anyway. I blame Nik Jones's skill at luring the reader into initially believing that his main character is simply a diligent worker, confused, obsessive but generally a well intentioned young man.

Eventually his darker side is revealed but by then the reader has already fallen under the spell of his gentle 'mommy's boy' alter ego. By the last chapter he is clearly, irredeemably and unlovably psychotic. Even then Nik Jones still managed to shock me with the ending to 9987, perhaps I am too gullible or perhaps I'm not. You'll have to buy a copy and make your own mind up.

I dare you to spend an evening in after reading this without making sure your doors are locked, windows are shut and curtains pulled tightly together.

Nik’s blog can be found here.

Reviewed by DJ Kirkby

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Book news - Richard and Judy's Summer Reads

The Bookseller reports that the list for Richard and Judy's Summer Reads is about to be announced. The list contains books by Julian Fellowes, perhaps best known for the Oscar-winning screenplay of Gosford Park, and Sue Miller, who has been a favourite of mine since I read The Good Mother many years ago.

Richard and Judy's TV careers may be waning, but their influence on book sales continues to be significant. Watch out for the listed titles in your local high street very soon.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Book news - Orange Prize shortlist and free download

I'm not sure if it is a gender thing, but I often find Orange shortlisted books more accessible than those in the Booker prize. So I was interested to see that the 2009 shortlist was published yesterday. Visit the Orange Prize website for the full list and links to pages about the individual books.

The Bookseller reports that Bloomsbury is making one of the shortlisted books, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie, available as a free download for just 24 hours, starting at midday (British time) today, 22nd April. The given link to Bloomsbury isn't yet working at the time of writing, but if you are interested it is definitely worth checking out after midday today.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Bad Friends




By Claire Seeber

I love a good psychological thriller and Claire Seeber’s second novel doesn’t disappoint.

After ending a destructive love affair, TV producer Maggie Warren is involved in a freak coach crash. Lucky to be alive she’s invited to be a guest on a chat-show for survivors at the company where she works. However, the crash has affected Maggie’s memory and she can’t quite recollect what happened before the accident.

When fellow survivor, the beautiful but emotionally damaged Fay Carter appears on the same show, claiming Maggie saved her life, she can’t remember her at all. Neither can she recall the strange work experience boy, Joseph Blake, who says he knows Maggie, or why her boss is blackmailing her. Worse than that, Maggie can’t remember the events that led her to split from Alex, the love of her life, who won’t take no for an answer.

When Maggie starts getting anonymous phone calls and mysterious bouquets of lilies with messages of condolence, even though no-one has died, and her flat is ransacked she knows she’s in real trouble. Convinced that someone is trying to push her over the edge she leaves London and stays at her house in Cornwall with actor, Seb, who says he’s falling in love with her, but even there Maggie’s past mistakes keep reaching out to haunt her.

Bad Friends is a dark and gripping novel about fame and obsessive love, and also explores an increasingly immoral TV industry – something the author knows about having worked as a TV director herself. The world she describes is convincing, the characters compelling and the suspense builds nicely throughout, keeping you guessing until the very last page.


Reviewed by Karen Clarke

Monday, 13 April 2009

Being Normal



By Stephen Shieber


Firstly, I’d like to say what a pleasure it is to be able to review another collection of short stories for bookersatz.

Being Normal is a great affirmation that short story writing is alive and well! In this volume, Stephen Shieber has given us a diverse selection of stories that evoke every emotion going.

I love the way he can change key so effortlessly, both from story to story and within stories. ‘Happy Birthday, Son’ starts out in light-hearted tone (and incidentally had me feeling a little like Stephen had been eavesdropping on my life!), but by the end it had moved me to tears.

There are some unforgettable characters in these pages. I particularly liked Midge in ‘Suburbia’. ‘Harry’s always telling her not to believe that she’s the centre of attention. But it’s hard. She can only see herself, feel herself.’

It’s difficult with a collection like this to pick out favourites; they work so well as a whole. I did particularly like ‘A Little of What You Need’ though. The premise was so intriguing and the way the story unfolded was hugely satisfying.

Throughout all the stories, the writing is inspired. Excellent imagery and great use of language give the tales a sense of immediacy and reality that stays with the reader long after the story is finished.

Stephen has tackled some uncomfortable and challenging topics in this collection. And he’s done it with wit, elegance and insight. If you’re a fan of the short story form – and even if you’re not – I can highly recommend this book.

I look forward to reading further work by Stephen in the future.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Dead Man's Footsteps




by Peter James



Dead Man's Footsteps is the fourth in a series of crime novels featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. It's his best so far, though there is a fifth one, Dead Tomorrow, planned for release in June 2009. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and gripping read. The pace was spot-on: not so fast that the plot gets confused, a problem with some lesser thrillers, but enough to keep you hooked the entire way through the story.

I can highly recommend this book, and indeed the whole series. Anyone who likes crime thrillers will be in for a treat. If this is not your usual choice of genre, then I would still encourage you to read Dead Man's Footsteps, as it's quite simply a great story and well told.

The settings; Brighton, New York and Melbourne; are very well described, though the Australian scenes are more broadly painted. The characters are all engaging, even the minor ones seem real. Admittedly I was already familiar with the main character and his immediate colleagues, having read the first three books.

It's a multi-stranded plot, covering three continents and the time line spans from the events of "9/11" in 2001 until 2007. This adds richness, not complexity, and each of the story threads is a page-turner in its own right. The strands are eventually related by Grace and his team, as they slowly but surely get to the bottom of the mystery and the crimes. The ending is far from predictable and, for followers of Grace's story, has a twist at the end. Or does it? It's implied but not spelled out, so I'm just going to have to read the next instalment this Summer.

Reviewed by Captain Black

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Old Man On A Bike



by Simon Gandolfi

Mr Gandolfi has had ten other books published and the reason for his success was obvious to me before I had finished giggling my way through the prologue of Old Man on a Bike.

With his remarkable insight and searing self awareness, Mr Gandolfi reminded me, time and time again, of my grampie Kirkby. Once the patriarch of our family, always my hero, a man who died having forgotten more than I am likely ever to be able to learn.

This book is singularly unique in that it draws the reader inside an older person's mind. I found it an enriching, often comforting and pleasant place to be.

The writing style in Old Man on a Bike is mature and mischievous, gritty, factual and witty. The book is filled with concise, clipped sentences of professional brevity:

'Although travelling, I am on familiar territory. We are always on familiar territory, all of us. Yet we divide ourselves from this reality by erecting fake barriers and boundaries of nationality and race and religion.'

'They infuse their finds in hot water and insist I bath the burns. They are small commanding women. They cook, clean and do the laundry. Disobedience would be foolish.'

'For the past few days I have been pursued by a middle-aged hen. Today the hen slinks into my room while Nora collects my laundry. I discover the hen on my bed. She has laid an egg.'


The book also regularly offers flowing paragraphs of perfect descriptive indulgence. I savoured every word.

I read the last page of this book with a smile on my face and a sense of regret that I had reached the end of this enthralling paperback.

Simon’s blog url is: http://simongandolfi.blogspot.com/

Reviewed by DJ Kirkby

Saturday, 21 March 2009

From Zaftig To Aspie



by D J Kirkby


Denyse Kirkby's vivid memoir about her childhood experiences not only gave me an enthralling insight to her fascinating lifestyle and of those around her, but also took me back to those carefree days of my own youth. Despite having enjoyed a completely different childhood to hers, that didn’t even inhabit the same continent, reading this book evoked long-forgotten feelings, of fears and hopes that we have as young children.

This book is beautifully written. Each chapter covers a different memory, with every story as fascinating as the next. She describes her surroundings with such clarity that I felt sure I was there with her, so much so that it was almost like watching a film I didn’t want to end.

I couldn’t bear to put this wonderful book down, and longed to keep reading and learning more about how it was to grow up with a hippy mother, in Canada in the early seventies. Learning about the various places they lived, how she coped with experiences, both wonderful and tragic, whilst being able to almost smell the heat and the scent of the air around her.

Denyse describes how it felt to be different, not only in the way that her mother chose to live, and the friends and relatives that shared their lives, but also with her understanding of her surroundings and contemporaries.

She explains what it was like, and her reaction to being diagnosed at the age of forty with Aspergers Syndrome. My nephew has Aspergers, which made reading the book, and seeing her childhood through her eyes, even more riveting. I should think that anyone hoping to be transported into someone else’s colourful and beautifully depicted childhood couldn’t ask for a better and more fascinating read.

This is a book that I shall keep to read again.

Reviewed by Deborah Carr

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Orange Prize longlist

The longlist for the Orange Prize 2009 has just been announced and can be seen here.

I'm not familiar with any of the books, but if you have read one and would like to write us a review, we'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Twitter Titters



Compiled by Linda Jones and Louise Bolotin in aid of Comic Relief. Available from Lulu.com for £9.00 plus P+P Buy it here.



A book so funny you laugh out loud is a rare beast, at least for a dour Glaswegian like me, but TwitterTitters had me snorting into my Value Price beer, for these are hard times right?

Right. And that’s why buying a book stuffed full of witty, original and down right hilarious new writing is the perfect double whammy. You feel good because you’re actively raising money for Comic Relief and having a damn good giggle at the same time.

TwitterTitters is not part of Twitter, it’s a project put together by independent fundraisers and doesn’t purport to represent Comic Relief. I can tell you though, that the fab comic strip design and the sheer quality of the contributors’ writing, places it up there with greats such as The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. These comedy shows raised heaps of dosh for Amnesty International over the years and I remember spending long hours in smoky Soho cutting rooms helping to edit them as, in another life, I worked as an assistant film editor on the Comic Strip series along with numerous rock videos.

Making people laugh proved to be a winner in the charity funding raising stakes and after this came Comic Relief. The rest is history.

Choosing submissions for this book must have been hard. Jayne Howarth writes that she and the other judges were blown away by the number of entries and standard of writing. There were no prizes for winners. Indeed, I was pleased to hear they even had to pay for their own copies.

I have tried to pick out my favourite stories but you know what? It’s impossible; they all take your breath away with their sharp, cutting edge humour and well, their funniness.

Go buy. They’re worth it.

Reviewed by Fiona Mackenzie

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Losing You



By Nicci French

I found it difficult to put down Nicci French’s Losing You. The book spans a twenty-four hour period, giving the reader the impression that it was written in one sitting and the pace is reflective in the story. I could almost hear the clock ticking,

In Losing You, the setting is an imaginary strip of land off the bleak coast of East England that becomes an island at high tide. It is just before Christmas, where mud and water surround the insular mistrusting small community, all adding to the eerie atmosphere. This is where the main character, Nina Landry, has recently settled and the reader finds her facing the nightmare that most parents dread – her daughter, Charlie, has gone missing.

Nina is desperately alone in her frantic search as those around her – friends, family and even the police, consider Charlie’s disappearance to be fuelled by adolescent angst (she is almost sixteen) rather than anything more sinister.

As the reader, I found myself bumping along with Nina, upending drawers and searching in cupboards for leads and strips of dry (and wet) land for clues, whilst re-tracing Charlie’s footsteps. As if the story line and setting is not intense enough, the book is also written in the first person- that of Nina. The voice, feelings and movements of Nina race across the page and whirl endlessly within the readers’ mind. I found myself consumed with suspicion of all the characters within this close-knit community as I entered Nina’s terror-filled mind.

For people unfamiliar with Nicci French, the name is a pseudonym of Nicci Gerrad and her husband, Sean French. Whilst they have and indeed continue to write independently, they also pair up to write crime fiction. This in itself is an intriguing concept and technique for fiction writing. As their fiction is concerned with the victim rather than the criminal, they provide us with psychological journeys, full of credible characters that the reader will connect with. It is virtually impossible, as a parent, not to relate to Nina Landry in Losing You, as the duo that is Nicci French has found yet another subject that people rarely dare to ponder over but all secretly fear.

Reviewed by Angie Bartoli

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Greetings From Bury Park



by Sarfraz Manzoor


Sarfraz Manzoor was born in Pakistan in 1971. He came to England with his mother, brother and sisters when he was two years old, to join his father who had been here for 11 years. They lived in Bury Park in Luton, and this is his autobiography.

I found this book fascinating, very readable, and difficult to put down. Manzoor and I are only a few years apart in age. For most of our lives we have lived only a couple of hundred miles apart. We share some cultural frames of reference – Steve Wright in the afternoon; the Olympics; international travel. Yet our experiences of life have been so very, very different. As I read, I felt privileged by the insights he gave me into a community that I have experienced as both friendly and impenetrable.

This book is a tribute to Manzoor's father, who died in 1995. It's also a well-structured reflection on race, culture, religion, nationality, patriotism, politics, music, family, friendship and love. But it's not heavy or tragic. The author uses his own life as a lens through which to focus on these themes, and approaches them with a gentle, careful honesty that reminded me of my own English father's style.

Manzoor doesn't have children of his own – or he didn't at the time of writing. It is often said of writers that their books are their children. I think in writing this book, he is communicating with his readers about how he sees his culture and his identity in just the way a loving father might communicate with his child. He does this very differently from the way his father did it with him – in writing rather than in person is only part of that difference – and yet the fact that he does it at all is surely part of his father's legacy.

Of course I am also very different from Manzoor. For a start, I'm white and female. In that context, his main achievement with this book is even more impressive. He has done something that no politician, sportsperson, artist, entertainer or writer has been able to do for a long time now: he left me feeling better about being British.

I can think of two groups of people who wouldn't like this book. One is people who don't like autobiographical non-fiction, and the other is people who are narrow-minded. If you're not in either group, then I would heartily recommend Greetings from Bury Park.

Reviewed by Queenie

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Writing Therapy



By Tim Atkinson

This was a book that went everywhere with me during the time I spent reading it. It is one of the most unique books I have ever read. Once I'd finished reading it I felt a certain smugness, as if I alone had discovered a rare jewel.

The narrator is a young woman who leads the reader on a raw excursion into a joust with madness. Writing is used as a most valuable tool in amongst a battery of less useful therapies. Be warned, this book is not an easy read, it is not junk food for the brain and it demands the attentions of a 'thinking' reader.

The plot is somewhat disturbing and shocking in parts of the book and it twists upon itself in places as Frances uses her own words that she is writing to help her view herself and her behaviours from different perspectives, to help her come to terms with her experiences.

It is said that Jung discovered that drawing mandalas had power to bring order to the psyche and to prevent overwhelming disorientation. Mandalas are thought to transmit positive energies to the people who view them.

This book radiates spiritual energy and could even be regarded as a path to enlightenment by those struggling with writers block. I would postulate that Tim Atkinson's novel 'Writing Therapy' is the mandala of books.

'Writing Therapy' is also ideal for those preparing to write their first full length manuscript. It is an effective 'how to' book cleverly disguised as an innocent novel.
Tim’s blog url is: http://writingtherapyblog.blogspot.com/

Reviewed by DJ Kirkby

Friday, 30 January 2009

The Lollipop Shoes



by Joanne Harris

It's confession time: I've never read a Joanne Harris book. Oh, I've picked them up. I've tried to read them, but... Oh I don' t know. They just never caught me, you know? So when a friend – whose book judgement I can rarely falter – thrust this one at me, saying 'You must read this,' I was sceptical, to say the least. Then she broke even worse news – it was a sequel – of sorts – to Chocolat, - which has sat with only five pages read, glaring at me from the bookshelves for some four years now. So now, we again have Vianne Rocher, and Anouk, and even Roux – but no delicious Johnny Depp to make it all easier for me.

Reader, it was with a heavy heart that I turned to the first pages (truth to tell, I delayed the moment by reading the reviews on the first few pages. I flicked to the back to see how long it was, I re-read the back cover. I sighed, and turned to the start.)

Oooh! That Zozie is a right one! But, oh boy, can she tell a story. And so can Vianne, and so can Anouk, and oh, what a glorious story they tell.

It's four years since Chocolat ended (and don't tell me how it ends, for I can't remember the movie, and I'm now only 100 pages into the book!) and Vianne and Anouk are on the move again, but this time someone else finds them. - Zozie, who paints herself as a saviour in her lollipop shoes, but it's all for her own ends, and who will win? Well, we know who we want to win, we desperately want Vianne to remember who and what she is... But Ms Harris makes us wait, and makes us work, wonderfully.

Several bars of Divine chocolate were devoured during the reading of this book. But they were devoured with love and appreciation. Hmm... much the same as the reading of this book.

reviewed by Alison Watson

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Book news - Costa Book of the Year

The Costa Book of the Year prize has been won by Sebastian Barry for his novel The Secret Scripture. It defeated, amongst others, the memoir of 91 year old Diana Athill and The Outcast by Sadie Jones, a first novel which we reviewed here.