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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


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