Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon


Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit, Crimson Shore, False Lights & Sacred Lake. (www.gillianhamer.com)

What we thought: I have been looking forward to this book since its release, having adored the debut novel from Joanna Cannon – The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. And I’m pleased to say this didn’t disappoint! I actually wiped away a tear as I turned the final page and said goodbye to a collection of wonderful characters.

From a teenage world of the 1970’s in the first novel from this author, here we’re taken to Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly and introduced into the life of some of the inhabitants, including our lead protagonist 84-year-old Florence - and her lifelong best friend Elsie.

This book makes the reader work, and that’s no bad thing. In one thread, Florence is lying alone, having had a fall in her flat, and the author cleverly uses this to introduce flashbacks and info needed to move the story along. In others, there’s a degree of confusion as Florence’s episodes of dementia muddy the water between reality and fiction. But as ever, she has her best friend Elsie at her side to hold her hand, calm down and say the right thing.

There’s also a degree of mystery when a strange man arrives at Cherry Tree, and his appearance rocks Florence to her roots. If this is the person she thinks it is, then he drowned over fifty years ago. And when odd things begin to happen to Florence – including a fire in her flat and a curious incident with Battenberg cakes – she knows some of her own secrets have come back to haunt her.

There is everything in this book; mystery, intrigue, compassion, humour and empathy. The characters are superb, the pace handled with a delicate balance, and the voice and tone are a lesson in the craft of writing. By the time you get to the end you will have experienced every emotion known to human kind.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ll be pondering the third thing about Elsie for a long time to come.


You’ll enjoy this if you like : Kate Hamer, Gail Honeyman, Celia Imrie.

Avoid if you don’t like : Dementia and the strength of the human spirit.

Ideal accompaniments: Fish and chips with extra salt and vinegar and a can of Dr Pepper.

Genre : Contemporary.

Available on Amazon





Can You Brexit without Breaking Britain? By Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought:

An interactive gamebook which puts the reader in to the Prime Minister's shoes. Every decision you make has an effect and you must deal with the consequences. For such a polarising issue, this is accessible to all and good fun while making you think.

You wake up on the morning after the Brexit vote and choose your first move. Flip to the relevant page and pick your next option. When you hit a dead-end, go back to the fork in the road and have another go. This is not just about running the country, but maintaining control of your party and shining a light on yourself.

The PM must deal with quandary after crisis, all the while keeping tally of one's score under four headings: Authority, Economy, Goodwill and Popularity. Who must you keep happy? Who do you listen to? Where can you find friends? What advice dare you trust?

While witty and acerbic with a sly dig at the contemporary players in the Brexit drama, this is well researched and intelligently thought out. Facts and realities underpin every move and you cannot claim a lack of knowledge as all the implications are there on paper.

Bear in mind the British media are watching, ready to criticise everything from your choice of holiday to frivolous footwear. Reading this while watching the reality play out on our TV screens is a bizarre experience.

Highly recommended for anyone who wonders what the hell is going on and why. Warning: might possibly make you feel sorry for Theresa May.


You’ll enjoy this if you like: Witty political drama such as The Thick of It; Yes, Minister; Dear Bill

Avoid if you don’t like: Politics, the British, having to deal with the fallout of your decisions

Ideal accompaniments: Full English breakfast, a pint of British Bulldog and Bach's St John Passion

Genre: Humour, Contemporary

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Almost Love by Louise O'Neill

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought:

One of those rare reads you can't stop thinking about.
O'Neill's previous two novels - Only Ever Yours and Asking For It - are both pitched as YA and dive right to the heart of the female condition. Their protagonists are flawed and human and the damage unfolds in front of our eyes.

But with Sarah Fitzpatrick in Almost Love the damage is already done. This young woman is selfish, demanding, ungrateful, judgemental and throws her self-respect on and off like a cape.

The story switches between now and then.

Now Sarah's a lucky girl, living with her boyfriend Oisín in a house given them by his mother. She has a good job as an art teacher in Dublin and looks down on her country background and small-town friends. That doesn't stop her despising the glamorous crowd she hangs out with at the same time.

Then was different. Then, she met Matthew Brennan, successful estate agent and father to one of her pupils. Flirtation becomes an affair, strictly on his terms, but like any addict, she will sacrifice anything for a summons to that shabby hotel room. Her father, her friends and the man who loves her for who she is, Fionn, are all cast aside in her craving for Matthew's affection. Her betrayals get harsher as her need grows. Simultaneously, a sense of discomfort builds in the reader. It's like watching a car crash in slow-motion in the full knowledge there is nothing you can do.

Much has been made of Sarah as an unlikable protagonist, but I think we react against her because she reminds us of ourselves at our worst. Alarming and powerful, this book is a reminder of how your worst enemy might be yourself.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Psychological shadows such as in Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas, We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver or Involved by Kate O'Riordan

Avoid if you don’t like: The realities of obsession/addiction or a heroine you want to shake

Ideal accompaniments: Vodka Red Bull, fizzy colas and Human Behaviour by Bjork

Genre: Contemporary, literary fiction

Available on Amazon

The Beasts of Electra Drive by Rohan Quine

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Beasts of Electra Drive is the story of a games designer who becomes deeply disenchanted with the ‘lowest common denominator’ mentality of the big corporation he works for, and leaves it in order to create a game of his own. But when his former employers refuse to take his desertion lying down, something rather strange happens, and the characters from Jaymi’s game start to cross over into ‘meat space’ and become the arms of Jaymi’s revenge.

Quine’s narrative challenges the arbitrariness of commercial gate-keepers and the randomness of success – and has a lot of fun in the process. It’s an odd mixture of dark – verging on horror – with more than a bit of kitsch. Some of the characters overlap with characters from Quine’s earlier work (like The Platinum Raven), though this is not strictly a prequel.

The Beasts of Electra Drive makes use of passages of almost incantatory repetition – something we accept quite happily in music and in books for young children, but which is unexpected in a book written for adults. It’s used primarily when Jaymi builds each of his characters and draws then through into ‘meatspace’, giving the act the feel of a creation myth.

It’s a very visual novel too. Quine gives his narrative voice (and sometimes his characters), the eye of a camera mounted on a drone, able to fly across valley in zoom in on details miles in the distance – like a tiny reflection in the pupil of someone’s eye. It’s set in and around Los Angeles and swoops from the Hollywood Hills mansions of the mega-rich, through the glass-sided towers of business districts, down into the slums and back again.

Reading this book is a little like watching a particularly unsettling art house movie. You will be, in turn, disoriented, enchanted and repelled.

For all the technology involved, this is more magic realism than science fiction. It deliberately pushes the boundaries of the outrageous and challenges you to go along for the ride.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, The Imagination Thief by Rohan Quine, Delirium by Barbara Scott Emmett

Avoid if You Dislike: Surrealism, incantatory prose

Perfect Accompaniment: A Tequila Sunrise

Genre: Literary Fiction, Magic Realism

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Temptation: A User’s Guide by Vesna Main

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Land Beyond Goodbye and The Man with the Horn (http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.co.uk/)

What We Thought: Vesna Main's short stories are unlike anything I have read before. I was occasionally reminded of Beckett and Pinter - though for me these stories lacked the dramatic tension of the plays. They vary in length from a page or two to interminable. Well, those long ones do actually end eventually but often without a conclusion.

These stories are irritating, bewildering, annoying, bemusing, challenging and enraging. The thing is, that appears to be the intention. They prod you and poke you and generally disturb you until you want to fling them aside in a fit of pique.

I made the mistake of reading some of these before bed - something I would strongly advise against as I was kept awake trying to puzzle out what they were about and what they might mean. Or, if they weren't about anything, what the fact that they weren't about anything might mean. I had to stop reading a couple of the more repetitive ones for the sake of my sanity.

Many of the stories feature people who are obsessed with something, though often that something is not obvious. Some seem obsessed with overthinking and others with having no particular thoughts at all. The characters are not particularly rounded and often there is little or no description or dialogue. Indeed, these pieces conform to no conventions of short fiction at all. Now, this is not to say they are bad. Or badly written. If the intention is to frustrate the reader and provoke a reaction, they are very good indeed.

Now, I expect some people will think these are rubbish and that the publishers are suffering from Emperor's New Clothes syndrome. Being the sophisticated consumer of modern fiction that I am, however, (or that I imagine myself to be) I am determined to avoid falling into this trap. I can't honestly say I enjoyed them and they certainly weren't relaxing - but then neither is Picasso's Guernica.

Anyway, you will have to read them yourself in order to decide whether they are good or not. Go on - give them a go. I dare you.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Unconventional fiction that challenges and provokes not because of its subject matter but because of the way it is written.

Avoid if you dislike: Being rubbed up the wrong way by a writer you've never met.

Ideal accompaniments: A couple of paracetamol.

Genre: Short Fiction.

The Chalky Sea by Clare Flynn



Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit, Crimson Shore, False Lights & Sacred Lake. (www.gillianhamer.com)

What we thought: A well crafted WWII story of love, loss and acceptance. We follow twin stories of Jim from Canada and Gwen from Eastbourne, UK. Poles apart in terms of their lives before the war, both haunted by memories and tragedies of the past ... and both of them about to experience passion for the first time in their lives in the most unlikely of circumstances.

The two threads run separately for two thirds of the novel, but there’s a rich intensity in knowing that at some point the character’s paths will cross. And when Jim runs away from home and joins the army, he’s soon sent, via a training camp in Aldershot, to the UK town of Eastbourne to help with the coastal defences.

Gwen is alone in a large house, her husband away at war, and finds herself helping others for the first time in her life - and feeling more useful than she has ever felt. She takes in a homeless family bombed out of their home, and soon finds herself housing three Canadian soldiers – one of them being Jim.

The story is told at a gripping and emotive pace, with highs and lows, and with attention of detail and location accuracy that added another level to the book. By the end, I was desperate to know if either of the characters would get the happy ending they deserved – and I’m delighted there’s a sequel for us to enjoy too.

If you’re a fan of romantic drama and historical fiction, this is one not to be missed.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Maggie Hope, Pam Howes, Grace Thompson.

Avoid if you don’t like : Wartime stories.

Ideal accompaniments: Corned beef and mash with half a pint of Mild.

Genre : Historical.


Available on Amazon