Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

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

What We Thought: Following on from his television series on masculinity, Grayson Perry investigates how far society's ills can be laid at the feet of traditional man. Wars, crime, rape, vandalism, competitiveness and corporate bullying are all in the main male activities, he suggests in his new book The Descent of Man. How can men release the tension of these urges (which he acknowledges experiencing himself) without causing havoc?

In a world where aggressive hunting behaviour is no longer necessary for survival, what can men do to defuse their natural male urges? Looking at the role of men in today's society, he considers how Default Man (white, middle class, middle aged, grey-suited) can change and grow and find new avenues for self-realisation.

This is not an anti-man book but it does come out against fixed male gender roles. In the new more gentle model of manhood Perry promotes, men can benefit themselves and their health while benefiting the world. Many perceived norms, he suggests, are actually male behavioural traits but so deeply embedded are they in the mass consciousness, they have gone largely unchallenged. With the greater role of women and alternative males in business and politics these are now being eroded. Attempted adherence to these traditional male identities can cause stress, depression, illness and suicide in men who fit the Default Man mould and in those who do not.

Throughout this thought-provoking book Grayson Perry releases snippets of information about himself and his early life with a bullying stepfather. He acknowledges his own aggression and desire to get one over on other men. He sees this as partly a learned trait but also something in the male psyche that needs to be channelled. Though not going quite so far as to advocate military conscription, Perry does not dismiss the potential advantages inherent in some form of organised release of male aggression.

An easy yet compelling read, this book would make a great stocking filler for any man, especially those who may resist its message.

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

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Popular Psychology, Anthropology and Grayson Perry.

Avoid if you dislike: Anything that challenges male norms.

Ideal accompaniments: A pint of Heavy or a sweet sherry, take your pick.

Genre: Social Sciences/Gender Studies

Available on Amazon

A Country of Refuge by Lucy Popescu (editor)

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: In the past few years, the issue of refugees has been brought to the attention of the Western world in a way unprecedented since the end of the Second World War. Yet despite Britain priding itself on its long history as a country of refuge, and despite moments when individual images have roused us to compassion, most of what we see and hear about migrants and refugees has been overwhelmingly negative.

This anthology seeks to redress the balance and open readers to a deeper understanding of what drives ordinary people to flee their homes to make a life in a new country. It has been put together by Lucy Popescu, who for the last five years has worked as a volunteer mentor in the Write to Life programme of Freedom from Torture, hearing at first hand the terrible stories of refugee victims of torture, but also discovering their enduring warmth and resilience.

The anthology comprises a mixture of short stories, essays and poems. Given the prominence of refugees in the news, it seems extraordinary to me that publisher after publisher turned it down. So hurrah for Unbound, with their crowdfunding model of publication.

Though the authors are not, for the most part, refugees, many of the stories are drawn from the experiences of family. Sebastian Barry’s ‘Fragment of a Journal, Author Unknown’ takes us back to the ordeal of the Irish famine. Alex Wheatle recalls his father’s journey from Jamaica and Nick Barlay, his parents fleeing Hungary in 1956 as the Soviet tanks rolled in. Katharine Quarmby reflects on her family’s complex mix of migrants and refugees.

In ‘To Avoid Worse’, Joan Smith notes that the romanticisation of the story of Anne Frank obscures that fact that, before they went into hiding, her father tried desperately to get his family out of the country, but was refused visas by countries that might have given them refuge – and draws parallels with the family of Aylan Kurdi.

Hassan Abdulrazzak, who came to Britain with his family as a child refugee from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, reflects on how easy their path now seems in comparison with those trying to escape the war in Syria.

Some of the short stories seem designed to make us squirm. The narrator in Stephen Kelman’s ‘Selfie’ wants the man selling selfie sticks on the streets of Rome to understand he is different from all the other people ignoring him, even though he’ll do nothing to help him. In AL Kennedy’s ‘Inappropriate Staring’ two people eat their lunch outside the high fence of a detention centre while discussing the detainees like animals in the zoo. In Marina Lewyska’s ‘Hard Luck Story’, a security guard turns a deaf ear to the pleas of a woman he must put on a plane back to the country she fled.

Courttia Newland turns the tables on us, and imagines British citizens fleeing towards the coast, hoping to make it to a safe haven somewhere like Syria. Amanda Craig’s 'Metamorphosis' wreaks Kafka-esque revenge on one of Britain’s nastiest media commentators.

Roma Tearne contributes two heart-rending stories about families torn apart, one from Sri Lanka, one from Iraq. In ‘Shakila’s Head’ by Kate Clanchy, a teacher running a poetry writing class confronts some of the terrible things her young charges have experienced.

There is poetry from Ruth Padel, Hubert Moore and Elaine Feinstein, and essays from Hanif Kureishi, Noo Saro-Wiwa and William Boyd.

The final essay, by AL Kennedy, updated from a lecture she gave at the European Literature Days Festival in October 2015, warns us that the path that leads to a culture of cruelty is well known and that we are in danger of following it. She calls upon artists, and writers in particular, to fight against this. “We can make dreams to lead mankind forward and expressions of individuality that can make many free,” she writes. “Without those dreams, we face only nightmares.”

A much needed antidote to mass media vitriol, and a reminder of the humanity of each and every individual forced to flee their own country.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Moving a Country by Jade Amoli-Jackson; From There to Here (Second Decibel Penguin Prize anthology); In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights, Helle Abelvik Lawson, Anthony Hett and Laila Sumpton (editors)

Avoid If You Dislike: Having your preconceptions challenged

Perfect Accompaniment: Tea and humble pie.

Genre: Short Stories, Poems and Essays

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Natural Causes by James Oswald

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

What we thought: This writer is new to me and was recommended by a colleague who is a big fan of the author and knew I wrote and read crime fiction – and I can’t believe I’d never heard of him before! Natural Causes is the first book in the Inspector Mclean detective series, and I will certainly be continuing with the rest of the series.

There are multiple crimes under investigation by newly-promoted D.I Anthony Mclean and his team in this book, and all seem somehow linked to the mutilated fifty-year-old corpse of a young girl found in the basement of a house previously owned by a wealthy banking family. When a series of unconnected violent deaths leave the rest of the Edinburgh CID department at a loss, it’s Mclean who believes he can see a connection with the past and goes all out to solve the original crime – hoping it will lead him to their present day serial killer.

There was much to enjoy in this book, all the boxes needed from a strong police procedural were certainly ticked. I thought the characterisation was particularly well handled, and I can see from the hints dropped about D.I Mclean throughout the book that he is going to have many skeletons in his own closet that will be revealed during the rest of the series. There are many layers to this character, and he’s also not dripping with clich├ęs with I think is refreshing in this genre.

Good pacing, good plotting and excellent attention to detail in the research, results in an excellent start to this crime series. I’m really looking forward to reading more and would highly recommend James Oswald to any crime fiction readers out there.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Ann Cleeves, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid.

Avoid if you don’t like: Witchcraft and murder scenes.

Ideal accompaniments: Hearty beef stew and a single Scottish malt whisky.

Genre: Crime.

Available on Amazon

An Unreliable Guide to London by Various / Kit Caless

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

If you ever thought of London as one sprawling city, Influx Press’s Unreliable Guide will disabuse you.

Each one of these stories in set in a specific area of London. Taken together, they create the impression, not of an undifferentiated metropolis but a patchwork of neighbourhoods, each with its own character, instantly recognisable to those who come from its streets.

The authors have found different ways to play with the notion of an ‘unreliable guide.’ Some seek to capture the essence of place as known only to its residents. Others, like Eley Willams’ ‘In Pursuit of the Swan at Brentford Ait' – which might have been written by a 21st Century incarnation of Jerome K Jerome – tease us with the notion of what is real and what is not.

Still others depart from reality altogether. Will Wiles’s ‘Notes on the London Housing Crisis’ is an alt-hist vision of how London could have been. Noo Saro-Wiwa’s’s ‘Soft on the Inside’ is reminiscent of Andre Alexis’s Giller Prize-winning apologue, Fifteen Dogs, while Irenosen Okojie plunges us into a vision that marries Hieronymous Bosch with Salvador Dali.

Memories play an important role. Stephanie Victoire’s ‘Nightingale Lane’ distils Clapham South from recollections of an old soldier from Mauritius. Tim Wells’ ‘Heavy Manners’ captures Dalston through the record shops of his youth. The narrator of Koye Oyedeji’s ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ challenges the version of their personal history spun by his now-famous boyhood friend.

Others brush up against contemporary news. In Courttia Newlands’ ‘The Secret Life of Little Wormwood Scrubs’, a young jogger runs past an object that the next day will make the headlines. George F’s ‘Mother Blackcap’s Revenge’ describes a glorious fightback by the LGBT community against the gentrification of Camden.

Nor does the anthology ignore London’s less romantic corners – stories are spun from the unlikely locations of PC World at Staples Corner and the car park at Leyton Mills Retail Park.

Two of my favourites – Stephen Thompson’s ‘The Arches’ and Yvvette Edwards’ ‘Warm and Toastie’ – disclose hidden acts of practical kindness that belie the notion that London is a city of unfeeling anonymity.

At the end of the book, each author recommends three of their own favourite London reads – a further treasure trove of writing to delve into if you want to explore London through its stories.

This anthology may be, as the cover insists, "Bad Advice. Limited Scope. No Practical Use." But it reveals London as lived, loved and (sometimes) loathed by Londoners themselves.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Love Across a Broken Map by the Whole Kahani;

Avoid if you dislike: Short story anthologies the jump from one style of story to another

Perfect Accompaniment: Your favourite London street food

Genre: Short Stories, London fiction, Anthology

Available from Amazon

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Reviewer: JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult and the Overlord series

What we thought: Gregory is in full flow in this tale of the last of Henry VII's wives, Kateryn Parr. She is perhaps the lesser known of the six, for she was the one to survive him, being neither divorced nor beheaded. She married the English monarch at thirty years of age. Old perhaps considering Henry could choose any wife he wanted, but still much younger than the king himself.

She bore Henry no children, which is unsurprising given that she bore neither of her first two husbands any children either. Most fascinating is her scholarly work, being the first English queen to publish a book under her own name.

In The Taming of the Queen, Gregory paints a very intimate portrait of Kateryn, and her relationship with the king, whom she frequently refers to as a wife killer. Henry's character is one of a man in pain, lashing out as the mood takes him, who plays games both for his own amusement but also because he lives in fear of everyone around him, distrustful of his courtiers and advisers, quite rightly paranoid of who is plotting against him.

His method of ruling and staying at the top until his dying day is to be admired in Gregory's prose, as is the two faces of Kateryn, an educated, learned woman who strives for betterment of the court, the step-children she inherits, and the learning of everyone, whilst showing another face to the king; one of simple obedience, masking her constant fear.

For anyone wanted to live and breathe the last days of Henry's court, this is well worth immersing yourself in.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Anything to do with the Tudors, the English monarchy, biographical-style fiction

Avoid if you don’t like: grumpy, childish kings, female first person narratives

Ideal accompaniments: pigeon pie, small ale, warm blanket

Genre: historical fiction

Available on Amazon

The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: When Ruby learns, on her thirteenth birthday, that Barbara and Mick are not her real parents, she runs out into the garden and sings for joy. As she lights the candles on her birthday cake, she imagines the twin stars of her parents, orbiting her head. “Come and get me,” she whispers.

That day, Ruby becomes a soul hunter. But the truth, she learns, is never that simple. Especially when the dead (like Shadow) are eager to share their messages with her but are less than clear as to what those messages are.

In this dark tale, it’s not always clear who is real and who is either a figment of Ruby’s imagination or a glimpse into the paranormal. Nor is it clear, as Ruby cuts herself loose from her abusive stepfather and goes in search of her parents, who are her protectors and who the deceivers out to harm her.

In parallel with Ruby’s story, we see, in an earlier timeline, the unfolding story of her mother’s rocky relationship with Lewis, Ruby’s father - the path that will end with Ruby living with Mick and Barbara.

The book is set in the Forest of Dean, and forest itself is a powerful force in the novel, which both draws and repels the characters that live among it.

At bottom, this is a story about the true nature family –and how to rebuild it when your first, biological family has been broken beyond repair.

You can watch Kate Hamer talking about this and her debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat, at the Triskele Lit Fest in Sept 2016 here.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Closure by Gillian E Hamer [no relation]; Kate Hamer's debut novel: The Girl in the Red Coat

Avoid If You Dislike: A touch of paranormal with your psychological thrillers

Perfect Accompaniment: Rabbit stew

Genre: Psychological Thriller

Available on Amazon

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Necessary Deaths by David C Dawson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: When a young student journalist apparently tries to commit suicide, his mother enlists her neighbour, lawyer Dominic Delingpole, to investigate what lies behind his drugs overdose. Delingpole and his flamboyant partner, gardener and opera singer Jonathan McFadden, soon uncover a conspiracy that may extend to the furthest reaches of the British establishment.

I have been wracking my brains to decide where The Necessary Deaths fits in the spectrum of Crime Fiction. It is certainly not a gritty police procedural, in the style of Ian Rankin or Val McDiarmid. But nor is it the cosy crime of Agatha Raisin or Midsummer Murders. I've decided Dominic Delingpole may be the modern successor to Albert Campion, the detective created by Margery Allingham – the least known and most underrated crime queen from Britain’s golden age of detective fiction.

Like Campion, Delingpole is an accidental detective - neither a policeman, nor a PI nor a forensic professional. While Campion operated in pre- and post-War London, in a world of slightly down-at-heel aristocracy and East End eccentrics, Delingpole’s world is the 21st Century gay scene, as experienced by a middle class professional. Within that world, Dawson, like Allingham, delivers a plot that has its bizarre moments, but not one that stretches credulity to breaking point. And Delingpole’s sweet, sexy, romantic relationship with his Jonathan mirrors Campion’s surprisingly modern love affair with his beloved Amanda.

The Necessary Deaths is rooted in London, Brighton and the Chiltern Hills. Its American publisher has, for the most part, let it remain quintessentially British, but here and there they have found it necessary to ‘explain’ English terms. So mobiles become cell phones and the M25 is described as a freeway. It's mostly done with a light touch, but it can be a little disconcerting for a British reader.

It’s also firmly rooted in the gay community. Gay characters are a confident majority, not a marginalised minority. And male bodies, not female that are appreciatively checked out.

In defiance of the stereotype of the detective as a loner with a troubled past, The Necessary Deaths delivers a warm picture of friendship and love. There is real jeopardy here, but also an ending that is sure to make you smile.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham, Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle, Human Rites by JJ Marsh.

Avoid If You Dislike: Crime that is gentle but not cosy; joyful celebration of love between men.

Perfect Accompaniment: Handel’s Rodelinda and a glass of prosecco

Genre: Crime, LGBTQ fiction

Available on Amazon