Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Calling Major Tom by David M Barnett

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett ( ) author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and Don’t Look Down.

What We Thought: I started reading Calling Major Tom and after a couple of chapters almost put it aside to read at some other time. I didn't though, and I'm glad because it turned out to be one of the nicest books I've read this year. It's been described as 'heartwarming', 'life affirming', 'feel-good' and 'charming', and it's all of those things. It's also about loneliness and being a misfit.

Thomas Major, a grumpy scientist, manages to get himself appointed as the first man to go to Mars. The announcement is made the day David Bowie dies and, of course, the media instantly call him Major Tom. Thomas wants to go to Mars because he's had it with Earth and all its inhabitants. Having fallen out with his father, been manipulated by his mother and had nothing but failed relationships, he's happy - in a miserable sort of way - to leave the human race behind. On Mars, he'll build habitations and domes and get some crops established, ready for the first inhabitants who will arrive in ten or fifteen years. In the meantime, he will be blissfully on his own.

Sitting in his tincan far above the world, he refuses to engage in publicity stunts, read the manuals about spacewalks, or brush up on growing potatoes on Mars. He prefers instead to do his crossword puzzles and annoy the Head of the British Space Agency via the communications link. Until, that is, he encounters Gladys Ormerod. Gladys is a pensioner at the start of her dementia journey, who Thomas accidentally phones, and he is soon sucked into her problems. She is supposed to be looking after her grandchildren, James and Ellie, because their mum is dead and their dad is in gaol. However, the burden of care tends to fall on 15 year old Ellie.

As he becomes more and more drawn into the Ormerods' lives, Thomas relives his own experiences as a child and as a young man. He begins to understand things about himself and comes to various realisations.

Sad, funny, and filled with references to popular culture, Calling Major Tom is a little beauty.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Stories that make you laugh and maybe even cry a little.

Avoid if you dislike: Feel-good books that manipulate your emotions.

Ideal accompaniments: Bowie's Space Oddity on the turntable and a determination to keep on reading.

Genre: General Fiction

The Deadly Lies by David C Dawson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

David Dawson’s sequel to his debut crime novel, The Necessary Deaths, makes for another entertaining read.

Dominic Delingpole is on honeymoon with his beloved Jonathan, but neither in life nor in love are things allowed to go entirely smoothly. When a former lover sends a cryptic message to Dominic minutes before a fatal car crash, it puts both their lives and their barely-formed marriage in peril.

With the help of maverick student programmer, Steve, can they solve the riddle before anyone else is killed? And can Dominic and Jonathan's marriage survive its first big hurdle?

The theme of lies runs through the novel. The main plot concerns a chip that could allow the mysterious Charter 99 to rewrite online history – with little regard to the lives they would turn upside down. At the same time, as Dominic and Jonathan navigate the new territory of marriage, the impact of lies – even innocent lies - on relationships is thrown into relief.

The action moves between two long-established gay communities - Sitges in Spain and San Francisco in California. If Dawson’s first novel showed us his relatively conventional hero at home and at work, here he is on holiday, and like Dominic himself, the text has become a little more unbuttoned. There is more explicit (though still not graphic) sex than in the first book.

Last time I compared Dawson’s writing to Margery Allingham. This time, there is an echo or two of Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. But Dawson writes with a lighter touch than Sayers. There are no great intellectual challenges here. It remains, however, an affectionate portrait of the manners and mores of gay relationships, as well as face-paced study in cyber-crime.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Necessary Deaths by David C Dawson, Babycakes by Armistead Maupin, Cold Pressed by JJ Marsh.

Avoid If You Dislike: Light-weight crime fiction. Explicit references to gay sex.

Perfect Accompaniment: Albondigas en salsa and a glass of Cava

Genre: Crime, LGBTQ fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Seagull by Ann Cleeves

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

What we thought: I am a huge fan of both author, Ann Cleeves and the central character in this detective series, Vera Stanhope – so I have been waiting in anticipation for the eighth book of the series to be published.

And it’s another cracker! 

Here we see DCI Stanhope at her formidable best. Always one to acknowledge that she doesn’t look like the most professional DCI in the business, here she uses that to maximum advantage to solve a crime whose roots are buried twenty-seven years in the past.

When convicted former CID officer John Brace offers to do a deal with Vera – she looks after his vulnerable daughter outside in the real world in exchange for the whereabouts of the body of a missing man – her loyalties are tested. But as ever, Vera shows herself to be the shrewdest in the crowd as she investigates his claims about a cold case which seems to have its roots buried in a long-ago demolished nightclub in Whitley Bay called The Seagull. 

When Vera’s past life collides with her current enquiry, she is forced to examine whether her own father might be involved in more than just the dodgy trade of rare birds eggs. Could he have been a murderer too?

It was brilliant to be back in Vera’s world again, interacting with the detective team and immersing ourselves in the North East landscape through the author’s superb descriptive talents. There’s nothing I would change about this series and I hope it continues for many years and many books to come! 

You’ll enjoy this if you like : P.D James, Peter May, Ian Rankin.

Avoid if you don’t like : Cold case investigations.

Ideal accompaniments: Pot of tea and hot buttered teacake.

Genre : Crime.

Available on Amazon

French Collection by Vanessa Couchman

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and latest release, The Silent Kookaburra.

What we thought: For Francophiles, French Collection: Twelve Short Stories is an anthology of short stories from Vanessa Couchman, author of The House at Zaronza, which I immensely enjoyed and reviewed here.

This eclectic collection of twelve short stories is inspired by the history and culture of the author’s adopted country, France. The descriptions, emotions and savoir-faire portray her love for the history, people and traditions of France, and the characters are so well-drawn that the reader comes to know and care about them in a matter of a few short pages.

Not all, but most of the stories are historical, and, as an author of French-based historical fiction novels, I admired and enjoyed all of them. My personal favourite was the 17th century plague story, The Visitation, but there’s something for everyone in this mix: historical, contemporary, romance, art, ghosts, all of them entertaining vignettes of French life across the ages.

Included at the end of the collection is Chapter 1 of the author’s next novel, The Corsican Widow, which whet my appetite. After Vanessa Couchman's most entertaining debut novel, The House at Zaronza, I'm really looking forward to reading this new one!

You’ll like this if you enjoy:
literary historical and contemporary fiction; a touch of the supernatural.

Avoid if you don’t like: historical and modern-day short stories.

Ideal accompaniments: French baguette and camembert, washed down with a glass of sturdy red Bordeaux.

Genre: Short stories. Literary fiction. Historical fiction.

Available on Amazon

Friday, 22 December 2017

Bookmuse Reviews of the Year

2017 was a vintage year for Bookmuse.

Between us, the team have read and reviewed over 250 books. Not every publication makes the cut, so those reviews we publish mean Recommended to Subscribers.

We review books we think you'll love.
Here we revisit some of the most popular/most passionate reviews of 2017.

January kicked off with the publication of Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller. Already a fan, Gillian Hamer dived in.

In February, Jacob Ross won the inaugural Jhalak Prize with his unforgettable novel, The Bone Readers. Here's Catriona Troth's assessment.

Barbara Scott-Emmett chose Tracy Chevalier's At the Edge of the Orchard in March. This was her opinion.


April saw a non-fiction book take centre stage. Dear Reflection, by Jessica Bell, proved fascinating for Liza Perrat.

We correctly predicted the winner of the Baileys Prize in May. JJ Marsh has not stopped crowing since.

In tandem with an interview, Jane Dixon-Smith read Then She Was Gone, by Lisa Jewell. Here's what she thought.

Lyn Farrell's The Wacky Man had quite an impact on Jerome Griffin. Read his recommendation - and warning - here.

Remember, Bookmuse publishes two new reviews every Wednesday, so you'll never be stuck for ideas. Or browse our back catalogue by genre. Undiscovered gems guaranteed.

All the best for the festivities and we wish you many, many good books!
From all of us at Bookmuse!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Munich by Robert Harris

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: 
Fascinating and un-plug-outable (I listened to the audiobook).

This novel details the tense lead-up to the Munich conference in late 1938 with exemplary research and human insight. Two men, both insiders in the opposing regimes, observe the frantic diplomacy required to avert war in Europe. Hugh Legat and Paul Hartmann met at Balliol, Oxford, becoming friends, co-travellers and political debaters. Now, they are working for their respective governments but share a single aim. To defeat Hitler.

Harris is a master on this subject and in this genre - historical fiction from the perspective of those who could have changed the key moments of modern history. Despite our hindsight, this diplomatic dance around a despot is involving, and gives us hope. There are good men prepared to do something, regardless of the risk.

This fictionalised account sent me scurrying to learn more about the events which could have precluded WWII. Period details such as the enormous undertaking of flying to another country and the brutal ugliness of gas masks transport the  reader to the 1930s with a sharpness which underlines the danger.

Anyone with a passing interest in politics must draw parallels to current events and feel a shiver of sinister familiarity when the egotistical dictator grows incensed at his depiction by the foreign press. We should be grateful such a short-fused, power-crazed man didn't have access to Twitter.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Fatherland, Enigma, Downfall

Avoid if you don’t like: European politics, details of diplomacy

Ideal accompaniments: Cigarettes, whisky and liverwurst

Genre: Historical fiction, spy thriller

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

24 Hovrs in Ancient Rome by Philip Matyszak

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

What we thought: It's not often you come across a book which is so deliciously rich in historic fact, and yet presented in the most readable and engaging manner, but that is exactly what 24 Hovrs in Ancient Rome offers. It presents a day in the life of your average ancient Roman citizens, from an Imperial messenger to a washerwoman, spice trader to my favourite, the water-clockmaker.

Each person's tale is one hour (hovr) long, describing in detail their comings and goings, challenges and accomplishments, told in a believable way, as if spying upon these people as they go about their business, observing interactions, talents and trade.

The text is interspersed with extracts from ancient texts, supporting the story-like narrative, and in some instances illustrations.

In the case of the water-clockmaker, you discover rare insight into not just his life, but that of the Roman way of life as a whole:

Unknowingly, Copa has identified a major reason why the Romans will never become a fully mechanized culture. The Romans have so much cheap manpower available that there is no incentive to invent machines to do all the work or reason to use these machines if they are invented.

An again, when reading of a mother nursing her sick child, we're abruptly made aware of how easily life slips away in ancient times and the sickness rife in cities:

As do most working-class girls, Sosipatra married in her late teens. In the ten years since, she has continually been either pregnant or nursing a baby. Yet for their best efforts, the couple have just one healthy child. This is their daughter, Termalia, who is now seven years old. That's about two years after the age when Roman parents can be reasonably sure that their child will survive. That is, survive the illnesses that in Rome kill two to four of every newborns before they reach the age of five. 

It's these glimpses, far from the gladiators and gloriously epic scenes we witness on television and in films, which makes this books so compelling. It is fiction untouched by sensationalism, allowing the true history to breathe on the page, telling us of another side of Roman life; that of the people who truly lived there.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Ancient Rome, facts, knowledge

Avoid if you don’t like: Non-fiction, ordinary life

Ideal accompaniments: honeyed bread and herbal tea

Genre: Historical, Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon