Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Come All You Little Persons by John Agard, illus Jessica Courtney-Tickle

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It’s lovely to start the Jhalak Prize longlist for 2018 with this picture book by John Agard.

We’ve always been fans of Agard in this house. My daughter had a poetry anthology when she was small that included his delightful ‘Got a Date With Spring’. And his poem ‘Half Caste’ is a punch in the gut must-read for older children and adults. Sot to find a new poem by him is a delight.

The first test for a picture book is how it reads out loud. And, as you would expect from a poet like Agard, Come All You Little Persons has the rhythm that makes that a joy.

Each little person that is called forth is described by their clothing, and each summoning introduces different words – from a feathered cape, to a shirt made of spray, from an apron that shines, to an invisible gown – so there is plenty to talk about.

Jessica Courtney-Tickle’s illustrations are filled with detail that can be pored over night after night. The style edges towards pointillist and the colour palette is rich but soft and slightly muted. Most importantly, the little persons called forth come in all shapes and sizes – male and female, tall and short, chubby and slim – and with every shade of skin from pale to dark, so every little reader can see themselves reflected.

The final page shows all the little persons circling the earth in a great dance – those we have seen called forth and many more besides that you can have fun creating identities for yourself.

The second great test for a picture book is whether is stands being read again and again, with enough to hold the interest of both adult and child. Come All You Little Persons passes that test with flying colours.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lullaby Hullabaloo by Mick Inkpen, Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

Avoid If You Dislike: Rhythm, Dance, Reading Out Loud

Perfect Accompaniment: Bedtime cuddles

Genre: Picture book. Children's

Available on Amazon

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

The Richardsons’ house is burning down. It wasn’t an accident.

Wealthy (four cars in the drive), comfortable (doyenne of Shaker Heights) and happy (three and a half high-achieving children), Elena Richardson knows life is good. She’s generous and charitable and good with people. So why would her youngest daughter set their house on fire?

Celeste Ng takes on a ‘perfect’ society and peers around the façade. Shaker Heights, a small town outside Cleveland, Ohio, is a model community, where everyone toes the line. There are rules here and everyone obeys.

When Mia Warren and daughter Pearl blow into town to rent an apartment, Elena sees a chance to do some good. An itinerant artist with a young daughter – similar age to hers – why not help the woman out. After all, she likes to patronise the arts.

The families’ lives become increasingly intertwined to the extent they almost swap daughters, but there are other familial questions threatening to bust through the neat backyards. Whose child is the abandoned baby? The parents who adopted her and lavished her with love or the biological mother who wants her back? Whose is the child made with surrogate sperm? Who gets to choose whether or not to terminate a teenage pregnancy?

Ng weaves this omniscient perspective with huge skill, making the reader change sides almost every chapter. Her depiction of character is economical, wrong-footing assumptions and avoiding cliché. Finally, the fuses that lead to the fire are far more complex than the fire service or even Elena can understand.

Wholly absorbing and thoughtful, this book kept me thinking.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked:
Jodi Picoult, Helen Fitzgerald, Maeve Binchy

Avoid if you don’t like: Awkward questions, teenage girls, multiple POV

Ideal accompaniments: Satay sticks, banana milkshake and Jerry Springer in the background

Genre: Literary fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

This is a book I have had on my radar for a long time.

Leon is almost ten years old. He doesn’t look anything like his mother or his new-born half brother, but he loves them both very much and wants to take care of them. In fact he takes better care of Jake than his mother does, which is just as well, as she keeps disappearing off and leaving them alone. Leon manages all right most of the time, but one day they run out of food. He goes to a neighbour for help – and that’s when things really starts to go wrong.

Leon and Jake are taken into foster care with a women called Maureen. Maureen is kind but she’s not his mum. And now some people want to take Jake away for good. All Leon wants to do is keep his family together. But how can he do that? Adults lie and keep secrets and take things away from him without asking. There is no one he can trust, so he is going to have to solve everything by himself.

Set in 1981, riots and racial tensions run through the background. The novel addresses adoption, fostering, the complexities of multi-racial families, and the many ways we let children in care down.

Reading as an adult, we may see the good intentions of the grown-ups around Leon. But de Waal understands that, no matter how dysfunctional the birth family or how caring the foster family, having one’s family broken up is still going to be traumatic. She takes us deep inside Leon’s head and makes us feel what it’s like to be tumbled from one place to the next, to lose the people you love through no fault of your own, and to have no control and little say over what happens to you or them.

It’s hard to place whether this book for young adults or not. The story is told entirely through the eyes of almost-ten-year-old Leon, and the story-telling is simple and accessible. But some of the themes and language used are probably not be suitable for younger children.

A tender, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting story that sidesteps a fairytale ending in favour of realism and warmth.

My Name is Leon was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. The author is the founder of the Kit de Waal scholarship, a fully funded bursary on the Birkbeck College Creative Writing MA, for a student from a disadvantaged background. She is also the editor of Common People, an anthology of working class writers, currently seeking funding on Unbound.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, The Bed and Breakfast Star by Jacqueline Wilson

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories about adoption and fostering; children as point of view characters; strong language in Young Adult novels.

Perfect Accompaniment: Bacon sarnie with ketchup, and lots of tea

Genre: Literary Fiction; Young Adult

Available on Amazon

Agatha Raisin and Kissing Christmas Goodbye by M.C. Beaton

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

What we thought: If there is anything more Christmassy than turkey and all the trimmings it’s revisiting the world of Agatha Raisin over the festive period.

Agatha doesn’t have a good track record in life with two things – firstly men, ex James Lacey in particular, and secondly her attempts at creating her idea of a perfect world. So, when she decides to host the Christmas party to beat all other parties, then regular readers of the series are already sitting on the edge of seats chewing their nails.

Added to this, Agatha and her team of private investigators are faced with a complicated case of poisoning in a remote Cotswold village that has elements of witchcraft, family betrayal and intriguing historical links. She is grateful for the services of her latest protégé Tony Gilmore, a young girl from a similarly troubled background as Agatha, who has the makings of a top detective.

There are the usual cast of characters here lined up for this Christmas special - DS Bill Wong, Sir Charles and Mrs Bloxby to name a few. And there twists and turns galore to delight ardent crime fans in this very clever murder enquiry. For once Agatha’s personal life takes a back seat and seems a little more settled ... but then she never knows what is round the corner!

It was the perfect time of year to listen to Penelope Keith narrate the audiobook version of this novel and it was with a huge sadness that I had to say goodbye for a short time.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: J.J Marsh, Agatha Christie, Mandy Baggot.

Avoid if you don’t like: Crime fiction with a gentle touch.

Ideal accompaniments: Christmas pudding and a glass of mulled wine.

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

We that are the youngest, the fastest, the democracy, the economy, the future technology of the world, the global Super Power coming soon to a cinema near you, we, hum panch, that are the five cousins of the five great rivers, everybody our brother-sister-lover, we that are divine: the echo of the ancient heroes of the old times, we that fight, we that love, we that are hungry, so, so hungry, we that are young.

Preti Taneja’s debut is a monumental novel that brings King Lear to modern India – specifically, India in the midst of the anti-corruption movement of 2011/12.

Here, Lear has become Devraj, known as Bapuji (honoured father), ageing CEO of a towering, all-encompassing Indian corporation, source of wealth and possibly also of corruption.

Like the play, it unfolds over five ‘acts’. But while we view Lear primarily through the lens of Lear himself, in this novel, each ‘act’ is written from the point of view of one of the five members of the younger generation - Jirvan, the illegitimate son of Devraj’s closest advisor (Edgar); Gargi, the eldest daughter (Goneril); Radha, the second daughter (Reagan); Jeet, legitimate son and Jirvan’s half-brother (Edmund/Tom O’Bedlam) and Sita, the youngest daughter (Cordelia). So when Devraj, like Lear, rails against the monsters his children have become, we know he is railing against natures he spent years nurturing, while they are struggling to hold together what he has smashed apart.

The book delivers the key events of the play beat by beat, but it manages to do so in such a way that even the most iconic moments remain shocking. And if you know the play tolerably well, you can match even the minor characters one-for-one. At first I thought that the exception was The Fool. Then I realised that his place had been taken by Nanu, Davraj’s mother – the one person who can speak truth to him, who speaks gnomically in riddles drawn from holy texts.

The text is rich with the black humour and startling imagery, such as Gargi’s portrait of her father:

“In his white singlet and saffron underpants, like a hard boiled egg cut in half she had thought, he stood among the rails of shirts and suits... while telling Gargi (as if his mouth was full of acid and nails) that he had heard all about that moment, almost two weeks aso, when ... she had sat on the pool deck with that boy, Ranjit’s returnee.”

Taneja drops regularly into Hindi and no translation or glossary is offered. You don’t need to know the translations, but if you take the time to Google the meanings, it will add to the richness of your experience.

This is a darkly comic study of a monstrously dysfunctional family that is also so, so much more. Directors of Shakespeare’s plays can suggest settings in time and place the give context to the drama. But in transporting the story to India and fleshing out the location through the rich medium of the novel, Taneja has at once breathed entirely new life into a classic text, held a mirror held up to the faults and frailties of modern India, and created a powerful metaphor for greed, cruelty and corruption everywhere.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James; If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here by Sarayu Srivatsa; The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Avoid If You Dislike: Long tomes; elements not translated into English; Shakespeare

Perfect Accompaniment: Aloo paranthe (flat bread stuffed with spiced potato) and a glass of whisky

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

Song at Dawn by Jean Gill

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought:

An unusual blend of thrills and insight, this is historical fiction at its most complex, rich and absorbing. I read this book in two sittings and am already well into Bladesong, the second in the Troubador series.

The story takes place in 12th century France, following Estela, an abused woman with a voice and a passion. Her misfortune lands her in a ditch, but her talents lead her to the Queen’s court where she encounters Dragonetz, the Troubadour.

The book transports you to France in the Middle Ages, which should feel far distant to a modern reader, but the social upheavals caused by religious and geographical muscling for power feel unpleasantly familiar. This is well-researched, beautifully written storytelling which deserves full concentration.

Detailed descriptions are in abundance, both of the beautiful and the bloody. Some scenes are not for the squeamish. Characters are layered and complex, even minor players and I was particularly drawn to the role animals play in the story. The complicated politicking is intriguing as is the status of women, from queen to entertainer.

For a glimpse of the past in sharp focus, Song at Dawn is highly recommended.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Overlord series by JD Smith, Michelle Moran's historical fiction or Blood Rose Angel, by Liza Perrat.

Avoid if you don’t like: Some gory moments, emotional upheaval, addictive series.

Ideal accompaniments: Bitter black tea and roasted goose eaten off the blade of a dagger.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

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

What we thought: Set in 1930’s London, we are introduced to world-famous Christopher Banks through a series of superbly crafted scenes which switch between the protagonist’s past and present lives. We meet his childhood friends, introduced to his latest love interest. We learn about his early days in London, and discover his latest criminal cases.

Intertwined throughout all of this rich scene setting, is the knowledge that a piece of the puzzle is missing, and for the reader that is like a delicious expectation of what is to come.

And when that arrives, the tone of the novel takes an abrupt change. Banks is determined to solve the one case that has so far eluded him, the one case that his whole career has been built on – the discovery of what happened to his parents who both went missing whilst living in the International Settlement in Shanghai before Banks's return to live with a distant relative in England.

Banks returns to Shanghai, to find the city greatly changed and in the midst of war. We follow the twists and turns of his journey as he struggles to solve the mystery in a city torn apart by conflict. It is gripping, emotive and for me this is Ishiguro at his stunning best.

I loved this novel, it is a masterclass in novel writing. From characters that spring from the page, either in bright, bold colour or subtle shaded greys. The tone is exquisite and the narrative as complex as it is entertaining. The landscape and settings – be it the greyness of London or the explosive reality of war torn Shanghai – are perfectly drawn and as real as opening your curtains on the world each day.

When you find a novel that touches a part of you, it’s with a certain sadness that you close the final page. I hope the next Ishiguro novel I read will have the same effect.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Ali Smith, Robert Harris.

Avoid if you don’t like : War torn countries and childhood secrets.

Ideal accompaniments: Beef Wellington served with greens and a glass of Port.

Genre : Literary.

Available on Amazon