Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan


ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought:

An almighty rippling beast of a book which spans centuries of American history, taking in its stride such subjects as eugenics, slavery, sexual politics, lineage and morality.

Set in the state of Kentucky, the book traces the fortunes of the Forge family starting with young Henry, growing up on his father's tobacco farm. With glances back at his ancestors who settled on this land and claimed it as their own, Henry makes up his mind to forge his own path and turn the land to breeding racehorses.

The novel progresses in a relatively conventional sense to the next generation and Henrietta, who is groomed by her father to continue the family business. One day, while interviewing potential farmhands, she encounters Allmon Shaughnessy, son of a black mother and white father, who claims he's good with horses.

This is where the book loops away from the typical saga and flips back to follow the misfortunes of Allmon's upbringing. An absentee father, a sick mother who cannot afford healthcare and a lack of choices lead Allmon from the wrong side of the tracks to the wrong side of the law.

Morgan embraces the unpredictable in her storytelling, using flashbacks, excerpts, playscripts, speeches and rewritten parables to reinforce her themes. The juxtaposition of theory beside the brutal realities described in her prose jar the reader into an uncomfortable awareness. Her language is exceptional when she gives herself free rein to encompass the geography and natural wonders of the Bluegrass State, but also when evoking the smallest detail of equine or human.

It's not an easy read, often harrowing and dark, disturbing and shocking, leavened with excitement and suspense of the races and some wonderfully entertaining characters; a jockey, a preacher, a chain-smoking neighbour. It's also huge not only in number of pages but scope. That said, it's a book that will stay with you a long, long time and very likely lure you back again.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Underworld by Don de Lillo, Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.

Avoid if you don’t like: Stories of extreme suffering by humans and animals, long descriptive passages, unconventional structures.

Ideal accompaniments: Derby pie and a mint julep. And a shot of bourbon after the river crossing.

 Genre:  Literary fiction, Bailey's Prize shortlist 

Available on Amazon

My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream by Janine Marsh

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

What we thought: I might not be brave enough to renovate a run-down barn in rural France, but as an ex-pat living in a French village, I can totally relate to Janine Marsh’s book, My Good Life in France.

The author’s new life in France started out quite differently to most ex-pats though: whilst on one of her regular day trips to pick up cheap wine in northern France, she purchased an old barn in the rural Seven Valleys area of Pas de Calais. It seems no one was more surprised at this purchase than the author herself.

Her French adventure began as weekend trips to renovate her new home which lacked mains drainage, heating, proper rooms, and had not the slightest of comforts. It turned into a life-time project requiring far more time, money and energy than she could ever have imagined.

Several years ago, Janine eventually gave up her top corporate banking job in London to move with her husband to their still quite run-down French barn. In My Good Life in France, she narrates the true story of negotiating the local inhabitants, French bureaucracy, tradesmen, culture and etiquette. No easy feat for a born and bred British girl from the city!

I loved reading about all of her adventures: the good, the bad, the ugly. And the incredible, one of which resulted in the neighbours nicknaming her “Madame Merde”. I’ll let you read the story for yourself to find out why!

The author’s joy, frustration, enthusiasm and curiosity for her new homeland shines through as she recounts her experiences with humour, from administrative struggles to homesickness and personal tragedy, to her love for chickens and stray animals. And, finally, love for her life in France.

Towards the end of the book, Janine includes a lot of useful information for adapting to the French lifestyle and negotiating French rules –– both written and unwritten!

Highly recommended for Francophiles and anyone thinking of impulse-buying a run-down property in a region where it rains all the time.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Humorous ex-pat stories, such as Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and the sequels: Toujours Provence and Encore Provence.

Avoid if you don’t like: tales of travel and home renovation.

Ideal accompaniments: Gratin de Maroilles aux lardons washed down with a cool glass of Chardonnay.

Genre: memoir, travel book.

Available on Amazon




The Break by Katherena Vermette

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Once again, the annual Canada Reads event from CBC Books has connected me with a brilliant indigenous author I might otherwise have missed from this side of the Atlantic.

The Break is an area of rough ground on the edge of an unnamed city between the Canadian Shield at the Prairies. It abuts a neighbourhood home to many Métis and ‘status Indians,’ written off by the local police as ‘nates’ or ‘May-tee’.

When one Métis woman witnesses a brutal attack – a rape, she says – on the Break, the police are reluctant to believe her. Sexual attacks just don’t happen in snow drifts in the middle of winter. But then a young girl shows up at hospital with a story that matches her account.

The novel unfolds in a series of overlapping points of view – most of them women across three generations of the same family - the matriarch, Kookum (grandmother), her daughters and granddaughters.

They have a strength forged by a lifetime of tough experience, and the bonds of love between them are warm and tangible. They have made their lives and homes in the city, supporting their families while their men, for the most part, have retreated to the bush. Between them, their voices draw us, not just into the tragic events on the Break but into a family history that encapsulates the experience of Métis women.

A tender exploration of the impact of sexual assault on an extended family, and of the resilience of indigenous women. A story that will stay with you long after you have closed the final page.

Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer from Manitoba, the heart of the Métis nation. Her book, North End Love Songs previously won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. The Break, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Avoid if You Dislike: Stories centred around sexual assault

Perfect Accompaniment: Tomato soup with bannock bread

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fiction from Indigenous Authors

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Power by Naomi Alderman


ReviewerJJ Marsh


What we thought:

One of those concepts that's so simple yet so mind-altering, you can't believe this is the first time anyone's done it.

Teenage girls begin developing an electrical force. It can hurt, maim and kill. Young girls teach older women and an age-old imbalance tilts. Now the men are afraid, rushing home before dark, segregated into private schools, vulnerable in the face of female retribution.

Alderman tells the story from four strategic viewpoints: the religious icon, the journalist, the politician, the business dealer, each character formed by the previous status quo. When social norms turn, so do people, politics, international relations, sexuality and human behaviour.

Utopian ideals regarding nature prove unpredictable when centuries of oppression are overturned and the victims can choose forgiveness or retaliation. Power in the wrong hands is lethal. Four characters experience the best and worst of such a new order, allowing the reader a wide-angle lens on how good/bad it could get.

The scope of this book is breathtaking. There is a joy and a terror in imagining irresistible might, accompanied by all the unavoidable decisions as how to use it.

Terrifying, fascinating and one to ponder for many, many years.
And then read it again.
You might change your mind.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Roma Nova Series by Alison Morton

Avoid if you don’t like: World views and status quo overturned, thinking

Ideal accompaniments: Pepper vodka, Bombay Duck and Amanda Palmer's Grown Man Cry

Genre: Literary Fiction, Bailey's Prize Shortlister



Available on Amazon

A Discarded Life by Alexander Masters

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

What We Thought: I have read several excellent books since I've been reviewing for Netgalley and to be honest when I chose this one I thought it was a novel. It isn't. It's quite unlike anything else and must occupy a category of its own.

Some years ago several boxes of diaries were found in a skip in Cambridge by friends of the writer Alexander Masters. After a another few years he ended up as custodian of the unknown diarist's work. He ignored them for a while but on eventually dipping into them, became intrigued. Who is this unnamed person? Why were the diaries thrown out? Who is the oft-mentioned E?

In a manner befitting a detective novel Masters begins his investigation. Picking up the odd clue in the writing, he discovers where the writer lived, details of work done and schools attended and passions felt. He does not at first read the diaries in date order but gathers information sometimes from the early years - the fifties - and sometimes from the later ones.

Assuming the writer must be dead - or why would the books have been in a skip? - he pursues his mysterious quarry from Cambridge to London to the Wirral and back again.

The diarist is an artist - a painter, a pianist, a writer; great symphonies will be composed, novels will be published, the world will one day know this person. There is passion for life - and an inability to do anything other than write about it. The diaries move from teenage fantasies full of sketches, to adult depression; from a head-in-the-clouds inability to concentrate on mundane work, to an obsession with television personalities.

The writer is spiteful, hateful, loving, vulnerable, weak, full of grandiose ideas and ultimately ineffectual. There is hunger for acceptance and the refusal to act in an acceptable manner. An odd attraction to elderly women reveals itself.

This is an amazing book. It has the grip of a detective novel combined with the fascination of a biography. Covering over fifty years, it allows us to see into the mind of another person - to see all the grand schemes and petty annoyances, to gain insight to the private thoughts and private language of another human being in way I have never before encountered. Most published diarists write from the start with an eye on publication. This one did not.

Masters has a warm and human style. He both likes and dislikes the subject of his 'biography' and tells the tale with humour and self-deprecation. All life is here - ordinary life - a life discarded in a skip.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Lady in the Van

Avoid if you dislike:
Warts and all investigations of another person’s private life.

Ideal accompaniments: A very open mind.

Genre: Biography / Diary

Strawberry Sky by Jan Ruth


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

What we thought: I was looking forward to this book having enjoyed the first two in the series, and I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed. The novel emerges you right into the heart of the complex lives of sisters, Laura and Maggie, as we follow the next chapter of their story. And it’s an emotional one!

The author embraces the world we find ourselves, amid the wild open hills of North Wales, and that confidence shines through in her writing. Well-paced, this story plays with the reader’s sympathies and loyalties, reeling you in right from the start, into their world so we care about the outcome of the characters. I particularly enjoyed the excellent twist in the tale.

Laura has lots to celebrate in her life. James is on the road to recovery following his near death accident, and the equine business is booming with plans for further expansion. But there are dark shadows also; her desire to get pregnant threatens her marriage, plus her worries about family ‘bad blood’ remain unresolved.

Maggie has her own family crisis to manage. Her daughter, Jess, flees to America leaving her (literally) holding baby, Krystal, and Pete has a health scare that could shatter their world. But with Jess, nothing is ever simple, and trying to keep the family together and find time for herself becomes a challenge.

It was a real joy to be back in this equine-based world and in the remoteness and beauty of the North Wales setting. The location and local characters as always brought another dimension to the story. And this story is a page turner, full of dramatic highs and lows, it grips the reader to the very end. I read the whole book over one weekend, with the need to read more mixed with the dread of reaching the final page.

Knowing it was the final book of the series, I thought the author did a brilliant job in bringing all of the threads together into a satisfying conclusion – although I secretly hope she decides to write more in the series in the future.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jojo Moyes, Dick Francis, Clare Chambers.

Avoid if you don’t like: Horses.

Ideal accompaniments: Strawberries with ice cream and a glass of Prosecco.

Genre: Contemporary.

Available on Amazon




Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Retalio by Alison Morton

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: A read so painfully pertinent you could almost wish it were true. If you haven’t come across this alternative history series yet, I almost envy you. This is Roma Nova, what could have happened if the remnants of Roman empire was run by women.

But Roma Nova is now in trouble. One deceitful, vain and amoral man - Caius Tellus - has taken power and intends to ‘restore order’. In making Roma Nova great again, he reverses all the progress of decades and brings the land to its knees, driving a wedge between those loyal to the previous regime and his own macho cohort intent on rolling back progressive rights.

Aurelia Mitela, a senior government minister, is in exile in Vienna. But she is not alone. The people and ethics she defends are alive and well, and her supporters are legion. It’s time to get organised and fight to regain control of the country they love.

This is a love story for a country and its principles, as well as a relationship, a political and military adventure, a commitment to beliefs and a cast of unexpectedly detailed characters. Tension runs throughout as no one can be sure an ally is trustworthy until it’s too late. A page-turning pile-driver of a novel, it explores the nature of power, and those who use it for self-aggrandisement or common good.

Read it now, then go buy some horses.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Roma Nova series, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters or Women Without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran by Shahrnush Parsipur

Avoid if you don’t like: Feminism, military strategy, contemporary echoes

Ideal accompaniments: Salmon with horseradish on brown bread, a mug of Gluhwein and Think, by Aretha Franklin

Genre: Historical fiction, alternative history

Available on Amazon




Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“That is my fate,” Wen the Dreamer told me, “To escape and continue this story, to make infinite copies, to let these stories permeate the soil, invisible and undeniable.”

Like an intricate carving of concentric interlocking elements, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a story within a story within a story.

The first, outermost shell of the story is that of a young Canadian girl, Marie/Li-Ling, who, after the suicide of her father, is visited by the daughter of one of her father’s oldest friends, a fellow Chinese musician and his tutor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

The second is the story Ai-Ming, the visitor, reveals – the tale of how their two families came to be intertwined.

The third is the Book of Records – the story laboriously copied out by hand in numerous notebooks, hidden over and over and used to conceal buried messages between loved ones.

Together the three stories reveal the terrible history of the Chinese Revolution, from the Japanese occupation of China during the Second World War, through to the events in Tianamen Square in 1989 that were watched around the world.

Ai-Ming is an engineer and Marie is a mathematician, but their fathers were musicians and Ai Ming comes from a long line of musicians. Music, Chinese and Western, twists and twines its way through the narrative, and one of the novel’s central tragedies springs from the way music was ripped from their lives by the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

The names of the characters – Sparrow, Wen the Dreamer, Big Mother Knife, Comrade Glass Eye – are like names from a fairytale, and when Ai-Ming begins to tell the story, that is how it seems to Marie But the closer events move in time, the less dreamlike they appear until, by the time we reach the occupation of Tianamen Square in April 1989, it is as if we are there on the streets with the protesting students and workers who supported them.

For those of us who find it impossible to imagine what it must be like to live in a society that tries to control, not just everything you do, but everything you think, this opens a window on both compliance and rebellion, and reveals that price that is paid that your inner and outer selves become not merely different, but incompatible.

A deeply personal story of love, friendship and dedication that nevertheless reveals, in breathtaking panorama, a segment of 20th C history too little understood in the West.

As the author reminds us: “Throughout the world, for thousands of years, those whom we call good men, righteous men, have been accustomed to the sight of such things ... have not demanded justice for the victims or offered to help them.”

Winner of the 2016 Giller Prize and shortlisted for the 2017 Baileys Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamshie, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories that spin out over decades / generations

Perfect Accompaniment: Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played by Glenn Gould; Shostakovitch’s Symphony No 5.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Modern Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon