Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Dark Chapter is an extraordinary novel – a forensic examination of a rape and its aftermath, written by someone for who has lived through it. I read it in two days, and twice had to stop myself from reading through the night.

The book opens with the narrator looking back on her old before-the-rape self, watching her as she walks up the path that will lead to her meeting her rapist, seeing her in those last few moments as if across an unbridgeable divide:

“I look across that gap now, an unexpected rift in the contour of my life, and I long to shout across that ravine to the younger me who stands on the opposite edge, oblivious to what lies ahead. She is a distant speck. She seems lost from my perspective, but in her mind she thinks she knows where she’s going . . . she does not know who follows her; she is only thinking of the path ahead.”

It is even more extraordinary that Li writes not just from the point of view of the young woman who is raped. She delves deep into the mind of the attacker – the last place one would imagine she would want to go.

The account of the rape itself is brutal and Li spares us none of the details. But some of the hardest moments to read about come later in the novel – the medical examinations, Vivian’s frantic attempts to access anti-HIV drugs before the 72 hour time limit for them to be administered expires; the ugliness of cross-examination during the trial.

“There will be violation upon violation. This much she has come to realise in the past few weeks.”

But worst of all is the sense of desolation, of the hollowing out of the self.

“The real Vivian checked out days ago and she doesn’t know when she’ll return.”

Many people turn to writing as a way of dealing with terrible events in their lives. But this is far more than a slice of therapeutic memoir. Li’s lucid prose and compassionate understanding shine a light into a dark chapter that blights many women’s lives. It both reveals the profound, life-changing impact rape has on its victims, and offers hope that they will in time, like Li herself, grow into survivors. That the old and the new self can merge back into one person.

“The person she is now. The person she still can be. The person she always was.”

Li passionately believes it is important for survivors of rape to speak out – not just to report the crime to the police, but to speak about it openly, to remove the stigma and to enable others to understand. This book is part of that quest. Reading it, I am conscious of the many times I have walked alone, on city streets, in woods, in fields – how lucky, how privileged I am that I have never stumbled over that ‘unexpected rift’.

A shocking, absorbing and ultimately uplifting read.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Mother by Yvvette Edwards, The Break by Katherena Vermette

Avoid If You Dislike: Graphic description of sexual assault and its consequences

Perfect Accompaniment: An apple and a long drink of water

Genre: Literary Fiction, Crime

You can read Catriona Troth's interview with Winnie M Li on Words with Jam here.

Available on Amazon

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

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

What we thought: I have made it a personal goal to work my way through all of du Maurier’s novels following a recent trip to the Lizard Peninsular. Following the enjoyable passions of Frenchman’s Creek, I turned to Rebecca – and what a change of tone!

I’ve read since that du Maurier used her own feelings of jealousy towards her husband’s previous fiancee as her basis for this novel – and I have to say if the evil Mrs Danvers epitomises Daphne’s own jealous streak … I have much sympathy for the poor woman!

The novel begins in the glamorous surroundings of Monte Carlo where the author’s protagonist first meets the charming Maxim de Winter and despite her youth, they marry and settle in his ancestral home of Manderley in Cornwall. Despite the beauty of the surroundings and the heady flush of first love, it’s not long before our heroine clashes with the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. The story slowly unwinds as we delve into the mystery of Max’s first wife, Rebecca - said to have drowned at sea – and sympathise as the weight of family history threatens to overwhelm their marriage.

We see the struggle of a young, innocent woman, thrown into a world where she feels compelled to judge the success of her role as Mrs de Winter on the previous occupier of the title – and finds herself unable to do battle with a dead woman. But the intrigue is whether her perceptions of the situation are true are false. Could what appears to be love really be hate – or vice versa?

I listened to the audio version of this book, ably narrated by the late Anna Massey, and the superb voices she gave - for Danvers and Rebecca in particular - added another layer to the story.

The dark themes and the mysterious characterisation were brilliant, and while there was less use of the Cornish setting here than in Frenchman’s Creek, the author’s love of the area still came through in the writing. This is a lesson in effortless story-telling and edge of the seat page turning drama all writers should aspire to without doubt.

And onto the next …

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Henry James, Jane Austen.

Avoid if you don’t like: Cornwall. Family secrets. Jealousy.

Ideal accompaniments: Fresh caught mackerel cooked over an open fire. Cornish cider.

Genre: Classic.

Available at Amazon

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Streets of Darkness by A A Dhand

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

AA Dhand is one of a trio of brilliant new British Asian crime writers (the others being Vasim Khan and Abir Mukherjee) who rose to prominence around the same time, each writing a radically different style of crime novel. Of these, Dhand is the only one to set his novels in contemporary Britain.

All good noir needs a dark location as a background, and Dhand gives us Bradford – once a wealthy wool town in the north of England, now riven with unemployment, drugs and racial conflict.

“Bradford had become the cesspit of Yorkshire ... Dereliction was the norm here. Huge Victorian buildings from the industrial era were covered in black soot. They stood abandoned and ashamed.”

It’s Eid, and a huge Mela is planned to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Then Virdee finds the murdered body of the man who has just won a by-election and become the city’s first Muslim MP. The scene is set for the city to go up in flames, just like in the 2004 riots. But could that all be a distraction – and if so, what is it designed to hide?

Dhand has said that (Bradford Review 11/07/2016) that he was striving for a hero that broke the stereotypes of Asian males. Harry Virdee certainly does that. Out on the streets, he is reminiscent of Luther – dangerous, violent, unpredictable. But unlike Luther, he’s not a loner. His tender relationship with is heavily pregnant wife, Saima – the strength they draw from one another, the search for the perfect name as Virdee vetoes one after another of Saima’s suggestions – is one of the joys of the book and a counterpoint to the bleakness of the world outside.

Dhand stares down the lens at some of the toughest problems facing our cities - organised crime, drugs, prostitution, racism in the streets and in politics. And he doesn’t flinch from addressing problems that come from within Bradford’s British Asian community as well as without.

A powerful new voice in British crime fiction. His second book in the series, Girl Zero, is already out and addresses even more controversial issues. I look forward to reading it.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Dreda Say Mitchell, Leye Adenle, Ian Rankin, Val McDiarmid, Jacob Ross

Avoid If You Dislike: the brutal end of the Crime Fiction spectrum

Perfect Accompaniment:
Vegetable thali

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon

Then She Was Born by Cristiano Gentili

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

A disturbing yet important read about the fate of an albino child born in Tanzania. Adimu, born albino or zeru zeru in Swahili, is instantly rejected by her parents. Even the villagers believe the child is a symbol of bad luck and should be left to die in the forest.

Adimu’s grandmother intervenes and suggests they allow the fates to decide. According to custom, the baby is to be placed in the path of the cattle when they are released in the morning. If she is trampled to death, so be it. If she survives, her grandmother will raise her.

Thanks to her grandmother and cows more curious than frenzied, Adimu survives and thrives, despite all the prejudice against her. Her luck waxes and wanes, always dependent on the kindness of others, but her innate intelligence and determination carry her forwards.

Yet others hold to the superstition that body parts of the zeru zeru; her hair woven into fishermen’s nets, her bones made into amulets, can bring good luck. Once she is dead.

A troubling book which challenges easy judgement, filled with nuanced characters and the eternal theme – how to be different?

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston or Accabadora by Michela Murgia

Avoid if you don’t like: Cultural norms which sit uneasily with your own

Ideal accompaniments: Drink Long Island Iced Tea, eat slices of mango and listen to White African Power

Available on Amazon

Girl Zero by A.A. Dhand

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Girl Zero is the second novel by Bradford author AA Dhand, a follow up to his debut, Streets of Darkness.

Dhand takes us back to Bradford, the patch of Inspector Harry Virdee. Virdee has been compared to Luther, but there is at least one crucial difference. Virdee has a family – a wife and now a young son. That grounds him, allows us to see his more tender side, and also gives him something to fight for.

Like all the best crime writers, Dhand explores the dark underbelly of the place he loves – and his Bradford can get very dark indeed. His first novel tackled drugs and racial violence. This second book opens with Virdee confronting the body of his own niece. To begin with it seems likely that her death is linked to his brother’s nefarious activities. But (reminiscent of Craven in the incomparable 80s television series, Edge of Darkness) he soon finds she has been uncovering some dark and dangerous secrets of her own – in this case the activities of a child grooming gang.

In the past few years, many stories of child sexual exploitation have belatedly come to light in the UK. Predators across all communities have made use of the points of access that are available to them. For White predators that has been churches, schools, youth groups, television studios. For Asian predators, it’s been late night chip shops and off licences.

These are modern atrocities crying out to be explored through the medium of crime fiction. Yet there is so much danger of either tarring a whole community with the sins of a few, or looking away for fear of causing offense, that perhaps it’s taken a writer from a British Asian community to tackle this aspect of the problem head on. Like Nazir Afzal, the prosecutor in the Rochdale grooming gang case, Dhand has had the courage and compassion to confront what others have shied away from.

A brave book and gripping read.

You’ll Enjoy this if You Loved: Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle, False Lights by Gillian E Hamer, Streets of Darkness by AA Dhand

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories centred on child sexual exploitation

Perfect Accompaniment: Fried bread with ajwain seeds and a cup of chai

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan

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: Lydia enjoys working at the Bright Ideas Bookstore in Denver, Colorado. She lives a quiet life and is a willing listener when any customer needs a friendly ear.

When she makes a shocking discovery on the top floor of the bookshop, however, her world is turned upside down. She is led to investigate the life of a vulnerable young man called Joey, who has hanged himself. Joey is one of the BookFrogs – the name given to those regulars who come in as much to find a place to shelter from life's hardships, as to buy books. Following a series of strange clues cut out of, or rather into, books, Lydia finds out more about Joey and his traumatic childhood.

This is not the first time Lydia has had to deal with trauma. As a child she witnessed a series of brutal murders, while on a sleepover at a friend's house. The perpetrator, nicknamed the Hammerman, has never been caught. While digging into Joey's story, she finds connections that lead her to attempt to discover the identity of the Hammerman.

Though she has a boyfriend, David who works in IT, Lydia reconnects with an old childhood friend, Raj Patel. Raj's parents run the gas and doughnut store where she and her friend Carol used to hang out as ten-year-olds. She also reluctantly reconnects with her estranged father who lives a reclusive life up in the mountains.

Filled with quirky characters, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is a gripping read. We dip in and out of the past, steadily learning the secrets of Lydia's early life. As the mysteries unravel, Lydia begins to suspect someone close to her of being the Hammerman. And though the reader, too, begins to have suspicions, the answer is unexpected and shocking.

This is a novel about the love of books, the nature of friendship, and the way childhood experiences shape us. While on some levels it is a murder mystery, it is also much more than that, and though it features more than one terrible tragedy, it is told with verve and sympathy.

I received an ebook of this novel from NetGalley in return for an honest review.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Shadow of the Wind, The Little Paris Bookshop.

Avoid if you dislike: Books about books and bookshops.

Ideal accompaniments: A cup of hot chocolate and a cosy blanket.

Genre: Psychological Crime / Literary / Mystery

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The Wacky Man by Lyn Farrell

Reviewer: Jerome Griffin

What we thought: "Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." It's almost like Cesar A. Cruz was talking about Wacky Man when he uttered his immortal phrase.

If you don't want to experience everyday terror, don't read this book. If you want don't want to feel domestic fear, don't read this book. If you don't want to know parental rejection, don't read this book.

But if moving outside your comfort zone is the reason you read, then Wacky Man will drag you over skin reefing gravel, through flesh shredding hedges and slam you into bone crunching boulders. It's not that Wacky Man holds no punches, but insists on delivering blow upon blow on already raw emotions.

The story follows Amanda, a teenager suffering with a range of mental health issues, trying to survive in a broken home dominated by an abusive father. Her mother, Barbara, was defeated long before Amanda was born, while her brothers, like Amanda, spend their lives trying to avoid the next beating.

It wasn’t always like that though and it’s easy to see how Barbara fell for the undoubted charms of Seamus before she got to know his other side. At times Lyn G. Farrell’s tale delicately ebbs and flows with Seamus’s moods and Barbara and her children do their best to enjoy the good times knowing that within Seamus a volcano is getting ready to erupt.

Farrell paints a multilayered picture over time that shows the alarming power one controlling person can exert over so many others. She shows the lasting impact that a never ending cycle of abuse can have on an individual. And she demonstrates the power of a bully in an age when victims of bullying weren’t heard because of their age or sex.

Instead of being heard, they learned to cope. Or not, as the case may be. And maybe that’s the same for everyone. In times of duress and stress we tend to put on a brave face. The ability of humans to adapt to a new set of circumstances, such as oppression, is truly remarkable and worrying in equal measure.

On one level Wacky Man is the story of a teenage girl trying to cope with the solitary anguish of depression, while on another level, it is a savage indictment of how we, as a species, have learned to suppress emotions in favour of stoic resolve, thereby damaging our own mental health in the process.

In the same way books like American Psycho have you turning away from the page in horror only to turn back because you must know what happens next, Wacky Man will leave an indelible mark on your mind. It will leave you emotionally raw and desperate for a comedy to read next. But it’s well worth the journey.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Disturbing stories featuring mental illness

Avoid if you dislike: Domestic violence

Ideal accompaniments: Crispy pancakes, chips & peas washed down with something non-alcoholic

Genre: Contemporary

Available on Amazon

Innocent Blood by P.D James

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

What we thought: A standalone crime thriller from one of my favourite crime writers that for me stood apart from her usual style, but was none the less still gripping to the final page.

Written from split perspectives, we firstly follow Philippa Palfrey, a young girl who upon reaching eighteen decides to find out the truth about her birth parents despite the objections of her adoptive family. Her fairy tale dreams that she is the long-lost daughter of a nobleman are shattered by her discoveries, and we join her as she struggles to come to terms with the reality of her past. 

In a separate thread, Norman is on the mission of his life to find justice for her wife and daughter. Gradually, inch by inch, we see the two stories merge into one and the shocking conclusion that results.

There is much more of a psychological style here than in most of the author’s detective books and I thought she handled it well. I also really enjoyed the London setting, the use of inner city areas versus the leafier suburbs added weight to the class struggle running throughout the novel.

The twist in the tale of the novel was superbly written and the book was well-paced throughout, keeping the reader guessing how the story would evolve. Characters were well formed and believable, yet still distant enough that the reader would not easily connect with any of the main players as none were designed to be ‘nice’ or pleasing to the audience.

I really enjoyed my time back in the company of P.D. James and was pleased at the more modern style in this novel.

You’ll enjoy this if you like : Ruth Rendell, Michael Crichton, Karin Slaughter.

Avoid if you don’t like : Family secrets and lies.

Ideal accompaniments: Vegetable stew and a half pint of bitter.

Genre : Thriller.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I am grateful to the Twitter feed of the Bradford Lit Fest for alerting me to fictional delight I could easily have missed!

Sofia Khan is a totally recognisable, flawed, modern young woman. She wears skinny jeans, smokes, swears, has issues with deadlines and agonises about getting fat while scoffing muffins and lemon puffs. So far, so Bridget Jones. On the other hand, she wears a hijab, doesn’t drink alcohol, prays five times a day and has no intention of having sex before marriage.

It’s something of a meta fiction – a book about Muslim dating telling a story of someone trying to write a book about Muslim dating. Like Bridget Jones’ Diary, it’s written in the form of a diary. And the book has other things in common with BJD. Parents who are frequently out of joint both with each other and with their daughter. A mixed bag of supportive friends with their own hang-ups and problems. And a selection of potential marriage partners each with their own reasons for appearing both attractive and unsuitable.

It will also make you laugh out loud on almost every page. Sofia and her friends have to deal with things Bridget could never have imagined - from Muslim speed dating, to deciding whether it’s okay to become a polygamous second wife. As for emotional blackmail, Muslim aunties take it to new heights.

But Sofia Khan has something BJD never quite achieved – a sense of real heart. Sophia can be clumsy, obtuse, grumpy, even downright rude at times. But she is utterly lovable in her vulnerability, and the warmth of affection for her friends and her bickering family leaps off the page. I cried unashamedly through much of the last fifty pages.

Do not expect this to end with Sofia ripping off her hijab and going on a binge. Nor with her settling down to be a ‘traditional’ submissive wife. This is about how you can be a modern, independent, strong-minded woman – and still a faithful Muslim. Something most Muslim women have always known; Malik is just letting the rest of us in on the secret. Can’t wait to follow Sofia into the next chapter of her life.

You Will Enjoy This If You Loved: Bridget Jones Diary by Helen Fielding, The Trials of Tiffany Trott by Isabel Wolff, Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee by Meera Syall

Avoid If You Dislike: Novels in diary format

Perfect Accompaniment: Chocolate digestives

Genre: Romance

Available on Amazon

Last Child by Terry Tyler

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
: Last Child is the gripping sequel to the unique and highly entertaining Kings and Queens, which I thoroughly enjoyed and reviewed here. As Kings and Queens was a modern day take on the life of Henry VIII and his six wives, through a contemporary setting, Last Child evokes the lives of his children, the Tudor descendants: Edward VI (as Jasper), Mary I (as Isabella), and Elizabeth I (as Erin), written with a fictional take that brings these modern characters alive.

Last Child is divided into three parts, representing the “reigns” of Edward VI (in Jasper Junior), Mary (in Isabella) and Elizabeth (in Erin).

I loved reading about the lives and loves of this next generation of the Lanchester family as much as I did Henry VIII’s generation in Kings and Queens: hateful, lovable, irritating, sweet, laughable, the entire array of human qualities and faults renders the characters easy to relate to, and to empathise with. I couldn’t help but become attached to this family.

In Last Child, as in Kings and Queens, most readers will be well-acquainted with Tudor history –– those turbulent times in British history –– (although the author’s brief account of this historical period post-Henry VIII is a very interesting and useful accompaniment), but what makes this author’s books unique is the way she narrates the stories against a fictional, contemporary backdrop. She shows us that human nature, human behaviour, and history, are timeless.

As a history lover, and author of historical fiction, I love a gripping historical novel. I also enjoy good contemporary fiction, so Last Child ticked both of those boxes for me. It’s a book I wanted to read slowly, to savour, but one that I couldn’t help but gobble up in a few short sittings.

As for Kings and Queens, it’s not easy to label this book with a particular genre. Again, I think I’d call it parallel history.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: Kings and Queens by Terry Tyler.

Avoid if you don’t like
: A contemporary, fictional take on factual historical stories.

Ideal accompaniments
: Pigeon pie with a large glass of mead.

Genre: Parallel History, Contemporary Historical Retelling

Available on Amazon