Book Reviews

As a writer and as a presenter of a radio show Talking Books , I love reading and live and breathe the written word. Here I share some thoughts on some of those on my recent reading list…

sdThe Sea Detective

by Mark Douglas Home

****four stars

This is an interesting new take on the maverick detective – offering possibilities to those of us who love crime fiction but struggle to find anything new and original.

Really well constructed with different plot lines melding well together and all working to build a picture of oceanographer/ecologist Cal McGill, a geeky Phd student who can solve mysteries (from severed feet floating ashore along the coastline of Scotland, to the horrors of child trafficking) by tracking tidal drift and ocean currents. The twists and turns are bound together by his determination to solve the mystery of his grandfather’s death, and author and journalist Mark Douglas Home creates a crime novel that will surely be the first of many.


Gillespie and I

by Jane Harris

*****five stars

Oh my goodness, what a book. What an intense week I had reading it! I stayed awake until 2.30am to finish it and couldn’t sleep for another hour afterwards, so busy was my mind with all the possibilities, mystery and horror this book generates. It says on the cover that it compares to ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ and ‘Arthur and George’, and I would add Sarah Waters’ ‘The Little Stranger’to the list.

It is long, and only too long in the sense that you want to know what happens and there seems at times no end to the suspense. But at the same time it is a book to savour and to hold on to, not wanting it to end.

The reliability of the elderly Harriet Baxter as our narrator, writing a memoir of her time with the artist Ned Gillespie and his family almost fifty years before is suspect from early on in the book. The parallel stories of her life in 1933, as she writes, and her time in Glasgow in the late 1880s work so well together that the switch between the two was never a brake on the story and the end was for me a satisfying one.

I am now going to lend it to everyone I know. Fabulous.


The Devil’s Ribbon

by D. E. Meredith

**** four stars

I was lucky enough to read this just before the launch in the UK in preparation for interviewing the author and I have thoroughly enjoyed the dark mix of history and whodunnit. It is a thrilling murder mystery set against a backdrop of the Irish unrest in mid-Victorian London – the rookeries of St Giles and the Limehouse docks teeming with poverty stricken families and firebrand priests and journalists.

Hatton and Roumande, a team at the forefront of forensic science are drafted in to assist a ruthless Scotland Yard detective in the second of the series of novels in which they feature. Gruesome details abound but in this book (which is the second in a series, after Devoured) we begin to understand a little more about what drives Hatton and he is becoming a detective (a scientist detective) in the mould of Rebus or Morse – disgruntled, unlucky in love and ultimately a lonely man in a dangerous and difficult job.

Great stuff.

I interview D. E Meredith on my main blog here


Being Dead

by Jim Crace

**** four stars

This is one of the strangest books I have ever read. It is somewhat macabre in its painstaking detail of the decomposition of the human body after death but at the same time it is a convincing story, interwoven with asides on the nature of dying, the meaning of love and the difficulties of parent – child relationships. Utterly original I found myself reading page after page as if it were poetry – in language and metre it does read as a narrative poem in places.

I have read a number of reviews and opinion on this book is certainly divided,  but I was moved and affected by it in unexpected ways. Very cleverly written.


A Treacherous Likeness

by Lynn Shepherd

***** five stars

The research and imagination that has gone into this book takes it well beyond the Victorian crime genre that it might otherwise be slotted into. As it examines a mystery at the heart of the life of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley much of the ‘action’ takes place much earlier in the 19th century. Unlike the book it succeeds, Tom All Alone’s, Charles Maddox Junior does not drive the story as viewpoint switches between characters via letters, notes and journal entries, which reveal his great uncle – CM Snr – to be rather more fallible than we have been previously led to believe. This results in a tale that constantly surprises and challenges beliefs and at the end our views of the poet Shelley and the women he bewitched and betrayed are transformed by the author’s imagination. It will be hard to think of this complex Romantic poet in the same way again.

Charles Maddox, both junior and senior, are flawed heroes in many ways. However an interesting detective is never a simple soul. ….

I interview Lynn Shepherd on my main blog here


Night Train to Lisbon

by Pascal Mercier

**** four stars

This is a book to read slowly. Drink in the philosophical insights of Amadeu Prado, the man who wrote the book that takes Raimund Gregorius,  teacher at a Swiss college and expert in ancient languages, on a physical and metaphorical journey to a new country and a new sense of self. In order to understand the author of the mysterious book that he finds in a shop in his native Bern,  he abandons his teaching position and goes to Lisbon, where he investigates the author, Prado, and his associates. In doing so he develops a new outlook on life, death, love and betrayal. It is, in some ways, a thriller. It is written against the background of the horrors perpetrated by the Portuguese government in the mid-20th century,but it is not plot-driven. Some may find it hard-going – as this is a translation into English it is sometimes a little hard to take in when it is at its deepest – but it is well worth it

Underneath the Lemon Tree

by Mark Rice-Oxley

***** five stars

This is a marvellous memoir. Brutally honest and open about his experience of depression; lyrical on the subject of his childhood and family and determined to understand why he – mro, Guardian journalist father, husband – seemingly invincible, should have a depressive breakdown. In doing so he offers support to those who have found themselves in a similar position and his strength – for strong he certainly is – is inspirational. At times he can do nothing but sit and look at, rather than take part in, the external world and his concern about recovery is something many of us who have experienced mental illness will share.

But he gets there, learns the lessons necessary to manage his new life with his ‘thing’ and at the same time offers up some wise words to everyone out there struggling to ‘have it all’ in the 21st century.

I was lucky enough to interview Mark for my blog recently. Everyone should read this, not just those who already know what having a ‘thing’ like mental ill-health is like. It is a lesson to us all

The Greatcoat

by Helen Dunmore

** two stars

Oh dear, an opportunity missed – this short novel by a fabulous writer would have been a better short story.

It is 1954, newly wed Isabel Carey goes to live in a Yorkshire town, following her GP husband Philip. She is unhappy and her situation is not helped by the unfriendliness that seems to surround her, not least from the landlady of the poky flat they have to rent. Her discovery of an old RAF greatcoat one cold night apparently sets in train events that make this a ‘terrifyingly atmospheric ghost story’ but in my view the length of the book makes that impossible.

Even as a short story there would have been flaws in the plotting. Why doesn’t Isabel question what is happening to her? What really is the significance of the landlady’s heavy footsteps overhead other than a standard spooky ‘device’ tagged on rather incongruously? By the end of the book – I won’t give anything away – you are only mildly interested in what is happening and although something slightly unexpected happens, by then I ceased to care.

I love a good ghost story but have always believed it is hard to maintain across a whole novel – Sarah Waters The Little Stranger was an exception. This book rather supports that theory. Shame.


by Rose Tremain

**** four stars

Some reviews have given the thumbs down to this book on the basis of an absence of likeable characters. I do agree that everyone of them has serious flaws and that would normally suggest I wouldn’t engage with the story. However, the horrific back stories that go some way to explain the frailties of all concerned make this a very intelligent thriller.

Although the first chapter hints at horrors to come the ending is always in doubt and there were times when I simply had to read on, regardless of the time of night or the necessity to cook dinner. Great stuff.

The Sense of an Ending

by Julian Barnes

***** five stars

For some authors it seems, winning the Man Booker Prize is one night of glory, followed by barbed comments about how readable, or unreadable their work is to a general reader – someone who might pop into Waterstones for a ‘3 for 2’ deal, presumably. This book doesn’t deserve such treatment. It is a short novel, but not a word is wasted. I have read books twice as long that say half as much.

I think an indication of the truth of this story and the sincerity of the narrator’s voice is how many people had highlighted passages in my kindle edition. It is packed with truisms about life, different ways of living it and the ways we find as humans to use memory to blot out, justify or explain how certain events in our life impacted on others and on our own life story.

Tony and his pals at school (sex mad teens in the 1960s) are intrigued by a new pupil, Adrian, who joins their clique but somehow remains his own person -accepted by them and admired as an original thinker. As they leave school, go to University and form new relationships things change and a life-changing event occurs that will resonate down the years. One day, 40 odd years, a quiet but satisfactory career and an amicable divorce later Tony receives a letter. It makes him re-examine his memory of these times, his life and his assumptions.

Fabulous, utterly compelling and truly worthy of the Booker which has chosen a book of quality which, thank goodness, is readable and accessible to anyone who enjoys great writing.

The Winter Ghosts

by Kate Mosse

**** four stars

I have read reviews of this book by those who, having read Mosse’s other novels – which are brick sized – felt a little short-changed by this one. I came to it as someone who has never managed to get further than the first chapter of Labyrinth so could judge it differently and at 250 pages long (not exactly a novella) it was, simply, a rattling good story and a great book for a quick read.

Some of the early chapters were a little over-written but I quickly became engrossed in the story – a ghost story and a romance. The main character, his grief and mental torment at the loss of his brother in the first war are well drawn and convincing. The supporting ‘cast’ are endearing. What isn’t to like? I have lent it to three people now, each of whom devoured it in 24 hours. OK it isn’t educational but it was just what I needed and sometimes we just have to enjoy a book without over-analysing it.  Bless it.

The English Lakes: A History

by Ian Thompson

***** five stars

This is a terrific, general read on the history of the Lake District – not from any geological or long-term historical view but the ‘Lake District’ as an entity that has thrilled artists, poets,walkers, climbers and the holidaymaker in search of peace and quiet over the past three centuries. It covers the evolution of the area from a place that inspired awe and terror to the home of the sublime and the ‘picturesque’and all the conflicting parties that must find a way of conserving, rather than just preserving the environment and economy that contribute to our sense of place. It is a book that values those who live there alongside those who return time after time through a feeling of real connection with the landscape.Wonderful.

On my main blog – The Keats Brothers – the Life of John & George by Denise Gigante

A review of a fascinating new biography focusing on George Keats’ life in America and how the relationship between George and John Keats impacted on John’s poetry.

On my main blog: My first ‘Web Splash’ – New Beginnings by Rebecca Emin

I join in a ‘Web Splash’ for the publication of Rebecca’s first novel for older children and enjoy making contact with writers I had never encountered before.




Are We Nearly There Yet?

by Ben Hatch

**** & a half stars

I bought this book when prompted by a Twitter post (something I rarely do) but I am not in the least bit sorry that I went to my Kindle and downloaded it straight away. It is longer than I imagined but even at this busy time of year I found myself wanting to get back to it; to see what happened next. By the end of the book I felt as if I almost knew the family, so closely do we follow them through the pages.

Are We Nearly There Yet? is not simply a funny travelogue, or a description of the joys and otherwise of a trip around Britain spending days at tourist attractions and nights in various hotels reviewing child friendliness for an American guidebook. Yes, there are the usual stories and anecdotes of life with a 4 and 2 year old – many of us will have our own versions of the same stories – but it also a memoir and a loving portrait of the author’s father, a man who had a significant impact on much of the comedy we still listen to on Radio 4 now. The moment, half way through the trip, when his father dies is so very poignant it made me want to call my Mum and tell her how much I love her.

It is also brilliant at making one feel an OK parent as Ben and his wife Dinah bribe their children round Britain with packets of sweets and the singing of inappropriate songs. Our family favourite was ‘There is a light that will never go out’ by the Smiths – still on my son’s iPhone at 20.

So there is much in this book for everyone to enjoy (they clearly live just down the road from where we lived in Brighton with our 4 and 2 year old a few years ago) and I wish I had a physical copy to lend to my friends. It is the kind of book you long to share.

I haven’t given it five stars for just two reasons: the last few chapters seem to rush round Britain as fast as Santa, disappointing if you were waiting to hear what he thought of the West Country ( though of course we are VERY child friendly down here!) and secondly, he is perfectly horrid about the Lake District, my favourite place in all the world (or as much as I know of it.) In his defence though, we did only get away with taking our kids there because it was spring. We had to count an awful lot of lambs to get away with it….

Post on my main blog – Does history repeat itself? Women’s Lives by Jen Newby

***** five stars

Author interview and review of Women’s Lives – Researching Women’s Social History 1800–1939 (Pen and Sword Books, £12.99)

A Winter Book

By Tove Jansson

***** Five stars

The Finn Family Moomintroll was a book read to me as a child and I remember a cartoon, in translation I think, only vaguely.So Tove Jansson was not familiar to me as a writer of short stories for adults. However, I saw a young student reading this and was intrigued by the title. Picking it up in a charity shop I couldn’t believe how lucky I had been to find it.

Some of the stories are very simple and autobiographical tales of her childhood, told in the first person. The child has a clear eye for the foibles of adults and although lightweight that is part of their appeal.

Other stories deal with issues of aging. ‘The Squirrel’ is the story of a lonely woman’s battle with a small mammal who is seems to be the only other occupant of a wintry Finnish island. ‘Travelling Light’ is a wonderful tale of one person’s determination to break habits of a lifetime, leaving their physical and mental ‘baggage’ behind and (unsuccessfully) trying to live only for themselves. It spoke to me as someone who, like the main protagonist, seems to absorb the sorrows of others until they weigh so heavily it is hard to live ones own life.

Fabulous. I long to read more.

Santa – A Life

Jeremy Seal

**** Four stars

Well I am on to my Christmas 2011 reading challenge as run by The True Book Addict. From now until 25th December some of my reading matter will be Christmas or winter-themed, in an effort (and I need very little) to get me into the mood for the festive season.

This is not a typical Christmas book. it is a well researched ‘biography’ of Santa which spends two thirds of its length discussing his origins as St Nicholas and how that venerable saint managed to manouevre himself into the right places at the right times to become the ‘father’ of Christmas. Fascinating, rich in detail and ultimately a book that really does convince, despite all the current commercialisation, that there is an element of truth in the genuine goodness of the season.

John Keats – A Literary Life

R.S White

**** Four stars

I have only resisted the temptation to give this five stars because I feel it could have been edited more efficiently. Some really interesting information, deserving of highlight, is lost in long paragraphs and the writer’s voice sometimes intrudes rather too obviously. For a book that cost over £40 this was a pity.

HOWEVER as a literary life this is an interesting and accessible read. If you are looking for a straightforward biography of Keats life, or a detailed analysis of the poetry and letters this is not the book for you. But in referencing each to the other it is at times fascinating.

The Return of Captain John Emmett

by Elizabeth Speller

*** Three stars

Well – what to say. Would I recommend this book? Well I wanted to know what happened next; it is about shell shock and the mental torment of soldiers in the Great War, a subject I am very interested in. But I can only give it 3 stars because, quite honestly, it was ultimately predictable and unsatisfying to a certain degree – caused I think by lengthy explanations of events and motives by characters other than the lead that made it a little plodding in places.

It was as if the author let her characters do all the talking, not to offer a finely drawn picture of them but to blur the edges and draw attention away from some dodgy plotting. Coincidences abound – at the end there is a classic ‘oh and I just remembered’ moment that resolved a worrying loose end and actually I had little sympathy with anyone involved.

Still, these criticisms have been leveled at authors of many a bestseller and it is a proper page turner.

In a Summer Season

by Elizabeth Taylor

***** Five stars

I have recently discovered Elizabeth Taylor – her acute observations of middle class 50’s and 60’s England are both entertaining and emotionally affecting.

She is much neglected. Anyone who enjoys Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner or even Jane Austen will find a lot to admire in this book. Hardly plot-driven, it is however a story of one summer in the life of a woman who has somewhat lost her way in the wake of the death of her first husband, quickly marrying a much younger man.

The ending is surprising, especially as the rest of the book is very much concerned with the internal lives of the characters (not all of whom are very sympathetically drawn) rather than outside events.

Loved it – my favourite Elizabeth Taylor yet. Do give her a try. My only criticism is that in these new editions there is an introduction to each novel (often written by another well-known author) that do somewhat give away what plot there might be and the best of the observational writing. I now read the introduction after I have read the book….

Instances of the Number 3

by Salley Vickers

**** Four stars

This is a book I would heartily recommend as an intelligent but light read for a holiday or a long journey. The basic story is simple but the psychological insight is acute – unsurprising bearing in mind Ms Vickers was a psychoanalyst for some years.

With her recently dead husband walking like a ghost through the pages this is the story of Bridget, her relationships and ultimately friendships with the other women in her husband’s life – most notably Frances, his long-time mistress. It is also a gentle examination of personal identity and how art and literature influence our lives.

I hate the cover though. More than one person thought it made the book look dated (which it certainly isn’t – quite the opposite) and not a little throwaway, which does the book an injustice. A small thing perhaps but I would want to encourage more people to take this off the shelves..

The Rain Before it Falls

by Jonathan Coe

***  Three stars

I love Jonathan Coe’s writing – The House of Sleep is one of my Desert Island books. This was not, for me, as involving, surprising or interesting as that novel, or others he has written. I liked it, was gripped by the story telling, but by the end felt as if I was being rushed through this tale of mothers and daughters to a disappointingly predictable conclusion.

If you have never read Jonathan Coe, don’t start with this one.

Dark Matter

by Michelle Paver

**** Four stars

I read this in one sitting – the five hour journey from Somerset to the Lake District was no chore (obviously I wasn’t driving!) and a book I had bought for Kindle as a holiday read was finished before I had even reached our destination.

This is undeniably a ghost story, most directly comparable to Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. Like that book though it deals with psychological issues too; in this case the impact of total isolation in the absolute darkness of a North Norwegian winter.

A group of young scientists travel to a remote bay to study meteorology and geology in the late 1930s. Of course, to describe the plot would spoil the book for those who have not yet discovered it. However, it can be said that the whole enterprise is ill-fated. The question is – why? Locals are reluctant to visit the spot the young, naive scientists have chosen and by the end of the book the reason is quite clear.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a well written, if not especially original, spooky holiday read. You will not want to put it down, it takes you along at a quick pace and the ending is quite an emotional ride.

The Devil and Miss Prym

by Paulo Coelo

Four stars ****

A stranger (that is the only name we are to know him by) arrives in an isolated mountain village, bringing with him an offer that tests the morality of the townspeople to the limits: If anybody in the town is murdered within a week, every other resident will receive a share of his store of gold bars.

This is a short, but challenging, allegory on the meaning of what it is to be human. Even a man who believes himself wholly good must recognise that a metaphorical devil sits on his shoulder willing him to recognise a darker side of his nature.

It might also be said to represent the frightening possibility of the acts a previously ordinary and relatively civilised group of people can be convinced to perpetrate for a supposedly greater good.

I found this an enjoyable and highly thought-provoking read. It looks at powerful issues using the lightest of touches. I don’t think you could read it comfortably without an interest in the wider philosophical debate, although towards the end there is a brooding horror to please the most avid reader of thrillers.

Florence & Giles

by John Harding

Four stars ****

Set in a crumbling New England mansion this is Victorian gothic at its best. Florence and her younger brother Giles are largely left to run wild by their absentee guardian, who supports the education of Giles, but refuses to allow Florence to learn even to read. Of course, she sneaks off, teaches herself and when a governess is employed to teach Giles at home there begins a tale of malevolent spirits, murder and intrigue.

This is a gripping page turner, suitable for young adult and adult readers alike.  Florence, the 12 year old narrator, has a unique voice that remains pretty consistent throughout, a challenge John Harding has met remarkably well, bearing in mind how interesting that voice is. There is always a danger that a child’s ‘voice’ lacks realism, or is not maintained, a problem I felt spoilt much of my enjoyment of ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue.

The story owes much to Henry James and Wilkie Collins and I guessed the key points of the plot and the resolution well before the end, but the journey was great and there were certainly ‘twists’ I didn’t see coming.

The Quickening Maze

by Adam Foulds

Four stars ****

This book is an historically accurate but fictional account of time spent by the poet John Clare in an Essex asylum, interwoven with the story of Tennyson as he spends time in the area whilst his brother has treatment in the same place.

On the Booker Prize short-list, its success is for me based on the sharp characterisation of the Dr. Matthew Allen, who without realising it seems equally as obsessive and deluded as some of his patients.

I did find the frequent change of perspective and the lack of explanation as to which persona Clare was inhabiting at some points in the book somewhat confusing. I don’t know if it is particularly obvious in the Kindle edition but this put the brakes on the narrative for me as it required frequent recaps.

Perhaps I have found the first disadvantage to my Kindle. It had not before occurred to me how much easier it is to just flick back through a few pages!

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