Fiction

Dystopian fiction – Vox and The Farm reviews

It’s release day for Margaret Attwood’s The Testaments, and book world is alight with discussion on all things dystopian. I’ve not yet got my hands on a copy of The Testaments, but thought I’d review a couple of other dystopian books that I’ve recently read that link neatly to Attwood’s themes.

Vox, by Christina Dalcher, describes the subtle erosion of women’s rights to equality by a hard religious right administration in the US. It starts so disingenuously – a proposal that if women simply stepped out of the workplace and returned to their ‘proper’ position of working in the home, that would free up jobs for unemployed men. And so begins a spiral to the point at the start of this book, where women’s voices are restricted to a small number of words per day. When the administration requires the unique scientific skills of one woman, though, they are prepared to make exceptions, and the story follows Dr. Jean McClellan as she sees another side to what is happening to women in the US. If this book had come out ten years ago, I would’ve seen it as an interesting dystopian take. With all that’s happening at the moment in the US and the UK, the subtle erosion of rights sat very uncomfortably with me. I thought the story was cleverly done, and definitely pulled me along to the conclusion.

The Farm, by Joanne Ramos, is a story that you could absolutely believe would happen right now. Young women are recruited as surrogates for wealthy women, and housed in a luxury ‘retreat’ where they are served all the right foods for pregnancy, given exercise regimes and told they are helping a woman who is unable to have a baby herself. As the women at The Farm compare stories, things start not to stack up and they begin to question the restrictions around their lives there and the motivations of the women that have hired them. It’s written with verve and with authentic experience of the vulnerability of recent immigrants, and I loved some of the characters. Nicely done, and another good tie in with Attwood’s work. On to something a little more cheerful next!

Crime, Fiction

The Poison Garden by Alex Marwood – Review

On Twitter recently someone asked which author you’d read without seeing either blurb or cover, and my immediate answer was Alex Marwood. I’ve read all of her books, which are standalones, and they’re all utterly brilliant. She’s the queen of beautiful tension – there’s no wham bam drama, just this awful foreboding in the telling. You know something terrible is going to happen (and in fact in this book you know that from Chapter One), but her plotting is subtle and gently leads you through twists, turns and revelations.

Her new book is The Poison Garden, a story that explores what happens when a family emerge from a survivalist cult into the real world after a tragedy. Marwood explores the bewilderment of the returnees, who’ve never really known a life beyond their compound and the stories they were told by their leader. This is set against a family member who’d remained on the outside with no knowledge of her extended family on the inside, and who now has to pick up the pieces and adjust. There’s such skill in both plotting and writing here, and you just feel that horrible sense of what might be to come as you move towards the conclusion. I loved it, but read it way too fast and was very sad to finish it.

Fans of Alex Marwood’s writing might like Alice Clark-Platts’ The Flower Girls (although it’s on a similar theme to Marwood’s debut The Wicked Girls). I would also recommend the late lamented Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)’s books – such brilliant psychological thrillers. Savour this book more than I did, I read it far too quickly.

This review is of a NetGalley edition. I purchased all of the previous three Alex Marwood books.

Fiction, Historical fiction

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott – Review

This is an astonishing literary fiction debut. Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott has done a very clever thing – written a semi-fictionalised account of a semi-fictionalised account. Truman Capote was the trusted confidant of much of New York society, listening to their intimate worries and travelling the world with them. His inner circle became known as the Swans, and included Jackie Kennedy’s sister Princess Lee Radziwill, Gloria Guinness and C.Z. Guest. But Capote decided to write a thinly disguised book about the Swans and they saw this as the ultimate betrayal (he never finished the book, but one chapter, La Côte Basque, was published in Esquire in 1975). 

This book swaps between the viewpoints of the Swans and Capote and must have taken an enormous amount of research. It’s a sumptuous sweep of a book, moving from both the peak of the friendships to the betrayal, and the voices come loud and clear through the pages. I loved it, but it’s a rich multi-course meal – take your time and savour it. It’s not one to be rushed. You might need to read a palette cleanser afterwards, and I will be picking up something much lighter next.

Blog Tour, Crime, Fiction

Razia by Abda Khan – Blog Tour

“Farah is a young lawyer living and working in London. She’s just ended a long relationship, and her parents are looking for a husband – whether Farah wants one or not. So far, so normal. But at a work dinner, hosted by a dangerously powerful man, she comes across a young woman called Razia, who Farah soon realises is being kept as a domestic slave.

We follow Farah’s daring investigations from the law courts of London to the brick kilns of Lahore, as she begins to uncover the traps that keep generation after generation enslaved. Everywhere she turns there is deep-rooted oppression and corruption, and when the authorities finally intervene, their actions have dire consequences.

Farah teams up with a human rights lawyer, Ali, and the two become close… but can she trust him; can they help Razia and others like her; and will they ever discover the explosive secret behind these tragic events?”

Razia by Abda Khan

These men and women would work in these fields and stand on the side of roads like this up and down the country, for hours, just so they could earn enough to feed their family dhal and roti. She felt a sudden pang of sadness, a strong feeling of grief, such as she had never experienced before; a fierce and unexpected attachment to these people, and their struggles, even though they were all perfect strangers to her.

Modern slavery is one of those topics that pops up on the news from time to time, but is primarily a hidden abuse that lurks in the shadows. It’s one of things that we think perhaps rarely exists in modern Britain, and yet the Home Office conservatively estimates there are 13,000 slaves in the UK today (see here for a recent example involving 400 victims alone). Abda Khan brings this subject out into the light in her new novel, Razia. Khan’s background as a lawyer and campaigner brings a realism to the story of Farah, a young lawyer who stumbles across a case of modern slavery amongst the highest echelons of society. The story moves from London to Lahore as she tries to help the victim and is an unflinching read – there are some lovely and touching moments, but with this subject matter it was never going to be hugely cheery. This book moved me and opened my eyes to something that I know must be going on somewhere near me. For an exploration of a difficult topic in an accessible way, I would highly recommend it.

For more on modern slavery see here from the charity anti-slavery. Abda Kahn is an author and a lawyer and won the Noor Inayat Khan Muslim Woman of the Year Award 2019. Razia is published to coincide with World Day against Trafficking in Persons, and can be pre-ordered here.

I received a free copy of Razia in return for an honest review. Please do visit the other amazing bloggers on this blog tour, as shown below.

Non fiction

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro – Review

It’s true of any change that there’s the possibility of unintended consequences. I wonder if, when companies like Ancestry decided to offer DNA testing, they considered what the fall out would be for those who, like Dani Shapiro, discovered something they really weren’t expecting. Shapiro took a test almost casually at the prompting of her half-sister (I must confess I have some doubts about the half-sister’s motivations here) and discovered that the man she’d always thought of as her father wasn’t her biological father at all. With neither parent alive, she embarks on what’s part psychology book, part memoir and part detective story to find out the truth about her conception and birth. It’s so beautifully written and completely up my alley. I’d highly recommend.

For another story (even more incredible, and in depth) about the unexpected results of a DNA test, see this piece in The Washington Post. It’s truly astonishing (you can read without subscribing if you click through). Inheritance is out now in the UK. I bought my copy.

Blog Tour, Crime, Fiction

One Way Out by A.A. Dhand – Blog Tour

A bomb detonates in Bradford’s City Park.
When the alert sounds, DCI Harry Virdee has just enough time to get his son and his mother to safety before the bomb blows. But this is merely a stunt.

The worst is yet to come.
A new and aggressive nationalist group, the Patriots, have hidden a second device under one of the city’s one hundred and five mosques. In exchange for the safe release of those at Friday prayers, the Patriots want custody of the leaders of radical Islamist group Almukhtareen – the chosen ones. The government does not negotiate with terrorists. Even when thousands of lives are at risk.

There is only one way out.
But Harry’s wife is in one of those mosques. Left with no choice, Harry must find the Almukhtareen, to offer the Patriots his own deal.

If you’re a fan of extremely pacy thrillers / police procedurals that are bang up to date, I have good news for you. If you like a copper with a difficult backstory, I have even more good news for you. And if you like a copper with a backstory but are a bit bored with that copper being a middle-aged out of shape bloke with a drinking problem, you probably shouldn’t bother reading the rest of this review. You just filled your bingo card. Go and buy this book immediately.

The set-up on this is cracking. DCI Harry Virdee has a catalogue of family issues, including an interfaith marriage which has not gone down well with the wider family, and a brother with an interesting business model. So when he takes his mum and son out to the park for the day, it seems a pleasant break from everything else that’s going on his life. But when a bomb planted by a nationalist group goes off, he and his family manage to get away safely, only to find that his wife is caught up in an ongoing hostage situation related to the original explosion.

Harry is obviously desperate to save his wife, and his deep knowledge of the local area makes him uniquely qualified to do so. With the help and encouragement of his politician friend, he sets out to find those that the nationalist bombers want handing over to them, the leaders of the radical Islamist group, Almukhtareen.

This is a really tight plot, which cracks along at pace. It’s also highly topical, covering the rise of both religious extremism and nationalism. The hostage scenario is a really clever set up, and I’ll confess to being worried that the rest of the book might disappoint. It doesn’t. Harry is an interesting and complex character who, especially given his own wife is in danger, is quite prepared to resolve the situation by any means. It’s a bit Roy Grace police procedural, a bit Jack Reacher action thriller, all set against a very modern British city. I loved it.

One Way Out is available on 27th June in ebook and hardback. It’s the fourth in the Harry Virdee series. I received a free copy for this blog tour in return for an honest review. Please do visit the other excellent bloggers on this tour, as shown below.

Crime, Fiction

The Whisper Man by Alex North – Book review

So this was a happy mistake. I spotted it on NetGalley and thought “ooh I love Alex North’s books!”. Well, I’ve no idea who I was thinking of because this is a debut, and it’s an extraordinarily accomplished one.

Tom and his son Jake have suffered the appalling loss of their wife and mother, Rebecca. Jake is showing great signs of distress, especially as he found his mother dead at home, so Tom decides they need a fresh start and at Jake’s prompting, chooses a curious and some might say scary house in Featherbank. But as they arrive, a boy is taken, bringing back memories in the community of the child abductions and murders carried out 20 years previously by The Whisper Man.

This is a multi layered book which is a proper edge of your seat thriller. Alex North pulls all the strands together at the end, and I was desperate to get there to see how he did it. Really nicely done and a strong plot and characterisation. In terms of the creepiness and oppression of living in a small village, there were resonances of The Killer You Know by S.R. Masters which I previously reviewed on a blog tour. The references back to historic crimes reminded me of The Flower Girls by Alex Clark-Platts and The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood. I’d recommend any of these as a tie-in read.

I received a copy of The Whisper Man from NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Blog Tour, Thriller

The Desire Card by Lee Matthew Goldberg – Blog Tour

‘Any wish fulfilled for the right price. That’s the promise the organization behind The Desire Card gives to its elite clients – but sometimes the price may be more menacing than anyone could ever imagine.

Harrison Stockton has lived an adult life of privilege and excess: a high-powered job on Wall Street fuels his fondness for alcohol and pills at the expense of a family he has no time for. Quite suddenly all of this comes crashing to a halt when he loses his job and at the same time discovers he almost certainly has only months left to live.

Desperate, and with seemingly nowhere else left to turn, Harrison activates his Desire Card. What follows is a gritty and gripping quest that takes him from New York City to the slums of Mumbai and forces him to take chances, and make decisions, he never thought he’d ever have to face. When his moral descent threatens his wife and children, Harrison must decide whether to save himself at any cost, or do what’s right and break his bargain with the mysterious group behind The Desire Card.

The Desire Card is a taut fast-paced thriller, from internationally acclaimed author Lee Matthew Goldberg, that explores what a man will do to survive when money isn’t always enough to get everything he desires.

I do love a fast paced thriller and The Desire Card definitely falls into that category. It’s fair to say the main protagonist, Harrison, has had better times . A combination of long hours on Wall Street and after-work partying means that his kids are barely speaking to him, his marriage is on the rocks and he’s ill. In fact he’s much, much sicker than he realises. His problems come to a head when he’s let go from his job. As a softener, his boss gives him a Desire Card – a small card with a button that he can press and request anything he wants, for a price.

To take his mind off things, he decides to ask for a woman. And from that night he spends with her in a hotel room, his problems spiral and spiral. He ends up heading to Mumbai in a bid to solve his health issue and the author really does not spare him – it’s really not his day, week or year.

This is gritty and graphic and in many ways (despite the modern setting and use of technology) it’s a little old fashioned – an old school thriller with pace and action. My one complaint is that the female characters weren’t massively developed, but it kept me glued to a sun lounger and if taut thrillers are your scene, it’s a good holiday read.

The Desire Card is available now in ebook and paperback. I received a free copy for this blog tour in return for an honest review. Please do visit the other excellent bloggers on this tour, as shown below.

Blog Tour, Non fiction

The A to Z of Skateboarding by Tony Hawks – Blog Tour

For more than twenty years, Tony Hawks has been mistaken for Tony Hawk, the American skateboarder. Even though it is abundantly clear on his website that he is an English comedian and author, people still write to him asking the best way to do a kickflip or land a melon.

One mischievous day he started writing back in a pompous tone, goading his correspondents for their spelling mistakes and poor grammar, while offering bogus or downright silly advice on how to improve their skateboarding.

Featuring entries on Pain, Disappointment, Underachievers, Quorn and the Vatican, this is his A to Z guide to the world of skateboarding, as seen through the eyes of someone who knows absolutely nothing about it.

I was delighted to receive this copy of Tony Hawks’ latest book as part of a blog tour for two reasons. Firstly, his debut book, Round Ireland With A Fridge is still one of my favourite non-fiction books of all time, and secondly I have a similar problem to him. My email correspondents don’t think that they are contacting a famous person, just someone with the same name as the person they really wanted, but man are they persistent. I’ve been offered nursing shifts in a Denver hospital, a property to rent in Florida, the chance to join a class action law suit and a fishing licence in Maine. So I was intrigued to see how Tony handled being mistaken for the skateboarding legend that is Tony Hawk.

WILL FLORIDA BE INCLUDED IN ANY OF YOU TOURING EVENTS?
IF SO, WHICH CITIES.
THANKS WILLIE

Florida, no. Bexhill-on-Sea, yes. Any use to you?
TH

This is different to Round Ireland With A Fridge, which was written in a narrative style. This book is a fun compendium of facts about skateboarding, wholly inaccurate musings about skateboarding and completely random and acerbic advice for the misguided skateboarding unfortunates that decided to email him. It’s a perfect loo-shelf gift for someone with a very dry sense of humour and as much knowledge of skateboarding as Tony, who’d like a book they can flip through. If you like Joe Lycett’s style of email response, this could well be up your street.

The A to Z of Skateboarding is out now in hardback, published by Unbound, £9.99. I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review as part of this blog tour. Please do visit the fabulous bloggers on the tour as shown below.

Non fiction

Critical by Dr Matt Morgan – Review

I read and watch a lot of medical stuff, as my family will attest. They regularly wander in to see me munching on a sandwich while watching a documentary on surgery, so I’ve clearly got a strong stomach for all things hospital related. The basic problem, however, for any doctor wanting to write a medical memoir these days is Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm. His thoughtful, reflective account of his career as a neurosurgeon, where he could both save a person’s life or cause untold damage, absolutely raised the bar in medical memoirs. It’s astonishingly candid and extremely thought provoking (I, for one, know that I could absolutely not take on that level of responsibility).

Since then, I’ve read umpteen medical books but nothing has hit the Henry Marsh spot. Until now. Dr Matt Morgan’s explanation of the twilight world of intensive care, mixes explanation, case history and reflective thoughts on what it’s like to work on the very sickest patients. Thoughtful, compassionate, insightful, realistic and hopeful – if you like this genre of book this should definitely be on your ‘to read’ pile. If it’s not on the Wellcome Prize shortlist next time round I’ll be amazed. Highly recommended.

My next medical foray will be into the world of David Nott, whose book War Doctor has been on my wish list for some time. He also did a fantastic Desert Island Discs episode, here.

Dr Matt Morgan’s Critical is available now. I read a NetGalley edition provided in return for an honest review.