Friday, 28 July 2017

Whispers In The Alders by H. A. Callum



Whispers in the Alders by W. A. Callum is an American based coming of age story. It is a thought provoking, lyrical novel that is permeated with an air of tragedy.

The novel is written in first person narrative from the point of view of Aubrey Worthington, the only child of an affluent couple. Due to the peripatetic nature of her father’s job, Aubrey has spent her life moving around the country which has made it hard for her to fit in. She’s a lonely, introspective girl until her arrival at Alder Ferry when she is thirteen. It is here that she forms a deep friendship with local boy, Tommy.

Callum uses his novel to raise lots of interesting ideas. Aubrey’s father is the Vice President of a conglomerate that takes over companies, assimilating their contracts and ultimately making the workers redundant. Aubrey refers to her father as the “grim reaper”. What’s unusual is the way that we see how Stuart Worthington’s job impacts upon his daughter who, along with her father becomes hated by the communities in which they live. The Worthingtons buy their first home in Alder Ferry, a grand colonial house which is ironic given the nature of Stuart’s job. Although we sympathise with the concept of the workers losing their jobs Callum does not humanise them enough to allow us any perspective other than that of Aubrey.

Callum is obviously a skilled writer and his use of language is complex and dense. This is particularly the case when he describes the woods that are overlooked by Aubrey’s house. The house is personified as “The Grand Old Lady” and her surroundings are presented as somewhat mystical. The trees that form the Alders are given a life of their own, evoking both energy and a sense of peace that Aubrey has not known before.

The small town of Alder Ferry is also brought to life through Callum’s language. The desolation of the town and lack of opportunity cements the Catholic Church as the centre of the community. The novel questions the way this power allows abuse within the church to be overlooked as people are afraid to challenge the Priest’s authority and potentially lose the only sense of certainty that they have.

Alton “Tommy” Mackey is the heart of the novel. He is the grandson of Stuart Worthington’s nemesis, Mike Genardo and Aubrey’s only friend. Mike Genardo is the head of the union and a brutal drunk who subjects Tommy to a childhood defined by fear and loneliness. Tommy’s only refuge is reading and writing poetry and despite little encouragement or education, he is a talented, intelligent boy who inspires Aubrey to embrace her own learning. Tommy struggles with his sexuality and it is only in adulthood that he is able to accept who he is and find some semblance of happiness.

The comparison between Tommy and Aubrey is stark and really brings home the inequality of an education system dependent on wealth. Aubrey’s affluent background ensures that she goes to a good university despite that fact that it is Tommy who edits her work. Meanwhile Tommy is unable to fulfil his potential and has to join the Coast Guards in order to raise the money to pay for some classes at the community college.

If Tommy is the heart of the story then, for me, Aubrey is its Achilles heel. I really didn’t like her and didn’t fully understand whether I was supposed to. Initially I assumed that she was a purposefully unreliable witness to the events she was describing. Her childhood wasn’t ideal with a driven, morally bankrupt father and functioning alcoholic mother but she presented as a whiney, self-obsessed voice. I felt that Callum had maybe chosen not to humanise the parents in order to depict the simplistic, self-involved way that children see life. However about two thirds of the way in it became clear that there was no ambiguity and they were in fact the monsters that Aubrey described as were most of the residents of Alder Ferry. I wonder if the story might have benefitted from a lighter touch and less of a sense that everything is in black and white.

As I have said Callum’s skill as writer is never in any doubt, his use of language is extremely impressive. However, strangely I found that the complexity of the language sometimes got in the way of the narrative as it slowed everything down. None the less, this is a novel that is well worth reading as it raises so many relevant questions.


If you’re looking for something that may not be an easy read but will certainly get you thinking then I recommend that you give this one a try. 

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Incognito by Khaled Talib



Incognito by Khaled Talib is a European based, action packed political thriller. Like most stories of this genre, the plot is fanciful in parts, but contains just enough credibility to keep the reader guessing.

The novel begins when the pope is kidnapped by an anti-Muslim organisation called The Sword. In response an anonymous, apolitical, non-religious group known as The League of Invisible Nights sends three agents to help the Vatican locate the pope. The plot centres around their efforts to uncover who is behind the kidnapping and save the pope.

The political aspect of the novel is what I found most interesting. Corruption is in evidence everywhere – from the Vatican to the police and at the highest government level. The Sword originated as a guerrilla force created by the CIA and NATO after WW2 but is now funded by big business and headed up by a Dutch Senator. It consists of a group of individuals motivated by their opposition to immigration and in particular Muslims.

The novel is very topical given that Islamophobia is on the increase due to fear often perpetuated by the media. Talib uses his novel to show how easy it would be to manipulate the public mood by staging acts of terror and blaming a specific group of people – in this case Muslims. The kidnapping of the pope is played out in front of the world’s eyes and Muslim extremists are presented as being behind the potential atrocity. Talib very cleverly captures our obsession with news as the kidnapping story is played over and over on a loop on every news channel.

Talib uses his novel as a means of challenging stereotypes about Islam. For instance, he goes to great lengths to show that women are not oppressed, pointing, for instance, to the fact that they don’t have to change their name to that of their husband.  While I applaud this, I did feel that it was slightly overdone, and not necessarily fitting with the genre of the book.

Another strength of the novel is the way it spans different parts of Europe: Geneva, Venice, Rome and The Vatican City are all brought alive by Talib’s descriptive skills. The sense of awe, history and beauty are successfully conveyed which lends an added layer of mystery to the proceedings.

Incognito is a novel written for readers who love plot driven, fast paced action and adventure. The action is relentless and there are very few quiet, reflective moments to try and figure out what’s going on; I think some contrast might have improved the reading experience for me.

The pace of the novel also has a massive impact on the characterisation. This is a novel with lots of characters but the death count is phenomenal. A new, potentially interesting character would be introduced only to be killed off by the end of the chapter.  We are told that they all have backgrounds in the armed services but that’s about it. A little more insight into the characters would have made me care more about what happened to them.

The biggest disappointment for me is Isabelle Gaugher who Talib presents as being equal to the men. However, when we are first introduced to her she makes a coarse comment about her menstruation that is clearly meant to show she’s ‘one of the men’ but it just felt inappropriate. Her tough no-nonsense attitude is then justified by the fact that she has previously been raped. I think Talib had good intentions in wanting to create a strong female character but then felt he had to make her ‘damaged’ which effectively offsets her strength.  Couldn't she just have been strong, full stop, without being coarse or having 'issues'?


I am probably not quite the target audience for this novel which, despite my misgivings, has many merits. If you enjoy fast paced action adventure that is very much plot-based then this one is for you. I can imagine it being a great holiday read for anyone who wants to lose themselves in a political thriller. 

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Forbidden Fruit by Stanley Gazemba



Forbidden Fruit by Stanley Gazemba is a story about the frailties of human nature. Set in Western Kenya, it offers the reader a glimpse of what life is like for peasant villagers struggling to make ends meet against a harsh and unforgiving landscape.

From the onset it is clear that Gazemba has a gift for descriptive writing as he brings to life the back breaking existence of being a farm labourer. The peasant farmers live in compounds in basic huts. Their lives are shaped by poverty although the customs and traditions that they live by afford them some enjoyment. For example at Christmas they form a choir and the children decorate the outside of the huts by daubing them with white clay mixed with the juice of pumpkin leaves. In contrast the landowner enjoys the luxury of living in a big, splendid house with servants to wait on him.

Life for the peasants is framed around a patriarchal society. The women have to work alongside the men in the fields but also have to take care of children and tend to the housekeeping. Cleaning and cooking is the domain of women who risk a beating should they be late home to attend to their chores. Custom also demands that women are covered and wear head scarves. Only the daughters of the landowner fare better as they are educated abroad and have careers.

Although there is a low key sense of tension running through the novel it moves at a gentle pace perhaps in keeping with the rhythm of life in an African village. The most striking element of the story is the way Gazemba develops his characters and shows them to be deeply flawed. The male characters are the ones who drive the story forward towards a disastrous finale whilst the women are forced to suffer the consequences.

The main character is Ombima, a poor middle-aged farm worker who prides himself on his honesty but then goes on to steal from the landowner’s garden. It is this act that sets in motion a dangerous chain of events. Although it’s easy to forgive Ombima’s theft, given that his family is practically starving, the fact that he’s willing to point the finger of blame at other equally vulnerable characters makes him less sympathetic to the reader. Deep down he resents his poverty and is bitter that he missed out on an education as when his father became disabled he had to become his family’s wage earner.

His friendship with Ang’ote is complex as superficially they are close but beneath the surface resentment and jealousy threatens to consume them and indeed leads to a terrible act of treachery. Ang’ote gives the appearance of being a generous, unkempt, free spirit but there is a darkness lurking within whilst Ombima likes to feel superior to his friend’s chaotic lifestyle. Through the two men’s relationship, Gazemba explores the idea that poverty, rather than bringing people together, drives us to exploit our differences in order to feel superior to someone else. History has taught us the truth of this as society creates a hierarchy and no one wants to feel like they are at the bottom.

It is the female characters who are the heart of the story. Ombima’s wife, Sayo, is gentle and uncomplaining; making the best of what life offers her no matter how unfair that may be. Rebecca is an older woman who has been left to care for numerous grandchildren as their mothers have fled to the cities in the hope of a better life. She is a beautiful woman who has been ravaged by the sun, hard work and the harshness of a life of poverty. She is though very wise and morally sound, she cautions Ang’ote to “learn in life to accept yourself for what you are.”

The most complex female character is Madam Tabitha, the wife of the rich landowner. She is trapped in a loveless marriage and her dissatisfaction and need to feel wanted cause her to behave in a way that has disastrous consequences. She is clearly an intelligent woman, working as a school mistress, and she shows compassion to the villagers also urging her husband, Andimi, to do likewise. She looks back on the way she had her head turned by Andimi with a bitter sense of regret. At the same time, however, she enjoys the luxury of having nice things and living in splendour.

What I found particularly interesting about Forbidden Fruit is the way Gazemba depicts the complexity of communities. It’s easy to idealise the idea of everyone pulling together and supporting each other and to a large extent this is shown to take place, especially in times of loss. However, the compounds are also riddled with petty jealousies and divisions. For example, Ngayira is a witch who people are happy to take their sick to for help but then they turn on her when things go wrong, blaming her for cursing their livestock etc.


Gazemba uses his novel to show the good and bad sides of human nature. We are all flawed and this is starkly apparent in a small community. I really enjoyed Forbidden Fruit as it’s gentle and thoughtful. If you’re interested in reading about other cultures and the universal themes that connect us all then this is one for you. 

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Ryan Kaine: On The Run by Kerry J Donovan



Ryan Kaine: On the Run by Kerry J Donovan is an action adventure story, introducing the character of Ryan Kaine in what promises to be an exciting new series. The novel concerns itself with the murky world of arms companies vying for government defence contracts.

The opening is shocking, setting a morally ambiguous tone when Kaine is duped into shooting down a passenger plane and killing 83 people. This act sets in motion a chaotic and violent series of events and leaves Kaine struggling with his own conscience. The pace of the story is break-neck, leaving the reader with barely enough time to draw breath. The speed is emphasised by the way Donovan uses dates to head up his chapters. The whole novel is set over a period of a week. The dates also underscore the military background by creating a precise, report like style.

Despite the action-packed nature of the story Donovan does a great job with characterisation. Multiple viewpoints are used in a 3rd person narrative which allows the reader to get inside the psyche of all the main characters. Ryan Kaine himself is a middle-aged ex-Captain in the Royal Marines, left adrift when government cutbacks led to him being retired from service at 39. I think Donovan does a great job of highlighting a real problem for people who spend a large part of their adult life acquiring skills that are not adaptable to civilian life. Like many ex-service personnel Kaine finds himself drifting through freelance work for not always reputable agencies.

The military aspect of the novel is very convincing. Kaine calls upon former colleagues to help him out and the banter between the men lends an air of authenticity to the story. There is an unspoken code between them and Kaine trusts them with his life. Fans of The DCI Jones Casebook series will enjoy the guest appearance by DCI Jones who Kaine trusts to process the damning information he unearths and it’s probably no coincidence that Jones also has a military background.

It’s gratifying that the female characters in the novel hold their own. Dr Laura Orchard is a military widow and vet who helps Kaine and goes on the run with him. She is capable and resourceful and the blossoming romance between the two of them is the perfect foil for the otherwise stark landscape of the story. My favourite character however is the IT expert, Sabrina Faroukh. Her insight and internal commentary about the people around her show her to be intelligent and spiky. Donovan hints at Sabrina not being who she seems which adds an added layer of mystery.

Regardless of the violence and dark subject matter Donovan uses his villains to inject some humour into his novel. Several of them are psychopathic shadowy figures, creating a sense of almost pantomime villainy that allows the reader to relish the violence that is meted out to them and a guilt-free satisfaction when they get what’s coming to them.

One of the things that I particularly enjoyed about the novel is the fact that Donovan chooses to place a series of extraordinary events within a very ordinary setting. The story begins in the seaside towns of Cleethorpes and Mablethorpe which makes an intriguing change from the more traditional exotic settings of espionage.

Donovan’s skill as a writer is stamped all over this novel, in both the control he exerts despite the speed of the plot and the way he builds the tension to an almost fever pitch. There is a lot of violence but I didn’t find it gratuitous or excessive.


I really enjoyed this introduction to Ryan Kaine and it would make the perfect holiday read. If you’re looking for escapism with lots of action and adventure then this is one for you. 

Friday, 12 May 2017

Behind Closed Doors by JJ Marsh



Behind Closed Doors by JJ Marsh is an international thriller that revolves around the deaths of unscrupulous businessmen. It’s a well written novel that engages the reader from the offset and keeps us guessing right until the very last page.

The bulk of the novel is set in 2012 when Scotland Yard Detective Beatrice Stubbs is despatched to Switzerland to head up a team of multi-agency staff investigating a spate of seeming suicides amongst the echelons of power and money. It’s a high profile case with the potential to ruffle lots of important feathers. However, Detective Stubbs is nothing if not tenacious and thorough, refusing to take the easy route of accepting the deaths as suicide.

It is Beatrice Stubbs who is the heart of the novel and she makes a compelling protagonist. Middle-aged and frumpy, Beatrice is a refreshing champion for ordinary working women. She is the perfect mix of hard working, courageous and neurotic. I applaud the way that Marsh examines mental health issues through Beatrice who has Bipolar and has regular telephone counselling sessions to keep her afloat.

Beatrice’s Swiss counterpart is the middle-aged, grumpy Karl Kalin who, in his own way, is just as dysfunctional as she is. Their initial encounters are hilariously brusque and prickly but over time a mutual respect develops and by the end a tentative friendship emerges. The rest of the team are made up of experts from throughout Europe. Chris Keese is from Europol, Sabine Tikkenson is an Estonian crime analyst, Conceicao Pereira da Silva is a DNA advisor and Xavier Racine, a young Swiss detective. All of the team are likeable and the procedural police work is offset by hints of the team’s personal lives.

Although the novel is in parts quite dark, there are flashes of humour which prevent it from becoming too heavy. Beatrice for example is a creature of habit whose main concern at taking a job overseas is that she will miss her daily fix of The Archers. Chris Kees is a hapless womaniser whom the reader realises is barking up the wrong tree long before he does.

Marsh makes the most of the setting and her descriptive language is very visual and filmic which is particularly effective. As the team travel around Switzerland and further afield to visit murder scenes, the landscape plays a huge part. Also as the plot involves the world of big business and wealth, the sense of opulence and extravagance is never far away.

There is no doubt at all that Marsh is an accomplished writer and she skilfully navigates the different threads of the story before bringing them together in a successful denouement. A technique that she uses to give background to the murders is to intersperse the ongoing narrative with flashback chapters. In doing this she allows us to get to know the victims and see the murders take place. This adds to the mystery but also slowed the story down somewhat and for me felt a bit intrusive each time my attention was diverted away from the primary story.

I really enjoyed that Marsh uses her story to ask questions about morality and retribution. The victims of the crimes are all despicable people who have caused much harm to others, people who we might say deserve what they get. Marsh explores the corrosive nature of vigilantism however and the fine line between wrongdoer and executioner – does setting ourselves up as judge and jury not lead us into becoming the very people we are trying to punish?

The novel on the whole is a reflection of Beatrice who stresses to her team that it’s the “daily slog of solid police work” that solves cases. The plot builds slowly and with each layer our tense anticipation mounts until by the end we are desperate for answers which Marsh provides in a very satisfactory manner.


I really enjoyed Behind Closed Doors and warmed to Beatrice Stubbs who also features in other JJ Marsh novels. If you like an intelligent police procedural thriller with realistic, down to earth characters then you’ll love this one. 

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer

The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer is an ambitious, complex novel which switches between 1294, 1861 and 1921, highlighting the changes taking place Indochina. It raises important questions about religion and the impact it has on humanity.

The novel begins in 1861 with the death of explorer Henri Mouhot from Malaria whilst travelling in Indochina. In 1921, his granddaughter Jacquie follows in his footsteps, inspired by his journal which was posthumously published. Jacquie is invited by a group of archaeologists under the title of the EFEO to join them in Cambodia to revisit her grandfather’s findings.

Jacquie is a strange character who is compelled to travel whilst at the same time retaining her sense of British imperialism. Other cultures represent “disorder” and she resents the fact that not everyone she meets speaks English. We learn that during the First World War Jacquie volunteered with the Red Cross and was sent to the front line where she subsequently suffered from shell shock from which she hasn’t entirely recovered.

The whole novel is steeped in mysticism and both Henri and Jacquie experience haunting dreams often featuring a large bird, a monkey and a sea of milk. As Jacquie gets nearer to Indochina, her dreams change and she begins to feel, “as if the story of another has found me.” Tension is intensified for the reader as Ferrer uses foreshadowing when, in addition to the dreams; Jacquie visits a fortune teller, to prepare us for the horrors to come.

The structure of the novel is such that we see Indochina’s history from the 13th century onwards. Ferrer juxtaposes Henri’s journal with that of Jacquie to highlight the similarities and differences in both characters. He also introduces the character of Paaku, a young boy who inhabited the Khmer Empire in 1294. Imperialism is everywhere in Jacquie’s story with the wealth of the Europeans at odds with the poverty of the indigenous people. The way travel had become more accessible by 1921 is also depicted in the way it takes Jacquie 3 weeks to reach her destination whereas it took Henri more than 6 months.

For me the most interesting parts of the novel are the ones which feature Paaku. He is part of a society where the king and religion are intertwined and the power of both reigns supreme. Paaku falls victim to religion when he is thought to have performed a miracle and so is hailed as the incarnation of the Hindu God, Vishnu. As different religions coexist it is a delicate balance as to which one will have the most power as decreed by the king and consequently monstrous acts of inhumanity are carried out supposedly in the name of the various gods.

Ferrer uses his novel to explore the idea of religion and one of the central themes of the story is reincarnation. As Jacquie arrives in Cambodia she is shown bas reliefs which depict the history of the Khmer Empire and she finds herself knowing the stories that the images represent. In contrast to Jacquie’s increasing belief in reincarnation, her travelling companion Victor, a Russian √©migr√©, is an atheist who believes firmly in science. The religion of the Khmer Empire is entrenched in mysticism and superstition.

The complexity of the novel lies in the way it is structured and Ferrer’s writing skills are very much in evidence in the way he retains full control over the time shifts and supernatural visions. He manages to cleverly bring all the strands of the story together in a way that is both surprising and exciting for the reader. The descriptive writing that Ferrer employs is also noteworthy as it evokes a vivid impression of Indochina, the smells, colours and chaos of a different culture are all brought to life through Jacquie’s perspective.


The Last Gods of Indochine is not an easy read and requires a lot of focus but it is well worth the effort as the story is both engrossing and thought provoking. If you’re looking for something a little bit different and more demanding than a pot boiler then I suggest you give it a try. 

Sunday, 26 March 2017

A Taste Of His Own Medicine by Linda Fawke



A Taste of his own Medicine by Linda Fawke is a romance with a decidedly dark twist. The plot sees us crisscross from the 1970s to the present day and Fawke does a good job of drawing us in with her intriguing tale of revenge.

This is a novel with a lot to recommend, in particular Fawke’s attention to detail and the way she creates a vivid picture of university life in the early 70s. The main character Kate Shaw is a pharmacist and former member of the “class of 75” and Fawke cleverly constructs her story around Kate’s experience at university and the 30 year anniversary reunion of her class. Fawke effectively highlights how universities were changing and becoming more inclusive and accessible to people from lower socio-economic classes and all of the tensions that came with that.

Fawke also uses her eye for detail to create characters that we all recognise such as the tight-fisted scrounger, lecherous womaniser and pompous, self-aggrandizing oaf. My main stumbling block with the novel, however, is that the negative characters are relentless and there are no positive characters to offset them.

There’s no doubting that Fawke is a talented writer and she writes assuredly with total control over her story which is told almost exclusively in 3rd person narrative. There are a couple of paragraphs where Fawke switches to 1st person and although I understand her reasoning for this, for me it jarred with the rest of the story.

Kate Shaw who drives the story is a 50 something successful workaholic with a string of pharmacies and enough money to afford an affluent lifestyle. This is in contrast to her humble beginnings when she was the first member of her family to go to university and her unworldliness is reflected in the fact that she’s shocked when she sees a gay couple and isn’t used to eating out or big city life. The diversity of university is a shock to Kate but instead of immersing herself into it she focuses totally on work. Essentially Kate is not a likeable character, dismissing other students as “a waste of space” and anything less than a First as failure.

We warm to Kate slightly when she begins a student romance with her polar opposite, the unreliable, easy going, part-time male model, Jonathan Carson. However, when the romance invariably doesn’t last, Kate seems to become totally unhinged. To such an extent that 30 years later, despite having been married for over 20 years, she is still harbouring a toxic grudge which goes on to encompass everyone else she feels did her wrong at university.

As I mentioned earlier, the main problem I had with the novel was the overwhelming set of unpleasantly selfish characters. There is no moral compass to give the self-destructive revenge plot any context. There are a couple of characters who initially seem to be positive and honest but by the end even they become embroiled in selfish, disloyal behaviour.

What for me might have made the characters easier to relate to would have been the use of 1st person and maybe multiple viewpoints. This might have helped give some humanity to the characters, particular Kate, who I think the reader really needs to connect with in some way.

My favourite parts of the novel are the sections at the reunion which reflect all the humour and farce that tend to go hand in hand with these kinds of functions. There are lots of comic moments in Fawke’s description of the goings on and this did serve to detract from the unpleasantness of Kate’s behaviour.


All in all, I think if you like a dark romance and enjoy stories of revenge, scheming and intrigue then you will get a lot out of A Taste of his own Medicine. I suspect that I just didn’t connect with it in the way that other readers might. And, as always with reviews, it’s merely a personal response and I look forward to reading what other readers make of this well written tale of settling scores.