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. 

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat



The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat is a hauntingly poignant story, set in small town Australia primarily in 1973 and told through the voice of eleven year old Tanya Randall. Perrat does not shy away from dark subject matter such as paedophilia, mental illness and bereavement but she offsets the horror with her lyrical, almost poetic writing.

From the opening page, Perrat evokes in her reader an uneasy ominous tension as the middle-aged Tanya is going through her grandmother’s things and finds a newspaper clipping from January 26th 1973. As Tanya’s memories are invoked, we are left in no doubt that this date was catastrophic for the family and this foreshadowing hangs over the rest of the novel.

One of the most effective aspects of the novel is the way that eleven year old Tanya relates her childhood through her own innocent eyes whilst the reader has a more knowing perspective. Consequently the story takes on an added dimension as the reader has more idea of what is actually happening than the young narrator. We read with a sense of dread, knowing what is about to unfold as she is unable to process what she is telling us.

This sense of tension is increased as Perrat sets events to a backdrop of unbearable heat which heightens the emotions of the characters adding to the reader’s sense of foreboding. There are also constant references to Australia’s history and the idea that everything is built on the blood of convicts which leaves it tainted. Tanya and her parents and grandmother live in Gumtree Cottage which Nanna Purvis believes is cursed as a result of being built by convicts, “built on blood money”. It’s also significant that January 26th which becomes so fateful for the family is Australia Day which marks the anniversary of convict ships arriving in Sydney.

The power of this novel comes from Perrat’s skill at characterisation. Tanya is heartbreakingly real – a vulnerable, lonely girl, bullied and called “Ten-ton Tanya” by the other kids. She’s caught in the vicious cycle of comfort eating and then hating herself for being overweight. As the reader helplessly watches Tanya teetering on the brink of disaster it’s almost too much to bear.

The fact that the novel is set in 1973 highlights the way the world has changed and, despite the dark undertones, anyone who survived the 70s will find much humour in the realistic depiction. For example the casual use of Valium which is handed around like Smarties and the nips of Sherry given to children for medicinal purposes. Not to mention a diet which basically consists of biscuits and sugar.

A product of her time is Nanna Purvis, a hilariously irreverent character. Her malapropisms such as calling her varicose veins “very cows veins” and the no-nonsense often course way she views the world made me laugh uncontrollably. My favourite line is when she dismisses Tanya’s nemesis and chief bully Stacy Mornon with, “Wasn’t her head too big for her mother’s fanny?” Typical of her time, Nanna Purvis is racist, casually referring to an Italian family as “dirty eyeties,” this reflects the tensions that were rife as Australia became more multi-cultural.

Perrat uses her novel to tackle some very serious issues, most notably paedophilia. I found it particularly affecting how she uses Tanya’s perspective to emphasise the complexities of grooming. Tanya is singled out because she is vulnerable and the paedophile exploits her vulnerabilities to manipulate her whilst successfully inserting himself into her family. I think Perrat does a great job of portraying the pervasive nature of child abuse and the reasons why it so often goes unreported.

The novel also explores mental illness in the shape of Tanya’s mother, Eleanor. At a time when very little was understood about mental health and treatment was limited, Eleanor’s manic depression is worsened by grief and Perrat describes her descent into madness in a vivid and believable way. We also see how mental illness effects the whole family as Tanya’s entire childhood is defined by her mother’s black moods which hang over the house making her feel like “The Invisible Girl.”

Tanya’s childhood is a real childhood rather than the imagined, idealised ones that are often depicted in fiction. Children are brutally cruel and the bullying and name calling is relentless. Tanya has no control over her life whatsoever and is at the mercy of her parents’ actions and behaviour. Her only friend is Angela Moretti who is also ostracised because she is Italian.

The novel ends as it began with the middle-aged Tanya bringing the reader up to date with her life. The ending for me was a complete sucker punch as Perrat lulled me into believing that she had opted for the fairytale finale only to deliver a final blow that left me reeling.


The Silent Kookaburra is a novel that I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s an intelligent portrayal of real life with all its flaws that will leave you thinking long after you’ve finished reading it. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Oil and Water by P.J Lazos


Oil and Water by P.J. Lazos is an expansive, well written novel which follows the fate of two families. The families couldn’t be more different but Lazos draws us into their separate worlds before bringing them together in a spectacular denouement.

The novel is written in three parts and the first part introduces us to the Tirabi family and the Coleman/Hartos family, both of whom suffer unspeakable tragedies that shatter all of their lives. Lazos’ skill as a writer is very much in evidence as she builds up suspense and danger whilst at the same time getting the reader to really care about her characters and also highlighting the perils of not caring for the environment.

The Tirabi family are the obvious choice for winning the readers’ hearts. Patriarch, Marty, invents a machine called the TDU which can turn any carbon based object into oil. This machine will clearly revolutionise the oil industry but Marty and his political strategist wife, Ruth, are murdered before he can complete the project. This leaves their four children adrift and it’s their plight and relationships that, to me, is the heart of the novel.

My favourite character is Kori, Marty and Ruth’s flaky, twenty something daughter, who is suddenly thrust into the role of provider and mother figure to her younger siblings – especially Gil, the youngest who’s only eight years old. Her feelings of oppressive responsibility lead her into making wrong choices which Lazos presents in a way that’s both realistic and moving.

Running parallel to the Tirabi children, Lazos also invites us into the lives of Bicky Coleman, the CEO of Akanabi Oil and his grieving, chemical engineer son-in-law, David ‘Hart’ Hartos. Bicky is a ruthless business man whose orbit Hart has become embroiled in through his marriage to Bicky’s daughter. From the onset, Bicky is surrounded by intrigue and corruption and the ripples of his dissatisfaction and misery damn everyone he comes into contact with.

In part two of the novel the Akanabi Oil Company is responsible for an oil spill and Lazos uses Hart to demonstrate the repercussions of this on the environment. He is sent by Bicky to help clean up the damage and working alongside the Wildlife Rescue Centre he comes face to face with the horrific damage that oil causes to birds and other wildlife. Lazos also depicts how big business and the government are in league with each other so that the importance of safety and environmental issues are overlooked in favour of profit.

Additionally Lazos uses part two of her novel to show the impact the oil industry has had on the Middle East. Robbie Tirabi, the second eldest of the Tirabi children, enlists into the military and is sent to Iraq. He soon realises that the unrest in that region has been caused by the way so many people such as the “marsh Arabs” have been displaced to make way for the oil industry.

Whilst Robbie is in Iraq, the remaining Tirabis give an interview to the Philadelphia Inquirer and news of the TDU spreads. As Hart becomes more and more disillusioned with the oil business he feels compelled to find the family and discovers a kindred spirit in Gil, a gifted child who has the ability to finish off what his father began. The Tirabis come to represent the sense of family that Hart has been missing but their work on the TDU stirs up terrible danger.

Lazos’ novel is an interesting combination of factual and spiritual. The reality of the impact that unbridled capitalism and human greed can have on the world is offset by the way the Tirabi children are visited by the spirits of their dead parents who guide them to make the right choices. Gil in particular has the ability to see into the future and connect with the spirit world.


I really enjoyed Oil and Water, as it’s both engaging and thought provoking. It’s not an easy read but if you’re looking for something more substantial than a conventional pot boiler then it’s well worth the effort. 

Sunday, 29 January 2017

DCI Jones Casebook: Cryer's View by Kerry J Donovan



Cryer’s View by Kerry J Donovan is the fourth story in the DCI Jones Casebook series. It is an exciting police thriller centred around the character of Phil Cryer.

From the onset it is clear that Donovan is a safe pair of hands and the story is both engaging and gripping. There are references to incidents and characters that have obviously featured in the earlier novels but Cryer’s View can be very much enjoyed as a standalone story. Indeed it is the only one of Donovan’s books that I’ve read although it certainly won’t be the last.

The structure of the novel lends the story an added layer of tension as it is set out almost like a police report with each chapter chronologically dated. The whole case takes just over a month to solve which heightens the sense of urgency. Donovan also uses devices such as watching the action play out via TV screens which again lends authenticity and makes the story seem more visual, almost like a TV serial. Donovan switches from third person narrative which allows him to move the action forward to first person which creates a connection between the reader and Phil Cryer.

There are lots of likeable characters in this novel but Phil Cryer is at the heart of it. By giving us a character who is ‘ordinary’ rather than a larger than life hero, Donovan makes us believe in Cryer. He’s a Detective Sergeant based in Birmingham whose only extraordinary feature is his exceptional memory which makes him the perfect choice for an undercover job in London, rooting out a corrupt cop. Just as important as his abilities as a detective, Cryer is a devoted family man which humanises him. He also expresses his fears and insecurities as he feels isolated in a big city away from home. The fact that he feels out of his depth makes the reader connect with him and care about him.

In addition to Cryer’s mission to expose the “bent cop”, he has to play the role of newbie in the National Crime Agency. Taking on cases he has to underplay his memory and abilities, enabling others to take the credit for his investigations. He gains the nickname “Lucky” and wins over his colleagues with the exception of Billy Hook who becomes his nemesis. Their relationship provides much of the tension during the course of the story.

Donovan’s skill as a writer is apparent in the way he allows his story to unfold piece by piece, almost like a jigsaw puzzle. There are quite a few red herrings which build the excitement and the big reveal at the end left me reeling as I never saw it coming.

Donavan uses his novel to present a very realistic and sympathetic view of law enforcement agencies. His knowledge of police procedures is convincing and the story is all the more interesting for it. Reading the story made me appreciate what a dangerous job police work is and how vulnerable they are. We are also shown how political the job can be and the tensions between detective work and the CPS who don’t always choose to prosecute.


I really enjoyed Cryer’s View, it’s pure escapism but with a thoughtful underbelly. If you like a character driven thriller with lots of action then this one will suit you. 

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Manipulated Lives by H. A. Leuschel


Manipulated Lives by H. A. Leuschel is a collection of five short stories, each very different but linked by the theme of manipulation. Every one of the stories is unusual, intriguing and thought provoking in their own way.

Leuschel captured my attention from the onset with the dramatic and mysterious opening of the first story, The Narcissist. What is immediately apparent is that Leuschel is a skilled writer who delicately constructs her stories so that like onions they unfurl for the reader layer by layer.

Leuschel cleverly alternates her stories between first and third person narratives and both styles have their advantages. For example, The Narcissist is told from the perspective of first person which lends an air of mystery and allows Leuschel to demonstrate how the narcissist in question is blind to his own behaviour and therefore unable to make amends. In contrast, Runaway Girl is told from multiple viewpoints in third person which undermines the idea of a true version of events and leads us to question who is manipulating who.

The beauty of Leuschel’s collection of stories is how they highlight the way we, as humans, often blind ourselves to the truth which can make us both manipulators and victims. The stories are all character driven by realistic and flawed characters and this allows us to relate to the behaviour depicted no matter how extreme it may become.

The frightening reality is that, given the right set of circumstances we could all find ourselves falling victim to a manipulator. A lack of confidence or feelings of neediness means that the slightest show of kindness or flattery could have a profound effect on our emotional compass. The strength of Leuschel’s stories for me lies with the fact that her victims aren’t necessarily likeable and being a victim doesn’t preclude being a manipulator as well.

Leuschel presents a convincing argument that the power of the manipulator is a combination of psychological and physical coercion. Some of the manipulators are presented as dangerous psychopaths whilst others are propelled by a sense of their own importance and entitlement. Leuschel also explores the idea of whether manipulators are simply born that way or created.

The most sinister of the stories for me is My Perfect Child as it is one that resonates with our child-centric society. By creating a supreme sense of self worth in her son and never challenging his demands or destructive behaviour the mother creates a monster. She then colludes with her son by justifying his dysfunction to everyone around her. I think most of us probably know parents with similar attitudes to child rearing even if the outcome isn’t as extreme.

Manipulated Lives raised many questions for me but perhaps the most difficult one is whether there is any such thing as harmless manipulation. We all manipulate to some extent in order to get our own way, whether it’s like the lonely octogenarian Tess in Tess and Tattoos, who likes to pretend she’s dead to get her carers to spend a few more minutes with her or emotionally punishing people for not being who we want them to be. However, having read these stories and being shown the ugly side of manipulation, I for one will be more mindful in the future.


I really enjoyed these five stories and reading them reminded me of how I often overlook the form of short stories in favour of novels. Fortunately though Leuschel’s skills in creating distinct storylines and characters have made me realise what I’m missing out on. Especially during the busy Christmas period, when free time is often limited, I can’t recommend these stories highly enough. Plus they are the perfect antidote to all that festive sweetness.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Miami Morning by Mary Clark



Miami Morning by Mary Clark is the story of idealistic teacher Leila Payson. It’s a novel that affords the reader not only the opportunity to follow Leila on her journey through life but also offers a glimpse of what life is like working within the public schools’ system in Miami amid ever changing educational ideology and internal politics.

The novel begins on Leila’s 41st birthday, she is enjoying a comfortable existence having been a social studies’ teacher for fifteen years. However, her sense of peace is undermined as she begins to reflect back over her past. Clark uses Leila’s memories to draw the reader into her life as we are given an insight into key life changing events, such as the death of her mother.

A defining experience in Leila’s life is the two years she spends in South Africa.  It’s an experience that fundamentally changes her perspective as she works alongside an occupational therapist who believes in total social inclusion for people with disabilities. Her conviction for equal opportunities later causes her to become a champion for a young boy who is losing his hearing which in turn leads to resentment amongst other health professionals.

Although the novel is very much Leila’s story, there are other significant characters. She has an unsuccessful romance with a womanising journalist and long term friendships with Dov and Maria who are both committed to charitable endeavours and, like Leila spend most of their time looking out for others.

There are many things to like about this book, in particular Clark’s ability to convey the setting. She describes Miami in a vivid and colourful way, focusing on the natural habitat. As the story moves to South Africa Clark’s skill is in evidence again as she transports the reader to the changing landscape. Leila also enjoys a holiday to Spain which is equally brought alive by Clark’s writing. The reader is left with the impression that these are places that Clark knows extremely well.

Despite it being Leila’s story it very much feels like Clark uses her novel to convey her own views on society and education. She promotes a holistic style of education which is about more than academic needs and looks after students emotional and mental well being as well. We also get to understand the kind of red tape that constrains teachers when Leila faces a dilemma of whether to intervene in a potentially dangerous fight as it’s against school policy to do so. Clark also expounds the benefits of diversity in schools as a way of enriching all students’ lives.

The novel raises many philosophical issues through Leila’s experiences. She constantly ponders what it is that makes us human and struggles with the need to retain independence and a sense of identity whilst wanting to immerse herself into the community. Whilst in Africa she questions the validity of providing aid and fears that it may diminish people’s sense of power and control. In particular it raises questions about disability and whether disabled people’s quality of life and independence is hampered by misguided attempts to help them.

The novel has an effective shape to it in the way that Clark takes us from the present to different past experiences in Leila’s life. It allows her life to become fuller and fuller and so by the end we are delighted when she meets Mark Carollten, an occupational therapist who shares many of her life views and interests. We are left with the hope that the two of them will make it work at a time when Leila is looking for a relationship to complete her sense of purpose.

The only issue for me with this novel is that Clark has chosen to tell it in the 3rd person narrative. For me it would have lent itself beautifully to 1st person given that it is exclusively Leila’s story and she is a very introspective character. I think it would have helped the reader to get to know Leila on a deeper level as it would have removed the distance that 3rd person inevitably creates.

I also think that 1st person narrative would have allowed Clark to promote her own views in a more subtle way. My worry is that if readers aren’t that interested in education or looking for a light read they may find Clark’s voice intrusive.


Having said that this is only my opinion and I really enjoyed Miami Morning. I think if you like character driven novels that are more thoughtful than action packed then you should give this one a try.