Book Reviews

A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd
First, there was the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park, which saw Jane Austen’s much-loved classic re-imagined as a riveting Victorian murder mystery.  Then came the darkly gripping Tom-All-Alone’s, a thriller set in the shadow of Dickens’s Bleak House. And now author Lynn Shepherd has done it again with her third outing, A Treacherous Likeness.  Except this time, her fiction centres not on characters and settings from classic Victorian novels, but on real events and real people. 

However, this does not mean that A Treacherous Likeness is in any way less influenced by Victorian literature than her previous efforts.  If anything, it is more so – because the real people on which this novel is based are none other than the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, one-time lover of Lord Byron. 

But I’m in danger of getting ahead of myself.  Let me begin, as they say, at the beginning.
The year is 1850.  Charles Maddox, thief-taker par excellence, has barely recovered from the harrowing climax of his investigation into the Tom-All-Alone’s mystery when he finds himself summoned to the home of Sir Percy Shelley (only surviving son of the long-dead poet) and his crass wife, Lady Jane.  It soon transpires that Charles is required to investigate a rather straightforward case of blackmail – someone has threatened to publish papers relating to Shelley which, if genuine, may cast the poet in a rather unfavourable light (and, indeed, undo the family’s decades-long work in sanitizing his once-dubious reputation).

But, as is always the case in Shepherd’s novels, nothing is what it seems.  It isn’t long before Charles finds himself ensnared in a web of lies and deceit borne out of seething jealously, sibling rivalry and unfulfilled love.  It is a web which stretches through time and space – from 1814 to 1850, from the valleys of Wales, to northern Italy and the shores of Lake Geneva.  It is a web which witnessed the creation of Frankenstein, one of the most celebrated gothic novels ever written, but which could also have given rise to more than one shocking murder.

Drawing on all we currently know about the Shelleys and their turbulent lives, A Treacherous Likeness seeks to fill in the many acknowledged gaps in the factual records.  Told through the eyes on an omniscient, 21st century narrator (who benefits from both hindsight and advancements in our understanding of psychological disorders), this exhaustively-researched and intricately-plotted novel casts this fêted literary family in an entirely different light.

While this is, undeniably, a work of fiction, it is a very compelling fiction – and one that will leave you questioning all you thought you knew about that ‘dazzling but doomed’ generation.

A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd will be published by Corsair in February
The Evolution of Inanimate Objects by Harry Karlinsky
As the name suggests, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects: The Life and Collected Works of Thomas Darwin (1857-1879) is the biography of the short, yet eventful, life of one Thomas Darwin, youngest son of the celebrated evolutionary scientist, Charles Darwin. 

Except it’s not. The book is, in fact, a novel, and the character of Thomas Darwin is entirely fictitious, the product of the rather lively imagination of author, Harry Karlinsky - as is the account of Thomas’s struggle to emerge from his father’s imposing shadow, his slow descent into madness, and his tragic early death in a Canadian asylum.

However, Karlinsky’s construct is so utterly convincing, the story so absorbing, that I would challenge any reader not to lose sight of the book’s fictional nature at least once during the reading.  I, for one, had to remind myself several times that this tragic life had never, in reality, been lived.

This blurring of the lines between reality and illusoriness is achieved by combining actual biographical data of the Darwin family with wholly factitious sources, including the invented correspondence of Charles and his wife, Emma.  In taking this approach, the author deftly weaves a tangled web of fact and fantasy, which mirrors the deluded mind of his subject, as it oscillates between the realms of sanity and insanity.

This is a gem of a novel – eccentric, discombobulating, delightful.
'The Evolution of Inanimate Objects' is published by The Friday Project. It has been longlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize.

For more information of on the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, click here:


Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
“It would appear that I am to be the first to write a book on Gillespie.  Who, if not me, was dealt this hand?  Indeed, one might say, who is left to tell the tale?”

So begins Gillespie and I, the Orange Prize long-listed second novel by Jane Harris.  Set, by turns, in 1880s Glasgow and 1930s London, the story is narrated by the elderly Harriet Baxter.  Now almost in her 80s, Harriet has decided to record for posterity the story of her close, if short-lived, friendship with the talented Scottish artist, Ned Gillespie, and his family.

The narrator first encounters the Gillespies during the 1888 International Glasgow Exhibition, at a time when Ned‘s talents are slowly gaining recognition in the elitist Glaswegian art world.  Indeed, after years of struggling to make a name for himself, it seems he is finally on the cusp of a professional break-through. And yet, in just a few short years, the once-loving and close-knit Gillespie family has been torn apart, Ned has taken his own life and his artistic legacy destroyed.  What could have happened in the intervening years to cause such cataclysmic destruction?  It is this question that Harriet sets about answering in this tragic tale of parental love and neglect, wasted devotion and obsession.

From the outset, Harris skilfully conjures an unsettling and insidious sense of foreboding – like a cat toying with her prey, she deftly weaves a plot so complex and unnerving that the reader is left discombobulated, perplexed, unbalanced and disturbed.  Indeed, the only thing one is sure of is that nothing is as it seems in this rather brilliant novel.  Indeed, reading this book is akin to the slightly panicked feeling one has when stumbling through a hall of mirrors – in each disorienting image we catch glimpses of our actual reflection, but thanks to certain faults, distortions or biases in the glass, the truth remains tantalizingly out of reach …

Thanks in large part to the masterful writing, this is a novel that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.  Not to be missed!

'Gillespie and I' is published by Faber and Faber.
This year's Orange Prize short list will be announced on 17 April, and the winner will be unveiled 30 May.  For more information, see


How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
Let me start by saying I was really looking forward to this book. I'm a fan of Caitlin Moran's columns in Saturday's Times and the book itself, which has been billed as a feminist manifesto to rival Germaine Greeer's The Female Eunuch, has been widely popular (in the UK at least).  It has garnered innumerable 5* reviews in the mainstream press and has even won the Galaxy Book of the Year Award last year.  With all this positive buzz, this was going to be one great reading experience, right?

Wrong!  I'm currently half-way through, and struggling to make it to the end.  Although I have only 150 pages to go, they are dragging out before me like a yawning abyss. These last pages are as insurmountable as Everest would be, if I was ever crazy enough to try to climb it - indeed, 800 pages of War and Peace would be preferable to 150 pages of How To Be A Woman.

The main problem with this book lies in the author's rather unique style.  Although she is undoubtedly a talented and funny writer, her reliance on capital letters and endless exclamation marks is extremely annoying - if not downright off-putting.  Any writer worth their salt will tell you that the words on the page should be sufficient to get the point across, while a single exclamation mark, and perhaps the odd italic, is all that is needed to add emphasis.  Overuse of capitals makes the writer come across as belligerent and, in Moran's case, slightly mad.  More often than not, while reading this book, I found myself thinking 'STOP SHOUTING AT ME, YOU LUNATIC!! JUST CALM THE HELL DOWN!!!!'  And as such, any point she was trying to make was simply lost on me.

Another issue I have with this book it's is crudeness.  Note to the author - it is not necessary to mention the c-word and f-word on every other page to prove your feminist credentials.  We are no longer in the 1970s - you do not have to resort to shock tactics to drive home your feministic point. In fact, maybe if you made an effort to drag yourself out of the gutter occasionally, your argument may be better received.  Also, as a reader, I have no desire to be subjected to an entire chapter devoted to your quest to find a suitable name for your vagina and that of your new-born daughter.

And don't get me started on the Twitter-isms and abbreviations she has incorporated into the text.  Is it too much to expect to read actual words in a book?  Surely it isn't beyond the realms of reasonableness to expect a writer to type 'to be honest' instead of 'tbh'??  Whether this is laziness or just an ill-advised affectation is unclear, but coupled with the fact that the text is littered with spelling and grammatical errors, it gives the impression that the book was nothing more than a sloppy rush-job, a cynical and hurried attempt to capitalise on the author's current popularity as a newspaper columnist. 

On that note, I'd advise anyone considering buying this book to stick instead to her journalistic ramblings - because, if How To Be A Woman proves anything at all, it is the fact that Ms Moran's writing is bearable only in very small doses.


Tom-All-Alone's by Lynn Shepherd
So far, 2012 has been a big year for fans of Charles Dickens. Barely six weeks into the great author’s bicentennial year and we have already been treated to a dizzying array of TV and radio adaptations of his works, not to mention innumerable newspaper and magazine articles analyzing everything from his characters and plots to his enduring influence in our 21st century world.

In fact, so saturated has the media become with all things Dickensian, you would, dear reader, be forgiven for feeling just a little bit tired of it all. (Personally, I’m expecting the phrase ‘Dickens fatigue’ to enter the OED any day now.)

But, before you take the rash step of swearing off Charles-bloody-Dickens for the sake of your mental health, I urge you to pick up a copy of Lynn Shepherd’s wonderful new book, Tom-All-Alone’s – because if you are indeed suffering from this particular literary malaise, Tom-All-Alone’s provides the perfect antidote by breathing new life into one of Dickens' most famous novels.

Set in 1850, Tom-All-Alone’s is a Victorian murder mystery which cleverly uses many of the characters and locations from the classic Bleak House and weaves them into an entirely new, but equally compelling, story. However, unlike Bleak House, Tom-All-Alone’s is narrated by a 21st century observer – a device which allows the author to expose many of the darker realities of Victorian London, realities Dickens could only hint at or, indeed, ignore altogether.

And Lynn Shepherd certainly doesn’t shy away from the task in hand. She is unflinching in her re-creation of the seedy, squalid and the downright disgusting underbelly of mid-19th century London. Nothing is off limits in this book, whether it be child prostitution, gruesome Ripper-style murders, or nauseating descriptions of the goings-on in the infamous Bermondsey tanneries. However, all this only serves to bring the slums of Victorian London authentically and vividly to life, and the reader is left under no illusions as to what life was really like for many Londoners forced to eek out an existence in such wretched conditions.

Charles Dickens
If you are not familiar with Bleak House, fear not –a prior knowledge of the Dickens masterpiece is certainly not a prerequisite for the enjoyment of this book. In fact, with its intricately-woven plot, meticulously researched historical detail and wonderful writing, Tom-All-Alone’s doesn’t need the Dickens connection to make this a thoroughly good book – as a stand-alone story, it will appeal to anyone who enjoys a classic Victorian murder mystery.

A must-read.

Tom-All-Alone's by Lynn Shepherd is published in the UK by Corsair.  It will be released in the US under the title The Solitary House on May 1st.  For more information, including a great video introduction by the author, go to


The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
Early last year, the literary world (this blog included) was abuzz with the news that the Conan Doyle Estate had, at last, commissioned a new, full-length Sherlock Holmes murder mystery.

The decision, which was a significant departure for the executors of great author’s estate, came as a surprise to many. Up to now, the Estate trustees had jealously guarded Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legacy, steadfastly refusing to sanction any of the unofficial Holmesian tales that had been penned since his death (of which there have been many).

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
And, in another surprising (and not altogether uncontroversial) move, the man entrusted to follow in Conan Doyle’s footsteps was none other than Anthony Horowitz. Although a prolific author with a number of highly successful children’s detective stories under his belt (including the The Power of Five and the Alex Rider series), Horowitz could hardly be described as a literary heavyweight – and many, myself included, questioned the wisdom of the choice.

And so, now that the book, intriguing titled The House of Silk, has finally been published, did the gamble pay off?

In short – yes. Exceedingly so.

The story, like all of Conan Doyle’s offerings, is narrated by Dr Watson, Holmes’s long-time friend and collaborator. By now, the famous detective has been dead for over a year, and the good doctor is putting pen to paper one last time in an attempt to chronicle the most sensational and disturbing case that Holmes had ever been called upon to investigate.

Indeed, so disquieting are the details of this case that Watson is taking great pains to ensure that the account is held under lock and key for one hundred years, in the hope that, when such a time has elapsed, society will be better equipped to contend with startling revelations contained within his narrative.

As a back-story, it’s a rather good one, conveniently giving Horowitz licence to take the classic Sherlock Holmes mystery to altogether different level by allowing him to update the story for a modern audience.

And, thankfully, this unique opportunity is not wasted. In The House of Silk, Horowitz has successfully captured not only the voice of Conan Doyle, but also the very essence of Sherlock Holmes. Characterisations are pitch-perfect, while descriptions of Victorian London (and its seedy underbelly) are as believable as they are disturbing.

Anthony Horowitz
And, as for the story itself, the plot is as convoluted and confusing as any of the classic mysteries, if not more so, and keeps the reader guessing right to the very end.

In fact, in every aspect, the transition from Conan Doyle to Horowitz is simply seamless.

Horowitz has indeed proved himself a worthy successor. The doubters have been silenced.

'The House of Silk' by Anthony Horowitz is published by Orion Books.

Related Stories:


Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
It has certainly been a good summer for Canadian author, Esi Edugyan. At the beginning of July, her latest novel, Half Blood Blues, was dramatised and serialised for BBC Radio 4’s popular late-night programme, Book At Bedtime. This was followed, two weeks later, by the announcement that the book had been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. With so much positive buzz abounding, this novel surely wouldn’t disappoint … or would it?

Set in Berlin and Paris in the late 1930s and early 1940s, while occasionally fast-forwarding to the present day, Half Blood Blues tells the story of a group of jazz musicians who, on the brink of stardom, fall foul of the Nazi Party’s laws banning so-called ‘degenerate’ music.

The group, known as Hot Time Blues, is made up of a motley crew of musicians – the novel’s African American narrator, Sid Griffiths and his best friend, Chip Jones, are from Baltimore, while the other band members hail from Germany. The star of the show is undoubtedly 19-year-old Hieronymous Falk, an awesomely talented trumpeter, who has recently come to the attention of jazz legend, Louis Armstrong.

Unfortunately for Hiero, the fact that he was born to an African father and a German mother meant he has been deemed a crossbreed, or Mischling, by the Nazi Party. When Mischlings were rendered ‘stateless’ or non-German in accordance with the Third Reich’s Legal Provisions, Hiero becomes a prime candidate for transportation to the dreaded camps. The book follows Hiero and this group of misfits as they flee Berlin to the relative safety of Paris, where they are due to cut a record with Armstrong. However, France’s capitulation to Germany in 1940 means the Nazis finally catch up with the unlucky Hiero …

Given what we all know about Hitler’s Aryan ideals, it comes as surprise to realise that, despite the vast swathes of material written about this bleak period of history, we know relatively little about the fate of black or mixed race people in the Nazi Fatherland. This novel had the potential to plug this gap in our knowledge … but, unfortunately, it falls short.

Esi Edugyan
Instead of making the black experience in Nazi Germany the focal point of the novel, Edugyan merely skims the surface of this under-examined subject. What should be the novel’s main storyline is relegated to a mere sideshow, as the author instead explores more superficial avenues. Preferring to dwell on themes of unrequited love, jealousy and betrayal, Edugyan squanders a unique opportunity – that is, the opportunity to write an ‘important’ novel on the Afro-German experience during the Third Reich.

'Half Blood Blues' by Esi Edugyan is published by Serpent's Tail


Gift of Time: A Family's Diary of Cancer
When Rory MacLean’s mother, Joan, is diagnosed with a terminal cancer, he and his wife, Katrin, unhesitatingly take the ailing woman into their home in an effort to make her last remaining weeks as comfortable as possible. Each keeps a diary of their experiences, the results of which are collated into this incredibly moving book.

Told with humour, grace and searing honesty, Rory, Katrin and Joan lay bare their innermost emotions as they come to terms with this dreaded disease – to the extent that the reader sometimes feels like a voyeuristic intruder, blithely eavesdropping on their most private of thoughts.

However, the benefit of this intensely personal, warts-and-all account is that it throws into harsh relief the devastating effects of cancer on the sufferer, while also giving unique insight into often-overlooked plight of those left behind to pick up the pieces – the family, the friends and the carers. Cancer, it seems, is all-consuming - and in more ways than one.

It cannot be denied that parts of this book are uncomfortable to read – it is, after all, a chronicle of death. It forces the reader to confront the one basic truth that we spend so much time trying to ignore – the fact death is an inevitable and inescapable part of the human condition. However, despite this, the book is strangely life-affirming – in acknowledging death, it also succeeds in celebrating life … and the indomitability of the human spirit.

A truly remarkable book – Gift of Time should be essential reading for mortals everywhere.

"Gift of Time: A Family's Diary of Cancer" by Rory MacLean with Joan and Katrin MacLean is out on August 18th.
It is published by Constable, an imprint of Constable & Robinson.


A Visit from the Goon Squad
Much like the character of Dr Sam Beckett in the cult 80s TV show Quantum Leap, Jennifer Egan’s latest offering, the Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, is a novel that likes to jump around … a lot

Spanning four decades, crossing numerous cities and continents, and resolutely shunning chronological conventions, the book is a montage of random episodes that serve to illustrate the lives of its many characters. Seemingly inspired by the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory, the actors in this drama are drawn from a complex web of connections which all lead back to two main players, the music impresario Bennie Salazar and his beautiful-but-complicated assistant Sasha.

Jennifer Egan
The book is a very ambitious undertaking for Egan. With a cast of characters to rival Tolstoy, a rather lengthy time span and an unconventional structure (with each new chapter devoted to a different character in a different place and time), the pressure is on Egan to make it work … and, for the most part, she does.

Reading more like a collection of short stories than a novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a unique concept which has been cleverly executed. Occasionally, the reader feels that the various strands of the story are in danger of becoming irretrievably tangled, but the author always seems to pull back from the brink – thanks mainly to Bennie and Sasha, who ‘anchor’ the narrative and prevent it from spiralling out of control.

The overriding theme of the book is time, or rather the unrelenting passage of time. As the title suggests, time is the ’goon’ or bully from which there is no escape – this particular goon will visit us all in the end. Such a theme as this could easily have made for an unremittingly miserable read, but while there are some gloomy chapters, Egan’s dark humour is often deployed to lighten the load. In fact, as Egan whizzes backwards and forwards in time, from person to person and place to place, the novel veers from the depressing to the exhilarating with breathtaking speed. Add to this the 75 pages of powerpoint presentations and the dizzying array of references to subjects as diverse as ancient history, art, architecture and obscure punk rock bands from the 70s (Egan is obviously quite the renaissance woman), and it soon becomes clear that this is a novel that simply refuses to be ignored.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is published in the UK by Corsair, an imprint of Constable and Robinson Ltd


New Releases!

Click on the link for reviews of the following upcoming titles.

The Year After by Martin Davies. Published by Hodder.
Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner. Published by William Heinemann
What I Did by Christopher Wakling. Published by John Murray

With thanks to The Bookseller and We Love This Book



In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010, In A Strange Room is the second offering by South African author Damon Galgut to be considered for this prestigious literary award. (The first was The Good Doctor, which was shortlisted for the prize in 2003.) After reading just the first couple of pages of In A Strange Room, it becomes obvious to the reader why Galgut is a perennial favourite of the Man Booker judges, despite losing out to DBC Pierre and Howard Jacobson in 2003 and 2010 respectively.

In A Strange Room is a highly accomplished, if completely unconventional, piece of work. Masquerading as a set of three stories which document the travels of ‘Damon’ (the protagonist) around Lesotho, Central Africa and India, it soon becomes clear that this triptych of prose is more than just a collection of run-of-the-mill travel writings. Exploring themes of love, loss, loneliness, suicide and death, the book takes the reader on a journey which transcends the geographical. As we follow Damon’s aimless meandering around vast swathes of Africa and India, and witness his inability to form lasting human connections, we come to the uncomfortable realisation that his relentless travelling is really just a desperate, but ultimately futile, attempt to escape from himself. Galgut forces the reader to examine Damon’s motivations, and by default, our own ... which can sometimes make for uncomfortable reading.

Damon Galgut
But perhaps the real success of this book lies in the unconventionality of its construction. Although classified as a novel, In A Strange Room is a piece of work that simply refuses to be defined. Throughout, the reader finds himself constantly trying, and failing, to pigeonhole this book into a specific genre. Is it fact or fiction? Memoir or travelogue? Novel or a collection of longish short-stories? The answer, of course, is all of the above. And therein lies the book’s appeal. In his blatant flouting of genre, the author creates a sense of dislocation and other-worldliness which complements the protagonist’s feeling of displacement. This blurring of distinctions is something at which Galgut excels, and it is a talent not confined to the differentiations of genre - the author’s haphazard approach to punctuation (in particular, his apparent disdain for the question mark) is similarly rebellious and equally beneficial to the book as a whole.

In A Strange Room is a profoundly moving and insightful commentary on the inherent loneliness of the human condition and the fragility of all human relationships. Haunting, evocative and completely mesmerizing, it is a must-read for anyone interested in the complex nature of our interactions with ourselves and the world we live in.

4 / 5
In A Strange Room is published by Atlanntic Books, an imprint of Grove Atlantic Ltd.


The Talk of the Town by Ardal O'Hanlon
I know I’m probably a little late to the party on this one (The Talk of the Town was published in 1998), so please forgive the tardiness of this review.

I have, in fact, been trying to track this book down for quite some time. Exhaustive searches of London’s book stores and Amazon had proved fruitless, and I was beginning to despair of ever getting my hands on it, when it suddenly appeared before my eyes, like a divine apparition, on a second-hand book table in the market under Waterloo Bridge … and at the bargain-basement price of £3 – result!

So, was this debut offering by Irish comedian, Ardal O’Hanlon, worth the wait (and the endless trudging around innumerable Waterstones stores)? The short answer is yes, but with one important qualification … if you are expecting this book to be reminiscent of O’Hanlon’s most famous character, the thick-as-two-bricks Fr Dougal McGuire of Father Ted fame, you will be sorely disappointed.

Ardal O'Hanlon
Because The Talk of the Town is as far removed from the side-splitting comedy of Father Ted as it can possibly get.  It is the story of Patrick, a young man from a small town in Ireland, who is struggling to come to terms with the death of his idolised father and the onset of adulthood. Told from the point of view of the rather unlikeable protagonist, and occasionally interspersed with diary entries from Francesca, his indifferent but well-meaning girlfriend, The Talk of the Town chronicles Patrick’s startling descent from promising young teenager into a world of disillusionment and inertia. As all his friends appear to be emerging from their adolescent years relatively unscathed, Patrick is stuck in a quagmire of self-doubt and resentment. Unwilling or unable to take control of his life, Patrick succumbs to alcohol and violence as a way of venting his deep-seated frustrations. As this dark and disturbing tale hurtles inexorably to his horrifying climax, the reader is left contemplating the fine line between sanity and madness … and how easily a life be veered off-course.

The novel, however, is not without its faults. The plot is rather thin in places and, if it wasn’t for Francesca’s occasional diary entries to alleviate the intensity, the narrative would be a difficult and unrelentingly miserable read. The book is also jam-packed with colloquialisms - which is fine if you are in fact Irish like me, but could be quite baffling for the non-native reader!

In short, Roddy Doyle it ain’t, but well worth a read nonetheless.



A Tour de Force
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted from the outset that sporting memoirs, of any description, are not generally given much airtime on this blog. In fact, it is fair to say that they are usually given a very wide berth. But every so often a book comes along that forces one to re-examine our preconceptions. How I Won the Yellow Jumper: Dispatches from the Tour de France by ITV’s intrepid sports journalist Ned Boulting is one such book.

Part memoir, part travelogue, How I Won the Yellow Jumper is a hilarious account of Ned’s eight years covering that most famous and illustrious of road cycle races, the Tour de France. From inauspicious beginnings, (on his maiden Tour, he referred to the coveted yellow jersey as a ‘jumper’ live on TV - a howler of such magnitude, it is surprising ITV didn’t cancel his contract on the spot) to his emergence as one of the sport’s most respected journalists, Ned recounts his experiences with remarkable honesty.

Ned Boulting
The book is essentially a collection of vignettes which illustrate what it means to exist within the annual hive of frenzied activity that constitutes the Tour de France. These snapshots, as seen through Ned’s eyes, provide a unique insight into what life must be like for the army of people – cyclists, reporters, photographers, fans, even chefs – who make up the Tour’s colossal entourage. And Ned is well placed to make such observations. His position as an accredited Tour reporter allows him a glimpse into the rarefied world of professional cycling, while at the same time compelling him to operate on its periphery. From this unique vantage point, Ned has an unfettered view of the good, the bad and the ugly that make up La Grande Boucle. And he doesn’t shy away from the job in hand. With flashes of searing insight, the author dishes the dirt on cycling’s grandees, allowing the reader to see a side of Lance Armstrong, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins et al, which is usually carefully edited from view.

Quite apart from the obvious cycling anecdotes, the reader is also regaled with tales of male camaraderie, as Ned and his production team struggle to deal with life on the road. Whether it’s an unhelpful SatNav or the constant hunt for launderette facilities, the book has the feeling of a boy’s own adventure story throughout. Add to this the wonderful descriptive passages which evoke the beauty of the French countryside, and the chapter on food which takes the reader on a mouth-watering gastronomic journey, this is a book that has it all. It will appeal to not just the cycling enthusiast, but also the foodie, the traveller and anybody who enjoys a good ole yarn.

Oh, and did I mention it is very, very funny?

How I Won the Yellow Jumper: Dispatches from the Tour de France by Ned Boulting is published on June 2nd by Yellow Jersey Press (an imprint of Random House).


A Cautionary Tale
Pigeon English is the debut offering from up-and-coming author Stephen Kelman. Set over a period of five months, the story is narrated by an eleven-year-old boy, Harrison Opoku, who has recently arrived in London from Ghana. Ostensibly about Harrison’s struggle to adapt to his new environment, the novel provides a damning insight into the many social problems, and the very real dangers, faced by kids living in inner-city housing estates today.

Fascinated by the recent stabbing of a boy from one of the local towerblocks, Harrison, inspired by TV shows like CSI, innocently sets about investigating the murder. In doing so, he unwittingly jeopardizes the safety of both himself and his family. Throughout the book, Harrison’s worldview is unfailingly optimistic and somewhat romanticized, and as such, he remains blissfully oblivious to the dangers that lurk all around. The reader, on the other hand, is painfully aware of the pitfalls he faces, and feels immense frustration that we cannot warn him of them.

Stephen Kelman
Among the novel’s most remarkable accomplishments is the authentic voice the author captures in his lead character. Apart from Emma Donohue’s Room, I cannot recall another writer who has so successfully ‘got inside the head’ of a child protagonist. Kelman’s depiction of Harri’s internal monologue is both unnerving and captivating.

Another of the novel’s successes is its convincing characterizations. Through Harri, the reader is introduced to an intriguing cast of characters, from the relatively harmless petty thief, Terry Takeaway and his pit-bull Asbo, to the ominous gang-members X-Fire (pronounced Crossfire) and Killa. This realistic portrayal of a cross-section of inner-city life adds a great degree of authenticity to the story. The one character that didn’t quite work was the pigeon – befriended by Harrison and cast in the role of his guardian angel, the paragraphs narrated by Pigeon seemed oddly out of place. The reader was left confused as to the pigeon’s relevance to the story until the very end.

Initially, the dialogue was baffling - a combination of Ghanaian English mixed with the grating and sometimes nonsensical slang favoured by London’s tough inner-city teenagers was more than a little bewildering. (Asweh, he was just a confusionist, innit!) Fortunately, any perplexity soon dissipated once the reader got to grips with the vernacular.

Pigeon English is a story that is both harrowing and uplifting by turns. At the end, however, the reader is left with a profound sense of heartbreak - not just because of Harrison’s fate, but also because we are only too aware that this is a story that plays out, in real life, every day, in the innumerable housing estates in our capital city and beyond.

4 / 5
Pigeon English is published by Bloomsbury.
With thanks to The Omnivore (


“All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing”.

The sentiment expressed in this oft-used phrase forms the basis for Hans Fallada’s extraordinarily moving novel, Alone in Berlin. Published in Germany in 1947 under the title, Every Man Dies Alone (Jeder stirbt für sich allein), it is based on true events.

The novel tells the story of an unassuming, working-class couple, Otto and Anna Quangel who, distraught by the death of the son in the Second World War, begin a campaign of resistance against Hitler and the Nazi party. Their acts of rebellion are small, some would even say insignificant – they write one postcard a week, inciting civil disobedience by denouncing Hitler, the Nazis and the war that killed their son. The postcards, dropped randomly all over Berlin, were intended to be a rallying call, imploring recipients not to blindly succumb to the tyranny of the Nazis. Despite the small-scale nature of Otto and Anna’s revolt, a Gestapo inspector becomes obsessed with tracking them down. He eventually succeeds, and the Quangels pay the ultimate price for their deeds – they are imprisoned, tortured, subjected to a show-trial and eventually executed.

It quickly becomes apparent to the reader, however, that the actual subject of the novel is not Otto and Anna Quangel – the real focus of the book is in fact the Nazi regime, and more precisely, its brutality and effectiveness at suppressing all opposition, however small. The author paints a vivid picture of what life was like for everyday Germans living under Nazi control … and therein lies the novel’s greatest achievement. Fallada masterfully evokes an ominous atmosphere of pervasive anxiety, apprehension and distrust, where ordinary citizens live in abject fear of the Gestapo, and as such are prepared to turn a blind eye to their atrocities. One tends to forget that, quite aside from his crimes against Jews and other elements of society he deemed undesirable, Hitler’s despotism and cruelty was directed at all German citizens – the Führer proved himself to be equally adept at killing his own people as he was at killing Jews.

Alone in Berlin is a story of man’s inhumanity to man. There is no uplifting or redemptive ending, just as there was no uplifting or redemptive ending to the Second World War. The novel is bleak and utterly depressing, and for this very reason it is an absolute must-read … because if we are to learn lessons from history, we must never forget it.

Otto and Elise Hampel, the couple who inspired Alone in Berlin


How To Become a Famous Novelist
As regular followers will attest, I am quite fond of writing the odd book review. In fact, truth be told, this blog has seen more than its fair share of them … but no more, dear readers! This reviewer has finally seen the error of her ways. The following will be the last book review I will ever write… and even as I put pen to paper* to compose this final dispatch, I do so with a heart heavy with shame and regret.

Up until now, it was my firm belief that the job of a book reviewer was to advance the literary cause. Drawing the public’s attention to good writing, while denouncing the bad was, I believed, a worthy occupation. However, nothing could be further from the truth – at least according to Pete Tarslaw, the protagonist in Steve Hely’s fictional debut How I Became a Famous Novelist.

The book, ostensibly an account of one man’s crusade to become a bestselling author, is in reality a vehicle through which Hely mercilessly lampoons many aspects of the publishing industry, including (you’ve guessed it) book reviewers. Our protagonist’s opinion of reviewers is unequivocal, to say the least. According to him, they are:
“… the most despicable, loathsome order of swine … snivelling, revolting creatures who feed their own appetites for bile by gnawing apart other people’s work… they are human garbage [who] all deserve to be struck down by awful diseases described in the most obscure dermatology journals ..”
Hmmm … there’s nothing quite like being called the scum of humanity (I’m paraphrasing) to make one re-assess one’s career path.  But I digress …

Prejudice against book reviewers aside, this novel is simply brilliant. The premise is rather ingenious - a down-trodden, unlucky-in-love, would-be
writer is eking out a miserable existence in a dead-end job when he is struck by a proverbial thunderbolt. Suddenly recognising the fundamental spuriousness of the publishing industry, our hero comes to the conclusion that the business of writing and publishing is nothing more than a complex exercise in deception. Convinced that bestselling authors are simply con artists who make a substantial living by manipulating the emotions of the reading public, Pete undertakes an elaborate counter-con … using his new-found insight, he sets about writing his own bestseller with hilarious results.

How I Became a Famous Novelist is laugh-out-loud, side-splittingly funny and gloriously ironic. It shines an unforgiving light on the workings of the publishing industry and exposes the pretentiousness which surrounds literary writing, and of course literary review. If you are a fan of no-holds-barred satire, you’ll love this!

And now, I’m off in search of alternative, worthier employment. Maybe I’ll try my luck as a traffic warden? Or a telemarketer? Estate agent? A tax inspector, perhaps? Anything, it seems, would be better than a devilish book reviewer.

How I Became a Successful Novelist is published by Corsair and is available in paperback from March 24th.

(* figuratively speaking, of course; ‘fingers to keyboard’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?)


Hate, A Romance, by the emergent French novelist Tristan Garcia, is a difficult book to read. It is difficult - not because of the writing, or the language, or even the complex socio-political themes - but because, at the heart of the book, is the idea that the human condition is an inherently lonely, isolated state.

Revolving around a close-knit group of friends and lovers (Willie, Dominique, Jean-Michel and Liz), the novel explores the theory that all human relationships are fluid and impermanent. It is unsettling for the reader to consider the possibility that, despite being part of a complex social structure, eventually all human bonds break down. Whether this happens as a result of disloyalty, envy, hate or death is irrelevant – the point is: it happens.

The novel spans the period from the early seventies to the late noughties, with much of the action set against the backdrop of the explosive homosexual revolution of the early eighties. Willie and Dominique are in an apparently loving gay relationship, while Liz and Jean-Michel (Leibo) embark on a decades-long affair. Willie is introduced to Paris’s gay scene by the older and more experienced Dominique, and together they explore and enjoy the burgeoning sexual liberation afforded to homosexuals during that period.

But, nothing lasts forever. Everything changes. A newcomer arrives on the scene intent on spoiling the party; the arrival of AIDS causes the euphoria of the period to give way to fear and suspicion.
Dominique is HIV positive and eventually Willie contracts the virus as well. Not content with eating away their weakening bodies, the disease also consumes all that is good in their relationship. (It remains unclear whether Dominique infected Willie – certainly accusations are bandied about, but the reader remains unsure.) In this insidious atmosphere, we witness the breakdown of friendships and love affairs. Connections that once seemed inextricably linked become disentangled. The bonds between all four protagonists eventually come undone: love turns to hate, loyalty to betrayal, friends become enemies, life gives way to death. Ultimately, as the title suggests, familiarity will always breed contempt in the end.

This novel is not for the faint-hearted. It is complex, multi-layered and challenging, dealing with a wide range of philosophical and political themes. A story of life, love and loss, the novel forces the reader to confront issues that we generally prefer to ignore. The author’s remarkable philosophical insight and brilliant command of narrative makes this a highly readable, if somewhat harrowing, piece of work.

This debut offering has thrust Tristan Garcia to the forefront of the French literary scene. He is undoubtedly the most exciting novelist to come out of France since Michel Houellebecq. One to watch.

Hate, A Romance is published by Faber and Faber.


Evelyn Waugh's Scoop
By the time Evelyn Waugh published Scoop in 1938, he had already gained quite a reputation as a biting social satirist. His previous novels, Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall, had mercilessly lampooned various aspects of British society in the 1920s. With Scoop, Waugh had another target in his sights – the journalism industry, or more precisely, the tabloid newspapers which habitually engaged in sensationalist reporting.

The novel revolves around William Boot, a bumbling, unassuming nature writer who, through a case of mistaken identity, finds himself plucked from the obscurity of his country home and shipped off to the fictional African country of Ishmaelia by the editor of The Daily Beast. As the Beast’s man in Ishmaelia, Boot is charged with the task of reporting on the impending civil war, which is expected to erupt at any moment. A raucous comedy of errors ensues, which ultimately sees Boot, despite his breathtaking incompetence, eventually land the scoop of the decade.

Loosely based on Waugh’s own experiences as a special correspondent reporting on Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, the novel deftly paints a vivid portrait of Fleet Street as an ineffectual, bloated, egotistical monster, more concerned with newspaper sales than reporting the truth. (Sound familiar?) It becomes apparent that journalism, with its pervasive expenses-claiming culture, was the poster-boy of excess long before today’s bankers and politicians took over this dubious mantle.

The novel’s cast of characters is a thinly disguised who’s who of Britain’s newspaper industry during the interwar years. The Daily Beast and its rival The Daily Brute are parodies of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. Lord Copper and Lord Zinc are both recognizable as the real-life newspaper magnates, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Northcliffe (owners of the Express and Mail respectively). The obsequious and inept foreign editor, Mr Salter can, one imagines, be taken to symbolise any number of Fleet Street editors of the time. Even Mussolini gets a mention, in the guise of Dr Benito, the would-be dictator of Ishmaelia.

A quick glance at today’s tabloid headlines is enough to convince the reader that not much has changed in the intervening years since Waugh wrote his illuminating, if cynical, parody of tabloid reporting. As such, it is essential reading for anybody interested in a career in journalism. In fact, why not avoid extortionate university fees altogether; invest in Scoop instead– it’s the only textbook an aspiring journalist will need!


Read my book review of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, published by Tuppence Magazine.