Fiction club reviews

This page is called Club reviews because we will accept reviews of recent small press or co-operatively published literary novels from other sources. We will prioritise Fiction Direct book reviews and we may split the reviews into two pages, home and external. We think 100-300 words is a good guide for reviews and we will moderate reviews. No attacks please. To offer a review use the help email below. 
Unsigned reviews are by Sally Evans. Please send more reviews to make these a minority

Maureen Weldon reviews Beyond the Lion Gate: 

I rarely read a book twice, however Beyond The Lion Gate, is that exception. Morelle Smith's beautiful lyrical writing throughout this novel tells a compelling story through Paula Hartmann ‘s eyes. Paula is based in Tirana, having joined a humanitarian enterprise in the 1990s shortly after the departure of Stalin’s Communist regime, leaving Albania in economic and social turmoil.
On page 17 “He picked up a book, closed his eyes briefly, then opened it at random/picking
out lines from Rumi’s The Guest House.
                                            Welcome and entertain them all!
                                            Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows.…
                                            meet them at the door laughing,
                                            and invite them in.
                                            Be grateful for whoever comes….

After reading these words I could see how applicable they were to this book. A place
where love, friendship, work, joy and disappointment mingle together with the seasons, the
mountains the sea. Where old traditions are still alive.

So to travel over the Albanian Mountains with Paula and friends and to look down on the
clear turquoise Ionian Sea from the heights of the abandoned fortress/palace of the tyrannical
ruler Ali Pasha. Then later to walk through The Lion Gate, with Paula envisioning the Greek Myths, found solace and reason why the love shared with Engell had cooled.             
                                                                                                                               -- Maureen Weldon


Review: A Journey to Nowhere by Jean-Paul Kauffmann translated by Euan Cameron. Maclehose Press.

The writer travels to Latvia, out of curiosity as well as a commission to write an article. He finds it hard to categorize and describe this country precisely. Parts of it remind him of other places but not really. He can’t put his finger on its essence.
‘there is a disengagement from time here, an inner quality that I am unable to pinpoint or define.

He meets various people, some residents and some visiting, and has good conversations about literature, art and history. But in some way he feels that the country is either empty or hiding, unwilling to reveal itself. He feels its history of being repressed by various regimes most notably and recently the Soviet Union, and its short history of independence, means that it has not created or defined its own national character.

But it is far from a negative appraisal, in fact you feel more and more in this book that he is discovering and describing something in himself, some inner haziness or emptiness which is a great treat to read, especially in his acutely perceived descriptions of individuals and of national characteristics.
‘the body language [of Americans] that compact way of holding themselves, of sauntering, of using their hands … the ostentatious appearance of ease’.
‘Why should Courland – a part of Europe after all …. evade all attempts at description or definition? ...A sense of time standing still, of suspension ….’.

The title is misleading. The sense of anticipation of discovery can be felt as the author and his wife drive around Latvia (Courland) even if they are following an empty road flanked by pine forests on each side, and confused by signs in an incomprehensible language. They discover landscapes, architecture, history, even if it was not what they expected. The writer’s self deprecating charm may be typically French, I wouldn’t dare to say, though Kaufmann has no hesitation in describing Latvian, French, German and American characteristics, with such confidence, that you can’t help but be won over.

Morelle Smith


Review:Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. Fitzcarraldo

I was drawn into the protagonist’s voice, worldview, her commentary on said world and in particular on certain people who thoughtlessly, mindlessly or even possibly with relish, hunted down other beings, destroyed them, murdered them, set traps for them, raised them in crowded conditions for their own profit, and abused them generally, giving very little thought to how these creatures might feel.

She writes letters to the authorities our Mrs. Duszejko, but receives no replies. She has a neighbour she likes, though he is taciturn, only conversing when necessary or practical or when he is inebriated, but whose heart you suspect is in the right place. She has two good friends, one a former student (Janina Duszejko teaches English part-time) the other is young and beautiful and works at the local charity shop. She knows that most people either do not pay her any attention ‘ Nobody takes any notice of old women who wander around with their shopping bags’ or they treat her as a nuisance, with her letters of complaint to the council or the police, or as someone to be humoured, not quite right in the head, as she talks about the movements of the planets, likes to read people’s horoscopes, and has a theory that the animal world is revenging itself on the humans who trap and hunt them, for what they call ‘sport’.

So I was reading the last part of the book on the bus and it took a very unexpected turn, I had in fact wondered how it might end, as there were unexplained deaths, and I thought that perhaps it would simply end in an unresolved way, a continuation of the life of this fierce fighter for justice in her small community with her teaching work, her translation collaboration (of William Blake’s poems) with a former student, and her trips to the charity shop where she enjoyed the company of her friend who worked there. Obviously I won’t reveal the ending, but the curious thing is, when the bus went round a roundabout I looked down and saw someone had placed a sign on the ground propped against a tree, and it said RIP and there was a lovely painting of a badger.

Morelle Smith


Review: Beyond the Lion Gate, by Morelle Smith. Fiction Direct, 2023

I started reading Beyond the Lion Gate the day it arrived and was immediately drawn into the story because Morelle's descriptions of inner states of mind and heart and of landscapes are so compelling. I treasure her books of poetry and her book about Annemarie Schwartzenbach.
      I read it slowly, and like it so much that I want to read it again.  The story is compelling, well-written, filled with astute observations about human nature, and shows a profound attunement with color, sound, the natural world and the world of cities. My hope is that many will buy this splendid book.

Amanda Muir, Washington State US

Review: The Gospel of Orla, by Eoghan Walls. Seven Stories Press, 2023
Does Orla have a gospel? There are assumptions from a Catholic background in the teenager’s life, including faith in the ‘miracles’ performed by her associate – describable as magical realism as he breathes life back into dead birds and animals. This outsider Jesus is real enough, but he will vanish among disputes in dangerous pubs along Lancaster canal paths, as Orla is consumed by her grief for her mother who has died in Ireland.
     Trying to act independently of her father as he struggles to hold their home together, abandoning her beloved baby sister, and aided by support in the form of bicycles and money from a school friend, she embarks upon a mad scheme to travel anonymously to Ireland, until she tangles with a circus, runs away with its elephant, and – how will it end? Disappointingly?  Well?
     Thoroughly imagined and described, the story is both unlikely and believable. What happens is survived, but may never be understood.
     When the main character of a novel is a young adult, you ask whether this is a book for young adults, but the questions the novel seeks to answer are more profound. What can we believe, what do we believe, and how can we deal with grief and life in the face of such questions?  
Sally Evans.


Review: Flatlands, by Sue Hubbard. One (Pushkin Press), 2023

Inspired by Paul Gallico’s short novella The Snow Goose, largely unknown to current readers but popular after the second world war, Sue Hubbard’s Flatlands intensely recreates the Norfolk countryside in wartime, through Freda’s, or Fritha’s, eyes, an evacuee torn from her family in London, but now an old woman detached from past tribulations. The girl is ill-treated by her host family and eventually raped by the brutish man of the house. She finds solace with another lost soul, Philip Rhyadar, a painter and conscientious objector who lives alone in a lighthouse. Together they care for a wounded white goose until separated by the events of Dunkirk, when Rhayadar leaves, taking a boat, and is killed during the evacuation, while Fritha runs away back to London. A well plotted story that takes nothing away from the Gallico text, but adds to it should you happen to know it.  Like all Hubbard’s books it is thoroughly researched, with details of country life in 1939 and 1940, evoking the rumours and worry, the hard toil, desperation and bleak countryside beside the rivers that run into the Wash. One feature is the prevarication of both protagonists’ mothers, the one running a small shop in London, the other dallying with intellectuals in Paris, both sending occasional letters but neither willing to visit their struggling and abandoned offspring. Despite the harsh background, the book ends in moral triumph with the heroic actions of Rhayader and the equally heroic survival of Fritha. 
Sally Evans

Comment: Cuddy by Benjamin Myers. Bloomsbury Circus, 2023.

A book about Saint Cuthbert in the north east of England, mainly Durham and Northumberland. It's enormous, it collects and connects all the known history and references to Cuthbert. I have as yet only read part of it, so this is a notice not a review. But it does some of the things we want our novels to do (it has 'family likeness' in Wittgenstein's sense). It is by a poet. It is about the north of England, and by someone working in the north. It is 'something else.' It takes liberties with the already liberal conventions of fiction. It swallows up various earlier works on Cuthbert, all the hidden references in a once unknown and neglected countryside. At a time of difficulty for fiction, I want to rescue some of these well imagined and well written books, those that are 'something else,' when much fiction publishing is currently cautious.
     Very long books are more expensive to produce, so extra length won't be a 'family likeness' in Fiction Direct books. Cuddy can be very long because Myers has grown his readership with substantial published writing. Cuddy is also being heavily publicised. His successful last book was The Offing, about a young poet in the north. Cuddy extends or develops the contemporary definition of fiction. 
Sally Evans