Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes

review by Maryom

Peirene Press have made their name as publishers of short, translated fiction, but this collection marks the start of a different project - commissioning authors to explore current issues through fiction, to bring social problems to life in much the same way that Ken Loach's 1960s film Cathy Come Home shed light on homelessness.

Behind the headlines of thousands of refugees heading to the UK are real people, individuals with their personal stories and problems, fears and pressures - fleeing war, persecution, hoping to be able to help family back home or maybe be reunited with family they've been separated from. So for breach, authors Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes went to the 'Jungle' in Calais and spoke to the refugees, volunteers and locals before putting together this collection of eight short stories exploring various aspects of life for those in, and outside, the camp.

These stories are not intended to be verbatim accounts of things told to Popoola and Holmes, but reworkings of the tales they heard. After all, a good newspaper article can wring tears or anger from the reader; this process I would guess is nearer to an author drawing on their own experiences while writing fiction rather than autobiography.
Through the progression of eight tales, we see the plight of the Jungle's residents from a variety of angles; young men, refugees from various places, still trying to make it across Europe to Calais; the enforced calm of the Jungle where violence often lurks just below the surface; the attitude of volunteers, happy to hand out aid but not wanting to get involved at a personal level, and the contrasting view of those forced to accept this charity; the wary French locals, sympathetic and suspicious at the same time; the desperate measures risked to get on a lorry, van, train, or anything going towards England; exploitation by fellow-refugees turned people-smugglers and the often hostile reception that waits once the lucky ones eventually find a way across that slim stretch of water.

Above all, these stories are immensely readable - yes, they're undoubtedly thought-provoking but the story never plays second fiddle to the message.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult contemporary fiction, short stories

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Guest post - Paul Fraser Collard

Today we're welcoming Paul Fraser Collard, author of the Jack Lark series, to the blog, talking about how he fits writing in, and around, his 'day job' ... 

Fitting it all in

If you had asked me a few years ago, my image of a writer at work would include an expansive, leather-topped desk near a window with a view over acres of rolling countryside. Or I may have pictured a serious author working in a café, their table liberally scattered with scrunched up notes and a number of empty coffee cups. I would not have imagined a tired office worker hunched over a tiny laptop on a packed commuter train. Yet that is my reality. For me, being an author means cramming my writing into every spare minute and using my daily commute to work as my dedicated writing time.

Fitting writing in is not easy. There are days when I just don’t feel like it. You see, I love a good box set and I will admit there are times when I am on the train and any thought of writing is forgotten as I sit back (or cram into a corner) and devour another episode of Sons of Anarchy, or last week’s episode of Westworld. I try to persuade myself that these somehow form a part of my research. It is my duty after all to remain current and to make sure that my writing reflects something of these wonderful dramas. Yet, I think we all know that is only so much fudge. There is no escaping a novel in progress.

I try my best to maintain a level of daily discipline. I find the morning commute easier, as I travel before the horde and I can pretty much bank on 500 to 1000 words on my way to work. The evening commute is harder. I travel at a busier time and finding my writing nook is often a challenge. But when I do get a seat, I try hard to ignore the lure of that latest downloaded episode and I summon the energy to battle out a decent number of words on my way home. In that way, I can keep that word count ticking over. I will never, ever, have that magic 5000 word day and I cannot foresee a time when I will have the luxury of a whole week or longer to devote to pouring out a great chunk of a novel. But, bit-by-bit, chapter-by-chapter, I can get that crucial first draft done and, with a few weeks worth of commuting time, I can polish that up into something that I can present my editor.

Writing like this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it works for me. It has advantages. It allows me to change things on the fly and, as I don’t produce a great swathe of a book in one go, I can keep reviewing and changing the plot as I go. On the minus side, I find it harder to hang onto every thread in a story especially when there have been many weeks between a character’s appearance in the narrative. There can also be horrible great chunks of repetition, where I forget what I wrote the previous week or month (or day!).

Make no mistake. I love being an author and the creation of a story is one that I enjoy immensely. I am now halfway through the seventh Jack Lark adventure and that proves that this method of writing really does work for me. I don’t see a time when I will move away from this slightly odd life and, if I am honest, I really quite like it this way. I have a feeling that I would find it harder to write if I had the luxury of time and space. It may be, that if the day comes when I become a full-time writer, then you will find me travelling the train network of southeast England, still working on my tiny laptop and still fighting for enough space to type.

Thank you Paul for stopping by. That's certainly NOT how I imagined an author's life to be!

The latest Jack Lark novel, The Last Legionnaire, is out in paperback today, and you can read Maryom's review here

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Last Legionnaire by Paul Fraser Collard

review by Maryom

Jack Lark has, after many years' absence overseas, found himself back home - at his mother's gin palace in the East End of London. His time in the army, under a variety of aliases, has changed him but he thinks he's now ready to settle down and pick up life where he left it. Things aren't as straight-forward as that though - his mother is having to pay off local 'heavies' for protection, and Mary, the girl he thought he loved, is now a grown woman with a son to look after. Jack soon finds himself mixed up in trouble, and again indebted to army intelligence officer Major Ballard who has a new task for him overseas - this time in Italy, where French and Austrian troops are massing for war.

I've always rather liked Jack Lark and his adventures, and I'm pleased to see that the author is allowing him to grow and change with time, not to remain the impetuous young man he was in the Crimea (The Scarlet Thief) but become more mature, self-aware and able to see the down-side of his chosen career; even the victorious side leaves dead and mutilated soldiers on the field, and Jack now acknowledges than some day he could easily be one of them. This doesn't mean though that he's going to stand back well out of the way of danger; he's supposed to be on more of a mercy mission than actually engaged in the fighting, but Jack is Jack, and if there's a pitched battle or low-level skirmish around then somehow or other he'll find his way to it!

As I've come to expect from Paul Fraser Collard, The Last Legionnaire is a fast-moving action adventure which brings to life an odd bit of history that most of us are probably not aware of. (Although 'the Battle of Solferino' had a vague familiarity to it, I couldn't have said where or when it took place, and certainly had no idea about the involvement of the French Foreign Legion or the origins of the Red Cross). Collard isn't afraid to present the horrors of battle, so be prepared for violence, gore and lopped off body parts. None of this is gratuitous wallowing in blood and guts, but presenting war as it is (or was) and an important part of Jack's development.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Headline
Genre - adult historical adventure

Monday, 28 November 2016

All That Man Is by David Szalay

review by Maryom

Nine men, nine separate stories, exploring 'manhood' in its various guises - from teenagers exploring the world on their own for the first time, to a middle aged millionaire losing all his fortune, and an elderly man trying to come to terms with the fact that his life may be reaching its closing years.

When this book was offered on Netgalley for review I jumped at the chance - after all, it was Booker short-listed, so I was expecting something fairly good. Unfortunately, for me at least, it didn't deliver on its promises. 
Basically, it just didn't grab me.
Firstly I found I didn't much like the format. It isn't a novel so much as a collection of short stories. There are loose links between them with a person or object appearing in more than one story - but to be honest that connection didn't really add anything. Also, they don't feel as rounded or finished off as I like a story to be; more like chapters, than fully stand-alone pieces.
Then there are the men these stories are centred on - and 'centred' is definitely the right word! Whatever their age or circumstances, the trait they have in common is believing the world revolves around them; friends, lovers, wives are just there to cater to their various wants and needs, and no real thought given to how they may feel. Now, I think it's perfectly possible to read a novel with an unsympathetic main character and still like the book - after all, faults make characters more interesting and a perfect person wouldn't have much of an interesting tale to tell - but reading story after story about guys for whom I couldn't feel a shred of empathy just became tiring. 

And, surely, not all men are like this, are they? Maybe that's the question the author is asking. Maybe I'm over-thinking it.

Maryom's review -  3.5 stars
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Genre - adult fiction, short stories, Booker shortlist, 

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Constant Soldier by William Ryan

review by Maryom

Paul Brandt has returned home from Germany's Russian Front a broken man, but his obvious physical wounds - the lost of an arm and disfiguring facial burns - hide deeper emotional ones. He's ashamed of the conduct of the German army, of the senseless atrocities and mindless killing he's seen, and participated in, and is looking for a way to make amends. In some respects his valley home on the German/Polish border is unchanged but war has still found it's way here - there are no able bodied men to work the land, down the valley lies a concentration camp and closer to hand is a SS Rest Hut, a retreat for those who run the camp, somewhere for them to forgot the horrors of their day to day life. Among the prisoners working at the Hut, Brandt believes he recognises a woman he knew, and loved, before the war, a woman who was part of an anti-Nazi group to which he belonged, and for whose arrest he has always felt responsible. Accepting a position as steward at the Hut, Brandt vows that from now on he will do his utmost to protect her, but meanwhile Russian troops are massing ready to move on Germany, and a time is approaching in which no one will be safe.

The Constant Soldier is a blend of thriller, historical fiction and love story; the sort of book that grabs you on the first page, and which can't be put down. The story of Brandt and his attempts to redeem himself play out like a spy or undercover cop thriller, with him in constant danger of being exposed as someone who no longer has any sympathy for the Nazi regime - something which would surely end swiftly in his death - but it's set against the wider backdrop of Germany in 1944 as the Russians advance and everyone begins to panic. Without labouring the point, Ryan tries to understand the mind-set of the 'average' German, particularly soldiers, who've drifted along with the tide of events and either through apathy or self-advancement found themselves part of an horrific war and an authoritarian regime they never really approved of - and for which now they're going to have to pay.

Reading it today with the recent rise in religious and racial hate crime, and a seeming shift to right-wing policies in many countries, there are disturbing parallels to be seen. Ryan isn't trying to lecture his readership though; The Constant Soldier is primarily a gripping, compelling story. The luxury and 'normality' of the Rest Hut contrasts starkly with the largely unseen life of the concentration camp. Brandt is a character with whom one can easily sympathise. The German's are not seen as stereo-type heel-clicking soldiers but as individuals - disillusioned army officers, disenfranchised Polish farmers, and resistance members on one side, with more-typical uniformed bullies and a power-hungry mayor on the other, and the young schoolboys, soon to become defenders of their piece of Germany, caught in the middle.
It's a book I'd highly recommend whether you read it at face value of historical thriller or as something thought-provoking and perhaps disturbing.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - 
Mantle (Panmacmillan)

Genre - 
adult historical thriller, war story

Monday, 21 November 2016

You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris

translated by Sam Taylor

review by Maryom

Just over a year ago, we were all stunned by the terrorist attack on the Bataclan nightclub in Paris. While the world was filled with rage and demands for vengeance, one man posted on his Facebook page a response to the attackers saying "You will not have my hate", pledging himself to live life to the fullest, with love and laughter, without fear and hate, despite anything such terrorists could do; it was all the more remarkable because that man's wife, mother of his seventeen-month old son, had died in the attack.

In this short book, Antoine Leiris tells of his struggle through the first few weeks after his wife's death. He doesn't enter into the horror of events inside the Bataclan. He doesn't touch on the politics or religious beliefs of the attackers. His account is a very personal one - of a husband at home that night, looking after his son, seeing his world start to fall apart as news broke on TV, and of his gradual attempt to re-build a life for himself and his son.
From the first shock of horror, and the blind panic of that night, through the quandary of explaining events to a child too young to speak properly but fully able to understand that his mother is no longer there, and the overwhelming support from both friends, with their never-ending supply of home-made meals, and strangers inspired by his Facebook post, the reader is with Leiris every step of the way. You can feel the growing dread with which he watches the news bulletins, the gradually dawning horror as his wife cannot be found, and the grief that threatens to overwhelm him when her body is.

This isn't, though, a story of a man consumed by grief. What shines through the anguish is Leiris's determination that, although they took the life of his wife, the terrorists would not have claimed his, or his son's, too. To be consumed by hatred and the desire for vengeance, to give way to fear, to distrust his fellow men, would do just that. Instead, despite the heartbreak, and inspired in part by his son's ability to still find joy in everyday things, Leiris resolves to live life as fully as possible, to refuse to be defined by this one random act, and in this small way to stand up to terrorists whatever they believe in.

This is a book which opens amidst horror but leads to the light. There are undoubtedly overwhelming moments of grief, but the overall feel of the book is a positive one of hope.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Harvill Secker
Genre - 
adult, memoir, autobiography, 

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Warning Cry by Kris Humphrey

Guardians of The Wild - Book 2

Review by The Mole

Nara, a farmer's daughter and Whisperer, has been summoned to Meridar to join with all the other Whisperers so that they can combine their powers to fight the demon army and defend the people of the Kingdom of Meridina. Nara's powers are resented by her family who expect their children to become farmers and help in the running of the farm. When the summons comes to go to Meridar, she says goodbye to her father and leaves to travel further than she has ever travelled - and alone - without a word to her mother or sister. She takes with her Flame, her leopard companion, and finds the journey anything but straightforward.

Book 1 was Whisper of Wolves which told the story of Alice and her companion wolf. In this book we meet a different Whisperer and while Alice may make a cameo appearance we aren't introduced to her.

So many of these young fantasy adventure series are based on one special person that can save the world single handedly and the problem with that is that if you don't like that character... well, it's obvious. In this series we follow a different character (or group of characters) in each story so the reader feels the overall plot expand as it progresses.

A very fast paced, hugely enjoyable, easy reader for the 9+ age group. Although all the lead characters are women or girls (of one age or another) I can see no reason why boys wouldn't enjoy these books as well.

Publisher - Stripes Publishing
Genre - 9+, Fantasy Adventure