Monday, 11 February 2019

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

review by Maryom

When Cameron Bright is found dead, parched and burned by the unremitting Australian sun, everyone, including the police, is inclined to dismiss it as suicide or misadventure - for whatever reason, he had become stranded in this spot with no shelter and no way of calling for help. But his brother Nathan isn't convinced. He feels that, like any rancher in the area, Cameron was well aware of the danger of being stranded in open, arid country without shelter and water; it's a fact of life in the Australian outback, and drilled into the locals from childhood. And, besides, Cameron's 4x4 was found comparatively nearby, stocked with food and water, and with a radio to call for help. Surely he couldn't have just wandered off, and got lost? Nathan can't believe his brother would have made such a mistake, nor have chosen this horrific way of taking his own life.

This isn't a classic detective story. The police aren't concerned about the circumstances surrounding Cameron's death. Most of his family, despite being in shock and grieving, seem happy to accept the police verdict. Nathan alone seems to have doubts.

Despite having always lived in the area Nathan is an outsider. He set up on his own ranch when he got married, and since his wife left him has lived a completely solitary life, with occasional visits from his son, Xander, and irregular contact with his family - despite being neighbours, they live three hours apart. Now, in the period up to Cam's funeral, he's forced to stay with them, and gradually comes to see they're not quite how they appeared from a distance. Cameron has certainly been hiding nasty secrets beneath a pleasant appearance, but would any of these things be enough to kill him for?

The Lost Man is certainly a compelling read - I picked it up again while writing this review to check a few details, and got sucked into re-reading far more than necessary - but what lingers in my mind is the depiction of these remote cattle stations, small oases in the middle of an arid landscape, the isolation of the families living there, easily not seeing 'outsiders' for weeks at a stretch, and in Nathan's case not seeing ANYONE. It's a way of life that seems impossible to cope with, and one in which dark deeds can easily be hidden.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Little, Brown
Genre -adult, crime, Australia

Monday, 4 February 2019

And The Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andri Thorsson

translated by Andrew Cauthery and Bjorg Arnadottir

review by Maryom

Late in the day, the mist rolls in from the sea over the Icelandic fishing village of Valeyri, and with it comes the wind, finding its way into the houses it passes and seeking out secrets ...

For now though the sun is shining. Kata, the conductor of the village choir, cycles through the village on her way to a performance they're to stage that evening. To all appearances, she seems the perfect image of a carefree young woman, but behind her cheerful exterior lies a story of pain and heartbreak. In the houses she passes people stop for a second to watch her go by, and their stories too are revealed as the mist comes creeping in. 

There's an odd mix of cosy and chilling about this Icelandic tale. Superficially the village and its inhabitants seem serene, comfortable, respectable, agreeable. But that isn't the whole story. When the wind blows through, the mask slips, the curtain lifts, and for a few seconds we see what lies behind the happy, smiling faces. The snapshots of life show old friends meeting for dinner, a poet waiting for inspiration, a forgetful old man wandering the streets; little moments of their days when they reminisce on past troubles. Kata's story is the most disturbing of all, but others hide heartache, loss, deceit.
Underlying it all, though, is an unfailing warmth. Maybe despite our many faults, and the shocks and disappointments doled out by life, people and life are basically good, after all

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult Translated Fiction

Friday, 25 January 2019

Becoming Someone by Anne Goodwin

review by Maryom

I know Anne Goodwin primarily from her two novels - Sugar and Snails, and Underneath, but she's also a prolific writer of short stories. Now, together with publisher Inspired Quill, she's brought together forty-two stories, written between 2004 and 2018, many of them previously published in literary magazines and websites.

To call these stories 'psychological studies' might not be quite accurate, but it's close. In a multitude of scenarios, Goodwin examines how we become ourselves - straining to conform to what family or society expects, rejecting the opinions of others, finding a path for ourselves. All of them share Anne Goodwin's perceptive, sympathetic insights.

The collection is divided into six sections - Stranded in the Dark, No Through Road, No Way Back, Spinning Signposts, Forging a New Path, Into the Light - and, as you might guess from their headings, as you progress through the book the stories become more hopeful, the characters more determined to create the life and identity THEY want, not endure that forced on them by parents, friends, society. The characters - from a young single mum to a dying grandfather - try to reconcile the idea of what they should be with what they are. Some take refuge in an imaginary world. The lucky few refuse to accept society's image of how they should behave and feel, and create an identity to suit themselves.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - 
Inspired Quill 
Genre -adult fiction, short stories

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Lark by Anthony McGowan

review by Maryom

It's years since Nicky and Kenny last saw their mum, but now she's on her way to visit, arriving by plane any day soon. She left when they were young, and a lot has changed since, so while they're hyped up at the prospect of her coming home, Nicky, in particular, is partly dreading her arrival too. To fill the waiting, the boys decide to head off to the moors, just like their dad used to in the days before computers and video games. It'll be fun, a lark. They might even see one (a lark, that is), singing as it rises into the sky.
But things go wrong ...
The weather turns from dull to sleet to snowstorm, and Kenny and Nicky find themselves cold, hungry and possibly lost. A short cut seems like a good idea, but isn't, and the boys find themselves in a situation that's getting worse by the minute.

Lark is the fourth, and last, story following the adventures of Nicky and Kenny, and what an end to the series it is! Presented in a font and format to encourage reluctant, struggling or dyslexic readers, Lark is a nail-biting, heart-pounding, poignant read suitable for any young teenager. It's a story in which to lose yourself, to feel you're there on the moors, lost, wet and starting to be terrified, fearing, along with Nicky, how, and if, he's going to get out of this latest scrape. (I imagine that afterwards a lot of readers will be all 'I'd never have done anything so stupid. I'd have got us safely home, no problem' but don't disrupt them in the middle)
The story is told from Nicky's point of view and McGowan gets inside his mind in a way that makes you feel he clearly remembers being a teenager - messing about with mates, getting dumped by his girlfriend, hastily disguising his rude drawings - and, away from the danger, it's funny, especially in an appealing-to-teen-boys way (though I laughed regardless of who it's aimed at).  At the same time there's a great sense of family and belonging running throughout, a sense there's a bond between the two brothers that nothing could break.

If you haven't met Nicky and Kenny before it doesn't really matter, their story-so-far is filled in enough for you to read Lark, and without spoilers for the previous books. But if you'd like to read their story in full the first three novellas have been collected in one volume 'The Truth of Things'.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - teenage/teenage reluctant readers 

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Top Ten of 2018

For once, I've managed to restrict myself to ten for my 'best of the year' list - all, in their own way, absolutely brilliant ...

Take Nothing With You - Patrick Gale (Tinder Press) - in his fifties, when he thought he was past the age of being surprised, Eustace finds himself falling in love with a man he meets on the internet, and diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening condition. Undergoing long solitary hours of hospital treatment he looks back over his life - the fumbling sexual misadventures of his teenage years, and his escape from a dull, repressive home life through music. Gale's writing is engrossing, intelligent, and compelling.
Missing - Alison Moore (Salt Publishing) How to quickly sum up a novel by Alison Moore? Not easy without giving away too much plot. Jessie Noon lives a solitary life, cut off from neighbours, friends and family. The story follows her trying to start up a new relationship, and fix the gap that has grown between her and her family. On the surface, little seems to happen; beneath it, everything does. Moore is wonderful at playing with words, at building atmosphere, and at creating characters that linger long after the final page.

Home Fire - Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury) a book club read which absolutely stunned me. In this story of love, politics, family ties and radicalization, Kamila Shamsie brings Sophocles' Antigone bang up to date, setting it in present day London, where Aneeka finds herself torn between loyalty to her twin brother Parvaiz (despite his extreme beliefs) and her lover, Eamonn, son of the Muslim Home Secretary. I read hoping for a happy ending, but not even today is there an easy way out of this dilemma.

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkeviciute (Peirene) Based on actual events, this book is a gripping, moving account of the fate of Lithuanians forcibly moved from their homes during WW2 and 're-settled' in Siberia, in inhumane conditions with inadequate food or shelter. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Dalia Grinkeviciute's account doesn't ask for sympathy, but faces the situation head on, doing whatever she needs to to survive.

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan (Doubleday) Three very different men, whose lives are linked in only the slightest of ways, but for whom sorrow has crept up unexpectedly and engulfed them. Donal Ryan always has an amazing way with words, enabling the reader to walk in someone else's shoes for a short time, to experience their fears and hopes, and maybe find sympathy for them.

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne (Tinder Press) A gripping portrayal of life on a run-down, inner-London estate, of the precarious balance between hope and despair in which its inhabitants live. It follows 48 hours in the lives of three teenage friends from different backgrounds, as outside events kick off riots and change these boys' lives forever. The writing is pacy, and 'in your face', capturing 'street-talk' in a way that feels natural and unforced. It's hard to believe this is a debut novel.

The Truth about Archie and Pye: a mathematical mystery  by Jonathan Pinnock (Farrago) - an off-beat, quirky thriller. After a chance encounter on a train, Tom Winscombe finds himself in possession of a case full of mathematical equations that everyone (including the Belorussian mafia) seems to want, and they're not afraid to kill anyone standing in the way. It's fast-paced, funny, and you don't need to know anything about maths to enjoy it.

Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela (Telegram) - a moving, thought-provoking collection of short stories dealing with the search for 'home' and the difficulties of migrants caught between two places that answer to that description, between the heat and vibrancy of Cairo or Khartoum and the dull, damp streets of Aberdeen or London, or, conversely, the old-fashioned, limited world of Africa and the modern, opportunity-filled one of Europe. Having chosen to leave, though, home can't really be returned to.

Shatila Stories edited by Meike Ziervogel - an ambitious project from the founder of Peirene Press, in which she and London-base Syrian editor Suhir Helal travelled to Beirut, to the Shatila settlement created for Palestinian refugees, and worked with hopeful, enthusiastic, but inexperienced, writers from the camp itself to develop the stories that go into this collection. Again a book that lets the reader into the lives of the people so often dismissed as mere 'numbers' in a news report.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (Doubleday) This last choice is a sneaky inclusion, as it's currently only available in the UK as an e-book, and won't be available as a hardback till January 17th. It was too good to be made to wait a whole year though. It's a masterpiece of story-telling concerning a girl pulled out of the river Thames. Assumed to be dead, she miraculously comes back to life but then the search is on for her family - with several people claiming her as theirs she becomes the centre of a 'tug of love'.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Sunny and the Ghosts by Alison Moore

'Sometimes, when you open a door or lift a lid, you find exactly what you expected to find: coats in the coat cupboard, bread in the bread bin, toys in the toy box. And sometimes you don’t.'

illustrated by Ross Collins

review by Maryom 

Sunny's parents like old things - clocks and pianos, books and ornaments - so bought an antique shop, with a flat above where they live. Sunny helps in the shop by polishing mirrors, brass coal scuttles and copper kettles, out of which he always thinks a genie might appear. It isn't a genie he finds hiding among the old blanket chests and wardrobes, though, but a ghost ... then another ... and then a third is found locked in a cupboard! The ghosts all seem friendly, and hardly any trouble at all (unless you count playing the piano at night), but someone seems to be causing trouble in the shop. Books are thrown off their shelves, an ornament broken, dozens of cats let in to wander round the shop, sit on furniture and cushions, sleep in pots and pans. Sunny suspects there must be another ghost, a naughty one, playing pranks and getting up to mischief, but how can he make the ghost show himself, and then leave?

You'll probably have heard of Alison Moore as an award-winning author, listed for the Booker and such, but this is her first book aimed at a younger readership. 
It does share some characteristics of Moore's 'adult' novels - an interest in the meanings behind words and phrases, a brevity of words to describe people and situations, but it most definitely isn't a grown-ups novel dumbed down for children. It's a light-hearted and fun read, with line-drawings by Ross Collins bringing characters and situations to life, eminently suitable for children who find scary, hide under the bedsheets ghost stories just too frightening. The plot moves along quickly, and once Sunny finds one ghost, more seem to appear every day, popping up in all sorts of odd places around the shop. It's all jolly, apart from the puzzle of who, or what, is behind the trouble in the shop. Sunny's parents seem inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and don't blame him for it, but I'm not sure they really believe his tale of ghosts either. With a little help from his spectral friends though Sunny manages to track down the trouble maker, and find a way to settle the problem. 
Further stories are planned so this looks like being the beginning of quite an adventure for Sunny and the Ghosts.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - children's ghost stories 9+

Friday, 14 December 2018

The Truth about Archie and Pye by Jonathan Pinnock

review by Maryom

Heading home on the train after a career-ending bad day at work, Tom Winscombe isn't really in the mood for social chitchat but gets drawn into conversation with the guy sitting next to him - George Burgess, an author of 'conspiracy' books, currently working on a biography of mathematical geniuses Archibald and Pythagoras Vavasor, who died in suspicious circumstances ten years ago. Getting off the train, Burgess leaves his case behind, and Tom decides he'll return it the next day. Before he has chance to, Burgess is killed, and Tom finds himself holding documents that people are willing to kill for. Very soon he finds himself pulled into the murky world of conspiracy theories, murder, mathematics and Belorussian mafia.

If you like your thrillers a little quirky and off-beat, this is the book for you. Basically the story is one of slightly irritating but still like-able guy drawn into the realm of ruthless killers, through no fault of his own except maybe a certain innocent gullibility - Tom is the sort of guy who rushes in where cautious folk fear to tread, who hearing howling noises from a lonely deserted house would go to investigate, and wonder why he stumbled on a crime scene straight out of a horror story. Don't expect a serious Nordic Noir style thriller but something more the style of a Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently novel with the added frenzy of a Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright film. It's fun, fast-paced and full of intrigue, and I loved it!  

Also, don't let the subtitle 'a mathematical mystery' put you off. While it's the basis of a lot of in-jokes, the reader doesn't need to understand the finer points of maths, any more than you need to understand astro-physics to watch The Big Bang Theory - it's enough to know that someone somewhere is willing to murder to obtain the Vavasors' notes. 

The Truth About Archie and Pye is the first of a series, and I for one am eagerly anticipating Book 2!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Farrago
Genre - adult thriller