Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale

review by Maryom

Eustace has reached the sort of age where he feels there's little left in life to surprise him. Now in his fifties, he's survived AIDS, and settled to an uneventful single life shared with his dog, Joyce, and close friend, Naomi.Then his comfortable world is rocked. First by falling in love again, rather ridiculously with a man he hasn't even met. Then by fearing he might die.
Through long solitary hours of treatment in hospital, he listens to a mix-tape of cello music prepared by Naomi, and reflects on his life, the anxiety and fumbling sexual misadventures of his teen years, and the escape from his dull, repressive home life discovered through music, and his charismatic cello-teacher Carla.

In many ways you could claim this is much like any other coming of age story -  discovering music, sex, and the fallibility of parents, making friends who will last a lifetime, and finding love - but at the same time the story-telling and Eustace himself make it unique.
Gale's writing is engrossing, intelligent, compelling, warm and welcoming like wrapping oneself in a snugly blanket. As I read, I wanted to both hold every moment, slow right down and immerse myself in each unfolding scene, and dash through to find out how gauche, troubled teenage Eustace became the contented, sophisticated mid-life man we met at the beginning of the story. As a boy, he's so naive and vulnerable that it's impossible to not care about him, and to dread that his innocence will be harshly taken away, with suffering to come before he achieves happiness.

As events unfold, you begin to see how cleverly put together the story is. Told from Eustace's perspective, it only hints at events outside his immediate knowledge and understanding, but there's enough for the reader to put the clues together, and realise the motivations of the other players in his life.

A tiny part of me was worried when I realised music played a huge part in this book - despite my mother's attempts to turn me into a pianist, I'm not musically inclined, and frequently books referencing it too much can leave me cold. Fortunately, I found that didn't matter here. Gale captures Eustace's enthusiasm so well that I could understand it without having to had shared it. Maybe if you know and love the pieces Eustace plays, you'll have an extra attachment to the book, but I loved it anyway, and didn't feel excluded.

I'm not sure I've really caught how much I loved this book, so to end on here's a little aside (no plot spoilers) to show how well Gale immerses the reader in a moment and brings it to life.  I found myself one day recently wondering about a new recipe I'd heard of for cooking pasta sauce, and after pondering over cook books and websites, I realised - it was here! A simple tomato sauce cooked by one of Carla's friends, lovingly described by the author, that's stayed in my mind.

Ostensibly an adult read (and that's how I've labelled it), but see if you can encourage your teens to read it too. It make help them make sense of the turmoil of adolescence.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult fiction, coming of age, LGBT

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Evolution by Teri Terry

review by Maryom

Here we are at last at the concluding part of Teri Terry's YA sci fi/conspiracy theory thriller trilogy, and there's been a lot of change and upheaval since Shay and Kai started looking for his missing sister Callie, back in book one, Contagion. In fact, normal life for most of the country has ceased as a flu-style epidemic spread rapidly causing unknown numbers of deaths. Very few survive, those who do are changed forever, and hunted down by the remaining authorities as a threat. The search for Callie has become part of the search to discover more about this dreadful disease, where it came from, and if there's any possibility of a cure, or at least for something to stop the virus's spread.
Shay and Kai have meanwhile become separated again; although sharing the same goals, they each believe their way is the best to proceed. In a normal world this would probably be little more than a lovers' tiff, but the world isn't normal any more, and the decisions they make could mean life or death.

These three books have definitely been a roller coaster of a read, with the tension constantly cranked high, and just when you think the story's moving towards a happy ending there are some nasty shocks to come. It's been absolutely brilliant though. The plotting is ingenious and devious. Conspiracy is hidden behind conspiracy. Whisk away a layer of secrets and lies, and there'll be more beneath, like peeling an onion, or opening a Russian doll. On those rare occasions when Shay, Kai and the reader thought they'd found the heart of the web of secrets, events would take an unexpected turn, and you'd realise nothing had been half as simple as you thought.
The author doesn't pull punches, or hold back on violence. The evil mastermind is unscrupulous, not held back by any normal human 'weaknesses' like fair play or sympathy for others, and, unsurprisingly perhaps, behaves as ruthlessly and single-mindedly as you would expect evil villains to.
An excellent series - but be prepared for your favourite characters to suffer.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Orchard Books
Genre - 
teen, sci fi/ conspiracy theory thriller

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela

review by Maryom

A while ago Our Book Reviews Online took part in a blog tour for this, a new collection of Leila Aboulela's short stories, but at the time I hadn't had chance to read it due to family issues. I was aware of her writing though, having read The Kindness of Enemies some years ago, and was intrigued to read these stories. 
I started, a bit oddly, in the middle of the book. Our blog tour post had been an extract from the story The Ostrich, and having read that snippet, I wanted to finish the story. A young women, Samra, is returning from a trip home to Khartoum, back to join her husband in London, experiencing the culture (and weather) shock that hits every time she makes this journey. Her husband, although Sudanese like herself, is desperate to appear at home in London, determined to embrace British customs and habits as his own. His wife should walk alongside, not behind, him; she shouldn't cover her hair - as he believes others will view these things as 'backward, barbaric'. She meanwhile longs for her African home, and the easy, familiar way of life there - an emotion increased by a casual encounter on the flight with someone she went to school with. Her bittersweet memories of the past make her begin to question her life, but does she really regret the marriage that brought her to England, or is this a mood that will pass once she settles back into life with her husband? Samra's situation, caught off guard as she tries to readjust to her life in London, is brought vividly and sympathetically before the reader. 

Echoes of this theme are found throughout the other stories too. The characters are torn between past and future, religion and relationships, and, most importantly, two worlds - Africa and the UK - no longer fitting seamlessly in either place, struggling to reconcile the two aspects of their lives. Sometimes Africa is warm, welcoming, vibrant, and Britain, in contrast, wet, cold, cramped, always hovering on the edge of hostility. Seen differently, Britain is modern, a place of opportunity and advancement, whereas Africa is old-fashioned with limited prospects. 

Similar ideas are found in Expecting To Give, in which a pregnant woman finds her experience doesn't live up to the version seen in glossy parenting mags, and Pages Of Fruit, where a reader's expectations of her favourite author don't match the reality.

I found this a moving, thought-provoking, poignant collection, dealing as it does with the search for 'home', and the difficulties faced by migrants attempting in live in an environment and culture very different to their own. Aboulela writes in a way which brings to life both the outer physical world - the heat of Khartoum or Cairo,  off-set by the delight of icy air-conditioning, or the damp, dull streets of london or Aberdeen - and the internal conflicts of her characters. I wonder whether I've made these seem rather down-beat stories, but for the most part they aren't; at the end of our short peep into their lives, characters are generally left hopeful for the future.

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

Friday, 3 August 2018

Shatila Stories - edited by Meike Ziervogel

translated by Nashwa Gowanlock

Reham and her family are fleeing Syria in fear for their lives. She, her parents, her husband Marwan, younger brother Adam, and anything they can carry, plus a driver, packed into a small car. Their hope, to reach the comparative safety of Beirut and the Shatila refugee camp there, but first impressions are not good - rats scurry around their feet, flies crawl over the rubbish dumps, tottering buildings reach up to the sky, electric cables garland the alleyways. This is home now, for the foreseeable future, and there's nothing to do but make the best of it.

Peirene Press made themselves a name as publishers of short translated fiction, but they've recently become commissioners of original work exploring today's social and political problems to be published under the Peirene Now! banner. Their first foray into this field was to send two authors - Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes - into the Calais Jungle refugee camp to bring to life the stories of the people there. Their second, a look at both sides of the Brexit question, in Anthony Cartwright's The Cut. This third takes the reader to the refugee camps of Lebanon, specifically the Shatila camp in Beirut, established as a temporary settlement for Palestinians in 1942, infamous as the scene of an horrendous massacre in 1982, and still receiving refugees today. This time the authors are not outsiders, but members of that refugee community brought together through the work of Peirene publisher Meike Ziervogel, London-based Syrian editor Suhir Helal, and Lebanon-based charity Basmeh & Zeitooneh. Meike and Suhir traveled to Beirut to meet with these keen but inexperienced writers, work with them for several days, showing them how to structure their stories, create tension and story arcs. From this came a series of stories which were then woven together and amalgamated to produce this book.

News headlines can tell us of the numbers of refugees fleeing Syria, which countries will offer them shelter in a camp, which ones won't - but behind those headlines lie people like us, not statistics for politicians to play with, and new articles often don't bring the day to day lives of the people concerned to life in the way that fiction can. Written by inhabitants of Shatila camp, this collection of interlinked stories sheds light on the plight of these homeless, stateless people born into refugee camps, effectively trapped there - with the wrong nationality on their passport, living or even just finding work outside the camp is nigh on impossible. There are stories which could be heard almost anywhere - a failing marriage, young love, a father forced to extremes to safeguard his daughter, a desire to rise above one's beginnings and make something of life - yet they remain unique to Shatila, and are an eye-opener on the world refugees are caught in.

Authors; Omar Khaled Ahmad, Nibal Alalo, Safa Khaled Algharbawi, Omar Abdellatif Alndaf, Rayan Mohamad Sukkar, Safiya Badran, Fatima Omar Ghazawi, Samih Mahmoud, Hiba Mareb

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

Although labelled and marketed as 'adult' fiction give it to your curious open-minded teenagers to help them understand lives very different to their own

Monday, 30 July 2018

The Little Lady Agency by Hester Browne

"Gentlemen! No Little Lady in Your Life? Call the Little Lady Agency: everything organised, from your home to your wardrobe, your social life to you. No funny business or laundry.

review by Maryom

Melissa has made such a good job of organizing the estate agents office she works in, and making sure everything there runs smoothly, that they no longer have any need for her, and, when it merges with a big American firm, she's the first to be made redundant. After a close call with the 'wrong' sort of agency, she decides to set up her own, sorting out the lives and wardrobes of London's clueless, but rich, young men. Ditching her dull 'hockey-sticks' persona, she becomes glamorous Honey, the 'little lady' who'll make sure they know which knife and fork to use, provide a 'plus one' to weddings and family events, and help with your present buying problems - there are a million and one ways she can help a lazy, unorganised bachelor.
Then she meets Jonathan, part of the team who took over her former employers. He's new to London, caught in a messy divorce, wanting someone to organize his social schedule and provide a hostess for his parties -  and suddenly Melissa's not sure where to draw the line between business and pleasure ... 

Sometimes all we want from a book is something light-hearted and fun - and The Little Lady Agency is exactly that.

Don't look for deep character analysis, this is rom-com land. Melissa seems awfully naive for the public-schooled daughter of an MP who's had his share of sex scandals, and a lot of the characters seem so incredibly posh that they could have stepped straight out of a modern day Downton Abbey, but don't worry, take them at their face value, and enjoy the fun.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher -
Genre - adult chick lit/romcom

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

review by Maryom

Daniel is on the road, following the railway tracks north, looking for his sister. For a while they lived an idyllic sort of life - him, Daddy, and older sister Cathy - in a house Daddy built himself in a small patch of unwanted isolated woodland. They lived almost completely 'off grid', hunting and foraging for food, having little to do with folk in the nearby village. At home their life was one of peace and simplicity but away from it, Daddy's life was one of violence, clandestine prize-fights and acting as a 'fixer' when debts weren't paid. When these two worlds collide, someone's bound to get hurt ...

Daddy's 'occupation' allows him to live on the fringe of society, but the 'real' world can't be ignored forever, and the woodland idyll is threatened by folk who care about law, property ownership, and their rights. Piece by piece, Mozley raises the tension, building a great sense of brooding violence in which you feel almost anything could happen, and Daddy is backed into a corner with only one way to respond.

It's a story rather reminiscent of a Martin McDonagh script - folk going about their day to day lives getting caught up in violence outside their control - or one in which a retired hitman is called on to do one last job, with devastating consequences to his family, mashed up with a Robin Hood style tale of the 'little man' trying to overcome those with land and the backing of law.
The peaceful existence in the wood jars harshly with the outside world, and Mozley seems equally at home bringing both to life on the page - a delight when the reader's experiencing the woodland through Daniel's eyes, a horror when violence erupts.
Things start a bit slowly, with lots of back story and I wondered where the plot was going, and how long it might take. To be honest, there were times when I nearly gave up ... but then the beautifully descriptive writing caught me, and the sharks started to circle Daniel's little bit of heaven, waiting for the first opportunity to oust his family, and I found it a book I couldn't put down.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Genre - Adult Fiction,

Friday, 20 July 2018

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 4 - edited by Teika Bellamy

illustrated by Emma Howitt

review by Maryom

"Modern fables and ancient tales" is how this book, comprising fourteen weird and wonderful stories, describes itself, and, as with the previous volumes of The Forgotten and The Fantastical, this fourth collection takes fairy tales away from the nursery, and puts them back in their original place on the adult bookshelf. I don't know what it is about fairy tales - maybe that their themes seem universal, as fitting today as ever, maybe that in an increasingly urban, digital world we're seeking a connection with nature, or a simpler time when the world divided into good and evil - but something about them always appeals, and this latest anthology is no exception.

I've found there's often a strong feminist/earth mother streak in the work published by Mother's Milk, exploring the strength of female characters, their bonds with nature, and although this isn't a particularly 'themed' collection many revolve around a central female character, rather than the more traditional hero of folk tales. Several, in fact explore a similar concept - that of women breaking free from the demands and expectations of men, rejecting the 'safe' world created for them, often no more than a gilded cage, to find fulfillment and explore the world themselves.
In Belle/Bete by Renee Anderson, a badly burned woman is encouraged by her lover to shun the world, in order to avoid the taunts she might suffer there, but effectively locking her away from life.
Katy Jones' retelling of 'Snow White and Rose Red', A Beast of the Forest, follows the girls and the 'bear' beyond the traditional happy ending with the heroine choosing to embrace the natural world rather than the fake sophistication of the Court. In Lisa Fransson's The Moss Child a smith tries to keep his daughter 'protected' from the natural world of forest and birds which form her birthright, while Lynden Wade's Sins of the Fathers again features a smith, a man who seeks to avoid the mistakes made by his father and grandfather, and create himself a wife of iron. Rosemary Collins reinterprets Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen into a fable about the perils of global warming, as Cold-Brained Kay (female in this version) goes on a quest to find cold and ice, and bring back winter. Elizabeth Hopkinson's Juanita draws on the life of a seventeenth century Mexican nun/scholar/poet who challenged the authority of bishops and philosophers (all male).

Some of the stories are set in traditional 'once upon a time' never-never land; Rachel Rivett's Wild Man, Holly James' Faraway Woman. Some set in recognisable historical times - A Story in Two Parts by Leslie Muzingo which centres on the lives of those 'creators' of fairy tales - Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm. Others bring magic and fairytale characters into contemporary settings - Ruth Asch's The Microwave is a modern equivalent of the magic never-empty purse, The Godmother's Fairy Tale Ending by Donna M Day takes place in a care home for the elderly, and Matthew Keeley's Winging In in a therapist's consulting room.

Susie Hennessey's Lowden House appears to be set in some bleak dystopian future (though in reality it's a place much closer to home), while in the world envisaged by Victoria Haslam in Strange Traits genetic modifications can turn you into almost any creature you'd like to be.

An eclectic, enjoyable collection for anyone who feels fairy stories are not only for the young and innocent.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Mother's Milk Books
Genre - 
adult folk/fairy tales