Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

 review by Maryom

When Penelope decides to share a cab ride with a complete stranger she's taking a leap in the dark, one that will change her life. For the two girls bond instantly over a shared adoration of singer heart-throb Johnny Ray, and as her new friend Charlotte whisks Penelope away for tea with her Aunt Clare and cousin Harry, it's like the opening up of a whole new world for Penelope. Both girls share the same upper class world of stately homes and empty bank accounts but Charlotte is vivacious, impulsive, and confident - all things that Penelope feels she isn't - and more embracing of the new post-war world where a girl doesn't merely need to find a husband but can make a career of her own. Penelope's view of the world is tinted by the romance of her parents' love affair, tragically cut short when her father was killed during the war. One day Penelope hopes such love will come her way, but meanwhile there's Johnny Ray to sigh over, parties to attend, new American rock'n'roll to discover and the puzzle of Charlotte's cousin Harry to work out. A little against her will, Penelope is dragged into a charade with him, pretending to be his new girlfriend, with the aim of Harry winning back the girl who dumped him. Playing at being in love is dangerous though .... and maybe soon it moves on to being less of a pretence...

 Set in the 1950s post-war world where crumbling ancestral homes and penniless aristocrats rub up against Teddy boys and rock'n'roll, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a delightful coming of age story, filled with the romance of first love, the glamour of champagne parties and all the excitement of being 18.
Written in the first person, it has an engaging gossipy style that makes you feel as if Penelope were your best friend sharing confidences with you. I loved it when I first read it and having just re-read it, love it still.

 First published ten years ago, I discovered The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets sometime between then and now, but it's coming out in a special anniversary edition with a new cover and an extra short story telling the tale of how Penelope's parents met. I'm now torn, do I stick with my old original copy or abandon it in favour of the new? I'm actually hoping that the short story on its own will become available as an e-book, so I don't have to choose.

 Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Headline Review
Genre - coming of age, adult/teen crossover

Monday, 29 June 2015

The Truth According To Us by Annie Barrows

review by Maryom

1938 was an important year for Willa Romeyn; her hometown of Macedonia, West Virginia celebrated its sesquicentennial, Miss Layla Beck came to stay while she wrote a history of the town, and Willa herself turned twelve and began to wonder about the secrets that adults kept to themselves.
Willa and her sister Bird live in the old family home with their eccentric extended family - their frequently-absent divorced father Felix, his unmarried sister Jottie who acts as housekeeper and substitute mother to the girls, and his twin sisters, Mae and Minerva who, despite both being married, can't bear to be apart so live during the week at 'home', visiting their husbands at weekend. The only family member to leave home (and town) is younger brother Emmett; more dependable and trustworthy, he's always overshadowed by flamboyant and charming Felix.  The Romeyns were once an important family in town but now they've come down in the world, living in faded splendour and having to take in a lodger in the shape of Layla Beck.
Layla has come to Macedonia unwillingly. As the privileged daughter of a senator, her life in Washington DC has been one of parties, social engagements and generally having fun. Now, having refused to go along with her father's plans to marry her off, she's effectively been thrown out of the family home and told to fend for herself. Pulling a few strings, her father arranges to have her taken on by the Federal Writer's Project and so she finds herself heading for West Virginia to write a history of Macedonia. She's expecting a dull, dreary town filled with dull, dreary people, and the Romeyns are not at all what she's expecting - they're witty, charming and attractive, particularly Felix, for whom she quickly falls.
Set in the era of the Great Depression, Prohibition and boot-legging, The Truth According to Us is a wonderful absorbing coming of age tale of family and their secrets. Willa is just reaching an age when she starts to question things she's so far taken for granted - why has Aunt Jottie never married? how exactly does her father earn his money? and just how did Vause Hamilton die in a fire at their family's mill?  She's sure that the answers are all linked, and with a child's enthusiasm sets about playing detective and finding out, never thinking of the possible consequences.  Layla too, in her capacity as town historian, is bent on finding out secrets - the gossipy, scandalous kind of history that the town council would rather was forgotten but which she feels would make a far more interesting book.
There are just so many things to love about this book - the writing style, the characters, the setting.
The story is told in a variety of ways - Willa's first person reminiscences, third person narrative following Jottie and Layla, letters to, from and about Layla, Jottie's dream-like flashbacks to her youth - and they all add up to make something rather special - a book that I could read again and again, without tiring of it.
The Romeyns with their quirky charm easily captivated me; unusual enough to be interesting, 'normal' enough to be believable, they all display Macedonia's virtues of ferocity and devotion in various degrees.
As for the setting, it captures a point in time between a gracious past and a world about to be changed by war. Macedonia has a mix of old time elegance - the sweltering heat of daytime giving way to cooler evenings spent on the front porch with friends and neighbours dropping by - and down at heel present, with the necessity to take in lodgers, the rise of tension in the town with high unemployment, uncaring owners at the factory and union agitation on the rise.
I'd say this was a gem of a book but at 500 plus pages, it's a large show-stopping gem! It's certainly one of those special books in which you can immerse yourself completely; the characters and setting feel as real as those around you, and when (if) you take a break you'll be shocked to find yourself back in real life.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre- adult, coming of age, family secrets

Friday, 26 June 2015

Only We Know by Simon Packham

review by Maryom

Lauren and her sister Tilda are starting a new term at a new school, following their family's hurried house-move. Something dreadful happened at Lauren's previous school but she wants to put the past behind her and start afresh. Imagine her panic then, when among her new classmates she sees a boy, Harry, who she knew a few years ago. Luckily she's changed quite a lot since then so Harry doesn't recognise her - and Lauren just hopes it stays that way! She starts to settle in and make new friends, but then she starts to receive odd 'gifts', items with a twisted meaning relating to her past. Someone has found out her secret ...  how far will they go to expose her? is there anything Lauren can do to stop it happening?

In this excellent teen novel, Simon Packham takes a topical issue and weaves it into a compelling read. The reader knows very early on that there is something in her past that Lauren doesn't want anyone to know about - it seems to involve fast cars and a boy called Luke, but it's only at the end that all is revealed.  There are lots of hints throughout to keep you wondering, though I must admit I'd never have guessed!
Alongside this thread is the mystery of who could be sending Lauren the unpleasant packages - there are a number of red herrings to lead the reader (and Lauren) along the wrong path, but the surest way to find out is to keep reading!

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Piccadilly Press
Genre - teen/YA, teen relationships, identity

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Watercress Girl by H E Bates

review by Maryom

For most people mention H E Bates and their immediate thought will be of The Darling Buds of May and the series of books following the lives of the Larkin family, but there are lots more novels and short stories by him to be discovered. I personally came to his work via the film of his novella The Triple Echo, and so moved on to his short stories rather than novels. Bloomsbury are now re-issuing all Bates' stories and novellas, making them available for the first time as e-books; apparently there are over 300 of them, so it's maybe not surprising that I hadn't come across this particular collection before.

First published in 1959, this collection of thirteen short stories presents the world from a child's perspective - an often puzzling world, full of things that are only partially understood. Childhood as seen here isn't necessarily the comfy cosy place we imagine it to be, but one full of doubts and echoes of the wider adult world; for instance in "Let's Play Soldiers", a young boy becomes aware of the uncomfortable, heartbreaking reality of war; a sharp contrast to the war-like games he plays with his mates. To a small child, his own world is sufficient, the people within accepted as they are without query - Bates portrays children on the verge of moving from this 'bubble', starting to see the people around them as individuals with their own thoughts and feelings.

Some of the stories are told from the perspective of an adult looking back on their childhood, re-visiting the innocence of that time - both their own and that of the world generally. The world has certainly changed since these stories were written. For some readers these stories will be like a window opening on their own childhood; a girl playing 'house' in among the bracken reminded me of my own childhood playing similar games in farmers'  fields - those fields are still there, but somehow I can't imagine today's young children playing there - or boys conducting a 'war' on the streets - again these days, aren't they more likely to be playing the same game on a console? Childhood was definitely freer in those days!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Bloomsbury Publishing

Genre - short stories

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

 review by Maryom

"Something" has been driving people to madness and suicide. At first there are just a few isolated cases but soon it builds to epidemic proportions. The only way to avoid the madness is to not see this unknown "thing", which leaves the few survivors huddled behind backed-out windows, and only venturing outside blindfolded. Malorie has survived alone in these conditions for four years, and raised two children. Now she feels it's time to strike out and meet up with other survivors, so, with eyes tightly blindfolded, the three of them head for the river and a terrifying journey in search of safety.

 When Birdbox first came out, I somehow had this logged in my mind as horror fiction which isn't really my kind of thing, so I didn't bother reading it. Then I heard people talking about it on social media, describing it as more of a post-apocalyptic dystopian story, and this was reinforced by a first chapter sampler which left me wanting to read more, so at last, having spotted a copy at the library, I've read it!

Did it live up to my expectations? Well, a little bit 'yes' and 'no'.
Josh Malerman certainly knows how to build up tension and fear, and keep it cranked up! Imagine someone or something was stalking you but that the one thing you shouldn't do was open your eyes to see if this 'thing' was there! In this respect I found it playing on my fears of absolute darkness the way Michelle Paver's Dark Matter did, coupled with a terror of what might be lurking outside my windows. It is most definitely a book you won't want to put down!
The downside for me came when I felt the author had milked the horror for all it was worth, and the post-apocalyptic story-line fell in to the same-old, tried and tested way of such things; a group of survivors make it to a safe house but ultimately everything goes pear-shaped (this isn't a plot spoiler as we know from the outset that Malorie has been living there alone for several years).
It isn't a book I'd re-read, there aren't enough plot twists or character development for that, but on the other hand I'd be very willing to read another by the same author.

I've tagged it as 'adult' which is its target audience, but horror-loving teens will delight in it too.

Maryom's review - 4
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
Adult, horror, post-apocalyptic,


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Memory Hit by Carla Spradbery

review by Maryom

Jess thought that she and Luke were a rock-solid, together forever couple. Sure, he was a little wilder than she was, always pulling crazy stunts, but they were both on course to pass their A levels and head off to the same university to study medicine. then at a New year's Eve party Jess's world starts to fall apart. First she discovers that Luke has been cheating on her with her best friend, Scarlett. Then in Luke's jacket pocket she finds a packet of bright red tablets - the drug Nostalgex - and not just one or two, but a sizeable quantity, the amount dealers carry.
To say she's shocked is understating things - a lot - but before she has chance to confront him about either of these things, a fire breaks out. While the other party-goers escape from the building, Luke and Scarlett are trapped in a bedroom.
Jess's ex, Cooper, is also having problems with drugs. The son of convicted dealers, he's always tried to stay clear of them but now someone is forcing him, through intimidation and blackmail, into selling Nostalgex, and events take a more sinister turn when the petrol-station he works at is set alight.
This unputdownable teen thriller hinges round the puzzle of WHO would be out to kill both Luke and Cooper. Could it be the mysterious mask-wearing drug dealer known only as Whiteface? But if so, why?
Jess feels if she could only remember more details of the New Years Eve party, she might find a clue to why - and this is where the Nostalgex drug comes in. It enhances memory - very handy  for exams - and can take the user back to relive happy memories in great detail. When she tries it though, Jess discovers that often there's a discrepancy between how she remembers events and what actually occurred. Experiencing events without the emotions of the time alters her understanding of them. It helps her focus on the mysterious white-masked person at the party, but it also shows her that her relationship with Luke was not as happy as she'd believed. Revisiting some of her arguments with him, Jess comes to see Luke as domineering, bullying, even abusive - all traits she'd ignored in the past.
 Like any good thriller The Memory Hit keeps you guessing about the identity of the 'bad guy',with plenty of twists and turns along the way, but what makes it stand out is the concept of Nostalgex and how our memories can be altered by time; if a person is generally seen as 'nice' we may overlook the odd outburst, or something very frightening and confusing may be blanked from our conscious memory. In a way, I suppose Nostalgex is doing what regression therapy does, and here it's used to good effect, teasing out memories and shedding new light on events and relationships.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Hodder Childrens
Genre - Thriller, teen relationships, YA/teen

Monday, 22 June 2015

Out in the Open by Jesus Carrasco

review by Maryom

A young boy is running away from home. From his hiding place in an olive grove, he waits while the search party passes, then heads North across a desolate, dry plain, moving only at night to avoid detection by the bailiff and his men who are hunting him. On his way he comes across a goatherd, meandering across the countryside with his flock in search of the meanest crop of grass or weeds to sustain them - will this man too intend to harm the boy, or has he maybe found someone who will take his side against his pursuers?

Out In The Open is set in a timeless, nameless land, and reads like a cross between a coming of age story, fairy or folk tale and post-apocalyptic fiction. As the boy travels through the remnants of once fertile countryside now left dessicated and barren he could easily be wandering through a bombed-out landscape, but instead the land is parched from drought; the sun beats down relentlessly from a cloudless sky, river courses and wells have dried up, crops and trees have shrivelled and died. The goatherd and his flock, the surprise discovery of an inn stocked with all manner of food and drink, the far-distant mountains with their promise of ever-flowing water and lush greenery, and the boy's quest for a safe haven all seem on the other hand to belong to the realms of folk tale.
Did I enjoy it? Well, it's not a happy story - you need to be prepared for a grim read with this, although there is always a smidgen of hope for the boy. The evocation of heat and the dried-up countryside is masterful but the whole set-up is of a world ruled by violence, as if any goodness has evaporated along with the water. As the boy's back story is revealed, it becomes apparent that he's fleeing a life of abuse to which his father, even if not directly involved, has been complicit (in the father's defence, he may have been coerced by those higher up the chain of power, though that isn't clearly stated). The boy is hoping he can free himself from this, but what chance does he, on foot and pursued by men on horseback or motorbike, stand of escaping? It's that small chance of a better life that keeps the boy going, and kept me reading.

translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Harville Secker
Genre -  adult fiction, translated fiction