Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Frog the Barbarian by Guy Bass

Review by The Mole

In The Legend of Frog Frog managed to save the world from the Kroakans with the help of Rarewolf and his trusty steed Sheriff Explosion, but it looks like he's going to have to do it all again! Somehow General Kurg, from the first saving of the world, while imprisoned, has managed to raise the alarm and called for a new invasion force.

Can Frog pull off a second saving in the same planless way as the first time or are things going to be more challenging? In fact can Frog actually do it this time?

The Legend of Frog was zany and lots of fun but you were in no doubt that Frog would pull it off but here we see a more realistic Frog - a Frog that learns a bit of humility, a Frog that is defeated, a Frog that loses confidence in himself... well, maybe for a minute. Still oodles of fun, excessively zany but somehow a more complete and satisfying story. I don't really believe that I ever doubted Frog though - he's the natural hero. We also learn the secret of how Dragons fly - something that I had never thought about!

Has Frog's days of being a hero finished now or are there more challenges for this mighty warrior? I hope there is more to come.

One of the things about the first book was the amount of pages that were "hand written" by Frog where the spelling was appalling and I wondered if this was a good thing for such young readers. In this book the number of such pages seems to have been reduced and now feel more contextual rather than part of the story.

Aimed at the 8+ reader this book will have them needing to share some of the many zany moments (I did) and laugh out loud making others wonder about what is so funny. While it's possible to read this book stand alone, the reading of The Legend of Frog first will help a lot with understanding who Frog is and how he got there. A really good book for proficient young readers.

Publisher - Stripes Publishing
Genre - Children's 7+, Frogs, adventure, Dragons

Monday, 22 September 2014

Plague Land by S.D. Sykes

review by Maryom

18 year old Oswald de Lacy has grown up with the expectation of becoming a monk. With two older brothers, he wasn't needed on the family estate. But now the Black death has changed all that. With his father and both brothers dead, Oswald must assume the role of Lord of Somerhill Manor - a role for which he seems totally unsuited. He has little or no knowledge of how to run his estate or when to sow or harvest crops, depending heavily on his former tutor brother Peter.
There's a more pressing matter to deal with first - a young woman, Alice Starvecrow, has been murdered and the village priest insists it was the work of demonic dog-headed men. Oswald is certain this is pure superstitious nonsense...but to prove that he must find the real, all too human, killer.

Plague Land takes a gripping murder mystery and places it in a well imagined period setting. Oswald's estate, like most of the country, has been devastated by the plague with fields lying abandoned as there are no longer enough peasants to work them. The peasants, on their part, have discovered that their lack of numbers gives them a bargaining tool they never previously had, and the old feudal order seems to be crumbling. Narrating the story from Oswald's point of view, as he struggles to come to terms with his new role, allows the author to explain the situation and system without falling back on a long history lesson.

Oswald also has his share of personal problems - mainly in the shape of his scatter-brained mother, who's still determined she should have her say in the way things are run, and his sister Clemence who in her twenties is considered an old maid unlikely to ever marry; her desperation leads to to a most unsuitable match that only brings more trouble for poor Oswald.

Against this backdrop, Oswald attempts to track down a cunning murderer, while the bodies continue to pile up. Having no idea at all of what he should do, he fumbles and stumbles his way along, often walking unwittingly into danger. The unwinding plot has enough twists and turns to keep anyone guessing, though some clues are more obvious to the reader than to Oswald. Like him, the reader immediately discounts the 'demon killers' explanation, but it's easy to see how the priest plays on the villagers religious beliefs and general ignorance, manipulating them for his own ends.

This is a great start to a new historical crime series and I'm definitely looking forward to more.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Hodder & Stoughton
Genre - adult fiction, historical crime

Friday, 19 September 2014

Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda

review by Maryom

Hadachinou is a boy on the brink of manhood. For now he's free to wander the streets of Tripoli - run errands for his mother, head off down to the sea or in and out of the women's quarters.Wherever he goes, he watches and listens. He sees his mother giggling and sharing confidences with her childhood friend Jamila, helps out and soaks up the flavours in the kitchen, notices the offhand and frequently brutal way the men treat their women. As happens to all children, though, he's growing up, discovering sexuality, feeling a change in how the women treat him. His privileged access to their world isn't going to last much longer...
In this short book, the last of Peirene's 'coming of age' series, the reader is taken back to the author's childhood, in 1960s Libya.  It's not a plot-driven narrative but more of a series of portraits, evoking the secret closed-door world inhabited by women. The Tripoli depicted is a multi-cultural society where Muslims, Christians and Jews, Arabs, Berbers, Italians and blacks rub shoulders and get along amicably. Segregation divides them though along lines of gender. Men and women live a compartmentalised existence - they rarely meet outside the bedroom, everything else including meals takes place separately. 

It's a very sensual novel - I could almost feel the heat, taste the food, feel the squelch of tomatoes as Hadachinou crushes them beneath his feet - but at the same time a thought-provoking one.
The biggest question it raised for me was how happy were the women in this world? Never having experienced anything else, they accept it as something that just is - and are ready to gossip about and criticise any woman who doesn't follow the approved pattern of behaviour. For some, life is fine, they're happy to leave their husband to his life of work and mosque or drinking with friends, but others are on the receiving end of their men's frustrations and anger. Towards the end of the book, Hadachinou becomes aware that not everyone is happy with the way things are and that under the seeming vulnerability of the women lurks a harder core that won't tolerate these attitudes forever.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press

Genre - Adult Literary Fiction, translated fiction

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Samurai Inheritance by James Douglas

Review by The Mole

When Jamie Saintclair is asked to trace a shrunken head he is made an offer too good to refuse and anyway his life partner, Fiona, is in awe of the man making the offer so also insists he take the offer. It appears though that Keith Devlin is not the only one interested in the quest that Jamie has taken up and he quickly becomes embroiled with Russian, Chinese and Japanese criminal gangs - or are some of these "supposed" to be security forces but acting in their own interests? Travelling across the globe and ducking and diving against pursuers, it turns out to be a life or death mission but what does Devlin REALLY want and what will he end up with?

Having read The Excalibur Codex I had met Jamie before but under very different circumstances. One of the things I wasn't sure about before was Jamie's ability to keep his hormones under control but here that problem seems to be played down a lot more.

The back story is littered through the book and at times seems totally irrelevant and really only pulls together at the end in several small "eureka"moments. One of the problems I had had with The Excalibur Codex was it was slow to start but this begins much more quickly and the pace is maintained throughout. It retains many of the same qualities of it's predecessor but the thriller aspect is more pronounced while the "superman" qualities of Jamie are now more mature and less humorous.

This felt a different style of  book although once again I thoroughly enjoyed Douglas's work but for slightly different reasons.

Publisher: Transworld Books
Genre: Crime Thriller

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Place for Us (part 2) by Harriet Evans

review by Maryom

The far-flung Winter family have all gathered at the family home to celebrate the eightieth birthday of matriarch Martha. Renowned for her fabulous parties, Martha has invited anyone and everyone from the neighbourhood to help her celebrate but she also has an important announcement to be made - to family members only - at lunch the next day. After the revelations of Part 1, can there be any more surprises to come? Well, yes, several in fact!

A Place for Us is being serialised in four parts and reading it is a bit like tuning in each week to catch your favourite TV drama. Part 1 set the scene, introduced us to this scattered family and the secrets they hide from each other, and ended on a real cliff-hanger. Now as they gather for the party, we learn more about their lives and most importantly discover the bombshell that Martha plans to drop at her birthday lunch. It wasn't at all what I expected - and I can't easily see how the family is going to recover from it!

I'm really enjoying this book. It has a great cast of characters; some to love; others, not quite to hate but certainly to feel less sympathy for. The gradual reveal of their back-stories alternating with the present day plot has me hooked and wanting to know what will happen next. I can't wait for part 3!

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Headline Review
Genre - adult fiction, family saga

Monday, 15 September 2014

Small Island by Andrea Levy

review by Maryom

Gilbert Joseph was one of many Jamaican men who left home and came to help their 'mother country' Britain during WW2. During his time in the RAF he was treated with a certain level of curiosity, but nothing that could have prepared him for the outright hostility that meets him when he decides to find work in London in 1948. Fortunately, his wartime friend Queenie Bligh, still awaiting the return of her husband, has a large house with rooms to spare. When Gilbert's wife Hortense arrives though, things aren't as she'd imagined. From all the stories told in Jamaica, and everything she'd learned at school, Hortense expects to find, if not quite streets paved with gold, a refined, sophisticated city full of well-spoken, cultured people. What she doesn't expect is the crumbling buildings and shabby, post-war feel of post-war London, people's everyday rudeness and, above all, the prejudice and discrimination against black people that she soon encounters.

Small Island is one of those vast sweeping books that moves backwards and forwards in time and geography, as the lives of four people join, split apart and rejoin.  Set in 1948, with flashbacks to the war-time years, it tells the stories of two young couples, Jamaicans Hortense and Gilbert, and  English Queenie and Bernard, and through them of the prejudice and bigotry facing the post-war wave of West Indian immigrants.

Dealing with the weighty issues of immigration and racism, it could all have fell flat in a dull but worthy way; instead the author tackles them in a readable manner, with the emphasis being on the story; exposing all the prejudice without preaching - just showing events and leaving the reader to their own conclusions. Although it helped me to understand the fears and prejudices of my parents' generation (that of Queenie and Bernard), the British attitude was enough to make me cringe. Even so, it seemed positively welcoming at the side of Americans with institutionalised racism, protected by law and custom.

Among a raft of awards Small Island picked up Whitbread Book of the Year and Orange Prize for fiction and is now back in a tenth anniversary edition. Shame to say I hadn't read it till now. I'd tried to watch the TV series but abandoned it as a bit dull, thinking that I'd try the book instead. Then my daughter read it at college and said how really good it was, but that I might not like it. Well, she was wrong! I loved it!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
Tinder Press
Genre -
Adult fiction, literary

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Quarry by Iain Banks

review by Maryom

Kit is an autistic teenager brought up solely by his father Guy, never knowing who his mother is. Till now they've managed ok living in the old house by the quarry where Guy spent his student years, but time is running out for Guy who is dying of cancer. With this in mind, all Guy's oldest, closest friends from student days have been invited along for the weekend for one last get-together before his time runs out.  His friends though have something else on their minds - a video tape, one of several that were made back when they were film and media students, but one which could prove to be extremely embarrassing if made public. So between the drinking, political arguments and bitchy reveals about who slept with whom, they search, either secretly or as a group, for it.

I've taken a while to get round to reading this last novel by Iain Banks but spotting it on a library shelf I decided it was time to go for it. As I'd half expected from other reviews it isn't his greatest work (for me that will always be The Crow Road) but it feels much more personal. It's difficult not to believe that many of Guy's harangues against life, death and everything in between aren't Banks' own.

It reads well, as you'd expect, and unfolding events pull you in nicely. The whole 'scattered friends meet up for the weekend' concept feels a little bit like an Alan Ayckbourn farce meets Agatha Christie so you're not sure whether to expect laughs or murder - and with Banks it could be either. Sitting on the sidelines, distanced by his age and autism, Kit closely observes events without necessarily catching the undercurrents.  and he's always on the lookout for clues about his mother's identity. There's lots of threads to be unravelled and it was only afterwards that I thought the plot seemed a little thin. For any other writer I'd probably have said it was great, but it's not Iain Banks at his brilliant, mind-blowing best.   

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Abacus
Genre - adult fiction

Other reviews; Women's Prize for Fiction Book Reviews