Thursday, 19 January 2017

Cynan Jones on his latest novel "Cove" - author interview

 As you may already know, here at Our Book Reviews Online we're great fans of Welsh author Cynan Jones, so we're delighted that he's agreed to answer a few of Maryom's questions about his latest novel, Cove. As I've come to expect from his writing, this may be a short book, but it's big on impact, and hidden depths ... 

"Out at sea, in a sudden storm, a man is struck by lightning. When he wakes, injured and adrift on a kayak, his memory of who he is and how he came to be there is all but shattered. Now he must pit himself against the pain and rely on his instincts to get back to shore, and to the woman he dimly senses waiting for his return."

The publisher’s blurb describes your latest novel “Cove” as the story of “a man locked in an uneven struggle with the forces of nature”. Now the image that immediately springs to my mind reading that is of an action-packed adventure with the hero facing huge mountainous waves and maybe a killer whale or two thrown in for good measure, but I’d have imagined wrongly! How would you describe it?

Cove is about attrition, and faith.  Those are the two things you need in the face of overwhelming odds; and Nature is overwhelming.

At ninety-five pages ‘Cove’ certainly isn’t a long novel, and there’s a feeling of everything being pared down to the merest essentials. How did the writing of it progress; was it always going to be this short, or did you start with a massive epic and chip away at it till the very bones were left? Could it even be a case of more words would not have added anything?

At one stage the manuscript was 30,000 or so words. There was more before the storm, and the story travelled past the point is ends now.  But something wasn’t right. I kept trying to write around that. It got worse. Eventually, I stepped away, let the book settle in my head until I saw it clearly, and went back to the desk months later. The story found its form around 11,500 words. That’s why it wouldn’t work at 30,000…

There’s a thank you at the end which infers that at least some of this novel is written from personal experience. How much did that experience add to the story? Could you have written it without this having happened?

The thank you at the end is chiefly allegorical, but a number of personal experiences found their way into the book. I was on the beach when a lifeboat came searching the shore; I’ve been thrown out of a kayak in a squall (something about that here); I was visited by glow-in-the-dark dolphins while night fishing as a teenager.

The idea of casting a man out alone on a kayak, bringing in my experiences on the water, was in my head for some time, but it took years for that idea to fuse into a story. The lightning strike delivered the point of fusion.

One moment particularly terrified me – a point at which the kayak has drifted out of sight of land, absolute emptiness on all sides with no sense of which way to paddle to safety, then the man looks down into the depths – and it seems like he’s balancing on the edge of a cliff and could easily fall over. I’d never seen water this way but as a person with a fear of heights, I’m never  going to forget this image!

The surface is everything, in Cove. It’s the place of awareness. The point where depth and space meet.
Dare I ask you to elaborate on that?
It is, absolutely, a physical thing too, the surface. But there's so much meaning in it - the meniscus that physically supports him; the place two elements (we are not able to inhabit properly - water and air) meet... it's both the tightrope and the safety net.

That image of a man precariously balanced (which again terrifies me) leads nicely to the next question ...

Although ‘Cove’ is the story of one man, I saw a wider relevance – that this is a story for any of us that feel we’re out of our depths -  and an echo of Stevie Smith’s “I was much too far out all my life/And not waving but drowning”.  Where you thinking in this way when writing or am I being guilty of reading too much into it? 

I was absolutely thinking this way. Ostensibly, I wanted the narrative to be straight forward and physical and limited to the capacity of one damaged character. But beyond (below, and above) that, it had to be massive, universal, ambiguous and faceted.

And lastly, although it’s difficult to discuss without spoilers – how did you see the ending...   I saw it as hopeful, other reviewers say it isn’t. Can we agree that’s it’s at least ambiguous?

Ah! I just used that word ambiguous. I know what happens to him because the first drafts went past the point the book now ends.  So why end it where it ends? Because the story should always go beyond the book. And that happens in the reader’s mind. Would you survive? Make it back? Give up? Much of the ending relies on the character of the reader. Clearly, you believe in the outside chance. There’s hope. Right?
Definitely! When all else is gone, there's still hope, or so I believe. It's interesting though that reviews may be letting us inside the reviewer's head ... 

Thanks for dropping by, Cynan, and giving me possibly even more to think about!

Maryom's review of Cove can be found here

Cynan Jones' website can be found at and you can follow him on Twitter as @cynan1975

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Diary of a Teenage Rock God by Jonathan Meres

review by Maryom

Darren used to want to be a footballer when he grew up - but not any more! Now he wants to be a rock god. First though he needs a guitar, but it's his eleventh birthday next week, and maybe, just maybe, his dad will buy him one. Things aren't quite that simple with Darren's dad though - first he sets a series of clues,and it's only if Darren can solve  them that he stands any chance of getting that longed-for guitar ...

Join Darren on his discovery of all things rock - including the shocking discovery that not only was his dad young once, he was also kind of cool! On the way he shares his lists of things he's learned - from his Top Ten favourite guitar brands, facts about Radiohead and the Smiths, and songs with names in their titles. He can't think of one with Darren in it. Could you? or maybe one with your name?

It's a fun read, aimed at anyone from 8 upwards (even as far as grown-ups who can remember the music from their youth!) and presented in Barrington Stoke's accessible font and layout, with lots of music-themed line illustrations to liven up the pages.

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - children's 8-12, humour, music

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

"In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods... "

review by Maryom

Vasya is the daughter of a rich lord allied through marriage to the princes of Moscow, but, although expected to spend her days by the fire perfecting her domestic skills such as sewing or cooking, she'd rather be outside, roaming the forests that surround their home, or spending her time in the stables with the horses. She's also possessed of an unusual gift, inherited from her 'witchwoman' grandmother - the ability to see and talk to the small gods and spirits of hearth, stable, rivers and woods. Some of these are mischievous, leading travellers astray or snatching the young and unwary, but others are helpful, performing chores for their human hosts and guarding against the darker forces that lurk in the forest. But this is a time when the older ways, and belief in these gods, are dying, being replaced by Christianity which would ideally rid the world of such 'demons', and while the smaller domestic spirits are in decline, leaving homesteads unprotected, something evil is growing in strength.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a fabulous, atmospheric blend of history, folk tale, and fantasy, with a real feel for the snowy depths of a Northern Russian winter. It's set in the 12th century, in the area that will become Russia, but which for now is ruled by Rus' princes paying tribute to the Khan of the Golden Horde. It's a time and place of which most readers (like me) will have little knowledge, and the author brings it wonderfully to life. Even for a wealthy family such as Vasya's much of life revolves around farming (at harvest-time everyone has to join in, including her father and the village's priest) and preparing for the long winter; in fact I think winter is as much a character in the book as the humans or spirits. I loved the authors's depiction of a family huddled round their enormous oven, listening to folk tales, sleeping beside and even on top of it, desperately trying to keep warm as temperatures plummet, and, in sharp contrast to that domesticity, the wilds of the forests stretching seemingly for ever in all directions.
The story starts fairly quietly, with emphasis on Vasya's childhood and family, then in the second half the fantasy element becomes stronger, leading to a showdown between the forces of good and evil which threatens the way of life of Vasya and her family.

US cover
I picked this book up through Netgalley after seeing the publisher/publicist talk about it on Twitter.I was intrigued by the title, and chose it from the 'blurb' which appealed to me, so I hadn't seen the cover till I came to write this review - somehow to me it isn't a cover which shouts out 'read me', but if you feel the same way, ignore that feeling and read it anyway!

Following the comment form Charlie (The Worm Hole) below, I looked for the US cover. It's much nicer I think, conjuring up the dark, wintry mysteriousness of the story, and the contrast between warm, safe house and untamed surrounding forest.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - 
Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Genre - adult fantasy

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Dry by Jane Harper

We're delighted to be taking part today in the blog tour for a stunning Australian crime debut - The Dry by Jane Harper. All these bloggers will be posting today, Wednesday 11th January, and those for the rest of the week can be found after Maryom's review.

review by Maryom

The small Australian town of Kiewarra is gripped by the worst drought in a century. There's been no rain for two years. Crops and pasture wither away, stock dies, and farmers' livelihoods disappear. So although shocking, it isn't surprising when Luke Hadler takes his shotgun and kills first his wife and six year old son, then himself. It seems like an open and shut case; tragic but understandable, even to be expected with the current economic problems ...
For twenty years, Aaron Falk has kept clear of his hometown - he didn't even return for the wedding of his childhood friend, Luke Hadler - but a funeral is something he feels he can't avoid. Now a Federal policeman in Melbourne, he left in a cloud of suspicion following the suicide of another friend, Ellie Deacon, and Kiewarra's collective memory hasn't forgotten. Aaron's hoping his visit will be as brief as possible, but when first Luke's parents, then the local policeman, start to raise doubts about the Hadler family's deaths, he feels he owes it to his old friend to clear his name.

In a small town (at least in fiction), murder is rarely random but something stemming from hidden secrets and personal motives - and that's the case here, as much as in Miss Marple's St Mary Mead. There are two threads, linked by the actions of Aaron and Luke - as Aaron pursues his investigation into the Hadler family deaths, he's constantly reminded of the death of Ellie Deacon years before. Maybe that, too, wasn't suicide as originally presumed, and maybe the alibi Luke gave Aaron, was actually intended to cover Luke ... It seems Aaron isn't going to solve one crime without solving both, and for both there's a line-up of possible perpetrators and red herrings to keep the reader guessing till the end. The plotting's well thought out, and if you know where to look, and what for, the clues are there along the way.

After so many ice cold Nordic Noir crime novels, The Dry's Australian setting comes as a shock - the air ripples with heat, the ground is parched, and rivers once large enough to swim in have dried up completely. Despite the vast open spaces surrounding the town, within it the atmosphere is claustrophobic and tense. Tempers are already on edge due to the ongoing drought, and not improved by Aaron's presence or the thought that there is a murderer within the community.

It's often said in book reviews, but this really was a case of me being hooked from the first page. I loved the writing style, the characters, the sunburned setting, the nigh on perfect balance between the two threads - I maybe could have done without some of the creepy Australian spiders though, no matter how casually they seemed to be dismissed.

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

To read more about The Dry check out the rest  of the blog tour as below -

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr

review by Maryom

Following an operation to remove a tumour when she was younger Flora Banks has been unable to make new memories. She's now seventeen, and, although she can remember events before the operation, and basic everyday things like making tea or how to work the TV, anything else slips away after a few hours - until now.
After a going-away party for her best friend's boyfriend Drake, Flora kisses a boy on the beach - and it's the most wonderful thing ever! Maybe it's the totally new experience, maybe it's the heightened emotions of the moment, but, for what ever reason, Flora can remember it the next day.
There's a snag though - the boy on the beach was Drake, and now he's gone away to study in the Arctic, and her life-long best friend Paige will no longer speak to Flora. So when her parents are called away on an emergency, instead of Paige staying over, Flora is left alone. With only her post-it note reminders and her one clear memory of kissing on the beach, Flora becomes increasingly obsessed by Drake and convinced that he is the key to unlocking her memory, so decides to set off on a journey to find him ...

Whatever you care to label this book as - teen romance, psychological drama, travel adventure - I loved it!
It's hard, and terrifying, to put yourself in Flora's shoes, to imagine what it must be like to have no memory of what happened to you yesterday, last week, or a year ago. It would be so easy for her to just drift along doing as her parents say, always treated a child and never achieving independence, but given the opportunity Flora isn't going to sit back and let that happen to her. She's filled with indomitable spirit and tremendous courage. On her hand she has a tattoo saying "Flora be brave". It's intended to get her through her 'normal' everyday confusion of waking up and believing she's still a ten-year old, but she's now adopted it as a motto to live her life by. With the aid of reminders written on her hands, in notebooks and on her phone, she heads off to the Arctic in search of Drake and some answers. I think she's amazing!
I loved the sense of place within the story - from comfortable, sunny Penzance to Flora's amazing journey to Spitsbergen and her adventures there, brought to life by the author's evocative descriptions of snow in summer and midnight sun (so much so that I ended up on Google maps trying to trace her steps!)

It's the sort of book that has you sitting up late, needing to know how things work out. Is Flora's one and only memory reliable? Is she right in suspecting her parents are keeping something from her? - after all, she can't remember what happened yesterday, so it would be so easy to do!

Although this is billed as YA, and could be seen as a coming of age novel, the story is gripping enough for all. It's a story of the mistakes we might make for love, of breaking free and finding one's own way in the world.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Penguin

Genre - teen/YA romance/adventure/drama/coming of age

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Mole's Top Ten books of 2016

My reading list for the year is never as extensive as Maryom's (in the main part because she reads a great deal faster than me) but that doesn't mean that I didn't read some fantastic books as well. I have reviewed my year and extracted the best although there were many others that only just missed out.

In no particular order....

Carrying The Fire - Michael Collins

I grew up at the height of the space race and was caught, for much of my youth, by the wonder and promise that the space race seemed to offer. I avidly read any newspaper articles or watched TV programmes that even vaguely touched on the subject. Originally published in 1974 and republished 40 years later, this book gives a great deal of insight into the space program and Mike Collins - the man.

The Climb - Chris Froome

I became most interested in cycling because of my father-in-aw who watches it avidly and assumes everyone else does too. There's a magic to the Tour de France that can easily catch you and drag you in and our youngest has caught the bug. This book tells the story of the rise of this young rider who had no privileges to help him along the way yet still went on to win the greatest bike race of all time.

It's Just The Chronospehere Unfolding As It Should - Ira Nayman

I have read a few books by Ira Nayman and they all have a zany humour that closely matches my own but this one is his best to date - In My Opinion.

Girl In Danger - Leigh Rusell

The second Lucy Hall Mystery and it feels very much that Lucy has come of age. A great second novel in the series.

Happy Birthday Old Bear - Jane Hissey

Old Bear is one of those story book characters that I shared of lot of time with as our youngest was growing and somehow he, and his friends, remain kind of special to me.

The End - Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings - edited by Ashley Stokes

Short stories are things I generally enjoy a great deal and this collection is unusual because fifteen paintings were created with one thing in common - The End was part of the picture and fifteen authors then wrote short stories that the images inspired - a project that worked wonderfully.

The Book of Ralph - Christopher Steinsvold

This quirky SciFi novel surprised me immensely and I was surprised we didn't hear a great deal more about it.

The King's Revenge - Philip Womack

The last of the trilogy brought the story to a conclusion(?). A book every bit as good as the first in the trilogy and that's frequently not the case.

North of Porter by Kirkland Ciccone

As ever Ciccone has produced a quirky and extremely entertaining novel that has become his trademark. Once again this is probably his best to date.

Talisman - Paul Mudoch

A story of wizards and magic and well meaning friends, family and neighbours.
Book 1 in The Peck Chronicles and now book 3 has been published. It was very much the characters that won me over in this book but we can all be swayed by the fantasy of magic.

Warning Cry - Kris Humphrey

Rather negligently I didn't read the first in this series but was swept along by this story and the concept of a series where there is little character interchange between the books - although the chronology and overall arc does move forward. A great read. Book One's title involved wolves at a time when wolves were appearing on so many book covers which is why I overlooked it.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Maryom's Top Ten of the Year - 2016

It's that time of year when everyone seems to be doing their 'round-ups' and 'best of...' lists, and I'm not going to be left out. I've already done a rather different summing up of the year in Reading Bingo, but here are my favourite books, the ones I feel sure I'll read again and again, the ones I'll be thrusting at people saying "you must read this" ... anyway, here's my Top Ten of the Year ...

First up, a book that I think everyone should read - You Shall Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris This is the account of the first few weeks following the author's wife's death in the terrorist attack on Paris' Bataclan nightclub last November. While the press and social media were filled with hatred, fear and calls for vengeance, Leiris declared that to give way to such feelings would be to let the terrorists win, to also cripple his own life and that of his small son. So instead, he resolved that, despite over-whelming grief, he would continue to live as full a life as possible. It's a book filled with loss, love, horror, and, ultimately, hope.

Breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes is a specially comminsioned book from Peirene Press, bringing to life the individual stories behind the statistics and news reports about the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle', taking the reader behind the stereotypic image, and reminding us that above all they are people like us - who just happen to be running from persecution or a war zone, trying to earn money to send home, or just hoping to be reunited with their families. Another 'mut read'.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon also looks at the way we treat outsiders - but a little closer to home. During the long heatwave of 1976, Mrs Creasy goes missing from her home - and the strange man at Number 11 is immediately suspected of somehow being behind it. It's a story about 'us' (the sheep) and 'them' (the goats), and as events unfold it makes you think about the way a community may treat outsiders, how anyone who doen't quite fit or is a little 'odd' can be ostracised and victimised by the rest of us who consider ourselves 'normal'.

Cove by Cynan Jones  A man out at sea in a kayak is struck by lightning - left drifting, out of sight of land, his sense of direction lost, even his sense of self. All he has to cling on to is his animal instinct which pushes him towards land and home. Jones proves again that a huge word count isn't necessary to make an impact; Cove is less than a hundred pages, doesn't contain a single surplus word, but captures the helplessness, confusion and fear of this man adrift at the mercy of tides and currents. Is it, though, the personal story of one man, or a metaphor for anyone adrift in life, like Stevie Smith's swimmer "much too far out all my life/And not waving but drowning" ?

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker is a book about choices. The German invasion of France poses a dilemma for a young Irish writer - he can return to his family in Ireland, stay there safely for the duration, or, as a citizen of a neutral country, remain in Paris with his lover. Choosing to stay poses another question - should he sit by while the Germans take over, or join the resistance? I love Jo Baker's writing style - the capturing of intense, intimate moments, then building with them to bring a fictional world to life - but what particularly appealed to me about this 'true' story was its 'hero', Samuel Beckett. Having read his books at school, I'd rather had the impression of a dull, geeky guy, obsessed with words and meanings. Jo Baker's story sheds light ona very different side of him - still that odd, literary chap but one with an unsuspected quiet courage.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan Melody Shee is thirty three, abandoned by her husband, pregnant by a Traveller boy barely half her age, frightened, angry, full of guilt - and amazingly brought to life in the first person by a male author! Melody's story revolves around several threads - the difficulties that can at times surround something we take for granted, the birth of a child; the gradual wearing away of a loving marriage by constant recriminations; the way a community makes its own unwritten rules and judges anyone who doesn't conform; and how inflicting pain and suffering on others can bounce back on the giver. Ryan's writing just seems to go from strength to strength, with each novel.


Melissa by Jonathan Taylor The death of Melissa Comb is marked by a strange phenonomen - a burst of music, spreading happiness and pride among her neighbours. The only people who don't hear it are those closest to her - her immediate family, hiding behind closed curtains, is slowly starting the disintegrate. There's a certain level of quirkiness to this story of a family struggling to cope with grief and the intrusion of the media - it's told in a variety of styles (with snippets from newpapers and scientific journals), it doesn't move in a straight line but starts with Melissa's death and moves back to her illness before moving forwards, and seems to only gradually work in towards the heart of the story - but I found it irresistable!

Death and The Seaside by Alison Moore  is a strange, disturbing tale of manipulation, of living up (or down) to people's expectations, and of the interwoven-ness of life and art. Nearing the age of thirty, Bonnie has had a life of missed opportunities, but now her new landlady, Sylvia, has taken an interest in her - encouraging her writing, making plans for a holiday together. Sylvia has an interest, though, in self-fulfilling prophecies, suggestibility and how expectation influences behaviour; the future doesn't really look that rosy for Bonnie. A psychological drama of subtle oozing menace.

The Museum of You by Carys Bray Like Bray's first novel, A Song For Issy Bradley, this is a story about a family trying to cope with death. Clover and her dad Darren form a small, tightly-knit, loving family, but at its centre is a gaping hole left by the death of Clover's mother, not long after Clover was born. To Clover, she's an enigma, someone she's never known but would love to know more about; Darren finds talking about her too distressing and 12 years later still has the spare room full of her belongings. Sad, funny, and heartwarming this story charts their attempts to bridge that gap, as the two try to communicate across the gap, and Clover searches through the hoarded things in an attempt to piece together an image of her mother. Tender and compassionate, it's a joy to read, and Bray has again turned a story with tragedy at its heart into something positive and life-affirming.

Fell by Jenn Ashworth Ashworth is an author I've been intending to read for some years, and, at last having got round to it, I realise what a delight I've been missing. Despite the older work sitting on my TBR pile, I started with her latest, Fell, an atmospheric, beguiling story of home and family, regrets and reconciliation - and loved it. Middle-aged Annette has returned to her childhood home to clear it out and sell it off, but the ghosts of her parents have other ideas. It isn't what you would really describe as aghost story though -  it's rooted firmly in reality, just laced with something otherworldly much like Sarah Winman's A Year of Marvellous Ways or Lucy Wood's Weathering, both of which were among my picks of last year.

That's Ten, my favourites from this year's publications - but I've also loved some older books which, in all fairness, I ought to have read before now.

Firstly, it may be odd, and I'm definitely late to the party, but this is the year I've finally realised what is so great about Neil Gaiman. I'd read some of his work before but having read and loved both The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Neverwhere this year, I consider myself changed from a casual reader to a fan!

Another party to which I'm a late arrival is the Fitz and the Fool series by Robin Hobb. I've had a free download of the first book Assassin's Apprentice sitting on my kindle for seemingly ages, but hearing that after 15 books the series will come to an end next year I've eventually been spurred on to read it - and again discovered something magical and engrossing that I've missed out on. Reading the series will definitely be part of my reading plans for next year!