Monday, 20 May 2019

Curious Arts Festival 2019

After five years at Pylewell Park in the New Forest, Curious Arts Festival is on the move - physically to Pippingford Park in East Sussex, and with a change of date from July to August Bank Holiday weekend. The keen-eyed among you will notice this is the same date and place as Byline Festival - and, yes, the two are somewhat joining forces, with ticket holders for Curious Arts having access to both festivals.

John Cleese

The event will be opened by John Cleese on Friday 23rd August, and as always at Curious Arts there will be the wonderful mix of music, comedy, and book events, with a full weekend of activities for children running alongside - everything from author events to insect walks, journalism to late-night music - but here our primary interest is in the literary side of things.

Philippa Perry

The mix of authors and genres is as eclectic and diverse as Curious Arts itself - you can see Misha Glenny of McMafia fame chatting crime networks, hacking and dark markets,  Green Carnation Prize-listed author Niven Govinden with his new novel, This Brutal House, psychotherapist Philippa Perry talking about her 'self-help' books How To Stay Sane and The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and your children will be glad that you did),  and Dan Richards recounting his journeys in search of isolation and silence, that led to  Outpost - A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth (excellent for an armchair adventurer like myself!)

Candice Carty-Williams

Tom Rachmam will discuss his Costa-shortlisted, latest novel The Italian Teacher, debut author Candice Carty-Williams her novel Queenie, described as a politicised Bridget Jones about a 25 year old black woman straddling two cultures, and Max Porter, author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, will be there talking about his new novel, Lanny - a 'missing boy' story that taps into English folklore, described as 'a song to difference and imagination, to friendship, youth and love'

If you prefer 'real life' to fiction, then catch Lemn Sissay talking about his memoir, My Name is Why, which explores his heritage, the meaning of family, and his childhood in care homes, or Guy Kennaway on his personal experience of assisted suicide as recounted in Time To Go.

Other names announced include Ian Birch discussing revolutionary magazine covers, David Nott talking about his time as a voluntary doctor in war zones and areas of natural disaster, and Gina Rippon on her first book for the general reader, The Gendered Brain. You can find more details of these authors and more here on Curious Arts' website.

We attended two Curious Arts Festivals at Pylewell, as guests in 2016 and 2017, and loved every minute of both (except maybe the rain in the second year). The new location is not such an easy one for us to reach, but it would make an excellent excuse to explore an area that I've never visited, so maybe we will be there.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

A Boy and his Dog at the End of the World by C A Fletcher

The world (as we know it, at least) has come to an end - not with the bang of a nuclear bomb, but a whimper as humans lost the ability to reproduce. Babies were born to only the fortunate few, and as the population aged and died, the number of people left plummeted.
A generation or so on, Griz lives on the island of Mingulay, almost but not quite the most southerly island of the Outer Hebrides. It's a hard, barely above subsistence level, life, but above all, it's lonely. Apart from immediate family of parents and siblings, Griz has seen only a handful of  people. The nearest neighbours live far away on Lewis, the northern-most island of the chain (if you're not familiar with Scottish geography, look at the weather forecast map to see series of islands off Scotland's north-west coast to grasp the distance between the two). To see anyone else is extremely rare, so when Brand shows up in his red sailed boat, he's given a cautious welcome, but not entirely trusted. Unfortunately the family are not on guard against his charm and seeming good nature, and the next morning he sails away with Griz's beloved dog, Jess. Filled with anger, Griz isn't prepared to put up with this underhand stealing of Jess, and before the rest of the family are aware of what has happened, Griz is in a boat and underway, chasing Brand - at first through familiar waters off the Scottish coast, then on foot across a country reclaimed by nature.

I seem to have been reading quite a few post-apocalypse books recently (more reviews to come) and this is one of my favourites. It's nice, for starters, to have such a novel set in locations that are familiar to British readers. And it's nice to not be constantly criticizing the ways in which the characters have managed to survive during and after the wiping out of civilisation. I tend to get too involved in the practicalities of post-apocalypse existence, ready to spot anything I consider a mistake, and I was delighted to see Griz's parents having taken some of the measures I would have considered (though I'm a land-based person, and would never have thought of acquiring boats)

The story, as told by Griz in an account scribbled down at a later date, is engrossing and compelling. Despite Griz having set off on what frankly appeared to be a wild goose chase, I really wanted to see the rescue mission succeed and Jess brought home again, but there were just a few little things that let the book down as a whole. I've heard others refer to this as more of  a YA, than adult, novel, and in some respects I'm inclined to agree. The plot structure was just a little too simple for me - a sort of straight run from A to B to C etc, with adventures and surprises along the way, but no real unexpected detours - and somehow it was all just a little too upbeat, not the unrelieved misery that I half-expect from an adult post-apocalyptic novel. Otherwise, it's a great read. Enjoy it, then pass it on to your teens.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Orbit

Genre - post-apocalyptic, road trip

Thursday, 9 May 2019

I Still Dream by James Smythe

While still a teenager at school, Laura Bow develops a computer program, called Organon, to share her secrets with, vent her frustrations at, and generally play the role of best friend. She maybe doesn't realise its full potential at this point but it's her passport to an internship with a major computer development company in the US. As Laura's skills improve, so does Organon, but both the company she works for and its competitors are developing other artificial intelligences, without the moral safe-guards Laura believes are an intrinsic part of her creation.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. From the publisher's blurb, I hadn't really expected it to appeal to me at all, let alone the amount it did. A few pages in and I was finding it compelling reading - I wanted to discover where Laura's life would take her, and how Organon would develop.

It was the writing style that continued to hold me as it isn't really a plot driven story - more a character study of Laura and her artificial friend, as their lives entwine over the years - and as the end approached I found myself a little disappointed that something more dramatic hadn't occurred.

There are a lot of similarities to be made with other stories of attempts to create artificial intelligences, or of the interaction between humans and computers, so often there's a feeling of this being nothing new (partly why I've rated it 4 stars rather than 5). It is very readable though, and rest assured, Organon is a nice AI, not evil like 2001's HAL.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (The Borough Press)
Genre - Adult fiction, sci-fi 

Thursday, 2 May 2019

The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby

"Birmingham, 1885.
Born in a gaol and raised in a workhouse, Cora Burns has always struggled to control the violence inside her.
Haunted by memories of a terrible crime, she seeks a new life working as a servant in the house of scientist Thomas Jerwood. Here, Cora befriends a young girl, Violet, who seems to be the subject of a living experiment. But is Jerwood also secretly studying Cora...?"

When the reader first meets Cora she's setting out for a new place of employment, in fact it's her first taste of life outside the gaol, workhouse, and, her only previous employment, the asylum laundry. She's out-of-place, awkward, surly, almost determined to fail, but somehow she doesn't. As her story progresses we learn more of her past, of a life spent inside institutions, but, although not told in the first person, events are seen from Cora's perspective - and her memories are twisted and unreliable, so it takes a long while to discover the root of her problems. I must say, I didn't like Cora. She seemed to pick quarrels unnecessarily, to goad others into disliking her - maybe this was a reflection on her upbringing (if her life born into gaol can be considered an 'upbringing'); maybe this is how her character would have developed regardless. These are the sorts of questions that her new employer Jerwood is interested in. Is 'nature' or 'nurture' the more important factor in character and temperament? Is there a criminal 'type'? His research methods seem biased and unreliable to the modern reader, but I assume he's a fairly accurate representation of a Victorian gentleman with an interest in science and social theories. I hope they weren't all as unscrupulous, though, for he puts ambition and the making of his name above any concern for the individuals he uses as case studies.

It's a slow burn of a read, and to be honest, there were many times when I thought I'd give up on it, but I didn't, drawn in more, I think, by writing style than by concern for the characters. 

Maryom's review - 3 stars
Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - adult historical fiction

Thursday, 18 April 2019

The Disconnect by Keren David

We're all attached to our smart phones these days. Can you imagine going without yours for a day? How about a week?
When Esther's school year group are challenged to go without their phones for SIX WEEKS (!), she's torn. She needs her phone - to face-time her dad and sister in New York, to chat to her friends, for her meditation and mindfulness apps, to google information and directions. How can she survive without it? BUT, anyone who completes the challenge will receive £1000, and with that money Esther could go to New York, see her dad and sister again, and meet her baby nephew for the first time...  It's tempting ... if only she can manage without her phone ...

Keren David's latest novel for teens is an interesting look at how smart phones have become so indispensable in our everyday lives. Have they actually become an addiction though? Do we spend too much time checking out our friends' on-line updates, and not enough talking to them in real life? Without being 'preachy', the story raises some interesting questions.

Esther finds life really difficult without her phone. She misses being in on school gossip, worries about what might be going on, and what people are saying about her, but, as folk start to drop out of the scheme, she remains determined to stick it out till the end, and through the 'Disconnect' project makes friends who for one reason or another aren't part of her school on-line circle.

As one of Barrington Stoke's 'super readable' stories, The Disconnect is engaging and easy to read. While very definitely having a story-line aimed at teens, the writing is aimed to be accessible to reluctant and dyslexic readers. There are clever tricks of font size and style, page colour, and short chapters that help towards this, but, being engrossed in the story, you probably won't notice.

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - teenage/teenage reluctant readers 

Friday, 12 April 2019

I Owe You One by Sophie Kinsella

review by Maryom

When Fixie Farr saves a stranger's laptop from certain destruction, he, Sebastian, is so grateful he scribbles her an IOU. Does he really intend her to take it up? Certainly, Fixie treats it as a joke, until former boyfriend Ryan re-enters her life down on his luck, and she decides she has the perfect way to help him by taking up Sebastian's offer. 
Fixie is known in her family for being able to solve any problem. Show her something wrong, and she can't help but try to put it right. The only thing she can't seem to fix is her own life.

This is another enjoyable rom-com from Sophie Kinsella. It's an easy, light read; comforting in its familiarity as the story-line progresses from meet-cute, through various troubles and misunderstandings, to happy-ever-after. 
Fixie is similar to many of Kinsella's heroines - naive, gullible, put-upon and manipulated by family and friends, and too easily taken in by a guy's handsome appearance - but one I quickly sided with. The guys seem to polarise between kind-hearted good guy and irritating manipulators, and none of them seem to really appreciate Fixie's charms or intelligence. All of this is, again, par for the course with rom-coms, but familiar and comforting were what I was looking for when I picked this up, and this soothing predictability worked its charm on me.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Genre - adult fiction, romcom, 

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad by Saviour Pirotta

review by Maryom

Since his father died, thirteen year old Jabir has become responsible for looking after his family, but, try as he might, he just can't catch fish the way his father could, so money for food and rent is short. Jabir decides the best thing is to seek work in the bustling city streets of Baghdad, but, arriving there tired and hungry, he steals a loaf and is arrested. Maybe he isn't quite as out of luck as he imagines as this leads to his wood-carving skills being noticed, and he's given a job by a clock-maker. Jabir is set the task of carving twelve horsemen, which will be gilded, and form part of an elaborate clock to be sent from the Grand Caliph Harun al Rashid to the Emperor Charlemagne in Europe. Someone, though, seems determined to sabotage his hard work. Can Jabir, with the help of the clock-maker's daughter Yasmina, found out who it is, and stop them?

Set in 798 CE, at the height of the Islamic Golden Age when Baghdad was a world-famous centre of learning and art, The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad is a compelling adventure story, in which a poor fisher-boy heads to the city looking for ways to support his family but is thwarted by the evil plans of someone with a grudge against his family. The story moves along quickly, and the reader will soon find themselves holding their breath and urging Jabir on as he encounters one set-back after another.

Aimed at Key Stage 2, children of seven and over, this book is part of Bloomsbury Education's Flashbacks series which aims to bring history (particularly the periods covered by the National Curriculum) to life for young readers. As such, it's a great introduction to the Islamic Golden Age, to the sights and scents of Baghdad's streets and workshops, and the perils of the desert which surround it, but, with vivid story-telling and characters that children can relate to, it's easy to forget that this is part of a history lesson.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Genre - historical fiction, 7+, Key Stage 2