Tuesday, 3 March 2015

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

 review by Maryom

In 1867 after several years of failed harvests, a great famine descended on Finland, threatening the lives of all but the wealthiest. As winter takes hold, Marja's husband lies dying of hunger. Realising that if they remain on the farm, both her and the two children will die too, Marja leaves him and heads south towards St Petersburg where, rumours say, there's bread for all. Others are on the road too, a rag-tag hoard of beggars desperately seeking aid, and not all places are welcoming to starving travellers. Moved on from one place to another, Marja refuses to give up hope but keeps doggedly plodding on.
Meanwhile in the city, life goes on much as it always did - senators squabble over whose plan is the best to deal with the crisis, the rich refuse to help out, and Teo, a doctor, continues his work among the taverns and brothels of the seedier districts.
A chance meeting of Teo and Marja on the road leads to the first signs of hope....

White Hunger is a tale of endurance and hope. Marja's determination to continue despite the odds stacked against her, her constant belief that one day they will reach their goal and it will welcome them with open arms and full baskets of bread, is inspiring but heart-rending as her quest seems doomed from the start. Living hand to mouth, relying entirely on the kindness of strangers, her spirit seems indomitable even though starvation causes her mind to wander and her body to collapse. The reactions of the people she meets en route are understandable - everyone is suffering from the famine and, unless you're among the cosseted wealthy classes, to give even the smallest amount of bread or gruel to a beggar, may mean your own death.
Teo's experiences are different. Living in the city, he's comparatively sheltered from the dire effects of the famine, but he comes to realise that the problem of beggars roaming the countryside in search of food can't be solved by those like himself who have little real understanding of the plight of the people - a situation seen today in the attitudes of governments towards the poor and refugees.

It's a story that takes the reader to unknown places - with our centrally-heated houses and shop-bought food we're hardly likely to encounter such conditions, but the unrelenting frozen landscape slowly seeps into even the well-fed, armchair-snuggled reader's mind. I could easily imagine the frozen feet and hands, the soggy clothing, the tedium of taking to the road each day, the exhaustion at the end of it.
The story does end on a happier note with the return of warmer days in Spring and the natural hopefulness that comes with it, but there's a feeling of a nation waking from a long nightmare and still being haunted by it.

As a slight aside - Although circumstances are very different I found a lot of similarity between Marja and Izolda, the heroine of Hanna Krall's Chasing the King of Hearts published by Peirene a couple of years ago. Both women show a determination to cling on to every last scrap of hope and persevere through adversities, even though their goal seems to move further and further away.

 Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press

Genre - Adult Literary Fiction, translated fiction 

translated from the Finnish by Fleur Jeremiah and Emily Jeremiah

Monday, 2 March 2015

The Beneath by SC Ransom

review by Maryom
One minute Lily is idly waiting for her Tube train to arrive, the next she's rescuing a girl from its path and being drawn into a hidden world that lies literally beneath her feet - for the rescued girl, Aria, is part of a community that lives concealed in the maze of tunnels and caverns beneath London. She's visiting the world Above seeking out one special person who can help to stop the evil plans of her community's leader - and that person is Lily.

The Beneath is the latest teen thriller from SC Ransom, author of the Small Blue Thing trilogy; a tense, compelling read, set in and below London, with an intriguing story-line centring on a community that for hundreds of years has been living underground. With the vast amount of tunnels, underground rivers and disused Tube tunnels burrowing underneath the city, who knows what may lurk beneath our feet? Lily isn't at first sure if she believes Aria's story of living underground in a society where there's very little free will and choice, and girls are seen as just 'breeders' of the next generation. But Lily soon moves from disbelief to a determination to help her new friend, which takes her, her friend Will and his faithful not-to-be-left-behind dog, Foggy, on a dangerous journey underground to confront the leader of this strange community and the 'crop' he grows to both protect and intimidate them.

Aimed at the eleven+/early teen age range, the story delivers a fast paced read to keep the reader gripped from start to finish. There's a little romance but the emphasis is firmly on mystery and action,with some really nail-biting moments.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Nosy Crow
Genre - 11+, fantasy adventure

Friday, 27 February 2015

Seed by DB Nielsen

Review by The Mole

The story is billed as "Twilight meets A Discovery of Witches" - neither of which I have read. The synopsis however had me interested:

Seventeen-year-old twins Sage and Saffron Woods who become embroiled in a thrilling quest when an artefact, long sought after, suddenly reappears in present day southern Iraq – a land long considered the cradle of civilization, ancient Mesopotamia. With its unearthing, a centuries-old conflict is reignited; a conflict that takes the sisters from the British Museum to Paris to the Vatican Secret Archives and the catacombs in Rome. In a race against time the twins discover not only deeply hidden secrets of the ancient world but embark on a journey of self-discovery and coming of age that uncovers their own passionate feelings for unearthly immortals.

With no "magic" and no vampires I was curious where the comparison came from.

The story is not truly about the twins, but about Sage, with Saffie sort of helping, supporting, defending and goading Sage onwards. The plot has huge potential in my opinion but sadly lacks an editor.

When Sage first meets Gabriel she becomes like a gushy, silly teenager - but one that is worse than I have ever seen, heard of or read of before. I started to get the opinion that this was not meant to be a normal very naive reaction by a teenage girl to a very attractive man - but that the author was trying to add another layer and an editor could have helped with that.

At other times we are rewarded with historical facts (I assume they are facts but I haven't checked them) and this kind of thing tends to happen frequently in modern "quest" thrillers - but here it felt like they were coming like machine gun bullets with little time for the reader to assimilate them in to order or relevance. Relevance? Yes,at times it felt like the author was showing off her knowledge - although this is probably unfair comment. Once again a good editor should have been able to assist.

RANT OVER! Putting those issues to one side, I did keep reading. Why? Because overall the book was entertaining, intriguing and had that something that holds the reader's attention.

By the end of the 400+ pages it seems that relatively little has happened except the development of the characters, Sage becoming more aware of her own role, and the development of the relationship - both personal and quest-wise - between Sage and Gabriel. But what of Saffie? And her parents? You can feel that there is something more going on with all of them. We don't end on a cliffhanger and we have made no real discoveries about artefacts or what to do with them - but still I read on.

This is a very good story that YA readers will enjoy - despite the complete absence of sex. (I hope that's not a spoiler.)

Publisher - LBLA Digital
Genre - YA fantasy

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Touch by Claire North

review by Maryom

Imagine that by taking hold of someone's hand, you could become them, could jump from body to body as you wished, and stay there for as long as you liked, from seconds to years. This is what 'Kepler' and others like him can do. Now someone has decided that it's time to stop him - but its easier to evade an assassin if you've some idea of who sent them and why. So begins a game of cat and mouse as Kepler tries to track down the person behind it, while trying to avoid those pursuing him.

This latest novel from Claire North is a mind-stretcher in the way that The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was. The author takes one of those throwaway 'just imagine' or 'what if' scenarios that we all have from time to time and weaves a compelling thriller around it - with Harry August, it was re-living the same life several times; with Touch it's being able to move from body to body.
The thriller aspect is fast-paced, action-packed, full of twists, turns and deviousness. It starts with the 'bang' of a murder and Kepler running for his life, and carries on at this breathless pace; as a game of hunter and hunted it's up there with the best of spy thrillers.
The sci-fi 'just imagine' aspect is well thought through, and gives the reader plenty to think about - the morality of being able to take over another person's body, with or without their consent; the impact such action has on both host and 'guest' - maybe it explains those minutes of forgetfulness that we all experience from time to time, maybe it accounts for long-term memory loss, but for the 'guest' there's the choice of taking over another person's life completely - almost cradle to grave - or of drifting from one host to another, never putting down roots, or having family and long-term friends. It has its advantages though - for a few short minutes, Kepler can be anyone he wants - football player, actress, president....

I loved Harry August but there's something just a bit more satisfying about Touch, making it a 'must read' whether you're a sci-fi lover or not.

Maryom's review - 5 stars

Publisher - Orbit
Genre - Adult, sci-fi, thriller

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

review by Maryom
The Death House is a children's home with a difference - all its inmates have been brought there to die. Identified as 'defective' by a blood test, they are forcibly taken from their families and brought to this house on a remote island. Now all they can do is wait, watched over by an uncaring Matron and her team of nurses and teachers. At the first signs of illness, children are whisked away to the sanatorium - from which there is no return.
As the oldest in his dorm, Toby has become something of a father-figure to the younger boys, helping them cope with anxieties while stifling his own emotions and hiding behind a shell of being 'hard'. He lives mainly in memories of the time 'before', doesn't mix much with the others and spends his nights rambling through the House alone. Then a new inmate arrives.....and changes everything. New girl Clara breathes new life into the Death House - her life may be limited but while there's still time, she wants to experience as much as she can - from climbing trees, or sneaking out of the grounds to falling in love. Under the influence of Clara, Toby learns to accept life, whatever terms it's offered on, and enjoy it while he can.

The Death House is, for want of a better description, a dystopian story of doomed love - and to be honest, it wasn't what I was expecting; I think I'd expected more of a thriller twist to events. A lot of the 'messages' contained within it are ones we can all relate to - embrace life while you can, don't let fears about tomorrow hinder what you do today - but overall it left me feeling uncomfortable.

 While I was reading, I was absolutely engrossed but even as I read the closing paragraphs I was starting to feel just a little let down. There's no explanation given for the mysterious illness or the necessity of quarantine; in retrospect it feels like the author had a good idea but didn't know where to take it. The direction it does go felt rather like a get-out and didn't satisfy me. My main criticism though would be of the underlying morals behind various events; there were several points where I wanted to step in and say "don't do that! You've not thought it through, it's just plain wrong!"

The strange thing is, I really enjoyed this story while I was reading - the setting and atmosphere are great, the characters believable, the growing romance tender and heart-warming - it's only thinking about it afterwards that I'm having reservations.

Maryom's review - 3.5 stars 
Publisher - Gollancz
Genre - Fantasy

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Hold The Dark by William Giraldi

review by Maryom

Wolves have been circling and stalking the remote Alaskan village of Keelut, and taken three young children. While some accept it as a painful fact of Alaskan life, Medora Slone, the mother of the third child, thinks differently. With her husband Vernon away with the US army, she decides to enlist the help of wolf expert Russell Core to track down the wolves and bring back the remains of her son. Core may be familiar with wolves but the snow-bound horizons of Alaska are completely alien to him - and he finds things far worse than wolves lurking around Keelut.

Hold The Dark attracted my attention as I'd just finished Cecilia Ekback's Wolf Winter a tale of wolves, snow and murder set in an isolated community in 18th century Swedish Lapland. This time the action is set in the bleak Alaskan winter, in another remote, insular community but in the present day. Beyond weapons and transport, modern life hasn't made a great impact on Keelut; it feels like a place outside of civilisation, a place with its own rules and laws, that still holds on to older ways and traditions, and that keeps its secrets closely hidden. But the horror that's about to be unleashed there is timeless and the swath of violence that spreads through this tiny community wouldn't seem out of place in a large city.
It's without doubt a gripping read, unfolding in unexpected ways with the ending proving as unexpected as you could want. Just occasionally I felt the author was trying a little too hard to impress with his writing style or technical knowledge, which jarred me out of the atmosphere, but for the most part I was fully immersed in both the 'otherness' of Alaska's barren landscape and the revelations of the story.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult Crime Thriller

Monday, 23 February 2015

Mainlander by Will Smith

 review by Maryom

 Jersey isn't a very large island, it's the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else and everything they're up to, where locals are apt to close ranks and incomers will always feel left out. Certainly schoolteacher Colin Bygate feels this way - and every time he gives his name, people know him for the Mainlander he is, and he feels it just a little bit more.
 When he first married a local girl, he fell in love with the place but now it's beginning to feel claustrophobic. Brooding over an argument with his wife, he interrupts a possible suicide attempt by one of his pupils, and although he drives the boy home, he then goes missing. Colin feels the matter should be investigated but neither the school nor the boy's parents seem bothered. Their unconcerned attitude strikes Colin as bizarre and, despite the risk to his career and marriage, he persists in trying to track down the boy.
 But Mainlander isn't just Colin's story. There's his dissatisfied wife Emma, flash hotelier Rob de la Haye, with whom she once had an affair, and Louise, who had a one-night stand with Rob, has now been dismissed from the hotel and is looking to add a little blackmail to her pay-off. Add to them a couple of petty crooks looking to make a quick buck on a cosy, crime-free island and you've got half a dozen plot lines crossing each other, coming together, moving apart, joining up again; sometimes quite comical, sometimes nail-bitingly tense.

The book's blurb concentrates on Colin so when the story started spinning in different directions, I was at first a bit wrong-footed and left wondering where the story had leapt to, but ploughing on I began to get a feel for it; it's almost like having several inter-related short stories unfolding at the same time - a bit like Love, Actually or Robert Altman's Short Cuts. This all of course makes it difficult to pin down what style of book this is or what it's about - comedy? thriller? incisive look at a troubled marriage? A bit of all, at one point or another.

There's always the risk as well with a multitude of storylines and characters that the reader might find some more interesting than others - I know I did. Both Colin's and Louise's stories held me more than the others, both ending in tense, dramatic circumstances. Rob, on the other hand, provided light relief, though with his obnoxious attitudes and total lack of  redeeming features, and I was just waiting for him to get his comeuppance.

You might be aware of Will Smith (the British version, not US) as actor and writer from The Thick of It, and this is his first novel, set far away from Malcolm Tucker and Whitehall politics. It's good, mainly well-written, though the dialogue is often better than the narrative and the action better than more introspective passages, and I'm intrigued to see what he will come up with next. I've hesitated and quibbled over the star-rating but gone for a slightly generous 4, as I feel it's a re-readable book.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher -
Fourth Estate
Genre - adult fiction,