Monday, 30 March 2015

The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

Bryant & May (12)

Review by The Mole

After yet another banking scandal there are rioters on the streets of London. It's Halloween and a man sleeping rough on the streets is burned to death when he is caught in the crossfire between police and rioters... except close examination of CCTV footage raises doubts as to the accuracy of this explanation.

The next day another man dies horrifically, and once again fire is involved but in a totally different form. Using his network of eccentrics, psychics and cranks, Bryant deduces that this will not stop but that there will be one death a day and the race is on to catch the culprit.

As in all good novels there is more than just one theme going on and here we witness interdepartmental wrangling, private lives being devastated, and the onset of a form of Alzheimer's disease in Bryant. Amidst all of this is humour. Not slapstick belly laughs - but one line short laughs that don't diminish the story but greatly enhance the reader's enjoyment.

Previously I have read and reviewed "The Water Room" and "The Invisible Code", both of which I enjoyed immensely but this one is even better still. The only bit I struggled with was when Bryant described this case as his Swan Song and turned his back on May... PLEASE don't do this to us poor readers - he has to able to keep order in London for a few more books! Please?

Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction,  crime mystery

Friday, 27 March 2015

Christopher Fowler - Author Contribution

Today we welcome Christopher Fowler, author of (amongst other things) the Bryant and May crime novels, to the blog. The latest book, The Burning, was published yesterday and we will be posting our (dare I say "glowing"? Yes.) glowing review on Monday 30th March. If you can't wait then checkout "The Water Room" and/or "The Invisible Code".

We see authors discussing PD James's "10 rules for writing" frequently across social media and here Christopher shares his views.

Phyllis Dorothy James was, without doubt, the grande-dame of crime writing, and issued her top ten tips for writing novels. It's heresy to contravene the rules, but what worked for PD James was clearly not what works for every aspiring or professional author.

1. You must be born to write

James says 'You can't teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully.' Not everyone has the benefit of supportive parents or a good education. Much as a brilliant chef may grow up in a home where no good cooking is ever attempted (Nigel Slater wrote about this in his elegant memoir 'Toast') a writer can be taught to understand the beauty of words. You must be born with a curiosity about the world and its people. How that curiosity is shaped depends on a good teacher, nurture, opportunity and passion, not birthright.

2. Write about what you know

Many of us believe in writing about what we don't know. We write what we hope, we dream, we love and fear. You can learn what you need to know easily enough. HRF Keating started the Inspector Ghote novels without ever setting foot in India. Many crime writers have set their stories in California without going there, and what about historical crime? We understand human emotions, but we make a lot up - it's called fiction.

3. Find your own routine

Life is changing fast. Routines are a luxury few of us now have. Write when you can, where you can - that's all. But write regularly. And don't break the three-day rule (when working on a novel, never leave it longer than three days without writing).

4. Be aware that the business is changing

Yes, but you're writing something that will always be needed - a story. And that doesn't change though all the formats and selling systems around it do. We should concentrate for the main part on what we’re good at, the words, and let others help decide how, when and where they will be sold, or we end up becoming the harassed, endlessly networking business managers of our own livelihoods.

5. Read, write and don't daydream

This is possibly the worst advice imaginable. Without space and air and light and calm, those lacunae of everyday life, there is no imagination, and the ideas can't form. I could sit and produce dull prose, or spend a day wandering around a city and come back with my head filled with plots, characters, consequences, dialogues.

6. Enjoy your own company
Safe advice, but the most productive time I ever spent was in a cramped office with four other very noisy writers. Do what's best for you. Only the thinking-out part has to happen inside your lonely head.

7. Choose a good setting

This is the point I most agree with. Without a clear plot location, stories often feel empty and unformed. Although I'd mitigate it by pointing out that two of the greatest short stories, Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' and Alberto Manguel's 'Seven Floors' have no time or place attached to them at all.

8. Never go anywhere without a notebook

It's a good idea, but now that just means carrying a phone, iPad or electronic device, which you probably already do.

9. Never talk about a book before it is finished

No, no, no! If you stay silent and only seal it inside you, you'll never iron out the improbabilities. Talk to a friend, discussing the book in natural conversation and I swear you'll quickly come to spot all of its faults before the other person has said a single thing. You need a real-world sounding board for something that has only lived in your head.

10. Know when to stop

Talent of Ms James' stature probably allowed her to circumvent this, but unfortunately most publishers specify length of works in their contracts and ask us to pump up the word count accordingly.

The days of writing as a higher calling are over; we write on the fly, as we can, talking to everyone and anyone, as part of world society, not in a room with a desk and a view. Those days are over. For better or worse, the information age has changed the way we write for good.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Shore by Sara Taylor

review by Maryom

The Shore is made up of a group of islands sitting off the coast of Virginia; the Atlantic Ocean to one side, calmer waters and marshes to the other. Their story is told through the lives of several generations spanning 200 years - often a violent story of domestic abuse, drug-addiction, murder and rape but mixed in with magic and hope, all set against the backdrop of windswept beauty.

 I'm not certain whether to refer to The Shore as a novel or a series of related stories - it's difficult to pin down and really a bit of both. Events don't unfold in chronological order but jump backwards and forwards along the timeline - the earliest story being set in 1876, the latest in 2143; the latter gives a clue that this isn't just another family epic, but moves on into a speculative future. The islands themselves have a story to tell - at first a remote place, inhabited by the few remaining native Americans, then discovered as a resort for the wealthy, before declining into poverty. The islands both attract and repel - for some they're a safe haven, for others a trap - but throughout their physical presence dominates - the marshes and creeks, fields of corn and potatoes, sandy dunes and oyster shell roads, the long line of tide breaking on the outer islands. Against this backdrop the lives of various generations play out, each holding the spot light for a short while as part of an ongoing family epic;  children are born, bargains are struck, a little weather magic worked, houses are built then crumble with time.
The connection between each chapter isn't immediately obvious and I found this rather a challenging read, as I tried to keep all the inter-family relationships straight in my head while jumping about in time. (There is a family tree at the beginning which probably makes this much simpler, but I couldn't read it on my kindle!) It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, and now knowing how the whole fits together, I think a re-read will turn up lots of things that I missed first time through and make all the pieces fall into place.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - William Heinemann
Genre - Adult fiction,

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

review by Maryom

On a late summer's day the residents of a street in the north of England are going about their daily routines. Nothing special is happening - a man is painting his windows, two boys are playing cricket, a toddler rides his tricycle up and down the street, an elderly couple celebrate their anniversary - the sort of things that make up any average day...then something happens, a terrible thing which leaves its mark on all who witnessed it.
A few years later one of the young women from the street is trying to face up to some unexpected, disturbing news but her thoughts keep getting dragged back to that fateful day....

I picked this up from the library as the author is going to be appearing at a local book festival - and I was stunned! I just don't know how I haven't discovered this wonderful book, or in fact any by this author, before.
It opens with an over-view of the anonymous city, with passages that read like poetry, then zooms in one street as its inhabitants go about their daily lives, focussing on all the little things that make up a day - all rather like Under Milk Wood.
The reader's told quite early on that something dreadful occurred on this specific day - but the actual details are withheld, and I had the feeling that the author was teasing me with possibilities - would something happen to the elderly couple catching the bus? the man making a charity bungee jump? the toddler on his trike? When the tragedy occurred, it wasn't what I was expecting.
These events alternate with the (presumably) present day, as the young woman copes with another life-changing event, explores her relationship with her parents, meets a new guy - but all of these things are still marred by the past.

A curious feature is that barely anyone is named but referred to by gender and house number, underlining the fact that, like so many of us, the inhabitants of this street don't really know their neighbours. It also serves to make the characters more universal - they're all people we can identify with, maybe even like some people we know - and that's what this book celebrates; the everyday captured and turned into something special.

The good thing about discovering this book so very late, is that the author has had time to be writing more - so it's time for another trip to the library!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Bloomsbury Publishing

Genre - adult literary fiction

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

review by Maryom

Anna is an American ex-pat living in Zurich with her Swiss husband and three young children - their life should be as picture-postcard perfect as the scenery around her, but to Anna everything seems empty and meaningless. Her relationship with husband Bruno has deteriorated to passing each other at meal-times, she has no friends and after nine years in the country still feels like an outsider. While Bruno suggests that a therapist may help, Anna mainly plays word games during her sessions and tries to avoid what lies at the root of her problems. In her newly-joined Swiss-German language class, Anna finds a better source of distraction, meeting Scotsman Archie and rapidly embarking on an affair. Archie, though, is not her first lover but just a step in a series of increasingly meaningless sexual encounters, and gradually Anna's life spirals out of control....

 In the age of equal-opportunities, Anna's somewhat of a rarity - a stay-at-home mother and housewife, neither of which roles seem to particularly appeal to her. She seems to deliberately isolate herself still further by her dependence on her husband and mother-in-law - she's never learned to drive, in nine years hasn't bothered to learn the language of her adopted home so can't make friends easily with the school-gate mums, and she doesn't even have a bank account! Her attitude contrasts sharply with that of new arrival in the country, Mary, who quickly signs up for a language course, busies herself around the house with domestic projects - baking and sewing -  and volunteers at her children's school.

The story is an intimate portrayal of a woman whose life is unravelling but it's hard to sympathise with Anna because she not only doesn't appreciate the good things of her life - caring husband, comfortable home, happy, healthy children -  but seems to actively be putting them at risk. There's a little bit of Anna Karenina and a lot of Emma Bovary about Anna but whereas both of these women were trapped by the attitudes of their time, this Anna seems to deliberately go out of her way to create a cage. She seems to judge her worth solely by how much she's loved - and if love fails, then by how much she's desired sexually.

Did I enjoy the book? well, up to a certain point the reader's learning about Anna, her back story and current circumstances, with the story unfolding through several threads - her home life, her meetings with therapist Doktor Messerli, her liaison with Archie - all of this I enjoyed; it's well written, a bit of a page-turner as I wanted to find out the secret Anna was hiding from everyone and at this stage Anna had my sympathy. But part way through, perhaps due to the similarities with Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, the ending becomes inevitable and obvious, and the story's grip on me slackened.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher -
Mantle (Panmacmillan)

Genre - adult fiction, sexually explicit,

Monday, 23 March 2015

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

review by Maryom

Harry Cane is in a mental asylum, his memories damaged by overwhelming grief and the barbaric treatments common in the early twentieth century. Fortunately, before any lasting harm is done, he's transferred to another institution, liberal in outlook, idyllic in setting, where the doctor follows a quieter, progressive regime of encouraging patients to talk about their past and re-encounter the trauma that led to their incarceration ....
Harry was living a quiet, gentlemanly, suburban life in Edwardian England till an indiscretion brought it to an abrupt end. To cover up any possibility of scandal, he was forced to leave his wife and child, and strike out on his own - the further away the better being basically the sentiment of his brother-in-law. His imagination fired by the chance sighting of a display encouraging emigration to the newly-settled lands of the Canadian prairies, Harry found himself leaving his comfortable life behind and heading west... not quite in search of his fortune but certainly looking for a place to build a new life, to come to terms with himself and his newly awakened sexuality.

There's always something romantic about tales of taming the wild frontier, of striking out into unsettled lands, of being the first person to break the land and settle there - and this was what drew me to this story initially - but alongside the physical journey into the Canadian wilds is an emotional journey of self-discovery.  In England Harry was pretty much a drifter - the fortune amassed by his father gave him a soft, privileged lifestyle, never needing to work; he drifted into marriage and fatherhood, and drifted in the same way into an illicit relationship. As Harry leaves his well mannered, comfortable life behind, he starts to grow and change - he learns the value and satisfaction of hard work, of, at the end of each day, being able to look at what he's achieved, becomes more comfortable with who he is, and less open to exploitation.
A Place Called Winter is a quiet, mostly undramatic but immensely moving book, based loosely on events from the author's family history. The story is told mainly through Harry's reminiscences but they alternate with scenes from his present time in the asylum, so the reader is constantly reminded that this pleasant, well-mannered man has at some point broken and done something considered worthy of incarceration; as the tale unfolded and Harry found happiness in his new home and unorthodox relationship with fellow settlers, siblings Petra and Paul Slaymaker, I was all too aware that somewhere tragedy was waiting - always lurking in the background is the sinister figure of Troels Munck, who helps Harry get set up in Canada, who both fascinates and repels, and who you know is someday going to be demanding pay-back. I so wanted a happy ending for Harry, but felt it would be impossible.

A novel that's both epic, as it moves from urban London to Canadian frontier, and intimate, as Harry's personal emotional journey unfolds, I loved it when I first read it at the end of last year, and, having waited so long to review it, I decided to sneak in an extra read last week - it hadn't lost any of its appeal or ability to hold me, even though I knew how things would pan out; the mark to me of an excellent book!

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

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Wasp or a very sweet power by Ian Garbutt

review by Maryom

Disgraced governess Bethany Harris has been hidden away in The Comfort House - a madhouse in all but name - by her employer to avoid scandal. Expecting to never leave its hellish cells, she's surprised to be 'rescued' and taken to The House of Masques, an elite escort agency that specialises in sophisticated girls, trained in the social graces, for company at dinner, afternoon tea or even a walk in the park. Here Bethany finds a community of lost and fallen women governed strictly by the Abbess, and her two male assistants, former doctor The Fixer and escaped slave Kingfisher. The Abbess's hold is starting to slip though with age and others are trying to turn the affairs of the House, with its unique access to politicians and businessmen, to their own advantage....

Set in an anonymous mid eighteenth century city, Wasp is a tale of the demi-monde world of courtesans and prostitutes, exploring the contradiction of their lives - that while the women are highly desirable accessories, conferring a certain social status on their 'employers', they would never be allowed to share their lives.

I hadn't quite known what to expect when I started reading but soon found myself rather enjoying it. It's not a quick-paced read but rather a slow mulling over of things which drops in and out of the present to uncover the past lives of these girls and the men that supervise them; the plot really seems subordinate to an exploration of personalities and motives. All of the characters have been damaged by life and circumstances, and the House of Masques in part offers a refuge and a place to heal, even as it 'trades' in the girls as a business commodity.

The ending led me to wonder if the stage was being set for a sequel - I'd certainly be interested in reading a further chapter of Bethany's life.

Maryom's review - 4 stars  
Publisher - Polygon 
Genre - historical fiction