Friday, 12 February 2016

Exposure by Helen Dunmore

review by Maryom

Simon Callington is an minor bureaucrat at the Admiralty, working with sensitive 'official secrets' documents though not at the 'top secret' level. He plods along as anyone might at any old office job, but then an old friend is hospitalised and calls on Simon to do him a favour....  which will land him in far more trouble than he can imagine. For, unknown to Simon, that old friend Giles has been passing secrets to the Russians, and the favour involves returning a 'top secret' file that should never have left the Admiralty offices. Before long Simone finds himself arrested on a charge of spying, and his wife Lily is left with three children to look after, the press hounding them and in fear of what may happen next.

Set in London in 1960, Exposure is an unusual spy-thriller - almost, I'd say, one for readers who don't normally like the genre. It's not about cloak and dagger secrecy, dead-letter boxes and coded messages but the human cost particularly to people who innocently get caught up in events. Giles' unfortunate accident behaves like a pebble thrown into a pond, though not only sending ripples out across it but raking up all the mud from the bottom too. For all three have secrets they've kept well-hidden; obviously Giles' espionage activities, but also Simon's relationship with him, dating back to university days, which if exposed could cause at least as much trouble for both of them; and for Lily, it's her secret struggle as a Jewish refugee from Germany, trying to fit in and become as English as possible but still holding a fear of authority and a gut feeling that the only person you can rely on to protect you, is yourself. Of the three, Lily turns out to be the strong one.
Giles is essentially a risk-taker and gambler, both professionally and personally, maybe even thriving on danger - but he's become sloppy over time and his past is about to catch up with him.
Simon is the sort of man who drifts through life and has things happen TO him, rather than make them happen. He drifts into an illicit love affair with Giles, drifts again into marriage and fatherhood, and now he's drifted unthinkingly into the middle of a spying scandal.
Lily though, following her mother's example, believes in taking things into her own hands. She isn't prepared to just rely on Simon's upper-class family to come to her aid but puts measures in place herself - and (without spoiling the ending I hope), it's fair to say that it's Lily's actions which save her, Simon and their family.

As an unusual twist on a familiar scenario, I really enjoyed this, and would definitely recommend to readers who normally shun the 'spy' genre.

 Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher -
Genre - adult, spy thriller, psychological thriller,

Monday, 8 February 2016

Journey to Death by Leigh Russell

Review by The Mole

When Lucy Hall is taken on a holiday to the Seychelles by her parents, after a break up with her boyfriend, events unfold that threaten the lives of both Lucy and her mother.

Lucy's mother goes missing very early in their holiday and neither Lucy or her father are convinced the authorities are taking her disappearance seriously enough.

Then events unfold that seem to be threatening Lucy's life but both her father and Adrian, someone she meets in the hotel they are staying at, try to convince her that the heat is making her hallucinate.

This book was certainly compelling and I enjoyed it immensely BUT... Yes, that is a big but. This is Lucy's first "outing" and Russell's other lead characters are both detectives. Detectives are allowed detective type thoughts and reasoning but Lucy is an innocent member of the public and I feel that Russell has yet to understand Lucy fully. At times naive to the point of an airhead, at others as strong as any character can be, at times using logical conclusions and at other times off in some fairy tale land somewhere Lucy has some maturing to do - and she will be a great character when she achieves it.

A new approach to thrillers for Russell and when it comes right it will be another great series but I say again - I did find it compelling and I did enjoy it immensely. Leigh and Lucy just need to go out for a few drinks together and get to know each other better.

Publisher: Thomas and Mercer Publishing
Genre: Crime Thriller

Friday, 5 February 2016

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

review by Maryom

For the patients at Sharston asylum, Friday evenings are special. The men and women, so carefully segregated the rest of the week, are allowed to meet in the fabulous ballroom at the heart of the building, to listen to music, to dance, to meet and behave as 'normal' people. In this unlikely setting, John and Ella meet, and fall in love. But participation is a treat reserved for the 'well-behaved', permission is given and withdrawn on the whim of the doctors, and not all of Ella's efforts to 'be good' can avoid the couple being parted.

For this her second novel, Anna Hope goes back to 1911, to a remote asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, for a story about finding love in the most unlikely place, a story in which human feelings clash with science and ambition.
The story unfolds from three points of view - those of John, Ella and Dr Charles Fuller. The reader is introduced to the asylum through Ella's eyes as she is first admitted - the reason for her incarceration is a fit of temper or despair at the mindless,monotonous drudgery of life at the mill where she works. In her frustration she breaks a window, and fights viciously with the men who try to restrain her, but while she expects to be arrested for her act, finding herself in a mental asylum comes as a shock. She soon realises that the only possibility of leaving lies through following her mother's advice 'be good'.
John is melancholy and depressed, but Ella opens up new possibilities for him, of love, freedom and hope.
Initially the regime at Sharston asylum seems progressive and comparatively enlightened - there's none of the electric shock treatment or cold plunge baths that I've read of elsewhere; perhaps those forms of treatment are reserved for the chronically ill who disappear to their own wing of the building unlikely to ever emerge. For those deemed 'acute' and therefore curable, rehabilitation consists mainly of a combination of strenuous physical work in the mornings and quiet reflective times in the afternoons when one of the younger doctors, Charles Fuller, has introduced the concept of playing the piano to calm his patients' anxieties. But the lives of the patients still depend entirely on the whims of the staff and doctors  - and as Fuller begins to feel these enlightened ideas leading him down what he sees as a slippery slope to depravity, he reacts by adopting a hostile, repressive attitude. Oddly, perhaps, as I felt no sympathy for him, Charles' character development was the most interesting of the three; from seeing his patients as people in need of solicitude and encouragement, he becomes eager to oppress them whenever possible, turning his feeling of self-hatred on to them.

I found Anna Hope's debut Wake moving and engrossing, and the Ballroom is too - but even better! The slow reveal of character, the balancing of a love story against the building of tension between John and Charles, the growing dread that in his role as doctor, Charles has the opportunity to enact revenge in the name of science and progress, all add up to a wonderful read. As with so many novels that I love, it can be read at various 'depths' - take it at its surface as a compelling read or seek out the underlying issues, both scientific and personal. I loved it, and I think it will be one of this year's 'must reads'.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult historical fiction,

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

review by Maryom 

A 30-something childless Japanese couple live quietly in the former guest-house to a large mansion-like property, till one day their life is intruded upon by a cat belonging to one of the neighbours. The cat, like all felines, has no sense of boundaries and belonging, and is happy to share its time between the two houses, eating, sleeping and generally making itself at home in both. Both husband and wife become quietly obsessed by the cat, watching her comings and goings, playing with her, and gradually it comes to fill a void that they didn't realise existed.

This was one of my book club reads, probably one I wouldn't have chosen for myself but reading is all about exploring new things as well as sticking to the familiar. I don't quite know what I was expecting - possibly a cross between Tom Cox's cat books, Talk To The Tail or Under The Paw, and John Grogan's Marley And Me - but this small volume wasn't at all like either of them.
 Narrated by the husband, the story tells how the cat turned up, how, despite not really being pet-lovers, they became enchanted by its ways, but as I read, I was unsure whether this considered itself as a novel or a memoir - it certainly reads very like the latter! - and somehow I just felt something was lacking. I often criticise stories that I feel are too much 'tell', and not enough 'show', and I think that was a big problem here; I could see how the cat came to feel like part of the couple's life, but I didn't feel for any of the characters. In part this may have been due to the translation, to American English, not British; some words jarred, and some of the phrasing and expressions seemed odd - so much so that at times I felt that I couldn't engage with the story. At other points, I wondered if the author had intended to be funny, but humour doesn't translate well, and I wasn't sure. 
It's an award-winner in Japan, and a best-seller in France and the US, so I think somehow, somewhere, I missed something. It just didn't grab me but I'm going to pass it on to my cat-loving neighbour and see how she feels.

Maryom's review - 2 stars
Publisher - Picador
Genre -adult, cats

Monday, 1 February 2016

Used to Be by Elizabeth Baines

Review by The Mole

This anthology of short stories is split into 2 - "What Was, What Is" and "What May Be".

The first collection is very much about the past: a car journey that is fraught with tension as a nervous passenger is bombarded with stories by a driver who may, or may not, be paying enough attention to the road; revisiting places of youth and trying to find things that were landmarks; infatuations of youth that are not what they seem; the death of a stranger that means nothing; the story of extended family and the tugs of love and resentment with in it; and a ghost story - or is it?

The second part  is about possibilities: an incident that causes a train to be late and some of the people affected by it; a woman reflects on a summer when she had to choose between safe boyfriend or risky artist; someone meets a person whose language she can't speak and questions what they want from them; what happens when someone starts falling over; when your career and life is going nowhere and there are choices to be made; a visit to the sea that leads to reflection on the future.

I found myself wondering where I had read stories so like a few of these before that it was distracting. Fortunately the acknowledgements in the back revealed all - Unthologys! That, in itself, says a great deal for the quality of the stories and writing in this collection. I am a huge fan of the Unthology collections and anyone who is part of any of those collections has to be worthy of a further read.

Each and everyone of these stories will give you cause to pause and think - and the last story is one of those "why did the author stop there leaving me to chose 'what next'" stories (possibly the worst way to end a book? Discuss).

A really great collection that you will enjoy, identify with, wish that worm hadn't got into your head - and each of these in equal measure.

Publisher - Salt Publishing
Genre - Adult fiction, short stories

Friday, 29 January 2016

Black Widow by Chris Brookmyre

 review by Maryom 

Diana and Peter didn't at first sight seem to be a couple made for each other - she was a skilled surgeon; he was the "IT Crowd" guy sent in to fix her pc - but somehow they hit it off and after a whirlwind romance married six months later. Another six months more and the dream is shattered when Peter dies in car accident.
Peter's sister Lucy isn't happy with the police's initial findings so she gets journalist Jack Parlabane to nose around and see what he can dig up, and meanwhile policewoman Ali, one of the first at the scene of the crash, begins to have her suspicions too. Suddenly things are starting to look black for Diana....

The story starts as Diana is on trial for murdering her husband, and is told through three threads, approaching from different angles - Diana's narration of her back story, the viewpoints of Jack and Ali. The public image of a fairytale romance is quickly eroded away as the reader discovers the reality behind it, but even so, are things as easily and simply explained away as it seems?

 I've long been a fan of Chris Brookmyre but oddly haven't read many of the Jack Parlabane series, so I don't know how typical this is, but to be honest I was a little disappointed. For starters, there was a lot less of the Fargo or Breaking Bad style black humour that I associate with Brookmyre, and then the plot's big reveals seemed visible from too early on (I don't want to give away spoilers but for anyone who's read it, then, yes, even that shocker at the end!) Despite that it was readable enough but more for the development of character, the insights into blogging and trolling on the internet, and the exposure of a web of lies and secrets, than for the whodunnit aspect.

 Maryom's review - 3.5 stars
Publisher -
Little, Brown
Genre -adult, psychological thriller

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Unthology 8 - Edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones

Review by The Mole

The "introduction" has a subtitle of "How To Unthology" and a most interesting piece it is. It is an extract of a talk that Ashley Stokes gave the London Short Story Festival. If you read it you will understand what you need to do to attract the attention of the editors to get your short story included. But, more importantly, if readers haven't Unthologised in the past then they will get a better understanding of why they should and what they have missed out on.

The collection commences with a fictionalised and shortened extract from the life of Edvard Munch and while I enjoyed this and was moved by parts of it It did sort of feel different to the normal selection.

We then move on to "Bye Bye Ben Ali" - a story of a deluded dictator which was extremely amusing and I did wonder, a few times, if the "dictator" was just a normal although deluded person.

With The Sculptor we start a series of short stories that follow relationships progressively from merely wondering "what if" and going further forward (or backward) through the relationship life cycle and how people can be stupid enough to throw themselves on the rocks for no good reason. My very favourite in this group has to be 10,000 Tiny Pieces.

Not Drowning But Saving is a fascinating concept and while it has been taken to a ridiculous extreme (hasn't it?) it is a story that carries more than a grain of truth - well worth a read for it's own sake. Lines In The Sand had a surprise in store - as do most short stories - but one that would make you pause and think...

As Understood By Women returned to the relationship theme but put a slant on it that was an interesting observation.

And finally.. A Beautiful Noise - an ageing music agent/promoter/publicist takes a nostalgic trip to a gig but his interpretation of people takes us back to The Sculptor.

Another excellent selection of stories by these master editors - but let's not forget that they are also selecting excellent authors work - that takes the reader on a journey across life. And in this case the "life" could be the reader's own.

I found this perhaps the most addictive Unthology yet and may yet have to join Unthologyholics Anonymous.

I have read the previous 5 books in the Unthology collection and you can read their reviews here:- Unthology 3, Unthology 4, Unthology 5, Unthology 6, Unthology 7

Publisher - Unthank Books
Genre - Adult short story anthology