Tuesday, 12 December 2017

I Killed Father Christmas by Anthony McGowan

illustrated by Chris Riddell

review by Maryom

Jo-Jo has annoyed his dad with an enormous list of  presents he wants for Christmas, and now his dad and mum are arguing. Despite hiding under his pillow, Jo-Jo can't avoid hearing them, especially when his mum says "You've killed Christmas". Although she's talking to his dad, Jo-Jo knows it's all his fault, and, with Father Christmas dead, it's up to him to make amends. He can't travel all round the world, but wearing his mum's red coat, and laden with pillowcases filled with old toys, Jo-Jo sets out to bring Christmas to his street at least.

 Anthony McGowan's words and Chris Riddell's illustrations join to bring this delightful, heart-warming seasonal story to life. While reminding us that Christmas is about loving and sharing, rather than the quantity or expense of the presents we receive, it's a fun read rather than an over-sentimental, cloying one.

One of Barrington Stoke's Little Gem series, it comes with all those dyslexia-friendly features you'd expect - cream paper, easy-to-read font, lots of pictures, and short, punchy sentences - but you'll probably be so wrapped up in the story that you won't notice them.

It's a perfect stocking-filler for young, capable readers, or a story you might choose to read to a younger child. Don't overlook the end-papers, though - there are Christmassy cracker-style jokes at the front, and a maze puzzle - can Jo-Jo and Father Christmas reach the parcels and deliver them? - at the back  ... and it explains how Father Christmas gets all those presents down all the chimneys.

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - children's picture book, early read, dyslexia friendly, 5-9, 

Friday, 8 December 2017

Year One by Nora Roberts

review by Maryom

Out shooting pheasants in the Scottish countryside, businessman Ross MacLeod inadvertently lets loose a deadly virus. Spreading at an alarming rate, it's barely any time before millions are dead, and the survivors struggling to hold the world together. The story follows three separate groups who leave New York, heading for the perceived 'safety' of less populated areas, trying to re-establish their lives there. So far, it's your average apocalypse tale, but there's a twist. Some of the survivors suddenly find themselves gifted with uncanny abilities - to see the future in a person's touch, or to move people and things, for example. Of course, these gifts don't pass un-noted - there are rumours of governmental, scientific or military departments imprisoning them to investigate and harness these talents, and lynch mobs roam the countryside looking to kill them. There's hope though for the survivors, particularly in the shape of three babies born at the height of the plague, and another conceived then.

Now, I'm generally up for a good apocalypse - from Twenty Eight Days Later or I Am Legend to Shaun of the Dead - and yes, they do generally all follow a pattern, with a group of lucky survivors struggling to re-build civilisation (or grab a pint down the Winchester) despite all the forces ranged against them, but Year One just didn't work for me. In part it was too similar to many novels that have gone before; on the other hand, the sudden appearance of paranormal abilities and the whole mystical aspect rather turned me off. I think if you've read /seen less apocalyptic fiction you'd find it more compelling, but as it followed the tried and trusted tropes associated with such stories, it failed to hold my interest. The ending too I found a bit of a  let-down - a lot of sub-lots abandoned as the novel followed one story-line, but these others may be re-visited as Year One is the first book of a planned trilogy. For my money, I'd go for Station Eleven by Emily StJohn Mandel or Micheal F Russell's Lie of the Land

Maryom's review -  3 stars
Publisher - Piatkus (Little, Brown)
Genre - adult post-apocalyptic fiction

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Coldmaker by Daniel A Cohen

review by Maryom

 In a world which is blazing hot, cold falls from the sky at night to be collected by the slave-class Jadans and used by the Nobles. One class live in luxury; the other in desperate need. The balance kept by a religion which reinforces the Jadans lower status.  In the city of Paphos though, things are changing. A young Jadan boy, Micah, has a knack for 'tinkering', making objects from salvaged rubbish. One night, out hunting for useful scraps, he sees an odd girl - a Jadan from her appearance, though not bent in submission as he and everyone he knows is, but walking tall and straight, as if she had as much right to as the Nobles. Is she in some way linked to the signs of rebellion appearing throughout the city? From his first glimpse of her, Micah's life certainly begins to change.

Coldmaker is a brilliant book. Well-drawn characters, a story-line which doesn't follow the expected path, gruelling heat that you can almost feel, and excellent world-building - for me, the stand-out feature of the book.
Firstly there are the weird climatic conditions that plague Paphos. I must admit I'd at first imagined the Cold that falls at night to be something like hail, but it turns out to be a more complex thing, capable of being stored in its natural state, kept as treasure, or used for both cooling water, buildings, and gardens, and powering the inventions that Micah makes.
Then there's the class system. The Nobles are in charge; the Jadans kept like slaves. A lot of dystopian novels have a similar set-up of a ruling class virtually enslaving the rest of the population, and I often wonder why the 'slaves' don't rebel. The clever bit here is the invention of a religious system in which the Jadans are considered the cause of the annihilating heat, therefore always 'unworthy' of the benefits of the Cold, and permanently subservient to the Nobles. Punishment is random and brutal, but, indoctrinated from an early age, the Jadans fear worse if they rebel. Micah has to take a psychological leap to understand that he won't be struck down for challenging the status quo, and I found his development fascinating.
At the same time, it's a compelling adventure, full of danger and tension, which doesn't pan out quite as I think you'd expect.

Crossing the boundaries of adult and young adult fiction, this is an excellent read for anyone looking for a new dystopian 'fix'.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre - YA/adult dystopian fantasy 

Friday, 1 December 2017

Class Murder by Leigh Russell

Review by The Mole

"With so many potential victims to choose from, there would be many deaths. He was spoiled for choice, really, but he was determined to take his time and select his targets carefully. Only by controlling his feelings could he maintain his success. He smiled to himself. If he was clever, he would never have to stop. And he was clever. He was very clever. Far too clever to be caught."

First of all, a confession. For the first time I have missed a Geraldine Steel out of the series so her current situation came as a surprise to me.

Demoted for the rest of her career and sent north to a new area she is once again working with Ian Peterson. A girl is murdered and the crime scene is clinically clean leaving the police almost nothing to go on. The case struggles on when a second murder is committed in the small rural area but there is almost nothing to link the crimes together. With the size of the population the only link seems far too tenuous to be substantial. Then the press find the link and start to make a story out of it. Then there is a third murder...

Russell has really returned to her roots with this story. We enter the head of the murderer without finding out 'why' and learn his cold, psychopathic thinking - and hating him more each time. Rooting for Steel and Peterson but we find Peterson wants to play 100% by the rules and do everything that's expected of him while Steel pushes her neck further and further out to the point...

Does their previous friendship have any real meaning anymore? Is Steel really now alone hundreds of miles from home?

Russell at her very best and Steel crying out to be turned into a TV series. I loved this book as much as any of the previous 8 out of 9 that I've read. I really can't wait for number 11.

Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult Crime Thriller

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Shakespeare's Ghost by Mary Hoffman

review by Maryom

Ned Lambert is a young actor with Will Shakespeare's company of players, The King's Men. In his teens, he's of an age to be moving from boys' parts playing women to 'proper' men's roles, and his future is looking bright. His attraction to Charity, the young seamstress who helps with the company's costumes, seems to be returned, Shakespeare himself has taken a shine to Ned and promised him a continuing place in the company, and he's even been noticed and befriended by Henry, the Prince of Wales. So, with all these things going right for him, why should Ned feel unsettled? Well, he's become entranced by a beautiful, mysterious woman, glimpsed fleetingly around the theatre. Could she really be, as she claims, a fairy drawn through from their world by her desire for Ned? Whoever she is Ned finds her irresistible, almost enough to leave his life behind and follow here where ever she leads. Talking his dilemma through with Shakespeare, Ned discovers Will too has been visited by the fairy folk, one of them returning frequently to inspire his writing. but are these other-worldly influences for good, or evil?

In Shakespeare's Ghost, Mary Hoffman takes the reader back to early seventeenth century London and the reign of James I, bringing to life  the wealth and privilege of the Court, the cramped, unsanitary housing of  'common' folk, and the make-believe world of the theatres. Over all Londoners though, no matter what their station in life, hangs the horrific threat of the Plague.
But although the backdrop is entirely realistic, against it plays out a story involving fantasy, other-worldly characters - the two aspects weaving together seamlessly, and maybe explaining Shakespeare's fascination with fairies and other paranormal creatures.

Although (without the reader realising it) there's a lot of social history to be picked up, this book is primarily an entertaining and engaging read, and a great way to persuade younger teens that Shakespeare isn't just that dull, dead guy whose plays you're forced to read at school. Ned is a character that I think readers will identify and sympathise with. A boy on the brink of manhood, forced to choose between a safe but possibly dull life with childhood sweetheart Charity, and one of seemingly impossible delight with Faelinn. Admittedly, the average person doesn't normally face such a choice but his dilemma reflects the more humdrum decisions we all have to make at times.

By pure coincidence, my previous read involved a young man being tempted by a strange, possibly other-worldly woman, and the one before that involved a young actor with Shakespeare's players, on the cusp of growing out of women's roles and taking on men's. How strange that this book combines both threads!

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - The Greystones Press 
Genre - teen historical fiction fantasy

Monday, 27 November 2017

Fool's Errand by Robin Hobb

 review by Maryom

My epic reading of Robin Hobb's fantasy continues, back to the world of Fitz and the Fool with Fool's Errand, the first of the Tawny Man trilogy.

15 years have passed since the ending of the Farseer trilogy, during which Fitz has grown from youth to adult, but his wolf,  Nighteyes, is now approaching old age - wit-bonding with Fitz has given him a longer life than that of a 'normal' wolf, but his years are definitely catching up with him. When the story opens, they're living a quiet existence in a cottage by the sea, content growing vegetables, keeping hens, and catching rabbits, letting events in the wider world pass them by. Things are about to change though, as the Farseer dynasty has problems  - the heir to the throne, Prince Dutiful,has disappeared just before he was due to be betrothed in a union of political necessity - and Fitz with his unique abilities is the only man to solve them.

I'm not going to say I didn't love the Liveship Trilogy but I DO love the Fitz and The Fool stories more; maybe because Fitz has grown from boy to man in the series; maybe because of his 'witted' bond with animals, particularly Nighteyes (I think most dog owners would love to have this bond and truly share the lives of their 'pets'); because of the odd and changing relationship he has with The Fool, particularly as Fitz seems to be not noticing something which is evident to the reader. Certainly, I didn't care about any individual from the Liveships stories as much as for Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool.
I'm glad I took time out to read the Liveships stories though, for they add in extra background to the dragons, the wider world outside the Six Duchies, and (treading carefully here for fear of spoilers) some of the characters who appear in both series.
Again, although ostensibly a fantasy adventure story, Hobb touches on wider matters  - the superiority that the 'unwitted' feel they have, and the hatred and fear with which they regard the 'witted', echo the divisions of race and religion you can sadly find almost anywhere in our 'real' world. I think this is what lifts her stories beyond the mass of fantasy novels. "Fantasy as it ought to be written" says the cover quote from George R R Martin, and you can't really argue with him!

Previously reviewed - Assassin's Apprentice (Farseer Trilogy, Book1)
                                    The Liveships Trilogy

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
 Adult fantasy

Friday, 24 November 2017

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

review by Maryom

Richard Shakespeare is at a difficult point in his acting career - too old to play female parts, and not sure if his current company of players will keep him on in men's roles, even though it's part-owned by his brother William. So when he hears of a possible opportunity at a new theatre, he's definitely tempted. But the competition between the playhouses of Elizabethan London is intense, and there'd be a price to pay for Richard's new position - stealing the script of his brother's latest play (the one set in Verona about star-crossed lovers...)

Now, I haven't read much of Bernard Cornwell's work, but this feels very different to the few Sharpe novels I've read, or to The Last Kingdom as seen on TV. There are no huge pitched battles, or even small skirmishes; it's more of a foray behind the scenes of the playhouses, taverns and palaces of sixteenth century London. It's a rather cut-throat world with playhouses willing to go to almost any lengths to draw the crowds in by staging something bigger, better, and newer than their opponents, and the theatrical community faces threats from outside as well - particularly from the Puritans, eager to see all such entertainments closed down. Cornwell brings it all wonderfully to life; the players with their rivalries and superstitions, the backstage peep at rehearsals for A Midsummer's Night Dream, the excitement of opening night or the dread of something going horribly wrong. To my mind, there's more than a touch of Shakespeare in Love about Fools and Mortals - not in the plot but in the representations of some of the characters, in the theatrical banter, and Will Shakespeare's as yet untitled work in progress  - but it's not a bad thing. In fact, I loved it.

As with the Sharpe novels, there's a blend of fact and fiction. The Lord Chamberlain's Men were a real acting company, and our hero, Richard, rubs shoulders with real historical figures - both actors - Kemp, Burbage, and of course William Shakespeare - and their noble patrons, including the Lord Chamberlain, a close relative of the Queen, and his family.

Generally it's a good, entertaining 'fun' adventure, with a little violence but not much. I'd say this counts as adult fiction, but if you have any teens struggling with Shakespeare at school, finding him and his plays too dull for words, give them this to read; it might just change their minds.

As I said above, Fools and Mortals is a new departure for Bernard Cornwell, and perhaps the first of a series. I hope so. 

Maryom's review - 4.5
Publisher - Harper Collins 
Genre -
 Adult historical fiction