Friday, 22 May 2015

Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

review by Maryom

Geralt de Rivia is a witcher, a man mutated by drugs, and trained in the tracking and killing of monsters. He travels the land, saving town and countryside from the ravages of these creatures, but believes that not all non-humans are harmful and that Man should learn to live alongside them rather than wipe them out. This collection of six stories tells of his adventures with dragons, mermaids, dryads, and the disgusting multi-limbed monsters that lurk in middens or under bridges waiting to prey on passers-by, along the way meeting up, and parting from, his sometime lover, the sorceress Yennefer, the bard Dandelion and 'his destiny' the child Ciri.

I always say I'll read anything providing the story and the writing are good, so I've never had any hang-ups about 'genre' but what I've found recently with fantasy is that it comes in massive chunks - a book of six or seven hundred pages which ends on a cliffhanger and turns out to be part of a trilogy or even longer series (and I don't just mean George R R Martin!). Here though it's in a form I love - short stories, each standing alone but part of a wider story arc - in this case all involving the Witcher, Geralt.
The stories all rattle along at a good pace, with sword fights and fearsome creatures a-plenty, but aren't just tales of fantasy and magic for the sake of it. Geralt finds himself in situations that explore all-too-human emotions and failings, from the very personal to wider social issues; destruction of environment or discrimination against and fear of outsiders are things that apply as much in 'our' world as in the Witcher's.

This collection ties in to a wider series of stories, novels and console games, and I'm now sufficiently intrigued that I want to read more of the series ......if only some of the games would play on my old PS2....

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - Gollancz
Genre - Fantasy
translated by David French

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Mourner by Susan Wilkins

Review by The Mole

Helen Warner is found dead on the banks of the Thames. It seems like a straightforward suicide - that's what the police want to think. Kaz Phelps, now living as Clare O'Keefe under the witness protection program in Glasgow, doesn't want to think that her ex-lover could have committed suicide and is out to prove she didn't - so is Julia Hadley, Helen Warner's partner.

Julia enlists the help of SBA, a security and private investigations company, to establish the truth behind Helen's death. Nicci Armstrong, the police officer responsible for Kaz having to enter the witness protection program, was forced into early retirement and is now employed by Simon Blake, the owner of SBA and also the victim of political machinations within the Met.

And so the hunt is on for the truth behind Helen's death - a death the police are anxious to sweep under the carpet. Then Joey, Kaz's psychopathic brother, kills a policeman and escapes jail to become another factor in the investigation. Can Julie and Kaz get justice or will they settle for revenge?

Let the mayhem begin.

This book picks up the story two years on from The Informant and it does it rather seamlessly. Within the first book blood letting was rife and when the last page came, although I enjoyed it immensely I was glad to take a break into something less violent. I picked The Mourner up with a little trepidation but while the pace is just as fast the violence is less prolific. Sequels are frequently not quite as good as the d├ębut but here I can honestly say that I found it even better.

We continue to pick up the back story of several of the characters and meet again characters that had a lesser role in The Informant and learn a little of their back story. Each of the characters really came to life for me, and both Kaz and Nicci, neither of whom I really liked in the first book, became almost friends to me. Their back stories continued to be filled in and other characters - some from The Informant and others new to us - start to get their stories built.

The trail of evidence followed felt logical and the investigation developed in a sensible way - but with the police against them could they ever make a real difference? When the full extent of involvement in Helen's death becomes apparent the reader starts to realise that this probably won't end in a court case but will there be any form of justice?

As I turned the last page there were so many questions left unanswered that I knew there would have to be a third book - but will there also be spinoffs as characters disappear across the world or will they come back together (well at least those that lived through) to book 3.

A fantastic story but be sure to start with The Informant as this very much builds on it. But maybe one day it would be nice to read the prequel?

Publisher - Pan Macmillan
Genre - Adult fiction, crime thriller

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

All This Will Be Lost by Brian Payton

review by Maryom

April 1943 - grieving for his brother lost over the English Channel, unable to enlist himself, journalist John Easley takes it upon himself to uncover the true facts about a war taking place much nearer to his own doorstep - the invasion of the Alaskan Aleutian islands by the Japanese, an event which the US military want to keep quiet. To this end, he hitches a lift out on a bombing run to the Japanese occupied island of Attu - When the plane is shot down he and one of the crew of six are the only survivors. They've heard the rumours about how the Japanese treat their prisoners and neither want to surrender to them, but the chances of surviving in the inhospitable landscape are slim, almost to the point of non-existence.

Meanwhile back home in Seattle, his wife Helen begins to worry over John's prolonged absence. While 'regular' forces wives are informed of their husbands' fate, there's no one to send news of a missing unofficial reporter. Desperate for news of him she determines to follow him north, the only way she can - by signing up for a forces entertainment troop. She knows she's unlikely to find John or even anyone who's heard of him but she needs to do something, anything, rather than sit and wait.

All This Will Be Lost is a war story with a difference - set in an almost unheard-of war zone, the remote Aleutian islands, which stretch across the Arctic from Alaska to Russia like stepping stones, it's a grim tale of survival against the odds, of grit and determination, of very personal battles and hoping against all the odds.
John is battling for his very survival - although it's 'spring', the weather only moves between snow and fog, there are neither trees nor bushes for shelter or fuel, and the Japanese are encamped just over the next ridge. The two men end up in a cave, surviving on shellfish and an occasional seabird, raiding the Japanese camp despite the obvious risk but growing bolder as their situation becomes more perilous. As he comes close to starvation, John finds himself making difficult choices about what might be considered 'food', choices the reader may not agree with.    
Helen's story is less extreme but her life so far has been cosy and sheltered. Empowered by circumstances, she's forced to step out of her comfort zone, and take on a role for which she feels totally unsuited. I got the impression that even asking questions of strangers was something so completely out of character for her that undertaking this journey required tremendous amounts of courage on her part.

The islands themselves form a third party to this story - windswept and bleak, but with a fragile beauty that is being trampled upon by the opposing armies. Their inhabitants have been forcibly removed, their villages abandoned and make-shift airfields and army bases taken their place. In the way of much fiction, it had me spiralling away and wanting to know more about the background - about this sector of WW2, about the islands themselves and their inhabitants, so summarily evacuated from their homes.

In case this all sounds familiar, this story has previously been published under the title The Wind Is Not  A River.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Pan Macmillan

Genre - Adult, war stories, WW2,

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Kate Atkinson - author interview

Kate Atkinson's latest novel, A God In Ruins, takes us back to the world created in Life After Life, but this time seen from the perspective of Teddy, bomber pilot, husband, father, grandfather. Having read and loved it, I was delighted to be able to pose a few questions about it......and Jackson Brodie...

At the heart of A God In Ruins lie Teddy's wartime experiences, they change him and his life forever.  What led you into this area of fiction, a war novel?
“The novel I wrote before [Life After Life ed.] was also a war novel, and I knew that this one would be too.  Right back in Behind The Scenes at the Museum there were chapters set during World War II and I knew I wanted to write more. I think I was always working my way towards this novel but I was never ready, and luckily I was ready for it when I started to write! But war is such a huge subject, it sounds terrible but it is also a gift to an author in the way that tragedy is a gift to an author, we feed off misery in a way. Also in war there are so many stories of so many different kinds that some of them, I think, need retelling through fiction.” 
Teddy's author-daughter Viola makes a drunken side-swipe at the fact that writing a novel about war would make critics see her in a different light, as a 'serious' author. Do you think women's writing is trivialised and overlooked by reviewers, critics and even the readers?
“I am here paraphrasing Joss Whedon (Buffy the vampire slayer) who said ‘the very fact that you need to ask that question, is the answer’.
How did you go about research? Reference books could give you the details of bombing raids or casualty statistics but how did you find out what it felt like actually be in a Halifax bomber, let alone flying over enemy territory? 
“I did read a lot of factual books but I also read a lot of first-hand accounts and they’re a great way into understanding what it was like.  I love recreating atmosphereI also have an imagination, of course.”
You've described A God In Ruins as a companion piece to Life After Life - are there any more stories to be found within the world of the Todds? 
“Well, I would like to write about the Todds every day of my life, a kind of soap about Fox CornerI think I may have mined that seam though. I would quite like to write a book about Maurice (Teddy’s older brother) because he’s so hated, but maybe that would be rather tedious. I think that if I live long enough, I’d like to write a book about the Shawcross sisters, who are not strictly Todds but who very much inhabit that world.”
And, just a little off piste, are we likely to see a return for Jackson Brodie in the near future? 
“Not in the near future (I don’t think) but I do have another Jackson Brodie in me. I don’t think it will be just yet.”

Thank you Kate for such interesting responses - and I, for one, would be delighted to read more about the Shawcross sisters.

Maryom's reviews ; A God in Ruins,
                             Life After Life,  
                             Case Histories (Jackson Brodie Bk 1)

Monday, 18 May 2015

The D'Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn

Review by The Mole

Jinx D'Evil is Lucifer's son but he's not very good at being evil. In fact that's his problem he keeps being good and not evil. When he is given an instruction - by his dad or anyone else - he does it to the best of his abilities! His dad decides he will join the army but he cannot stand this idea so he runs away and discovers a plot to overthrow Lucifer and invade heaven. Inept and incapable as he is he has to stop this from happening but he has help in the form of a dead (although human) girl who shouldn't be in hell anyway because children aren't permitted.

Very funny but also very clever, this book had me thinking and I'm sure young readers will be laughing but also contemplating about the nature of evil at the same time.

Demons and monsters of every shade of colour and horror abound as Jinx blunders across hell, each new one encountered is a new opportunity for mayhem and laughs.

Easily read with a hero who is good at nothing and an unlikely heroine who saves his bacon time and time again this book has something for any child who enjoys a laugh.

Publisher - Orchard Books
Genre - Children's humour, fantasy adventure

Friday, 15 May 2015

Pike by Anthony McGowan

 review by Maryom

The Bacon Pond is known for the killer pike that lurk in the depths - they're even said to attack unwary swimmers! At least, these are the tales that Nicky tells to his big brother Kenny. What they're about to discover on a fishing trip there will put even the wildest tales of man-eating pike to shame - lurking just below the surface is the body of a local criminal Mick Bowen, and on his pale, stick-like hand, glitters the gold of a Rolex watch. Nicky thinks of the watch's value, of all he could do and buy with that kind of money, of how he feels Mick Bowen owes him and his family for causing trouble for his dad, and of how, if Mick Bowen's already dead, taking the watch can't be stealing.....can it?

The aim of publishers Barrington Stoke is to get children and teens reading by offering them stories that they can't put down, in a format to entice the reluctant, struggling or dyslexic reader - and Pike certainly lives up to that aim. First and foremost, it does what all books should - engage and entertain the reader.
Readers of McGowan's Carnegie longlisted Brock with be familiar with brothers Kenny and Nicky, and here they are back in a hunt for sunken treasure - well, at least, fishing a dead man's watch out of the pond. Their dad has banned them from swimming in the pond, which saves them from having to face the killer pike, but without swimming or use of a boat how can they reach the watch? Sometimes you'll laugh, sometimes you'll be on the edge of your seat, as Nicky finds himself enticed into doing things that he knows are a little bit stupid; normally Nicky has to look after Kenny, but this time it's Kenny who comes to his aid.

Would I call it a thriller? Maybe - it's certainly got the tense 'what will happen next - will he make it or will he get caught?' feel of one, with some nice twists and turns at the end. Add to that a couple of moral dilemmas for Nicky to work through (and a swipe at the 'close the libraries' attitude of so many councils) and there's plenty to engage the reader and leave them with food for thought.

A brilliant read for any teenager..

..... and in case I haven't convinced you, you can read the first chapter here on the Barrington Stoke website

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - teenage/teenage reluctant readers

Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Star of Istanbul by Robert Olen Butler

review by Maryom 

It's 1915 and American war correspondent Christopher Marlowe "Kit" Cobb is being sent to war-torn Europe with a double mission - to send back exciting copy for his newspaper, but also to do a little spying on the side - after all, no one's going to think twice about a nosy reporter asking questions are they? Sailing on the Lusitania, Cobb's instructions are to keep track of Walter Brauer, a German-American, an expert in Islamic studies lecturing at King's College in London and suspected German spy, but he soon finds himself distracted by the charms of movie-star, Selene Bourgani. Bourgani is as enigmatic as she is beautiful, and seems to have links to Brauer and possibly even be working with him. As Cobb follows the pair to London and on into Europe he uncovers a plot that could change the whole course of the war.....

The Star of Istanbul is a thrilling spy adventure set in the early part of World War 1, before the US involvement so Cobb is able to travel fairly freely throughout Europe. Although he doesn't find himself in any actual war zones, there's danger enough as the Lusitania is attacked (yes, he's on that voyage!), London is bombed from Zeppelins, and the German secret service try to stop Cobb in more personal ways.
There's a dash of Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands and John Buchan's Richard Hannay thrillers, written more or less at the time of WW1, about it all, with glamorous spies, dastardly Germans, and a hero out to foil the bad guys' plot and save his country. Throw in an exotic location - Istanbul - and what more could you want?
It's a tense, twisty read, that takes the reader back to an age before hi-tech spying gadgets, when the hero had to rely on his quick wits alone. As a whole I found it really enjoyable book, full of treachery, intrigue and suspense, but occasionally a little too wordy which slowed down the action. Cobb isn't a 'professional' spy and some of the things he has to do sit uneasily with him, even when they're absolutely vital to his survival. Selene Bourgani though is rather a typical femme fatale style spy, with a mysterious past and deadly agenda, which I found a bit of a shame; I'd have liked to see a more rounded, fully developed character.

I haven't read the first Kit Cobb story, The Hot Country, but found no problems (other than maybe plot spoilers for previous book) in jumping in here.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult historical spy thriller World War 1