Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Wild Swans by Jackie Morris

review  by Maryom 

About eighteen months ago, writer and artist Jackie Morris and publishers Frances Lincoln came together to produce a little gem of a book East of the Sun, West of the Moon 
beautifully written, exquisitely illustrated, bringing new life to an old folk tale in a format designed to appeal to both old and young. All it lacked was a companion or two. Now it has one - a re-telling of Hans Christian Anderson's The Wild Swans.
It's a tale familiar from childhood; eleven princes are turned into swans by their step-mother, and their sister, Eliza,  is the only one who can rescue them. Folk tale curses and enchantments are usually lifted by someone having to undertake a daunting, possibly life-risking, task or journey; here the task is maybe not so dangerous, but certainly very painful - Eliza must gather, thresh and spin nettles (bare-hand and footed) and then knit shirts from the thread, while never speaking a word to anyone! As Eliza goes about her task, more obstacles hinder her; sometimes people believing they're taking care of her, sometimes people wishing her harm. In the author's own words "It is a story about love, endurance, magic, silence and communication, misunderstandings, mistakes, courage". And it proves that the feisty young heroine isn't just an invention of modern fiction.

These books are perfect for those of us who, while still enthralled by folk or fairy tales, feel ourselves a little too old for 'children's books'. At 173 pages the story is longer than the brief version offered to small children, giving time for characters to be developed beyond the stereotypical doting sister, cursed prince or evil step-mother. Jackie Morris' illustrations are, as always, a delight - a fairy-tale world evoked in watercolours, and reproduced in several double-page spreads and smaller gems scattered among the text. This is above all a book that feels special, with attention to the little details so often skimped on - heavy pages, 'proper' binding, the title embossed on the slip-cover; a true gift of a book.



 See Jackie Morris reading from The Wild Swans here on You Tube

 Publisher - Frances Lincoln
Genre -
folk tale, age? almost any!





Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Zoo by Jamie Mollart

review by Maryom


James Marlowe was an ad man at the top of his game, able to target the demographic, spin a warm, caring, desirable image for his customers, twist a few facts if necessary and SELL just about anything. Focusing on winning the next high-revenue contract, celebrating long and hard when he did, fuelling his lifestyle with drink and drugs, ignoring the  - all started to poison his personal relationships and alienate his wife and friends. Now his glorious career is in the past, and he's a shattered man, detained in a psychiatric unit, believing himself at the mercy of a group of plastic figures collectively referred to as The Zoo, trying to piece together how things went so very, very wrong.

 Through one man's crisis, Mollart explores the shallow, cynical world of advertising, giving his protagonist just enough conscience to feel uneasy about his role in promoting an unethical business, but not enough to actually do something about them. He isn't going to turn whistle-blower and spill insider information to the press; instead he bottles his doubts for too long, subduing them with drink and drugs - until they burst out in as messy a way as possible. From the first page, in fact the first sentence, the reader is plunged into the troubled mind of a man struggling to cope, feeling himself tyrannised and controlled by a set of models - in fact it reads rather like the beginning of a horror story. As the story alternates between 'now' in the psychiatric ward, and 'before' as events in James' life start to unwind, it becomes apparent that this is no fantasy horror but one that's very much part of the real world.
At times it's a very troubling story; not only from James' personal perspective (after all he does seem determined on self-destruction) but also by raising questions about the consumerism that makes the modern world go round and the advertising industry that helps it. Throughout the figurines remain enigmatic - sometimes they seem to represent different aspects of James, at others various attributes belonging to family or colleagues - but however you see them, they remain scary, particularly in the influence James grants them.
Especially for a debut novel, this is an absolute stunner! Something - possibly the hallucinations experienced by James, possibly something in the writing style itself  - reminded me of Iain Banks' work, making Jamie Mollart an author I'll definitely be looking out for. I've read some great debuts this year, and this is up there with the best of them.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Sandstone Press
Genre - Contemporary Adult Fiction

Monday, 28 September 2015

Candy Gourlay - UKMG Extravaganza - Author Contribution

Candy Gourlay (@candygourlay) is a Filipino author based in London. Her books have been listed for awards such as the Carnegie, the Blue Peter, the Waterstones and the Guardian Children's Book Prize. She blogs on Notes from the Slushpile and on CandyGourlay.com .
With warm thanks to the UKMG Extravaganza Book Tour and  Maryom and The Mole for hosting me on Our Book Reviews!

The other day, I saw a funny Filipino meme doing the rounds on Facebook. The images were so hilarious, I used Photoshop to repurpose the comic into the one on the right.

I was gratified when a librarian from Culford School Library reposted it with the caption:

I promise not to judge your choice of reading matter.

Thanks, Culford School Library - you totally got the message that reading should first and foremost be about pleasure.

You'd think the idea of reading for pleasure is obvious, but it isn't.

WHO CHOOSES THE BOOKS? 

The younger a reader, the less control she has on what she reads. Grown-ups - parents, teachers, librarians - will dictate what books enter her world.

And when it comes to children, grown-ups will always have an agenda ... since printing began, books have been seen as a means to instruct, to teach a moral lesson, to mould the unformed child into a good adult.

(Teenagers are an interesting mixture of independence and adult influence. The emergence of Young Adult fiction as a strong genre comes as no surprise - there is a commercial element to defining age boundaries. The idea of the 'teenager' emerged after the second world war when teenagers became recognised as a consumer demographic with money to spend.)

MIDDLE OF WHAT?

For forever, I've been aware of 'Middle Grade' as a category of children's books for ages eight to twelve. But that's because I come from a country with strong ties to the United States, where the label first emerged.

But MG is a recent arrival to the United Kingdom, prompting irritation from people like Carnegie-winning author Philip Reeve (Mortal Engineswho described the label as a "nonsense".

Reeve wrote: "If you call your books 'middle grade', you are associating them with 'grade', which sounds vaguely educational, and 'middle'. That's 'Middle', as in 'middle England', 'middle class', 'middle of the road','middle of nowhere', 'middlebrow','middling'."

Phew! Strong words (although, as an immigrant, I have always wondered why there is such a negativity attached to being middle class in my poor native Philippines, middle class is what everyone aspires to be).

Personally, I'm happy to embrace the label ... though I agree that the use of the word 'Grade' is problematic in that it suggests children should be reading for educational purposes.

Really, we are not talking about a Middle Grade Reader but a Reader in the Middle.

READER IN THE MIDDLE

Under current legislation, middle schools in England have to 'deem' themselves as either primary or secondary. The 'middles-deemed-primary' is enjoined to stick to a primary-style curriculum. The 'middles-deemed-secondary' is enjoined to follow the approach of a secondary school.

It perfectly captures the conundrum of the Reader in the Middle. Too old for baby books and beginning readers. Too young for the Young Adult free for all.

In fact I have written two books that are being marketed as middle grade, but they occupy opposite ends of the Middle Grade spectrum.

Technically, the first, Tall Story, is written simply enough for a seven-year-old bookworm to cope with. The themes of family and the smattering of magic is ideal for a reader from nine years old up. If Tall Story were a school, it would be a middles-deemed-primary.
Tall Story by Candy Gourlay, Shine by Candy Gourlay

My second book, Shine, is a different matter. The themes are more mature, the writing - with a mysterious storyline sewn into the main narrative -  will be challenging for a middle grade reader who is only just beginning to develop a reading habit. If my first book had not been MG, I suspect it would easily be classified as a teen novel. In any event, if it were a school it would be a middles-deemed-secondary.

PUTTING THE OMG INTO MIDDLE GRADE

My friend Jane McLoughlin (The Crowham Martyrs) came up with a witty label for the more mature end of Middle Grade the other day: OMG, for Older Middle Grade.

I love it because it so aptly captures the surprise and emotional satisfaction of an excellent Middle Grade title.

What makes a book middle grade though? Ahh ... dare I attempt an answer? There is great resistance to attempts to pin down targeted reading ages in children's books.

 In 2008, when publishers floated the idea of age-banding books with labels (5+, 7+, 11+, 13+/teen) there was an uproar.

Philip Pullman led the charge. Here is what he told the Telegraph: "I don't want to see the book itself declaring officially, as if with my approval, that it is for readers of 11 and upwards or whatever. I write books for whoever is interested. When I write a book I don't have an age group in mind."

My own publisher, David Fickling, liked to say: 'Tall Story is not just for children. It's an ALL-READ.' Which was very nice of him. But when people ask me, I say it's for 10 plus. (It's considered Young Adult in the Philippines, but that's another story)

After the Age Banding furore died down, I couldn't help noticing that publishers quietly printed suggested reading ages on the back covers of books anyway. If the reader is not the person with the wallet, I guess it helps to have advice at point-of-sale.

THE WHAT AND THE WHO

When I visit schools though (whether they are middles-deemed-primary or deemed-secondary), what Middle Grade is becomes very, very clear to me.

I see it in the children who loved my books. I see it in the children who found some of it a bit difficult to read. I see it in their enthusiasm for the magical elements in my stories. I see it in the way each child seems to know somebody who is just like their favourite characters. I see it in the way every favourite book a child mentions reflects an aspiration.

In writing Middle Grade, I've learned that you cannot separate out the what from the who, because the Reader in the Middle is what he reads. 

I don't know if the label 'Middle Grade' will be supplanted by some other marketing category. But authors like me would do well to remember that the label means nothing without the reader.

And who is that reader in between?

The Reader in the Middle
The Reader in the Middle is always looking for adventure.
The Reader in the Middle has experienced enough life to identify with social reality, but not enough life to have hindsight.
The Reader in the Middle wants a story in which things happen.
The Reader in the Middle can figure things out for herself but not all the time, so sometimes it's okay to tell as well as show.
The Reader in the Middle has his whole future ahead of him - and he needs hope.
The Reader in the Middle can be anybody she wants to be - and characters will help her achieve that.
The Reader in the Middle wants a story not a lesson.
The Reader in the Middle wants to be the hero of every story.
The Reader in the Middle wants to visit another world.
The Reader in the Middle is growing the reader he is going to be - and we authors in the middle are so lucky to be there with him.

Friday, 25 September 2015

The Machinery by Gerrard Cowan

Review by The Mole

For 10,000 years the life of the Overlanders has been run, almost ruled, by The Machinery. The Machinery, run by The Operator, is an integral part of their lives and it selects their leaders and sets their path. Over the 10,000 years they have slowly expanded to take over the entire Plateau and are on the verge of expansion beyond their shores. But there was a prophecy that The Machinery would break down in the 10,000th year and the One would come and bring ruin with them. It is the 10,000th year and the Strategist Kane has died in mysterious circumstances and a new leader must be selected. Is this an omen or a ploy to demoralise the citizens?

Some years earlier Katrina Paprissi witnessed The Operator, Jandell, - and inventor of The Machinery - kidnap her brother, Alexander, and now -in the 10,000th year someone has set a breadcrumb trail for her to follow that will lead her to her brother.

As I read this book I kept wondering where it was going to go and I feel this spoiled my enjoyment - I had failed to realise that this is part one of a trilogy, in fact I only realised this in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. When you know it's a series then you don't expect the ends to tie up nicely - and here we are left almost on a cliff hanger.

It felt, throughout, that it was going to become a steampunk novel but always just hung in the balance. While The Machinery, and a seemingly complex structure of Strategist, Tacticians and Watchers, rule their lives, the most "advanced" technology they have acquired is cannon - and that was not all their own efforts!

We switched between characters from all sides of the story and Cowan manages to convince us, in his own way, that they are all 'good guys' because everyone seems to do despicable things. The only way to understand which side to root for is to carry on reading the next book in the series - but will we learn then?

Time and again we are introduced to strong confident characters who we can take as an anchor within the plot only to have them portrayed in a more open and vulnerable light.

When we meet Shirka then things start to change rapidly, death and mayhem follow - but not, I stress, at Shirkra's hands - and the previously established order that we have been following, understanding, and becoming embroiled in, suddenly starts to transform completely.

This is going to be a series that must be read in order so now is the time to get started.

A great read that is perhaps more fantasy than anything but may well also appeal to steampunk fans. The second book, The Strategist, comes out in May 2016.

Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre - Fantasy 

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan

"An old man looks into the fearful eyes of a burglar left to guard him while his brother is beaten; an Irish priest in a war-torn Syrian town teaches its young men the art of hurling; the driver of a car which crashed, killing a teenage girl, forges a connection with the girl’s mother; a squad of broken friends assemble to take revenge on a rapist; a young man sets off on his morning run, reflecting on the ruins of his relationship, but all is not as it seems"

review by Maryom

Here at last is Donal Ryan's much awaited follow-up to The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December; A Slanting of the Sun, a collection of short stories that he mentioned working on at last year's Edinburgh Book festival and which I've been looking forward to ever since.
Now, there's always a 'thing' about how to go about reviewing a story collection - do you go through each one, giving each as much review space as a novel? Skip through, outlining plots but not dwelling long on each? or treat it as a whole, just name-checking your favourite? I think the publicist's blurb above says all you need to know about the content - so I'm going for the over-view.

First off, it's best to make clear that these aren't the cheeriest of stories; presumably like Tolstoy's families, happy stories are all alike, it's the unhappy ones that have the tale to tell! The mood is generally reflective, and often heart-wringingly sad - so much so that, four or five stories in, I was tweeting about being "wrung out like a dishcloth". For make no mistake, there's an emotional roller-coaster waiting for you inside these pages.

The characters themselves seem, on the outside, to be a pretty normal, almost nondescript, bunch - folk you could pass in the street any day and never remark upon, but, as Atticus Finch says in To Kill A Mocking Bird, "you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them". This is Ryan's gift, to put himself in someone else's shoes, get inside his character's head, and then pull the reader along with him - making us feel the hope, pain, remorse and regret. Happiness, for there is some in among the anguish, generally seems to be confined to some distant past, a golden moment, lit up as the slanting sunbeam illuminates a room, but which faded quickly away, leaving the rest of life feeling dull in comparison.

 The style of telling is quiet and undramatic, like one person quietly chatting to another over a coffee or a pint down the pub - but the tales they have to tell will knock you sideways!

I said I'd mention my favourite - the last, A Slanting of the Sun, which ends on a note of forgiveness and reconciliation.

If you want something fun and light, that will make you laugh out loud - go elsewhere.
If you want a read that will move you, maybe shock you, make you stop and look twice at your neighbours and wonder what makes them 'tick', let you experience emotions that I hope would never befall you in real life, this is the one to choose.


I have a feeling gleaned from fellow-bloggers, than while well known in Eire, Donal Ryan isn't as widely appreciated this side of the Irish Sea - he should be!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre- adult, short stories,

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Temporary Bride; a memoir of love and food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec

"A relationship was a mathematical formula: the correct variables of age, beauty, morality and finances were entered and the output was a successful, peaceful marriage. It couldn't be, therefore, that their Iranian son could feel desire for someone six years his senior, someone who didn't come to him pure and untouched. I was an amusing visitor from another world and soon enough I should return to it, fading quietly into an anecdote ..."

 review by Maryom

The Temporary Bride is a cross between autobiography, cookbook, traveller's tale and romance; an account of how one Western woman went to Iran looking for traditional recipes and found love.
Jennifer Klinec was born in Canada to Hungarian-Croatian parents, moved to England, spent weekends away from her corporate job in travelling to as many exotic, out-of-the-way places as possible, then gave up that life to set up her own cookery school. Her speciality was the re-creation of unusual but authentic recipes, with nothing altered or tamed down to suit British palates: not the food served in restaurants but that consumed at home.
Eventually this culinary curiosity took Klinec to Iran, where, covered almost head-to-toe, she began to learn the art of Persian cookery in a family kitchen in the city of Vazd. This strange westerner with independent ideas at first repels the son of the household, but slowly he becomes intrigued by this woman who is so very different to the bride imagined for him .... and the couple find themselves falling in love. How can their story have a chance of a happy ending in a country where both law and custom is against them?

Now sometimes autobiographies can be a little dry and lacking in emotion - the events happened too long ago to have any real feeling attached to them or the reader is too aware of how the 'story' will end - not so here! The writing style feels almost like fiction, giving an immediacy to events, and I was lured in by the mouth-watering descriptions of food, the sights and smells of Iranian streets and kitchens, and then fear of
conducting what is essentially an illicit love affair under the watchful eyes of both family and state. Klinec builds the atmosphere with a masterly touch, making the reader feel there in the moment, whether cooking delicious sounding meals, struggling with bureaucracy for a visa extension, or stealing kisses in hidden alleys.
Mixing with families, becoming temporarily part of them, allowed Klinec to experience Iran and its customs from an unusual,intimate, angle. Whether you're interested in cookery, travel or just a plain old-fashioned love story, there's something for all here. I've only one quibble - it would be nice to have recipes for some of the simpler dishes.
 Every page held me fascinated - but did the story end happily? Read it and see.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Virago
Genre -autobiography, travel, cookery,




Monday, 21 September 2015

These Seven - book launch


These Seven - and Sheelagh Gallagher
On Saturday evening, Nottingham Waterstones was the scene for a rather unusual book launch - with SIX authors coming together to help promote the short-story collection These Seven.

The stories were commissioned by Nottingham City of Literature, as part of its bid to become a UNESCO city of literature. It's very much a 'home-grown' product; the six new stories are from authors living and writing in the city today, all members of Nottingham Writers Studio, the seventh from the late Alan Sillitoe, probably Nottingham's most famous writer, and the collection is published by Nottingham publisher Five Leaves

David Belbin
After complimentary drinks and nibbles, and a chance to chat to authors we knew and some of the other guests, the evening quickly got down to the serious stuff - readings from the stories.
John Harvey
Brick
Megan Taylor


Paula Rawsthorne
First up was David Belbin reading from Alan Sillitoe's story A Time to Keep, followed by Megan Taylor with Here We Are Again set in Nottingham's Old Market Square, John Harvey with Ask Me Now, a crime story, and Paula Rawsthorne with A Foreign Land, a topical tale about refugees - all read just enough to tempt me to read more. The next author up, Brick, faced a problem - his contribution, Simone the Stylite, is a graphic novel, so not the easiest of forms to read aloud, but he managed well. Alison Moore's Hardanger took us on a dysfunctional family holiday and in Shreya Sen Handley's Nimmi's Wall, a family find something odd at the bottom of their garden.
Afterwards, Sheelagh Gallagher from Bromley House Library in Nottingham talked about how the bid for City of Literature had come about, and of projects for extending reading and writing into all areas of the community from schools and libraries to women's groups, public spaces and prisons.

Shreya Sen Handley
Coming from Nottinghamshire, but having lived in Derby for over 30 years, we're always a little torn between the two cities. This time though, they aren't competing against each other so we're happy to back Nottingham.

Alison Moore

There was time afterwards to buy a copy of the book  - and, of course, get it signed by all six authors while further nibbles and drinks were available. 

Click on the links to read more about the bid for Nottingham to become a UNESCO city of literature, more about the authors themselves, Bromley House Library

Waterstones are very active in promoting authors and their books throughout the country and you can very easily search for what's happening near you through their website.




Friday, 18 September 2015

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

review by Maryom

 From their first meeting in October 1920, when Hadley Richardson is 28 and Ernest Hemingway 21, The Paris Wife recounts the story of their relationship, through struggling years in Paris, to the beginnings of fame with the publication of Hemingway's first novel, and the break-up of their marriage.

I've come to this book a little in reverse - when I read Naomi Woods Mrs Hemingway, everyone was asking if I'd read this too, but instead I read Paula McLain's second biographical novel Circling the Sun Now at last, here I am!

Told mainly in the first person from Hadley's perspective, it's obviously slightly biased in her favour, but it captures the first flush of love, her fears that her feelings might not be reciprocated, and her seemingly headlong rush into marriage, excellently. It did however leave me  wondering if there could have been a different interpretation of her actions - a desperate last-ditch attempt for a spinster in her late twenties to secure a husband.
When the story moved to Paris in the early '20s, I had a feeling of it being on more solid ground, covered many times by Hemingway's biographers - but here things began to hit the problem that all fictionalised biographies face -  the reader most likely knows how the plot will pan out. I did, recognising the 'villain' when she first appeared on the scene and being able to anticipate the ending.
Some of the settings and supporting characters are familiar too, through the novels of both Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald, and it's curious to see them in 'real life' rather than their fictionalised counterparts.
Overall, I enjoyed it and it brought to life a relationship of which I've heard a lot, though oddly by the end my sympathies lay with Hemingway's second wife, knowing her marriage was doomed too.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Virago
Genre - Adult Fiction, fictionalised biography


Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Love Notes For Freddie by Eva Rice

"The long hot summer of 1969.

The Shredded Wheat factory - and the boy who dances there.

First love, last love and all the complicated stuff in between."




 review by Maryom

Marnie Fitzpatrick is young and privileged. Her mother was a celebrity hairdresser.Her step-father's a famous actor. She attends the exclusive St Libby's girls' school just outside Welwyn Garden City and has a flair for maths. But ....on one fateful afternoon her life is about to be turned upside down...
Freddie Friday is a young man who wants to dance, but with grandparents to care for sees no way he can realise his dreams. All he has to look forward to is a life of monotonous work at the city's Shredded Wheat plant/
Meanwhile Julie Crewe, Marnie's maths teacher, feels her life is behind her. for six weeks when she was young, she danced barefoot in the park with a young man and fell in love. The relationship and her dancing career crumbled at the same time...and nothing since has ever lived up to those few precious weeks.

Love Notes for Freddie is at heart a bitter-sweet teen-romance/coming of age story in which Eva Rice re-visits that time in life when it seems anything and everything could happen. Too old to be classed as children, too young to be set in adult ways, Freddie and Marnie are at a time of their lives when the possibilities opening for them seem endless. Julie Crewe, on the other hand, just moving into her forties, represents what happens when those possibilities DON'T materialise. The message behind the story is definitely one of 'cease the day'; if a chance offers itself, grab it!


I was a little disappointed that the story of Marnie's school-rebel friend Rachel wasn't explored more. Marnie seems to just take life as it comes, accepting both good and bad as they're thrown at her; Rachel is very much one who takes life and shapes it round her, and I think she had a more interesting story to tell.


Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher -
Quercus
Genre - teen/ YA

Monday, 14 September 2015

Monsters by Emerald Fennell

review by Maryom

Fowey is a quaint, picturesque seaside town, with not much to occupy a twelve year old having to spend the summer at her aunt and uncle's hotel - until, that is, a rotting corpse is found by fishermen. While everyone else is horrified (but morbidly fascinated) our heroine is delighted! There's nothing she likes more than 'true crime' books, the gorier the better, so having a real crime on the doorstep is like a dream come true. With a similarly inclined boy staying at the hotel, Miles Giffard, she starts to investigate the murders .... but the two of them also begin playing games which re-enact them, always with Miles as the murderer.

First off - a warning! Don't start reading this expecting a straight forward, Famous Five style mystery; this is something much darker and horrific - closer to Neil Mackay's All the Little Guns Went Bang, Bang Bang  but whereas Mackay is looking at the underlying psychological problems that lead to violence, Monsters is playing it for laughs.
From the opening pages as the narrator describes her parents' deaths, we know we're dealing with someone uncaring, disturbed and, as so many people describe her, 'peculiar'. That peculiar-ness just goes on growing, especially after she meets Miles, who soon turns out to have deeper, darker problems of his own.
A picture-postcard fishing village, seemingly innocent children, rotting corpses and a serial killer?  - it's like classic Hammer horror mashed up with Shaun of the Dead! I loved it - especially the unexpected twist in the tail! For the right reader, it's great, but the unwary and squeamish may wonder what they've let themselves in for.

Maryom's Review - 4 stars
Publisher - Hot Key Books
Genre - teen/YA/crossover comedy horror

Friday, 11 September 2015

Gunnar Staalesen and Kati Hiekkapelto - author event


 Last night Derby Waterstones played host to two Nordic Noir authors - Gunnar Staalesen from Norway and Kati Hiekkapelto from Finland - stopping off as part of a round Britain tour which today takes them north to the Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling. The event was chaired by Derbyshire author Sarah Ward, one of the judges for the Petrona award for best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the year, for which Hiekkapelto's debut novel The Hummingbird was short-listed this year.
As is fairly usual the event opened with the authors reading from their respective novels, but in what is for them a foreign language! An important aspect of Scandinavian crime writing is the sense of place, and both authors chose extracts which emphasised this. Kati Hiekkapelto's novels are set in northern Finland and The Defenceless takes place in spring - not the mild season filled with new growth that we expect but one of ice and snow underfoot, and temperatures still below zero! She read a section which captured the exhilaration felt by her protagonist, detective Anna Fekete, while skiing across a wide expense of frozen sea - an environment that seems totally alien to me! Gunnar Staalesen's extract seemed set in a more familiar place; in We Shall Inherit The Wind, private eye Varg Veum is on a trail which leads him to the scattered islands off Norway's west coast, a place which sounds and looks (if Google streetview is to be believed) very like the places I love in Scotland's Hebrides.
Since the days of Sjowall and Wahloo, Scandinavian crime-writing has explored moral and topical issues alongside the whodunnit aspect, and the two novel under discussion are no exceptions - We Shall Inherit The Wind is set against the controversies surrounding wind farms, while The Defenceless draws on Hiekkapelto's experiences among refugees and assylum seekers.
Sarah Ward proved to be a very able chair to the proceedings and by the time she threw the discussion open to the audience I found she'd asked every question I would have done (but probably more succinctly!)

I was a little disappointed that more of Derby's readers hadn't turned out. It's lovely to have events such as this on the doorstep but they need the support of more than half a dozen enthusiasts. On the other hand, this gave me chance to have a chat after the event with publisher Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books and translator Don Bartlett, the sort of opportunity that can be lost in a crowded room.

You can find out more about both authors and their books on Orenda Book's web site

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Forgotten and the Fantastical - edited by Teika Bellamy

review by Maryom

In The Forgotten and The Fantastical Teika Bellamy has brought together eleven writers to explore old myths, fables and fairy tales and re-cast them in a new light. There are some you will recognise; Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella are given a modern twist in Footfalls of the Hunter and Screaming Sue, Lady Seaweed re-tells the legend of The Mermaid of Zennor from the mermaid's point of view, and The Cave offers an alternative interpretation of the entombment of Merlin. Others strike out into new areas - The Sparrows and The Beefworms is a fable about the pressure 'experts' put on us to conform to their way,  Geppetto's Child an exploration of what it is to be 'human'. Some like The Boy and the Bird, The Mother Tree and the Paper House, feel like old folk tales, although I've not encountered these before. And one, The Wanderer's Dream based loosely on a Japanese story, The Dream of Akinosuke, reminded me of Star Trek's Capt Picard's dream-adventure in the episode The Inner Light (geeky I know, but there's nothing new about the morphology of the folk tale and where it can end up)
Now, I know this kind of tale doesn't appeal to everyone but I was enthralled by fairy tales as a child and, from Neil Gaiman to Seren's New Stories from the Mabinogion series and Allen and Unwin's Tales from the Tower, I love these re-tellings with a more grown-up adult twist, and really enjoyed this collection. As ever they contain that mix of morality tale and the fantastical that has kept them popular throughout the years.
It's a fairly slim volume with the stories themselves adding up to about 100 pages with notes on the authors and background to their adaptations included at the end of the book, in case you're interested.
Published by a small independent press, it doesn't have the glossy high-impact cover of something from a big publisher, but, as they say, don't judge a book by its cover - the stories inside are as intriguing and memorable as any I've read elsewhere.

Authors - Rebecca Burland, Becky Cherriman, Tomas Cynric, Barbara Higham, CM Little, NJ Ramsden, Lisa Shipman, Marija Smits, Lindsey Watkins

 Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher -
Mother's Milk Books
Genre -
adult folk/fairy tales

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Door That Led To Where by Sally Gardner

review by Maryom

AJ has left school with just one GCSE and isn't expecting to find work anywhere, so he thinks he's struck lucky when he gets a job at the Gray's Inn law-firm that used to employ his mum. He doesn't realise the full extent of his luck though, for he's about to discover something that will change his life - a key that will take him back in time to London in 1830, and lead to a series of murders spanning both time-periods, and the unravelling of the mystery surrounding his father.
 Meanwhile in modern London, AJ's mates Leon and Slim have their own troubles, with police, drug dealers and gang leaders looking for them - maybe AJ's key could offer them a hiding place in a safer world, and maybe even a new start?

Now ok, this is meant to be a teen/YA read but I don't care, it had me absolutely hooked from page one! It's a slippery, twisty sort of plot with time travel, a murder mystery, the clearing up of a forgery case, and the tiniest bit of romance - added together they make a brilliant, compelling read.
Told in the third person, but from AJ's point of view, it captures the sort of language and words that you'd expect from a modern teenager (though maybe edited for swearing!) and lets the reader slip right into the action. The action is fast-paced but with time enough to let the atmosphere of early nineteenth century London seep through. Despite the lack of mod-cons - from mobile phones to proper toilets - all three young men appreciate the charm of London before high-rise developments and the promise that it holds for them; unlike the present day, which has them labelled and written-off as 'teens in hoodies'.
I particularly liked the friendship between AJ, Slim and Leon. It's often seen as cool to be tough and uncaring but these three share an unbreakable bond; none seem to have family to care for them so they look out for each other and are there to help when things get tough - it's good to have friends like that!

All in all this is a riveting read that fits such a lot of genres that it must almost suit everyone. The only puzzle I was left with was - which time would I have chosen to remain in? Today with all its conveniences or 1830 with a more leisurely paced life but decidedly dodgy hygiene?


Maryom's Review - 5 stars
Publisher - Hot Key Books
Genre - teen/YA fantasy murder mystery time-travel

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

review by Maryom

Beryl Markham is perhaps best known as an aviator; she was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from east to west - a feat accomplished in September 1936 - but even before that she'd lived an extraordinary life. While she was still a small child, her parents moved to Kenya and she grew up there, almost wild, playing and hunting with the local children in the bush, till she was bundled off to boarding school. She married young, had several society-shocking affairs, and a second marriage, became the youngest, and first female, licensed horse trainer in Kenya, having considerable success at prestigious races in Nairobi, then, through big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, discovered flying - all of this at a startlingly early age.
So what was the woman behind the headlines actually like? In a long flashback from the cockpit of Beryl's aeroplane high above the Atlantic, Paula McLain explores the life of this remarkable woman, and tries to find out what drove her to achieve so much, from her lonely childhood to her troubled adult years.

There's a lot of Kenya that feels familiar from other sources - Beryl moved in the same 'set' as Karen Blixen (author Isak Dinesen) and Denys Finch Hatton (both known through the film Out of Africa based on Blixen's writing), and the drinking, drug-taking, racing, high living crowd of "Happy Valley" (brought to life in the film White Mischief) - and sometimes the incidents Beryl recalls were ones I'd heard before, although from a different angle. Something that shone through in many places was the beauty of the country - its huge empty spaces, rolling hills and acres of pasture which the author conjures admirably.


Overall though I felt the story read more like a straight biography than fiction. There was a little too much "tell", not "show", for my liking - I didn't really feel Beryl's character come to life and I was left feeling a little outside it all, not sharing Beryl's thoughts and emotions.

 Maryom's review - 3.5 stars
Publisher - Virago
Genre - Adult Fiction,

Monday, 7 September 2015

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

 review by Maryom

"In September 1870 a train leaves Manchester bound for London. On board is Lizzie Burns, a poor worker from the Irish slums, who is embarking on the journey that will change her forever. Sitting in the first-class carriage beside her lover, the wealthy mill-owner Frederick Engels, the vision of a life of peace and comfort takes shape before her eyes: finally, at nearly fifty, she is to be the lady of a house and the wife to a man. Perhaps now she can put the difficulties of the past behind her, and be happy?"

Gavin McCrea's debut novel gives the reader a fascinating, behind-the-scenes, glimpse into the lives of the fathers of socialism, Marx and Engels, through the eyes of Engels' common-law wife, Lizzie Burns.

Beginning life as an impoverished mill-hand in one of the Engels family's factories, Lizzie is down to earth, pragmatic, and not one to stand for any nonsense. She first met Engels many years before, when, attracted by her seeming simplicity and honesty, he became the lover of Lizzie's sister Mary. Lizzie never quite saw her sister's actions in the same favourable light though, believing a strong current of greed and manipulation ran through them. Her own earlier romantic dreams foundered, and now Lizzie has settled for comfort and security, but still yearns for her former lover, and seems uncertain whether she's made the right choice.
 Starting from the time when Engels and Lizzie moved to London, and moving backwards to their past history in Manchester, and forwards as they rub shoulders, and tempers, with the Marxes, McCrea weaves a compelling story that should appeal to a wide range of readers, not merely those with an interest in history or the people concerned. It certainly sheds an interesting light on the private lives and habits of Marx and Engels, showing them to be as human and flawed as anyone. From school history I'd always imagined them as rather dull, studious fellows, fonder of deep, meaningful, angst-filled debate than a party, but this novel puts that idea to flight; according to Lizze, the state of the 'comrades' the morning after a political gathering is on a par with any hungover binge drinkers!
I wasn't sure about this book at first - probably because I expected it to be full of rhetoric and political discussion - but it grew on me, as these great men of history are brought down to size, with humour and wit, by a woman who sees behind their public face.



 Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Scribe

Genre - adult, historical fiction, fictionalised biography

longlisted for Guardian First Book Award

Friday, 4 September 2015

Edinburgh Book Festival - Author Event - Sara Baume and Ian Stephen

I've been a little random about the writing-up of our visit to Edbookfest so this last piece is actually about the first event we went to!
It brought together two of the First Book Award nominees - Sara Baume and Ian Stephen. I've heard a  lot about Sara Baume's debut novel Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither through Irish bookbloggers such as Bleach House Library and had it on my 'want to read' list for a while but Ian Stephen's A Book Of Death and Fish was completely unknown.
It turned that they had quite a few things in common. Both books were published by small independent publishers - Tramp and Saraband - and share a theme, with a man looking back over his life, reminiscing about this and that, following his memories as they, seemingly randomly, pop into his mind. Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither takes it's starting point as a man talking to a newly-adopted dog, sharing his secrets and confidences with it; A Book of Death and Fish starts with a man making a will - obviously a good point from which to reflect back on his life. The voices of the two main characters were very different though, with a more poetic feel to Baume's writing. I also had the impression that Sara Baume's story has a rural setting, while Ian Stephen's although set on the Hebridean island of Lewis is a more urban novel, set as it is in the fishing port of Stornoway.
Both authors' readings certainly had me wanting to know more about both books, and I'm hoping to read them soon.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Literary Death Match

First things first - What, you might ask, is a Literary Death Match?  well, it's a book event created by Adrain Todd Zuniga in which authors are pitted against each other in a sort of speed dating way. Each author reads a five minute snippet from their work, they're marked by content, delivery and 'intangibles' by three celebrity judges, and the winners of the two heats go forward into a vaguely-literary games show knock-out final round.
Now I'd heard of this through Twitter but had written it off as an 'only ever in London' event, so was delighted to see that as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Literary Death Match had moved north, putting on eight shows in eight days, and even more delighted when I won tickets to an event.

For this day the judging panel was made up of Tom Salinsky (author), Declan Michael Baird (actor) and Mark Billingham (crime author, actor, musician, stand up comedian etc etc), and the four authors to be put under the spotlight were Julie Mayhew (a teen/YA author, her latest novel The Big Lie is set in an alternate Nazi-ruled Britain), Alvy Carragher (poet, story-teller, You-Tuber, wannabe novelist), Dan Tyte (former journalist, short story writer, and now with his debut novel Half Plus Seven published) and a double act, Alecos Papadatos and Abraham Kawa (artist/illustrator and writer, respectively, of graphic novel democracy)

First to take the stage were Julie Mayhew and Alvy Carragher; Julie read an excerpt from The Big Lie, and Alvy performed Numb, a poem about consent and 'No', which you can find here. In my opinion, Alvy's was the more powerful, thought-provoking piece of the two, but the judges decided to disallow it on the grounds that the rules stated a piece should be read rather than performed.
On to the men.... while Abraham read from their novel, with different accents and gestures for each character, Alecos drew the scene, then Dan read not from his novel, which he didn't think 5 minutes would do justice to, but a short story about a night-out in Cardiff. This time I agreed with the judges in awarding Dan that round.
The finale!! A literary spelling bee - Julie and Dan tried their best to spell some of the trickier names among the ranks of novelists; Toibin, Solzhenitsyn, Ngosi Adichie - we've all heard of them, but can we spell them? I'm rather glad no one asked me to try! Julie Mayhew proved to be the better of the two and was crowned winner.


If you feel that book events have to be serious, even potentially dull, events with learned types sitting around discussing the finer points of prose style, then you need to think again! Actually I've never been to a book event of any sort that was that dull but Literary Death Match certainly packs more fun and laughs into the presentation than your average book event. It's a great way to get to sample a range of writing - I originally hoped to go to the last LDM in Edinburgh with Chris Brookmyre and Doug Johnstone appearing (two Scottish crime writers whose work I love) but time didn't permit that and so I saw four writers of whom I knew virtually nothing but whose work I'll now be tracking down.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Edinburgh Book Festival - Author Event - Lucy Wood and Sarah Hall


As our Edinburgh holiday dates are generally driven by other factors rather than around the Book Festival itself, it's always a bit hit and miss which authors will be appearing while I'm actually there, so I was delighted to realise that Lucy Wood, author of Diving Belles and Weathering, would be there during the few days I was. Weathering was her debut novel - a story of home, belonging, the not-always-easy relationships between mothers and daughters, and the thin divide between life and death, which I absolutely loved!  For her event she was paired with Sarah Hall, whose latest novel The Wolf Border also deals with a young woman, Rachel Caine, returning home - and introducing wolves back into the Lake District. The title comes from a Finnish expression describing the 'border' between urbanised, human habitation and the wilderness that surrounds it.

After a short chat introducing their novels, the authors read a short section from their work; Lucy Wood's an almost poetic piece as the ashes of grandmother Pearl are sprinkled on the river and she finds herself mixing with the water and mud - still partly herself, and partly a ghost - while Sarah Hall's was a more prosaic description of the transportation of the wolves to their new Cumbrian home - a journey you could follow on a map if (like me) you wanted to, but filled with tension as Rachel worries about all the things that could go wrong along the way, and what she'll find returning home after so many years away. Although the themes are similar in many ways, the treatment of them and the writing style seemed very different. Weathering is set in an anonymous place, possibly the moors of South-West England (though for me there was a northern "Yorkshire" feel to it), whereas Wolf Border is set more firmly in the real world, both geographically and politically - though the Annerdale estate doesn't actually exist, and the Scottish referendum swung the other way.

One of the aspects of Weathering that I adored was the poetic style, a little Virginia Woolf stream of consciousness in many ways, and the fluid ambiguous qualities of the storyline. It's impossible to pin down exactly what Pearl is - a ghost, a figment of her grand-daughter's imagination, or an accumulation of her daughter's memories - but who really needs to?  I was pleased to discover that something which struck me when reading it, the play on "weathering'  - either worn away by or proudly withstanding the elements - was intended by the author, not just something I made up!



Just a quick word for once about the venue - not the standard plain white marquee style of most the Edinburgh Book Festival's 'rooms' but the multicoloured Spiegeltent more reminiscent of a circus big-top. I've been in here before, for coffee during the day and the Jura Unbound events in the evening but not to a 'book' event. The seating was grouped informally round tables which as I'd gone along alone, I found more conducive to chatting with my neighbour while waiting for the event to start.



Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Edinburgh Book Festival - Author Event - Gordon Corera

By The Mole

Having worked in IT for over 30 years I have seen a huge transition from operating a room full of computer that had less power than the average modern day phone to a room full of servers supporting a diverse business of over 500 PCs. Security has been an issue for many days and we all curse when we have to create yet another password to enter a competition. But whereas we have these issues and frustrations what is the wider "cyber threat" that we hear so much about? When will it hit us and how bad could it possibly be?

Gordon Corera is a security correspondent for the BBC and has contacts who are hackers, security consultants, spies, ministers and many other things. Over the years he has witnessed trends and events that will either worry you and keep you awake at night, or reassure you and help you sleep soundly. These events, anecdotes and projections for the future he has compiled into a single volume called 'Intercept: The Secret History of Computers and Spies' and at this event he set about giving the tightly packed audience a flavour of the book as well as recounting some rather humorous anecdotes. Gordon is not a technician and this book is not aimed at technicians - it is aimed at the average member of the public and as such it talks in broad terms rather than specific methods.

Well practised at speaking to the camera he held the audience's attention throughout and gave a very entertaining event. I admit to not having read this book yet but much of the history which he recounts is new to me and I am looking forward to finding the opportunity to read this book to fill in so many of the things that have happened that I have missed over the years.

Another extremely good event from Edinburgh International Book Festival.