Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Red Moon Rising by JT Brannan

review by Maryom

Once a high-powered New York Assistant DA, Jessica Hudson's career came to an end when she was hit by a would-be-assassin's bullet. After months in a coma, she's trying to build a new life, almost as far away as she can get, in the wilds of Alaska. Then late one night a naked, battered girl staggers up to Jessica's door, and her refuge becomes the centre of a murder investigation, with police and on-lookers swarming about ... until Jessica wakes next morning and finds no traces of the previous evening's events. Has she really jumped in time while she slept? woken BEFORE the girl was abducted and tortured? if so, is there a way she can prevent the crime happening? 

It's a bit difficult to know how to describe Red Moon Rising  - is it time travel? psychological thriller? murder mystery? It's probably best to say 'a bit of all',  but it's definitely a story that had me hooked as, along with main character Jessica, I tried to find out exactly WHAT was happening. 
I don't normally read/review self-published books, but I've read JT Brannan's previous novels - Origin and Extinction - published through Headline, and enjoyed both of them (and the Mole has also read Brannan's self-published Stop At Nothing), so I was happy to read Red Moon Rising when approached by the author.  
As I say, the story's a mix of crime thriller and time travel, with Jessica moving backwards and forwards trying to prevent the murder of a teenage girl, while coping with her own personal demons. Obviously things don't go as simply as nipping back a day or so and altering the course of events, but the author's thought through the advantages and drawbacks to travelling through time, knowing what will happen before anyone else, and affecting events, and doesn't leave loose ends (a bugbear of mine). The story is fast-paced, sometimes leaving the reader wondering what's going on - but Jessica's in the same position and as she figures things out, so does the reader - and, while she's wondering whether everything is really happening or some coma nightmare she's trapped in, Jessica has a crime to solve and a would-be murderer to catch. There are plenty of suspects, from her callous ex-boyfriend to locals with prior convictions, and a twist to catch you unaware. 
A bit of warning that the violence and injuries are described a bit too graphically, and may prove unsettling for some readers, otherwise it's an enjoyable, gripping read.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Genre - adult, crime thriller, time travel

Monday, 24 April 2017

Wild Chamber (Bryant and May) by Christopher Fowler

Review by The Mole

After a few historic events, setting what will become background to the next case, we are treated to a letter from Raymond Land (the head of the Peculiar Crimes Unit) to the staff. For new readers this is a great introduction to the team members, the unit and the antics up to which they get. It's sets the mood light-heartedly though the plot doesn't remain this light-hearted for very long - this is a murder mystery after all is said and done.

The book is split into 7 days as the case progresses and Bryant and May find, once again, that the race is on not only to find the killer but also to save their careers and the PCU.

Combining all the best techniques Fowler produces some of the very best in crime fiction. The cover photo does, however, give a spoiler to one particular incident in the story.

Fast paced, compelling, challenging are all words we expect to be used when describing good crime fiction and this IS good crime fiction but unlike many such series it's not just about the detectives. We know a lot about Bryant, not as much about May but Fowler also fleshes out a little of each of the rest of the team - including the intern who is temporary secondment from Cologne and is learning about British policing.

Bryant and May at their very eccentric best.

Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction,  crime mystery

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 3 - edited by Teika Bellamy

review by Maryom

Having seen editor Teika Bellamy on social media first asking for submissions, then talking about her difficulties in choosing which would make the cut, I've been eagerly waiting to read this, the third collection of re-imagined fairy tales from Mother's Milk Books. Most of us start our reading with fairy stories and for me that love of magic and mystery has stayed, but reading with an adult's view the children's versions have all the "otherness" and magic washed out of them. Here, in these seventeen stories, that returns.

As you'd imagine there are many of the familiar 'faces' included - animals are turned into men, and vice versa, mermaids sing their siren songs, children go missing lured away by by an enchantment, a woman is made of flowers, a child made of salt.
Some are set in the familiar never-never-land of fairy stories with dark, forbidden forests where people mustn't stray from their village or a lady from her tower. Others in more contemporary surroundings - an orphaned child with strange eyes is found on a bomb site, the Little Match Girl is transported to present day London, and that fairy tale regular, the old crone, sits on a park bench and admires the youth and fitness of a triathlete. They even transport well to the future - the dangers of a forest are replaced by an airless planet and fairy folk by 'aliens', and our obsession with social media becomes a cautionary tale for the children of our descendants.
The stories vary in length from a couple of pages to a dozen or so, some are funny, some magical, but all are enjoyable, and look beyond the obvious day to day world. I'm not going to go into details about every story but here are three of my favourites -

Dan Micklethwaite's Midnight Riders in which the story of Cinderella's coachman is played out in London's Underground
Sarah Armstrong's The Truth About Tea in which a mother decides to check out the young woman her son intends to marry (in this modern day, you can't really try the pea-under-the-mattress test)
Clair Wright's Spawned, a 'sequel' to the tale of the Frog Prince which underlines that love is really all you need.

Authors; Poppy O'Neil, Dan Micklethwaite, Lynden Ware, Angi Holden, Ronne Randall, Sophie Sellars, Elizabeth Hopkinson, Claire Stephenson, NJ Ramsden, Moira Garland, Ness Owen, Clair Wright, Carys Crossen, Marie Gethins, Rachel Rivett, Sarah Armstrong, Sarah Hindmarsh

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Mother's Milk Books
Genre - 
adult folk/fairy tales

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Billionaires' Banquet by Ron Butlin

review by Maryom

It's 1985, the middle of the Thatcher era, and in Edinburgh three unemployed ex-students - Hume (philosophy PhD), "St" Francis (dropped out of training for priesthood)  and the Cat (awaiting results of her Pure Maths degree) are living amicably enough in their cheap, down at heel fourth floor flat, drifting along with no clear plans for their future but with the hope that something with turn up one day - even when the Cat disappears mysteriously in the middle of a party their lives continue with barely a flicker of concern. But change is coming from outside - even on Edinburgh's streets you can see homeless people sleeping rough, and Hume's new girlfriend DD isn't happy with his attitude to life, so delivers an ultimatum; basically, get a job or I'm off!
With this threat hanging over him, Hume decides to ditch his theoretical philosophy in favour of something more money-making, dragging St Francis along with him into a scheme providing butlers for up-market gatherings.  Hume is on his way to making loadsamoney ...
Their story is picked up twenty years later, as Edinburgh is occupied by anti-G8 protesters and London shaken by bombs, and Hume hosts a "Billionaires' Banquet" at which the winners of a lottery will be waited on hand and foot, and the losers doled out rice and water ...

Billionaires' Banquet is a rags to riches story, invoking the heady get-rich-quick schemes of the Thatcher era, and the human cost underlying them. Hume's business is typical for the times, conjured up from nothing more than a few props, hot air and wishful thinking, but it caters to clients' feelings of self-importance and Edinburgh falls for it. It isn't without its downside though - for both the people Hume employs and his family.
It's very much a novel of Edinburgh too, of the changes made to it by time and economics, as one area rises in status while another declines, and, something I always love, streets and parks are named so you can follow the characters' movements in your mind or on a map.

The story is insightful, funny, scathing, and farcical by turns but I think you need a liking for dark satire to really appreciate it, and possibly a re-read to catch all the nuances. As such, I think it may not be an instantly appealing book but a slow-burner that simmers at the back of your mind for longer.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - Adult fiction

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Until We Win by Linda Newbery

review by Maryom

Lizzy thinks of herself as a modern girl, with an office job in town and a bicycle to carry her to and fro, but a chance meeting with two Suffragettes makes her realise how sheltered her life has been. Soon she's caught up in the fight for women's votes, attending meeting and rallies, even getting imprisoned for her part in demonstrations.

This story by Linda Newbery takes the reader back to the early twentieth century when women were still fighting for the right to vote. Despite living in very different times, the reader can easily sympathise with Lizzy and her hopes for a better, more equal future for women. Her story brings to life the passion, commitment and determination of the Suffragettes from all walks of life - from the wealthy, political classes to office-girls like Lizzy -  and shows in contrast how many people, both men and women, dismissed their claims as silly or irrelevant.
As always, publisher Barrington Stoke has printed in a format found to be more acceptable to dyslexic and reluctant readers, and hopefully the story will engage and draw them in while learning about an important political issue.

You can read the first chapter here on the publisher's website

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - 12+  historical fiction, feminism, politics

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

review by Maryom
When Nona is saved from the hangman by the Abbess of the Convent of Sweet Mercy it isn't through some pure-minded, altruistic concern for a wrongly-accused child, for Nona is far from innocent of the charges against her, and the Abbess is interested in the special 'talents' (an inborn aptitude for killing) that led Nona to this point, and the possibility that Nona may have a part to play in fulfilling a prophecy. Neither is the Convent the tranquil, contemplative place you might expect - the young girls who are admitted there are trained through martial arts, stealth, magic and poisons to become killers,and it's only through becoming one that Nona will be able to rid herself of the enemies she's created.

This is the first book I've read by Mark Lawrence but I saw folk enthusing about him on social media so, feeling in the mood for a little fantasy adventure, took a risk and really enjoyed it.

After the dramatic opening, the story slows somewhat as Nona becomes settled into her new life as a novice at the Convent. Yes, there are echoes of Harry Potter in the training for the various skills a novice must master, and there are similarities with the many other fantasy series centred on a special child who will rescue the princess/save the world/dispose of the bad guys, but the Convent of Sweet Mercy is a bloodier, more violent place than Hogwarts (Red Sister certainly isn't a story for children) and the story individual enough to stand up to other fantasy novels.

Red Sister is the first of a new series, The Book of the Ancestor, set on a world almost totally enveloped by ice; only a narrow corridor is habitable, this is warmed, not by the red sun, but by an artificial moon which reflects light down to heat the land at night. Civilisation seems to be at the vague medieval level of most fantasy novels but there are hints of a more technological past - for example, the different off-world 'tribes' that settled the planet, the 'ships heart' that provides heat for the convent and the circling artificial moon. Another aspect hinted at is the mysterious prophecy which Nona may or may not be in line to fulfil  - again it's a familiar fantasy trope but handled well and I liked the fact that there's a lot more doubt about which novice it refers to than in, say, Harry Potter or Eragon. The strange columns which guard the approach to the Convent, especially with Sister Thorn facing down her enemies there, reminded me of the fight scenes from The House of Flying Daggers set in bamboo groves, and so my whole imagining of setting and characters was tinged with this - it's probably not at all how the author envisaged it but one of the joys of fantasy is creating your own world out of the writer's words.
As the story builds to its dramatic close, there are more glimpses of the future which awaits Nona, with hints of invaders and war, and possible treachery among both the rulers of her world, and her friends. So although the first part of Nona's story has come to an end, I'm left wanting to read more...

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
 Adult fantasy

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

The Ammuchi Puchi by Sharanya Manivannan and Nerina Canzi

review by Maryom

When Anjali and Aditya were very small they were a little frightened by the ghost stories told by their grandmother, Ammuchi, but as they grew up they came to love them, and join in making tales of their own. When their grandmother dies though, the whole family is left feeling sad, and not even telling her stories can make them feel better. Then something strange and maybe a little magical happens, as if Grandmother Ammuchi has come back to them as one of the ghosts from her stories.

Flicking through the Lantana Publishing catalogue, what first caught my attention about this book were Nerina Canzi's vibrant illustrations - the rich, bright colours and exotic flowers and foliage which leap out from almost every page - but then I saw that behind those attractive pictures was a story trying to make sense of something very hard for a child to understand - the death of a loved family member.

Sharanya Manivannan's words tell of two children, their love of their grandmother and their grief following her death - but suggest a way through that painful time and hold out the possibility that maybe our loved ones are always there watching over us.

Despite the subject matter, this isn't a glum, depressing book - helped no doubt by the enchanting, exuberant pictures, it comes over as joyous and full of life - and, while it will help children come to terms with their feelings of loss, I think it would also be enjoyed as 'just' a story.

The publishers suggest a reading age of 7 to 9, but the bright pictures will appeal to younger children, who could share it with a parent or older sibling.

Publisher - Lantana
genre - children's picture book, 7-9, bereavement

Monday, 10 April 2017

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

review by Maryom

Rebecca Shaw, on a New Year holiday with her parents, goes out walking on the moors one day, and disappears. The locals gather to help the police search the area, and at first the talk is of a twisted ankle, or the girl deliberately staying out, trying to frighten her parents, and expectations are high that she'll soon be found. But there are so many things that could have happened - she could have fallen into a quarry, be trapped down an abandoned mine, sucked into one of the bogs on the moor, or even hitched a lift to the nearest city, - and as the days, weeks, months pass, finding her seems unlikely. Despite their initial shock and concern, the villagers soon find that life continues, at first slowly but speeding up with the passing of the years - Spring comes with lambs and fox cubs, wild flowers blossom in the hedgerows, vegetables sprout up at the allotments; babies are born, children grow, relationships develop or falter, the elderly die, newcomers arrive, and ultimately people begin to forget about a missing girl.

I usually try to avoid spoilers when  writing reviews but I don't think that's possible here because a lot of my thoughts revolve around what the book IS, and what it ISN'T.

Although the book opens with Rebecca's disappearance, it ISN'T a crime thriller, with clues to unearth, false leads to pursue, but ultimately leading to a resolution. Over the years, various times of Rebecca's clothing are found but no real evidence of what happened or clue to her whereabouts discovered. Instead the focus is on the impact to the people living in this quiet out-of-the-way village - something devastating has happened on their doorstep, but to an outsider that most of them had never met. Naturally they're shocked, but for how long can they be expected to grieve and put their lives on hold?

Personally I found a lot of similarities with McGregor's first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. In much the same way, it encourages the reader to see and remark upon the small happenings that occur from day to day around us but which are so often missed in the rush of life; to stop for a while and watch a butterfly, listen to birdsong, or notice our children growing from infants to teenagers. It's a mesmerising, beautifully written book charting the emotional and physical changes within a small tightly-knit community over thirteen years, but this time I was left wanting something more. As the years pass, snippets of information come to light about Rebecca's disappearance, various items of her clothing are found on the moors, but no explanation of her disappearance is forthcoming. This may, in all honesty, be truer to life than a crime novel which neatly closes all leads off by the final page, and reaches some nature of resolution, even if not a happy one, but, even so, I was left unsatisfied. Somewhere I read that the mark of a literary novel is that it ends without resolution - this is certainly literary, not crime, fiction.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Genre - adult literary fiction, 

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Before The Fall by Noah Hawley

review by Maryom

Scott Burroughs is a struggling, almost penniless, artist who doesn't usually mix with the rich crowd that visit Martha's Vineyard over the summer but one day he gets chatting to Maggie Bateman, wife of a TV channel CEO, at the farmer's market. She takes a casual interest in his art and, when he mentions having to return to New York for meetings with galleries and agents, equally casually offers him a lift in the family private jet. What should have been an easy trip turns into a nightmare when, only minutes after take-off, the plane plunges into the sea, and, of the eleven people on board, only Scott and the Bateman's small son, J J, survive.
The media are immediately interested. One of their own doesn't die in such dramatic circumstances without a LOT of coverage, but Scott's heroic swim to shore with J J, and the illegal business dealings of one of the other passengers are also the stuff of headlines and the focus of investigation by the civil aviation authorities, FBI  etc

Starting from the plane's departure, the story moves both back and forwards. In the lead up to the flight, it tells the lives of the passengers and crew on board that evening, while looking for clues to what brought about the crash  - pilot error, technical malfunction or even a bomb aimed at either David Bateman or dodgy financier Ben Kipling. In the aftermath, the reader follows Scott's epic struggle to reach shore, and the unrolling of events as investigators and media begin to shape the story how they see it having happened.
I've not quite sure how I'd define the story - it has mainly similarities with a psychological thriller, but less of the tension. It's more an investigation into human nature, of what drives a person to make the choices they do, and how sometimes life can revolve around coincidence and chance.

I wasn't aware before that Noah Hawley as well as being the creator of Fargo, was also an author, but being a huge fan of the TV series, I was definitely intrigued when I heard about Before the Fall. It doesn't share the casual violence of Fargo but the themes of chance and coincidence are present in both, directing lives without regard to the people involved. It's an interesting read, of the sort you want to flip through as speedily as possible to found out how it ends, but maybe a little on the light side for my tastes.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Genre - Adult

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

How To Be a Grown Up

review by Maryom

For any of you (and, yes, maybe that includes me too) who've ever wondered what the secret is to being an adult, here is Grazia "Agony Aunt" Daisy Buchanan to help. Daisy has made her share of mistakes, with jobs, love, sex, health, and, the biggest, most secret one of them all, money, and now she's drawing on those experiences to offer advice on the minefield that is 'adulting'.

Now a book offering advice on, well, anything, can easily be dry and lecturing in tone, but How To Be A Grown Up is far from that. Daisy offers her advice with a large dollop of humour, and isn't afraid to laugh at herself and her past mistakes, making for a fun, enjoyable read even if you feel you don't need her help. Sometimes her life reads like that of a rom com heroine - messing up at work, being unable to remember the 'night before' or falling for the wrong man, time and again - but along the way Daisy has come up with a plan for surviving adulthood.

 Although aimed primarily at 20-somethings, fresh out of university, and experiencing the world truly on their own for the first time, suddenly without the emotional or financial support of family or long-term friends, it's a book in which lots of us, of any age, could find useful advice. My route to adulthood was very different to Daisy's - I was married with a mortgage at 19, and my first child was born when I was 21 - so I never had wild careful years in my twenties. Even so Daisy's advice would have been helpful - particularly on learning to relax, take time out for oneself, and not dressing to impress or how you feel you 'should' dress, but aiming for something which expresses your individual style.

Obviously there's no simple answer to the problems we encounter in life, but merely knowing that we're not alone, that others go through the same things, suffer the same embarrassments, fears and doubts, can help in itself - it's believing that our problems are unique that often makes them crippling. I'm definitely not the target demographic, but I loved this book, above all because it's fun. Not all the advice will suit everyone (spending anything more than 5 minutes quickly washing my hair in the shower would seem like a chore to me, not a pleasure) but it will start you thinking about how you might take steps to improve your life.

There's only one snag - I think my teen may have been hoping that it would teach me how to be more dignified and less foolish, but actually it's reinforced my tendency to embrace my awkward, inappropriate side, and just be myself.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Headline
Genre - self-help, non-fiction

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Christopher Fowler - Wild Chamber Blog Tour

Today we welcome Christopher Fowler to our blog for the tour celebrating the latest of the Bryant and May books - crime stories about two ageing detectives and the Peculiar Crimes Unit that employs them. We have been fortunate to have had a visit from him before when he answered questions at the time of the launch of "London's Glory". Today's questions contain a few supplementaries from that visit. 

The Mole is currently reading Wild Chamber, which is the latest and wonders at how each book seems to get better and better.

With Bryant's cerebral approach, his not revealing his thinking, and his extensive range of 'expert' (if a little eccentric) contacts, I am reminded of George Smiley. Is there any Smiley in him?
I think he’s not as organised as Smiley. His thinking is untidier and more haphazard but there’s a real technique at work – not deductive but instinctive.

In a previous interview you said "...then Bryant & May are about how I’d like to be". Which of the two do you see yourself as?
I’m May. Bryant is my former business partner, so much so that I once put a photograph of him in one of the earlier books.

You said of London "... Before the mid-1980s it was a city steeped in shadows which bred criminality. We lost something when the lights were turned up and the CCTV was turned on". Surely much of the change then is for the better? But has London really changed that much or is it your perception of London that has changed?
No, London has transformed, and that’s perfectly natural. I grew up playing in the streets, sneaking into theatres off Piccadilly, diving into dodgy cinemas and generally getting into trouble with appalling people. London is less dangerous now if you keep your wits about you. But then my father, a teenager during the war, had to go through so many changes too, And his father was a typical London Victorian. We all have to roll with the changes. The trick is not becoming stuck in an era.

The 'Peculiar Crime Unit' investigates just that - Peculiar Crimes, but where do you get the ideas for those crimes from? Do you have a list of crime ideas for the new books or are the ideas hard to come by? I have a keen notebook fetish, and ideas get piled into those. 
Often I couple several ideas together and start connecting the dots – but it usually takes a final mad leap to join everything up, and the inspiration from that can come from anywhere – people, places, experiences mostly – and library research.

In a previous contribution to our blog you said of PD James' rule 'Read, write and don't daydream' - "This is possibly the worst advice imaginable" do you make time for daydreaming and do you have a special place to do it?
I daydream in parks and since a child I’ve always walked around new cities. Last year I went into the Carpathian mountains  in Transylvania to visit Vlad the Impaler’s castle, just to write a story about Dracula.

Of her rule 'Never talk about a book before it is finished' you said "No, no, no!" which does make perfect sense but who do you talk with about your work in progress? 
That’s the thing; you need a sympathetic ear, and I have several friends who are patient and kind, and offer their thoughts. People are quite timid about giving feedback to writers, as if we’re going to bite them!

Many thanks go, once again, to Christopher Fowler who took time out of a very busy timetable to talk to us.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

review by Maryom 

Loo Hawley can't remember her mother - she died in a swimming accident while Loo was just a baby. Since then Loo and her father have moved almost constantly from place to place, ready to pack up and go at a minute's notice, leaving behind everything but the necessities never settling in a place for more than a few months.  Now Loo's twelve and her father has decided that they should settle down, try to build a 'normal' life for themselves in the coastal Massachusetts town her mother grew up in. It isn't easy to get the locals to accept them though - Loo can't find a way to fit in with her new schoolmates, and Hawley himself carries an aura of violence about him which keeps his new neighbours at bay. The past too continues to haunt them - from hints dropped by her grandmother and old newspaper clippings, Loo starts to build an account of her mother's death which doesn't match the tale told by her father, and the violent past Hawley is trying to outrun is still reaching out for him.
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is an odd mix of a book, blending a coming of age novel with a violent crime thriller. As the story moves forwards, following Loo's (often disastrous) attempts to fit in at school and the beginnings of her first romance, it looks backwards too, exploring Hawley's life via the bullet scars that still serve as a reminder. Hawley slipped gradually into a life of crime and now wants to reinvent himself as a caring parent - but, as you might expect, his former associates and enemies aren't willing to let him.
I sometimes find I need to understand the 'shape' of a story before it really grabs me, and that happened here. Once I'd got to grips with the way the two story-lines were evolving, and the rather prickly characters of Loo and Hawley, I really enjoyed my read. It's cleverly plotted, giving hints about what may happen (or have happened) but never giving too much away in advance. 
Although there's undoubtedly a lot of violence, I didn't find it gratuitous or glorifying. Tinti dwells more on Hawley's optimism that everything will go smoothly without the need for fire-power, and the pain inflicted on him when he's proved wrong, yet again. As his story was revealed, I found my sympathy for Hawley increasing, beginning to see him as caught in a vicious circle; he desperately wants to free himself from his past, but sometimes violence is the only way to fight off violence from others. Loo sees things differently - that guns represent power, and are a symbol of adulthood. Maybe it's learning that she's wrong that is her first step towards growing up. Hawley, though, is definitely the more intersting character.
I think the mix of themes may stop this from being a book for everyone, but I came to enjoy, and would definitely re-read, it.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult fiction, literary, crime thriller, coming  of age

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

review by Maryom

Isabel Dalhousie's Edinburgh is gentile, middle-class, cultured - as far away from Trainspotting as you can get in the same city - but that doesn't keep murder at bay. At the end of a concert in Usher Hall, she sees a young man fall to his death from the 'gods'. She doesn't know him but something about his accident disturbs her, and she's convinced that what she witnessed wasn't an accident but murder. Despite her reservations, and the advice of family and friends, Isabel's curiosity pushes her, for want of a better word, to investigate.
This isn't the first time I've read The Sunday Philosophy Club, and it was delightful to re-visit the beginning of Isabel's story; meeting her, her niece Cat,and Cat's ex-boyfriend Jamie as if for the first time. If anything I loved it more knowing how their personal lives would develop, perhaps feeling I was in on a secret not known to first-time readers (no spoilers, though, for those who haven't read the series).
Isabel is verging on middle-age, wealthy, and to a certain extent privileged. Hers seems to be an untroubled life, and her pondering over ethics and philosophy largely academic. As befits her role as editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, Isabel tries to live her life in accordance with her philosophical principles, but now she's found herself in a situation where they're actually being tested in a real-life situation. Is her interest in the death of this young man mere morbid curiosity, or, having doubts about it, is she morally obliged to do something? How much should she reveal of the secrets she uncovers, especially when aren't really related to the death? At times I felt Isabel could easily end up bogged down by her scruples, but fortunately she doesn't.

In many ways, Isabel's Edinburgh feels very akin to Miss Marple's St Mary Mead - there's no hint of the 'background' violence of an inner city instead a pleasant village-like atmosphere pervades the quiet streets, where everyone knows everyone else, at least by sight. But, as in St Mary Mead, behind this placid exterior lie secrets that someone might kill to protect. As I said above, I've really enjoyed re-reading this book and I'm now looking forward to re-reading more of the series, plus a newer book or two that I haven't caught up with.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Abacus
Genre - Adult Crime

Friday, 17 March 2017

Tilt by Mary Hoffman

review by Maryom

Netta is the last of a long family of master stonemasons and sculptors, but, despite the craft running in her blood, she isn't allowed to be involved - because she's a girl! Her father Giovanni has recently been appointed Head Mason of Santa Maria Maggiore in Pisa, in charge of all the buildings and monuments being constructed, and with a special task - to find out why the bell-tower leans and to fix it. Seeing it everyday as she goes about her domestic chores, Netta feels she has an instinctive understanding of the famous tower's problems and could help her father, if only she could be involved, instead of having to spend her days cooking and cleaning. 

Set at the end of the thirteenth century, Tilt is the story of a very famous tower, and of a girl who's not content with the traditionally acceptable female roles of housework and child-rearing. Instead she's determined to live a fuller, creative life, to be a part of her family's tradition of working with stone, to have a part, no matter how small, in the building projects going on in Pisa, and just perhaps to be able to help solve the Leaning Tower's problems. 
Everyone has probably heard of Pisa's famous tower but I have to admit I didn't know the history behind its construction or the reasons for its 'tilt', or that marble had to 'stand' before use, so I've learned something in the course of good read, even if it's really intended for a much younger readership!
There's a modern relevancy too, as female stereotypes still need to be challenged. No one should ever believe that girls are limited to certain careers or life choices; they're equally capable of being architects, sculptors, or engineers. 
Don't worry though,Mary Hoffman isn't aiming to lecture the reader on history or feminism, but to tell an engaging story of one girl's desire to do something more fulfilling with her life. It's filled with the noise of hammering, stone dust floating in the air and a feeling of Netta and her family being part of something important happening - the construction of buildings which today are historical monuments but were once no more than an architect's drawings.

As always with books from Barrington Stoke, Tilt is printed on cream paper, rather than harsh white, and in a font chosen as suitable for dyslexic readers

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - 12+ historical fiction, feminism, 

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths

review by Maryom

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway has been called in after bones are discovered during building works for an underground restaurant in Norwich. She's assuming that they'll be old bones of interest only to historians - but, as you'd expect as this is a crime novel, she's wrong. 

Meanwhile the police led by DCI Harry Nelson have 'underground' problems of their own - a man is reported having disappeared in the vicinity of a hole which suddenly appeared in a road, and, in a separate case, a local rough sleeper has gone missing, perhaps gone 'underground'. As they follow up on rumours, the network of tunnels left behind after chalk-mining under Norwich come to figure prominently in enquiries, and the bones discovered by Ruth take on a much more sinister interpretation.

This is the ninth 'outing' for Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson, and it hasn't lost any of the pull of the earlier books - in fact, I think that helped along by their personal stories the series actually gets more gripping. I've come to the series late, and, despite my best intentions to start at Book 1(The Crossing Places) and read my way through sequentially, I'm darting about the ongoing story of Ruth and Harry in a rather higgledy-piggledy order. It doesn't really matter though - the 'crime' aspect of each book is self-contained, and I've found it nice to be able to jump ahead and find out where Ruth and Harry's relationship is heading before going back and reading how it developed. I'm not entirely sure how I want it to progress - Ruth I feel deserves a happy ending; Harry I'm less convinced about.

Meanwhile there are crimes to solve.This time, everything is pointing towards the tunnels under Norwich as the location of nefarious goings-on. Seemingly unconnected events join up in a way that is credible rather than far-fetched, and there's quite enough in the twists and turns department to keep the reader guessing. The tunnels seem fascinating but its one story location I shan't be hurrying to visit. Griffiths is excellent at capturing atmosphere but whereas I've previously loved her windswept marshes, I wasn't so happy about narrow tunnels. Like Ruth, I'm not happy with small, claustrophobic spaces or people who merrily talk about the tonnes of rock above one's head ... Fortunately most of the action takes place above ground in King's Lynn, in places I recognise from holiday visits there, and Norwich (which I must visit now) and there's a mention or two of lovely Wells next the Sea. I'm starting to think I should plan a little Galloway and Nelson-themed tour of Norfolk for summer, though preferably without any crime  :)

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher -
Genre - adult crime thriller

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Witch Finder's Sister by Beth Underdown

review by Maryom

Following her husband's death, Alice, left pregnant and without means of supporting herself, has to return home to Essex and the household of her younger half-brother Matthew. In the years she's been away things have changed. A tense atmosphere fills the air; children and animals have died, crops have failed, and the talk is of witchcraft being behind it all. Matthew sees himself as the man to track down these witches. He has a book, in which he is noting names, accusations, and the tell-tale signs that mark out a witch, and is determined that none escape punishment. As his scope widens beyond their town, Alice finds herself unwillingly becoming part of his scheme, and soon it seems like no one (or at least no woman) will be safe from accusations ...

Set in the mid-seventeenth century at the time of the English Civil War, this novel is based on the true story of the self-styled Witch-finder General, Matthew Hopkins, who scoured East Anglia rooting out what he believed were sources of witchcraft and putting the practitioners to death. The character of Alice is fictional but gives an excellent way of seeing behind the scenes, of witnessing Hopkins' growing obsession at close quarters, from the point of view of someone who disapproves of the course he is taking but is powerless, as an impoverished female dependant, to stop him. 
The author does a great job of building the tense atmosphere, cranking it up as Hopkins'  pursuit of these 'witches' continues. As in most cases of witchcraft the accused are women - generally old, un-educated, often disliked by their neighbours, and without relatives or friends willing to protect them - and an accusation has very little to do with any real occult practices. Whether the actions of men like Hopkins are down to deep-seated hatred of women, the working out of personal grudges or religious intolerance is something that can be argued over for ever.
Considering the story as fiction, I felt a little frustrated at times that Alice did nothing more practical to try and stop her brother's actions BUT of course a historical novel has to be bound by the facts, so, whatever she may have felt, Alice had to remain powerless. Also I think the story may work better if the reader is unaware of the general history of witchcraft trials and Matthew Hopkins' role in particular - it was knowing a little about him that made me want to read the book but that knowledge pre-empted much of what happened within its pages. I'd definitely recommend it though for fans of historical fiction, particularly those less aware of the period and characters involved.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Penguin Viking 
Genre - historical fiction, witchcraft

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch

translated by Jamie Bulloch

review by Maryom

Due to student unrest at St Petersburg university, the governor, Yegor von Rasimkara, has decided to close it indefinitely and spend the summer in the countryside with his family. Even so, he can't escape the threats that have been made against him. His wife believes he doesn't take them seriously enough and has arranged for him to employ a secretary who will also act as a bodyguard. Lyu is well-educated, cultured, fits in almost like a house-guest, and soon all the younger family members are drawn to him; the son Velya sees him as a role model; the daughters Jessika and Katya fall in love with this handsome outsider. Unfortunately, Lyu is hiding a secret - not only is he himself a supporter of the students and their demands, but he even has a plot of his own to kill the governor...

If a story has to be pinned down to fit a label, then The Last Summer, with its sense of violence and outrage about to erupt at any moment, is a psychological thriller. The tension is there from the start, with Lyu's arrival at the governor's house under false pretences, and steadily mounts as the reader sees how trusting and duped the family are.

The story evolves through the means of a series of letters - from Lyu to his revolutionary friend, between cousins, niece and aunt, brother and sister - which proves to be an excellent way of seeing 'behind the scenes' and listening in on private thoughts. The 'children' are, as might be expected, more progressive, and even revolutionary, in their outlook, representing various points along the line between acceptance of the status quo and outright rebellion. They act and talk like many a teenager with attitude but, despite their mother's view of them as still children, they're actually adults in their early twenties! I found Lyu himself to be the most enigmatic of the characters - even though he talks big, he seems at times to be trying to put things off. Maybe having got to know the detested 'figurehead' as a real person, he no longer feels so inclined to go ahead with his plans? While he prevaricates, the family continue totally unaware of his scheming ... and the tension rises ...

Although written in the early 20th century, and set in pre-revolutionary Russia, this story feels like it could fit almost anywhere, anytime; there are moments reminiscent of Chekhov (the whole Russian summer-in-the-country setting), others of the dilemma facing another secretary-cum-assassin in Sartre's Les Mains Sales written nearly 50 years later, and even of today's problems - with students and academics around the world being imprisoned and even executed for opposing their country's regime.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult Literary Translated Fiction

Friday, 3 March 2017

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume

review by Maryom

Frankie has reached crisis point. After finishing her art degree, she's got a temporary part-time job at a gallery, but fails to find a connection between what she's studied for so long and the adult world of work and bed-sits that she's now part of. She feels isolated, lost, and without purpose. One day, everything just proves too overwhelming so she does what she always does - phones her mum who understands without questioning and is ready to come to the rescue. Frankie is too old though to return to her childhood home and be 'mothered', so she persuades her parents to allow her to live in the old bungalow left empty since her grandmother's death three years before. There she tries to form a structure to her life - cycling, small shopping trips, a new art project, befriending her neighbour -  but she's still in a limbo-like state, and her future looks increasingly uncertain.

This second novel from Sara Baume again focuses on an outsider; Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither told the story of an elderly man and his equally outcast dog; this time the main character is a young woman, unable to move on from a childhood where everything was safe, secure and mapped out for her, to an uncertain, uncharted future. Frankie's dreamed of becoming an artist but now she's trained and should be heading out into the world to achieve this, she feels wrong-footed and at sea. Her thoughts (which I think all of us have shared on some point or other) are filled with a hankering after that simpler time of childhood, before adult realities - work, money and death - impacted on her, and she hopes, in retreating to her grandmother's bungalow, to regain that feeling of safety and well-being. She's still deeply troubled though and contentment seems hard to come by. Her thoughts continue to circle round death and decay, with her new art project focusing on dead creatures she finds by the roadside, and she's constantly testing her knowledge by recalling pieces of art and trying to find a relationship between them and the 'real' world.

The writing is beautiful but somewhat fragmentary, reflecting Frankie's disordered thoughts which flit from one subject to another, never staying anywhere for long, but it builds into an intimate account of someone gripped by depression, struggling against its pull, trying one step at a time to walk out of its depths, until those individual steps form a line. Emotionally and mentally it's a cautious, hesitant path though it's only looking back that I realise how much I was willing Frankie to stay on it, and how emotionally involved I'd become.

It's another truly remarkable read from Sara Baume, and marks her as a writer to watch out for.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - William Heinemann
Genre - Adult fiction, depression, 

Monday, 27 February 2017

The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer

Review by The Mole

"Gripping" is a word used to describe this and it is well worthy of that title. Fast moving from the off we meet Alex/Juliana/The Chemist - an agent who worked in an undocumented and highly secret department where she used her skills to get the truth from people who were suspected of security related crimes. She was the best until one day "they" decided to dispose of both her and her work colleague. Her colleague died but she escaped and has been running for three years and she intends remaining alive.

Alex, as we get to think of her, is a very resourceful individual who we very quickly grow to admire despite her efficiency in her job. The action is fast paced and captivating until... Well this is the first Stephenie Meyer I have read but I have heard of her reputation for "love" scenes in the Twilight series so when one presents itself it came as no surprise except perhaps that Alex's head could be turned so easily. And, surprisingly, while I felt this aspect was a bit overplayed for my taste, it didn't detract from the story line which was gripping to the last as Alex, single handedly, saves the day. And possibly the USA of course.

Gripping, fast paced but overall a fun read that is not likely to upset the squeamish, nor titillate anyone either come to that.

Publisher - Little, Brown Book Group
Genre - Crime, Thriller

Friday, 24 February 2017

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne

review by Maryom 

Starting in 1940s Ireland and running to the present day, The Heart's Invisible Furies is the story - cradle to grave - of Cyril Avery. Even before his birth, it's made clear that he's not wanted by society - his unmarried mother is shamed in front of her family and neighbours by the village priest, physically thrown out of the church and told in no uncertain terms to leave town and never come back! As an adopted child and later a homosexual man, Cyril is constantly made to feel an outsider, unwanted and unloved. 

Given a home by an odd emotion-less couple, Cyril is deprived of affection, constantly told he isn't a 'real Avery' by his adoptive father and generally treated rather like a decorative piece of furniture. It's no surprise therefore that when he meets charismatic youngster Julian, Cyril is instantly infatuated and the seeds are sown for an on/off lifetime friendship. As he grows into manhood, Cyril comes to acknowledge that he's gay, again putting himself outside society's norms (at least for 1960s Ireland), forcing him to lead a double life, hiding his true self and ultimately leading to a foolish act which forces him to flee Ireland. 

This latest work by John Boyne is a wonderful, sweeping epic spanning seventy years. Although it deals with many 'issues', this is the tale of one particular man's life, but a life inextricably bound up with Ireland's own story - from the tyrannical role played by the church in the 40s and 50s, and the degrading of anyone who doesn't fit within the accepted norms, to the liberal attitude of today. Throughout Cyril's life, from IRA outrages to mingling with politicians and literary figures, he seems to have been involved in, or on the periphery of, major events.

The book opens dramatically with a scene that, with its echoes of Hester Prynne's shaming in The Scarlet Letter, feels more like something from 17th century New England than 20th century Europe. Although I've read much about the near absolute control held over people's lives by the Catholic Church in Ireland, I was still stunned that such a scene could have taken place not that long ago!
From there, the story leaps forward in bursts, picking up Cyril's story at seven year intervals, each marking a significant point in his life, as he struggles to define himself (he's certainly not a 'real Avery', as his adoptive father never fails to point out!), and to find acceptance and love. His choices aren't always the best but it does feel that he's trying to be honest and do what he feels is right - the consequences though are too often tragic. 

Telling the story in the first person, Boyne uses dialogue to both further the story and shed insight on characters' emotions. I particularly loved the exchanges between Cyril and the women in his life, which capture their warmth and playfulness of their relationships; I actually thought at one point that his mother might steal the show from him completely, with her talk of elderly ladies ogling their gym instructor! The structure still allows the reader to know things which Cyril doesn't, and characters appear time and again without Cyril realising their significance to his story; it's cleverly done, and doesn't feel like too great a coincidence but I did find myself urging Cyril to ask just the right question that would reveal so much.

I read a review e-copy so didn't realise the length - just over 600 pages - till I was searching out links for this review, but I loved every bit and wouldn't want to cut a single page. It's full of everything from joy to despair, and I can't believe anyone could read it and not be moved. 

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

Friday, 17 February 2017

Space Team by Barry Hutchison

Review by The Mole

Cal Carter is an habitual criminal and has landed himself in jail. The wrong jail and the wrong cell. He is put in a cell with a cannibalistic murderer. And things go badly. For everyone but Cal who is kidnapped and recruited as part of an intergalactic conspiracy. But it's not Cal they wanted...

The title and cover might infer this is a children's book - but not for any child I know. YA or adult is the target audience and fans of Adams, Holt, Pratchett and Rankin (Robert NOT Ian) will enjoy this one. Some describe it as laugh out loud and that's not a label I would put on it. It's funny, in a Marvel film sort of way, also in keeping with Holt and Rankin but the sort of humour that blends into the plot and doesn't distract from it.

It's fast paced making it difficult to put down but do you get to really deeply understand the characters? I didn't and frankly I didn't want to - I just wanted to follow the story and it felt like this page's hero could be the next pages bad guy anyway.

Extremely well written and balanced with the emphasis on telling the story. Although there will be more Space Team books this was not a scene setter but a proper stand alone book.

In summary - I loved it! well done Mr H.

Publisher - Zertex Books 
Genre - Adult/YA Sci-Fi Humour

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

review by Maryom

Recently widowed Cora Seaborne wants to be free of London and the conventional life she's forced into living there, so heads off to Colchester where rumours are spreading of the return of the mythical Essex Serpent to the small coastal village of Aldwinter. Cora is convinced this is merely a previously unrecognised species, and hopes to have her moment of fame by being the one to identify it, but the local vicar William Ransome views its appearance as a test of faith. Despite their opposing views, the two strike up a quick friendship, which becomes more intense and passionate as Ransome's wife falls ill.

 Despite appearing on longlists and shortlists for all sorts of literary prizes - Dylan Thomas, Wellcome, Costa - and being voted Waterstones Book of the Year, to be honest I didn't warm to the Essex Serpent. A lot of the writing itself, with its echoes of Dickens and Hardy, appealed to me, but I didn't like the story itself, as it seemed amorphous and shifted about too much in focus, darting from serpents in Essex to pioneering surgery and workers' conditions in London. In keeping with the Dickensian style, there's a wide array of characters - and while all were brilliantly brought to life, some of them seemed unnecessary.

 Cora herself is a wonderfully eccentric character - the Victorian wife's round of polite social chitchat isn't for her. Instead she's happier dressed in an old coat and heavy boots out hiking round the marches of Essex hoping to find signs of the mythical serpent, and fame for herself as the discoverer of a new species. William Ransome, too, torn between his affection for his wife and the fascination unconsciously exerted on him by Cora with her disregard for society's conventions, is a character you can believe in. But somehow, put together, their actions didn't quite fit - and the story lines concerning their families and friends seemed to detract from the main one rather than add to it.

In some ways, it feels like a book they may improve with a second or subsequent reading BUT I feel I'm not really likely to try it ...

Maryom's review - 3 stars 
Publisher - Serpent's Tail

Genre - 
adult, historical fiction

Thursday, 9 February 2017

My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

review by Maryom

Katie likes everyone to believe she's leading the perfect life - a dream job in London, a fancy apartment, wining and dining at the trendiest places - but really nothing could be further from the truth - her job is entry-level admin, she lives in a tiny room in a house shared with dreadful house mates, and her insider knowledge of where to eat comes from newspapers and magazines. One day, her life will match her dreams, until then she endures the commute, manages without space for a wardrobe, and stalks her mega-talented, oh-so-successful boss Demeter, who really does seem to be living the dream.
Could Katie's not-so-perfect life get worse? Unfortunately, yes. The gorgeous man she's just met turns out to be having an affair with Demeter, and on top of that, Katie loses her job. There's nothing for it but to head home to Somerset and help with her dad's latest project, turning the family farm into a swish glamping location, pretending all the while that she's merely on sabbatical ...

As you'd expect from Sophie Kinsella, this is a light, fun read - one to curl up with and forget the world, like comfort food in a book. I'm happy enough to read a gritty thriller, or a heavy literary classic , but there' still space on my shelf for a well-crafted romcom, and Kinsella is one of my favourite authors in this field.
The characters are vaguely familiar - a young, impressionable woman, trying to live the dream but frequently disappointed; a tall, handsome man with a twinkle in his eye that says he'd like to know her better, but (of course, there's a 'but') he might not be as free as Katie thinks; and the formidable 'other woman', in this case Katie's boss, Demeter - but familiarity is part of the comfort of a light romcom read. It's funny and a little wicked, as Katie tries to get her revenge by coaxing Demeter into joining in bizarre spiritual rituals, because "Gwyneth" does, and we can all laugh, because we'd never be persuaded to do that, right?
 There is, if you like, a message here too - that, no matter what you read or how you feel, everyone else is NOT leading that perfect life, that social media and aspirational blogs only show a slanted view of life, capturing the good times, and ignoring the bad - so don't believe everything you read on the web ...

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - 
Bantam Press
Genre - 
adult, romcom