Wednesday, 25 April 2018

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

review by Maryom

Yusuf, Selvon and Ardan have grown up together under the shadow of Stones Estate's four tower blocks - attended the same schools, played football together, hung out listening to music, the things kids and teens do. To them, ethnicity, colour, background don't matter. But around them the world feels differently. A soldier has been killed; Muslims (ALL Muslims) blamed. Tensions are mounting. Anger rising. White racist skinheads on one side; radicalised Muslims on the other; waiting to clash ...


Guy Gunaratne's debut novel is a gripping and moving portrayal of life on a run-down inner city estate, of the precarious balance between hope and despair with which its inhabitants live.
The story, set over a period of forty-eight hours, is told from a variety of viewpoints; mainly from the perspective of three teenagers - Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf - but also that of Selvon's invalid father, Nelson, and Ardan's mother, Caroline, both of whom remember similar events from the past, and give context and perspective to the current wave of violence. It's hard to believe that this is Guy Gubaratne's debut novel. He balances the various first person narratives brilliantly - each person speaking/thinking in their own way. The chapters are headed by the narrator's name but after a while you can tell who is talking by the words, the rhythm and style of their speech. Just occasionally I found the 'street' talk tricky to follow (I'm neither a Londoner nor young) but found if I just let it wash over me, as I might if someone were actually talking that way to me; the definition of every individual word didn't matter, as the over-all meaning was clear.

The three teenagers feel trapped by their environment, but react differently. Selvon is hopeful - he spends his life training - running, boxing, gym work - hoping his promise will lead to a ticket out, a university place and athletic fame. Ardan is despondent - doesn't see his way with words, his rapping and music, as a talent he can exploit, and a way to leave. Fate seems to have dealt Yusuf the worst hand - his world was once safe and secure but following the recent death of his father, he's lost and alone, feeling the new wave of Muslim radicalisation reaching out to ensnare him, and not knowing how to resist.

Their lives are all about to be derailed though by the riots ready to engulf their home. In one way it's new force - white versus Muslim - in another it's a repeat of previous incidents of racial hatred. Nelson remembers the race riots of the late 50s when a white mob attacked the newly-arrived West Indians; Caroline was sent to London, while a young woman, by her Republican family to escape the violence of the Irish Troubles. A stark warning that while ever we divide society into 'us' and 'them' such tension, with its inevitable outbreaks of violence, with continue to exist.
It's a stunning read, that gets behind the headlines of racial hatred or inner city housing issues, bringing life to the day to day struggles and pressures, showing us 'people' not 'problems'. Without questioning its 'adult fiction' tag, I'd also recommend it for older teens - the main characters are 18 year old, school-leaving age, concerned with the normal teenage things - music, football, sex - and I think it would appeal to readers of a similar age. 


Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult fiction, literary

Friday, 20 April 2018

You're Safe With Me by Chitra Soundar


illustrated by Poonam Mistry


review by Maryom


Night is falling, and the stars are beginning to shine, so it's time for the little animals to go to sleep. But this night they're troubled. Wind gusts through the trees, thunder crashes, lightning flashes - all things to upset little ones. Fortunately, Mama Elephant is there to calm their fears and reassure them "You're Safe With Me"

Any parent will have encountered those stormy nights when a child is too frightened by the noises of the weather to settle down and sleep. This story, with its wonderfully intricate illustrations, is a great one to share at such times to help lessen their fears. Mama Elephant is a loving, protective figure, who doesn't ignore or belittle the young animals fears. Instead, she soothes them by diverting their attention away from the frightening aspects of the storm, stressing the good things that wind and rain bring - distributing seeds, and watering them - and, with the repetition of "You're safe with me", instils a feeling of calm. Hopefully a feeling that the young reader will share.


Both comforting and distracting, it's the sort of book I can imagine becoming a regular bedtime read for nights when the thunder growls and lightning flashes.





Publisher - Lantana
genre - children's picture book, 4-8

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George RR Martin

illustrated by Gary Gianni 

review by Maryom

Dunk - or as he's more formally known, Ser Duncan the Tall - is a hedge knight, travelling the land seeking adventures, competing in jousting contests, maybe taking on a semi-permanent position with a lord for a few months. On his way to the tourney at Ashford, he encounters a strange, bald, skinny, stable lad, Egg, who, despite Dunk's attempts to dissuade him, insists on following along and serving as Dunk's squire. Egg isn't quite who he seems though, so, while Dunk takes on greater odds than he expected at the tourney, Egg is as vital to saving the day as Dunk's prowess with lance and sword.
Their two further adventures see the unlikely pair wandering the length and breadth of Westeros - for, you've guessed, these three novellas are set in the world of Game of Thrones, though about a hundred years earlier - when the world was a quieter, less violent place, and older folk could still remember seeing dragons. Since reading tales of King Arthur as a child, I've always been a lover of tales of chivalry and jousting knights, so I really enjoyed these stories. For a Game of Thrones fan I suspect there's a lot of background and history to be uncovered - things that previously have only been hinted at - and also I wondered if Dunk and Egg had become legendary heroes by the time of the series. Even for someone like me, who's not watched the whole TV series or read any of the books, there are still familiar names and places - Targaryens and Lannisters, Kings Landing and Winterfell - but it's not necessary to know anything about the Game of Thrones world to enjoy this book.

It's a tricky book to label - fantasy or historical. The fantasy elements are limited to dragons, in 'flashback' to events many years previous, and their precious eggs. On the other hand, while the jousting tournaments could have taken place almost anywhere in Medieval Europe, the history isn't of our world; it's true fiction. It's also tricky to recommend what age group it might be suitable for - obviously adult readers, but I'd also suggest a lot of teen readers would enjoy it. In fact, with the wonderful illustrations form Gary Gianni it would probably appeal to even younger reader - I'm just not sure whether some scenes would be suitable for them.




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

Friday, 13 April 2018

Bone Music by Katherine Roberts


review by Maryom

Temujin is the eldest son of Yesugei the Brave, the leader of the Mongol Alliance. Guided by a prophecy, he is betrothed, while still a child, to Borta, princess of another clan; their union should create a new nation, of which Temujin would be khan. Prophecies rarely work out that simply, though, and events don't go as planned. On the journey home, Temujin's father is killed, control of the Alliance seized by another clan chief, and Temujin and his family cast out into exile. Their only ally is an orphaned boy, Jamukha, who becomes Temujin's blood brother but despite their spiritual bond, there are tensions between them as they struggle to determine which of them will claim Borta as his bride, claim leadership of the Mongol clans, and fulfil the prophecy to become Genghis Khan.

You've probably heard, at least vaguely, of Genghis Khan - a Mongol chief who united all the clans behind him and established an empire stretching across Asia and into China (whether he actually 'totally ravaged China" as claimed in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure might be a bit less certain), But even a terrible warlord like Genghis Khan had to have been young once, and this is the story, based on the 13th century text, The Secret History of the Mongols, of the boy he was, before he was 'khan'.
This is an absolutely gripping read, bringing a perhaps sketchily known period of history vividly to life. The story is told in three parts, each following the thoughts and actions of one of the main characters, and told from their point of view, so the reader sees events unfold from each perspective, giving a different slant to them. I had a slight difficulty here, in relating the different narratives to each other, so quickly skimmed back to set things straight in my mind; the rest of it I loved. There'a real 'feel' for the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols, and it's easy to picture their encampments with banners flying, huddling under furs inside their yurts to keep warm, or the shamans working their magic and playing their 'violins' made from animal skulls. Although you might dismiss shaman magic as mere fantasy, it fits within the context of the story in a way that makes it totally believable. Against this 'alien' backdrop, a story plays out that any of us could relate to - one of love, jealousy, and treachery. 

It's an excellent read, whether you're interested in the historical aspect, or just looking for something a little like Game of Thrones, but less violent. Age-rating is perhaps a tricky issue; the main characters are young, teenagers at most, and while there's violence and sex neither is too graphic, so I'd say 13 or 14 plus. 

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

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox


review by Maryom

Detective Constable Aidan Waits has been relegated to the night shift. This means long hours of boredom sat in the car with his hated immediate superior, DI Sutcliffe, hours interrupted only by the occasional petty crime, such as an arsonist setting fire to litterbins, but nothing to really get his teeth into - and if there were the day shift would take it over. Then Waits and Sutcliffe receive a call from an empty hotel - a security guard has been knocked unconscious, and, investigating the premises further, Waits finds a dead body, smiling as if it had no troubles in the world. The man seems completely wiped clean of anything that might identify him - no wallet, no labels on its clothes, even his fingerprints have been removed, and his teeth replaced. It looks like Waits has found himself a proper case at last, and he's determined to hang on to it.

DC Aidan Waits, hero (or antihero) of Joseph Knox's first novel Sirens is back. He hates the guy he's partnered with, he hates the higher up brass at the station, he hates been demoted to the monotony of the night shift, but he's still determined to make a go of it as a detective. The discovery of a dead body leads Waits on a seemingly hopeless chase for a murderer through the grimier side of Manchester. Meanwhile, he's got himself involved, against his superiors' wishes, in a case of blackmail of a young female student , and is himself being followed by someone sinister from his past.
Waits is definitely one of the modern breed of troubled detectives, and as some of his backstory was gradually revealed I began to wonder if through his career he sought to gain a certain level of absolution for his past.
Whereas, though, I loved Sirens, I was less comfortable with The Smiling Man; this isn't in any way Knox's fault - in fact in might be because his depictions of child cruelty, and the less salubrious side of Manchester were just too real and disturbing.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult crime















Friday, 6 April 2018

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

translated by Margita Gailitis

review by Maryom



Set in Latvia during the years of Russian rule, Soviet Milk explores the lives of two women, mother and daughter, their dysfunctional relationship, and their attempts to find fulfilment under a regime which doesn't care about individuals.


Born just as Russia invaded Latvia at the end of WW2, the mother struggles against the system, refusing to accept its rules, and ending up removed from her prestigious research post, and banished to a remote village and the fairly humdrum work of running a women's clinic - an important enough role for the women she treats, but one she feels is beneath her. The focus of her life has always been her scientific work, and with exile in the countryside and loss of the work that she considers worthwhile she enters a downward spiral of depression.
Raised by her more pragmatic and nurturing grandmother, the daughter soon learns to accept things as they are, both personally and politically, to make compromises and live life as best she can. At an early age, she takes on the role of caring for her mother, in charge of everyday practicalities such as cleaning and cooking, but also helping through her increasing bouts of depression and anger. Ultimately though, she realises that to have a future of her own she needs to leave the claustrophobic atmosphere of home, and return to the city.

It's impossible to deny that for most of its length this is a rather downbeat story. It's easy to imagine that in a different time and place the mother would have had a brilliant scientific career, brought up a family in a loving, caring environment, but the repression she's felt all her life has left her emotionally damaged. At the end though I felt that the grandmother and daughter had managed to keep hope alive, that, despite everything, their future looked hopeful.
I rather wish I knew more of Latvian history, as I couldn't help but think that the mother's life perhaps echoed it - annexed by the Soviet Union, forced to live under an alien regime, and striving for freedom, sometimes hopefully, sometimes losing all hope. Maybe I'm over-thinking things again ... 




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

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Galapagos Incident by Felix R. Savage

Review by The Mole

 As a Space Corps agent in the year 2285, Elfrida Goto doesn’t expect to be liked. Her job is to help and protect colonists in space … but they usually don’t want to be helped, and the squatters on 11073 Galapagos are no exception.

Tasked with evacuating them from their doomed asteroid, Elfrida struggles with an uncooperative telepresence robot and an angry local liaison. It doesn’t help that she’s got a crush on her boss, the aloof and intriguing Gloria dos Santos.

But when a lethal AI fleet attacks Elfrida's home base, her mission changes in a hurry. Now, she has just one chance to save the people of 11073 Galapagos. Fighting was never in her job description … but she’ll just have to learn.Fast.

Certainly action packed, this novel is multi threaded to the point where the principle character seems to get confused, the reader has to work a bit to stay with the plots.

While I was rooting for the colonists to survive and keep their asteroid (it doesn't always go the readers way) I found I cared little, if at all, for any of the characters involved in the telling.

The series (this is book 1 and the series is complete) seems to be popular so I'm sure it's me that's missing something with this book.

Publisher: Knights Hill Publishing
Genre: YA/Adult/SciFi

Monday, 2 April 2018

Nimesh the Adventurer by Ranjit Singh - author contribution

illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini


review by Maryom

Meet Nimesh. To you he might look like an average schoolboy, but really he's an adventurer. Wherever he goes, whether at school, walking home past the shops or in the park, he always sees something to inspire him, and transport him from the everyday world and away on adventures. He encounters dragons and sharks, he can sail with pirates or explore the arctic, meet a Maharaja's guard or find a beautiful princess - after all, anything is possible with a little imagination.



Ranjit Singh's words, accompanied by Mehrdokht Amini's colourful illustrations, bring Nimesh's make-believe world vividly to life, while showing how children (and adults, for that matter) can find inspiration anywhere. We're delighted to welcome Ranjit to the blog today to tell us more ...


On Encouraging Children To Use Their Imaginations And Actively Engage In Story Telling
by Ranjit Singh


In Nimesh the Adventurer, the central character, Nimesh, uses his own imagination to make a game of his journey home.  He sees his imagination as a power that he can switch on and off at will, and uses it for joy, excitement and humour. The story takes place as a dialogue between Nimesh and an unnamed, presumably much ‘wiser’ questioner, who goes along with Nimesh for the ‘story’ of each scenario they find themselves in.

“Every child is an artist.  The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”- Pablo Picasso.

Most children seem to have a natural faculty for imagination.  It is something they tend to lose around the onset of their teenage years.  Yet the ability to visualise- to conceive be-yond the ordinary- is something that we associate with genius in many fields, for example the composer that composes in their head (Beethoven), the designer that perfects in their imagination (Michelangelo) and the scientist that ponders new solutions only to have an interior realisation (Newton).  It is the meeting point between reality and imagination that seems to be a point of human discovery- examples like Archimedes in his bath or Einstein with his thought experiments.  Indeed, for the progress of humanity, it seems that imagination is something adults need to learn from children.  Maybe this is one of the ways in which “child is the father of man”.

We could start by considering that imagination and storytelling are explicit expressions, languages and gateways of the mind.  They are among the ways that we can tap into and influence our own minds (and hence our lives) for the better. With their imaginations, we could ask children- what do they want to see in the world?  Who do they want to be?  And how can they change ‘their story’ to realise their ambitions? After all, isn’t this part of what a “visionary” does - conceives an idea and then communicates his plan (or ‘story’)?  Famed entrepreneur Steve Jobs once said, “The most powerful person in the world is the story teller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come." This echoes the saying attributed to Plato, that "those who tell stories, rule society.”

A lot of the knowledge that we have passed down, it seems, was and is passed down in the form of stories and even when this knowledge is highly abstract, we have the story about its discovery.  For example, many mathematicians were inspired by reading ‘Men of Mathematics’, a book that presents the biographies of famous mathematicians from history.  In the sciences, we also have stories of the ways in which things were unexpect-edly discovered - like penicillin.  By learning and telling these stories for themselves, children can partake in their wonderment, and learn self-confidence and open minded-ness, and also how to share knowledge and talk to one another.

Stories also provide a two-way communication channel between two parties- in this case children and adults.  They also provide a middle ground, for how else can two groups so psychologically far apart understand each other?  Through stories, we can communicate things to children that may otherwise be above their understanding or experience (e.g. mathematical principles, history), and they can communicate things they do not have the vocabulary or confidence to express (such as anxiety, or their own opinions). 

Nimesh’s walk home from school could be viewed as intimidating or just boring for a child from an adult’s perspective, but Nimesh sees it with childlike vitality- as an adven-ture.  Like Nimesh, children can share their knowledge, viewpoints, visions, humour and feelings with us with confidence and without feeling the need to colour them with the perceived expectations of others or for the sake of conformity.  By encouraging children to become storytellers in their own right, we encourage more natural and honest forms of expression than what would emerge when we engage with them in a purely didactic pro-cess.  Nimesh acts as a confident tour guide to his questioner, eventually winning him over to his worldview.

Children can use storytelling as a process for introspection, reflection or questioning, By thinking over their own ‘story’, they can use such reflection to become the authors of their own lives - change their stories, rewrite bad experiences – and grow in their power, despite external circumstances.  Or they can use their imaginations to mentally escape bad circumstances.  Here we are reminded of the holocaust survivors and prisoners of war who made use of their minds to imagine what they would do if they were free- music, chess-playing, philosophy.

We also read history like a story to help us connect to, remember, learn and gain from the past, for as Orwell said, “a historian is a prophet looking backwards.” Beyond even this, stories are used to impart moral instruction and inspire wisdom, deep thinking and a sense of humour. We can make children conscientiously aware of all these uses and man-ifestations of storytelling so that they can engage in a variety of learning processes- they can then become ‘adventurers’, with minds open to learn.  (Dragons, sharks, pirates, the North Pole- these are all things Nimesh may have read or heard about at school). 

On the flip side, by encouraging children to tell stories we can also teach them to become aware of when they are ‘being told a story’ under the guise of false facts, or when some-one else is presenting them with a false (imaginary) argument.  We can also teach them to be aware that imagination and storytelling do not necessarily mean self- delusion or invite only automatic acceptance, and can also be a non-judgmental invitation to question.

Milton famously wrote, “the mind is its own place”. By encouraging storytelling and im-agination in children, we can make them aware that they have their own space, within their minds, to feel confident and secure, happy and free to dream.