Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Unthology 11 - book launch

We'd been planning in a vague way of going to Norfolk for a few days, but couldn't settle when or where, then fate took a hand, in the form of a Facebook event notification for the launch of Unthank Books' latest short story collection - Unthology 11 - to be held in Norwich. It wouldn't be quite fair to say the whole break was planned round it, but it did give some focus to our plans. We picked a BnB midway between Cromer and Norwich, spent the day at the coast, and headed into town for the evening.

Most of the book launches I've been to, possibly all, have been held in book shops. Unthank had chosen somewhere rather different; The Bicycle Shop, a quirky delightful restaurant, which no longer sells bikes :) 

The event was held downstairs, in a room lit by twinkling fairy lights and candles. I loved it!

Proceedings were opened by co-editor Ashley Stokes who read a few words from his introduction to Unthology 11,

"What would it take to push you to the edge? And beyond? The moth that flutters round a bulb. The echo of long-drinking that hums inside your head. Your softness against all that hardness. The reflections of the glass megalith. The darkening street beneath a line of magnolia trees. The leaves of the apple tree freckled with rot. A black and ragged looking bird. One of those planes that pulls paper letters behind it. Thick, sibilant words that make your mouth water just hearing them. The scuzzy streets of Archway, where no one cares who you are. Welcome to the hinterland. Welcome to Unthology 11."

I've read my review copy of Unthology 11, and the stories definitely take the reader to strange places hidden almost in plain sight, lurking just behind the facade that people present to the world.

Rachael Smart

Being the launch of a book of short stories there was more than one author on hand to read their work - in fact, there were four, which gave a real feel for the varied writing styles and subject matter.
First up was Jude Cook reading from his short story The Night Nurse, followed by Georgina Parfitt with her Christmassy tale Wise Man.

Paul Davenport Randell

 A short break gave me time to browse the collection of Unthank books on sale, and buy a copy of Sarah Dobbs' second novel, The Sea Within Me (it's a stunner; something Philip K Dick could have written, and she also has a story in this Unthology). Something about the lighting changed during this break, so I could take photographs of the two writers still due to 'perform' - Rachael Smart - Various Cuts of a Holstein -  and Paul Davenport Randall, who rounded off the evening with some of his story of modern slavery, Bloodstock.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

The Other Half of Augusta Hope by Joanna Glen

Augusta and Julia Hope are twins - but far from identical. Julia is pretty, girly, obedient, and everything her parents want in a daughter. Augusta is ... well ... none of these things.  She questions everything, loves words, spends time reading the dictionary, befriends the disabled boy next door when no one else will speak to him, reads poetry though not the 'tasteful' sort that her parents like but troublesome, unsettling stuff. The two girls are still inseparable; two halves of a whole. 
Augusta's passion for learning new words leads her to an atlas in which she discovers Burundi - a marvelous place she believes, from the sound of its name. But in Burundi itself, Parfait Nduwimana knows how far from marvelous the country is. His family has suffered horrendously during the war which ripped the country apart - his parents are dead, his sisters missing - but Parfait refuses to give up. He fervently believes that the best course of action is to leave, and make a new life elsewhere, so he and his younger brother Zion set off on a journey across Africa in the hope of reaching Spain.

This is the story of a girl dismissed by her parents as 'odd'. I didn't find her so myself but her parents are set in their ways and 'narrow' in outlook. Augusta is a misfit - too precocious, too outspoken, too clever for them - and from an early age seems to be instinctively searching for somewhere she'll be accepted. Things start a little slowly, but Augusta and her unfolding story grew on me, and although the ending is predictable, the route to it isn't, and the story-telling drew me on.

Who though is Augusta's other half? Her sister - so different in appearance and temperament - or Parfait - with a past more horrific than Augusta can imagine, but like her searching for a place to call home. Read it, and decide for yourself.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (The Borough Press)
Genre - Adult fiction

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Unveiled: the First Unthank School Anthology edited by Ashley Stokes and Stephen Carver

When cuts closed down the local university creative writing group, Unthank Books stepped into the rescue setting up its own 'school'; initially a face-to-face workshop in Norwich, but now expanded to online courses. It's now been running for a little over ten years, and, proud of their students' work, the tutors decided it was time to collate some of it into a book. They asked for submissions from former and current students, and chose these fifteen pieces from over fifty contenders.

Nicola Perry; Lost Lessons of Imaginary Men
Sabine Meier; Walls
Susan Allott; Interference
Jose Varghese; In Control
Jax Burgoyne; Writer
Nicholas Brodie; The Red King
Carey Denton; No Second Chance
Claudie Whittaker; Ideas I am Sending on Holiday
Jacqueline Gittins; To Sudden Silence Won
Victoria Hattersley; The Lantern Man
Zoe Fairtlough; Zoldana
Lorraine Rogerson; The Shadow of Moths
Marc Owen Jones; Killing Coldplay
Lloyd Mills; Shizuko

What you have here is something slightly different to the standard collection of stand-alone short stories - while some fit that description, others are excerpts from novels needing a short introduction to the piece, and perhaps leaving the story and characters just as you were getting interested.
The writers come from varied backgrounds - some through the academic creative writing route, others having followed other careers before beginning to write - and the style, content and setting vary as much. Sci-fi sits next to a family saga, 1930s Ireland next to a contemporary drug dealers' den.
Some I felt worked better than others - obviously those written as complete stories but also the extracts which reached, if not a conclusion, a natural break.

There are many authors to watch out for, and stories I want to hear the end (and middle) to, but if I had to pick out a couple ... 

John Down' s Roads -  which follows events spiraling out of control after a hit and run accident. An extract from his first novel, British Teeth, it's tense and crazy and immediate, puts the reader in the heart of a burgeoning riot, or sitting calmly talking to the dead boy as if it's the most normal thing in the world. I can't find trace of the full novel being published yet, but I hope it is soon.

Killing Coldplay by Marc Owen Jones is one of the complete stories. Stefan has come to London to find out about his father's past obsession with punk. He believes it to be about the exterior display - Mohican  hair cuts, and safety pin piercings - till he discovers the music. I'm not into punk but I recognised that feeling of raw energy that takes over in a deafening rock venue. 

No Second Chance by Carey Denton is another 'proper' short story. An argument between sisters over what to do with their parents' ski chalet (a huge sum has been offered for it) re-awakens forgotten dreams, long since swallowed by 'life' and the choices forced on us by careers, family, houses and cars.

OK, that's three, not a couple, and I could probably list more, but read it for yourself and see if you can spot the next big publishing semsation.

Beware if you're hunting online for this book. I pick up the cover image that way, through that big online store, and searching by title alone brings up some very interesting and 'exotic' alternatives, a bit like 1950s' sci-fi movie posters. Don't be distracted by those. You're looking for the cover image shown above - black, white and striped diamonds in a quilting Tumbling Blocks pattern; an appropriate image for a short story collection as each story is complete in itself, as is a small quilters' block, but assembled correctly they form a new pattern.

If you're interested in writing courses, you can find out more about the Unthank Writing School here

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Unthank 

Genre - Adult contemporary fiction, short stories

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Flotsam by Meike Ziervogel

Anna and her daughter Trine live on the German coast, by mudflats that are covered twice a day, and whose form shifts with the tides. Their life is lonely, haunted by the ghosts of war. Anna is emotionally and artistically paralyzed by grief. She spends her days collecting debris washed up by the tides, with which she intends to create something - but can't find the spark within herself to start. Trine, forced into more social contact through school, is more resilient, finds it possible to put the past behind her and move on.

Set in 1950s Germany, Meike Ziervogel's latest book tells the story of a mother and daughter trying to come to terms with grief and the past. Anne and Trine live, damaged and adrift, like emotional flotsam on the blurred edge between land and sea. The mudflats, shifting and changing form with each tide, echo the women's thoughts and memories - there's only one safe way through, otherwise you'll sink and be caught by the tide. 

Ziervogel's writing is, as always, concise and sparse; her characters troubled and arresting. It's a story which sticks in the mind, with a lot of impact for such a slim volume.

This isn't by any stretch of the imagination a 'traditional' post-apocalypse story, but mulling over what exactly I'd say in this review, perhaps due to how my thoughts are running at the moment, it struck me that there were similarities. Isolated, bleak, drab, their location seems spot on for post-apocalyptic fiction. And then, imagine the mindset of the German people in the immediate post-war years. No matter whether or not they supported the Nazi regime, believed its propaganda or thought it was all lies, the end of the war marks the end of an era; everything that shaped their lives has been swept away, leaving huge uncertainty in its wake. For them, this is post-apocalyptic life.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - adult literary fiction, coming of age, 

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

The Carer by Deborah Moggach

Phoebe and Robert have decided that their elderly widowed father, James, is in need of some help. They're busy with their lives - Phoebe in Wales and Robert in London - and don't want to give them up, so take on a live-in carer for James. After a couple of false-starts, they find Mandy, their 'saviour from Solihull', and they willingly leave things to her unfailing good humour and capable hands. But gradually James seems to change, to find delight in banalities he'd previously avoided - daytime television, shopping trips and outings to garden centres - and Phoebe and Robert become concerned about how far under Mandy's spell he's falling.

I'll be upfront and say from the start that I was disappointed with this. When I originally received my review copy, I was hesitant about reading it at all.The subject matter of needing care for an elderly parent was a bit close to home, but in that regard I needn't have worried - it's not concerned with the nitty-gritty side of care, just uses it as a vehicle for a storyline. At first that moves along as you might expect - middle-aged children, grateful to have a burden taken off their hands, soon become worried about the influence the carer is having on their father - then, fortunately, there's a twist, but I was so uninterested in these self-centred characters, cushioned from real-life problems by income from trust funds, that by then I didn't care what happened. 

Did the humour pass me by? Quite possibly. It's been known to happen. Other folks will find something hilarious and it won't raise a smile from me.

Did the characters just not appeal to me? Definitely. They seemed, at best, caricatures rather than real people. I couldn't care about them or their predicament.

Was it too close to home? No. I've been through this - without the unlimited trust fund package - and it doesn't have any resemblance to caring for elderly parents as I've experienced it. 

I've enjoyed other books by Deborah Moggach and had expected much better from The Carer. In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, she explored the world of elderly folk with humour and understanding - this book seems so slight by comparison. 

Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult fiction,

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Jonathan Pinnock - author interview

Today I'm delighted to welcome Jonathan Pinnock to talk about his new series of books - The Mathematical Mysteries -  fast-paced, funny thrillers in which innocent ex-PR man Tom Winscombe finds himself caught up in a world of murder, Belarusan mafia, cryptocurrency scams and, of course, mathematics.

My first question has to be - how, or why, did the germs for the series of Mathematical Mysteries take root? 
 Long story. I was doing an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and I was struggling to come up with an idea for my manuscript. I was actually thinking about a project that had more to do with narrative non-fiction, which is why I ended up taking the narrative non-fiction module. As it turned out, it was a terrible choice of module for me, apart for one thing. One of the set texts was Janet Malcolm's “The Silent Woman”, an investigation into the life and death of Sylvia Plath. In it, she interviews a wide variety of people who knew her, some of whom are, let’s say, more than a little eccentric. As I was getting in my car at Corsham to drive home after discussing it in class, I began to envisage writing a novel about a literary murder mystery populated with a cast of strange characters. By the time I was halfway to Bath, I’d realised that I was a lot more confident about writing about a mathematical murder mystery than a literary one, and by the time I was driving through Bath I’d remembered a short story called “Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions” that I’d written about a couple of mathematicians called (you’ve guessed it) Archimedes and Pythagoras Vavasor (it’s here, in case you’re interested: By the time I got home, I’d pretty much worked out what I was going to do for my manuscript.

I wrote up the start of it for my next submission to the creative skills workshop class, and I still remember the moment when our tutor, Celia Brayfield, asked the group if they felt I should continue writing this, and everyone, including her, put up their hands. There was still a lot of work to do, including changing the age of the protagonist so that he wasn’t a jaded, middle-aged proxy for myself, and also swapping the skillsets round so that the protagonist was no longer the mathematician. From that point on, the book felt like it was writing itself.

Obviously the series' title mentions mathematics. Did you know much about theoretical maths before starting this series? How much or little does the reader need to understand? Can they glide along, as with Big Bang Theory, knowing nothing about the finer theoretical consepts? and, similarly, Dorothy and Ali computer company - presumably you had some more in depth knowledge of the computing world than I did (not difficult as the average junior school child probably does)
 My first degree was in maths, so I guess the answer to the first part of your question is “yes”, although that should be tempered by the fact that it was quite a long time ago, so I’ve forgotten pretty much all of it. I’ve tried to pitch it so that the reader who understands it can nod along without being jarred by anything that’s obviously wrong, while the reader whose head starts to spin at the very thought of the subject can just treat the maths bits as - to quote Blazing Saddles - “authentic frontier gibberish” and move quickly on. Despite the fact that the books are billed as Mathematical Mysteries, the maths isn’t actually that essential to the plot, although I’d like to think that I might open the eyes of the occasional non-believer to some of the extraordinary stuff that the subject has to offer. For example, Euler’s identity is just the most amazingly weird and beautiful thing in existence, and EVERYONE should know about it. I guess the same applies to the computer content - it’s either stuff you recognise or more gibberish you can skip over, but it’s not essential to the plot.

There's wide range of odd background material packed in - Belarus mafia, off-shore private countries, pythons, cryptocurrency. How interesting, or alarming, does your search history look?  
I suspect that if anyone did take a look at my search history with a view to finding anything incriminating, they’d probably just throw their hands in the air and give up. Oddly enough, not all of my research was online - for example, most of the crypto stuff came from a book by a sceptic called David Gerard. All I did online in the case of crypto was check to see what names might still be available for a new currency. This turned out to be quite surprising in itself. Would you believe that Madoffcoin, Ponzicoin and Tulipcoin all exist already? Also, Channellia grew out of a talk given to our parish council by a PR lady for Hinckley Point C, via a stag do that my son went to on another offshore platform. There’s material all over the place.

I've mentioned Simon Pegg before with reference to these novels - if anyone decided to adapt the books for film or TV, who would be your first choice to play Tom Winscombe?
Good question. I used to think that Ben Whishaw would have been a good choice (partly because Tom is essentially a less furry Paddington), but I think he’s probably a bit old now. This may be a bit of a cop-out, but I think both he and Dorothy should probably be played by complete unknowns, with loads of famous character actors doing the bit parts. For example, I would love to see Tim McInnerny (in his later, post-Blackadder, phase) do Rufus Fairbanks from the first book. It’s nice to fantasise.

What next for Tom? More mysteries to solve, I assume, but do you have an overall plan of how the series will continue (publishers permitting)?
 I have a contract for two more books, and after that I guess we have to see how things go. I’m very much a pantser rather than a plotter, so I don’t have a big idea of where the overall story arc is going, apart from the fact that there is one and that it will be driven by the characters. What I can say is that Book Three has just acquired a new title, “The Riddle of the Fractal Monks”. All the regular characters will be there, plus some old friends and enemies and one or two new ones. As with “A Question of Trust”, you won’t necessarily have to have read the other books in the series, but it will improve your reading experience if you have. Also, I make more money if people buy the entire series, so it’s a win-win situation.

Thank you for coming along, Jonathan. I hope we've intrigued readers to go out and try The Mathematical Mysteries - and for the rest of July the e-version of A Question of Trust is available at the amazing price of 99p! See publishers' Farrago website for details

Reviews of the books can be found  here - The Truth about Archie and Pye
                                                                     A Question of Trust

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Emily Eternal by M G Wheaton

Emily is an artificial consciousness, designed in a lab to help humans process trauma, which is particularly helpful when the sun begins to die 5 billion years before scientists agreed it was supposed to.
So, her beloved human race is screwed, and so is Emily. That is, until she finds a potential answer buried deep in the human genome. But before her solution can be tested, her lab is brutally attacked, and Emily is forced to go on the run with two human companions - college student Jason and small-town Sheriff, Mayra.
As the sun's death draws near, Emily and her friends must race against time to save humanity. But before long it becomes clear that it's not only the species at stake, but also that which makes us most human.

As you can see from the publicist's blurb above, I'm continuing with my apocalyptic streak, but with a slight difference  - this time the story is set pre-apocalypse, because when the Sun dies there'll be no humans left to tell stories.
There are two sides to Emily Eternal; there's a gripping, action-packed race to save humanity from the dying sun, but, just as much, it's about what kind of society will survive, and what constitutes 'humanity'. How far can a person change and still be considered human? how far would you be prepared to sacrifice free-will to survive? Unfortunately, it's not something to debate further here as I'd have to give away too many plot spoilers.

It took a while to come to grips with the slightly weird way 'Emily' works - making her sometimes visible to one person, sometimes to many - but overall I enjoyed the book.
There were a few bugs and loopholes that plagued me at times - the most niggling being the lack of panic shown by the general public. The end of the world is coming, people know about it, but everyone seems to be taking it amazingly calmly - none of the street-rioting, suicide cults, etc that you might expect and which appear in other end-of-the-world novels and films. It possible that in part this could be explained away by the fact that Emily 'lives' in the restricted environment of a university campus and news of the outside world is kept from her, but even the academics surrounding her seemed unperturbed by the thought of mass extinction.
It's good to see a 'computer' working on humanity's side for once. Emily isn't 2001's HAL, or the Terminator series' mankind-destroying machines; rest assured she has our welfare at heart.

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

Friday, 28 June 2019

The Binding by Bridget Collins

Emmett thought his life was all planned out - that he'd stay in the village where he was born, be a farmer like his father, marry one of the local girls. Then a letter arrives announcing that he's to be taken on as an apprentice Binder. Working with books is a dubious profession. There's a lot of superstition and fear surrounding them, as they aren't books as we know them. Instead they're repositories for people's unwanted memories. Lost someone you've loved? Done something dreadful that you want to keep hidden from the world? A Binder will erase your memories and store them in a book.
Emmett apparently has a talent for the work, but it also transpires that he has memories bound into a book - and when chance leads him to re-awaken those memories, his world changes completely.

If you've ever seen The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you'll immediately spot similarities; central to both stories is the ability to erase memories, specifically those relating to an unfortunate love affair. But, whereas Eternal Sunshine has a contemporary setting, and some computer thingamajig erases memories, The Binding is set in an alternative world with an early Victorian factories feel to it, and the act of 'binding' is more like a magical skill.
In this alternative world, there are no novels. Practical textbooks are considered acceptable, but fiction doesn't exist. Books are lifted whole from a person's memories, wiping away sorrow or pleasure, and  should then be safely stored away, never to be read by anyone, but there are always the unscrupulous practitioners willing to corrupt the art of Binding in various ways, to profit from hiding dark secrets through Binding, or to sell the subsequent book for others' enjoyment.

The world building is brilliant, the story-telling wonderful, and, although when I'd reached the end I began to think that maybe some of the ideas don't quite add up, it doesn't matter, because while reading I was swept along by the story.

In short, i loved it, and it will probably end up in my picks of the year!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (The Borough Press)
Genre - Adult fiction, fantasy

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

A Question of Trust by Jonathan Pinnock

Life always seems unnecessarily complicated round Tom Winscombe. Just when he thought things were settled, his bizarre luck strikes again and everything comes unraveled. His girlfriend Dorothy has gone missing, and her company's offices have been cleared out; all the PCs stolen, all the money gone.
Now Tom is having to share a bed-sit with Dorothy's business partner, Ali (not Tom's biggest fan). While she desperately tries to keep their company going, Tom's priority is to find out what's happened to Dorothy. Is it feasible she's run off with the money and equipment? Could someone else have stolen it and be holding Dorothy hostage? 
Meanwhile, Tom's father has got tangled up in some cryptocurrency scam, an old presumed-dead acquaintance has re-surfaced, and another definitely-dead acquaintance is sending him LinkdIn messages. Life's certainly not dull around Tom!
So off he goes on another escapade; an innocent caught up in a world of criminal activities and dodgy dealings, with little but his luck to help him. This time he gets mixed up with questionable city types, an off shore independent country in the Bristol Channel, crashing a stag weekend, an escaped python and an unusual use of the Fibonacci sequence - with plenty of dangerous James Bond style stunts (though Bond would probably have pulled them off with a bit more grace and panache). It's hectic, frequently dangerous, sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes laugh out loud slapstick.

As with Tom's previous mis-adventure The Truth about Archie and Pye, it's not a serious, grim Nordic Noir thriller, more 'James Bond meets Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright', or Adam West's Batman without the cape. It could all turn deadly, but it's undeniably fun.

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

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson

When society started to crumble around them, Lynn McBride's extended family left home and headed to the wilds. Here they survive on the animals they can hunt and eat, and the few vegetables that will grow in the inhospitable Arctic conditions. Life's hard and monotonous. Their small settlement hasn't seen other people in years - then one day a stranger, Jax, wanders by, bringing with, or at least behind, him remnants of the old world, and trying to survive takes on a whole new meaning. Lynn is forced to face up to her father's past, to come to terms to what he had been doing, and how it could affect them now.

I've tried my best but there are bound to be spoilers here - sorry.

I seem to be reading a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction recently. I'm not sure if this is reflecting a publishing trend, or just my personal tastes, but, anyway, here we are again after the 'end of the world as we know it', in the Canadian Yukon this time.
The familiar mix of war and flu have cut the population drastically, and if there are more survivors than Lynn and her family, they too are living hand to mouth. One aspect of the past that has managed to survive though is a government scientific programme, which has a particular interest in Jax, and, now she's been brought to their attention, Lynn. What you end up with is part post-apocalyptic survival story, part government conspiracy thriller - and it works well, although ti wasn't at all what I was expecting. After a slowish start, things kick off and you'll be hooked (I was).

The setting is unusual - the cold, snowy north - and brilliantly brought to life, even when I quibbled about some of the details of survival there.

One aspect that marginally disappointed me was that the ending seemed to be setting up for a sequel, maybe even a series. Don't get me wrong, I liked The Wolves of Winter, and it does round off to a nice conclusion, but I'm happy for it to end there, rather than have the story spin-out forever.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - HQ
Genre - post apocalyptic adult adventure/thriller

Friday, 31 May 2019

Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi

translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah

In 1819 a scientific expedition sets out from Paris to north-west Russia, in search of a lost tribe belonging to the Paphlagonian people. It's led by Professor Moltique of the Academie des Sciences, a veteran of many similar expeditions including one in which he claimed to have encountered a yeti. He's accompanied by Iax Agolasky, an enthusiastic young man, somewhat in awe of Moltique, who will take notes of everything they find, and, as the expedition is expected to last several years, nine or so men to take on the practical, physical work around their camp. They settle in to their remote camp, but it's several months before they find any signs of the people they've come to look for. At first they believe the creatures they've sighted are animals with odd human characteristics. But it's equally possible that they could be children with animal-type 'disfigurements'. Opinion in the camp is divided. Moltique swings between a variety of explanations, seeming to be searching for the one which will give him most fame. The men in general treat them as game to be hunted. Only Agolasky sees and responds to them as human beings. And now they've been discovered, what will happen to these Children of the Cave?

Presented mainly as extracts from diaries kept by Agolasky, with linking commentary from an editor, this novel examines the response of so-called civilised men to encountering others outside their norm - fear (often expressing itself in violence), curiosity, and the desire to profit from them dominate, with little fellow-feeling for the children. Agolasky alone treats them as humans, wants to befriend them and learn how and why they came to live here so far removed from other people.

Agolasky isn't a shining example though. He has a tendency to consider himself 'above' the practical members of the expedition, despising them, dismissing them as mere brutes, governed by animal passions, who could never appreciate his finer feelings. 
As the years pass the restraints of society slip away (Lord of the Flies style) with outbursts of violent anger among the men, leading Agolasky at times to fear for his life. 

As so often with Peirene's publications, the story is short but packs a punch - chilling reminder of what can happen if we begin to treat others, particularly those outside our tiny social circle, as less than us, of dehumanising others because they don't conform to our ideas of appearance and/or behaviour. It's something that is seen around us, on the news, on social media, all too often.

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

Friday, 24 May 2019

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Wake's End, home of the Stearne family, sits in a remote part of the fens, cut off from the world by the water and reed beds; even in the '60s 'progress' in the shape of draining the fen has not reached here. The last of the family, Maud, lives there quietly, surrounded by her memories of an horrific crime, for which her father, Edmund, was imprisoned. For fifty years, the events at Wake's End have been forgotten but now some of Edmund Stearne's paintings have come to light - strange disturbing images he worked on while an inmate at Broadmoor - and the press have begun to snoop around, putting their own lurid interpretation on events, and wanting to know more. Maud at last is forced to talk about her long ago childhood, and the discovery of the Wakenhyrst Doom painting which sparked her father's monomania.

This is one of those books which start at the end - so you're always aware that something deeply disturbing happened many years ago - and then travels back to the lead up to that incident. Of course, this leads the reader to try to guess how all the pieces fit together, but there are unexpected twists there to surprise.

Although it has a lot of the trappings of a horror story, it's more the story of one man's descent into madness and obsession, helped on his way by his odd religious beliefs, fixation on the 'devil' painting uncovered at the local church, and guilt over on incident from his childhood.

Maybe it's not as terrifying as the publisher's blurb might lead you to believe but it's still a chills-up-the-spine read, filled with that sense of creeping horror that Paver did so well in Dark Matter  - this time with a gothic twist which no doubt helps the ominous atmosphere and build up of tension. Good creepy stuff!

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Head Of Zeus
Genre - gothic horror

Monday, 20 May 2019

Curious Arts Festival 2019

After five years at Pylewell Park in the New Forest, Curious Arts Festival is on the move - physically to Pippingford Park in East Sussex, and with a change of date from July to August Bank Holiday weekend. The keen-eyed among you will notice this is the same date and place as Byline Festival - and, yes, the two are somewhat joining forces, with ticket holders for Curious Arts having access to both festivals.

John Cleese

The event will be opened by John Cleese on Friday 23rd August, and as always at Curious Arts there will be the wonderful mix of music, comedy, and book events, with a full weekend of activities for children running alongside - everything from author events to insect walks, journalism to late-night music - but here our primary interest is in the literary side of things.

Philippa Perry

The mix of authors and genres is as eclectic and diverse as Curious Arts itself - you can see Misha Glenny of McMafia fame chatting crime networks, hacking and dark markets,  Green Carnation Prize-listed author Niven Govinden with his new novel, This Brutal House, psychotherapist Philippa Perry talking about her 'self-help' books How To Stay Sane and The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and your children will be glad that you did),  and Dan Richards recounting his journeys in search of isolation and silence, that led to  Outpost - A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth (excellent for an armchair adventurer like myself!)

Candice Carty-Williams

Tom Rachmam will discuss his Costa-shortlisted, latest novel The Italian Teacher, debut author Candice Carty-Williams her novel Queenie, described as a politicised Bridget Jones about a 25 year old black woman straddling two cultures, and Max Porter, author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, will be there talking about his new novel, Lanny - a 'missing boy' story that taps into English folklore, described as 'a song to difference and imagination, to friendship, youth and love'

If you prefer 'real life' to fiction, then catch Lemn Sissay talking about his memoir, My Name is Why, which explores his heritage, the meaning of family, and his childhood in care homes, or Guy Kennaway on his personal experience of assisted suicide as recounted in Time To Go.

Other names announced include Ian Birch discussing revolutionary magazine covers, David Nott talking about his time as a voluntary doctor in war zones and areas of natural disaster, and Gina Rippon on her first book for the general reader, The Gendered Brain. You can find more details of these authors and more here on Curious Arts' website.

We attended two Curious Arts Festivals at Pylewell, as guests in 2016 and 2017, and loved every minute of both (except maybe the rain in the second year). The new location is not such an easy one for us to reach, but it would make an excellent excuse to explore an area that I've never visited, so maybe we will be there.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

A Boy and his Dog at the End of the World by C A Fletcher

The world (as we know it, at least) has come to an end - not with the bang of a nuclear bomb, but a whimper as humans lost the ability to reproduce. Babies were born to only the fortunate few, and as the population aged and died, the number of people left plummeted.
A generation or so on, Griz lives on the island of Mingulay, almost but not quite the most southerly island of the Outer Hebrides. It's a hard, barely above subsistence level, life, but above all, it's lonely. Apart from immediate family of parents and siblings, Griz has seen only a handful of  people. The nearest neighbours live far away on Lewis, the northern-most island of the chain (if you're not familiar with Scottish geography, look at the weather forecast map to see series of islands off Scotland's north-west coast to grasp the distance between the two). To see anyone else is extremely rare, so when Brand shows up in his red sailed boat, he's given a cautious welcome, but not entirely trusted. Unfortunately the family are not on guard against his charm and seeming good nature, and the next morning he sails away with Griz's beloved dog, Jess. Filled with anger, Griz isn't prepared to put up with this underhand stealing of Jess, and before the rest of the family are aware of what has happened, Griz is in a boat and underway, chasing Brand - at first through familiar waters off the Scottish coast, then on foot across a country reclaimed by nature.

I seem to have been reading quite a few post-apocalypse books recently (more reviews to come) and this is one of my favourites. It's nice, for starters, to have such a novel set in locations that are familiar to British readers. And it's nice to not be constantly criticizing the ways in which the characters have managed to survive during and after the wiping out of civilisation. I tend to get too involved in the practicalities of post-apocalypse existence, ready to spot anything I consider a mistake, and I was delighted to see Griz's parents having taken some of the measures I would have considered (though I'm a land-based person, and would never have thought of acquiring boats)

The story, as told by Griz in an account scribbled down at a later date, is engrossing and compelling. Despite Griz having set off on what frankly appeared to be a wild goose chase, I really wanted to see the rescue mission succeed and Jess brought home again, but there were just a few little things that let the book down as a whole. I've heard others refer to this as more of  a YA, than adult, novel, and in some respects I'm inclined to agree. The plot structure was just a little too simple for me - a sort of straight run from A to B to C etc, with adventures and surprises along the way, but no real unexpected detours - and somehow it was all just a little too upbeat, not the unrelieved misery that I half-expect from an adult post-apocalyptic novel. Otherwise, it's a great read. Enjoy it, then pass it on to your teens.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Orbit

Genre - post-apocalyptic, road trip

Thursday, 9 May 2019

I Still Dream by James Smythe

While still a teenager at school, Laura Bow develops a computer program, called Organon, to share her secrets with, vent her frustrations at, and generally play the role of best friend. She maybe doesn't realise its full potential at this point but it's her passport to an internship with a major computer development company in the US. As Laura's skills improve, so does Organon, but both the company she works for and its competitors are developing other artificial intelligences, without the moral safe-guards Laura believes are an intrinsic part of her creation.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. From the publisher's blurb, I hadn't really expected it to appeal to me at all, let alone the amount it did. A few pages in and I was finding it compelling reading - I wanted to discover where Laura's life would take her, and how Organon would develop.

It was the writing style that continued to hold me as it isn't really a plot driven story - more a character study of Laura and her artificial friend, as their lives entwine over the years - and as the end approached I found myself a little disappointed that something more dramatic hadn't occurred.

There are a lot of similarities to be made with other stories of attempts to create artificial intelligences, or of the interaction between humans and computers, so often there's a feeling of this being nothing new (partly why I've rated it 4 stars rather than 5). It is very readable though, and rest assured, Organon is a nice AI, not evil like 2001's HAL.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (The Borough Press)
Genre - Adult fiction, sci-fi 

Thursday, 2 May 2019

The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby

"Birmingham, 1885.
Born in a gaol and raised in a workhouse, Cora Burns has always struggled to control the violence inside her.
Haunted by memories of a terrible crime, she seeks a new life working as a servant in the house of scientist Thomas Jerwood. Here, Cora befriends a young girl, Violet, who seems to be the subject of a living experiment. But is Jerwood also secretly studying Cora...?"

When the reader first meets Cora she's setting out for a new place of employment, in fact it's her first taste of life outside the gaol, workhouse, and, her only previous employment, the asylum laundry. She's out-of-place, awkward, surly, almost determined to fail, but somehow she doesn't. As her story progresses we learn more of her past, of a life spent inside institutions, but, although not told in the first person, events are seen from Cora's perspective - and her memories are twisted and unreliable, so it takes a long while to discover the root of her problems. I must say, I didn't like Cora. She seemed to pick quarrels unnecessarily, to goad others into disliking her - maybe this was a reflection on her upbringing (if her life born into gaol can be considered an 'upbringing'); maybe this is how her character would have developed regardless. These are the sorts of questions that her new employer Jerwood is interested in. Is 'nature' or 'nurture' the more important factor in character and temperament? Is there a criminal 'type'? His research methods seem biased and unreliable to the modern reader, but I assume he's a fairly accurate representation of a Victorian gentleman with an interest in science and social theories. I hope they weren't all as unscrupulous, though, for he puts ambition and the making of his name above any concern for the individuals he uses as case studies.

It's a slow burn of a read, and to be honest, there were many times when I thought I'd give up on it, but I didn't, drawn in more, I think, by writing style than by concern for the characters. 

Maryom's review - 3 stars
Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - adult historical fiction

Thursday, 18 April 2019

The Disconnect by Keren David

We're all attached to our smart phones these days. Can you imagine going without yours for a day? How about a week?
When Esther's school year group are challenged to go without their phones for SIX WEEKS (!), she's torn. She needs her phone - to face-time her dad and sister in New York, to chat to her friends, for her meditation and mindfulness apps, to google information and directions. How can she survive without it? BUT, anyone who completes the challenge will receive £1000, and with that money Esther could go to New York, see her dad and sister again, and meet her baby nephew for the first time...  It's tempting ... if only she can manage without her phone ...

Keren David's latest novel for teens is an interesting look at how smart phones have become so indispensable in our everyday lives. Have they actually become an addiction though? Do we spend too much time checking out our friends' on-line updates, and not enough talking to them in real life? Without being 'preachy', the story raises some interesting questions.

Esther finds life really difficult without her phone. She misses being in on school gossip, worries about what might be going on, and what people are saying about her, but, as folk start to drop out of the scheme, she remains determined to stick it out till the end, and through the 'Disconnect' project makes friends who for one reason or another aren't part of her school on-line circle.

As one of Barrington Stoke's 'super readable' stories, The Disconnect is engaging and easy to read. While very definitely having a story-line aimed at teens, the writing is aimed to be accessible to reluctant and dyslexic readers. There are clever tricks of font size and style, page colour, and short chapters that help towards this, but, being engrossed in the story, you probably won't notice.

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - teenage/teenage reluctant readers