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 

Friday, 12 April 2019

I Owe You One by Sophie Kinsella

review by Maryom

When Fixie Farr saves a stranger's laptop from certain destruction, he, Sebastian, is so grateful he scribbles her an IOU. Does he really intend her to take it up? Certainly, Fixie treats it as a joke, until former boyfriend Ryan re-enters her life down on his luck, and she decides she has the perfect way to help him by taking up Sebastian's offer. 
Fixie is known in her family for being able to solve any problem. Show her something wrong, and she can't help but try to put it right. The only thing she can't seem to fix is her own life.

This is another enjoyable rom-com from Sophie Kinsella. It's an easy, light read; comforting in its familiarity as the story-line progresses from meet-cute, through various troubles and misunderstandings, to happy-ever-after. 
Fixie is similar to many of Kinsella's heroines - naive, gullible, put-upon and manipulated by family and friends, and too easily taken in by a guy's handsome appearance - but one I quickly sided with. The guys seem to polarise between kind-hearted good guy and irritating manipulators, and none of them seem to really appreciate Fixie's charms or intelligence. All of this is, again, par for the course with rom-coms, but familiar and comforting were what I was looking for when I picked this up, and this soothing predictability worked its charm on me.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Genre - adult fiction, romcom, 

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad by Saviour Pirotta

review by Maryom

Since his father died, thirteen year old Jabir has become responsible for looking after his family, but, try as he might, he just can't catch fish the way his father could, so money for food and rent is short. Jabir decides the best thing is to seek work in the bustling city streets of Baghdad, but, arriving there tired and hungry, he steals a loaf and is arrested. Maybe he isn't quite as out of luck as he imagines as this leads to his wood-carving skills being noticed, and he's given a job by a clock-maker. Jabir is set the task of carving twelve horsemen, which will be gilded, and form part of an elaborate clock to be sent from the Grand Caliph Harun al Rashid to the Emperor Charlemagne in Europe. Someone, though, seems determined to sabotage his hard work. Can Jabir, with the help of the clock-maker's daughter Yasmina, found out who it is, and stop them?

Set in 798 CE, at the height of the Islamic Golden Age when Baghdad was a world-famous centre of learning and art, The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad is a compelling adventure story, in which a poor fisher-boy heads to the city looking for ways to support his family but is thwarted by the evil plans of someone with a grudge against his family. The story moves along quickly, and the reader will soon find themselves holding their breath and urging Jabir on as he encounters one set-back after another.

Aimed at Key Stage 2, children of seven and over, this book is part of Bloomsbury Education's Flashbacks series which aims to bring history (particularly the periods covered by the National Curriculum) to life for young readers. As such, it's a great introduction to the Islamic Golden Age, to the sights and scents of Baghdad's streets and workshops, and the perils of the desert which surround it, but, with vivid story-telling and characters that children can relate to, it's easy to forget that this is part of a history lesson.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Genre - historical fiction, 7+, Key Stage 2

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Beauty Sleep by Kathryn Evans

review by Maryom

Like a real life sleeping beauty, Laura has been sleeping for forty years. She and her little brother Alfie were seriously ill and cryotherapy, suspending them in a deep-freeze-like state, was seen as the only way they could survive. Now a cure has been found for her illness, and it's time to wake up.

For a 1980s girl, 2028 is a shock. For one thing, she's a celebrity  -  everyone knows of her ground-breaking treatment, they want to see her, talk to her, copy her '80s fashion - and the world has changed so much -  tiny computers, cashless payments, data imprints, and everyone's flawless complexion and brilliantly perfect teeth.
Befriended by Miss Lilly, the owner of the clinic which pioneered her treatment, Laura soon has a new life - new school, new friends - but nothing can replace her family or her old friend Stacey.
There's another side though to this bright future in which Laura finds herself. Children are living rough on the streets, homeless people being classed as vagrants and taken away - but to where? Shem and his dog are trying to stay one move ahead of those tracking them down, but his sinister pursuers aren't so easily shaken. When his story and Laura's collide, an unthinkable, horrific crime is exposed.

Kathryn Evans' debut novel More Of Me was a real knock-out of a read, and with Beauty Sleep she's done it again, mixing the personal problems of a teenager coming back to life after 40 years of 'sleep' with unscrupulous science that belongs in a horror film.
The story is fast-paced and compelling. I read the sample first chapter (here on the Usborne website) and knew I HAD to read the rest. Laura's confusion and lack of memory grabbed my sympathy and intrigued me, at the same time. As her past story is slowly revealed, I couldn't help but wonder how much was being withheld or distorted by people who claimed to care for her. Which of the conflicting versions of events should Laura (and the reader) believe? 
Her story intertwines with Seth's, and it's hard to see how the two will join. Laura's new life is a privileged one of a luxurious apartment, servants, and private school. Seth's is one of living hand-to-mouth, and having no permanent home. Society doesn't seem to have become any fairer in the next decade!
A truly imaginative thriller for teens/young adults, though maybe some will find some 'medical' aspects somewhat horrific - the true horror of it though is that perhaps it isn't ALL that far-fetched!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Usborne
Genre - Thriller, Teen, sci-fi, YA 

Monday, 1 April 2019

Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff

review by Maryom

Orpen has grown up on a small island off the coast of Ireland, with only Mam and Maeve for company. In her childhood, it seemed an idyllic place - they tended their crops, played on the beach in summer, or huddled cosily round the fire in winter - but as Orpen grows up she realises that in the wider world things are very different. Ireland has been over-run by zombie-like creatures known as the Skrake, and, although Mam and Maeve chose to hide away on Slanbeg while Orpen was young, ultimately their life there isn't sustainable. When Maeve is bitten by one of the Skrake, Orpen has to choose between killing her before her transformation to Skrake is complete, or set out in the vain hope of finding other survivors who may be able to cure her. So, pushing Maeve in a wheelbarrow, with only her trusty dog at her side, Orpen sets off ...

There are countless zombie stories, and to be honest the basic plot outline has a certain familiarity to it, but what makes Sarah Davis-Goff's debut stand apart from them is its strong female 'cast'. From I Am Legend to Shaun of the Dead, there's a tendency for the main zombie-fighting hero to be, well, a hero, ie a man. (yes, there are exceptions like Bird Box but that's one of those exceptions which prove the rule). Here, things are turned around. Not only is the main character female, but men are most noticeable by their absence. There are hints in the stories told by Mam and Maeve of the brutish behaviour of male survivors, and warnings that they should be avoided almost as much as the Skrake rather than rushed to for help. The women are strong, independent, trained to fight off the Skrake - the men Orpen encounters weak by comparison. It's the women who are going to save the day here.

The writing style, too, adds to this compelling read. Told in first person narrative by Orpen, the reader shares her fears, determination, resilience, and hope.

Definitely a readable new twist on an old formula.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult fiction, zombie, dystopian, post-apocalyptic 

Monday, 11 February 2019

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

review by Maryom

When Cameron Bright is found dead, parched and burned by the unremitting Australian sun, everyone, including the police, is inclined to dismiss it as suicide or misadventure - for whatever reason, he had become stranded in this spot with no shelter and no way of calling for help. But his brother Nathan isn't convinced. He feels that, like any rancher in the area, Cameron was well aware of the danger of being stranded in open, arid country without shelter and water; it's a fact of life in the Australian outback, and drilled into the locals from childhood. And, besides, Cameron's 4x4 was found comparatively nearby, stocked with food and water, and with a radio to call for help. Surely he couldn't have just wandered off, and got lost? Nathan can't believe his brother would have made such a mistake, nor have chosen this horrific way of taking his own life.

This isn't a classic detective story. The police aren't concerned about the circumstances surrounding Cameron's death. Most of his family, despite being in shock and grieving, seem happy to accept the police verdict. Nathan alone seems to have doubts.

Despite having always lived in the area Nathan is an outsider. He set up on his own ranch when he got married, and since his wife left him has lived a completely solitary life, with occasional visits from his son, Xander, and irregular contact with his family - despite being neighbours, they live three hours apart. Now, in the period up to Cam's funeral, he's forced to stay with them, and gradually comes to see they're not quite how they appeared from a distance. Cameron has certainly been hiding nasty secrets beneath a pleasant appearance, but would any of these things be enough to kill him for?

The Lost Man is certainly a compelling read - I picked it up again while writing this review to check a few details, and got sucked into re-reading far more than necessary - but what lingers in my mind is the depiction of these remote cattle stations, small oases in the middle of an arid landscape, the isolation of the families living there, easily not seeing 'outsiders' for weeks at a stretch, and in Nathan's case not seeing ANYONE. It's a way of life that seems impossible to cope with, and one in which dark deeds can easily be hidden.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Little, Brown
Genre -adult, crime, Australia

Monday, 4 February 2019

And The Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andri Thorsson

translated by Andrew Cauthery and Bjorg Arnadottir

review by Maryom

Late in the day, the mist rolls in from the sea over the Icelandic fishing village of Valeyri, and with it comes the wind, finding its way into the houses it passes and seeking out secrets ...

For now though the sun is shining. Kata, the conductor of the village choir, cycles through the village on her way to a performance they're to stage that evening. To all appearances, she seems the perfect image of a carefree young woman, but behind her cheerful exterior lies a story of pain and heartbreak. In the houses she passes people stop for a second to watch her go by, and their stories too are revealed as the mist comes creeping in. 

There's an odd mix of cosy and chilling about this Icelandic tale. Superficially the village and its inhabitants seem serene, comfortable, respectable, agreeable. But that isn't the whole story. When the wind blows through, the mask slips, the curtain lifts, and for a few seconds we see what lies behind the happy, smiling faces. The snapshots of life show old friends meeting for dinner, a poet waiting for inspiration, a forgetful old man wandering the streets; little moments of their days when they reminisce on past troubles. Kata's story is the most disturbing of all, but others hide heartache, loss, deceit.
Underlying it all, though, is an unfailing warmth. Maybe despite our many faults, and the shocks and disappointments doled out by life, people and life are basically good, after all

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

Friday, 25 January 2019

Becoming Someone by Anne Goodwin

review by Maryom

I know Anne Goodwin primarily from her two novels - Sugar and Snails, and Underneath, but she's also a prolific writer of short stories. Now, together with publisher Inspired Quill, she's brought together forty-two stories, written between 2004 and 2018, many of them previously published in literary magazines and websites.

To call these stories 'psychological studies' might not be quite accurate, but it's close. In a multitude of scenarios, Goodwin examines how we become ourselves - straining to conform to what family or society expects, rejecting the opinions of others, finding a path for ourselves. All of them share Anne Goodwin's perceptive, sympathetic insights.

The collection is divided into six sections - Stranded in the Dark, No Through Road, No Way Back, Spinning Signposts, Forging a New Path, Into the Light - and, as you might guess from their headings, as you progress through the book the stories become more hopeful, the characters more determined to create the life and identity THEY want, not endure that forced on them by parents, friends, society. The characters - from a young single mum to a dying grandfather - try to reconcile the idea of what they should be with what they are. Some take refuge in an imaginary world. The lucky few refuse to accept society's image of how they should behave and feel, and create an identity to suit themselves.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - 
Inspired Quill 
Genre -adult fiction, short stories

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Lark by Anthony McGowan

review by Maryom

It's years since Nicky and Kenny last saw their mum, but now she's on her way to visit, arriving by plane any day soon. She left when they were young, and a lot has changed since, so while they're hyped up at the prospect of her coming home, Nicky, in particular, is partly dreading her arrival too. To fill the waiting, the boys decide to head off to the moors, just like their dad used to in the days before computers and video games. It'll be fun, a lark. They might even see one (a lark, that is), singing as it rises into the sky.
But things go wrong ...
The weather turns from dull to sleet to snowstorm, and Kenny and Nicky find themselves cold, hungry and possibly lost. A short cut seems like a good idea, but isn't, and the boys find themselves in a situation that's getting worse by the minute.

Lark is the fourth, and last, story following the adventures of Nicky and Kenny, and what an end to the series it is! Presented in a font and format to encourage reluctant, struggling or dyslexic readers, Lark is a nail-biting, heart-pounding, poignant read suitable for any young teenager. It's a story in which to lose yourself, to feel you're there on the moors, lost, wet and starting to be terrified, fearing, along with Nicky, how, and if, he's going to get out of this latest scrape. (I imagine that afterwards a lot of readers will be all 'I'd never have done anything so stupid. I'd have got us safely home, no problem' but don't disrupt them in the middle)
The story is told from Nicky's point of view and McGowan gets inside his mind in a way that makes you feel he clearly remembers being a teenager - messing about with mates, getting dumped by his girlfriend, hastily disguising his rude drawings - and, away from the danger, it's funny, especially in an appealing-to-teen-boys way (though I laughed regardless of who it's aimed at).  At the same time there's a great sense of family and belonging running throughout, a sense there's a bond between the two brothers that nothing could break.

If you haven't met Nicky and Kenny before it doesn't really matter, their story-so-far is filled in enough for you to read Lark, and without spoilers for the previous books. But if you'd like to read their story in full the first three novellas have been collected in one volume 'The Truth of Things'.

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

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Top Ten of 2018

For once, I've managed to restrict myself to ten for my 'best of the year' list - all, in their own way, absolutely brilliant ...

Take Nothing With You - Patrick Gale (Tinder Press) - in his fifties, when he thought he was past the age of being surprised, Eustace finds himself falling in love with a man he meets on the internet, and diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening condition. Undergoing long solitary hours of hospital treatment he looks back over his life - the fumbling sexual misadventures of his teenage years, and his escape from a dull, repressive home life through music. Gale's writing is engrossing, intelligent, and compelling.
Missing - Alison Moore (Salt Publishing) How to quickly sum up a novel by Alison Moore? Not easy without giving away too much plot. Jessie Noon lives a solitary life, cut off from neighbours, friends and family. The story follows her trying to start up a new relationship, and fix the gap that has grown between her and her family. On the surface, little seems to happen; beneath it, everything does. Moore is wonderful at playing with words, at building atmosphere, and at creating characters that linger long after the final page.

Home Fire - Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury) a book club read which absolutely stunned me. In this story of love, politics, family ties and radicalization, Kamila Shamsie brings Sophocles' Antigone bang up to date, setting it in present day London, where Aneeka finds herself torn between loyalty to her twin brother Parvaiz (despite his extreme beliefs) and her lover, Eamonn, son of the Muslim Home Secretary. I read hoping for a happy ending, but not even today is there an easy way out of this dilemma.

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkeviciute (Peirene) Based on actual events, this book is a gripping, moving account of the fate of Lithuanians forcibly moved from their homes during WW2 and 're-settled' in Siberia, in inhumane conditions with inadequate food or shelter. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Dalia Grinkeviciute's account doesn't ask for sympathy, but faces the situation head on, doing whatever she needs to to survive.

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan (Doubleday) Three very different men, whose lives are linked in only the slightest of ways, but for whom sorrow has crept up unexpectedly and engulfed them. Donal Ryan always has an amazing way with words, enabling the reader to walk in someone else's shoes for a short time, to experience their fears and hopes, and maybe find sympathy for them.

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne (Tinder Press) A gripping portrayal of life on a run-down, inner-London estate, of the precarious balance between hope and despair in which its inhabitants live. It follows 48 hours in the lives of three teenage friends from different backgrounds, as outside events kick off riots and change these boys' lives forever. The writing is pacy, and 'in your face', capturing 'street-talk' in a way that feels natural and unforced. It's hard to believe this is a debut novel.

The Truth about Archie and Pye: a mathematical mystery  by Jonathan Pinnock (Farrago) - an off-beat, quirky thriller. After a chance encounter on a train, Tom Winscombe finds himself in possession of a case full of mathematical equations that everyone (including the Belorussian mafia) seems to want, and they're not afraid to kill anyone standing in the way. It's fast-paced, funny, and you don't need to know anything about maths to enjoy it.

Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela (Telegram) - a moving, thought-provoking collection of short stories dealing with the search for 'home' and the difficulties of migrants caught between two places that answer to that description, between the heat and vibrancy of Cairo or Khartoum and the dull, damp streets of Aberdeen or London, or, conversely, the old-fashioned, limited world of Africa and the modern, opportunity-filled one of Europe. Having chosen to leave, though, home can't really be returned to.

Shatila Stories edited by Meike Ziervogel - an ambitious project from the founder of Peirene Press, in which she and London-base Syrian editor Suhir Helal travelled to Beirut, to the Shatila settlement created for Palestinian refugees, and worked with hopeful, enthusiastic, but inexperienced, writers from the camp itself to develop the stories that go into this collection. Again a book that lets the reader into the lives of the people so often dismissed as mere 'numbers' in a news report.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (Doubleday) This last choice is a sneaky inclusion, as it's currently only available in the UK as an e-book, and won't be available as a hardback till January 17th. It was too good to be made to wait a whole year though. It's a masterpiece of story-telling concerning a girl pulled out of the river Thames. Assumed to be dead, she miraculously comes back to life but then the search is on for her family - with several people claiming her as theirs she becomes the centre of a 'tug of love'.