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Thursday, 26 November 2020

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

"I don't just want to be having any kind voice . . .
I want a louding voice.

At fourteen, Adunni dreams of getting an education and giving her family a more comfortable home in her small Nigerian village. Instead, Adunni's father sells her off to become the third wife of an old man. When tragedy strikes in her new home, Adunni flees to the wealthy enclaves of Lagos, where she becomes a house-girl to the cruel Big Madam, and prey to Big Madam's husband. But despite her situation continuously going from bad to worse, Adunni refuses to let herself be silenced. And one day, someone hears her."

 

The Girl With The Louding Voice is a coming of age story set in Nigeria; the story of fifteen year old Adunni, told in her own words, moving from the poverty of a rural village to a different sort of poverty among the affluent classes of the city, where workers are treated almost as slaves.

In many ways it's a disturbing tale, spotlighting the treatment of girls and women as commodities to be traded, in a society where men are of primary importance, and which is drastically divided between rich and poor. First Adunni is effectively sold to a much older man, already married with two wives, when her father can't pay his debts, then she goes to work for a woman in the city but all her wages go to the 'agent', the man who placed Adunni in her job, and her employer's husband feels any of the female servants should be amenable to his sexual advances. 

On the other hand, it's a story of hope, and it's hope that stays with the reader as the overall feel of the book. Whatever her situation, Adunni's resilience and determination shine through. She's adamant that somehow she'll find a way to finish her education, and be able to speak out, in her louding voice, on behalf of girls and women trapped as she is.

It's an amazing debut, told in an original, captivating voice, with Adunni finding humour and compassion in life despite her predicaments. I found myself rather regretting that her attempts to improve her English, seen as the key to bettering her prospects, would result in a watering down of Adunni's lively manners of speech.



Friday, 20 November 2020

Map's Edge by David Hair


 Dash Cowley is a man in disguise. For the past few months he's been passing himself off as a healer, and living as invisibly as possible in Thesveld, a village at the end of the world, but in a previous time he was Raythe Vyre, a nobleman, soldier and sorcerer. Following a failed rebellion against the Bolgravian Empire, he was forced to flee, moving from village to village with his daughter, Zar, until they've ended up by the sea with nowhere further left to run. Till, that is, he hears by chance of a source of riches; istariol, a rare mineral used in sorcery, has been found in the frozen north. There's enough to make the fortunes of all Thesveld's villagers, so they band together and head off on an adventure beyond the limit of the known world.

It's a good mix of adventure, magic, and inventive world-building, as the villagers pack up their lives and travel north, heading for the iceheart where nothing grows and no one lives, or so they believe. Behind them come the Empire's men - soldiers, spies and sorcerers - determined to track down the defiant rebel Vyre and find out what has persuaded a whole village to up and take to the road. Even without these pursuers, the journey isn't easy. There are the expected physical setbacks to overcome, encounters with the remains and the magic of a previous civilization, plus rivalry and treachery amongst the villagers' own numbers. 

Although at the back of your mind you know all will come well in the end - that Vyre will find the source of istariol, that the majority of the villagers will complete the journey unscathed, and the bad guys will eventually be beaten - the story is a compelling, engrossing read you can disappear into for hours at a time. 

The only downside is that Map's Edge is book one of a series, and there'll be a wait before the next installment of the story. 

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

The 2084 Report by James Lawrence Powell


This novel takes the form of a series of interviews with various people from scientists and politicians, to ordinary people, living all over the world, with one thing in common - despair at what went wrong in dealing with climate change.

I was hoping for something a little more inspiring  - something that would encourage me to do more, make changes to my lifestyle which could really help combat climate change. But no. Instead, I found it all quite dull. When covering up to the present day, most of the interviewees were regurgitating facts I was already aware of. Then, as they moved onto what happened post-2020,  I found myself arguing with them, querying why options that everyone has surely heard of, such as solar or wind power, weren't utilised to their fullest.

The answer comes at the end of the book - the author basically wants to champion nuclear power; in fact it's seen as the answer to all our problems. There's no way I'm a fan of that, I think it's just shelving the issue for a while and a price will have to be paid somewhere down the line.

Would I recommend this title? Only to an absolute climate change denier. It might stop them in their tracks and make them think. Anyone who is already concerned about the way things are going will probably, like me, just be irritated. 

Thursday, 12 November 2020

The Betrayals by Bridget Collins


The world renowned Montverre academy has for centuries been a place where promising youngsters are trained in the discipline known simply as the 'grand jeu', a mix of music and mystical moves, but behind its prestige and fame lie secrets and tragedies. Léo Martin was once a student there, a winner of awards, but he gave it up and turned to politics. Now, after a rash comment in the wrong place, he's back at Montverre, in exile, with his promising career in tatters. His old college has changed though; one of their highest teaching posts is held by a woman, Claire Dryden, towards whom Léo is drawn, despite her seeming disdain for him.



As with Collins' previous novel The Binding, this is a multi-layered, multi-faceted story, of love, deception, and betrayals of several kinds, set against a backdrop of a world that isn't quite ours. Montverre in its mountainous setting sounds French but feels like it belongs further east. The government that Léo offends has many of the hallmarks of the early stages of the Nazis rise to power - a leader demanding absolute loyalty, persecution of a religious minority, the shutting down of educational and artistic academies who aren't prepared to support the Party fully. Against this menacing backdrop, the stories of Léo, Claire and others within Montverre play out, moving between 'present day' and Léo's student days which ended in tragedy.

It's captivating and escapist, while at the same time warning of the dangers of allowing arts and education to become twisted for political ends. Since reading The Betrayals, I've watched The Queen's Gambit on Netflix, and I think if you've been gripped by that then this is a book for you.
 

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

Friday, 30 October 2020

The Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas

For two hundred years, on a small island just outside Oxford, the Kendrick family have been making exquisite dolls. As each is finished a hex is placed on it, giving it an emotion, from terror to bliss, which can be felt by anyone who touches the doll. It's a close-knit family business, with few outsiders allowed to join (and they are usually marrying into the family) The placing of the hex is a closely guarded secret even within the family, one which, although the company was founded by women, is now guarded by the men of the family; women may design and build houses and sets for the dolls but only men are 'sorcerers' allowed to fix emotions in the dolls.

Into this tight community comes a young man, Larkin, claiming to be a descendant of one of the founding sisters. He too is a maker of dolls, and now wants to claim a rightful place in the family business. Unusually for the Kendrick family, he's accepted on trust and given a position in the company, though no access to the vital magic that makes a Kendrick doll unique. His presence soon causes stirrings in the quiet lives of the Kendricks' world. Persephone Kendrick believes the dolls she creates are as beautiful as any made by the men, but as a woman she's not allowed to make 'Kendrick's' dolls but is relegated to the shop. Through Larkin she sees a way out of her stifling circumstances; a chance of a life where she can follow her ambition to create dolls of her own. 

Meanwhile a valuable irreplaceable doll is stolen, and only a family member with a knowledge of their magic could have executed the theft. There are various suspects, including Persephone's father, but most of the extended family seem happy to blame the fabled 'thief on the winged horse' - a magical character deemed responsible for much of the good - and ill - fortune of the Kendricks. 

I loved this book, from its magical elements to its all-too-real family rivalry and jealousy. Two elements lie at its heart - the daring theft, and the upheaval created by Larkin. At first he seems to slide smoothly into the family's way of things, but soon it's apparent that his arrival has caused a ripple-effect bringing long-held discontents to life.

With its mix of family secrets, betrayals and love, the tracking down of whoever committed the theft, of  Persephone's determination to challenge the status quo and follow her dream, there's something for almost everyone. This isn't 'fantasy' as such; the influence of 'magic' is slight, and for me the appeal was in its characters and their loves and deceits. The characters are well-drawn and realistically brought to life (more so then even a Kendricks' doll), while underpinning their action and the story is a knowledge of human frailties and desires.


 

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi


 Growing up in a small Ugandan village in the seventies, Kirabo's world is far removed from modern 'western' life. Her father, Tom, and Aunt Abi visit from the city but life at home in Nattetta is still strongly traditional, following a way of life that has remained largely unchanged. Tribal hierarchies are still firmly in place, with men in charge as the owners of the land and animals which represent wealth, but the women still tell stories, passed through the generations from mother to daughter, of when they were as powerful, if not more so, than men. Kirabo wants more from life than her village can offer, and when her father sends her to boarding school she looks well on the way to achieving it, but two things still unsettle her - the identity of her unknown mother, and her love for a village boy, Sio.

The First Woman is a coming of age tale with strong themes of women's friendship and independence. It's one of those titles that you start out assuming it refers to the heroine, Kirabo, but could equally belong to others - the Ugandan version of Eve in the creation myth, Kirabo's mother (as the mother of Tom's first child), Nsuuta the first love of Kirabo's grandfather, or the country's first female president ( a role Nsuuta believes Kirabo could achieve). As the titled is multi-layered, so is the story itself.

 The story centres on Kirabo, on one girl finding her own way to adulthood, and understanding her place in the world by discovering both her past through her mother's identity, and that of her family through the friendship and rivalry of grandmother Alikisa and the 'witch' Nsuuta. On the side though I learned a lot about Ugandan history - from the influence of missionaries, Idi Amin's dictatorship and the war which ended it, to its culture and traditional way of life, and the conflict, at both a personal and wider level, between that culture and the new 'modern society' of the cities.

I hadn't heard of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi before I caught her event at this year's online Edinburgh Book Festival. Hearing her talk about and read from The First Woman, I decided to track it down and explore more by this author billed by the festival as 'Uganda's First Woman of Fiction'. I'm really glad I did.

Maryom's review -  5 stars
Publisher - Oneworld Publictions 
Genre - adult fiction, literary fiction, African fiction 

Friday, 9 October 2020

World Burn Down by Steve Cole


 illustrated by Oriol Vidal


Carlos is at home, impatiently waiting for his mum to return from work, when door of his flat is broken down, and he is kidnapped. His mother's job with IBAMA, Brazil's Environmental Authority, involves protecting the Amazon forest from illegal clearing by farmers or miners, and her actions have annoyed some very ruthless men. Carlos is taken far into the Amazon forest where his abductors plan to hold him to teach his mother a lesson, but an accident gives him chance to escape. He isn't safe though as fires are raging out of control all around him. Will he be able to outrun them? or will he find himself running straight back into the clutches of his kidnappers?


This latest book from well-known children's author Steve Cole is a fast-paced adventure set against a backdrop of the destruction of the Amazon forest. Primarily it's an action story, with Carlos attempting to escape his captors, but seeming to run from one danger straight to the next. Behind the action though are important things to be learned about the destruction of the rainforest, and the reader gets to share Carlos' horror at what he sees, and his realisation of the importance of the work done by people like his mother. Till now he's seen it as just a job, something that takes her away for long hours, without maybe fully realising its global significance. His previous experience of the forest has been of sanitised tourist-trails designed to delight and enthrall; now he's seeing first hand the realities of land-grabbing, the fires which lay waste to huge areas each day, and the gold mines which turn jungle into a sterile moon-scape. It's an excellent mix of fact and fiction which will both entertain and educate.

Aimed at 8 year olds and over, as always with titles from Barrington Stoke, the presentation - font, colour, chapter length - is designed with reluctant and dyslexic readers in mind, but none of this detracts from it being a gripping, nail-biting read, with Oriol Vidal's illustrations bringing the story vividly to life.

Friday, 25 September 2020

The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

A patient arrives in  hospital with flu-like symptoms and within hours he's dead. His illness is like nothing anyone has seen before, and before anyone has chance to act the infection is sweeping through the hospital and beyond. The most bizarre thing is that only men seem to be affected. What do you do when the world's faced with losing almost half its population, and its accumulated skills and knowledge?

This isn't published till next spring, and I'm not sure whether its relevance to this past year will work for or against it. How many want to read more about pandemics? Will we have had quite enough of them by then?I'm not sure. I've happily watched Contagion (and criticised it) during lockdown, and raced through this. Maybe it's akin to watching disaster movies or real-life medical dramas? Whatever, it's a compelling read - particularity the first half/three quarters, it slows after that - and I rather enjoyed it even when picking fault with the characters' actions.

Unfortunately we're all now experts on pandemics, so a variety of things may grate - no lockdown, no mention of R number, no segregation of men and women. And as a voracious reader and watcher of apocalyptic pandemic fiction I like to spot details that I think might not hold true, and plan how I would do things differently and, of course, better (down the Winchester for a pint), so I did somewhat pick holes in the plot as I went along. As I said, though, I still enjoyed it. It's gripping, quickly paced, and highly topical!

It would make a brilliant read for a book club, or just to discuss among like-minded, slightly survivalist friends. I'd love to hear a man's opinion of it - though he'd probably insist he'd fall into the tiny immune group.



 

Thursday, 17 September 2020

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

 

Anyone who's visited the coast near North Berwick will have seen the Bass Rock sitting out to sea, dominating the horizon. In the same way it looms over the lives of the characters in Evie Wyld's latest novel. 

The story follows three women, close in location, but separated by time. 

First chronologically is Sarah in the 1700s - accused of witchcraft and running for her life. 

In the mid-twentieth century, Ruth is trying to start life again, after the loss of her beloved brother during WW2.  She's moved to North Berwick with her husband, a widower with two boys, and is having difficulties fitting in to this new life with a ready-made family, in a strange town.

Sixty years later, in more or less the present day, Viv, the daughter of one of those sons, is journeying between life in London and North Berwick. Her father has died, and the house needs to be cleared of personal belongings, including some belonging to Ruth, before the house is sold. 

At first the storyline seems to jump about here and there, but persevere as it builds into a compelling but disturbing read. For all three women life is defined by rules created by men - how they should behave, what they are allowed to do (sometimes even think) - and, of course, if men are provoked to violence it's the women's fault. 

Wyld's writing is perceptive and empathic, bringing the characters to life through close observation of their actions. An initial feeling of slight weirdness builds imperceptibly into a feeling that dreadful things could be about to happen at any moment. 

Throughout, Bass Rock is there in the background, a constant brooding presence, watching every move. In part its presence seems malevolent, an all-seeing eye which will take action if anyone steps out of line (a bit like The Prisoner's 'Rover'), but at times I felt it could be seen as an unattainable land of safety.

Maryom's review -  4.5 stars
Publisher - Jonathan Cape

Genre - adult fiction, literary fiction

Monday, 7 September 2020

As You Were by Elaine Feeney


Sinéad Hynes is in hospital, ostensibly with a respiratory infection, but she's been aware for months that she has cancer, which is now spreading as she's refused treatment. Her family don't know, her fellow patients don't know, and at first even her doctors don't know.
For now, life is reduced to this one hospital ward - to the comings and goings of staff and visitors, and to the stories of fellow patients. Confined in one room, with little chance of physical privacy, the barriers that might have separated these people in normal life come tumbling down.
It's a mixed ward, but the two men are mostly silent, and the women take centre stage, representing different ages and 'types' of Irish womenhood.
Margaret Rose is a matriarchal figure, in constant touch with her large family via phone, trying to track down her missing husband and sort the problems her daughter has got into. Ex- teacher Jane, now suffering from dementia, can remember the past clearly - her one true love, and the awful toll enacted on unmarried mothers - but doesn't understand why she's here in this strange place - is it a shop, or a hotel? she wonders.
Sinéad is a more modern woman. The only girl in a family of boys, bullied by her aggressive father,
 she now seems to have taken on the male role in her family - her husband being more nurturing and home-centered than she - with her property business and a string of casual infidelities.


As You Were is a stunning debut novel from Irish poet, Elaine Feeney. Through these lives Feeney explores what it is to be a woman, and the various choices life forces upon us. The narrative technique is unusual, mixing flashbacks to Sinéad's childhood with things she overhears on the ward, but perfectly conveys the random intimacies and sudden friendships when people are forced together. And, considering the setting, it's a story surprisingly full of life and hope.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Harvill Secker
Genre - 
adult

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan

 In 1973, Moll Gladney runs away from her home in rural Ireland, leaving her distraught parents, Paddy and Kit, with their lives turned upside down, terrified of what may have become of their daughter, attempting to continue with their daily routines while fending off both the sympathy and inquisitiveness of their neighbours.
Time passes, as it's bound to, with no word from Moll, till five years later she returns, turning up out of the blue one day, followed shortly afterwards by her husband, Alexander, and baby son, and life for the Gladneys takes another surprising turn.

 Strange Flowers is a story of family, loss, and redemption, of three generations bound together by love, but torn apart by secrets. It takes the characters and readers from the quiet slow life of rural Tipperary, to hectic, bustling London, following the characters closely as their stories play out, though retaining some secrets till the end. Life in the Gladney's small close-knit community may seem idyllic, but there are drawbacks. It's a place where it's hard to keep a secret, where everyone must conform to what's expected, and anything or anyone out of the ordinary is looked upon with suspicion. London by comparison seems an anonymous city where you could perhaps be your true self, but it's an impossible place for Moll and Alexander to raise their son.


I've loved Ryan's writing since I first read The Thing About December, and Strange Flowers is another utterly stunning book. As always, his storytelling is beautiful and lyrical, enveloping the reader with the lilt and cadence of his native Tipperary, occasionally shocking them with abrupt outbursts of violence, but always full of compassion and warmth.               

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

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Summerwater by Sarah Moss



At the end of a long single track road sits a holiday park, a small group of wooden chalets. With a lochside location surrounded by mountains it sounds like the perfect place to rest and relax, to get back in touch with nature and the simpler things in life, far away from normal everyday life. But the Scottish weather is proving a disappointment. The rain is constant. Getting out and about seems unappealing. There's little for the families on holiday at the park to do but stay indoors, and maybe watch the other holidaymakers. 
A wife tries to outrun her problems, children are forced outside to play by the water, teenagers would rather be anywhere else. A young couple think of what their future holds: an older one reminisce about the past. One family, though, is marked out as 'different'. They play music and party late at night. They don't have the proper 'serious' clothing and footwear. Maybe you aren't allowed to have fun while the rain continues to pour and ruin everyone else's holiday?

Over the course of a day, tempers start to unravel, tension rises, and, whether it's from children spotting another child who's easy to bully, or from the solitary guy camping nearby, there's a feeling of trouble brewing.

Sarah Moss has perfectly captured that claustrophobic mood of sitting hunkered inside out of the rain, day after day, in an area where all the attractions - walking, swimming, cycling - are outdoors, of longing to go out but being soaked after a few minutes, while inside wet clothes steam but never dry out, and the windows fog up from condensation. 
Following first one person, then another, we see the day unfold from different perspectives, and with each of them that uneasy tension builds. By close observation and dipping into their thoughts, at the end of the day/novel, these feel like people you know intimately, possibly better then their close families do. There's a certain similarity to Jon McGregor's If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, with the emphasis being on people going about a fairly ordinary day, doing little of importance, while unknown to them tragedy is about to strike. 
And the ending ... well, that's one that will resonate for quite a while. DO NOT be tempted to skip ahead and see what happens. On a second or third reading you'll know how things work out; just once let the full shock hit you.


Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Picador
Genre - adult, literary, 

Monday, 10 August 2020

Camelot by Giles Kristian



Ten years after 'King' Arthur's defeat in the 'last great battle' against the Saxons, Britain is a leaderless land, fallen into famine and desolation. Arthur has disappeared, feared dead, and the Saxons are preparing to sweep through the country and take over.

For those ten years, Galahad has lived in a remote monastery in the marshes, expecting that one day he will become one of the brotherhood who guard the Holy Thorn of Joseph of Arimathea, but fate has more exciting and dangerous things in store for him - first when he meets the spear-wielding, Saxon-killing girl, Iselle (she saves his life), then when famed warrior Gawain arrives, determined that Galahad should join his band of men and help oppose the Saxon advance. And off they go, on a series of quests, to find Arthur, the druid Merlin, and a magic cauldron, and hopefully rid Britain of the Saxon invaders.


Camelot is an interesting retelling of the story of Galahad, son of the Lancelot, which mixes legends about King Arthur and the Round Table with fairly accurate historical setting of the turbulent post-Roman 'Dark Ages'. For this isn't a tale of gallant knights in shining armour, but of a people plunged into despair, vaguely remembering the glory days of Arthur and his knights, but lacking the will to band together and bring back those days. In contrast, Gawain and his men may be grizzled old warriors, somewhat past their prime, but they still believe in the cause they once fought for, and are ready to give their all for one last chance to push back the encroaching Saxons. The involvement of Merlin and his (rather dubious) magic, takes the story out of straight 'historical fiction' and adds a 'fantasy' element.

Oddly, because it is primarily a story filled with fighting and unpleasant deaths, it's not necessarily quickly-paced. There's a lot of description of settings from the marshes of Somerset, to cliff top castle at Tintagel, to atrocities encountered along the wayside, but these help build the atmosphere of place and time (and to be honest I sometimes find blow by blow fight scenes tedious) 


The author describes Camelot as a 'companion' rather than sequel to his previous novel, Lancelot, and it certainly worked well for me as a stand alone book. 


Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - 
Bantam Press
Genre - 
adult, historical fiction, fantasy

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Captivity by Lander Hawes


Josh Haddon is a well known, you might even say famous, actor. He lives in a luxury flat in an upmarket part of London, can take his pick of the many scripts that come his way, receives invites to show biz parties, gets recognised in the street, and takes advice from his equally-famous neighbour tennis star Jeff Brazer on how to avoid the paparazzi. But as the story follows him on his day to day routine, a picture begins to build of a man living in an emotional vacuum, one who has lost something precious, something that he certainly didn't value at the time but is irreplaceable. Now his days seem purposeless. Sticking strictly to a routine gives him the illusion of activity and purpose, but his mind still wanders, via the photo album prominently displayed on his coffee table, to the non-so distant past before he was well known, yet life was somehow better.

I read Captivity straight after a deeply-immersive stream of consciousness atmospheric narrative, and at first found it a shock.
The tone of the narration seems simplistic, lacking in stylistic flourishes, but they're Josh's words, capturing in detail the smallest happenings of his days, and equally adroitly avoiding any emotional issues.

It seems at first to be a story concerned with the superficialities of life - money, cars, women - but it's a slow-burn revelation of character which explores the downside of fame, and the concept of  'captivity' in a variety of ways.  He's still held captive by his past - his early married life in the suburbs, the empty days between small acting jobs, the sudden end of this time, coinciding with a meteoric rise to fame. And now, although Josh may have found fame and fortune but they haven't brought freedom with them. In fact they've brought a new form of captivity; the unwanted attention from fans and journalists, the gilded cage of his flat, his image of who he is, and even the glamour and glitz of his new life all trap him in different ways. Faced ultimately with a choice between real friendship and the superficial glitter of fame, he chooses fame. I think how the reader views the ending will depend on their own views of life - me, I found it sad.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Unthank 

Genre - contemporary adult fiction




Friday, 17 July 2020

The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath



In 1236, young Ailenor of Provence arrives in England to be married to a man she hasn't met - the king, Henry III. Despite being only thirteen years old, she has to quickly learn how to manage her relationship with Henry, and negotiate the undercurrents of court life. As she starts to find her feet in this foreign land, she finds herself  treading a narrow path though the political mire; torn between friendship with Henry's sister, Nell, and Henry's displeasure with Nell's husband, Simon de Montfort; and seeking to, understandably, surround herself with the familiar faces of her uncles, she's accused of putting family ties before suitability for the job.

Great for lovers of historical fiction, The Silken Rose is an interesting look at the workings and machinations of the English court at a somewhat forgotten time in history.
Where Carol McGrath excels is in adding personality to the scant descriptions of history books, and in capturing of the minutiae of daily life at Court. Descriptions of feasts, and the embroideries worked by Queen Ailenor and her ladies fill, maybe not every page, but quite close. In this novel, the life of Queen Ailenor is intertwined with that of her favourite embroideress, Rosalind, the craftswoman behind the many hangings that adorn Ailenor's castles. Through her eyes we see another side of Medieval London - the prominent merchants and guildsmen of the city who bankrolled many of the king's projects.


The Silken Rose is the first of a new trilogy from Carol McGrath, which will follow the lives of three medieval queens who were regarded by their contemporaries as 'she-wolves' - mainly because they upset the nobility. Ailenor was accused of favouring her family, particularly her uncles, with titles and benefits; her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Castille, subject of the second book, of greed; and Isabella of France (Eleanor's daughter-in-law) of being 'not one of us'. The author believes all of them deserve a better appreciation.

Friday, 10 July 2020

The Riddle of the Fractal Monks by Jonathan Pinnock

 



 Tom Winscombe and Dorothy Chan were hoping for a quiet evening out listening to choral music by twelfth century Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Their plans get sent somewhat awry though by the death of robed monk, after falling from an upper gallery. They're soon off on a trail which leads them to a very strange religious order, and to Isaac Vavasor, custodian of the papers of his famous brothers, mathematical geniuses Archie and Pye. Somewhere along the way there are alpacas and pigs, a missing thesis to be retrieved from the bed of the Bristol Channel, an assassin with a harpoon gun, a secret mountain-top monastery to break in to, and people who'll do anything to stop Tom and Dorothy finding out whatever the monks are hiding. 

This is the third of Tom and Dorothy's adventures, and really if you want to understand all about the exciting ground-breaking mathematical theories of the Vavasor twins, the applications they can have in the 'real' world, and the lengths people will go to to get their hands on a few equations, you're best to read The Truth About Archie and Pye, and A Question of Trust before embarking on this story. You could just plunge straight in though; you'll probably pick up the gist of things as events spiral out of control.
It doesn't really take a lot to get Dorothy involved in anything concerning the Vavasors, and where Dorothy goes Tom is often not so much just behind as being sent in front to do the dangerous stuff. Dorothy is definitely the brains, while Tom provides the, well, 'muscle' doesn't seem quite the right word, but something close. I've lost count of the ways he's avoided a bizarre death so far, and this time is no different.  
Throughout lockdown, I've struggled to find books that hold my interest. Maybe because this is just not trying to reflect the 'real world, it did. It's maybe not an overly plausible story-line, but it's a compelling read and a lot of fun.  

Tom is never going challenge James Bond at espionage, but he's always willing to try.  






Thursday, 2 July 2020

Miss Benson's Beetle by Rachel Joyce




Life has forced Margery Benson into a dead-end teaching job which she's never enjoyed. Then one day in an uncharacteristic moment of passion, she storms out of school, burns her bridges and decides to pursue her one dream, to find the undiscovered Golden Beetle of New Caledonia; an insect which has long been rumoured to exist but which no one has caught and categorised. To help on her quest, Margery will need an assistant - one as practical and down to earth as herself; one with stout shoes and practical clothing, able to cope with jungle, heat, and the basic living conditions they'll have have to tolerate on their expedition. Instead, she ends up with Enid Pretty; petite, curvaceous, and dressed head to toe in pink - possibly the most impractical explorer's outfit ever!

Miss Benson's Beetle is a light-hearted, engaging, feminist tale of adventure and adversity, of over-coming the odds with the help of one's friend, and attempting to fulfill one's long-held dreams.
Together they make the most unlikely pair, but Enid refuses to be left behind, so they set out to the other side of the world on a journey of discovery, of both beetles and friendship. Margery and Enid are perhaps the most unlikely two women to ever imagine as friends, but, thrown together by circumstances and Enid's determination to not be left behind, a bond gradually grows between them. Both have long-held dreams, and New Caledonia looks like the place they might come true.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

A Remembrance of Ghosts by Frank Barnard



Tom Doyle is the youngest, least experienced reporter on a small local newspaper in Kent, but has big ambitions. There's not really a lot going on in the area - certainly nothing that will help him make his name  - so when he stumbles across the tale of a mysterious 'monster', a local bogey man called the Looker, used to frighten children, he hopes he can build it up into an interesting feature piece. Hanging around the church supposedly frequented by the Looker, Tom stumbles on something or someone else - a war widow who takes an interest in him because of an uncanny resemblance to her dead husband. Through her he's introduced to an upper class world in which he doesn't fit, but finds himself attracted to her daughter Alice, flighty and wild, and quite unlike anyone, particularly any girl, Tom's met before. Alice, though, despite her youth has a dark murky past, and the Looker isn't the only evil lurking in the marshes.

The story unfolds as a now-elderly Tom revisits his home after a long absence, and as he looks back on his youth he realises that those days might not have been as innocent as he believed at the time. I feel there's a certain vein of 'nostalgia TV' that portrays the '50s as some sort of idyllic, post-war, almost traffic-free, happy, gentler world. In Tom's reminiscences we see things as they were more likely to have been - narrow-minded, prejudiced - and from attitudes towards women or the forever-after sanctity of marriage I found those prejudices irritated me, but I'd rather know how things really were, than believe in a misplaced utopia. 

Something that shone through, was the author's love for all things related to flying. Tom is waiting anxiously for the day when he'll be called up to join the RAF for his National Service, and is enthralled by anything and everything about it. Personally, I have a fear of flying and heights, but joining Tom on a jaunt above the Kent marshes I could almost see the appeal.







Wednesday, 10 June 2020

A Poison Tree by J.E. Mayhew

Review by The Mole

A young girl is found murdered in a park and her shoes are missing. Clearly the killer wanted a trophy. DCI Blake starts to investigate and tries to find out about the shoes. He quickly uncovers a web of intrigue which includes solved murders going back many years. How can he unpick this web to find the killer? Or is it lots of killers? As more murders occur it becomes necessary to find a common link or start looking for multiple killers.

Complex is the word I'd use to sum this up. The more I read the less it made sense - and this is what Blake found.

Blake's mother went missing a couple of years ago as she seemed to wander out the house with dementia. Blake's personal life has, as a result, been in a continuous state of hold while he waits for news. And while he waits he tends for his mother's cat who seemingly has a grudge against him.

But Blake has a team that work with him and they each have their strengths and issues. Playing to those strengths, he has his team conduct their share of the investigation while Blake tries to pull it all together.

I loved this book not just for the plot - which was certainly a challenging one for me - but also for all the characters including the pet psychologist.

The author is a facebook friend of many years and so when I saw him share an invitation to sign up for his newsletter, I signed up. That enabled me to get a free copy of "Tyger Tyger" which is a short book that predates A Poison Tree. I found it so engrossing that I bought this book as a kindle edition so that I could read it on my phone. One day I may meet the author but I won't ask him to sign it!

Publisher: Zertex Crime
Genre: Crime, Murder mystery, Police Procedural.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow


January Scaller has grown up as the ward of wealthy collector Mr Locke in his house filled with rare art and artifacts, while her father is employed by Mr Locke to scour the world for more treasures. Her mother died long ago, and, as Mr Locke has no family of his own, January's life is fairly isolated and quiet. Then one day she discovers a strange old book, with the lettering almost rubbed away from the cover, that tells of doors to other worlds. It's just fiction, surely? but, as a child, January believed she found such a door, so some of it is surely true.


This is a spellbinding, unputdownable read, a mix of romance and adventure, loyal friends and evil societies, and, with ten thousand other worlds to escape to, perfect for these stay-at-home times

it's not perfect - one of the worlds has a resemblance to LeGuin's Earthsea, the writing is occasionally over the top with too many ornate, elaborate descriptions, and what I assume to have been big plot reveals were quite predictable - but none of that matters. This is a book i could happily fall into and lose myself again and again, so it earns five stars.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Orbit
Genre - fantasy/speculative fiction 

Monday, 18 May 2020

Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence

Nona Grey is reaching the end of her incredible story. Rescued from the hangman by the Abbess of Sweet Mercy convent, and trained in martial arts and unseen magics, now she must fight to save the Empire from invaders. Her world is one where only a comparatively narrow belt of land is fit to live on, the rest overwhelmed by ice sheets, one settled long ago by different tribes from another planet, but remains still exist of a civilisation which preceded theirs.

The world building is excellent, character development believable and well thought-through, the plot gripping and well-paced. Swapping between two timelines - one picking up where book 2 left off, the other following Nona as she and her fellow nuns prepare for war - doesn't leave time for a dull  moment

One thing I particularly liked was that Mark Lawrence hasn't created one kick-ass heroine, but  whole convent full to support her. Okay, some of these women are not thoroughly, or at all, on Nona's side, but they're still strong independent women, easily the equal of the male soldiers and spies they encounter. I'd maybe like to have heard more of Abbess Glass's story, but for most of the series she just exists in the background, although her 'long game' shapes Nona's character and actions.


Holy Sister is the concluding part of Lawrence's Book of the Ancestor series (and you DO have to have read the previous two books - Red Sister and Grey Sister - to understand what's going on) but he's already started a new series based among the tribes who live on the Ice, so there's no need to say farewell to this world just yet.

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

Thursday, 7 May 2020

When The Lights Go Out by Carys Bray


Chris and Emma's marriage is falling apart, their relationship being broken by something bigger than the two of them - the fate of mankind and the planet. Once they were equally concerned about the environmental catastrophe unfolding around them. Now, juggling home and work, Emma has adopted a more pragmatic approach to living, recycling whatever she can, and trying to make their resources (and income) stretch as far as possible. Chris, meanwhile, has begun to prepare for the end of the world, obsessing over climate change, stockpiling food and bizarre medicine bought online, and trying to spread his beliefs by preaching in town at weekends. 
As rain falls, the electricity mysteriously fails, and Christmas approaches, Emma begins to feel they can't go on in this way any longer ... and then Chris's mother moves in.

Carys Bray's third novel is the story of two people, once very much in love, but now drifting apart.. It's not down to the apathy that might sneak in to a long term relationship, but due to their different ways of coping with life and its challenges. Chris is exasperated by what he sees as Emma's abandonment of their ideals. Emma thinks Chris should concern himself with problems closer to home first, and worry about the wider world later.

As always, Carys Bray creates characters who feel real; believable and slightly flawed, they're people we can empathise with, even if we don't agree. Chris and Emma have a relationship full of love; they just choose to focus that love on different things, and express it in different ways. Emma is focused on family - the day to day hassle of providing food, clothing, and, above all, love. Chris has his sights on a longer, more catastrophic goal, and worries about how they, and anyone else, will survive when the environmental apocalypse comes.
Something I always like about Carys Bray's writing is that she isn't judgmental about her characters. It would be so easy to show Chris as in the wrong, especially when some of his actions seem a little underhand at times, but he and his ideas are presented with the same care, and given the same weight and respect that Emma's are. He and Emma may not agree, but that doesn't mean his opinions are of lesser value. They're attempting to cope with life's unpredictability in very different ways, but at the heart of both is love.

When The Lights Go Out has fallen victim to coronavirus lockdown, and now won't be published in physical form till autumn; meanwhile it's available as an e-book and audible.  I can't help but wonder what Chris would think about the situation we find ourselves in right now ... 

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Hutchinson
Genre - adult fiction,

Friday, 24 April 2020

Lost Dog: a love story by Kate Spicer





Kate Spicer is a mid-forties freelance journalist living a drug- and alcohol-fueled life which is starting to seem increasingly empty and meaningless, until she decides to adopt a dog - and it's love at first sight. Wolfy is a huge shaggy lurcher who completely transforms life for Kate. She soon comes to prefer snuggling up at home with him in the evening to late night parties, early morning walks instead of the once-perpetual hangover. Then the unthinkable happens; left overnight with Kate's brother, Wolfy runs away. Kate and her partner Charlie are desperate. They search the streets of London, set up a Facebook page, and through the internet attract a host of well-wishers and helpers (and sadly some trolls too). Their relationship is pushed to the limits but everything will be perfect if Wolfy can be found.


This autobiographical story is both a very personal tale of redemption, and a wider reflection on the relationship between humans and dogs. Most dog owners can't claim to have had their lives changed dramatically in the way that Kate's was, but we all understand the unconditional love that dogs bring into our lives, and the very special place they hold in our hearts. 

The reader follows Kate's path from 'lost woman' to one with a new love and purpose in life - a love which looks likely to disappear forever, but miraculously is found again.Being a regular chatterer on Twitter I knew of the search for Wolfy, and its happy ending, but I was still pulled in by Kate's honesty and willingness to share the good and bad in her life; when Wolfy got lost, I almost felt as devastated as she did. 


Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Penguin (Ebury) 
Genre - non-fiction, memoir, autobiography

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

A Godawful Small Affair by J B Morrison



Fifteen year old Zoe Love has gone missing from her home in Brixton. As her father alerts police, and a thorough search of the area is undertaken, her younger brother Nathan believes he has a better plan. A year earlier, Zoe claimed to have been abducted by aliens but no one believed her. Nathan thinks those same aliens have come back for her, and he, by getting abducted himself, is the only one who can bring Zoe back. He puts on his bright orange spacesuit costume, packs his rucksack with supplies - including a telescope, Swiss army knife, a Christmas cracker compass, and an MP3 player with Zoe's favourite David Bowie playlist - and waits. As the weeks drag on, and no aliens show up, even Nathan has to face the fact that maybe Zoe won't be coming home.

The previous books I've read by JB Morrison (once Jim Bob, the singer of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine) have been gentle comedies focusing on the life of 80-something Frank Derrick. A Godawful Small Affair is a change of pace with a total change in lead character. The story unfolds through the eyes and thoughts of ten year old Nathan, as he struggles to understand what has happened and tries to make sense of it in the only way he knows how - it's all down to aliens - and, although here and there lighter humorous moments peep through, the subject matter is serious.
Morrison handles the subject and perspective well, particularly his capturing of the mind-set of a ten year old, obsessed by anything and everything related to space. At first I thought we might be in a Stranger Things/ET- style scenario of actual aliens but we aren't; what happens to Zoe is an awfully familiar affair, seen so many times in the news.

There are plenty of 'missing person' novels out there, either following a police investigation or the unraveling of dramatic family secrets, but this is neither thriller nor high drama; following events from Nathan's perspective it manages to be both gentler and more devastating. It's a powerful book, heart-wrenching in its ending, but full of the love that binds family together.


Maryom's Review - 5 stars
Publisher - Cherry Red 
Genre - adult fiction

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Jane Eyre: A Retelling by Tanya Landman


From her unpleasant life as an orphan only tolerated by her rich relatives, through her time at Lowood School, to finding a position and home at Thornfield Hall with its temperamental but attractive owner Mr Rochester, the story of Jane Eyre is retold by Tanya Landman in a way to appeal to anyone not inclined to read Charlotte Bronte's full original.

The words may be simpler, and the style more concise but Landman captures the feel of the original, of Jane's independent character, her determination to find a home and happiness without having to sacrifice her principles, and, of course, the secret of who is living in the attics of Thornfield Hall.



As ever with publishers Barrington Stoke, dyslexic readers are helped by un-fussy font on off-white paper, and the breaking down of the story into short chapters. The reading age is suitable for 9+ but the book is targeted at those teens 'forced' to read Jane Eyre at school, and struggling with the length and language of the original - in this respect it's definitely a better option than watching film adaptations which tend to place the emphasis on the relationship between Jane and Mr Rochester rather than on the development of Jane's character. The plot is necessarily curtailed here and there ( I would have liked to see more of St John Rivers, as I think he plays an important part in Jane's life) and a lot of Jane's introspection is cut, but the essence of the story is all there.


Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - teenage/teenage reluctant readers, Jane Eyre, 

Friday, 3 April 2020

The Whispering Stones by Saviour Pirotta

illustrated by Davide Ortu

After his first adventure, as told in The Stolen Spear, Wolf, has discovered what he wants to do when he's grown up - to be a healer and a shaman. That's still a long way off though, and although his village's current shaman, Moon, is sympathetic and encouraging towards Wolf, the shaman's son is the total opposite. He believes he should be the one to follow his father, and does everything he can to thwart Wolf. Moon takes Wolf along to a secret shaman ceremony, but during it the old shaman is poisoned and Wolf is blamed. Again, he's forced to clear his name, this time travelling with Moon in search of a cure - a search which takes them far away from their island to the Whispering Stones, but danger follows them close behind.


This series is shaping up to be a great way to interest children (and perhaps even their parents in this time of home-schooling) in history, while still having all the ingredients of a gripping adventure, with illustrations throughout to really bring the characters alive. It isn't really necessary to have read The Stolen Spear, the first of Wolf's adventures, but if you have, you'll know he's a boy from the Neolithic age, who lives on Orkney, the islands just off Scotland's northern coast (it's briefly re-capped in the introduction for those who haven't). Wolf's friend Crow, who lives on another Orcadian island, is back to share his adventure, and prove that girls can be as strong and resourceful as boys. Children will learn a lot about the Neolithic period without realising they're having a history lesson, but the story also tackles problems which can apply to children, or adults, anywhere, anytime - choices we have to make, things we have to accept, and the importance of friendships.

Publisher  - Maverick Books
Genre - Children's historical fiction, 7+, KS2, Orkney Islands, 

Friday, 27 March 2020

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell



TWO EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE. A LOVE THAT DRAWS THEM TOGETHER. A LOSS THAT THREATENS TO TEAR THEM APART.

On a summer's day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?
Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.
Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker's son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.






William Shakespeare has to be England's best known playwright - four hundred years later his plays are still performed regularly, and he's there in every other English and drama lesson at school. Probably few of us know anything about the man himself though, his private life, and the loss which (some scholars say) lies behind his finest play Hamlet. This is where Maggie O'Farrell's first venture into historical fiction takes us - into the annex, next to his parents' house where Will and Agnes live (though he spends most of his time in London) with their son and two daughters, and where tragedy is waiting to strike.

This latest work of Maggie O'Farrell's brings all the empathy and understanding that I've found in her previous work and applies them to the Shakespeare family. As the hours tick down, as Judith takes to her bed feeling ill, and her brother Hamnet desperately tries to find his mother, another thread moves back to the first meeting of Will and Agnes, their passionate love affair and rather pressing marriage, and the bond which has kept them together even though Will has fallen in love again - this time with the theatre.

O'Farrell captures the period and the characters brilliantly. The reader is right there, alongside the women collecting eggs, tending to herb beds, and making tinctures and ointments ready for times of need, with the children trying to skip their chores and play instead, following after them round the house and garden or sneaking into the adjoining workshop of Shakespeare's father, where furs and skins are turned into gloves, from the plain serviceable pairs to the fashionable finery aimed more at show than hard wear.

Then lives are stopped by tragedy and all-encompassing grief - and O'Farrell is spot on in its description. I've lost family members over the past couple of years, and I felt that here I'd found someone who knew the emptiness and immense feeling of loss, who understood how I've felt for months, and could put it into words for me.

This is possibly O'Farrell's best work (to date, who knows what will come next?) but it just seems unfortunately timed. I think for some readers, as we head into months with corona virus dominating our lives, it may just be a little too close to home.

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

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

You Never Told Me by Sarah Jasmon


Charlie is on the far side of the world, running away from a life she's found increasingly stifling, when she's told her mother is seriously ill. Before Charlie can return home, her mother has died, but the past in its various guises is there waiting to be faced up to - the boyfriend she left only a few months before their wedding, the dog she had to abandon, her sister left juggling the care of young children and elderly parents. Charlie's mother has also left unfinished business behind - unknown to her family, she'd bought a canal boat; a link to her own past, and secrets that had been hidden for years.

Having nowhere else to live, Charlie moves into the boat, and finds herself drawn irresistibly on a voyage of discovery - learning the practicalities of canal life alongside the story of her mother's unknown early life.

You Never Told Me is an enjoyable and intriguing tale of self-discovery and family secrets, set on the semi-hidden world of northern England's waterways. The various threads of the story -  twist round and complement each other well. As her confidence in handling the boat and coping with life on the canal increases, so does Charlie's faith in herself and her ability to make decisions rather than just run from them. At the same time, she uncovering aspects of her mother's life which have never been talked about. Most of us probably dismiss parents as just that - parents - with no life or feelings before they gained that status; most of them fortunately don't have such tremendous secrets from us.

I found the whole description of canal life fascinating. I've walked alongside them often (including Bugsworth Basin which gets a mention in the book), stood at locks and watched boats move up and down, but never actually tried my hand at doing any of it. I'm not sure I'd actually be much help on a canal boat - I'd probably fall in the water - but it's nice to dream  ...




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