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


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,

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Review by The Mole

A young girl has a husband chosen for her by her mother who sees the marriage as a way for the family to enter the USA. This is how Ana finds herself 'married' to a man twice her age and living in New York at the age of 15. Ana has undergone a huge cultural shock and does not believe she can love her 'husband', who she finds herself afraid of.

I had a PDF version of this book which I read on my phone but... despite the formatting issues that this creates I found it extremely engaging and surprising.

The author interviewed generations of Dominicans and compiled this novel (for that's what this is) from bits and pieces of accounts that she picked up from family and friends of the family - so it is not entirely fiction.

The sacrifices that Ana makes to her family came as a shock to me - one that became more concerning when reading the final author's notes to explain the book.

I didn't love this book - because that feels like condoning the behaviour of everyone involved. I did find it fascinating and extremely disturbing. Well worth a read by anyone.

This has now been long listed for THE WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2020 and it's a book well worthy of going further.

It's not a huge tome so won't take forever to read but it's well written and powerful.

Publisher: John Murray
Genre: Adult fiction

Thursday, 27 February 2020

We Wait by Megan Taylor

"The wealthy Crawleys can’t abide a scandal, so when fifteen-year-old Maddie’s behaviour causes concern, she’s packed off to the family’s country estate, along with her best friend, Ellie. But while Maddie is resentful, Ellie is secretly thrilled.  A whole summer at Greywater House, which she’s heard so much about – and with Maddie, who she adores…
But from the moment the girls arrive, it’s clear there’s more to the house and the family than Ellie could ever have imagined.  Maddie’s aunt, Natalie, and her bedridden grandmother are far from welcoming – and something has been waiting at Greywaters, something that flits among the shadows and whispers in the night.
As the July heat rises and the girls’ relationship intensifies, the house’s ghosts can’t be contained, and it isn’t just Ellie who has reason to be afraid.  Three generations of the Crawley family must face their secrets when past and present violently collide."

Ghost stories have a tradition of belonging to the long dark nights of winter, but here Megan Taylor turns things around, setting this tale in the baking heat of summer.  While ghosts whisper from within the walls of the Greywater House, the oppressive atmosphere builds; like the release that thunder brings, something at Greywater is getting ready to burst. And as the two teens are drawn irresistibly to each other, Maddie's aunt Natalie remembers her own youth, and the dreadful events that shaped her life. 

We Wait is a story of family secrets, with a terrific brooding atmosphere. It maybe falls somewhere between ghost story and psychological thriller, or maybe it's both combined. Evil just drips from the old house, and you know something horrific is going to occur. Great for lovers of both genres

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini

translated by J Ockenden

Adelmo Farandola lives up in the mountains, as far away from other people as he can get - nearly at the summit in summer, further down in winter when snow and avalanches keep everyone else away. Once, maybe twice, a year he'll descend to the village below to stock up on food and wine, otherwise he prefers to be alone. If any enthusiastic hikers stumble upon him, he shoos them away, sometimes physically. The only person he sees regularly is the young mountain ranger who insists on stopping to chat, and who Adelmo believes is spying on him.
This winter though, he'll have company - a stray dog who won't be frightened away. As the snow falls and covers Adelmo's hut completely, the two huddle up inside to wait for spring, but when it eventually arrives and the snow begins to melt a gruesome discovery awaits them.

The first of Peirene's 'Closed Universe' series, Snow, Dog, Foot is an uncomfortable read, exploring the affects of self-imposed isolation on the mind and habits of an elderly man. 

Throughout the book, I found my response to Adelmo himself changing, feeling variously curious, repelled, sympathetic, as his life was slowly revealed. At first he seems a mildly eccentric, somewhat cantankerous, old man, just trying to maintain the self sufficient way of life lived by his forebears. His chosen place has enough for his simple needs; his hut was built in a spot proved to be safe from avalanches, there's an orchard nearby where he grows apples, a plot for potatoes, and a pasture where he once kept cows. Forget Heidi's Alm-Uncle, though; this isn't some pastoral idyll. Adelmo once lived in the village, and has retreated further and further up the mountain in an attempt to escape a long ago trauma. As his interactions with his fellow men have become less frequent, isolation has taken a toll on his memory, his grasp on reality has slipped, and life become one of almost feral animal existence, barely more civilised than that of the grudgingly-adopted dog.
With the uncovering of a human foot as the snow slowly retreats, Adelmo's state of mind finally slips, muddling current events with those of the war, and his story moves to a dreadful, devastating close. The final image isn't one which is easily forgotten.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press

Genre - Adult Literary Translated Fiction

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

Whether it's from multiple readings of the book or casual watching of TV and film adaptations, most of us know Jane Austen's story of the Bennet family of Longbourn; of Mrs Bennet's desperate ploys to marry off her five daughters, of the happy-ever-after romances of elder sisters Jane and Elizabeth, and the wild, impetuous, embarrassing (totally teenage) behaviour of youngest sisters, Lydia.and Kitty. But what about the middle sister, Mary?

In any other family Mary Bennet would have been considered, if not pretty, at least attractive, but with four sisters - beautiful, witty, vivacious, or just younger -  she's overlooked by family, friends and, most importantly, any young men she meets as the dull, plain one. Snubbed, she turns to books for solace and improvement - not the fiction loved by her mother, but serious moral, philosophical  works - and in a vicious circle finds herself to be more of an oddity than ever

In The Other Bennet Sister, Janice Hadlow revisits the familiar events in Longbourn from a new perspective - that of 'middle' sister Mary. She's dismissed by her family as dull, boring, prim, She looks set for life as a spinster. But with her sisters married Mary gradually starts to come into her own. Mary is now 'allowed' a romance of her own - and even a choice of suitors; a young eligible gentleman who seems a perfect match and a tempting alternative who might just prove to be incredibly wrong for her.

There are a lot of Pride and Prejudice spin-off novels and films (and I'm a sucker for them) - some work, some don't. This definitely does. The setting remains Austen's Regency England, and for the most part Hadlow captures the style and feel of Austen's original work. Where it differs is in following marriages past the wedding ceremony, and in exploring the restricted options open to the un-married gentlewoman of limited means. In Austen's world it's taken as read that a young lady should marry, but not much thought is given to the alternative. As Charlotte Lucas outlines to Mary Bennet what the future of an 'old maid' looks like, we can see why she herself was so eager to grasp her chance of marrying, even when the prospective groom was Mr Collins.

I suspect few Austen fans would agree wholeheartedly in their interpretation of, say, Mr Bennet's attitude to his family, Mrs Bennet's obsession with marrying her daughters to the richest men available, or the hasty marriage of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins, but an author taking these characters and giving them life beyond the original text has to pick an interpretation and stick to it - and it may not coincide with yours. Personally I felt Mr Bennet, and even Lizzie, were dealt with a little harshly - though, of course, I've previously only seen them from Lizzie's biased viewpoint - and a few words from Caroline Bingley throw the whole view of the Elizabeth/Darcy romance on its head, when she says that in feigning disinterest, Lizzie couldn't have played him better.

All in all this is an excellent addition to the works inspired by Pride and Prejudice. I loved it, and would definitely recommend unless you're an Austen purist.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
Mantle (Panmacmillan)

Genre - adu
lt fiction, Jane Austen 

Friday, 7 February 2020

The Lady of the Lake by Andrzej Sapkowski

translated by David French

"After walking through a portal in the Tower of the Swallow, thus narrowly escaping death, the Witcher girl, Ciri, finds herself in a completely different world... a world of the Elves. She is trapped with no way out. Time does not seem to exist and there are no obvious borders or portals to cross back into her home world.
But this is Ciri, the child of prophecy, and she will not be defeated. She knows she must escape to finally rejoin the Witcher, Geralt, and his companions - and also to try to conquer her worst nightmare. Leo Bonhart, the man who chased, wounded and tortured Ciri, is still on her trail. And the world is still at war."


A long while ago (2015)  I read my first introduction to the world of The Witcher - Sword of Destiny - and really enjoyed it, and promised myself that I'd read more of the series, so a couple of years later when I saw The Lady of the Lake come up on Netgalley review site I grabbed it. Unfortunately the gap between reading the first book and the second was too long, and I couldn't remember characters clearly, their story-lines or how they related to each other, and so I abandoned the book.

Roll on a few more years, and Netflix have turned The Witcher into a tv series which I watched avidly over Christmas. Eight episodes wasn't enough for me, so I've returned to this neglected book. Now having a better grasp of The Witcher's world, I could comparatively easily slip back into it - I knew more about Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri, and how their stories fitted together, I'd realised that Jaskier of the Netflix series was called Dandelion in the books (it's a translation issue; Jaskier means 'buttercup' which wasn't considered quite right for the character). The Lady of the Lake doesn't however follow on from the tv series, in fact is the final book, so don't go reading it if you like a story to develop sequentially. I don't mind too much with an epic multi-book series; I like to know who lives happily ever after, that the bad guys get their comeuppance, and then go back and slowly read how it all came about. 

Another thing I'd become used to on the Netfix show was the story jumping about in time and in viewpoint. The publisher's blurb above puts the emphasis on Ciri's story, but while she's trying to escape from the Elves, Yennefer is being held captive elsewhere, and Geralt and his companions are passing the winter in the kingdom of Toussaint, and in some uncertain future time two sorceresses, Nimue and Condwiramurs, are trying to unravel Ciri's story through dreams. Somehow Sapkowski manages to juggle all these elements (and a few shorter-lived threads) and keep the story moving as a cohesive whole, heading towards a grand finale for the series.

There's a compelling mix of fantasy and folk tales, with complex characters who feel emotionally fleshed-out and 'real', and scenes like the doctors struggling to save lives on a battlefield that, bar their obvious use of sorcery, could fit neatly into any historical drama.

The world created by Sapkowski intrigued me when I first read Sword of Destiny, now I'd definitely like to explore it further.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - Gollancz
Genre - Fantasy

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Call Me A Liar by Colette McBeth

Review by The Mole

I'm very late in picking this book up but fancied a change from what I'd been reading and the summary did sound worthwhile.

"You could say it started with vanity. We believed we were special. But the truth is we were simply vulnerable.

One of them is lying.
One of them is guilty.
No one is safe.

This is the chilling story of what happens when the idealism of youth turns toxic. Can it ever be justified to do bad things for the greater good?"

I worked in IT for many years and early on I had the reaction "NO!! It wouldn't be done like that!" but carried on and was thankful I had. The role of IT is merely a plot device to help with the scene setting, to establish the characters, and to set the ball in motion.

Each chapter is from one characters perspective and the voice is sometimes first person and sometimes third - sometimes going over how other people saw events, sometimes advancing the story line.

It builds to an ending that I certainly hadn't expected (and I cheated by skipping to the last page - I know, a capital crime!) and I was still taken by surprise by the ending. At times violent I found myself wanting to tell the characters "go on speak up!" but then realising that I saw what was happening to all of them while they were limited to their own experiences.

A great read that kept me page turning and one I'd certainly recommend to thriller and mystery readers.

Publisher: Headline
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Adult

Thursday, 23 January 2020

The False River by Nick Holdstock


I think somewhere within us, you could probably chart it back to childhood's fairy tales, there's an expectation that stories will have a happy ending. The hero or heroine may struggle through loss and hard times, but when they reach the final page their ending will be happy. Well, not here.  

In this collection of twelve short stories, Nick Holdstock brings us a glimpse of a world where it seems like if something can go wrong, it will. The characters struggle with loss, anger, ill health, or just the weight of day to day life, and circumstances thwarting their hopes of happiness. Somewhere, I felt, they'd all had a chance of a better life, but missed out.

The last story, The Curve of the Heavens, takes a step to the side, inviting the reader behind the scenes, so to speak, letting them see how the story is crafted, the characters moved around, good and bad luck distributed, and destiny decided by an omnipotent author. Here for once there's a happy ending of sorts, but my favourite was the preceding one, The Slope, about a young pianist determined to enjoy music (and, by extension, life) and leave the hard bits for another day.

Holdstock's prose is sparse. He writes as if watching his characters from a distance, uninvolved other than as an observer, but still building empathy for them in the reader.

I first read this book a few months ago but the overall mood seemed sad, and I wasn't in the right personal place for sad stories. Looking through the list of 'read but not reviewed' books I realised it had somehow slipped through and revisited it. I still found a lot of sadness, of life going pear-shaped, of missed opportunities, but this time, from a better personal position, I saw people still trying to hang onto hope despite everything. One of the characters describes them as "Broken people ill-treated by life who still cannot give up" - and I can't put it better.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Picks 2019

My reading/reviewing took a knock last year, and I haven't read anything like the number of books I usually would. As a result, I haven't gone for a full Top Ten of the year (also, you might note, I'm late posting this). Anyway, here we are, with some of my favourite books of 2019

Stillicide by Cynan Jones. Breath-catching, heart-wrenching, stunning - a series of self-contained but linked short stories set in a bleak, not-too distant, future where providing water to big cities requires military precision and armed guards. Although it's a long step from Jones' previous works set in rural Wales, there's the same precision and attention to detail, his ability to get inside a character's head and create living, breathing people is just the same.

The Sea Within Me by Sarah Dobbs. More dystopian sci-fi, this time in an England threatened by rising sea-levels and terrorists. In grim, beleaguered Newark by the Sea, the government is trialing a scheme to combat crime and fear which erases anything unpleasant from people's minds - a way to keep the population happy, or a form of mind control?

The 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' vibe continues with Bridget Collins' The Binding. A gripping tale of betrayal and hidden secrets set in a vaguely Victorian setting, unhappy memories are gathered by a form of magic, and bound into books. When Emmett is apprenticed as a bookbinder, he starts to uncover his own hidden memories - and his view of the world changes completely.

And The Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andri Thorsson Another collection of short stories, this time fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle to paint a portrait of the inhabitants of an Icelandic fishing village. At a cursory view they seem happy, respectable, comfortable in their life and ways, but behind the smiling faces heartache, betrayal and deceit lurk.

My last pick - Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield - is a bit of a cheat as I also included it in last year's 'best of' list; it was only available then as an e-book, now it's in 'proper' book form. It's an astounding piece of storycraft - a tale as much about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the frequently puzzling world, as it is about a girl rescued from the river one dark, stormy night.