Friday, 9 November 2018

The First King of England: the story of Athelstan by Stuart Hill

review by Maryom

Fourteen year old Edwin is one of the lowest of the servants in the Royal Hall at Tamworth, doing all the boring, dirty jobs in the kitchens, till one day he accidentally picks a fight with the young prince Athelstan. Fortunately, instead of sending him off for punishment, Athelstan takes a liking to Edwin, and makes him his personal servant. From then on the two boys are constantly together and their relationship becomes more one of two friends than master and servant. As they get older, Athelstan assumes the role of king of the Saxons, but he's determined to be more than just their king - taking on the might of the Vikings, Scots and Welsh to make one united country, Britain.

One of Bloomsbury's Flashback series, aimed at the over-sevens, this story of an unlikely friendship between a prince, Athelstan, and and his personal servant, Edwin, takes the reader to a tumultuous time in British history when Saxons, Vikings, Welsh and Scots were struggling for dominance. Through Edwin's eyes and words we're introduced to the Wessex court - its way of life, the behind-the-scenes politics of its rulers, the training for battle that all boys undergo but which is more important for Edwin as he will be protecting Athelstan in battle, feasts at which Edwin must now serve his master, and quieter domestic times when Athelstan and Edwin are just two boys playing games with their dog.

Part of the aim of The First King of England is to provide support for Key Stage 2 - but don't let that put you off! It's not a dull text book but a rattling good read. There are obviously a lot of non-current words used from aethling to burgh, place names such as Wessex and Mercia, and back story of the historical characters to catch up on, but they're all explained as Edwin encounters them. The battle scenes make the story gripping and exciting without glorifying war itself, or being too violent, making this an excellent read for any children who thought they might like to watch The Last Kingdom or Vikings, but were stopped by parents!

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

Monday, 29 October 2018

A House of Ghosts by W C Ryan

review by Maryom

It's Christmas 1917, and guests are gathering at Blackwater Abbey, the island home of Lord and Lady Highmount. This isn't a normal festive gathering though - on the longest night of the year, while the war continues to rage in France, a seance is to be held under the supervision of Madame Feda and Count Orlov, two celebrated mediums, to contact the Highmounts' two sons, both killed in the conflict, and possibly another young man - Arthur Cartwright, who's been posted as 'missing', but is believed to also have died. The party therefore includes his parents, and sister Kate, long-time friends of the Highmounts, but Kate has a second secret reason to be there.

Lord Highmount is an important arms manufacturer, and some of his weapon designs have been found in enemy hands, so Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, head of the government department in which Kate works, is sending along an undercover operative, Robert Donovan, to track down who is leaking such valuable information, and Kate with her insider knowledge of the house and its inhabitants is to help him where ever possible.

 I found A House of Ghosts to be a rather odd book - not so much it itself, as the way it's promoted - as I'd expected something ghostly and spooky, and didn't really find it to be. There ARE ghosts, plenty of them - people who've lived and worked at Blackwater Abbey in the past, men who've died in trenches of the Somme  - but Kate and the other medium who can see them treat them in so matter a fact way that I didn't find them scary, even when speaking through the mediums.

On the other hand it's an excellent blend of 'country house' and 'spy' thriller. The setting is pure Agatha Christie - guests arriving at an old brooding house, finding themselves cut off from the world, and help should it be needed (you can bet it will!), as a wild winter storm rages outside. And then someone starts to attack the guests one by one ...
It's gripping and tense, but just not spooky in my opinion.

And if you like a bit of romantic interest along with the sleuthing, there are signs of a growing attraction between Donovan and Kate, an aspect that I feel may be further explored in future stories - for I'm certain we haven't seen the last of this pair.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - 
Genre - adult, spy thriller, country house mystery

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Tell Me No Truths by Gill Vickery

review by Maryom

Twins Jade and Amber have always been fascinated by the stories their granddad told of his Italian childhood. During the war he was a member of a partisan group, fighting against the fascists, but at the end of the war he moved to England, and never returned to Italy. Now the twins are heading to Florence on holiday with their parents, and while the adults are off admiring art and antiquities, they hope to visit Borgo Sant'Angelo, the village their grandfather grew up in just outside Florence, and maybe track down their long lost relatives. 
In Florence they meet another English teenager on the trail of mystery. Nico and his mum both love the crime thrillers written by reclusive author E J Holm, and set in the area around Florence. The author is so secretive that no one is even sure if they're male or female, but both Nico and his mum feel by tracing the locations of the novels, they will uncover E J Holm. His mum may be expecting they'll be working together but Nico hopes his mum will be sidetracked by her latest, rather irritating, boyfriend, and he, Nico, can uncover E J Holm's identity on his own.
The three teenagers join forces to give their parents the slip, but soon find their investigations entwining as the family history uncovered by the twins starts to show a remarkable resemblance to the back stories of E J Holm's fictional victims.

Tell Me No Truths is a totally gripping teen 'detective' story, moving between present day Italy and the 1940s, uncovering wartime love and betrayal, and the identity of a secretive writer. The three teenagers are on the hunt for answers to a variety of questions - Jade and Amber's search is a purely personal, family matter, whereas Nico's is born of insatiable curiosity, and a need to solve the puzzle before his mum does! 

Their adventures are interspersed with the reminiscences of a British soldier sheltering with Italian anti-fascist Partisans, and as the reader soon begins to realise that these memories tie up with the tales recounted by the Twins' grandfather, but aren't quite the same. Someone has changed vital details as they've told the story! His tale also brings into sharp contrast the modern, careful, happy, bustling with tourists holiday vibe of Florence today, and the fear and hatred gripping its inhabitants in the 1940s; giving the reader an insight into those troubled times and bringing the past vividly to life.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - The Greystones Press 
Genre - teen historical fiction

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale

review by Maryom

Eustace has reached the sort of age where he feels there's little left in life to surprise him. Now in his fifties, he's survived AIDS, and settled to an uneventful single life shared with his dog, Joyce, and close friend, Naomi.Then his comfortable world is rocked. First by falling in love again, rather ridiculously with a man he hasn't even met. Then by fearing he might die.
Through long solitary hours of treatment in hospital, he listens to a mix-tape of cello music prepared by Naomi, and reflects on his life, the anxiety and fumbling sexual misadventures of his teen years, and the escape from his dull, repressive home life discovered through music, and his charismatic cello-teacher Carla.

In many ways you could claim this is much like any other coming of age story -  discovering music, sex, and the fallibility of parents, making friends who will last a lifetime, and finding love - but at the same time the story-telling and Eustace himself make it unique.
Gale's writing is engrossing, intelligent, compelling, warm and welcoming like wrapping oneself in a snugly blanket. As I read, I wanted to both hold every moment, slow right down and immerse myself in each unfolding scene, and dash through to find out how gauche, troubled teenage Eustace became the contented, sophisticated mid-life man we met at the beginning of the story. As a boy, he's so naive and vulnerable that it's impossible to not care about him, and to dread that his innocence will be harshly taken away, with suffering to come before he achieves happiness.

As events unfold, you begin to see how cleverly put together the story is. Told from Eustace's perspective, it only hints at events outside his immediate knowledge and understanding, but there's enough for the reader to put the clues together, and realise the motivations of the other players in his life.

A tiny part of me was worried when I realised music played a huge part in this book - despite my mother's attempts to turn me into a pianist, I'm not musically inclined, and frequently books referencing it too much can leave me cold. Fortunately, I found that didn't matter here. Gale captures Eustace's enthusiasm so well that I could understand it without having to had shared it. Maybe if you know and love the pieces Eustace plays, you'll have an extra attachment to the book, but I loved it anyway, and didn't feel excluded.

I'm not sure I've really caught how much I loved this book, so to end on here's a little aside (no plot spoilers) to show how well Gale immerses the reader in a moment and brings it to life.  I found myself one day recently wondering about a new recipe I'd heard of for cooking pasta sauce, and after pondering over cook books and websites, I realised - it was here! A simple tomato sauce cooked by one of Carla's friends, lovingly described by the author, that's stayed in my mind.

Ostensibly an adult read (and that's how I've labelled it), but see if you can encourage your teens to read it too. It make help them make sense of the turmoil of adolescence.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult fiction, coming of age, LGBT

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Evolution by Teri Terry

review by Maryom

Here we are at last at the concluding part of Teri Terry's YA sci fi/conspiracy theory thriller trilogy, and there's been a lot of change and upheaval since Shay and Kai started looking for his missing sister Callie, back in book one, Contagion. In fact, normal life for most of the country has ceased as a flu-style epidemic spread rapidly causing unknown numbers of deaths. Very few survive, those who do are changed forever, and hunted down by the remaining authorities as a threat. The search for Callie has become part of the search to discover more about this dreadful disease, where it came from, and if there's any possibility of a cure, or at least for something to stop the virus's spread.
Shay and Kai have meanwhile become separated again; although sharing the same goals, they each believe their way is the best to proceed. In a normal world this would probably be little more than a lovers' tiff, but the world isn't normal any more, and the decisions they make could mean life or death.

These three books have definitely been a roller coaster of a read, with the tension constantly cranked high, and just when you think the story's moving towards a happy ending there are some nasty shocks to come. It's been absolutely brilliant though. The plotting is ingenious and devious. Conspiracy is hidden behind conspiracy. Whisk away a layer of secrets and lies, and there'll be more beneath, like peeling an onion, or opening a Russian doll. On those rare occasions when Shay, Kai and the reader thought they'd found the heart of the web of secrets, events would take an unexpected turn, and you'd realise nothing had been half as simple as you thought.
The author doesn't pull punches, or hold back on violence. The evil mastermind is unscrupulous, not held back by any normal human 'weaknesses' like fair play or sympathy for others, and, unsurprisingly perhaps, behaves as ruthlessly and single-mindedly as you would expect evil villains to.
An excellent series - but be prepared for your favourite characters to suffer.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Orchard Books
Genre - 
teen, sci fi/ conspiracy theory thriller

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela

review by Maryom

A while ago Our Book Reviews Online took part in a blog tour for this, a new collection of Leila Aboulela's short stories, but at the time I hadn't had chance to read it due to family issues. I was aware of her writing though, having read The Kindness of Enemies some years ago, and was intrigued to read these stories. 
I started, a bit oddly, in the middle of the book. Our blog tour post had been an extract from the story The Ostrich, and having read that snippet, I wanted to finish the story. A young women, Samra, is returning from a trip home to Khartoum, back to join her husband in London, experiencing the culture (and weather) shock that hits every time she makes this journey. Her husband, although Sudanese like herself, is desperate to appear at home in London, determined to embrace British customs and habits as his own. His wife should walk alongside, not behind, him; she shouldn't cover her hair - as he believes others will view these things as 'backward, barbaric'. She meanwhile longs for her African home, and the easy, familiar way of life there - an emotion increased by a casual encounter on the flight with someone she went to school with. Her bittersweet memories of the past make her begin to question her life, but does she really regret the marriage that brought her to England, or is this a mood that will pass once she settles back into life with her husband? Samra's situation, caught off guard as she tries to readjust to her life in London, is brought vividly and sympathetically before the reader. 

Echoes of this theme are found throughout the other stories too. The characters are torn between past and future, religion and relationships, and, most importantly, two worlds - Africa and the UK - no longer fitting seamlessly in either place, struggling to reconcile the two aspects of their lives. Sometimes Africa is warm, welcoming, vibrant, and Britain, in contrast, wet, cold, cramped, always hovering on the edge of hostility. Seen differently, Britain is modern, a place of opportunity and advancement, whereas Africa is old-fashioned with limited prospects. 

Similar ideas are found in Expecting To Give, in which a pregnant woman finds her experience doesn't live up to the version seen in glossy parenting mags, and Pages Of Fruit, where a reader's expectations of her favourite author don't match the reality.

I found this a moving, thought-provoking, poignant collection, dealing as it does with the search for 'home', and the difficulties faced by migrants attempting in live in an environment and culture very different to their own. Aboulela writes in a way which brings to life both the outer physical world - the heat of Khartoum or Cairo,  off-set by the delight of icy air-conditioning, or the damp, dull streets of london or Aberdeen - and the internal conflicts of her characters. I wonder whether I've made these seem rather down-beat stories, but for the most part they aren't; at the end of our short peep into their lives, characters are generally left hopeful for the future.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Telegram
Genre - Adult contemporary fiction, short stories

Friday, 3 August 2018

Shatila Stories - edited by Meike Ziervogel

translated by Nashwa Gowanlock

Reham and her family are fleeing Syria in fear for their lives. She, her parents, her husband Marwan, younger brother Adam, and anything they can carry, plus a driver, packed into a small car. Their hope, to reach the comparative safety of Beirut and the Shatila refugee camp there, but first impressions are not good - rats scurry around their feet, flies crawl over the rubbish dumps, tottering buildings reach up to the sky, electric cables garland the alleyways. This is home now, for the foreseeable future, and there's nothing to do but make the best of it.

Peirene Press made themselves a name as publishers of short translated fiction, but they've recently become commissioners of original work exploring today's social and political problems to be published under the Peirene Now! banner. Their first foray into this field was to send two authors - Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes - into the Calais Jungle refugee camp to bring to life the stories of the people there. Their second, a look at both sides of the Brexit question, in Anthony Cartwright's The Cut. This third takes the reader to the refugee camps of Lebanon, specifically the Shatila camp in Beirut, established as a temporary settlement for Palestinians in 1942, infamous as the scene of an horrendous massacre in 1982, and still receiving refugees today. This time the authors are not outsiders, but members of that refugee community brought together through the work of Peirene publisher Meike Ziervogel, London-based Syrian editor Suhir Helal, and Lebanon-based charity Basmeh & Zeitooneh. Meike and Suhir traveled to Beirut to meet with these keen but inexperienced writers, work with them for several days, showing them how to structure their stories, create tension and story arcs. From this came a series of stories which were then woven together and amalgamated to produce this book.

News headlines can tell us of the numbers of refugees fleeing Syria, which countries will offer them shelter in a camp, which ones won't - but behind those headlines lie people like us, not statistics for politicians to play with, and new articles often don't bring the day to day lives of the people concerned to life in the way that fiction can. Written by inhabitants of Shatila camp, this collection of interlinked stories sheds light on the plight of these homeless, stateless people born into refugee camps, effectively trapped there - with the wrong nationality on their passport, living or even just finding work outside the camp is nigh on impossible. There are stories which could be heard almost anywhere - a failing marriage, young love, a father forced to extremes to safeguard his daughter, a desire to rise above one's beginnings and make something of life - yet they remain unique to Shatila, and are an eye-opener on the world refugees are caught in.

Authors; Omar Khaled Ahmad, Nibal Alalo, Safa Khaled Algharbawi, Omar Abdellatif Alndaf, Rayan Mohamad Sukkar, Safiya Badran, Fatima Omar Ghazawi, Samih Mahmoud, Hiba Mareb

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult contemporary fiction, short stories

Although labelled and marketed as 'adult' fiction give it to your curious open-minded teenagers to help them understand lives very different to their own