Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Lark by Anthony McGowan

review by Maryom

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Top Ten of 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 17 December 2018

Sunny and the Ghosts by Alison Moore

'Sometimes, when you open a door or lift a lid, you find exactly what you expected to find: coats in the coat cupboard, bread in the bread bin, toys in the toy box. And sometimes you don’t.'

illustrated by Ross Collins

review by Maryom 

Sunny's parents like old things - clocks and pianos, books and ornaments - so bought an antique shop, with a flat above where they live. Sunny helps in the shop by polishing mirrors, brass coal scuttles and copper kettles, out of which he always thinks a genie might appear. It isn't a genie he finds hiding among the old blanket chests and wardrobes, though, but a ghost ... then another ... and then a third is found locked in a cupboard! The ghosts all seem friendly, and hardly any trouble at all (unless you count playing the piano at night), but someone seems to be causing trouble in the shop. Books are thrown off their shelves, an ornament broken, dozens of cats let in to wander round the shop, sit on furniture and cushions, sleep in pots and pans. Sunny suspects there must be another ghost, a naughty one, playing pranks and getting up to mischief, but how can he make the ghost show himself, and then leave?

You'll probably have heard of Alison Moore as an award-winning author, listed for the Booker and such, but this is her first book aimed at a younger readership. 
It does share some characteristics of Moore's 'adult' novels - an interest in the meanings behind words and phrases, a brevity of words to describe people and situations, but it most definitely isn't a grown-ups novel dumbed down for children. It's a light-hearted and fun read, with line-drawings by Ross Collins bringing characters and situations to life, eminently suitable for children who find scary, hide under the bedsheets ghost stories just too frightening. The plot moves along quickly, and once Sunny finds one ghost, more seem to appear every day, popping up in all sorts of odd places around the shop. It's all jolly, apart from the puzzle of who, or what, is behind the trouble in the shop. Sunny's parents seem inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and don't blame him for it, but I'm not sure they really believe his tale of ghosts either. With a little help from his spectral friends though Sunny manages to track down the trouble maker, and find a way to settle the problem. 
Further stories are planned so this looks like being the beginning of quite an adventure for Sunny and the Ghosts.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - children's ghost stories 9+

Friday, 14 December 2018

The Truth about Archie and Pye by Jonathan Pinnock

review by Maryom

Heading home on the train after a career-ending bad day at work, Tom Winscombe isn't really in the mood for social chitchat but gets drawn into conversation with the guy sitting next to him - George Burgess, an author of 'conspiracy' books, currently working on a biography of mathematical geniuses Archibald and Pythagoras Vavasor, who died in suspicious circumstances ten years ago. Getting off the train, Burgess leaves his case behind, and Tom decides he'll return it the next day. Before he has chance to, Burgess is killed, and Tom finds himself holding documents that people are willing to kill for. Very soon he finds himself pulled into the murky world of conspiracy theories, murder, mathematics and Belorussian mafia.

If you like your thrillers a little quirky and off-beat, this is the book for you. Basically the story is one of slightly irritating but still like-able guy drawn into the realm of ruthless killers, through no fault of his own except maybe a certain innocent gullibility - Tom is the sort of guy who rushes in where cautious folk fear to tread, who hearing howling noises from a lonely deserted house would go to investigate, and wonder why he stumbled on a crime scene straight out of a horror story. Don't expect a serious Nordic Noir style thriller but something more the style of a Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently novel with the added frenzy of a Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright film. It's fun, fast-paced and full of intrigue, and I loved it!  

Also, don't let the subtitle 'a mathematical mystery' put you off. While it's the basis of a lot of in-jokes, the reader doesn't need to understand the finer points of maths, any more than you need to understand astro-physics to watch The Big Bang Theory - it's enough to know that someone somewhere is willing to murder to obtain the Vavasors' notes. 

The Truth About Archie and Pye is the first of a series, and I for one am eagerly anticipating Book 2!

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

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Shadow of the Centaurs by Saviour Pirotta

illustrated by Freya Hartas

review by Maryom
Three months have passed since their last adventure, and Nico and his friend Thrax are back in Athens, attending to their master, Ariston, a not-very-successful travelling poet. Nico is his scribe, with the job of writing down all his poems (no matter how bad); Thrax, his personal slave, taking care of clothes and running errands, but with hopes of saving enough money to buy his freedom one day.
After their exciting stay on the island of Aegina, the boys are a little bored and hoping for a mystery to solve, but perhaps they should be careful what they wish for, as an innocuous investigation into a case of a kidnapped dog leads the boys into something far more dangerous. As the festival of Anthesteria approaches, Athens is transformed into a place of street parties and lavish entertainments with everyone throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the celebrations, but hidden in the crowd is a secret society plotting the downfall of Athens' leader, General Pericles, and Thrax is determined to foil their plans.
Nico and Thrax have had several thrilling adventures together, but this fourth in the series is sadly the last (for now, at least). These two amateur sleuths, and their growing band of young helpers who make up the Medusa League, have brought the long ago world of the Ancient Greeks to life in a way to appeal to young readers. Real historical figures, such as Sophocles and General Pericles, share the story with Nico and Thrax, and facts about everyday life are scattered throughout in a natural, unobtrusive way. If you can't pick up the meaning of a word from its context, there's a glossary at the end of the book, so you won't be left in doubt as to how to wear a petasos or chiton, or what to do with a kalamos. Also, there's a brief introduction to Greek gods and goddesses who might be mentioned within the story.
The story, though, is always the most important aspect of the book. This time an odd incident of a stolen dog leads the two young detectives into peril as they seek to uncover the threat to Athens posed by a secret society. Readers are sure to be gripped as Thrax and Nico try their best to make sense of the clues leading them to this dangerous gang.

I've really enjoyed this series, and although Nico and Thrax have reached a natural break in their story I hope they'll be back for more adventures.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Genre - children's whodunnit adventure, historical, Ancient Greece

Monday, 10 December 2018

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

'The autumn of 1933 is the most beautiful Edie Mather can remember, although the Great War still casts its shadow over the fields and villages around her beloved home, Wych Farm.
Constance FitzAllen arrives from London to document fading rural traditions and beliefs. For Edie, who must soon face the unsettling pressures of adulthood, the glamorous and worldly outsider appears to be a godsend. But there is more to the older woman than meets the eye.
As harvest time approaches and pressures mount on the entire community, Edie must find a way to trust her instincts and save herself from disaster.'

review by Maryom

I'd better start by saying straight off that I seem to be one of the few people who didn't fall head over heals in love with this book. I loved Melissa Harrison's previous novel - At Hawthorn Time - partly I suspect because it represented the countryside in a 'warts and all' way. It wasn't shown as a pastoral idyll but as a place of work, with many ugly sides to it - from road kill to the destruction of landscape.
With All Among the Barley it feels like Harrison has swung the other way - to a view of the Suffolk countryside seen through rose-tinted glasses, and it just didn't grab me. Teenage narrator Edith certainly sees it this way, waxing lyrical over fruit laden hedges, with descriptions of nature and landscape just too overdone and fulsome. For a fourteen year old (my mother, born roughly the same time, commuted from her village into town to work in a factory at 14) Edith seems remarkable naive - of the grimmer aspects of farming, her father's associated drinking and rages, and the world outside the narrow confines of her village. Gradually though I began to see Edith as unreliable, neither as clever as she purports to be nor possessed of the special powers she claims. So should the reader see her pastoral idyll as equally fake? Is most of her tale just a hankering for a world that never existed? On the other hand, every review I've read seems to have taken Edith at face value, so I appear to be the odd one out here.

Publisher - Bloomsbury Publishing
Genre - adult fiction

Monday, 3 December 2018

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

review by Maryom

In the Swan Inn on the banks of the Thames at Radcot, regulars are whiling away the long dark winter's night telling stories when in walks a stranger with the drowned body of a child in his arms. He's battered and bruised, and at first the child appears dead. Who is he? Is the girl his daughter?  where did she come from? the storytellers are quickly at work spinning a new tale from the night's extraordinary events ... then to everyone's amazement the child begins to stir ...

Once Upon a River is a marvelous flowing tale, deep and full as the Thames itself, with a story which whirls away into eddies and backwaters, then rushes forward with the full force of the current.

At its heart lies the mystery of the girl's identity, and a potential tug of love over which family she'll stay with. The Vaughans' young daughter, kidnapped two years ago, has never been traced. Could she have somehow miraculously returned? On the other hand, the Armstrongs have just discovered that their eldest wayward son not only has has a daughter, but has left her, and her mother, in poverty. She's gone missing from her last known home, so could this rescued child be her?

It's also a story about stories, and about how we tell them to make sense of the mysteries and inconsistencies of life. For the Swan's regulars anything that happens must be shaped, given structure, a proper beginning, middle and end, and its heroes and villains identified; the story of a dead girl coming back to life is both a blessing - such an amazing tale to tell - and a difficulty - for who can tell how it will end? As the river hides currents and treacherous weeds beneath its smooth surface, there's more to any of these stories than at first apparent. I loved the way these untrained story-tellers sat around and discussed how a story would best progress, helping each other hone their tales for the better enjoyment of all.

Once Upon a River is an astounding piece of storycraft. Its various threads twisting round each other, as the reader is swept along by its current. It will definitely be heading straight for my 'best of ...' lists, but here's a problem. Which year does it belong in? It's published in the US and Canada, and as an e-book on 4th December 2018, but UK hardback publication is not till 17th January 2019. Maybe it can somehow sneak into both years' lists.

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