Thursday 31 March 2011

Alex McLean - Time Traveller by Morag Ramsey

Climbing back through Time
review by Maryom

Alex and his dad are both keen climbers but so far despite reaching Level 6 they've only climbed on the artificial climbing wall inside the nearby quarry. Alex dreams of being able to climb Edinburgh Castle Rock, but knows that it is banned - no matter how good you are. Then he finds himself contacted through his mobile phone by someone claiming to be from the future representing the Scientific Testing and Recording of Aggression Programme (STRAP) - and capable of sending him back in time! They want him to return to 1314, to join a small band of Scots attempting to climb the Castle Rock and liberate the Castle from the English. Could this be the way to achieve his dream?
An exciting adventure mixing history, science fiction and everyday life and problems, it could either be read as a fun story or as an insight into the past.
Part of a series of books involving children travelling in time to major historical events or to become part of everyday life in the past, but also with a story arc involving STRAP and its rival organisation SHARP - The Scientific History and Art Reclamation Programme. Aimed at the 8 - 12 age range with a blog - and competitions on the publishers web-site.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Seven Arches Publishing

Genre - childrens 8-12
, historical, sci-fi

Buy Alex McLean Time Traveller (Time Travelling Kids) from Amazon

Monday 28 March 2011

City of Hope and Despair by Ian Whates

A Journey of Hope and Despair
review by Maryom

Thaiburley is an ancient multi-layered city - the poor live on the bottom rows and demons high above. Strange forces are threatening the city though and Tom, ex-street thief, is sent on a journey to find the goddess Thaiss, the mythical founder of the city. He's accompanied by the priestess Mildra, a one-eyed giant,Kohn and an assassin, Dewar. Together, they travel from the city, by barge and on foot, towards the source of the river Thair, where they hope to find the Goddess. It isn't as easy as that though as they soon discover someone is out to stop them.
Meanwhile in the City, a dreadful monster, known as the Soul Thief, is stalking the streets, hunting for prey....

This book is volume II of The City of a Hundred Rows and I think maybe it's suffered in the way that so many second books do in the transition stage from 'stand-alone' story to series. The book starts excellently and finishes well, although the plot isn't rounded off as there is obviously a third volume planned, but unfortunately in the middle the story rather gets lost in the doldrums. I must add though that the City is an amazing imaginary, yet totally believable, place with its various rows reaching up to the sky. I think it just might be better to wait till the whole series is written and read it in one long session.

Maryom's review - 3 stars
Publisher - Angry Robot

Genre - Adult, fantasy

Buy City of Hope & Despair (Angry Robot) from Amazon

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Absolute War by Chris Bellamy

Russia's Great Patriotic War
review by Maryom

I'm stepping outside my normal book reviewing habits here with a massive book- 814 pages, though that does include notes, references, index and bibliography - on Soviet Russia during the Second World War.
Two reasons why I'm reading this - I won it from Pan Macmillan but also the subject area, Russia and the Eastern Front, falls in a gap in my knowledge. A lot of WW2 history is picked up, accurately or not, through films - from Battle of the River Plate and the Dam Busters to Saving Private Ryan and Memphis Belle, via the Great Escape and the Dirty Dozen - but from the British/American point of view. Presumably the Russians made their versions of heroic war movies but they've not reached our TV screens. So what I knew about Russia's involvement in WW2 was vaguely remembered things from school history and how Jude Law saved Stalingrad in Enemy at the Gate.

This has taken a serious length of time to read - on and off since November 2009. I'd like to stress that there's been a lot of time when I've not been trying to read this but have been reading chick lit or something for a change! It was definitely something I needed to be in the mood to read - it takes a greater level of concentration, otherwise I reach the end of a page and realise I've not actually taken any information in. Having said that, the style was easy to read and at times funny - the family are getting fed up of amusing anecdotes being read out to them (I particularly liked Stalin sending one of his generals out of the room like a naughty child to think about what he'd said!)
Obviously it's a book full of diplomatic and military manoeuvres and engagements but there are many snippets to give a personal, human scope to these events - for example - retreating in front of the German advance, general Rokossovskiy seeks shelter with locals only to be berated for giving way by an old soldier who fought against the Germans in WW1; for 5 weeks of winter the besieged inhabitants of Leningrad had to survive on 125g (about 3 slices) of bread a day and wallpaper was removed and the paste eaten!; during the siege of Moscow, Stalin has a personal plywood shelter built in the Underground and dosses down there at nights like an "omnipotent tramp"; or did you know that women make better snipers? Apparently they can keep still for longer particularly in freezing weather.

It was most definitely a fascinating book. Obviously not one for everybody but I'd certainly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the period or people.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Pan Macmillan

Genre - Adult, non fiction, history

Monday 21 March 2011

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

An Absorbing, Disturbing Read

review by Maryom

An unforgettable story of love, friendship and the fragility of life.

Kathy, Ruth and Tommy grew up together at Hailsham, a seemingly idyllic school deep in the English countryside with a dreadful secret at its heart. Now thirty-one, Kathy attempts to come to terms with her childhood at Hailsham and with the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world.

Unusually, I'm quoting the synopsis from the back of the book as I'm not sure how to write about this book without giving away all of the plot.

Warning - plot spoilers

The story is told from the point of view of Kathy, a carer for donors, helping them in their recovery and preparing them for the next one. It slowly becomes apparent that these people are not donors by choice but were bred ( via cloning) with this specific aim in view. Never Let Me Go is a moving all-too-human love triangle set against a backdrop of scientific manipulation and the chilling inevitability of what will happen when these young people have outlived their usefulness.

Set in an alternative England where cloning of people for harvesting bodyparts seems to have become a norm
, it raises questions about what exactly makes us human, about the extremes that medical science can go to and where it should stop, what happens when cloning experiments move from the lab to the real world. With the cloning of sheep and the deliberate choosing of a child's sex for medical donation being high in the news these days, this book is a chilling warning of where such concepts could lead.

It seems rather a leap for the author probably best known for Remains Of The Day to take on something rather 'sci-fi' but it works. It reminded me very much, in my geeky way, of Blade Runner and the plight of the replicants, trying to achieve a 'human' status and outlive their termination dates. With the difference that replicants were brought to life fully grown with implanted memories but here embryos have been cloned and grown up 'normally' as children, maturing into teens and young adults - till their function of donating catches up with them.

An absorbing, disturbing read about what the future may hold.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Faber and Faber

Genre - Adult fiction, science fiction

Buy Never Let Me Go from Amazon

Friday 18 March 2011

The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner

Treachery, Romance and a just a little Magic
review by Maryom

Paris 1789 - although everything still appears normal, revolution is brewing.
Yann Margoza was born with the gift of reading minds and along with his friend and mentor, Tetu the dwarf he assists with the theatrical performances of Topolain the magician. An invitation to perform at the chateau of the Marquis of Villeduval leads them to an old enemy now calling himself Count Kalliovski. When he becomes aware that he has been recognised, the Count vows to hunt them down and kill them. It also leads though to a meeting between Yann and the Marquis's neglected daughter, Sido. Although Yann is forced to flee to safety in England, he never forgets this beautiful, lonely girl and as murder and mayhem are loosened on the streets of Paris he knows he must risk his own safety to help her.
I think "A Story of the French Revolution" as a tag line makes this seem as if it could be quite dry and dull. Far from it! The Red Necklace is a wonderful historical adventure, full of period detail from the Marquis's parties to the rioting in the streets, with a young handsome hero, a girl kept almost prisoner in her own home and a dastardly villain intent on manipulating people for his own ends. It's breathlessly exciting as Yann and his friends desperately attempt to save Sido from both the villainous Count and the angry Paris mob. I absolutely loved it and once started, couldn't bear to put it down! I'd recommend it for anyone, though mainly teenagers, with a liking for historical fiction

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Orion

Genre - Teen Fiction, Historical, Romance

Buy The Red Necklace from Amazon

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Dragon Harper by Anne and Todd McCaffrey

First Trip to Pern
Review by The Mole

Kindan is an apprentice harper at the Harper Hall but he is finding the lessons very difficult and although he has his friends, Nonala, Kelsa and Verilan, he also has enemies, such as the bully Vaxoram. Things begin to improve for Kindan when he beats Vaxoram in a duel and Vaxoram becomes first his servant and then gradually his trusted friend. Then Kindan impresses a fire-lizard and becomes the proud owner of the magnicent Valla. At the hatching he meets Koriana, daughter of Lord Holder Bemin of Fort Hold. She also impresses and she and Kindan fall in love, but her parents disapprove and she has to return to Fort Hold. Then a plague begins to spread across Pern, killing nearly everyone infected. Kindan and his friends search the harper records to see if they can find a cure, but all they can find is mention of a similar plague over a hundred Turns past. As the plague gets worse Kindan and Vaxoram are sent to Fort Hold to help tend the sick. Kindan will be reunited with Koriana, but will she be free of the plague, and will he be able to find a cure before more people die?

Todd McCaffrey takes the reins of the dragonriders of Pern in a coming-of-age story

The precis above is from the Transworld website.

I decided to get involved in the Anne McCaffrey Reading Challenge. My family are familiar with some of McCaffrey's writings and I have to admit to never having read one and it was for this reason that I chose to get involved. Being almost devoid of McCaffrey's books in the house I checked the library catalogue and found them not a lot better off. However I chose one from their list and waited for it to become available. It turned out to be by both Anne and Todd.

I found some of the ideas of the world of Pern to be most intriguing, conceptually, and can fully understand how the Pern novels have earned their reputation. But.... I found this book to be very sadly lacking. The hero, Kindan, I couldn't identify with and, frankly, in the duel referred to above, I had hoped that Vaxoram would give him a beating! Not that I found Vaxoram that believable either. I have read fantasies where we don't stand still long enough to start to identify with the characters but unfortunately this one is not one of those.

One of the concepts of Pern is that women and men are treated as equals and throughout the book this sentiment is voiced. Yes, voiced, but if you read it you find that men don't treat them that way. It is an ideal that can be written as was the case in another fantasy that I recently read and reviewed.

I always try to look for the positive but with this book I struggled and come away with only the desire to read one of Anne's EARLY Pern novels to see what she did with the ideas.

Publisher: Transworld Books
Genre: Science Fantasy

Buy Dragon Harper from Amazon

Monday 14 March 2011

The Year of The Hare by Arto Paasilinna

Adventures in the Wilds of Finland
review by Maryom

A humorous little book about the adventures that befall Kaarlo Vatanen, a world-weary journalist, after he decides to rescue a hare injured by the car in which he was travelling. The colleague driving the car refuses to wait and heads home to the city, leaving Vatanen stranded. This monir incident sparks a major life-change. Vatanen leaves his wife, resigns from his job and sells his possessions to set out on a wandering journey of discovery around Finland.
On their way, Vatanen and the hare meet many strange, even bizarre, characters, run into forest fires, sleeping bears and military war games, and discover some very odd things about the country's President.
By turns whimsical, serious or totally absurd, I found it rather reminded me of the original Reggie Perrin's antics.

I'm reading this as part of my Round The World challenge - so that's Finland visited.

Maryom's review - 3 stars
Publisher - Peter Owen

Genre - humour, adult

Buy The Year of the Hare from Amazon

Saturday 12 March 2011

Le Temps des Cerises by Zillah Bethell

Paris In Turmoil
review by Maryom

Le Temps des Cerises, with its title taken from a popular song of the time, is an amazing sweeping novel of 1870s Paris under siege by Prussians, through the brief armistice and into the days of the Paris Commune - a period of history that to be honest I'm unfamiliar with - the little I know having been gleaned from Bennett's Old Wives Tale .
I wasn't at all sure what to expect when I started to read this book. It was recommended as a novel about 'hot air balloons, cross-dressing revolutionaries and rats on the menu' which rather had me wondering but within a few pages I was caught up in the drama of the characters' lives. The story follows a small number of Parisians - 17 yr old Eveline, whose life is restricted to cooking and cleaning for her father and brother; her fiancé and would-be poet, Laurie; Jacques, her brother, obsessed by the hot air balloons that are the only way out of the city; Bernadine, a nun suddenly left in charge of an orphaned baby; Alphonse, everyone's ideal hero figure - through the fears and turmoils, starvation and bloodbaths of the time, as their paths cross, diverge and cross again.
I'd somehow rather expected a morbid, dismal book - perhaps due in part to the cover illustration of rats being prepared as meat - but it isn't, in any way. It's a wonderful novel moving from comedy to tragedy, from scenes of battle to quiet domesticity, but always full of life. The 'supporting cast' - from drunken grief-stricken father to the herbalist with a side-trade in secrets, nuns in their convent, the workers at the hot-air balloon station, the soldiers readying to defend the city - are all real believable people providing a human backdrop to the main characters, all trying to work out their personal destiny in a time of chaos.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - SerenBooks

Genre - Adult Historical Fiction

Buy Les Temps des Cerises from Amazon

Monday 7 March 2011

Maranatha by C Wood

Not what it seems!
Review by The Mole

The Holy Spear of Destiny has been vandalised in the Vienna Hofburg Museum. When she is called upon by the authorities to test the authenticity of the spear, metallurgist Vanessa Descartes finds herself dragged into an horrific murder case. She is joined in the investigation by eccentric Oxford scholar Dr. Emmanuel Khalamanga, who is convinced of a connection to ancient Holy Grail legends and Professor Tomas de Carranza, best-selling author of radical Biblical histories. As this diverse trio begin to interpret the symbols left at the scene, an even more terrifying reality reveals itself – the existence of an invisible ‘holy war’ that has been fought since the Middle Ages, and is about to end in blood and death on the streets of Vienna.

This book is self published and what surprised me at the outset was the author made no secret of it. The cover gives little away. On studying the cover it seems like it could have a Nazi bias and even a racist one, so before agreeing to review this book I started by asking what the genre was and was told "occasionally gory whodunnit, with some horror overtones, some (possibly) paranormal activity and with elements of the paranoid conspiracy genre". The author went on to compare it to a TV series called Millennium which is something I haven't seen. Having checked the series on I thought that maybe we were talking more like The Da Vinci Code. I didn't like The Da Vinci Code but was sure it would have to be dissimilar enough and decided I would give it a go. Since my reading it a review has appeared on "Fenriswulf Books" website. This review is not flattering and if I'm deadly honest is not wrong in much of the criticism but I think it has concentrated too much on the negative.

I would choose to describe this book more as an Indiana Jones meets The Da Vinci Code - although I would stress that the subject matter and plot have no resemblance with Dan Brown's except that in both a mystery is slowly cracked which leads the plot across large distances and even brings them into conflict with the police.

The characters are well constructed and could mean that Mr Wood can never get a taxi in Manchester again but I really got to understand them and found their actions to be consistent with the people he had painted. The "gore" was not overdone but done at a level to suit the story. Yes there were times that, had I been an alpha reader, I would have said that something should have been omitted but in general it read and moved quite briskly on.

I really did enjoy the book as a whole and found the basis of it to be researched quite well although I am not an expert on the subject and had to google to check this out - something the average reader wouldn't do. I also liked the way secrets were not held back from the reader and we had total openness. As plot unravels the author takes the occult, in which we have been swamped, and links it to modern science bringing a reality check to the plot and increasing the tension.

The story leads to a final showdown which is tense and fast but also consistent.

The epilogue says too much in my opinion and while there are bits in there that the reader will appreciate there are also bits that may irritate and really should be omitted.

Once again I enjoyed this book for all it's weaknesses and would recommend it readers who read mysteries like The Da Vinci Code.


In light of the criticism levelled at Maranatha by the review that I mentioned, it is currently undergoing a review in time for a reprint. It is also getting a new look by way of a cover update. Check it out when it comes available.

Friday 4 March 2011

Excuse Me, I'm Trying To Read by Lehla Eldridge and Jo Amani

Excuse me, I'm trying to write!
Review by TheMole

As a parent of young children I was always on the lookout for books to read along with my children. This is very much such a book. Inspired by a trip to Mozambique and set in Africa the book sees 'me' - a little girl - trying to read her book in various scenarios. On each page we see her being troubled by a different animal species and in a different landscape. The print is large enough for young readers (although the lower case 'a' is not the one I would ideally choose) but each picture gives plenty for a co-reader to talk about with the young one. The colours are soft and easy on the eye and the animals unmistakable. A really lovely early reader or shared reader - which I think is a very valuable tool to help encourage children to realise that reading is something we can all do and enjoy. The book is described as ages 3-8 but having read to mine since they were but a week old this book suits such a use, as the rhythm of the phrase "Excuse me, I'm trying to read" repeats itself on each page.

Publisher Warthog Books
Genre Children's early reader

Buy Excuse Me, I'm Trying To Read from the publisher

Tomorrow, When The War Began By John Marsden

When their country is invaded and their families taken, eight high school teenagers band together to fight.
Seventeen-year-old Ellie Linton wants one final adventure with her friends before the school holidays are over. Packed in Ellie’s parents’ Land-Rover, they drive to the famously isolated paradise in the hills, dubbed ‘Hell’ by the locals.
Returning to their home town of Wirrawee, the seven teenagers realize that something is seriously wrong. Power to the houses has been cut, pets and livestock have been left dead or dying, and most alarmingly of all, everyone’s family has vanished.
When the hostile armed forces discover that the teenagers are lying low in the vicinity, Ellie and her friends must band together to escape, outwit and strike back against the mysterious enemy that has seized control of their town and imprisoned their friends and loved ones…
A story of love, bravery and terrific action that will grip teenagers and asks: Would you fight? Would you give up everything? Would you sacrifice even life itself?

I first heard of this book last year on Facebook. It was made into a film and released in Australia and New Zealand in September last year. When I saw people chatting about it I looked it up and found the book not available in the UK. However that all changes very soon. The film comes out here in the UK on 15th April 2011 and as a tie-in Quercus are publishing the first book very soon. I am REALLY looking forward to this one. The book took Australia by storm when it came out in the nineties and sold by the truckload! Only Australians would count 'truckloads' - we would count 'thousands' - but that's why we love the Aussies. The series ran to a further six titles, all of which Quercus will be publishing over the next year 'or so'.

While we wait we can always watch the trailer - here on YouTube.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith

A Slow Gentle Amble
review by Maryom

Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher, editor of the Review Of Applied Ethics, but finds difficulty in applying either philosophy or ethics to her day to day problems - particularly those concerning her feelings for a much younger man, Jamie, ex-boyfriend of her niece. She also manages to involve herself in the affairs of a recovering heart-transplant patient who feels he is receiving messages/visions from the heart's donor, and those of her niece, Cat, and her new admirer, a handsome Italian with a special interest in Scotland.

A gentle tale of the good folk of Edinburgh - a million miles away from Ian Rankin's Rebus novels or Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. Isabel and her friends are engaging, well-meaning (dare I say middle class) people with everyday sort of worries and cares - though maybe not many of us are torn between younger men and handsome Italians. This isn't the first time I've read this novel and, although I found this series a little harder to 'get into' than the Scotland Street books, I'm finding it growing on me. In some ways it's a sort of modern day Cranford-type novel, a slow gentle amble of a novel rather than a mad dash, the perfect thing for lazy afternoon reading.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - LittleBrown

Genre - Adult Fiction