Thursday 28 July 2011

Favourite Scottish Reads - as seen on Twitter

A brief post provoked by a question from @EdinCityofLit on Twitter earlier this week about favourite Scottish reads. Now, on Twitter you've got about 10 seconds to think of something clever or amusing, or even preferably both, to say. So briefly hunting round my brain I picked

The Crow Road by Iain Banks
All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye by Christopher Brookmyre
Bloodstone by Gillian Philip

and then watched as everyone else came up with more sensible ideas - Kate Atkinson's Case Histories series, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, anything by Alexander McCall Smith....

Anyway, I thought I'd defend myself .....

The Crow Road - yes, it opens with an attention grabbing sentence about the narrator's grandmother exploding but what makes this book stand out for me is the almost fictional landscape that Iain Banks creates. Some authors set their books in places recognisable to their readers; some create a totally imaginary setting: in The Crow Road the two meet. Many of the places are real and the fictional ones wrap round, under and over them (mirroring the relationship between life and fiction). Go to Crinan (a place I knew before reading the book) and you can visualise where Gallanach must be - you can imagine a viaduct crossing Loch Fyne at Minard - and heading back towards Glasgow, you'll drive carefully in case that fatal litter bin is still there! Stand at Crinanferry and you can visualise an alternative world where Upper Loch Crinan is a deep water port rather than mud-flats barely covered at high tide, where a bustling town with docks and glass works grew up on its banks, maybe peopled by folk just like Prentice McHoan and his exploding grandma!
People often ask about novels that have impacted on readers lives and in an immensely trivial way this has - every time we drive on the motorway, I encourage my husband to try Ashley's trick of crossing from one lane to the next without hitting the cat's eyes!

All Fun And Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye - an action-packed comic escapade that I happened when talking about it recently to liken to Charlie's Angels. So why put it up there in favourite reads? Because of the heroine, Jane Fleming - who's led a life of dull propriety until she suddenly finds herself plunged into a world of fast cars, designer clothing and international espionage worthy of a Bond girl. But Jane is no young bimbo - she's a 46 yr old granny! After years trapped in dull routine, she has the chance to break out of the mould her family have cast her in, to live the life she always wanted and prove that age is no barrier to having fun!

- cheating a bit to include this as it's not published till August. I've recently read a proof copy and found some of its passages the most harrowing I've ever read. Gillian Philip is not an author to let her characters, or her reader, off lightly and there's no pulling of punches when it comes to making them suffer. When you think the characters have all the emotional and physical turmoil they can stand - there's more to come! I'm not a person to sob my way through any sad parts and tear-jerkers don't normally work on me, but at a certain point while reading, I called a temporary halt - put the book in the freezer for a while, as Joey from Friends does - because it didn't seem right and proper to carry on without a pause, so much was I involved with the characters, their pain and grief.

So, there we go, my favourite three Scottish reads - certainly the three that sprang to mind quickest.

What would you pick?

This originally appeared on Maryom's personal blog 19/07/11

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Nothing by Janne Teller

Nothing Matters
review by Maryom

One day Pierre Anthon stands up in class and declares that nothing matters so nothing's worth doing and walks out. His school friends aren't amused by this. After all, they've always been told that schoolwork is important if you want to amount to something - and they do! They're even less pleased when Pierre Anthon decides that in future he'll sit up the plum tree in his front garden and heckle his friends about the futility of everything as they pass on their way to school. His friends feel the very foundations of their world slipping and set out to prove he's wrong and that some things do matter and do have value. They set out to collect things that have meaning for them in the belief that when they confront Pierre Anthon with them, he'll have to acknowledge that he is wrong. The pile starts innocently enough- old photographs and outgrown baby clothes from the neighbours; an old doll, a battered hymn book, a fishing rod of their own - but they soon realise that these aren't really the things that matter the most and that something more is called for....

There's always a risk that a book that you've clammered and begged for to review will fall flat and so after a lot of fuss I found myself starting to read Nothing just a little cautiously. I needn't have worried. I won't claim to have been hooked from the first page but from a small number in when Pierre Anthon packs his bag, leaves the classroom and the gaping door behind him smiles - that's where I was hooked.
I'd say this was a disturbing and thought-provoking book - but that seems rather too trite a comment. Pierre Anthon's attitude challenges what most of us would feel. If we start believing that nothing is of value, where will we end up? - this is the abyss that opens in front of his classmates - and the reader. His constant declaration that nothing has meaning reminded me of Renton's opening speech from Trainspotting "Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family......But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else", but Renton's "something else" stops him asking about the meaning of life: Pierre Anthon is offering no such quick fix. More disturbing are the lengths his friends go to to prove him wrong...
Nothing is definitely a book that asks far more questions than it answers. It's not an easy, comfortable read but one to make you squirm or cover your eyes in horror. A very dark book but one I'd wholeheartedly recommend for teens looking for something beyond entertainment in their reading.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Strident
Genre - teen/YA fiction

Buy Nothing from Amazon

Monday 25 July 2011

Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith

Cold-Served Revenge
review by Maryom

Leo Demidov, ex-MGB operative, now a factory manager, hasn't left his old instincts behind. His wife and daughters are due to travel to New York for a series of concerts performed by Russians and Americans together and on the eve of their departure, he finds himself on edge, suspicious of what might lie behind the trip and of the behaviour of his younger daughter. As things turn out, his fears weren't without cause and his family is torn apart by events. Not willing to trust the official version of events, Leo schemes to find a way of getting to America to track down whoever has brought tragedy upon his family.

Agent 6 is a compelling thriller combined with moving love story, spanning over 20 years. The story traces the relationship of Leo and Raisa Demidov from its beginning in 1950 (before the novel that introduced these characters, Child 44) through the end of Stalinist Russia to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 70s.

Revenge is supposed to be best served cold - if so, then Leo's must be the best there can be! No longer protected and empowered by the MGB Leo is forced into a series of compromises with authority while trying to pursue his own agenda. Although there are tense, nail-biting moments, overall Agent 6 is a long slow-burner of a novel with more emphasis on exploring Leo's state of mind than on action. I did feel that he and his family were real people accidentally caught up in affairs beyond their control and manipulated by the security services of both Russia and America.

Although Agent 6 is the third in a series involving Leo Demidov and his wife Raisa, it's not necessary to have read the earlier novels (I read this before Child 44), the back plot is filled in while not giving away the ending of the earlier books.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Genre - crime, thriller, adult fiction

Buy Agent 6 from Amazon

Friday 22 July 2011

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

No Such Thing As Murder!
review by Maryom

Leo Demidov is an upwardly mobile officer with Russia's secret police. As such he believes the Party line that insists there is no such thing as crime and certainly no such thing as murder - the strange death of a colleague's son must have been a tragic accident. Gradually though, as he hears of more all too similar incidents, he comes to accept the fact that there is a serial killer at large. Neither KGB nor Militia are convinced and Leo finds himself trying to track down the killer while remaining one step ahead of the authorities.

Child 44 is a tense, fast-paced thriller based on real events - how true to life it is though is anyone's guess. I was glad to see that the author had avoided falling in to the cliché of stereotyped characters - the card-carrying Party member or intellectual dissident - and in this respect it reminded me of Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko series (Gorky Park, Polar Star.. ) but set at a much earlier date. Although capturing the oppression and distrust of late Stalinist era Russia, Child 44 is primarily a whodunnit - excellently written with a believable, flawed hero and a requisite twist in the tail ending.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Genre - crime, thriller, adult fiction

Buy Child 44 from Amazon

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Return to the Olive Farm by Carol Drinkwater

Going green
Review by The Mole

Carol has returned to the olive farm and starts to consider the impact of olive farming on the ecology around the farm. Having started to evaluate this she sets about trying to go "organic" - not truly understanding at the start what this entails.

People who write anything autobiographical are very brave and taking a big risk. The risk is that when people see the person behind the celebrity they may find them dull or take a dislike to the person. But do we see the real person anyway? We all show different aspects of ourselves in different situations and hide the real person from public gaze. In Carol's book I felt that a lot of the time - that there was a Carol in there that was hiding from the public. In the early part of the book I felt like I was being cheated somehow. As the book continues Carol's passion for the environment comes more to the fore and with it her defence is relaxed and we start to see more of the real Carol. I learned a good deal about "organic" farming and some of the "hippy", "airy fairy", "off piste" ideas that we are fed about "organic" farming suddenly start to have context and a relevance and lose the label I just gave them. I had understood "organic" to be what you put into the soil and onto the plants but Carol manages to explain through her experience how it's much more and WHY it's so much more.

I did get to understand the real Carol a bit more than I think she intended and am grateful for it.

Although I found it difficult to get into, I did really enjoy it once the defences started to come down. It's well worth a read by anyone who reads autobiographies or is worried about the environment or even concerned about the food we eat.

Publisher: Orion books
Genre: Non-Fiction, Autobiographical

Buy Return to the Olive Farm from Amazon

Monday 18 July 2011

Interview with Keren David, author of Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery

Today we'd like to welcome Keren David - author of the award-winning When I Was Joe and Almost True - answering some questions about her latest book...

Lia's Guide To Winning The Lottery is the new novel from Keren David, about a 16 yr old who wins 8 million pounds with her very first lottery ticket! It's a bit of a change from your previous stories, When I Was Joe and Almost True, which deal with knife crime and witness protection so what sparked the idea for this book?

Some of the publishers who read When I Was Joe said they weren't sure there was a market for gritty realism. I didn't particularly agree, but when I was thinking about what to do next, I wanted to avoid being pigeon-holed. What could be more grit-free than a book about winning the lottery?

Do you think though that there's the same theme of a change of identity running though Lia?

Yes! In some ways it's the opposite of When I Was Joe. There, something bad happens which means a boy has to hide away and adopt a new identity. In Lia's Guide, something good happens which means a girl gets a lot of attention and develops a public persona - Lia the Lottery Girl. In both cases they grow and change as a result.

Another obvious question has to be - Do you do the lottery and have you ever won anything substantial?

Yes, I do the lottery, although not every week. I've never won anything substantial, although each time I play I'm convinced that this will be the one.

IF you won, would you be a 'splash it all' or 'invest it carefully' person? How much would you have left after a year?

I'd invest it carefully, and my priority would be a new house. I'd hope to have a lot left after a year - depends how much I won though.

Is it 'right' to allow 16 yr old the possibility of winning so much?

I think that 18 might be a better age to start playing the lottery than 16, although 16-year-olds can be very sensible.

What would you do if your children scooped a big win?

If my children won - I'd hand them Lia's Guide, advise them to remain anonymous and suggest they put it all away for their future. But we might have a family holiday first!

I get the impression that you're not comfortable with some of the injustices of wealth distribution. That some people have too much and others so little that they're starving. Is there something morally wrong about too much money?

It's a fact of life, I suppose, although I do feel there are huge inequalities in society which seem to be getting worse, and viewed on a global scale, it's staggering to realise how many people are living, say, without proper sanitation, which could be provided with relatively small amounts of money. One of the themes of the book is the notion of values - all sorts of values, but particularly how we value people's worth in society. My view is that it's best to help people to help themselves, and that a fairer society is good for everyone. But I'm not against the lottery at all, I think it makes life fairer if ordinary people have the chance to win big prizes.

How did you research the background to winning the lottery? Did you actually get to meet lottery winners? or just the behind the scenes advisers? I was intrigued by the seminar that Lia attends for super-rich teens and young adults - presumably based on something that really exists?

I didn't meet any lottery winners, but I did meet some very helpful people from Camelot, the lottery company, whose job it is to help and advise winners. I read an article in a magazine about a seminar for young rich people - perhaps not quite as young as Lia - so, yes, they do exist. I also talked to someone who had worked as a private banker for a long time and had advised young lottery winners. It's not 100 per cent accurate - Lia would have met with a panel of independent financial advisers - but it's mostly based on the real experience of lottery winners.

And finally... is there more to come about Lia? Fast cars? Dodgy boyfriends after her money? Surely the problems of wealth haven't gone away?

No plans at the moment, but who knows? I suspect her love life could prove a little rocky. And then there's Natasha's ambitions to be a big star as well - I do feel a bit sorry for their parents!

Read Maryom's review of Lia's Guide To Winning The Lottery here

Keren David

Keren worked as a journalist and as a messenger girl for a national newspaper and she had several roles in journalism including reporter, a political correspondent, a news editor, a comment editor, feature writer. She lived in the Netherlands for eight years and worked in Amsterdam as editor in chief for a photographic agency. She grew up in Welwyn Garden City and has lived in London, Glasgow and Amsterdam. In 2007 she moved back to London and decided to try to write a book. She took a course in Writing for Children at City University which was tutored by Amanda Swift.

While on the course she had the idea of writing about witness protection and two years after starting the course When I Was Joe was published.

Friday 15 July 2011

Sky's the Limit by Richard Moore

Allez, Allez, Allez
Review by The Mole

Richard Moore documents the birth of Britain's first national cycling road race team since the ANC-Halfords team of the late 1960s. David Brailsford conceived the idea of the team as a progression to his experience and success in building the British Olympic track team of 2008 - the track team that was so steeped in success. Although the story is of building the road race team that competed for the first time in 2010 - a team whose founding philosophy is to be "clean" and drug free and to break some of the unwritten rules of road racing - it's foundations start even before the 2008 Olympics and the story tries to progress chronologically, but keeps dropping back to earlier foundations and while this could make it difficult to follow, Richard Moore has told the story in such a way as to make the reading a pleasure. I received this book just before the start of the 2011 Tour de France - the biggest annual road race in the cycling calendar. The Sky team have had some bad luck and some success on the 2011 tour so far and so we have seen many of the people from the book, on the screen and heard their opinions. The conclusion I came to was that Richard has captured the characters very well and this adds credibility to what could have been a jingoistic piece but is more an impartial fly on the wall account.

I don't have loyalties to riders etc because they are British, in fact on this years tour I have no real loyalties but I find myself wishing success for the Sky team and looking out for them. But I still hope Andy Schleck will win it this year!

Well written and not burdened with reams of meaningless facts or pictures, this book is a very enjoyable read.

Publisher - Harper Collins
Genre - Sport Non-Fiction

Buy Sky's the Limit: British Cycling's Quest to Conquer the Tour de France from Amazon

Monday 11 July 2011

Long Reach by Peter Cocks

The beginning of the end?
Review by The Mole

When Steve Palmer is found dead then his brother feels that his great hero, his role model, has gone from his life. Both he and his mother are devastated but when he realises what is happening to himself, he picks himself and tries to get his life back on track. Then, bit by bit, Tony Morris begins to play a role in his life and he is offered a job in trying to make the world a better place - the job his brother had been doing. He takes the job on and becomes Eddie Savage. Eddie quickly starts to wonder if he has bitten off more than he can chew.

I heard a couple of passages from this book read out by Peter Cocks at Hay Book Festival and came to the conclusion that I must read this book. I had been forewarned that the extracts chosen were, perhaps, the grisliest - which is what I banked on! - and so they were. But if you don't mind a little grisliness in your thriller, or if you positively like it then this book will entertain you immensely. If you don't like grisliness then don't let me put you off - I am particularly squeamish.

The story moves from first person with Eddie Savage to an occasional third person view following Donnie - one of the 'Tommy Kelly' heavies, chauffeurs and fixers. Tommy Kelly is the head of a crime gang that controls much of London crime and a target that Tony Morris is trying to 'hit'.

The story is fast paced and underlines the confidences and lack of confidences that the 17 year old Eddie feels as he gets in deeper and deeper, feeling at times that he is trapped between a rock and a hard place. This makes the story that much more 'real' and accessible.

While this is meant to be a book targeted at teenagers, I see no reason why adults, like me, should not equally enjoy it - why should teenagers have all the fun. My only concern is that this is the start of a series of books about Eddie Savage - How can it be?

Maryom got there first with reading and reviewing this. Check out her thoughts here

Publisher - Walker Books
Genre - YA crime, thriller

Buy Long Reach (Eddie Savage Thriller) from Amazon

Friday 8 July 2011

Bloodstone by Gillian Philip

A Heart-wrenching, Gut-mangling Read
review by Maryom

For this, the second in the Rebel Angels series, we're back with Sithe half-brothers, Conal and Seth, exiled in the mortal world until they can find the Bloodstone with which their Queen Kate NicNiven seeks to control both Fairy and Mortal worlds. Don't for a minute though confuse these 'fairies' with gossamer winged creatures of children's picture books. They're rough, tough fighting men - and women - with an ability to enter, and sometimes alter, minds - mainly keeping to their own side of the Veil.
Centuries have passed in the mortal world since the events of Firebrand. Seth, the hotheaded rebellious youth of Firebrand is older, not necessarily wiser, more wary of committing his affections, not quite bitter but someone who has been involved in many of mankind's wars and seen too much of the dark side of man to remain unscathed.
There are new characters though for Seth to share the limelight with - Finn MacAngus has been raised in the mortal world, as a fully mortal child, unaware that her family are Sithe exiled from the Fairy Realm on the other side of the Veil. When she accidentally ventures through, she feels that at last she has found a home, a place where she truly belongs - unfortunately not all the Sithe are as trustworthy and honest as Finn believes. Dragged along with her is Jed Cameron, a full mortal strangely at home there and his baby half-brother, in whom manipulative Queen Kate NicNiven seems a little too interested..

Bloodstone is yet another powerful dramatic read from Gillian Philip. She's not an author to let her characters, or her reader, off lightly and there's no pulling of punches when it comes to making them suffer. When you think the characters have all the emotional and physical turmoil they can stand - there's more to come! There was one certain passage at which I called a temporary halt to reading - put the book in the freezer for a while, as Joey from Friends does - because it didn't seem right and proper to carry on without a pause, so much was I involved with the characters, their pain and grief.

I missed the scenery, the dazzling seascapes of Firebrand, but as this book is set in winter under dull leaden skies and horizontal drizzle that's perhaps to be expected.

A heart-wrenching, gut-mangling read, aimed at teens/YA but as the series develops I'm convinced it's one that will increasingly appeal to adult readers. Parents - buy it for your teen and 'borrow' it!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Strident
Genre - fantasy, teen/YA /adult

Buy Bloodstone (Rebel Angels Series) from Amazon

Thursday 7 July 2011

The Truth About Celia Frost - Book Launch

Our first book launch!
Maryom and The Mole

We have been invited to book launches before - in various parts of the UK (although a lot in London) during weekday evenings and being the parents of a second only child, and because we do these things together, we had not been able to get. Maryom had read and reviewed The Truth About Celia Frost and so we were invited to its launch which was to be in Nottingham, just 20 miles away, and although it meant missing the day's stage of the Tour de France we all went along enthusiastically.

We were greeted on arrival by Paula Rawsworth and after a brief chat we were offered nibbles and drinks and we chatted and met other supporters of Paula. Her children did the rounds dutifully with plates of nibbles and big smiles, clearly pleased for their mother's success with getting her book published.

Anna, from Usborne, was introduced to the room and she then told us a little of Usborne's road to getting Paula's book to press before she introduced Paula's agent. We were then told how gripping her agent had found the book and causing her children to go hungry as she found she could not put it down. Paula took the microphone and after offering her thanks to everyone that had assisted her get this far she read a short passage from the start of the book.
Then there was CAKE! Usborne had prepared a cake big enough for the room that was special in two ways... (1) the book cover was on the cake (and the child's eyes on the cover are just a little freaky!)... (2) it was gorgeous, or so the room seemed to agree and, despite being low fat, The Mole did try just 1 small piece and agreed.

The book signing saw the book stands cleared of books and people started to drift away.

All in all an enjoyable experience and we hope that when The Truth About Celia Frost is published on 1st August 2011 it will enjoy the success it so richly deserves.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Spider by Linda Strachan

Review by The Mole

Spider decides to humour Deanna and go for one last 'run' and show his friends that he still has 'it'.

I am a slow reader and when I was told this had to go back soon I decided to give it a read because at only 134 pages it wouldn't take me over a couple of days to read it. How wrong I was. The story starts with Spider perched on a roof wanting to end his life. It has all gone wrong. There is nothing left. Best to end it. Chapter 2 cuts back to the 'why' and we follow Spider on his last run. The action on the run is graphically explained and tense throughout until the run comes to an abrupt end and we dragged through the consequences and repercussions.

This story is not a lecture about car theft and law breaking. It could so easily be but the author has, instead, taken you through the journey and leaves you with the effects on 3 of its characters and leaves you to assess morality, loyalties and choices entirely for yourself.

I said I was wrong about how long it took... I started it at 8pm, retired about 1 a.m. and got up early to finish it. Cliché time? Let's avoid them and let the record stand - I really got extremely involved with it and couldn't leave it alone!

Maryom read and reviewed Spider and gave it 5 stars.

Publisher - Strident
Genre - teen/YA

Buy Spider from Amazon

Monday 4 July 2011

The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh

Crime and Punishment 20th century style
review by Maryom

An elderly woman disappears from her communal apartment in Moscow one day in Spring. The other occupants immediately try to lay claim to her flat - in fact some have had their eye on it for a while which leads to the possibility that someone may have murdered her for it. When the police seem disinclined to take any action, two of the tenants decide to investigate themselves.

The whole story is presented as a 'real life' alternative working of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, with many asides on the nature of art, the similarities and differences between literature and reality, and the importance of literature in the lives of average Russians. In between there's an intriguing whodunnit as the two tenants investigate ghostly sightings, death threats cut from a children's book and disappearing photographs.
It's an enjoyable enough without, but I think that anyone who's read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment will appreciate The New Moscow Philosophy more. It's a long, long while since I read Crime and Punishment and I'm sure I missed some of the nuances here. As a total Jane Austen fan, I can watch Bride and Prejudice, the Bollywood re-make of Pride and Prejudice and pick up all the references to the original - I'm sure that sort of in-depth knowledge of Crime and Punishment would have added to my appreciation of The New Moscow Philosophy.
I've been reading a lot of translated fiction over the past few months and feel that here it was not of the quality I've found elsewhere. While doubtless retaining a sense of 'foreignness' is sometimes a good thing, I felt constantly reminded of it, particularly in the translation of idioms.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Twisted Spoon Press
Genre - adult,
literary fiction, translated fiction

Buy The New Moscow Philosophy from Amazon

Friday 1 July 2011

Kill Fish Jones by Caro King

Let Sleeping Magicians Lie
review by Maryom

Grimshaw is a demon brought into existence by his master's death bed curse. His sole purpose is to seek revenge against anyone who disturbs the remains of his master. Before dealing the final blow and killing his victims Grimshaw makes their lives a complete misery by destroying everything they hold dear - but when he is called back to his task after decades of boredom he finds things are no longer so easy. Trying to track down the people responsible for moving his master's coffin, Grimshaw finds himself up against Fish Jones, a boy who can see demons and who is prepared to risk everything to save his mother, the last person on Grimshaw's list.
A brilliantly unusual comedy/horror, with an original, inventive story line and tightpacked action. Fish himself is full of courage and determination; his loyal friend, Alice, more resourceful at a practical level. There are lots of laugh out loud moments, particularly as Grimshaw seeks revenge in increasingly bizarre ways - death by falling sheep for example and a fully realised half-world inhabited by the demons and their dead masters, lying just out of sight but parallel to our own.

You might quake with fear, you might burst out laughing - whichever, it's an excellent read.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Quercus
Genre - Supernatural, Comedy, Horror, 10-14

Buy Kill Fish Jones from Amazon