Friday 30 November 2012

Roodica The Rude - Party Pooper by Margaret Ryan

Review by The Mole

Roodica, a Celtic princess, is planning a party when her plans are cancelled because her family must attend another party, at the same time, being given by the Romans. But Roodica is a girl of spirit and is not going to take this lying down. In fact if she can take advantage of it, then she will!

This is a story without a hidden meaning - it's one that is purely for fun and fun it certainly is. Yes, there are things in there to be learned but it can also just be enjoyed and perhaps that's the best kind of book - one that motivates its young reader on the promise of laughter. Although they may learn a bit about Roman life - but is that important?

Aimed at the 7+ audience and with lots of simple but amusing black and white drawings this is bound to delight at Christmas and there are three others stories in the series already to keep them laughing and reading.

Publisher - Catnip Publishing
Genre - Children's 7+ fiction,Comedy, Historical

Buy Roodica the Rude Party Pooper from Amazon

Thursday 29 November 2012

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

review by Maryom

Following on from Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies follows the continuing fortunes of Thomas Cromwell from September 1535 to summer 1536 - as Henry VIII falls in love with Jane Seymour and tries to rid himself of his current encumbrance of wives. Cromwell, of course, is on hand to help and advise - believing the world to be a safer place for everyone, but particularly himself, if Anne Boleyn and her supporters are removed from the scene.

It's not the story that matters here - after all, if you didn't know already, a brief glance at a history book will tell you how it all ends. Mantel's skill is in bringing the movers and shakers of the Tudor Court to life on the page and in our minds. The reader feels themselves to be there, in that time and place, overhearing court gossip or Cromwell's family get-togethers.

I discovered after reading Wolf Hall that the world - or at least that part of it interested in books - was divided into two distinct groups; those who felt it captured the period, the workings of Henry's court in general and of Cromwell's mind in particular, so very well, who loved it and wanted more, more, more;  and those for whom it all fell flat. No prizes for guessing I'm in the first group! I could sing Hilary Mantel's praises for pages and pages but basically if you adored Wolf Hall, you'll adore Bring Up The Bodies - and if you found Wolf Hall wasn't for you, then this won't be either.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher -
Fourth Estate
Genre - adult fiction, historical

Buy Bring up the Bodies from Amazon

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Summertime of the Dead by Gregory Hughes

 review by Maryom

"Yukio's two best friends are dead. Tormented and blackmailed by the Japanese mafia - the notorious yakuza - they have taken their own lives. Overcome by heartbreak and fury, Yukio is determined to avenge their deaths.
  So begins a deadly mission that will take Yukio on a destructive path to the rotten core of Tokyo - and to his own dark heart."

I'd been putting off reading this book for a while as I expected it, from the title, to be yet another zombie story. So when I read the blurb - as above - I was pleasantly surprised and expecting a mystery thriller - a tale of a young teen taking on the might of the yakuza, tracking down the culprits and bringing them to justice. Unfortunately the story turned out to be far more of a bloodbath than I expected. Yukio sets off round Tokyo with his Samurai sword seeking out those he sees as responsible - a bit like Charles Bronson in Deathwish.

Taken as a whole I found this to be a very disturbing novel. At the end, the author comes down as very firmly AGAINST Yukio's behaviour - but only at the end. My concern is that a reader might not make it that far, might take it as approval of Yukio's actions and even try to imitate them. If this had been adult fiction, I would not have been so perturbed but Yukio is only 14 - and presumably the target reader is of similar age.

Publisher: Quercus
Genre: Teenage fiction

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Stuart The Bug Eating Man by Calvin Innes

Review by The Mole

Stuart is a man who only eats bugs. His family find it revolting and he also spends his days hunting for bugs to eat and so his wife has to go out and earn the family's entire income. One way or another his whole family is affected in a bad way by his obsession. Until... one day...

The story is told as one poem and although 88 pages in length it is laid out with 4 lines to a page and so is very easy reading in simple rhyme. Each page has fun, clear, black and white illustrations which will make it fun to read for the early reader (7+). It also carries an important message that even some weird hobbies and pastimes can be put to good use.

Publisher - My Little Big Town
Genre - Children's early reader (7+), Picture book, Poetry

Buy Stuart The Bug Eating Man (Tiny Twisted Tales) from Amazon

Monday 26 November 2012

The Healing of Luther Grove by Barry Gornell

review by Maryom

Luther Grove is a man who lives simply off the land - only on what he can grow and catch - keeping himself very much to himself on his private piece of Scottish hillside. Then the nearby cottage is sold and renovated by the new owners, city dwellers John and Laura Payne. To them this represents a dream-home and a chance to start over; to Luther it's an infringement of his privacy. Their arrival stirs up memories of his wife and daughter that he's spent many, many years trying to suppress. At first innocently but increasingly maliciously they trample all over Luther's feelings and desecrate places important to him.
When John's brother Frank arrives, he decides to deliberately antagonise Luther - and events take a downhill turn...

The Healing of Luther Grove is the sort of thriller that grips you on the first page so that you can't put it down till the very last! The situation is carefully set up and believable but then events spiral out of control, Deliverance style. I felt my sympathies dragged this way and that as the story evolved. Luther's story is heart-breaking and it's easy to see why he's become the person he is. At first, John and Laura appear to be just normal folk hoping for a better life but as their past is revealed the reader realises nothing is ever that simple. And Frank?... well, maybe the less said about him, the better!
An enthralling read with a cataclysmic ending, more thought-provoking than many thrillers, this is Barry Gornell's debut novel and I look forward to reading many more from him.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Freight Books
Genre - thriller, adult,

Buy The Healing of Luther Grove from Amazon

Friday 23 November 2012

Alien Schoolboy's Z-A Guide to Earthlings Ros Asquith

Review by The Mole

Flowkee has visited Earth, disguised himself as a schoolboy and tried to learn about Earthlings. He made some mistakes along the way and so has produced this guide for other Faathings who will follow. Sadly he didn't get the title quite right but he did manage to put the entries in the correct order - entries starting at "Aaargh" going through to "Zoo". With an introduction on how to prepare and a section at the back where the reader can add "Everything else...".

Shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny prize it carries entries like "Losing stuff" where it says "... When earthlings find something, they say 'It's always in the last place you look.' Are there really Earthlings who go on looking after they've found something?" and you can see why it achieved that prestigious accolade.

Laugh out loud funny with lots of hilariously captioned pictures throughout this is a book that is going to be loved by it's readers and is a valuable reference book for those who follow the "Alien Schoolboy" books. A great Christmas present for young readers and it includes some facts to be absorbed by osmosis.

Publisher - Piccadilly Press
Genre - Children's 8+,Sci-Fi(?), humour

Buy Letters from an Alien Schoolboy: Alien Schoolboy's Z - A Guide to Earthlings (Letters from/Alien Schoolboy) from Amazon

Thursday 22 November 2012

Crow Country by Kate Constable

 review by Maryom

Sadie Hazzard isn't happy when her mum Ellie decides to move from Melbourne to the small town of Boort in rural Victoria. Ellie has fond memories of the holidays she spent there with her grandparents but Sadie thinks it's just plain dull. Gradually she makes new friends -  Lachie and Walter - and discovers how her family fit into the area's history. But Sadie also finds herself talking to the crows that seem to follow her around and have a task for her. In a dreamlike state she slips into the past to find a mystery that needs to be cleared up.

Crow Country is an intriguing time-slip adventure set in rural Australia. The present day story of Sadie and Ellie moving to Boort mixes with the flash-backs to the 1920s discovering wrongs committed then and helping to put them right. Without being moralistic or preaching in any way, the story explores the relationship between white incomers and aboriginal peoples of the Boort area, their differing attitudes towards the land, the particularly difficult area of 'mixed-race' relationships - working towards a better understanding from both sides. Nevertheless, it remains at all times, first and foremost, an excellent story.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Allen and Unwin
Genre - teen, time-slip adventure, 

Buy Crow Country from Amazon

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Coconuts and Wonderbras by Lynda Renham

Review by The Mole

Libby is a literary agent - a good one - and  plans to get her boyfriend, Toby, to marry her. She is given a new client - an author she dislikes but is ex-SAS and is a bit of a hunk. Worse than that she has to go to Cambodia for a book fair - with him. Things don't go as planned... Well they wouldn't would they? Chases, fights, kidnappings and other happenings ensue and these are made worse when her family, best friend, boyfriend and boss fly out to help get her home safely.

Chicklit needs romance and comedy, and Renham has poured in more than enough of both. At one point Libby compares herself to Lara Croft and OK.. a little bit but what struck me was Bridget Jones meets Romancing The Stone and Sleepless in Seattle but with more comedy and probably more romance than any of them thrown in. The cover looks like a quiet, tranquil romance - IT'S NOT. This is most definitely an action adventure, fast moving but funny while romantic as well.

The characters are very polarised - you either love them or hate them and Renham has you loving the right ones and wanting to take the others to task.

A thoroughly enjoyable comedy that I would recommend to anyone wanting a 'lighter' read. Chicklit doesn't come any better. But this one MAY leave you wanting cake. (Read it to find out why.)

Publisher - Raucous Publishing

Genre - Adult, Chicklit, Action Adventure

Buy Coconuts and Wonderbras (a Romantic Comedy Adventure) from Amazon

Tuesday 20 November 2012

The Larry Diaries: Downing Street - the first 100 days

review by Maryom

No 10 Downing Street is being over-run by rats - not the press or the Opposition but the small, furry, not-remotely-cute kind. Join Larry the Cat as he takes on his new role as official Rat Catcher to the Prime Minister. His unique position gives him ample opportunity to eavesdrop on cabinet meetings, foreign government delegations and what goes on in the Camerons' private flat. After life on the streets, Larry seems to have landed himself a nice cushy place - if only he can find a way to deal with the rats!

The Larry Diaries are an amusing behind-the-scenes look at life at No 10 from the smallest member of staff. A little bit of an East-end 'bruiser', whether he's lounging in Sam Cam's lingerie drawer or trying to broker a deal with the rats, Larry has his own 'take' on everything. It's a light-hearted read rather than full-scale political satire of, say, Have I Got News For You or Mock The Week and perhaps because of it likely to appeal to a wider spectrum of readers, from cat-lovers to people-watchers.

If you've ever wondered what life is REALLY like behind that famous front-door this is your chance to find out!

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Genre - humour, politics,

Buy The Larry Diaries: Downing Street - the First 100 Days from Amazon

Monday 19 November 2012

Gorgeous George and the Zigzag Zit-faced Zombies by Stuart Reid

Oh Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear
Review by The Mole

This review carries material that I feel is in very bad taste but necessary to explain my review. I have attempted to keep all of that in red. Apologies!

At a local pond there is an accident where chemicals accidentally get added without anyone knowing. George and a couple of friends are then asked by their teacher to give a presentation on sustainability and the environment to a younger class - a class that had visited the pond only the previous day. The class all seem to have come down with a cold on the same day and the teachers don't seem to be bothered but George, Allison and Kenny are curious. They go to investigate the unusual behaviour of the class and are attacked by some of the children - to pick their noses for any discharge. The children of the class had all been picking their noses and eating it to the point where some of their noses bleed. Allison then checks under their desks and finds the children have been licking the undersides to eat the discharge that children have previously wiped there and then...

Well, then I stopped reading - I genuinely felt sick from it! Maryom tried in case I was being overly sensitive  but gave up before she got anything like as far as me! But let's be fair the cover does illustrate nasal discharge and the synopsis on the back does sort of explain a bit of what you might find and kids CAN find 'snot' amusing but this takes it too far. FAR too far and far too graphically.

There is a lot in here about teachers and kids books often have caricaturised teachers as figures of fun but here it felt like the author was having a 'go' at the teaching profession. OK, but in front of children we need to support their education and not undermine teaching or learning will suffer... this did not feel good at all! Wrong device in the wrong place.

There. I've had my say. One book I would certainly never recommend and one that if I found a child of mine reading I would find a way to lose it - QUICK!!

Having said that, I am not a nine year old but I know that the 9 year olds that I have known would not have read this. However this is MY opinion and if you have a child who reads and enjoys this then please let us know and at what age they read it.

Publisher - My Little Big Town
Genre - Children's Fiction, 9+

Buy The Tale Of Peter Rabbit (The World of Beatrix Potter) from Amazon

Friday 16 November 2012

Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell

Review by The Mole

May 1st 1960 and Gary Powers is flying a spy plane across Russia to assess the threat that is currently posed by the superpower. But this is one mission too far and the Russians have managed to achieve the technology to reach the plane with anti-aircraft missiles. A sad day? Perhaps and this day took the world to the very brink of nuclear war. How? Why? What could have been done to prevent it?

The problem with much non-fiction is that it is written by people who are simply too passionate about their subject - at the cost of making it readable. What Whittell has achieved here is a gripping commentary that is almost totally unbiased but really does keep the reader's interest. He has dotted irony throughout the book to take a swipe at almost every character involved in the events that led to the 'spy swap'. To get 'read aloud' moments in non-fiction is always a good sign!

I was still a mixed infant at the time of the spy swap so, frankly, did not take a great deal of interest in world affairs and therefore the importance of the Powers incident passed me by, but reading this has been truly fascinating and yet entertaining too. I would now like to see Whittell tackle, in the same manner, the end of the Soviet Union and the taking down of the Berlin Wall as this is another event in world history that sort of 'just happened' without any real understanding of the 'why' of it.

Excellent book, excellently done and on a subject we should all understand and he raises questions about industry and government that are as pertinent today as they were then.

Highly recommended for anyone from 15+ as world affairs are for everyone really.

Publisher - Simon & Schuster 
Genre - Non-fiction, Cold War, Spy

Buy Bridge of Spies from Amazon

Thursday 15 November 2012

Secrets and Shadows by Brian Gallagher

review by Maryom

When the German bombing raids on Liverpool reach an horrific intensity, Barry's mum decides he would be far safer sent to live with his Gran in Dublin. At first he finds it difficult to make new friends there and fit into the established pecking-order of playground bullies but then he makes friends with Grace who's also moved because her house was destroyed in a stray Luftwaffe raid of the North Strand, Dublin. Gradually Barry settles into his new life but used to Britain's fear of spies and the 'walls have ears' campaign, he begins to distrust his over-friendly sports teacher Mr Pawlek. He claims to be Polish but could he really be a German spy? No one else seems to doubt him, but Barry and Grace feel they should investigate....

Secrets and Shadows is an exciting children's wartime adventure with lots of factual details and historical snippets to give it a good feel of time and place but without over-shadowing the plot. It was very interesting to see WW2 from an Irish perspective - I'd never given a thought to the fact that Eire too suffered from the disruption of trade with the US despite being a neutral country and never realised Dublin was bombed - but mainly this is a good old-fashioned Famous Five style adventure. With the role of 'lead character' shared between Barry and Grace, this should be a book to appeal to both boys and girls and have them biting their nails as the story heads to a dramatic conclusion.

Maryom's review -  4.5 stars
Publisher - O'Brien Press
Genre - war, adventure, 10+ children's fiction

Wednesday 14 November 2012

A Time For Heroes by Frank Barnard

review by Maryom

Guv Sutro is a hero - a pioneer of aviation in its infancy then a fighter pilot in WW1 and a breaker of aviation records after - but heroes often turn out to have feet of the muddiest sort of clay. His son Tim and childhood friend Will have always accepted this 'hero' version of Guv - Tim trying to step out from his shadow and Will trying to emulate him. It's only when as pilots themselves during WW2 they visit Guv's wartime French airfield that they get the first inkling that he might not have been quite the honourable chap he's been built up to be.

To be rather, or very, simplistic this a story of what happens when too much praise goes to a person's head. I wasn't actually sure how much I was going to like this book - from the blurb it seemed a bit of 'boy's own' Biggles-type adventure and at just under 500 pages seemed a little long. But once I'd started, it was very hard to put down as I uncovered a long family epic of secrets, betrayals and cover-ups. It definitely isn't merely about high jinks in the sky - though they do play their part.  I don't know if Barnard did any hands-on up-in-the-sky research but I really felt 'there' in the flimsy aircraft soaring above war-torn France.
A really enjoyable read and not just for flying buffs.

Maryom's review -  4.5 stars
Publisher - Headline 
Genre - Adult, war, family epic

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Hidden Lies by Victor Watson (A Paradise Barn Story)

Review by The Mole

It's May 1944 and Cassie Covington fleas from her uncle's funeral to find strangers searching her house so once again she fleas in fear of her own safety. She knows little about her uncle except that he had been a spy before the start of the war and that he was her only living relative. Where would she live now? Who could she turn to for safety? Little does she know that she holds the lives of thousands of soldiers in her hands.

A fast moving story of 'Who are the bad guys? Are there actually any bad guys?' in the Enid Blyton fashion but here Watson does it in a new way for a new generation. He tells the story without patronising the reader and brings to the young reader a lot of history about the war in a semi educational style. Having said that he brought forward things about the war that I didn't know (but that's not too hard) and that Maryom didn't know (and that's much harder). He also made you think, more deeply, about what life was really like for children during the war. We have all been told in the classroom what it was like but here Watson brings it much more to life and brings day to day things that you may not have considered before into your thoughts as well.

But without all this 'educational resource' stuff he first and foremost tells an excellent story that entertains for the sake of it. With a young girl for hero but boys dotted throughout the story it will appeal to all readers of nine or older although mature readers would probably enjoy this from the age of seven. Having said that, I am a little older than either of those age groups and I learned from it and more importantly thoroughly enjoyed it.

Publisher - Catnip Publishing
Genre - Children's 9+ fiction, War

Buy Hidden Lies (Paradise Barn Quartet) from Amazon

Monday 12 November 2012

Two Brothers by Ben Elton

review by Maryom

Inspired by his family history, Ben Elton tells the story of two brothers - Paulus and Otto - twins in every way except birth.
When one of an expected pair of twins dies at birth, a Jewish couple adopt an orphaned non-Jewish baby. Frieda and Wolfgang bring up the two boys as equals, not knowing of their different backgrounds, showering them both with the same love and care. But 1930s Germany is not a safe place to be Jewish and when bureaucracy starts stalking them, they and their family are faced with the impossible dilemma of which of them will be condemned for being Jewish and which saved for not?

My review copy of Two Brothers came with a slip which said "hoping you'll be pleasantly surprised". Surprised? I was stunned!
Despite a string of novels and plays, Ben Elton is still to me the stand-up comedian with the dodgy suit, so this epic novel spanning 80 years was something totally unexpected. Two Brothers is an enthralling page turner, a convincing portrayal of  Berlin life through the wild, pleasure seeking, galloping inflation years of Weimar Germany to more sombre ones as the Nazis steam-roller their way to power but at its heart lies the dilemma of two brothers united in everything but blood - they even fall in love with the same girl!
The reader knows from the beginning that ONE brother survived but is kept guessing which - and just when you think you know how it all will end, Elton pulls yet another twist and turn out of the hat!

Two Brothers is a deeply moving and thought provoking story, so if you thought you knew Ben Elton - think again!

Maryom's Review - 5 stars
Publisher: Transworld Books
Genre: Adult, Historical

Buy Two Brothers from Amazon

..and if you want to hear Ben Elton talking about Two Brothers check out the Waterstones blog 

My Goodreads review: Basically - Wow! Totally unexpected as I still think of Ben Elton as a funny-man. Although still there's dark humour, Two Brothers isn't a light hearted book. The story of twins growing up in Weimar Germany, as close as any twins - apart from the fact that one is adopted and isn't Jewish - as the Nazis gain power this means one twin can be saved. But how can a family choose which one? Lots of detail capturing Cabaret-feel decadent Germany of 1920s and the unstoppable rise of Nazis but the heart-breaking dilemma faced by the Twins, balanced by others intent only on saving their own skin, creates an unforgettable story.

Friday 9 November 2012

Troubadour by Mary Hoffman

 review by Maryom

Elinor is a young French noblewoman, in love with the handsome troubadour Bertran and his songs of courtly love, but about to find herself forced into marriage with a suitor many years older than herself. So she hatches a plan to run away disguised as a troubadour herself, to find Bertran and live happily ever after. The south of France though is on the verge of war. The Pope is determined to stamp out the 'heretic' version of Christianity practised throughout the region and when his envoy is murdered he uses it as an excuse to launch a crusade. By a stroke of bad luck, Bertran witnessed the murder and has to disappear for his own safety but also to warn fellow 'heretics' of what is about to be unleashed on them. With an army descending on the south of France,will Elinor and Bertran ever meet again?

It was reading Kate Mosse's Labyrinth that made me decide to re-read this teen novel set in the same historical period - the Albigensian crusade which ripped through Southern France in the thirteenth century. I first read this a few years ago from the library but shortly after I won my very own signed copy!!

So, how did Troubadour fare on a second read, knowing how it all ends?
Better than before, if that's possible. It's still an exciting historical adventure but first time I'd felt there were side-trackings and loose ends in the love story - mainly because it didn't end how I felt it should have done; this time it read as a satisfying whole.

Mary Hoffman weaves a wonderful story in, around and through real historical events - so while you're carried along by the plot you actually pick up a lot of history on the side. The real and fictional characters blend seamlessly - and there are no 'cardboard cut-outs' just living breathing people whether it's Elinor and Bertran, the Cathar 'heretics' prepared to die for their faith or the villain of the Crusade, Simon de Montfort. Don't expect a sentimental historical romance of handsome heroes and damsels in silk gowns, of honourable knights and courtly love. The author isn't afraid to face the horrors and brutality of the crusade, spurred on by religious fanaticism and plain land-hungry greed - although this is a teen read sometimes it may be a little too graphic for the squeamish reader.

Maryom's review -  5 stars
Publisher -
Genre - historical, teen fiction

Buy Troubadour from Amazon

Thursday 8 November 2012

Shadow Blizzard by Alexey Pehov (The Chronicles of Siala)

Review by The Mole

After suffering the loss of friends Harold's reduced group of men, dwarves, dark elves and gnomes finally arrive at Hrad Spein and need to enter the underground complex and try beat the monsters, magical traps and other perils to collect the Rainbow Horn to protect the world from the nameless one. This is the 'commission' that was set Harold at the outset of the trilogy in Shadow Prowler.

The task sounds very simplistic but what Pehov has done is far more intriguing than that. Before he enters the complex Harold , the Shadow Dancer, is told that to remove the horn will destroy the entire world. This warning is repeated several times as we learn still more about Harold and who he really is. We also learn a lot more about the nature of Harold's world and how unimportant some people really believe it to be.

When we enter the complex of Hrad Spein, Pehov does a good job of introducing the reader to the dark and confined underground world and I found myself feeling the atmosphere throughout his time underground and if you don't like dark and enclosed spaces then have someone hold your hand while you read!

The entire story was intriguing and engaging and constantly reminded me that this was not a children's fantasy but very much aimed at the older reader wanting a challenging plot.

In the second book, Shadow Chaser, most readers felt that they couldn't remember all the nuances from the first book and it took a third to half the book to remind themselves. But in this one Pehov has Harold chatting to the reader as if in a bar and he's saying "You remember how... and then..." and so you are re-introduced to the earlier plot. I found this device to work very well indeed.

It is very difficult to fault this story but if I had to raise one minor criticism it would be that some of the fight/battle scenes could have been a little shorter - but this applies to just a couple of scenes and I am sure that other readers will disagree. It's a minor, personal point anyway.

This is one of those rare trilogies that starts well and each book is that little better than it's predecessor. Could there be more in the series? Well to me Harold's plots within the context of this epic are tied up nicely although other characters are not so neatly 'folded up' and if Harold were to make a return then it would be a new story.

An excellent climax to the trilogy and while it can, most certainly, be read in isolation, I would recommend you start at the beginning and work your way through in the right order - for maximum effect.

Highly recommended to fantasy lovers everywhere. ENJOY!

Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Genre - Adult Fantasy

Buy Shadow Blizzard From Amazon

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Edward Wilson - Author Interview

Having met Edward Wilson at Edinburgh International Book Festival this year and invited him to make a guest post for the anniversary of the Cuban incident, and reviewed his book The Midwinter Swimmer he kindly agreed to an author interview as Maryom felt she had many questions she'd like to ask...  

You seem to have come to writing in a roundabout sort of way. Was it something you'd always wanted to do or did it grow out of your experiences?
I became fascinated by writers and artists when I was growing up. They seemed so much more interesting than everyone else. I wanted to be part of their world, to be like them. I also had two great English teachers – Mr Jansen and Mr Newton. Jansen used to say outrageous things that would get most teachers sacked, but loved books. Newton dressed like a dandy – and I’m sure had a secret life that had to be secret. When, however, I got to university I found the Eng Lit department dull. But the International Relations faculty absolutely glittered. The lecturers came from all corners of the world and reeked of embassy cocktail parties and intrigue. In retrospect, I can see that many of them had been spies. I was intoxicated by the cosmopolitan air and the whiff of power. I had a romantic image of my future self striding around in a white linen suit as a diplomat in dangerous tropical places. I soon ended up in one, but wearing an olive drab uniform instead of white linen. Any illusions I had were stripped away in Vietnam. I had volunteered because I wanted to see what it was like to be in a war, even though I knew that war was wrong. My other feeble excuse is that I was researching my first novel. In fact, I wrote much of A River in May in a bunker at the remote outpost of Nong Son. When I came back I was a bit disorientated. I drifted around – Canada, Germany, France, Scotland – and somehow picked up an MA in English Literature. After Vietnam, there was no way I was ever going to live in the USA again. I finally settled in England and spent 30 years as a teacher of English and modern languages. So I don’t really think I came to writing in such a roundabout way. And yes, experiences are an important part of my writing, but you need to swathe experiences with layers of imagination, not to falsify or exaggerate, but to find a more intense truth.  

What drew you to spy-fiction? Was it merely the action-adventure side of it? (I was particularly interested at Edinburgh about your comments on betrayal in literature)
My first novel, A River in May, had been shortlisted for the British Commonwealth Prize and I wanted to continue writing purely literary fiction. My decision to try spy fiction was the result of a visit to the former AWRE, Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, site at Orford Ness. I had sailed past it for years, but had never visited the place. It seemed too spooky. Then one day a couple of ex-colleagues got me to go there. One of them suggested we write a book about it. I tried, but I’m not good at working with others. I continued on my own. The bleak shingle spit of Orford Ness and the weathered ruins of its nuclear testing facilities became for me a melancholy symbol. I say symbol rather than metaphor because symbols cannot be clearly defined. For me, Orford Ness became a feeling as well as place. I like bleakness and grey skies. My idea of hell is California and perfect teeth. In any case, I quickly discovered that spy fiction suited me. There is nothing more important to post-war British intelligence and foreign policy than the ‘special relationship’. You can’t write spy fiction about the period without focussing on that relationship – and the fact that I can write as both a Briton and an American is a great advantage.

The big theme that links spy fiction to great literature is betrayal. Homer, Shakespeare and Dante are all about betrayal. And the worst betrayal is hurting someone who loves you – in my view, far worse than betraying your country. Having said that, there are situations where you may have to betray the person who loves you. In The Darkling Spy Catesby sacrifices Petra, the love of his life. He didn’t know that she would die, but he put her in harm’s way for reasons of state – and maybe peace. The complexities of the heart are impossible to unravel. Another form of betrayal is betraying yourself – your own values and beliefs. We all have to make compromises – one, for me. was wearing a tie to job interviews – but when do those compromises become selling out? Catesby – a working class socialist – is always asking himself that question.

I like action and adventure, but only if they create tension. I don’t like gadgets, fast cars and explosions. I prefer standard spy-craft techniques – surveillance, covert identities, dead drops, evasion – for creating dramatic situations. The simple question – ‘Am I being followed?’ – is a great method for ramping up tension. I use violence very sparingly. The fear of violence is a more effective narrative technique than the violence itself. When violence is used, it must be realistic. And afterwards, it’s important that the people involved are scarred by the trauma – unlike James Bond. But people, like Bond, sometimes protect themselves from the trauma of violence by being jokey about it. It may look insensitive, but portraying dark humour in the midst of horror can be realistic.  

Your novels are set in the Cold War of the 1960s against real historical backgrounds. Is there a particular reason for this?
The mid-50s to the mid-60s was the most dangerous decade in British history because the Americans could have launched a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union with relatively little danger of Soviet retaliation. The very reason that Khrushchev put missiles in Cuba was because there were few, if any, missiles in Russia that could reach the USA – but there were hundreds that could reach the UK. At the time many in the Pentagon regarded Britain and Western Europe as sacrificial pawns. That uncomfortable historical fact is still the unmentionable elephant in the ‘special relationship’. As a novelist, I like to examine people in extreme situations – and what situation could be more extreme than the risk of nuclear obliteration?

Do you think modern-day readers have anything to learn from this period of history?

I hope modern-day readers will realise that governments lied about the Cold War and they are still lying about the threats facing us now. And the easiest thing for governments to lie about is secret intelligence. A few years ago three retired generals wrote to The Times to say that our Trident nuclear deterrent is completely useless. But no government will ever get rid of Trident for domestic political reasons – they are afraid of looking ‘weak’. Kennedy behaved the same way during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I met JFK as a teenager. And he was every bit as glam and charismatic as the legend. But during the missile crisis, Kennedy put his re-election prospects before our lives. In the end, it was Khrushchev who realised that someone had to be an adult and it was down to him. Khrushchev sacrificed his career – and almost his life – by backing down.

Are they maybe in danger of forgetting how close we came to nuclear war?
Absolutely. There are now four times as many nuclear warheads as existed at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even though the brakes on the nuclear car have failed several times, the nuclear car still hasn’t crashed. Our extraordinary run of good luck has made most people complacent. By the way, I have to remember that writing novels is not the same as debating about nuclear disarmament. Fictional characters must always be complex human beings with human needs and weaknesses. Living as a spy under the shadow of a nuclear apocalypse doesn’t mean that spy doesn’t need love and comfort; doesn’t appreciate a glass of wine and a good poem – or at least the memory of these things.

How much research do you have to do and can it take longer than the actual story writing?
I do most of my research while I’m actually writing – and it doesn’t take longer than the writing itself.  As the characters and plot develop, I look up things to verify the facts and often to enhance the narrative. My discovering that the British diplomatic bag from Cuba to Washington was used to supply Kennedy with embargoed Havana cigars was a priceless gem. But the most important subjects of research are characters. I spend a lot of time watching Youtube clips of them and listening to their voices. I want to see their souls – and their deceptions. Kim Philby was the coldest character I ever studied, Che the warmest. I was taken in by Jack Kennedy when I met him, but after watching news footage of him I began to see that he was a very wooden character – and shallow. The most important thing about using research is hiding the fact that you’ve done it. The bits you’ve researched and the bits you’ve imagined should fit seamlessly together so that the reader can’t detect the stitching.
We would like to thank Edward for taking the time out from his busy schedule to answer our questions.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

review by Maryom

Alice Tanner is volunteering at an archaeological dig in the Sabarthes mountains in southern France when she accidentally discovers an underground chamber - with an altar and two corpses. Something tells her that she has stumbled on something of far-reaching importance - something that she very quickly realises others have an interest in too - something that links the present day with events many centuries earlier.

In 13th century Carcassone, Alais along with the other inhabitants is dreading the arrival of the French crusading army intent on ridding the land of Cathar heresy. Her father has charged Alais with protecting a valuable religious artefact - a task which could put her in serious danger.
The story plays out over the two time settings, both threads drawing to a conclusion in the mysterious chamber in the mountains.

Labyrinth is a mix of historical fiction and present day action adventure. The historical scenes are played out against the backdrop of the Albigensian Crusade, when the Pope encouraged the annihilation of alleged heretics and anyone who dared to help them - and I found this the more fascinating part of the story. What makes it stand out from other religious conspiracy novels is that in both time frames the 'heroes' are women - not as heroines, supporting a plot driven by men, but as the main characters.

At nearly 700 pages Labyrinth is a long read and at times I felt sections could have been shorter without detracting from the story. An enjoyable read but not one I'm likely to re-read in a hurry.

Maryom's review - 3.5 stars
Publisher - Orion

Genre - adult, historical, adventure,

Buy Labyrinth from Amazon

Monday 5 November 2012

Kate Mosse - Author event

Picture courtesy of
Pam Reader
of Broadway Book Club
By The Mole

On Tuesday 30th October 2012 we once again travelled to Nottingham to Waterstones to an author event. This time it was to see Kate Mosse talking about the last book in her Languedoc trilogy, Citadel.

As the store has recently been refurbished it was decided to change the venue from the Silitoe Room, on the fourth floor, to the adult fiction section on the ground floor. Being surrounded by books worked well and the atmosphere was very relaxed and informal although Kate's seat could have been a little higher.

Kate started by giving us a brief introduction to the relevant history of the Languedoc region that was pertinent to the three stories and gave an explanation of why she chose to set each of the stories in the era that she set them in. The latest story is set at the time of second world war and shadows a time from the fourth century.

The first book in the series, Labyrinth, was one of the biggest selling books of 2006 and is now being made into a film, something that Kate was working with and even has a cameo role in so she was very excited about it.

We were then treated to a short reading from Citadel before a question and answer session, although the question and answer session more like a fireside chat.

A book signing followed  with more informal chatting. Another great evenings entertainment doing the things we love to do!

Visit Kate Mosse's website to learn more

Friday 2 November 2012

Secret of The Shadows by Cathy MacPhail

review by Maryom

Tyler's Gran had always intended to retire with her sister, Belle, to a cottage by the sea but a few months after moving in she died in an accident. Now Tyler and Aunt Belle are living there, sorting through  things before the house is put up for sale. Despite the cottage's idyllic location it isn't a pleasant welcoming place - particularly Tyler's bedroom. It's cold and chilly, and something shadowy seems to be lurking on the chair in the corner....Tyler has had experience with ghosts before and feels sure that one is trying to contact her. Maybe it's her Gran trying to tell her something; maybe it's a far more sinister presence.

I happened across Secret of the Shadows, by accident rather than design, at the library and as I'd been talking to Cathy MacPhail on Twitter I decided to have a read.

Secret of the Shadows is a gripping supernatural story that will definitely have the reader wondering what might be lurking in the shadows of their room! It may be a children's book but I actually I found it scarier than some adult books I've read. It managed to  play on one of  my fears - what might be lying waiting for us in impenetrable darkness. Cathy MacPhail has a real knack of increasing the tension and spookiness. There are sudden temperature drops, doors that close on their own and the ever present dark shadow on the chair....  Tyler fortunately is made of sterner stuff than I am and is ready to brave down the ghostly presence.

A comment about labels and covers - I found Secret of the Shadows in the Teen section of our library and I had been going to make a comment about the cover which I feel is rather 'young' for such readers. Then when checking things out for this post, I discovered that the publishers have it listed as a 9-11 read - for which the cover seems perfectly appropriate. Why my local library has it under the older age group, I don't know!

Maryom's review -  5 stars
Publisher -
Genre - ghost stories, 9-11,

Thursday 1 November 2012

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

review by Maryom

When I've commented on Twitter or Facebook that I haven't found such and such book particularly frightening, people always recommend The Woman in Black. My not-easily-freaked-out Teen certainly found the film scary. So I decided it was time to borrow the library's copy and read it as part of our Halloween week.

Arthur Kipps reminisces about the time when as a young solicitor, rising in his profession, he was sent to attend the funeral and sort out the affairs of a recently deceased client - for this it's necessary to spend some night in the deceased's house out on the lonely marshes in a house only accessible by causeway and cut-off  at high tide. Of course, none of the locals would do this - ever! - but Kipps is either braver or more foolhardy, so off he goes. Out there he encounters stranger things than he'd expected - things that will mar his life forever....

 So, how did I find The Woman in Black. Atmospheric? Yes - there are wonderful contrasting descriptions of the marshes under the winter sun and blanketed in fog. Very compelling? Certainly. A real page turner that I didn't want to put down. But scary? Not really, or at least not for me. The reader knows from the beginning that something very frightening happened and too often the narrator seems to say "Careful, there's a scary bit coming up". For some readers this may have added to the tension - in the way creepy music does on a film - but by preparing me for the horror it made it less scary.

Maryom's review -  4 stars
Publisher -
Vintage Books  
Genre - ghost stories,