Thursday 31 December 2015

Top Ten.. or so.. of the Year - 2015

by Maryom

I've reached the end of my reviewing for this year, so now it's on to the far harder task of picking my favourites.....
A rough count shows I read just over 150 books this year so trying to choose a Top Ten out of them was going to be hard. First I made a longlist - which started out quite tidily but grew scrappier as I added more and more titles to it. Then I tried making a pile of books, to see if this would concentrate my thoughts - which worked fine till I remembered all those 'hidden' books on the kindle.... so back to the 'list' with a highlighter pen..... to pick out those I'd be most likely to thrust at folk and say "you MUST read this" ....

So at last I narrowed my list down to ten .....and a few more...

Weathering by Lucy Wood - a story of mothers and daughters, belonging and home, and wild, wet weather, it's written in almost stream-of-consciousness style, with beautiful prose that slips into poetry. Closely observed, minutely described, it captures mood and emotion, conjures the feel and touch of river and snow with writing that puts the reader so firmly THERE in the landscape that I expected to see snow banked outside my windows or river rushing over the lawn.

Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither by Sara Baume - an amazing debut novel about two outsiders - a man, Ray, and One-Eye, the battered, violent dog he 'adopts'. From the moment Ray takes One-Eye home, he starts to talk to him; as One-Eye is introduced to the house where Ray has lived all his life, as they walk round the village or along the seafront, play football on a deserted beach, and as they drive away from the seaside through Ireland's countryside, Ray keeps up a rambling monologue, ostensibly aimed at One-Eye, describing all he sees, capturing the sights and sounds along the way, sharing secrets and gradually revealing the dark secret he hides. I started to feel that this was more about a dog giving a man a chance at redemption, than the other, more obvious, way round.

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman - At eighty nine, Marvellous Ways lives quietly, alone but not necessarily lonely, swims in the creek each day, and is still waiting for something, although she doesn't know what. Woven through with magic, with tales of mermaids and long-lost love, this is an absolutely, well, marvellous story. The setting is enchanting, and enchanted, the creek a place of peace and healing, the story-telling lyrical, the whole permeated by myth and magic.

A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan  - a collection of short stories from the author of the Spinning Heart and The Thing About December that will knock you sideways and leave you emotionally drained. The writing style is quiet and undramatic, the characters all people you'd pass on the street and never remark upon, but just listen to the stories they have to tell! If you want something fun and light, that will make you laugh out loud - go elsewhere. If you want a read that will move you, maybe shock you, make you stop and look twice at your neighbours and wonder what makes them 'tick', let you experience emotions that I hope would never befall you in real life, this is the one to choose.

Kauthar by Meike Ziervogel - how does a white, well-educated, British woman become an Islamic suicide bomber? The author draws a portrait of a woman struggling to fill an empty, gaping hole in her life - there never seems to be enough, or maybe the right sort of, love, to satisfy her need, and in desperation she twists her religion to fill that void. Ziervogel again tackles a subject that others might shy away from; only 144 pages long but it doesn't need more.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale -  Harry Cane was living a quiet, gentlemanly, suburban life in Edwardian England till an indiscretion brought it to an abrupt end. Forced to leave his wife and child, and strike out on his own, he heads west to the frontier lands of Canada ... not quite in search of his fortune but certainly looking for a place to build a new life, to come to terms with himself and his newly awakened sexuality. A quiet, mostly undramatic but immensely moving book which I've now read THREE times and I still love it. It's definitely a keeper!

 A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson - another quiet, unassuming hero, this time Teddy Todd, a World War 2 bomber pilot. Scarred and numbed by his experiences, and feeling a need to atone for his actions, Teddy decides his life will now be one of kindness, his own slight reparation for the horror of war, but those dreadful years are not shrugged off so easily and his relationships with wife, daughter and grandchildren are all affected. Despite the excellent writing, I couldn't at first see what was SO special about this book - but there's a twist in the tale, and an ending which changes everything.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North -  Sophie Stark is a film-maker - one who makes visually engaging, often disturbing, films but is unable to connect emotionally at a personal level - in fact she has always found it easier to communicate through visual art. Her story is narrated by the six people who were closest to her, each with a unique insight into her as a person and director - her brother, the guy she had a crush on in college, her actress lover, her singer-songwriter husband, a Hollywood producer/director and a film reviewer. Their accounts build up a portrait of a talented but disturbed young woman. It's an unusual and compelling read - one to check out if you like something a little 'different'.

At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison - We all have an idea, or ideal, of how the English countryside should be - sleepy villages where nothing has changed in hundreds of years, meadows with placidly grazing cows, ancient woodlands, life centred on the turning of the seasons. The reality of heavy farm machinery, migrant workers, the whole modern agricultural business or even cow-pat strewn roads doesn't quite fit that image we have. Into this gap between expectations and reality falls this story of people trying to 'find themselves';  a couple newly moved out of London in search of an idyllic country life; a youngster, born and bred in the village, but into a time when there's no future for him there; and a wanderer, a quiet, harmless man but seen by others as a vagrant, a threat to the established order.

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett - somewhere between the movie Sliding Doors and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, falls this tale of Eva and Jim and the different paths their lives could have taken after a chance meeting in Cambridge in 1958. From that initial meeting, three different futures pan out, each fully realised, like reading three different stories. The balance between them is perfect, none is allowed to dominate, but which of them leads to a happier life? At first it seems to be one version, then, as the years pass, another will seem the more appealing. It led me to wonder if I were Eva or Jim and could choose my life, knowing all the permutations, which would it be?

Well, that's my Top Ten, but a lot of them have already appeared on literary longlists for this prize or that, and I'm guessing a lot of readers will have heard of them, perhaps even read them already, so I'm going to include the best of my longlist - a wider-ranging list from literary to sci-fi to crime, and including some older books that I only discovered for the first time this year.

The Sea Between Us by Emylia Hall - This, Emylia Hall's third novel, is the nearest yet to a straight forward love story. The relationship between Robyn and Jago grows and changes over a seven year span, as instant attraction turns to something deeper, but fate seems determined to push them apart. Theirs is a story of missed chances, of so often being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of letters and messages going astray, of other relationships getting in the way - a little bit like Friends' Ross and Rachel, a little like Emma and Dexter from David Nicholls' One Day - but while it's a love story, there's so much more to it than that.
The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon -  There's a certain sort of mid-teenage point in life when summer seems like it could last forever - a few years earlier you don't appreciate the spread of six weeks freedom ahead; a few years older, and autumn seems already visible at the end of July - and this is what Sarah Jasmon has captured so well - long, lazy, hot days of a summer that feels like it could never end, but with a friendship as intense as only a teenage friendship can be and a thread of hidden secrets.
The Truth According To Us  by Annie Barrows - more hidden secrets, this time belonging to the Romeyn family of Macedonia, West Virginia.  I'd say this was a gem of a book but at 500 plus pages, it's a large show-stopping gem! It's certainly one of those special books in which you can immerse yourself completely; the characters and setting feel as real as those around you, and when (if) you take a break you'll be shocked to find yourself back in real life.
The Rocks by Peter Nichols -   a story of love and betrayal played out over three generations against a backdrop of sun, sea and, yes, sex in the Mallorcan village of Cala Marsopa. Told in an unusual way, it starts in the present and moves backwards to 1948. It's a story of misunderstandings, mishaps and failures in relationships, which doesn't sound like a good read - but it is!
The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela - an amazing thought-provoking read, moving between the present day and the Crimean War, about the dilemma of being torn between conflicting cultures but never quite belonging totally to either, and how sometimes accepting defeat is braver than fighting on.
The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger - a moving story exploring the relationship between Tom and Curtis, a father and his son, one intimately connected with nature, one completely rejecting it, and the choices that have to be made between freedom and responsibility. It's a book that will inspire you to get out there, head for your nearest mountain or hill top and soak in the beauty, even if it isn't as magnificent as the Rockies

My top sci-fi read of the year - Touch by Claire North - Imagine that by taking hold of someone's hand, you could become them, could jump from body to body as you wished, and stay there for as long as you liked, from seconds to years. This is what 'Kepler' and others like him can do. Now someone has decided that it's time to stop him - but its easier to evade an assassin if you've some idea of who sent them and why. So begins a game of cat and mouse as Kepler tries to track down the person behind it, while trying to avoid those pursuing him. The thriller aspect is fast-paced, action-packed, full of twists, turns and deviousness. It starts with the 'bang' of a murder and Kepler running for his life, and carries on at this breathless pace; as a game of hunter and hunted it's up there with the best of spy thrillers.

I haven't read a lot of Fantasy this year, but loved Naomi Novik's Uprooted  Set somewhere vaguely in Eastern Europe, in places that sound very like Poland and Russia, it's a coming of age tale, a fight of good against evil, a love story, and one that encourages us to accept people no matter how different they are to ourselves. A fairytale with grit!

 Three crime novels -
Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback takes the whodunnit murder mystery and transports it to a time and place far removed from the modern urban landscape. In the early eighteenth century the far north of Sweden is remote and empty; a place where life itself is a struggle against the vagaries of the weather and the loss of a harvest can mean starvation. In the long, hard, dark winter, wolves howl at the doors, fear and loneliness build and the barriers between 'modern' logical beliefs and old pagan traditions break down.

A Killing Moon is another brilliantly tense thriller from Derby's very own crime writer Steven Dunne. This is the fifth in the DI Brook series and I think I'm getting used to having my home city's streets filled with murderers - at least, fictional ones! A Killing Moon isn't a simple 'guess the murderer' style crime novel. It's one of those books in which things start out quietly, and seemingly simply, but soon escalate, with extra threads weaving their way in, as Brook and Noble find themselves on the trail of a sinister conspiracy targeting young women away from home.

The Living and Dead in Winsford by Hakan Nesser - a stand-alone psychological thriller from the author of the long-running Van Veeteren series. This time the setting is Exmoor, but a British winter of fogs and rain proves as 'noir' as any Scandinavian setting; the main character a Swedish woman, Maria, hiding under a false name, running from something dreadful and fearing pursuit.

I've read a lot of brilliant teen/ya books this year but these two stood out. 

Anything That Isn't This by Chris Priestley - a little bit dystopian, a little bit love story, with a bit of thriller thrown in for good measure, this is a story that captures the confusion of teenage feelings the world over, is about challenging the norm and searching for hope in a dull grey world.

The Door That Led To Where by Sally Gardner - a slippery, twisty sort of plot with time travel, a murder mystery, the clearing up of a forgery case, and the tiniest bit of romance - added together they make a brilliant, compelling read.

and, at long last, the oldies which you've probably already read!

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor - On a late summer's day the residents of a street in the north of England are going about their daily routines. Nothing special is happening - a man is painting his windows, two boys are playing cricket, a toddler rides his tricycle up and down the street, an elderly couple celebrate their anniversary - the sort of things that make up any average day...then something happens, a terrible thing which leaves its mark on all who witnessed it.

The Long Dry   - This is Cynan Jones' first novel and is set in the landscape that's become familiar to me through his later work - Everything I Found On The Beach and The Dig. There's the same grit and grimness underlying the beauty of the landscape, the same feeling of inevitable anguish. It's not all doom and gloom - there's light relief from the teenage son, with his delight in driving the transit van, and the mass 'attack' of the ducks on the nearby seaside town - but moments of joy seem short-lived and over-shadowed by sorrow to come. Much more than a story about a farmer looking for a lost cow!
Diamond Star Halo by Tiffany Murray - set against a backdrop of rock-stars and recording studios hidden in the depths of the Welsh countryside, this is a story of 'crazy love' that breaks the rules, an exploration of the ties of family and home, a coming of age novel, a family epic ranging over three generations,  there's a bit of all these in Diamond Star Halo, and I loved each of them.

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel - in style and length reminiscent of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Françoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, this is a bitter-sweet, first person narrative of the lives of young women on the cusp between child and adult, at a time of life so full of possibilities, but which could easily tip into tragedy.

Tuesday 29 December 2015

The Mole's pick of 2015

It always surprises me to look back over a year and see what I have read. The biggest surprise is to find books that you really did read this year, not two or three years ago and books that you enjoyed but have not thought about since.

2015 for me brought about some discoveries of new authors and new books by old favourites. Once again I cannot compare and say what order these all come in because how can you compare crime with steampunk? BUT... in Oscar tradition there is one that sticks out above all the rest - and it will come last.

On the subject of crime, once again Leigh Russell figures amongst my picks of the year with books in each of the Geraldine Steel and Ian Patterson series. Steel goes from strength to strength with Killer Plan bridging the gap between thrillers of the first three in the series and the whodunnits of the later books, while Patterson, in Blood Axe, becomes a more rounded character and one I grow to care about more.

Denzil Meyrick found his way onto my reading list this year and having read and enjoyed The Last Witness I went back and read the first two starting with Whisky from Small Glasses, the first in the series which gives a far more complete introduction to all the characters involved. I am sort of hooked on these books now and look forward to what 2016 may bring.

Regular readers to this blog will know that I am partial to short stories and 2015 was a good year for them. Of course the Unthology anthologys continue apace and are never dull or repetitious. You might think that choosing short stories would be simple but these guys manage to put them together thematically to make each story part of a bigger picture and give greater enjoyment. A must and the next collection is sitting on my TBR pile already.

Another short story find of 2015 was Refrigerator Cake by Dickson Telfer, his second collection ad every bit as good.

One find  this year was Last Bus to Coffeeville by J Paul Henderson, a harrowing account of alzheimers disease, although it is eased with lighter moments and eccentric characters. It sounds heavy going but is surprisingly light and I am so glad that I read this one.

Before I lighten the mood - and it could do with a bit of lightening - I will mention Intercept by Gordon Corera. I haven't read a lot non-fiction in 2015 but this was a must for me having seen him speak about it at Edinburgh International Book Festival. It told me nothing about the technicalities of cyber hacking that I didn't know but it explained a great deal of history about it that came as a huge surprise. Given our growing dependence on IT in today's world this, perhaps, should become compulsory reading and could lead to people taking greater care.

We can't get the mood much lighter than nominating Jane Hissey's Old Bear's Bedtime Stories for inclusion in the pick. I used to read Old Bear and his friends to our youngest and this year a new collection has been released that contains some old stories and many new ones. A book well worth keeping in your collection "in case".

The next find was The Shield Of Kuromori by Jason Rohan - a fantasy adventure that drags the reader into impossible fantasy and holds them hostage until the last page.

The last two books were from small independent publishers who we met in Nottingham. The first of these two was Greaveburn by Craig Hallam. I haven't read a lot of steampunk in recent years but this was one of the best I have ever read.

And now... the pièce de résistance... Oy Yew by Ana Salote. This is one of the most memorable books I have read and I can't tell you why but it left me wanting to see it succeed above everything I have read in a long time. If you get chance, pick up a copy and find out what I mean.

Friday 18 December 2015

Emylia Hall - guest post

Today we're delighted to welcome Emylia Hall back to the blog to talk about the joys of the out-of-season seaside .....

The highs of low season

I spent several weeks in Cornwall’s far west when I was writing The Sea Between Us, and my most atmospheric trips were undoubtedly outside of the summer, times when beaches belonged to the dog-walkers, the hardy surfers, the watchful gulls. There were no tail-backs in the lanes then, and the palms of Penzance blew like ribbons in the wind. I had a week in rain-lashed early April where, bar one day of sparkling sunshine, I hid beneath the hood of my Parka as I tramped coast paths and clambered down to rocky coves that were yet to see spring. There was another week in November, huddled up on a writing retreat I ventured out into the bright light and cheek-slapping cold for restorative yomps between all the words. Then we had a few days in December, just before Christmas – more pleasure than writing business - where we showed my baby son the fabled Mousehole Lights. As he slept bundled up in his pushchair we drank cups of mulled wine and warmed our hands on pasties, wandering the steep streets at dusk, breathing in curls of wood-smoke and that delicious salt-heavy air.

Mousehole Christmas lights
Much as I love the sweet blaze of summer (oh the patchworks of beach towels, the splashing of pot-bellied toddlers, the tan-bodied surfers with wetsuits rolled to their waists, the rainbow ice cream and the crackle of barbecues and the coconut scent of sun-cream!) there’s something about the winter months that make staying by the sea feel… intrepid. I like to soak up whatever the elements throw at me, lift my face to the wide open sky, let my ears thrum with the crash and roll of surf. Then I hunker in the cosiest spot I can find as my nose runs, and my fingers and toes sting their way back to feeling, and that first sip of beer, tea, hot wine, feels like some kind of a reward. Never has the inside-outside contrast been so happily felt.
Sennen winter

The Sea Between Us came out in August, and the sunset on the cover evokes summer’s end. Certainly it’s filled with sunshine - days where wildflowers wilt in the lanes and rock-pools are warm as a bath – but the sections I perhaps enjoyed writing most are where I let the weather rip. Robyn zipped up in a winter wetsuit, bristling with cold as she bursts into the water with her surfboard. Rain coming down all over the headland as Jago’s torch-beam searches for someone they’ve lost.
Wipers squeaking as Robyn and Jago drive home together in the mizzle. The story moves though seven years, and we see the residents of White Sands and Hooper’s House over several Christmases. There are holly berries on the cliff-tops, salt-spray on bobble hats and wellington boots. Snowflakes melt as they touch the water. People huddle closer in the winter months, and at Christmas, perhaps more so than at any other time of year, they try to tell each other that they matter.

I put lots of the things I love about a coastal winter in my story, and although I no longer have the excuse of research, I’m heading to Cornwall again in deepest January, to work on my new book. It’s not a sequel to The Sea Between Us, rather it’s set during an Italian summer – but the combination of blasting weather and cosy bolt-hole, stirring seas and whirring mind, makes for my kind of writing retreat. If I’m feeling brave I’ll channel Robyn and pack my board along with my notebooks. At the very least I’ll feel the wind coming off the water and let it fill me up, propelling me forward and onwards. Cold hands, warm heart, keep writing.  

Thursday 17 December 2015

Stasi Child by David Young

review by Maryom
 When the dead body of a teenage girl is discovered close to the Berlin Wall, Karin Muller of Kripo, the detective branch of East Germany's People's Police, is called in to investigate. First appearances suggest the girl was trying to escape from West to East Berlin - a strikingly unusual occurrence in a city where everyone is trying to move the other way! - but evidence soon disproves the theory, and Muller finds herself on a chase across East Germany, tracking down a conspiracy reaching up to the highest ranks of the security service. Muller's investigation is part helped and part hindered by her counterpart in the Stasi, and further derailed by the Stasi's interest in her husband's behaviour and her own relationship with her deputy Werner Tilsner.
Set in East Berlin in 1975 in the days when the Wall still divided the city, this thriller has some of the aspects of  Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park - a corpse disfigured to make identification difficult, if not impossible, the rivalry and uneasy co-operation between police and state security, and a cover-up sanctioned from on high. Sadly it didn't grab me in the same way. It started really well, but telling part of the story of the point of view of another teenage girl involved in the events gave away too many pointers too soon and somehow, as what happened leading up to the death was revealed, events became less believable.

Maryom's review - 3 stars
Publisher - Twenty7/Bonnier

Genre - adult, crime thriller

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Silence is Goldfish by Annabel Pitcher

review by Maryom 

 Tess has tried so hard to be the daughter her father wanted, laughed at his lame jokes, pretended to have close friends among the popular girls at school, gone along with flute lessons and taking part in the local amateur dramatic pantomime just to please him.  But all along, it wasn't only Tess who was pretending to be someone they weren't ... on her dad's pc she reads something she was never intended to see - something that brings her world crashing down.
Discovering that the man she's always known as 'dad' not only isn't her biological father but could barely stand the sight of her as a baby, sends Tess into meltdown.  A normal reaction from a teenager might be to shout, scream, slam doors and generally kick up a fuss - but Tess retreats into silence, and as she keeps it up over days and weeks, it becomes louder than any words could have been. As her increasingly desperate parents drag her round specialists to find a cure, Tess loses her only real friend and picks up some dubious ones, and in searching for her ideal father finds that there are bigger lies out there than the one her dad has told.
Throughout all this, the only 'person' Tess will talk to is her goldfish torch, who takes on a cartoon-style persona, answering back against some of her wilder schemes with a mix of snappy one-liners and reasoned arguments.

Silence is Goldfish is a funny, but heart-wrenching tale of an understandably angry teenager trying to find her place in the world and along the way discovering what really makes a family. It's quirky, weird, and, yes, the heroine talks to an imaginary goldfish, but it's brilliant, readable and thought-provoking. It will definitely make you laugh but it also makes you wonder, what if that had been me? how would I have reacted? it isn't likely to happen to many but imagine the shock it must be to find out - and in such a way!

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Orion Books

Genre - teen,

Monday 14 December 2015

Intercept The Secret History of Computers and Spies by Gordon Corera

Review by The Mole

My history is in IT for 35 years and have seen it transform from the scary mainframes of the 70s to the science fiction of today, so when I saw Gordon Corera giving a talk on this book at Edinburgh International Book Festival I felt I just had to go and see what it was about. His talk whet my appetite enough to read the book. The book is not technical, nor is Corera, but he details the history of spying through the use of communications technology from 1914 to almost the present day.

The book explores the use of telegraph, telephone, wireless and then the internet to spy, examining how changes in communications have reformed spy techniques to a nine to five office job away from the glamour and gadgetry of 007.

Fascinating from the very first page you have to be prepared for surprises aplenty as Corera lets you in on things that have happened but have not made the headlines. How industrial espionage now focuses on getting in to your competitor's systems and stealing their ideas, plans and even tenders so that you can beat them to the sale yet not get caught in the act.

And while hacking is seen as teenagers locked away in their bedrooms (and these still exist) there are also factories and office blocks devoted to hacking.  But it's not just companies and spotty teenage hackers - it's governments as well. And when governments buy technology from abroad how can they be sure that their aren't little surprises in store for the new owner... and has that ever happened? And did America really succeed at interfering with Iran's nuclear enrichment program?

With insights into GCHQ and the NSA, their history, their naivety at times, and their coming of age this book will really help the sceptic to understand the reasoning behind the desire to see our emails and internet traffic and try to explain that's it's all for our own good... so long as controls are maintained. It also cites a few examples where controls where breached.

This really is one excellent book and while I was a technician and did have responsibility for site security of the server farm, this book was not technical and still surprised me time and again. How could some of these things go unnoticed for so long? How could people get in and out so easily? How could people be so cavalier with their own security.

There is so much to this book it is difficult to truly explain what it's about except that the title tries to say it all.

Truly fascinating, a little frightening and although not a coffee time read, it's well worth the time and effort.

Publisher - Orion Books Genre - Non-Fiction

Friday 11 December 2015

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

review by Maryom
In January 1978, two girls went missing in Bampton, Derbyshire. One, Rachel Jones, was found later that same day; the other, Sophie Jenkins disappeared for ever.
Over thirty years have passed and Rachel has tried to put the whole incident behind her, but then Sophie's mother is found dead in the local hotel, and everything comes flooding back .......
 What starts out as an open and shut case for the Bampton police, headed by DI Francis Sadler, turns out to be something far more complex involving a web of secrets dating back to the abduction of 1978 and earlier. As the police try from one angle to work out how and why past events have suddenly surfaced again, Rachel realises that, from her point of view, it's time to confront what happened to her that long ago day. Her terror at the time wiped her memory clear, and her mother, thankful to have Rachel home, discouraged all discussion concerning what happened, but now Rachel realises she can't settle without knowing.
You can always spot a good book from your inability to put it down - and this is certainly one! I picked it up fairly late one evening, expecting just to read the opening chapters but midnight and one o'clock passed, and I was still reading ..... Eventually I did have to put it down but was back and hooked again the next day.
Something I particularly liked was that the detectives - Sadler, his sergeant Damian Palmer and constable Connie Childs -  follow the clues that I would have picked up on. Often, when reading whodunnits, I spot a snippet of information that I'd like the detective to pursue, but they don't! This time they did; they followed the leads I spotted, and at times headed off down the same dead-ends I would have. Even so, the denouement came as a surprise - I'd been hunting for the 'villain' in all the wrong places!
In short, In Bitter Chill is an amazingly tense and compelling debut, and I for one will be watching out for further thrillers from Sarah Ward.

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

Genre -adult fiction, debut, crime,

Thursday 10 December 2015

Country Life by Ken Edwards

review by Maryom

Dennis Chaikowsky is young, unemployed, currently house-sitting while his parents winter on the Costa and being forced by the Benefits and Opportunities people into taking a job in 'retail management' (shelf-stacking) the local supermarket. This isn't the real Dennis though - he is working on a musical masterpiece,  recording sounds that form the backdrop to his life, rearranging them through his computer to form his definitive work World Music parts 1-25. He's distracted from his vision by the political ramblings of his Neo-Marxist friend Tarquin, his attraction to young mother, Alison, and his fear of Alison's husband, rock musician Severin - all building to a scenario that feels like it will end in tears.

If you could ever have a mash-up of Virginia Woolf's The Waves and the film Withnail and I, this is it!
Against a backdrop of bleak, windswept coast, overlooked by the glowing nuclear power station, two rather pretentious young men plan to set the world to rights - one through music, the other though revolution - but the world, to be honest, isn't really interested, and has nice little niches prepared and waiting for them.
The countryside isn't a jolly bucolic setting for picturesque herds of cows or sheep - but a grim, depressing  place where any animals are there as 'controls' for possible nuclear contamination, and Dennis wants to get away and to the City with all the fervour of one of Chekhov's heroines. For all the bleakness, I loved Edwards' descriptive passages, the mood they evoked of a natural world that doesn't need man.
In sharp contrast, Dennis's story is more of a comedy, though very, very dark and veering closely towards tragedy at times.
At times you might wonder where the story's going, but stick with it. This is the first of Ken Edwards' work that I've read, and I'll certainly be looking out for more.

Maryom's review -  4.5 stars
Publisher - Unthank Books
Genre - Adult, literary fiction,

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Silent Saturday by Helen Grant

review by Maryom

Veerle's mother is over-protective and clinging; instead of giving her daughter greater freedom and responsibility with age, Claudine is tightening her hold, rarely allowing Veerle out on her own. At seventeen, Veerle is tired of this, and, instead of her mother's attitude keeping her safe, it's actually pushing her into taking risks. So when, one night returning home on the bus, she spots a light flickering in a deserted castle, she chooses to investigate it rather than head back to the stifling atmosphere at home. Inside she finds Kris, a childhood friend, who turns out to be a member of secret group, the koekoreken, or cuckoos, from their habit of breaking into and making use of unoccupied buildings in the Brussels area. Getting in to anything from the abandoned castle to luxurious homes whose owners are away holidaying, the idea isn't to move in permanently, or cause any damage, but merely to spend an evening there - in fact ideally the 'breaker-in' should do something to improve the property, from, say, fixing a broken window catch to alphabetising the owners' CD collection. It offers Veerle just the sort of excitement she's been looking for, but there's more danger lurking in wait for the Koekoeken than merely being spotted by neighbours - someone is stalking the members, armed with a crossbow and knives, picking them off one by one .....
This is the kind of YA book that I love; one that doesn't dumb down in any way, one that offers as exciting and compelling a read as many adult books - the major differences being the age of the characters, and less blood and gore (which I can well do without!)  Set in Brussels, among romantic castles and the more modern, but almost as magnificent, houses of diplomats and TV stars, this is a brilliantly constructed thriller that will have the reader gripped early on and unable to put the book down till the final page! It opens slowly but the tension gradually, inexorably, mounts along with the body count, building to a dramatic finale as Veerle confronts the Hunter who's been preying on the Koekoeken. Two other threads run alongside this - Veerle's deteriorating relationship with her mother, who resorts to some mean tricks to force her daughter to stay at home, and a growing romance with Kris - and both help flesh out the characters, particularly Veerle and make them real people rather than the 2D stereo-types of horror movies. Also, in more chilling vein, the reader gets to see some events from the point of view of the Hunter - to share his cold, calculating thought-processes as he sets about stalking his victims.

Brilliant stuff! I loved every page - and now want to move on to the next in the series the Demons of Ghent.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Corgi/Transworld
Genre - teen, YA, thriller,

Monday 7 December 2015

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst by Griselda Heppel

review by Maryom

"In the shadows of Walton Hall a demon lurks. His name: Mephistopheles. In 1586, young John Striven struck a bargain with him in return for help against his murderous foster brother. Nice work for a demon - or it should have been. Because somehow, his plan to trap the 12-year-old went wrong. All he needs now is another soul, in similar desperation, to call on him. Enter 13 year-old Henry Fowst. A pupil at Northwell School, Henry longs to win the Northwell History Essay Prize. Exploring the school's sixteenth century library, he stumbles across the diary of a boy his own age beginning this 20th day of Januarie, 1586...Soon Henry is absorbed in John Striven's struggles with his jealous foster-brother, Thomas Walton, who, it seems, will stop at nothing to be rid of him. Then matters take a darker turn. Battling to escape his own enemy, Henry finds his life beginning to imitate John's and when the diary shows John summoning 'an Angellick Spirit' to his aid, Henry eagerly tries the same. Unfortunately, calling up Mephistopheles lands both boys in greater danger than they'd ever bargained for..."

In this 'tragickall history', Griselda Heppel has taken the old tale of Faust, and given it a new twist, placing it in a modern context that teens can relate to. Having won a scholarship to an exclusive school, Henry is looked down on by many of the wealthier pupils, alternately rejected and bullied by them. For most of them, winning the Essay prize is just a bit of fun; for Henry, it represents a substantial cash boost - and that's before a generous parent offers a laptop as an extra incentive! His research quickly leads him into questionable actions though - and he soon realises that summoning an 'Angellick Spirit' was not such a good idea at all, that he's been drawn in to evil things and compelled to follow the Spirit's commands, and that if he continues people are going to get seriously hurt.

 The reader knows well before Henry does, that he's got himself caught up with something truly sinister, and, although I expected him to see sense and not go along with the Spirit's plans, there were times when I thought Henry would be irretrievably won over to 'the dark side'.

It's a story with many aspects to it - a little bit of fantasy and supernatural, a little bit of historical fiction, a little bit of contemporary teen problems - but above all it's a very readable, enjoyable tale.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Matador Publishing

Genre - children's fiction, fantasy,

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Voices by Arnaldur Indridason

review by Maryom

"It is a few days before Christmas and a Reykjavik doorman and occasional Santa Claus, Gudlauger, has been found stabbed to death in his hotel room in a sexually compromising position. It soon becomes apparent that both staff and guests have something to hide, but it is the dead man who has the most shocking secret.

Detective Erlendur soon discovers that the placidly affluent appearance of the hotel covers a multitude of sins."

 Arnaldur Indridason is one of those highly acclaimed writers of Nordic Noir that I haven't really seemed to catch up on, so when this came up in a selection of 'Christmassy' reads at my Waterstones book club I voted for it - and having read it, I can see why he's earned his reputation.

Obviously finding the murderer takes centre stage but what I loved was that it was about 'more' than just crime. The discovering of the victim's past, of how he was pushed into a singing career by his ambitious father, ties in with other stories of less than ideal childhoods, focussing on the realtionships between children and parents. While Gudlauger was being singled out for special attention by his father, and striving to do his best to live up to his expectations, his sister was being relegated to 'second best', with little affection or notice going her way.
Meanwhile Erlendur's colleague, Elinborg, is awaiting the result of a case of child abuse. A father is suspected of causing severe injuries to his son, not once but on several occasions. Elinborg is not convinced by his pleas of innocence, but the case takes a very strange turn.
The case also brings back memories for Detective Erlendur; of the death of his younger brother in a heavy blizzard, and of the abandonment of his own children. He's carried the guilt of the first with him since then, but is only just, since being re-united with his now-adult children, beginning to feel how he might have failed them too. All these separate threads weave together to add an extra dimension to a whodunnit murder mystery involving nerdy record collectors and a family feud.
I'm not sure whether I'd say it was very 'Christmassy' in feel - it's set in the run-up to the holidays, and there's certainly a lot of mentions of Icelandic-jumper-wearing tourists celebrating in the hotel, and while his colleagues are wanting to be at home and preparing food and presents, Erlendur is not looking forward to a solitary Christmas, but at the same time, there's a feeling that life, and crime, goes on regardless of season.

Voices is Book 3 of the Reykjavik Murder Mysteries series, but I had no difficulty jumping in at this point. The only aspect that threw me at first was a slight confusion over names; Sigurdar Oli, I thought was female, Elinborg, male, and I never got the hang of Marion Briem - but I think that might have been deliberate on behalf of the author.

This is only the second Araldur Indridason novel that I've read, but I definitely I'll put him on 'read more of' list.

 Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder

Winner of the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger
Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Vintage
Genre - Adult crime fiction, Nordic Noir,

Tuesday 1 December 2015

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale - re-read

review by Maryom 

Beware - there are spoilers here. A Place Called Winter is a book that's now been talked about a lot in the press, on the radio, at book festivals etc, and it's been shortlisted for this year's Costa Best novel, so you may be more or less aware of the story outline. I don't believe anything I've said will spoil your enjoyment of the story but it's nice to approach a book for the first time with absolutely no idea of what will happen.

I'd already read this twice (!) before I published my first review back in March and was delighted to find it picked as one of my book club's reads so I had an excuse to read it again.
 It's about frontier life, about swapping complacent idleness for hard work, about a man, disgraced and victimised for his sexuality, coming to terms with his feelings, daring to believe that what he can feel for another man is love and that somewhere, right on the edges of society and civilisation, these two can find a way to be together.

When I first encountered this book, I was drawn to it by the romantic notion of frontier living, of being the first to turn the soil and create a home in the wilderness - possibly influenced by too much Little House on the Prairie - but it's the personal story of the book's protagonist Harry Cane that brings me back. It's set in the early twentieth century, and Harry is living a comfortable middle-class life, rather drifting along doing all the expected things like marrying and fathering a child, and even his secret affair with a male actor/speech therapist doesn't break him out of this complacent rut - until his brother-in-law finds out! Then to avoid scandal and imprisonment, Harry is compelled to leave the country; within the week, he's off to Canada, intent on securing a plot of land and turning farmer. This is something he's always rather dreamed of doing, but in a lazy, hazy, rose-tinted glasses kind of way and he would probably never have acted on his dreams if circumstances hadn't forced him.
After this third read, I still love it - the combination of sweeping breadth and small moments of intimacy, the contrast between Harry's 'first' sheltered life in Edwardian London and his second in the wilds of Saskatchewan. It's definitely a keeper!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
Tinder Press
Genre -
Adult fiction, literary, historical, LGBT,

Monday 30 November 2015

The Lone Warrior by Paul Fraser Collard

review by Maryom

Jack Lark has earned his army discharge papers and is now free to live his life as he chooses - but India still has adventures and danger left in store for him. While he's waiting for a boat back to England, Jack gets involved with the rescue of a young woman, Aamira, from an exclusive gaming club, and escorting her half way across India to her home in Delhi lands him smack in the middle of trouble, as their arrival coincides with the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny. Despite his army discharge, despite the danger, Jack can't help but join in the fight to restore British rule....
This fourth Jack Lark story finds our hero still in India just as the Mutiny of 1857 breaks erupts. As a fighting man, one who's extremely good at his 'job', Jack isn't going to run away and hide, but feels he must join in with the defence of the British colony. Increasingly though, he finds it difficult to take the attitudes of many Army officers - towards the men under their command, their defeated enemies and the actual fighting itself. Although as capable a "killing machine" as ever, Jack's beginning to be sickened by the aftermath of battle, the personal tragedies he sees and ultimately by what he himself does. As always, Collard writes in a style that captures that allows the reader to feel there in the action, to share the tedium of laying siege for months under the burning Indian sun, the fear and daring of battle, the automated response that shuts down Jack's emotions but, increasingly, his disgust at his actions and those of the officers around him. By the end of this adventure he's definitely a sadder, wiser man, more mature in his outlook on life and, in my opinion, a better man for it. 

There's more than a touch of James Bond about Jack as this story opens - with him stalking into a gaming club, looking every inch the sort of man who belongs there, but having a very different purpose in mind to the other customers. Even his exit, fighting his way past guards and servants with a beautiful young woman to protect, has that same dangerous, glamorous vibe to it ...and I wonder if this is the way Jack's story will now unfold....

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Headline
Genre - adult historical adventure

Friday 27 November 2015

Run Alice Run by Lynn Michell

review by Maryom

Alice Green has settled into a drab, middle-class existence far from the exciting life she'd envisaged as a teenager. Her marriage has deteriorated into silent co-existence, and her job in a run-down library is monotonous and undemanding. She feels invisible - who would remark on such a dull person making their way down the street, or out of a clothing store with a bag full of unpaid-for goods? For Alice craves excitement and thrills, wants to feel the blood pounding through her veins, and this is how she goes about it. It turns out though, that she's not as invisible as she thought for, returning home one day she's met by police waiting outside her door. As Alice is led away to the police station, her younger self appears before her, wanting to know how she got from teenager full of such promise to mousey housewife with nothing to look forward to .....

 Run Alice Run is a look at life from the disappointing standpoint of middle age. Alice is caught in a mid-life crisis; her dreams have fallen by the wayside, her future looks bleak. Instead of going out and buying a fast car or taking up bungee jumping, Alice turns to shop-lifting for the thrill it brings; it's really though a plea for help.
Reaching her teenage years in the 1960s, Alice expected all the world to be open to her, but her parents are still stuck in the mindset that expects a girl to marry well and settle down with children. Despite her education, this has rubbed off on Alice more than she realises - and her life revolves around the men in her life, always putting them and their work first, above her own feelings or needs. She gradually slips into conforming with others' ideas, letting them shape her life. I'm not sure though how much I'd say this was down to the general perception of women at the time, and how much was due to Alice's personality - she does at  times seem rather too placid and willing to put others before herself.
Even though at the end there's a hope that Alice may free herself from her dull life, it's still really due to someone else's actions, and I wondered if, sadly, it was too late for Alice to reinvent herself.

 Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher -
Inspired Quill
Genre -adult,

Thursday 26 November 2015

Tinder by Sally Gardner

 illustrated by David Roberts
review by Maryom

Otto Hundebiss is tired of war, has seen too much of "man's inhumane heart" but still refuses the hand that Death offers him. Instead he wakes up in a forest, where a half-beast, half-man creature gives him boots to walk in and a set of dice that will tell him which path to follow...and so he sets out on an adventure. He falls in love with the beautiful Safire, is imprisoned by the sinister Lady of the Nail, and although he wins his freedom, can Otto save Safire from an arranged marriage?

Using the phrase "illustrated folk tale" to describe this will conjure up images of a brightly-coloured fairy tale for children - don't be mistaken, for Tinder is nothing like that! Folk tales were once much scarier and darker than the sanitised versions put out for children today and Sally Gardner has taken Hans Christian Andersen's The Tinder Box story back to those darker origins. Otto and Safire represent the pure-of-heart innocents struggling against the powers of hate, revenge, and jealousy, personified by truly terrifying characters, not the Pantomime-style villains of younger children's fiction; the Lady of the Nail and the scheming Mistress Jabber will send shivers up and down your spine, and the werewolves just plain horrify you! The writing is compelling and atmospheric, and doesn't pull punches;  werewolves are hungry, blood-thirsty beasts, and war isn't glorious but filled with violence, rape and death.  Through Otto's dreams we see flashbacks to the past that haunts him, the horrific things that happened to his family, and the guilt he still carries.  As I said, it's not a pleasant children's bedtime story.

  The mood throughout is menacing and chilling, and David Roberts' excellent illustrations  - in black and white with vivid splashes of blood red - echo and even increase this mood.

What age group would I say it was for? Teens and onwards, with no upper limit. Although it's published as a 'children's book', I found it enthralling enough to consider it readable by adults with a taste for the fantastical and bizarre.

Maryom's Review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Indigo/Hachette
Genre - folk tale, teen +

Recipes for Love And Murder by Sally Andrew

review by Maryom

Tannie Maria isn't happy when the Klein Karoo Gazette decides to cut her recipe column and replace with an agony aunt advice section. So, as a firm believer in the healing properties of a nicely cooked dinner or a slice of delicious cake, she sets about combining the two, and helping people with their emotional problems through the medium of food. Then someone who wrote to her for advice is found murdered ...and Maria realises not every problem can be solved through culinary skills ...and that occasionally a little snooping may be necessary..

A sort of cross between Mma Ramotswe and Miss Marple, Tannie Maria is a new addition to the ranks of amateur female sleuths. Feeling she has more insight into the deceased woman's life than the local police, she persists in 'interfering' and, along with her colleagues from the Klein Karoo gazette, she uncovers evidence they might have missed but manages to get herself tangled in a deadly situation. In between her exploits unmasking the murderer, Maria continues to offer love, and culinary, advice through her newspaper column - but while she's bringing about happy-endings for those around her, can she find her own with the police's Lieutenant Kannemeyer?

The setting is the sunburnt, sweltering arid Klein Karoo area of South Africa; an area of mainly white and coloured people but still with racial prejudices and bigotry. Add this to the story-line of  domestic abuse and murder it seems odd to call it a gentle, almost light-hearted, tale - but it is, in fact at times when two suspects, one in a wheelchair and one with heavily bandaged and plastered arms, go chasing after a third, the plot almost descends into farce. After rather a lot of dark Nordic noir style crime novels, it's like a breath of fresh air or a blast of that hot African sun! It's certainly one to recommend to fans of Alexander McCall Smith's No1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

Food certainly plays an important part in Maria's life; she believes that there are few problems that can't be solved by the right food. The recipes are described briefly as she cooks and as I read I was wondering if I'd be able to find anything similar on the web - so I was delighted to find several of them included at the end of the book. From mutton curry and tamatie bredie (a South African stew) to her Karoo farm bread, chocolate cakes and honey toffee snake cake (a shape, not an ingredient!), and the buttermilk rusks that Maria hardly ever leaves home without, there are plenty to try out at home.

 Maryom's Review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Canongate
Genre - crime, adult fiction

Wednesday 25 November 2015

Derby Book Festival - 2016 Launch

by Maryom

 Waterstones Derby was the setting last night for the launch of the second Derby Book Festival - to be held next June, 3rd to 11th.
The event opened informally with a chance to browse the store, say hello to friends who volunteered last year and to indulge in mince pies and mulled wine (it is almost Christmas after all). The audience was then addressed by Liz Fothergill, chair of the organising committee, who told us how delighted everyone had been with the success of last year's festival and announced some of the highlights of the coming year's.
The festival will be opened with two poetry events; Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, will appear at the Cathedral, accompanied by her 'favourite court musician' John Sampson, while Derbyshire's Poet Laureate, Helen Mort will be performing her poetry at an event held at Deda.

Other highlights include an event celebrating the bicentennial of Charlotte Bronte's birth with Claire Harman, who has recently published a new biography of the author, and Tracey Chevalier, who has edited and contributed to a new collection of stories, Reader, I Married Him, inspired by Charlotte Bronte's most famous work, Jane Eyre.
As last year, events will take place in a variety of venues across the city, including some new ones. There will be writing workshops, story-telling sessions, a children's book trail and, of course, author appearances. To coincide with the Festival a book of short stories is being collated through the English-as-Second-Language course bringing together tales from Derby's immigrant community, focusing on their journey to the UK, leaving behind family, friends and homes, and the trauma and cultural shocks encountered both on the way and once arrived here.

Something I'm particularly excited about is the event with local novelist Jo Cannon, who was present last night to read an extract from her debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, set in the heatwave of 1976. Her book isn't published till January but you can download a first chapter sampler here.

The evening was closed by a few words from David Williams, representing major sponsor Geldards Law Firm; a humorous and entertaining address in which he stressed why it's important for us, as companies and individuals, to support cultural initiatives in the current economic climate.

2016's Derby Book Festival will be 3-11 June, and the full programme will be announced in April.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Claire McGowan: The Silent Dead Blog Tour - author contribution

Today as part of the blog tour to accompany the publication of her latest thriller, The Silent Dead, we're welcoming Claire McGowan to talk about "Writing the Unknown"....

When I’m teaching creative writing, a question that often comes up is whether people are ‘allowed’ to write something. Can you write a character who’s a different gender or age group to you? What about race or economic background? Can you convincingly use a dialect or vernacular that you don’t know well? Are you allowed to write about things you haven’t experienced?

My answer is usually – of course, you’re allowed to write about anything. You don’t have to ask for permission in fiction and it’s not homework. We can make up whatever we like. But I do understand the anxiety that comes from writing something you haven’t gone through yourself. This seems to be so widespread that authors routinely hide their gender with pen names or initials. I’m writing a series about a forensic psychologist who works with the police. I’m not hugely familiar with these worlds, and sometimes I feel unsure about the details – what colour are the walls in police stations? What do the offices smell like? And so on. However, these details can easily be checked by wangling a station visit or researching the procedural processes.

What’s more difficult is to write about emotional situations you haven’t been in. I feel qualified to write about Northern Ireland and the Troubles (I was sixteen with the Good Friday Agreement was signed and living near the border), as I know I have an experience of that time which can’t be challenged. However, I’ve now taken my character to a place where she has a baby, and I don’t have children. I like to think I can imagine it – but I can also get things wrong. A writer friend who has children recently kindly pointed out a small mistake I’d made, which I wouldn’t have known unless I’d been around small children a lot. So there’s always the option to have things checked. I think this anxiety about permission can really hold writers back – so my approach would be write now, and ask questions later. You can always correct it!

Monday 23 November 2015

Matt Haig - author event

by Maryom

Christmas came early to Nottingham last Friday - out in Market Square the festive lights were switched on, and on the top floor of Waterstones Nottingham, Matt Haig arrived as one of the many stages of his "Sleigh Bell Dash" tour to promote his latest book, A Boy Called Christmas. It was actually his third event of the day, the first two events were in schools and had included Chris Mould, the illustrator, with one of those events being in front of 300 children. Matt seemed to be finding it a long day and he had yet to catch his train back to London - so don't think it's an easy life for authors on their tours.

The book is effectively part of Father Christmas's 'backstory' - sparked when Matt's son asked what Father Christmas was like as a boy.

Nikolas's father goes away leaving him with his evil aunt Carlotta. Carlotta is not a nice person and doesn't have a nice word to say about Nikolas's father and eventually drives Nikolas to set out to find his father.

Being a children's book it has all those things you associate with Christmas .... reindeer, elves, pixies, and exploding troll heads.... and is also written with humour. The Mole finds many children's books a bit corny on the laughs front but the readings that Matt gave had him smiling with genuine amusement. And those readings... he offered the younger members of the audience choices and went along with their selection. Happily the audience chose exploding troll heads.

Matt Haig is nothing if not versatile as an author having written books for children and books for adults- some to make you laugh others of a totally serious nature and a lot that fall in between somewhere such as The Humans.  I discovered him many years ago in a holiday cottage which had a copy of The Last Family in England - a dog's-eye view of a family falling apart. My favourite is probably The Radleys the story of abstaining vampires living 'undercover' in an English suburb.

A signing followed - with the audience buying copies for themselves and what appeared to be Christmas presents for young friends and relations - while working his way through signing a stack for the store, he said he'd once signed a thousand in an hour!