Tuesday 31 March 2015

Creaturepedia by Adrienne Barman

Review by The Mole

Evolution has blessed all animals in the animal kingdom with at least one special skill to help them survive. This book, containing 216 pages, features multiple creatures on each page that share a skill and so classifies over 600 different species according to their specialisation.

There are those that are very large, those that are very small, those have long necks, those that are fast, those that are domesticated, those that we still fear plus many more classifications. It also explains how that skill helps the animal survive.

It could so easily be packed with words but instead is packed with simple colour illustrations and short captions to each creature making it quick, easy, entertaining but educating at the same time.

Chosen by the Bookseller as a book of the month it was described as "... well-pitched for younger children..." - and when they keep bringing it for you to "look at this" you may well be educated and fascinated too.

A really beautiful hardback book that will entertain for many hours.

Publisher - Wide Eyed Editions
Genre - Children's picture book

Monday 30 March 2015

The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

Bryant & May (12)

Review by The Mole

After yet another banking scandal there are rioters on the streets of London. It's Halloween and a man sleeping rough on the streets is burned to death when he is caught in the crossfire between police and rioters... except close examination of CCTV footage raises doubts as to the accuracy of this explanation.

The next day another man dies horrifically, and once again fire is involved but in a totally different form. Using his network of eccentrics, psychics and cranks, Bryant deduces that this will not stop but that there will be one death a day and the race is on to catch the culprit.

As in all good novels there is more than just one theme going on and here we witness interdepartmental wrangling, private lives being devastated, and the onset of a form of Alzheimer's disease in Bryant. Amidst all of this is humour. Not slapstick belly laughs - but one line short laughs that don't diminish the story but greatly enhance the reader's enjoyment.

Previously I have read and reviewed "The Water Room" and "The Invisible Code", both of which I enjoyed immensely but this one is even better still. The only bit I struggled with was when Bryant described this case as his Swan Song and turned his back on May... PLEASE don't do this to us poor readers - he has to able to keep order in London for a few more books! Please?

Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction,  crime mystery

Friday 27 March 2015

Christopher Fowler - Author Contribution

Today we welcome Christopher Fowler, author of (amongst other things) the Bryant and May crime novels, to the blog. The latest book, The Burning, was published yesterday and we will be posting our (dare I say "glowing"? Yes.) glowing review on Monday 30th March. If you can't wait then checkout "The Water Room" and/or "The Invisible Code".

We see authors discussing PD James's "10 rules for writing" frequently across social media and here Christopher shares his views.

Phyllis Dorothy James was, without doubt, the grande-dame of crime writing, and issued her top ten tips for writing novels. It's heresy to contravene the rules, but what worked for PD James was clearly not what works for every aspiring or professional author.

1. You must be born to write

James says 'You can't teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully.' Not everyone has the benefit of supportive parents or a good education. Much as a brilliant chef may grow up in a home where no good cooking is ever attempted (Nigel Slater wrote about this in his elegant memoir 'Toast') a writer can be taught to understand the beauty of words. You must be born with a curiosity about the world and its people. How that curiosity is shaped depends on a good teacher, nurture, opportunity and passion, not birthright.

2. Write about what you know

Many of us believe in writing about what we don't know. We write what we hope, we dream, we love and fear. You can learn what you need to know easily enough. HRF Keating started the Inspector Ghote novels without ever setting foot in India. Many crime writers have set their stories in California without going there, and what about historical crime? We understand human emotions, but we make a lot up - it's called fiction.

3. Find your own routine

Life is changing fast. Routines are a luxury few of us now have. Write when you can, where you can - that's all. But write regularly. And don't break the three-day rule (when working on a novel, never leave it longer than three days without writing).

4. Be aware that the business is changing

Yes, but you're writing something that will always be needed - a story. And that doesn't change though all the formats and selling systems around it do. We should concentrate for the main part on what we’re good at, the words, and let others help decide how, when and where they will be sold, or we end up becoming the harassed, endlessly networking business managers of our own livelihoods.

5. Read, write and don't daydream

This is possibly the worst advice imaginable. Without space and air and light and calm, those lacunae of everyday life, there is no imagination, and the ideas can't form. I could sit and produce dull prose, or spend a day wandering around a city and come back with my head filled with plots, characters, consequences, dialogues.

6. Enjoy your own company
Safe advice, but the most productive time I ever spent was in a cramped office with four other very noisy writers. Do what's best for you. Only the thinking-out part has to happen inside your lonely head.

7. Choose a good setting

This is the point I most agree with. Without a clear plot location, stories often feel empty and unformed. Although I'd mitigate it by pointing out that two of the greatest short stories, Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' and Alberto Manguel's 'Seven Floors' have no time or place attached to them at all.

8. Never go anywhere without a notebook

It's a good idea, but now that just means carrying a phone, iPad or electronic device, which you probably already do.

9. Never talk about a book before it is finished

No, no, no! If you stay silent and only seal it inside you, you'll never iron out the improbabilities. Talk to a friend, discussing the book in natural conversation and I swear you'll quickly come to spot all of its faults before the other person has said a single thing. You need a real-world sounding board for something that has only lived in your head.

10. Know when to stop

Talent of Ms James' stature probably allowed her to circumvent this, but unfortunately most publishers specify length of works in their contracts and ask us to pump up the word count accordingly.

The days of writing as a higher calling are over; we write on the fly, as we can, talking to everyone and anyone, as part of world society, not in a room with a desk and a view. Those days are over. For better or worse, the information age has changed the way we write for good.

Thursday 26 March 2015

The Shore by Sara Taylor

review by Maryom

The Shore is made up of a group of islands sitting off the coast of Virginia; the Atlantic Ocean to one side, calmer waters and marshes to the other. Their story is told through the lives of several generations spanning 200 years - often a violent story of domestic abuse, drug-addiction, murder and rape but mixed in with magic and hope, all set against the backdrop of windswept beauty.

 I'm not certain whether to refer to The Shore as a novel or a series of related stories - it's difficult to pin down and really a bit of both. Events don't unfold in chronological order but jump backwards and forwards along the timeline - the earliest story being set in 1876, the latest in 2143; the latter gives a clue that this isn't just another family epic, but moves on into a speculative future. The islands themselves have a story to tell - at first a remote place, inhabited by the few remaining native Americans, then discovered as a resort for the wealthy, before declining into poverty. The islands both attract and repel - for some they're a safe haven, for others a trap - but throughout their physical presence dominates - the marshes and creeks, fields of corn and potatoes, sandy dunes and oyster shell roads, the long line of tide breaking on the outer islands. Against this backdrop the lives of various generations play out, each holding the spot light for a short while as part of an ongoing family epic;  children are born, bargains are struck, a little weather magic worked, houses are built then crumble with time.
The connection between each chapter isn't immediately obvious and I found this rather a challenging read, as I tried to keep all the inter-family relationships straight in my head while jumping about in time. (There is a family tree at the beginning which probably makes this much simpler, but I couldn't read it on my kindle!) It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, and now knowing how the whole fits together, I think a re-read will turn up lots of things that I missed first time through and make all the pieces fall into place.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - William Heinemann
Genre - Adult fiction,

Wednesday 25 March 2015

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

review by Maryom

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.
A few years later one of the young women from the street is trying to face up to some unexpected, disturbing news but her thoughts keep getting dragged back to that fateful day....

I picked this up from the library as the author is going to be appearing at a local book festival - and I was stunned! I just don't know how I haven't discovered this wonderful book, or in fact any by this author, before.
It opens with an over-view of the anonymous city, with passages that read like poetry, then zooms in one street as its inhabitants go about their daily lives, focussing on all the little things that make up a day - all rather like Under Milk Wood.
The reader's told quite early on that something dreadful occurred on this specific day - but the actual details are withheld, and I had the feeling that the author was teasing me with possibilities - would something happen to the elderly couple catching the bus? the man making a charity bungee jump? the toddler on his trike? When the tragedy occurred, it wasn't what I was expecting.
These events alternate with the (presumably) present day, as the young woman copes with another life-changing event, explores her relationship with her parents, meets a new guy - but all of these things are still marred by the past.

A curious feature is that barely anyone is named but referred to by gender and house number, underlining the fact that, like so many of us, the inhabitants of this street don't really know their neighbours. It also serves to make the characters more universal - they're all people we can identify with, maybe even like some people we know - and that's what this book celebrates; the everyday captured and turned into something special.

The good thing about discovering this book so very late, is that the author has had time to be writing more - so it's time for another trip to the library!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Bloomsbury Publishing

Genre - adult literary fiction

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

review by Maryom

Anna is an American ex-pat living in Zurich with her Swiss husband and three young children - their life should be as picture-postcard perfect as the scenery around her, but to Anna everything seems empty and meaningless. Her relationship with husband Bruno has deteriorated to passing each other at meal-times, she has no friends and after nine years in the country still feels like an outsider. While Bruno suggests that a therapist may help, Anna mainly plays word games during her sessions and tries to avoid what lies at the root of her problems. In her newly-joined Swiss-German language class, Anna finds a better source of distraction, meeting Scotsman Archie and rapidly embarking on an affair. Archie, though, is not her first lover but just a step in a series of increasingly meaningless sexual encounters, and gradually Anna's life spirals out of control....

 In the age of equal-opportunities, Anna's somewhat of a rarity - a stay-at-home mother and housewife, neither of which roles seem to particularly appeal to her. She seems to deliberately isolate herself still further by her dependence on her husband and mother-in-law - she's never learned to drive, in nine years hasn't bothered to learn the language of her adopted home so can't make friends easily with the school-gate mums, and she doesn't even have a bank account! Her attitude contrasts sharply with that of new arrival in the country, Mary, who quickly signs up for a language course, busies herself around the house with domestic projects - baking and sewing -  and volunteers at her children's school.

The story is an intimate portrayal of a woman whose life is unravelling but it's hard to sympathise with Anna because she not only doesn't appreciate the good things of her life - caring husband, comfortable home, happy, healthy children -  but seems to actively be putting them at risk. There's a little bit of Anna Karenina and a lot of Emma Bovary about Anna but whereas both of these women were trapped by the attitudes of their time, this Anna seems to deliberately go out of her way to create a cage. She seems to judge her worth solely by how much she's loved - and if love fails, then by how much she's desired sexually.

Did I enjoy the book? well, up to a certain point the reader's learning about Anna, her back story and current circumstances, with the story unfolding through several threads - her home life, her meetings with therapist Doktor Messerli, her liaison with Archie - all of this I enjoyed; it's well written, a bit of a page-turner as I wanted to find out the secret Anna was hiding from everyone and at this stage Anna had my sympathy. But part way through, perhaps due to the similarities with Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, the ending becomes inevitable and obvious, and the story's grip on me slackened.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher -
Mantle (Panmacmillan)

Genre - adult fiction, sexually explicit, 

Other reviews; PamReader

Monday 23 March 2015

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

review by Maryom

Harry Cane is in a mental asylum, his memories damaged by overwhelming grief and the barbaric treatments common in the early twentieth century. Fortunately, before any lasting harm is done, he's transferred to another institution, liberal in outlook, idyllic in setting, where the doctor follows a quieter, progressive regime of encouraging patients to talk about their past and re-encounter the trauma that led to their incarceration ....
Harry was living a quiet, gentlemanly, suburban life in Edwardian England till an indiscretion brought it to an abrupt end. To cover up any possibility of scandal, he was forced to leave his wife and child, and strike out on his own - the further away the better being basically the sentiment of his brother-in-law. His imagination fired by the chance sighting of a display encouraging emigration to the newly-settled lands of the Canadian prairies, Harry found himself leaving his comfortable life behind and heading west... 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.

There's always something romantic about tales of taming the wild frontier, of striking out into unsettled lands, of being the first person to break the land and settle there - and this was what drew me to this story initially - but alongside the physical journey into the Canadian wilds is an emotional journey of self-discovery.  In England Harry was pretty much a drifter - the fortune amassed by his father gave him a soft, privileged lifestyle, never needing to work; he drifted into marriage and fatherhood, and drifted in the same way into an illicit relationship. As Harry leaves his well mannered, comfortable life behind, he starts to grow and change - he learns the value and satisfaction of hard work, of, at the end of each day, being able to look at what he's achieved, becomes more comfortable with who he is, and less open to exploitation.
A Place Called Winter is a quiet, mostly undramatic but immensely moving book, based loosely on events from the author's family history. The story is told mainly through Harry's reminiscences but they alternate with scenes from his present time in the asylum, so the reader is constantly reminded that this pleasant, well-mannered man has at some point broken and done something considered worthy of incarceration; as the tale unfolded and Harry found happiness in his new home and unorthodox relationship with fellow settlers, siblings Petra and Paul Slaymaker, I was all too aware that somewhere tragedy was waiting - always lurking in the background is the sinister figure of Troels Munck, who helps Harry get set up in Canada, who both fascinates and repels, and who you know is someday going to be demanding pay-back. I so wanted a happy ending for Harry, but felt it would be impossible.

A novel that's both epic, as it moves from urban London to Canadian frontier, and intimate, as Harry's personal emotional journey unfolds, I loved it when I first read it at the end of last year, and, having waited so long to review it, I decided to sneak in an extra read last week - it hadn't lost any of its appeal or ability to hold me, even though I knew how things would pan out; the mark to me of an excellent book!

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

Thursday 19 March 2015

Wasp or a very sweet power by Ian Garbutt

review by Maryom

Disgraced governess Bethany Harris has been hidden away in The Comfort House - a madhouse in all but name - by her employer to avoid scandal. Expecting to never leave its hellish cells, she's surprised to be 'rescued' and taken to The House of Masques, an elite escort agency that specialises in sophisticated girls, trained in the social graces, for company at dinner, afternoon tea or even a walk in the park. Here Bethany finds a community of lost and fallen women governed strictly by the Abbess, and her two male assistants, former doctor The Fixer and escaped slave Kingfisher. The Abbess's hold is starting to slip though with age and others are trying to turn the affairs of the House, with its unique access to politicians and businessmen, to their own advantage....

Set in an anonymous mid eighteenth century city, Wasp is a tale of the demi-monde world of courtesans and prostitutes, exploring the contradiction of their lives - that while the women are highly desirable accessories, conferring a certain social status on their 'employers', they would never be allowed to share their lives.

I hadn't quite known what to expect when I started reading but soon found myself rather enjoying it. It's not a quick-paced read but rather a slow mulling over of things which drops in and out of the present to uncover the past lives of these girls and the men that supervise them; the plot really seems subordinate to an exploration of personalities and motives. All of the characters have been damaged by life and circumstances, and the House of Masques in part offers a refuge and a place to heal, even as it 'trades' in the girls as a business commodity.

The ending led me to wonder if the stage was being set for a sequel - I'd certainly be interested in reading a further chapter of Bethany's life.

Maryom's review - 4 stars  
Publisher - Polygon 
Genre - historical fiction

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Blue Balloons and Rabbit Ears by Hilda Offen

Review by The Mole

This is Offen's first collection of poems although she has had picture and story books published - many of which are still in print and have been award winners.

While this book is packed with very entertaining black and white illustrations (also by Hilda Offen) it's not at the cost of the poems so every page is jam packed but not in a daunting way for the young reader.

As a child one of the most important things a poem had to have for me was laughs, and many in this collection would suit such a child admirably. Others are more serious and try to prompt a bit of imaginative thinking:- Nasturtiums spreading rapidly like an invader - Kale standing tall like a forest to the young child - "Memories" of a past life.

The poems are collected into 4 themed groups of 8 or 9 and this makes the book just 62 packed pages long.

These poems stretch from poems for the very young through to about age 10 with something for everyone. My favourite? "Letter" - very funny.

Publisher - Troika Books
Genre - Children's illustrated poetry

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Denzil Meyrick - Author interview

Today we welcome Denzil Meyrick to our blog to talk about his crime novels featuring DCI James Daley. The first book "Whisky From Small Glasses" has been out a while and is much acclaimed. I encountered Daley first in "The Last Witness" (book 2) and sort of got hooked but I'm going to be going back to read the first shortly. The third book "Dark Suits and Sad Songs" is out later this year.

DCI James Daley is a character that sort of crept up on me, not having read the first book. I ended up with a visual image of Richard Griffiths playing 'Morse'. How do you see him?

You missed out a wee bit on the description of Daley from the first book Whisky from Small Glasses. Yes, he is overweight, but not morbidly so. He's described as having a 43" waist, but he's 6' 3" and physically strong, not like the late Richard Griffiths. Daley is in his early to mid forties, so not as old as Morse.

There is a fitness test that all new recruits must pass. Would James Daley be able to keep his job?  
With over 20 years experience in the police, he is a long way from a fitness test; basically he's fighting middle age spread, but is not obese. Think more early Tony Soprano than Mr Griffiths in terms of body shape.

He does seem to be a man of action rather than waiting for others to come to assist. Do you not see him as a team player?

I think Daley is very much a man of action, but has a brooding, cerebral approach to police work. He relies heavily on DS Scott, who he has worked with for many years and had a close personal as well as working relationship with. Again, in book one, and the third book in the series, Dark Suits and Sad Songs, you'll find out more about this. The pair work well as a team because their approach and personalities are so different. Scott is a rebel, his unorthodox methods attract criticism from superiors, but he is old fashioned and refuses to be hidebound by political correctness. I think both detectives are team players, whilst very much leading from the front.

So many fictional detectives have issues with their private lives (Barnaby seems to be the exception) - will Daley be able to buck the trend?

Daley has a complex relationship with his wife Liz. Again, reading Whisky from Small Glasses will underline this. Much more is revealed in Dark Suits and Sad Songs, but without giving anything away, their relationship is going through a very turbulent phase as book three moves into the book four.

Our heroes are based on the Kintyre peninsula and, despite some of the horrific goings on, the beauty of the area comes through. Our heroes won't be abandoning this area for Glasgow in the future will they?

I agree with you about the beauty and allure of the Kintyre peninsula - I very much see it as a character in the books in its own right. Because Kinloch is a port, it is easy to introduce new characters and plots, which come from a clear blue sky, or more likely, sea. I have no plans to remove the action to other parts of Scotland, but like the fate of any of the characters, nothing is set in stone.

There are plenty of people to hiss at in the story - not all of them are fully brought to justice either. During the next book will we be seeing any of this addressed?

Though the first three books are stand-alone novels, an underlying theme definitely underscores the plots. This will be resolved in Dark Suits and Sad Songs, with many loose ends being tied up. I've deliberately left some aspects of the stories hanging. For me, neat plot resolution at the end of every novel detracts from the realism I'm trying to achieve. I always resolve the main plot, but threads of relationships, crime and the dynamics between the personalities involved carry on. Great wee tasters for the next book, too.

What can you tell us of the next book - without spoilers?

Without giving anything away, Daley finds himself immersed in the murky world of politics in Dark Suits and Sad Songs. A senior civil servant from the Scottish Parliament spectacularly takes his own life in Kinloch at the beginning of the book. As the story unravels, we see Daley facing betrayal and tragedy, as a new, deadly foe, emerges. There are strange lights in the sky over Kinloch; they herald change. For certain, Daley's life will never be the same, as the fate of nations hang in the balance. Dark Suits and Sad Songs will be published by Polygon in May.

While the Denzil tells us that that the books "stand alone" that doesn't really follow with character development (as I have found) so I recommend starting with "Whisky From Small Glasses" - but do check out my review for "The Last Witness". Many thanks to Denzil Meyrick for taking time to answer our questions today.

Monday 16 March 2015

When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones

review by Maryom

Fired by the exploits of Scott and Shackleton, young Grace Farringdon dreamed of being a polar explorer, but she soon discovers that, although a child may be inspired by them, such dreams are not at all suitable for a young woman in the early twentieth century. Grace is not going to give up quite that easily though. Unlike her sister who mildly accepts the restrictions imposed by society and her parents, Grace plots an escape to university, with or without her parents' blessing. There she forms the Antarctic Exploration Society - a small, mismatched group of young women, it makes up for what it lacks in size - 4 members - by enthusiasm and internal squabbles. Defying convention, dressing in practical bloomers, they head off to Snowdonia for a mountain climbing holiday, and plan an expedition to the Alps. At first all is exciting and fun but under stress the differences between them in outlook and stamina become increasingly marked, and the ever-present tensions between the four build to dangerous levels.....
 For fifteen years, Grace has shunned all contacts, hiding in her childhood Dulwich home, guarding a secret but now, at last, maybe she's ready to speak of that fateful day on the mountain ......

 When Nights Were Cold is an absorbing tale of friendship, mountaineering and pushing oneself to extremes that crackles with tension throughout. The reader knows from the very outset that something dreadful has occurred, something for which Grace feels guilty but which she's desperately trying to deny. As the story is told by Grace, the reader only has her word for the actual turn of events and I wondered at times how much 'she' was trying to mislead the reader - but the ultimate revelation is short and shocking when it comes, and well worth the build up.
You don't have to know anything about Polar expeditions of mountaineering to enjoy this book  - it's as much about friendships and rivalries, and women's dreams of living a life as engaging and challenging as that of men. Grace and her three fellow society members may disagree about a woman's place in society, whether she should be merely a home-maker and child-rearer or take a place in the wider world of academia or business - they're even divided on the burning question of the day, women's suffrage - but they all want to live life to the fullest. Unfortunately fate has other plans...

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher -
Mantle (Panmacmillan)

Genre - adult historical fiction, 

Friday 13 March 2015

Beauty Tips For Girls by Margaret Montgomery

review by Maryom

Katy Clemmy is a lonely teenager, not part of the popular crowd at school, and subjected to abusive texts and e-mails from the boys in her form. Her home life is disruptive with her parents constantly arguing, and her mother Corinne generally hiding away in her room in an alcoholic haze. Having no one else to turn to, Katy seeks advice from the pages of teen-magazine Misty - sending letters to their 'agony aunt', believing all the beauty articles and being persuaded into a questionable course of action by the adverts.

Katy's English teacher, Jane Ellingham, is the only one to notice something wrong in Katy's life. Seeing something of herself in the teen, and feeling Katy's life could end up totally de-railed, Jane steps in to help when Katy disappears, and finds herself totally caught up in the Clemmy family's problems. Jane's life has not turned out the way she planned it either - pushing middle-aged and still single, she's become disillusioned with life and men, but believes the blame lies with her mother and a decision she forced Jane into while a teen.

Beauty Tips For Girls is the story of three very different women - a teen, a mother and a spinster. I'd almost liken this to a coming of age novel, if two of the women weren't already 'of age', but it's certainly a book about finding oneself. It's a novel of loneliness, the expectations forced on us by society, and the pressure of bad advice, even when well-intentioned. The story is told in a mix of straightforward narrative, an Alcoholics Anonymous style confession from Corinne, and various snippets from, and letters to, Misty magazine. 

Who would I recommend it to? Anyone over the age of 14 - it's very readable and has something for all ages to relate to. It has as much to say about teenage relationships as about a mother's grief or a women's disappointment with love.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Cargo
Genre - adult/teen crossover

Thursday 12 March 2015

A War of Flowers by Jane Thynne

review by Maryom

It's August 1938 and Europe is preparing for war while still hoping it can somehow be avoided. Clara Vine, half-British, half-German actress, and part-time British spy, is in Paris filming her latest movie for the German Ufa studios. Mixing with the beautiful and powerful at Coco Chanel's salon, she encounters two very persuasive men;  Max Brandt, a German cultural attache to whom she feels almost irresistibly attracted, and Guy Hamilton, from British intelligence, who'd like her to be-friend Hitler's girlfriend Eva Braun and pass on any inside information she can pick up. Clara's no stranger to mixing among the wives of the Nazi elite but Eva Braun is kept very much out of sight as she's deemed bad for Hitler's public image. How is Clara is even meet her, let alone strike up a friendship?
Meanwhile, Clara's godson Erich holidaying on a luxury Nazi cruise ship, believes one of his fellow passengers has disappeared - the only real option being that she fell overboard. Despite assurances from the captain that nothing untoward has occurred, Erich won't let the matter drop and asks Clara for help.

The third of the Clara Vine series is set at the time of Germany's annexation of Austria, the War of Flowers of the title, when Europe was on the brink of war but some politicians still believed that Hitler's aims would soon be achieved and a certain level of stability return. Any information about his intentions would be valuable, and who should know his plans better than Eva Braun? Clara is again thrown into danger as her knack of listening in a way that makes others pour out their hearts proves so very useful. I actually found I felt rather sorry for Eva, forced to live an almost isolated life hidden away from the world, with no friends allowed past the guards, and only her dogs for company.

The story has a lot of threads weaving round each other, and sometimes they're a little difficult to keep straight, or one is dropped for a while as the others progress, but everything sorts itself nicely in the end. The whole book is filled with suspense with Clara constantly aware that she could be being followed at any point in time, and never being quite sure who she can trust; is the rather dashing Max Brandt merely interested in her romantically or does he have other more sinister plans? The tension cranks up an extra notch when Clara is taken to visit Hitler's mountain retreat Berghof. The views are wonderful but the atmosphere chilly and threatening.

I'm really liking this series with its slant on history, and spying, from a female perspective. I'm just hoping now that it won't end when WW2 actually starts..

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Genre - thriller, historical fiction

If you haven't read the earlier Clara Vine novels, check them out here - Black Roses, The Winter Garden

Wednesday 11 March 2015

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer

review by Maryom

On the morning of Bonfire Night four year old Daniel Buck disappeared, slipping out of an accidentally left-open door and down the street, leaving behind him a trail of footprints in new cement but then seemingly vanishing into thin air. Now four months later, his mother Anna guards those last reminders of him, cleaning and polishing them daily despite the odd looks and rude comments from passers-by, clinging on to her desperate hope that somehow, someday he'll come home. When she sees an advert for a local psychic, Richard Latham, Anna fees a burst of hope - this could be the way to find Daniel!
DCI John Marvel's favourite thing in the world is a good murder - a difficult, hard to solve one that allows him to pit his skills against a devious opponent. The case he'd like to be working on is that of twelve year old Edie Evans, who went missing over a year ago, and who Marvel believes must have been murdered - so he's less than pleased when he's asked to help find his super's wife's missing dog! He's even less pleased when the case brings him into contact with psychic Richard Latham ..... Marvel believes the man to be a fake, building false hope and exploiting the vulnerable, but what if he's the real thing, a shut eye, able to contact the dead, the missing and even an apricot poodle?

I know by now that when I settle down with a Belinda Bauer novel I'm in for a first-class, compelling read, full of excellent characterisation, unexpected twists and turns, dramatic reveals and a heart-stopping climax - and The Shut Eye is no exception!
What I love about Bauer's writing is her ability to create a whole range of believable characters and place them in unenviable situations. The 'crime' aspect of the novel pursues three seemingly unrelated cases - two missing children and a missing dog - but it also follows Anna and James Buck, a couple placed in a situation that none of us would ever want to share.  James is haunted by guilt and would do anything to take back that simple slip-up he made; Anna is barely able to cope with anything any more, slowly sliding towards insanity, and only kept back from it by the daily ritual of cleaning her son's footprints. When she starts to sees visions, are they merely a further sign of insanity?
John Marvel, meanwhile, with his no nonsense, no sentiment attitude tramples through, a bit like a bloodhound on the trail, ignoring everyone's feelings while he pursues the crime.  
And there's also the story of a young girl, Edie Evans, who wanted to go into space, to visit distant planets and meet aliens but had a sadly very different fate. 

As in Rubbernecker, there's a similarity to Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels with the feeling of the random inter-connectedness of all things and that sometimes the world is weirder than we think. Maybe if you're a person who firmly believes that all psychics or mediums are charlatans, that there's no possibility of being contacted by the dead, then this isn't the book for you, but for everyone else this is an unmissable read. I'd just say that I was left at the end thinking that at some point (I shan't say when for fear of spoilers) a police investigation team hadn't done their work well enough and had missed something vital and blindingly obvious - I'm not sure if this was deliberate on the part of the author or not, but it didn't detract from the overall story.

 Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher -
Bantam Press
Genre -
adult, thriller, crime

Maryom's reviews of previous Belinda Bauer crime novels; Rubbernecker, Darkside, Blacklands

Tuesday 10 March 2015

The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah

review by Maryom

Ivo is lying in a hospital room with nothing to occupy him apart from an occasional bird  flitting through the tree outside the window. To alleviate the tedium and distract from his anxieties, his nurse suggests he plays a game of A-Z body parts, telling a tale or sharing a memory about each. At first a little dismissive of a 'parlour game', Ivo none-the-less joins in, starting with A for Adam's Apple, reminiscing about his life, his loves, his failures, and, above all, where everything went wrong..

This book started well and promised to be the kind of read that I love. Using the A-Z to tell Ivo's backstory works well, even if it's only a plot device. It's told in an engaging chatty style. Alternating between flashbacks and the monotonous 'now' of hospital moves both sections of the story on quickly; the reminiscences built up a picture of Ivo's childhood, drink and drug-fuelled partying with his mates, and the love that could have changed his life around, and contrast sharply with the bleak present day. It all had me wanting to learn more... but that's where I started to run into problems because unfortunately, the more I read, the less I liked Ivo and his friends. Now, although it isn't necessary to like a main character to like a book - after all who can really 'like' Jane Austen's snobbish, self-centred, Emma? - Ivo was just someone I couldn't get along with. Always ready to blame some one else for his mistakes, he seemed to really be on a course of self-destruction, no matter how many times Mia forgave him and offered him a chance to turn things around. Unlike Mia, I soon reached a point where my sympathy for him had gone!

Maryom's review - 3.5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction

Monday 9 March 2015

Last Bus to Coffeeville by J Paul Henderson

Review by The Mole

Nancy, Gene and Bob met at university as young activists trying to bring about the end of segregation. Gene was studying to become a doctor and Nancy took a shine to him. Nancy comes from the deep south where desegregation is the most stalled. When she takes him home to meet her family she confides the awful truth that Alzheimer's Disease is hereditary in her family - amongst the women - and she manages to get him to promise that when (not if) her time comes he must help her to die rather than suffer the degradation that the disease brings.

On returning  to college later Doc (Gene in the early part of the book) finds a note that Nancy is splitting up with him.

A lifetime later and a call out of the blue from Nancy about meeting up. Their friendship is re-kindled and Nancy explains that the early signs of Alzheimer's are showing.

While this book is ostensibly about their trip back to the deep south where Nancy wants to spend her final days that would be like saying that "War and Peace" is about Russia - there is so much more story along the way that the reason for this group of friends coming together is very much secondary.

The most part of the first half of the book is more like a group of linked short stories. With each character we meet we are treated (a carefully chosen word) to hearing their back story - and every one is an interesting delight. Then when the friends come together and the journey starts the book changes to a proper story telling.

This group of friends is a very diverse group in age, outlook and history and the journey bumps along with incident after incident but frequently returning to that horrific subject of Alzheimer's.

Did I mention the humour? I need to mention the humour... while trivialising nothing and not making fun of the disease or its victims in any way, this story is laced with humour throughout from this eclectic list of characters.

Doc - who's been dealt a bad hand by life but when he does get a good hand then life goes and trumps it. He tends to be a bit miserable.

Bob - an ex FBI hit man - a job he couldn't resign from so now he's hiding from them but despite this he is the most optimistic and realistic of the bunch.

Eric - a 13 year old boy whose parents have died and his guardians have enrolled him in a deaf school. He's not in the slightest bit deaf.

Susan - Eric's exotic dancing cousin and only family.

Jack - an ex weatherman most noted for his on-air resignation and terrified he's losing his hair.

And finally, Nancy - the most normal of the bunch but perhaps normal is overrated.

A brilliant d├ębut by this author and I look forward to what he pens next. Funny and sad in equal measure this book will appeal to most adult readers but as for a genre? I have no real idea.

Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult, road trip, humour

Friday 6 March 2015

The Girl In The Red Coat by Kate Hamer

review by Maryom

8 year old Carmel and her divorced mother Beth form a tiny insular family; contact with Carmel's father is infrequent and erratic, and her mother and grandparents quarrelled long ago so Carmel never sees them. Being only the two of them makes Beth more watchful and careful than other mothers might be but Carmel is getting a little tired of this; she thinks she's old enough to be able to do things on her own with no need to constantly be holding her mum's hand like a small child. So in the crowds at a children's story-telling festival she takes the opportunity to slip away and hide under a table......  Engrossed in books and her imagination, Carmel loses track of time and when she eventually crawls back out her mum is nowhere to be seen. Then she's approached by an elderly man who claims to be her grandfather, come with the awful news that her mum has had an accident and been taken to hospital, and that for now Carmel should could home with him. Carmel is confused and upset, but something in the man's appearance makes her trust him, so she goes along without any fuss.....
 Meanwhile Beth is beside herself with worry. People are leaving, the festival grounds emptying and there is still no sign of Carmel. Panic rising, the organisers call in the police and Beth has to admit the dreadful fact that despite all her best efforts, Carmel has disappeared.

The Girl In The Red Coat taps into every parent's nightmare that one day their child will go missing. Unusually it doesn't follow the police investigation, with either the following up of a tenuous thread of clues that lead to a happy resolution, or the more chilling story-line that ends tragically in the hands of a serial-killer. Instead, the reader follows Carmel and Beth as in very different circumstances they try to adapt to their new lives. Told as it is in the first person from their alternating perspectives, the reader is there sharing the emotions of Beth and Carmel - the guilt and frantic searching of one, the bewilderment of the other.
Carmel of course is unaware that she's been abducted - she firmly believes that this man is her grandfather and that what she's been told about her mother's accident is true. So Carmel tries to adjust, to fit in with her new family and their plans for her. It was hinted at earlier but it now becomes apparent that Carmel is believed to have a special gift, and this is why she was taken. Her 'grandfather' has great plans for her, mainly of the sort that will involve his financial gain, and Carmel is bullied and manipulated into going along with them.
Meanwhile back home in Norfolk, her mum Beth tries to put her life back together. Never losing track of the number of days since Carmel went missing, never giving up hope, she searches frantically anywhere and everywhere, but gradually as the years pass, she makes peace with herself and starts to move on.

Although a crime has been committed this isn't so much the story of that crime but more one of how those involved cope afterwards, rather in the way that Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You or Carys Bray's A Song for Issy Bradley show families coping with tragedy. Here though there's still the hope that somehow, maybe, just maybe, Carmel and Beth can be re-united - and it's that flicker of hope that pulled me in, desperately wanting to know that all would turn out right in the end. Does it? well, read it and find out.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Faber and Faber

Genre -adult fiction, debut, crime,

Thursday 5 March 2015

The Faithful Couple by AD Miller

review by Maryom

In 1993 two young British men meet at a hostel in California. Adam is fresh from university, seeing the world while hoping in a laid back way that something will 'turn up' for him in television; Neil is slightly older, has been out in the post-uni real world long enough to know it doesn't live up to expectations, taking time out from a dead-end job; they bond instantly. Driving north up the California coastline, an unpleasant incident occurs - one that, although quickly put behind them at the time, will haunt them throughout the years but bind them in shared guilt.

I started The Faithful Couple expecting something like a mates version of David Nicholls' One Day, and in many ways that what it is - but also darker and grittier. It follows the relationship between two young men who accidentally meet in San Diego, bond on a road trip and become friends for life - like the entwined tree from which the novel takes it title, they may try to go their separate ways but fate has joined them together.

Their story encompasses a wide change of issues that form the backdrop to almost all our lives - class, wealth, children, family, death, guilt, betrayal, love - and explores the complex emotions that feed our relationships - envy and competitiveness having as much place in them as shared interests or companionship.

 I seem to have been one of the few people who were left a bit unimpressed by the author's previous book Snowdrops but this one is a different matter. I loved it - raced through it in almost a single sitting, found myself caught up the lives of these two young men, wanting to know if they'd find the things they were searching for in life, whether money or love, if they could allow the past to be just that and not destroy their relationship. 

If I had any criticism it would be that occasionally I thought the author tried just a little too hard - the turning of a phrase, an obscure word, the re-iteration of a point - but on the whole, it's an excellent read and unusual in portraying a male friendship surviving the ups and downs of the years.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher -
Little, Brown
Genre -adult fiction

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Mind Games by Teri Terry

review by Maryom

In a future dystopian world, everyone spends most of their time hooked up to Realtime - a virtual world created by PareCo. A special implant allows them 24/7 instant access, and it's not used just for game or role playing but for everyday life - everything from school lessons to hanging out with friends takes place there. Luna is one of the very few who react badly to the implant and, as such, she's excluded from a lot of things that her friends consider 'normal'. It's more than a little odd then that Luna is one of an elite group picked to join PareCo's think tank. What is so special about her that she'd be selected? Surely PareCo cannot see her as a threat?
At their top secret island base, Luna discovers the evil hiding behind the public face of PareCo - but can she, with her unusual abilities, expose the truth?

We've all heard of the dangers of spending too much time on games consoles or the internet - well, Teri Terry takes this a step further. The virtual Realtime world has almost replaced the physical world - certainly there are restrictions, with limited use for young children, and advised amount of 'downtime' - but, with life-support to take care of bodily functions, for most there's no need or desire to unplug; people make friends in Realtime, go on dates there, even have virtual sex rather than physical. Luna, as an outsider, notices the problems of such dependency - for instance, her dad's job means he spends more time away in the virtual world than present with his family - and there's a lot of food for thought among her observations, but it doesn't detract from the story-line.
The story falls into two sections - at first in the everyday world of home and school, setting the scene and building this dystopian society, then moving on to the behind-the-scenes insiders' view of PareCo's activities, discovering their shocking manipulation of both users and developers of the virtual world. The things Luna uncovers are chilling in the extreme!
 In Mind Games, Teri Terry has created another thought-provoking but gripping thriller - the world-building lured me in, the mystery surrounding PareCo's activities hooked me, and the threat from them to Luna and her friends kept me reading till late at night. Luna herself is a courageous young heroine, facing dangers in both the real and virtual worlds, but determined to set things right and expose evil; someone to sympathise with and root for.
It's very much a book that once started, you won't want to put down - a bit like the virtual world of Realtime!

Oh, and I loved how among PareCo's virtual gaming worlds the author built in a 'plug' for her previous series Slated!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Orchard Books
Genre -
teen, dystopian thriller

If you're looking for more thrillers built around the world of gaming try, for teens, Erebos by Ursula Poznanski or, for adults, Game by Anders de la Motte

Tuesday 3 March 2015

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

 review by Maryom

In 1867 after several years of failed harvests, a great famine descended on Finland, threatening the lives of all but the wealthiest. As winter takes hold, Marja's husband lies dying of hunger. Realising that if they remain on the farm, both her and the two children will die too, Marja leaves him and heads south towards St Petersburg where, rumours say, there's bread for all. Others are on the road too, a rag-tag hoard of beggars desperately seeking aid, and not all places are welcoming to starving travellers. Moved on from one place to another, Marja refuses to give up hope but keeps doggedly plodding on.
Meanwhile in the city, life goes on much as it always did - senators squabble over whose plan is the best to deal with the crisis, the rich refuse to help out, and Teo, a doctor, continues his work among the taverns and brothels of the seedier districts.
A chance meeting of Teo and Marja on the road leads to the first signs of hope....

White Hunger is a tale of endurance and hope. Marja's determination to continue despite the odds stacked against her, her constant belief that one day they will reach their goal and it will welcome them with open arms and full baskets of bread, is inspiring but heart-rending as her quest seems doomed from the start. Living hand to mouth, relying entirely on the kindness of strangers, her spirit seems indomitable even though starvation causes her mind to wander and her body to collapse. The reactions of the people she meets en route are understandable - everyone is suffering from the famine and, unless you're among the cosseted wealthy classes, to give even the smallest amount of bread or gruel to a beggar, may mean your own death.
Teo's experiences are different. Living in the city, he's comparatively sheltered from the dire effects of the famine, but he comes to realise that the problem of beggars roaming the countryside in search of food can't be solved by those like himself who have little real understanding of the plight of the people - a situation seen today in the attitudes of governments towards the poor and refugees.

It's a story that takes the reader to unknown places - with our centrally-heated houses and shop-bought food we're hardly likely to encounter such conditions, but the unrelenting frozen landscape slowly seeps into even the well-fed, armchair-snuggled reader's mind. I could easily imagine the frozen feet and hands, the soggy clothing, the tedium of taking to the road each day, the exhaustion at the end of it.
The story does end on a happier note with the return of warmer days in Spring and the natural hopefulness that comes with it, but there's a feeling of a nation waking from a long nightmare and still being haunted by it.

As a slight aside - Although circumstances are very different I found a lot of similarity between Marja and Izolda, the heroine of Hanna Krall's Chasing the King of Hearts published by Peirene a couple of years ago. Both women show a determination to cling on to every last scrap of hope and persevere through adversities, even though their goal seems to move further and further away.

 Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press

Genre - Adult Literary Fiction, translated fiction 

translated from the Finnish by Fleur Jeremiah and Emily Jeremiah

Monday 2 March 2015

The Beneath by SC Ransom

review by Maryom
One minute Lily is idly waiting for her Tube train to arrive, the next she's rescuing a girl from its path and being drawn into a hidden world that lies literally beneath her feet - for the rescued girl, Aria, is part of a community that lives concealed in the maze of tunnels and caverns beneath London. She's visiting the world Above seeking out one special person who can help to stop the evil plans of her community's leader - and that person is Lily.

The Beneath is the latest teen thriller from SC Ransom, author of the Small Blue Thing trilogy; a tense, compelling read, set in and below London, with an intriguing story-line centring on a community that for hundreds of years has been living underground. With the vast amount of tunnels, underground rivers and disused Tube tunnels burrowing underneath the city, who knows what may lurk beneath our feet? Lily isn't at first sure if she believes Aria's story of living underground in a society where there's very little free will and choice, and girls are seen as just 'breeders' of the next generation. But Lily soon moves from disbelief to a determination to help her new friend, which takes her, her friend Will and his faithful not-to-be-left-behind dog, Foggy, on a dangerous journey underground to confront the leader of this strange community and the 'crop' he grows to both protect and intimidate them.

Aimed at the eleven+/early teen age range, the story delivers a fast paced read to keep the reader gripped from start to finish. There's a little romance but the emphasis is firmly on mystery and action,with some really nail-biting moments.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Nosy Crow
Genre - 11+, fantasy adventure