Tuesday 30 June 2015

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

 review by Maryom

When Penelope decides to share a cab ride with a complete stranger she's taking a leap in the dark, one that will change her life. For the two girls bond instantly over a shared adoration of singer heart-throb Johnny Ray, and as her new friend Charlotte whisks Penelope away for tea with her Aunt Clare and cousin Harry, it's like the opening up of a whole new world for Penelope. Both girls share the same upper class world of stately homes and empty bank accounts but Charlotte is vivacious, impulsive, and confident - all things that Penelope feels she isn't - and more embracing of the new post-war world where a girl doesn't merely need to find a husband but can make a career of her own. Penelope's view of the world is tinted by the romance of her parents' love affair, tragically cut short when her father was killed during the war. One day Penelope hopes such love will come her way, but meanwhile there's Johnny Ray to sigh over, parties to attend, new American rock'n'roll to discover and the puzzle of Charlotte's cousin Harry to work out. A little against her will, Penelope is dragged into a charade with him, pretending to be his new girlfriend, with the aim of Harry winning back the girl who dumped him. Playing at being in love is dangerous though .... and maybe soon it moves on to being less of a pretence...

 Set in the 1950s post-war world where crumbling ancestral homes and penniless aristocrats rub up against Teddy boys and rock'n'roll, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a delightful coming of age story, filled with the romance of first love, the glamour of champagne parties and all the excitement of being 18.
Written in the first person, it has an engaging gossipy style that makes you feel as if Penelope were your best friend sharing confidences with you. I loved it when I first read it and having just re-read it, love it still.

 First published ten years ago, I discovered The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets sometime between then and now, but it's coming out in a special anniversary edition with a new cover and an extra short story telling the tale of how Penelope's parents met. I'm now torn, do I stick with my old original copy or abandon it in favour of the new? I'm actually hoping that the short story on its own will become available as an e-book, so I don't have to choose.

 Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Headline Review
Genre - coming of age, adult/teen crossover

Monday 29 June 2015

The Truth According To Us by Annie Barrows

review by Maryom

1938 was an important year for Willa Romeyn; her hometown of Macedonia, West Virginia celebrated its sesquicentennial, Miss Layla Beck came to stay while she wrote a history of the town, and Willa herself turned twelve and began to wonder about the secrets that adults kept to themselves.
Willa and her sister Bird live in the old family home with their eccentric extended family - their frequently-absent divorced father Felix, his unmarried sister Jottie who acts as housekeeper and substitute mother to the girls, and his twin sisters, Mae and Minerva who, despite both being married, can't bear to be apart so live during the week at 'home', visiting their husbands at weekend. The only family member to leave home (and town) is younger brother Emmett; more dependable and trustworthy, he's always overshadowed by flamboyant and charming Felix.  The Romeyns were once an important family in town but now they've come down in the world, living in faded splendour and having to take in a lodger in the shape of Layla Beck.
Layla has come to Macedonia unwillingly. As the privileged daughter of a senator, her life in Washington DC has been one of parties, social engagements and generally having fun. Now, having refused to go along with her father's plans to marry her off, she's effectively been thrown out of the family home and told to fend for herself. Pulling a few strings, her father arranges to have her taken on by the Federal Writer's Project and so she finds herself heading for West Virginia to write a history of Macedonia. She's expecting a dull, dreary town filled with dull, dreary people, and the Romeyns are not at all what she's expecting - they're witty, charming and attractive, particularly Felix, for whom she quickly falls.
Set in the era of the Great Depression, Prohibition and boot-legging, The Truth According to Us is a wonderful absorbing coming of age tale of family and their secrets. Willa is just reaching an age when she starts to question things she's so far taken for granted - why has Aunt Jottie never married? how exactly does her father earn his money? and just how did Vause Hamilton die in a fire at their family's mill?  She's sure that the answers are all linked, and with a child's enthusiasm sets about playing detective and finding out, never thinking of the possible consequences.  Layla too, in her capacity as town historian, is bent on finding out secrets - the gossipy, scandalous kind of history that the town council would rather was forgotten but which she feels would make a far more interesting book.
There are just so many things to love about this book - the writing style, the characters, the setting.
The story is told in a variety of ways - Willa's first person reminiscences, third person narrative following Jottie and Layla, letters to, from and about Layla, Jottie's dream-like flashbacks to her youth - and they all add up to make something rather special - a book that I could read again and again, without tiring of it.
The Romeyns with their quirky charm easily captivated me; unusual enough to be interesting, 'normal' enough to be believable, they all display Macedonia's virtues of ferocity and devotion in various degrees.
As for the setting, it captures a point in time between a gracious past and a world about to be changed by war. Macedonia has a mix of old time elegance - the sweltering heat of daytime giving way to cooler evenings spent on the front porch with friends and neighbours dropping by - and down at heel present, with the necessity to take in lodgers, the rise of tension in the town with high unemployment, uncaring owners at the factory and union agitation on the rise.
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.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre- adult, coming of age, family secrets

Friday 26 June 2015

Only We Know by Simon Packham

review by Maryom

Lauren and her sister Tilda are starting a new term at a new school, following their family's hurried house-move. Something dreadful happened at Lauren's previous school but she wants to put the past behind her and start afresh. Imagine her panic then, when among her new classmates she sees a boy, Harry, who she knew a few years ago. Luckily she's changed quite a lot since then so Harry doesn't recognise her - and Lauren just hopes it stays that way! She starts to settle in and make new friends, but then she starts to receive odd 'gifts', items with a twisted meaning relating to her past. Someone has found out her secret ...  how far will they go to expose her? is there anything Lauren can do to stop it happening?

In this excellent teen novel, Simon Packham takes a topical issue and weaves it into a compelling read. The reader knows very early on that there is something in her past that Lauren doesn't want anyone to know about - it seems to involve fast cars and a boy called Luke, but it's only at the end that all is revealed.  There are lots of hints throughout to keep you wondering, though I must admit I'd never have guessed!
Alongside this thread is the mystery of who could be sending Lauren the unpleasant packages - there are a number of red herrings to lead the reader (and Lauren) along the wrong path, but the surest way to find out is to keep reading!

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Piccadilly Press
Genre - teen/YA, teen relationships, identity

Thursday 25 June 2015

The Watercress Girl by H E Bates

review by Maryom

For most people mention H E Bates and their immediate thought will be of The Darling Buds of May and the series of books following the lives of the Larkin family, but there are lots more novels and short stories by him to be discovered. I personally came to his work via the film of his novella The Triple Echo, and so moved on to his short stories rather than novels. Bloomsbury are now re-issuing all Bates' stories and novellas, making them available for the first time as e-books; apparently there are over 300 of them, so it's maybe not surprising that I hadn't come across this particular collection before.

First published in 1959, this collection of thirteen short stories presents the world from a child's perspective - an often puzzling world, full of things that are only partially understood. Childhood as seen here isn't necessarily the comfy cosy place we imagine it to be, but one full of doubts and echoes of the wider adult world; for instance in "Let's Play Soldiers", a young boy becomes aware of the uncomfortable, heartbreaking reality of war; a sharp contrast to the war-like games he plays with his mates. To a small child, his own world is sufficient, the people within accepted as they are without query - Bates portrays children on the verge of moving from this 'bubble', starting to see the people around them as individuals with their own thoughts and feelings.

Some of the stories are told from the perspective of an adult looking back on their childhood, re-visiting the innocence of that time - both their own and that of the world generally. The world has certainly changed since these stories were written. For some readers these stories will be like a window opening on their own childhood; a girl playing 'house' in among the bracken reminded me of my own childhood playing similar games in farmers'  fields - those fields are still there, but somehow I can't imagine today's young children playing there - or boys conducting a 'war' on the streets - again these days, aren't they more likely to be playing the same game on a console? Childhood was definitely freer in those days!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Bloomsbury Publishing

Genre - short stories

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

 review by Maryom

"Something" has been driving people to madness and suicide. At first there are just a few isolated cases but soon it builds to epidemic proportions. The only way to avoid the madness is to not see this unknown "thing", which leaves the few survivors huddled behind backed-out windows, and only venturing outside blindfolded. Malorie has survived alone in these conditions for four years, and raised two children. Now she feels it's time to strike out and meet up with other survivors, so, with eyes tightly blindfolded, the three of them head for the river and a terrifying journey in search of safety.

 When Birdbox first came out, I somehow had this logged in my mind as horror fiction which isn't really my kind of thing, so I didn't bother reading it. Then I heard people talking about it on social media, describing it as more of a post-apocalyptic dystopian story, and this was reinforced by a first chapter sampler which left me wanting to read more, so at last, having spotted a copy at the library, I've read it!

Did it live up to my expectations? Well, a little bit 'yes' and 'no'.
Josh Malerman certainly knows how to build up tension and fear, and keep it cranked up! Imagine someone or something was stalking you but that the one thing you shouldn't do was open your eyes to see if this 'thing' was there! In this respect I found it playing on my fears of absolute darkness the way Michelle Paver's Dark Matter did, coupled with a terror of what might be lurking outside my windows. It is most definitely a book you won't want to put down!
The downside for me came when I felt the author had milked the horror for all it was worth, and the post-apocalyptic story-line fell in to the same-old, tried and tested way of such things; a group of survivors make it to a safe house but ultimately everything goes pear-shaped (this isn't a plot spoiler as we know from the outset that Malorie has been living there alone for several years).
It isn't a book I'd re-read, there aren't enough plot twists or character development for that, but on the other hand I'd be very willing to read another by the same author.

I've tagged it as 'adult' which is its target audience, but horror-loving teens will delight in it too.

Maryom's review - 4
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
Adult, horror, post-apocalyptic,


Tuesday 23 June 2015

The Memory Hit by Carla Spradbery

review by Maryom

Jess thought that she and Luke were a rock-solid, together forever couple. Sure, he was a little wilder than she was, always pulling crazy stunts, but they were both on course to pass their A levels and head off to the same university to study medicine. then at a New year's Eve party Jess's world starts to fall apart. First she discovers that Luke has been cheating on her with her best friend, Scarlett. Then in Luke's jacket pocket she finds a packet of bright red tablets - the drug Nostalgex - and not just one or two, but a sizeable quantity, the amount dealers carry.
To say she's shocked is understating things - a lot - but before she has chance to confront him about either of these things, a fire breaks out. While the other party-goers escape from the building, Luke and Scarlett are trapped in a bedroom.
Jess's ex, Cooper, is also having problems with drugs. The son of convicted dealers, he's always tried to stay clear of them but now someone is forcing him, through intimidation and blackmail, into selling Nostalgex, and events take a more sinister turn when the petrol-station he works at is set alight.
This unputdownable teen thriller hinges round the puzzle of WHO would be out to kill both Luke and Cooper. Could it be the mysterious mask-wearing drug dealer known only as Whiteface? But if so, why?
Jess feels if she could only remember more details of the New Years Eve party, she might find a clue to why - and this is where the Nostalgex drug comes in. It enhances memory - very handy  for exams - and can take the user back to relive happy memories in great detail. When she tries it though, Jess discovers that often there's a discrepancy between how she remembers events and what actually occurred. Experiencing events without the emotions of the time alters her understanding of them. It helps her focus on the mysterious white-masked person at the party, but it also shows her that her relationship with Luke was not as happy as she'd believed. Revisiting some of her arguments with him, Jess comes to see Luke as domineering, bullying, even abusive - all traits she'd ignored in the past.
 Like any good thriller The Memory Hit keeps you guessing about the identity of the 'bad guy',with plenty of twists and turns along the way, but what makes it stand out is the concept of Nostalgex and how our memories can be altered by time; if a person is generally seen as 'nice' we may overlook the odd outburst, or something very frightening and confusing may be blanked from our conscious memory. In a way, I suppose Nostalgex is doing what regression therapy does, and here it's used to good effect, teasing out memories and shedding new light on events and relationships.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Hodder Childrens
Genre - Thriller, teen relationships, YA/teen

Monday 22 June 2015

Out in the Open by Jesus Carrasco

review by Maryom

A young boy is running away from home. From his hiding place in an olive grove, he waits while the search party passes, then heads North across a desolate, dry plain, moving only at night to avoid detection by the bailiff and his men who are hunting him. On his way he comes across a goatherd, meandering across the countryside with his flock in search of the meanest crop of grass or weeds to sustain them - will this man too intend to harm the boy, or has he maybe found someone who will take his side against his pursuers?

Out In The Open is set in a timeless, nameless land, and reads like a cross between a coming of age story, fairy or folk tale and post-apocalyptic fiction. As the boy travels through the remnants of once fertile countryside now left dessicated and barren he could easily be wandering through a bombed-out landscape, but instead the land is parched from drought; the sun beats down relentlessly from a cloudless sky, river courses and wells have dried up, crops and trees have shrivelled and died. The goatherd and his flock, the surprise discovery of an inn stocked with all manner of food and drink, the far-distant mountains with their promise of ever-flowing water and lush greenery, and the boy's quest for a safe haven all seem on the other hand to belong to the realms of folk tale.
Did I enjoy it? Well, it's not a happy story - you need to be prepared for a grim read with this, although there is always a smidgen of hope for the boy. The evocation of heat and the dried-up countryside is masterful but the whole set-up is of a world ruled by violence, as if any goodness has evaporated along with the water. As the boy's back story is revealed, it becomes apparent that he's fleeing a life of abuse to which his father, even if not directly involved, has been complicit (in the father's defence, he may have been coerced by those higher up the chain of power, though that isn't clearly stated). The boy is hoping he can free himself from this, but what chance does he, on foot and pursued by men on horseback or motorbike, stand of escaping? It's that small chance of a better life that keeps the boy going, and kept me reading.

translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Harville Secker
Genre -  adult fiction, translated fiction

Friday 19 June 2015

Diamond Star Halo by Tiffany Murray

review by Maryom

1977 was a big year for Halo Llewelyn of Rockfarm recording studios hidden in the Welsh countryside - a year in which the world changed; the Queen celebrated her Jubilee, Elvis died, Halo's brother Vincent discovered punk, but most importantly, it was the year Fred Connor entered her life. Even in Halo's world of visiting rock stars, Fred is special; the son of two members of American group Tequila, left behind as a new born baby when the band move on, he grows up alongside the Llewelyn children but is always more than a brother to Halo. Like a modern day Cathy and Heathcliff, Halo and Fred are entwined from childhood, irresistibly drawn together yet pulled apart by circumstances.

 For me this book is one of those wonderful serendipitous finds that come through book blogging. Late last year I read Tiffany Murray's Sugar Hall and loved its sheer creepiness - it's one of the few ghost stories that has truly sent shivers down my spine, and I wanted to read more by the author so when a copy of Diamond Star halo came my way I was delighted.
 At the novel's heart is the flawed love of Halo and Fred. Fred is a typical charismatic bad boy flawed hero; no one can resist his charms - and he knows it, and plays it for all he's worth. Halo meanwhile is hopelessly in love with him; although not related, they've been brought up so closely as brother and sister, that any other relationship seems wrong.
 But Diamond Star Halo is more than just their story; it belongs to all the Llewelyns of Rockfarm. Told in the first person, Halo's narrative roams backwards and forwards, through her life, her parents', and back to her Nana's brothers and the despised ancestral "English Bastards". It isn't a ghost story by any stretch of the imagination but it does still have that feeling of the layers of the past building up around a particular place; of a house which still holds echoes of those who lived there in previous generations; of past tragedies which still cast a shadow.
 Halo's whole world captivated me - a mix of rock star glamour and playing half-wild in the fields and woods around the farm - filled with characters like her slightly witchy-Nana with her 'capel' of bones and healing herbs and brews, or Halo's parents consumed by a passion which they thought could conquer everything.

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. 

 Maryom's review -  5 stars
Publisher - Portobello Books
Genre - adult,

Shortlisted for the Bollinger/Wodehouse Prize

Thursday 18 June 2015

Meridian by David Rose

review by Maryom

MERIDIAN is 'heteroglossia' which pulls none of its punches. It is as comfortable delivering a disquisition on the semiotics of architectural absence as it is relaying the dialogue between the builders of the conservatory next door. It is truly not glibly, multi-layered, and in its concerns asks much of its readers and by extension, of the literary forms available to the writer in the 21st. century. In a literary landscape of conformity and ardent replication, MERIDIAN is undoubtedly and confidently 'stand alone.' It also manages to be a lot of fun. That's the publisher's blurb on Amazon...
MERIDIAN: A Day in the Life with Incidental Voices reveals the inner monologue of a successful contemporary architect. A post post-modern triumph, it builds into a discourse on modern life, a distillation of the demotic and the demonic..... what it says on the publishers web-site...... now, I don't usually include these publicity write-ups, preferring my own synopsis, but this time I thought I would - because if you read my review and think you'll buy the book, you'll probably end up on one of those websites, read the blurb, and wonder if it's the same book!  Honestly, don't they make it sound a 'difficult' read, up there with Ulysses? Actually it's a far more readable, accessible book that either of those summaries might have you believe.
An architect goes about his day taking snapshots (with one of those wearable-tech gadgety things that I don't understand) every hour, on the hour, and he notes what he's doing, thinking, seeing as he goes about his daily routine, till 12 o'clock, Meridian, when the book changes to 'snapshots' of a different kind - a series of vignettes capturing what others are doing at that point in time - anyone and everyone from the drunks in the park to the Queen. As the afternoon progresses the book reverts to the architects point of view, but this time interspersed with the other characters encountered in the 'meridian' section.
It is undeniably 'literary' - it isn't plot-driven and there aren't long lengthy physical or character descriptions, for example. Imagine instead reading a diary for the day, or listening in on a series of conversations; following someone as he goes about his daily routine, eavesdrops on his musings about his work and life. Gradually a picture builds up of this man, lonely, filled with a passion for his work, but now facing an uncertain future.
The central section with its multitude of voices feels a bit like walking down a street or sitting in a cafe and overhearing conversations - sometimes so intriguing you want to stop and listen to them!
I really enjoyed this book - yes it expected a little effort on my part, didn't hand me all the facts on a plate but there's nothing wrong with that. I haven't read David Rose's previous novel, the curiously subtitled Vault: an anti-novel but on the strength of Meridian, I'll have to track it down.
Meridian is short at just over 150 pages but packs those pages with such a wide spectrum of everyday life that it feels much wider and deeper than would seem possible for its size.

Maryom's review -  5 stars
Publisher - Unthank Books
Genre - Adult, literary fiction,

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Salt and Stone by Victoria Scott

Review by The Mole

The second book in the Fire & Flood series (with Fire & Flood also being the title of the first).

The story starts halfway through the brutal, cruel and deadly race (the Brimstone Bleed) where each contender is racing for a chance to get the cure to a disease that each has a different relative dying of. They didn't choose to enter the race because it's not a coincidence that their relatives are infected and can they survive the race, let alone win it?

This is very much a sequel and it's important to start reading from book 1 to get the full understanding of where the story starts and how we got to where we are.

The story is told from Tella's point of view so it's a safe bet that she'll make it to the end but Scott is not above killing off characters so assume nothing about anyone. I'm also not sure that Scott likes her main character anymore so the race is not getting any easier on Tella and if it's one thing a character needs then it's got to be an author on their team!

In book 1 I suggested that I found Tella too needy and that she wasn't a strong character - well that's all changed. She's now a strong character binding and leading a group and competing with Guy as leader - and winning.

Tense to the end - and not the end I had expected - we are left wondering about book 3. There has to be a book 3? But can the direction change as much as we are led to believe and how can the author convince me, the reader?

Publisher - Chicken House
Genre - YA dystopian, action adventure

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Lie of the Land by Michael F Russell

review by Maryom

Journalist Carl Shewan arrives in the remote Scottish Highland village of Inverlair on the trail of a story about a new government device aimed at tracking and controlling people, but while he's there the system, SCOPE, goes live - with horrendous side-effects. Inverlair is one of the few safe 'not spots' outside the new system, but everyone outside is presumed dead, and there's no way of leaving Inverlair or communicating with any other possible survivors. Almost everyone within the village has lost friends and relatives on the outside, but all they can do

Set in a not-too-distant future, Lie of the Land explores what happens when you survive the apocalypse. There are no aliens or epidemics to bring it about - just careless implementation of a mind-control system (imagine an advanced version of the noises broadcast around shopping arcades to deter teenagers).
The story's a little difficult to get into as it starts several months after the activation of SCOPE, months in which the inhabitants of Inverlair have been struggling to come to terms with events, their personal losses and the greater destruction of civilisation as they know it, then it darts backwards to the events that brought Carl to Inverlair - but bear with it, as it takes a while for everything to be explained.

There are a lot of ways a post-apocalyptic novel can evolve and this isn't an action-style adventure like say 28 Days Later or Julianna Baggott's Pure trilogy, neither is there that sense of re-building civilisation as in Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven . Life for the inhabitants of Inverlair really carries on much as it always did - there are shortages, not the least of which is of tea, but there are plenty of fish to be caught, venison and sheep on the hillsides, chickens, eggs and vegetables from local crofts, solar panels for electricity, wood for heating. There are certain power struggles within the village but nothing on a major scale. The main problems to be faced are of overwhelming grief, and maintaining the instinct to survive.

The focus of the book is Carl and his struggles to cope with guilt, responsibility and inclusiveness of village life. He's used to the anonymity of a city (and even then there's an inference that people tend to meet up more in cyber space than real life) so a small village, where everyone knows everyone else and what they've been doing, comes as a shock. He feels that the villagers hold him in some way responsible for events, and he's certainly escaped the effects of SCOPE, though more by luck than design. Trying to fit in hasn't got off to a good start as a one night stand with the hotel-owner's daughter left her pregnant ...a problem that Carl seems to hope will go away if he buries his head in the sand and ignores it!

An interesting debut, a little slow to get going maybe and definitely more about people having to cope with the unexpected events of life than the actual wiping out of civilisation, but intriguing and readable.

Maryom's review - 4 stars  
Publisher - Polygon 
Genre -post-apocalyptic, adult

Monday 15 June 2015

Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson

review by Maryom

Ari Thor Arason is expecting his first posting as a police officer to be a quiet one. In the far north of Iceland, Siglufjordur is an isolated place where folk still leave their doors unlocked and nothing exciting ever happens. Well, that is until now.....
As winter settles over the town, with snow piling up to the windows and avalanches blocking the only road out, the local amateur dramatic society are preparing for opening night when tragedy strikes. Their chairman, elderly renowned novelist Hrolfur, is found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs in the theatre. He could merely have been drunk and slipped, but Ari Thor isn't convinced. Then the girlfriend of one of the actors is found lying in the snow outside her house, half-naked, stabbed and unconscious. As Ari Thor digs deeper into the lives of this quiet, respectable-seeming community, he realises appearances can be deceptive ....and that he doesn't know who he can trust.
 Siglufjordur is a thriller writer's dream location - a tight-knit community, encircled by mountains, almost round-the-clock darkness in midwinter, cut off from the rest of the country by the harsh weather; it all adds to the brooding menace of having a killer at large! Ari Thor, as a new-comer to the area, and encountering it first at its darkest, feels overpowered by it all. He's disoriented too at a personal level; his girlfriend Kristin refused to leave Reykjavik and accompany him North, but in Siglufjordur he meets and finds himself attracted to, Ugla, a young woman, not long living in the area and, like him, still somewhat friendless there.
The story alternates between events unfolding 'now' and a burglary occurring at some unspecified point of time, and it's only at the end that the two threads connect but bear with it, because they DO join up. I wonder if the ending may have some readers feeling unsettled. It certainly isn't a totally cut and dried finish but feels more realistic for it.
Snowblind is the first of a series, so maybe a certain level of background set up was necessary but I felt there was just a little too much lead-in - showing how not just Ari Thor but others too had ended up living in this remote place - before I actually reached the murder. By the end, though, the characters had developed into people whose lives I wanted to know more about now I'm anxiously waiting for Book 2!

translated from Icelandic by Quentin Bates
 Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Orenda Books

Genre - Adult,crime, nordic noir,

Friday 12 June 2015

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

review by Maryom 

Agnieszka's village lies in a quiet peaceful valley, but overshadowed by The Wood, a corrupted place full of evil. Unwary people are snatched by it, and either never seen again or return horribly changed. Fortunately the valley is protected by a wizard known as The Dragon - he keeps The Wood and the evil within at bay, but in the way of all dragons demands a young maiden in return. Every ten years, a seventeen year old girl is chosen to live with him in his tower and this time everyone believes he will pick Kasia, the prettiest, cleverest girl in the village; no one would expect him to chose scruffy tom-boy Agnieszka - but then, who can predict what a wizard might do? 
Whatever Agnieszka expectations were of life in the Dragon's tower, the reality proves to be rather dull ....until she discovers her own kind of magic, not as showy or predictable as the wizard's but just as powerful.

 I haven't read anything previously by Naomi Novik so Uprooted burst on me as a wonderful surprise. 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.
 It reads like a fairytale, with many of the traditional components - the village on the edge of deep, dark, dangerous forest peopled by malevolent beings; a young woman 'sacrificed' to the Dragon; an ugly duckling turning into a swan (if tomboy turning into powerful witch can be described that way) - bound together into a compelling, surprisingly modern, tale.
It isn't a simple straight forward case of good versus evil - because first 'evil' has to be identified, and may not lie where it was expected, and good deeds can sometimes turn out to have been really bad ideas. It was this complexity of plot and character that kept me hooked; my ideas about who the 'bad guys' were changed frequently. Folk and fairy tales often have within them a moral to be made - that it isn't always the loudest and brashest people that succeed, that kindness is often as powerful - and there's an echo of that here, though developing this point too much will give the plot away!
I like fantasy novels to have more to them than the mere casting of spells or appearance of magical creatures, and Uprooted certainly has that extra bit of grit; I loved it!

 Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Pan Macmillan

Genre - Adult, fantasy

Thursday 11 June 2015

Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean

review by Maryom

Marie-Constance has a beautiful voice and time on her hands, so she puts an advert in the paper and sets herself up as a reader for hire. She's rather surprised in these days of audio-books to find that there's a demand for her services but she quickly finds clients; a disabled teenager, an elderly widowed countess, a company director, an eight year old girl, a retired magistrate.
At first it seems like Marie-Constance's new career could end in disaster - the teenage boy is so carried away by her reading of a supernatural tale by Maupassant that he has to be rushed to hospital - but she realises that what is happening is that, by immersing themselves in her reading, her listeners are starting to re-engage with the world. As Marie-Constance reads her way through Baudelaire, Marx, Lewis Carroll and the Marquis de Sade she re-awakens thoughts of forgotten things - politics, sex or just going out and having fun.
Marie-Constance is a harder person to understand than her clients; she's rather lacking in personality, adapting herself to fit her listener, like a blank page waiting for words.

I hope Peirene won't mind me saying this, but this is an unusual book for them as it's rather funny. Marie-Constance's desire for something to occupy her time leads to a series of misadventures almost farcical at times; who would have thought that a little reading would lead to so much trouble with the police? - but it does for Marie-Constance as she's dragged along in the wake of her clients and their new found enthusiasms.
At the same time it has much to say about the relationship between reader and book - the way stories can unlock feelings within us, enable us to see ourselves and others differently, that reading isn't always an emotionally passive activity. This was a particularly interesting book to read shortly after hearing Jane Davis talk about The Reader Organisation - a movement she established which encourages shared reading as a way of working through difficulties, showing through literature that our problems - from relationships to finance - are not as unique as we think.

translated from the French original by Adriana Hunter

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press

Genre - Adult Translated Fiction

Wednesday 10 June 2015

Laura Barnett - author interview

If you're a regular reader of the blog, you may have noticed that a couple of weeks ago I reviewed  Laura Barnett's debut novel The Versions of Us. Following a chance meeting in 1958, the lives of Eva and Jim play out in three possible ways, but which leads to greater happiness and fulfilment? It's a little like Sliding Doors, a little like Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. I loved it, so was delighted to be able to ask Laura a question or two about it......

Firstly, where did the idea for Versions of Us spring from?

Do you know, I’m really not sure! I woke up one morning just over two years ago with the seed of the idea planted in my mind. I’d written two novels, neither of which was quite right, and had been thinking about what to write next. That morning, I hit the snooze button on my iPhone over and over again, and lay there imagining writing three different versions of the story of one couple, from beginning to end. With hindsight, I suspect I was inspired, in part, by the fact I’d only recently got married, and was thinking about how easily my husband and I might never have met.

It's easy to spot the similarities with the film Sliding Doors, but to me there's also a certain something shared with Kate Atkinson's Life After Life; have you seen the film, or read Atkinson's book and did either influence you in any way?

I have seen Sliding Doors a few times - I was about fourteen when it first came out, and I loved it, not least because my friends and I often spent our evenings down by the river at Hammersmith, where some of the film’s key scenes were shot! And once I’d had this idea about telling multiple versions of the same love story, I watched the film again to see how the writer and director had tackled the challenge.
It’s interesting, too, that you feel my book shares something with Life After Life - Kate Atkinson’s book came out when I was about halfway through writing the first draft of The Versions of Us, and I didn’t read it until I’d finished. It’s an incredible work of fiction, and reading it gave me a lot of confidence in trying to pull off such an ambitious structure - but I wouldn’t say it influenced me, as such. We writers have to be careful to keep our own voices distinct from those of the other authors we admire. 

Of the three story-lines, do you have a 'favourite'? Mine, as I've said on Twitter, is version two, though I'm not sure why as it certainly doesn't always seem the happiest.
How did you go about plotting and planning everything? Did you write the three stories separately, then interweave them, or progress each at the same time?

It’s fascinating to hear that you feel a particular affinity with version two - every reader seems to have their own particular reaction to each version! I’m afraid I don’t have a favourite - each version presented its own particular challenges and pleasures, and I kept changing my mind about which one I was most enjoying as I wrote. I did so consecutively, chopping and changing between the three versions: the structure of that first draft was more or less exactly as the novel still is now. It just felt right to me to weave the three versions together from the start.

And...that dreadful question all authors get asked ...what next? Are you already planning/writing another book and, if so, could you tell us something about it?

It’s not a dreadful question at all - thank you for asking it! I am indeed already writing another book. It’s called Greatest Hits, and it’s about a female singer-songwriter - in my mind, she’s somewhere between Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell - looking back over her life and her music. I’m really enjoying getting under the character’s skin, and considering what it is to make a life as an artist, a woman, and a mother.

 Thank you so much for taking time out to chat, Laura, and best wishes for your second novel. I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting it!

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Derby Book Festival - author event - Stephen Booth and Anne Zouroudi

Another day, another book event - that's the joy of festivals! So on Sunday I was back at Derby Quad, in the same room where the previous day I'd seen Antonia Hodgson and SD Sykes talking about historical crime, this time to hear about contemporary crime novels from Stephen Booth and Anne Zouroudi.
Both authors have local connections but whereas Stephen Booth's long-running Cooper and Fry detective series is set in Derbyshire's Peak District, Anne Zouroudi has chosen the warmer location of Greece for her Mysteries of the Greek Detective series featuring the enigmatic Hermes Diaktoros.
Pointed in the right direction by the event's chair person, both authors told the audience how their series started out, developed and where it will go. Booth's Ben Cooper and Diane Fry first appeared as young detective constables - over 15 novels they've aged and been promoted but aren't quite keeping pace with 'real' time and could probably go on for ever. The Greek Detective series though was always envisioned as comprising seven stories representing the Seven Sins, and has now reached an end - another series based round the Ten Commandments is now being planned...
The topic of conversation managed at one point to get round to the vexed matter of e-books - are they good or bad, for reader, writers, and publishers? Both authors felt it gave them the opportunity to expand their readership, with huge numbers of books being downloaded during 'deal of the day' promotions, but that after initially discovering a new author readers might be going back to traditional 'real' books for further purchases.
This event had time for a Q+A session at the end - both authors were friendly and approachable, even when one audience member decided to leak a plot twist!
As an odd sort of birthday treat, I'd taken my neighbour along with me. She's an avid reader of crime thrillers but had only seen author events and book signings on TV's Murder She Wrote, and, knowing I go along to such things fairly frequently, she was intrigued to see what really happened. Well, no one died this time (sorry, Jessica Fletcher) but we did learn some useful tips for if we ever wanted to murder someone - and get away with it!


Monday 8 June 2015

Derby Book Festival - author event - Antonia Hodgson and SD Sykes

In an ideal world, I would have spent most if not all of Saturday at Derby Book Festival but it wasn't possible - so I chose this 'double' event with Antonia Hodgson and SD Sykes, having read and enjoyed their highly original debut novels. Both authors write historical crime fiction set in periods which are comparatively ignored in 'popular' history; Antonia Hodgson's The Devil in the Marshalsea  is set in London in the 1720s, SD Sykes' Plagueland  in fourteenth century English countryside in the period immediately after the Black Death (the plague of the book's title).  As the authors explained, both periods were times of upheaval and lawlessness. 1720s London was a boom town with a rapidly growing population and no police force to keep it in order; a place where fortunes could be quickly made, and lost! Plagueland's setting on the other hand is an empty landscape in which the population has been halved by the dreadful plague sweeping through; an historical dystopian setting where the 'normal' way of life has been disrupted, no one is left to enforce the law, and labourers once tied to their lord's manor feel free to leave and seek better lives elsewhere. Eventually this led to a change in the social order and the end of feudalism, but meanwhile everyone had to struggle on as best they could.
As the authors talked about their writing and research I realised there were further similarities between the two books - both authors chose a male protagonist, for the simple reason that men were freer to go out and about, to do things and visit places that women couldn't. Both of these young men had been expected to have a career within the Church and both 'avoided' it; Tom Hawkins prefers living off his wits and gambling, which is how he ends up in the debtors' prison of the Marshalsea; Oswald de Lacy had been happy with his proposed life as a monk, but the death of his father and two elder brothers has forced him to assume the role of Lord of the Manor. Both of them then find themselves investigating murder; Tom as a deal to get out of jail; Oswald because there's no one else to take responsibility. Both novels were debuts, but Antonia's second novel The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins was published last week - 4th June 2015 - and there's a second Oswald de Lacy story, The Butcher Bird, planned for publication in autumn. I can't wait to read both of them!

Friday 5 June 2015

The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal

review by Maryom 

Although Shyama is forty four and already has a grown-up daughter, she and her younger partner Toby want a baby of their own, but after several years of trying, their options are down to adoption or surrogacy.  In her rural village in India, Mala is about to discover that she has a valuable 'commodity' to sell - her ability to bear children. Signing up to be a surrogate mother would bring her almost unimaginable wealth, and perhaps a way out of her drab existence.
Meanwhile, Shyama's daughter Tara is starting to feel alienated, a spare part in the new family unit

The House of Hidden Mothers takes a very personal story and sets it against a wider backdrop of what it means to be an Indian woman - both in Britain and India. In both places, things are changing. Shyama's parents still follow the traditions of their native country - as the family member who made it 'big' in England, her father is expected to financially help out everyone back in India, and there's more than a hint that he's taken advantage of - but Shyama herself has divorced her husband, now lives with a much younger Englishman, and runs her own beauty parlour business. For her daughter, Tara, there are no limits to what she could achieve.
 In India, for the majority of women, there are no such choices. In the cities, with high rise housing and luxurious shopping malls, a new sort of business woman is emerging but in rural areas life hasn't changed all that much. Mala's marriage was arranged for her, offering a dowry still matters and the husband is still the boss! Between the old traditions and new attitudes, women walk a dangerous line, open to a level of physical abuse unthinkable here.
Although it's impossible to discuss this book without mentioning these wider issues, it is primarily the story of a woman desperately wanting a child and another who can provide it; a story of mothers and daughter, friends and family, hope and heart-ache. Curiously I found my sympathies shifting as I read - at first Shyama seemed very needy and self-centred, while Mala was naive and exploited, but as the story progressed Mala came to understand the hold she had over Shyama and Toby, and, I felt, to rather slyly manipulate things.
Overall the tone isn't as light as in Syal's previous novels, and, although the ending rounds off fairly happily, I couldn't help but still be angry at many of the events.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre- adult,

Thursday 4 June 2015

All Together Now by Gill Hornby

review by Maryom

 The Bridgeford Community Choir is in crisis; their organiser Constance is in hospital following a car accident and the county championships are looming. They need a new leader - and a lot of new members.
Tracey doesn't see herself as a person to join in with community events, especially not a group singing hits from the musicals or Abba selections - she's far too cool for such things - but when her neighbour hears her singing, he decides she's just the sort of new blood that the choir are looking for, and it turns out to be a lot more fun than she'd expected.
Annie is the heart and soul of Bridgeford. She knows everyone, from small children to their elderly grandparents, always has a cheery word to say to those she meets, and is the kind of stalwart figure who helps out everywhere - with the choir, at the library, visiting at the hospital - but, while so busy helping out in the community, has she forgot to pay attention to those closer to home?

All Together Now is more than the story of a choir and a singing contest - it's the story of a whole small-town community, trying to put some pride back into the high street, fighting off the big corporation trying to build a supermarket, and getting people to re-connect with their neighbours.
It's fun, it's feel good, a light-hearted, amusing read with a predictably happy ending. If you're a fan of Britain's Got Talent, X Factor or The Choir, you'll love it!
At times credibility seems stretched just a little too far - would the local youths, the heavy rockers and hoodies be that willing to get involved?  I don't think so - but after all it's a light piece of escapism, so does it matter too much?

Maryom's review - 3.5 stars
Publisher -
Little, Brown
Genre -adult, humour,

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Derby Book Festival - author event - Elly Griffiths

An enthusiastic crowd was at Waterstones Derby yesterday evening to welcome crime author Elly Griffiths, there to talk about her series of novels starring Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist. I've seen the author at a previous event where she shared the 'stage' with two other writers; last night she had it all to herself and proved to be a fluent, engaging speaker, comfortable standing alone in front of the crowd.
Elly started the event by telling us that that isn't really her name at all; it's actually Domenica De Rosa and under it she's published four books, all loosely connected by Italy, but when she turned to crime writing her agent suggested taking a different name and she chose her grandmother's - Ellen Griffiths.

She talked for about half an hour on a wide range of topics - where she gets her inspiration, advice for budding authors, anecdotes from other events, the Ruth Galloway series - its characters and Norfolk settings - and a new one starting with The Zig Zag Girl  - set in the 1950s and mixing crime and music hall magic acts - after which she answered questions from the audience. Sometimes at this point in an event the crowd can get all quiet and nervous, waiting for someone else to be the first to ask something - not so last night. Elly seemed really approachable, and chatted comfortably with her fans.

Shame to say, despite this being my second Elly Griffiths event, I haven't read any of her books - but last night has convinced me that I should; with such a lot of catching up to do with Ruth Galloway, I'm tempted to start with the new series and The Zig Zag Girl.

Tuesday 2 June 2015

The Templar Inheritance by Mario Reading

Review by The Mole

Modern day Iraq and we join John Hart as he is being blown up by a car bomb. I first met John Hart in The Templar Prophecy but now we jump forward in time. We hit the ground and start running from the off in this story - quite literally - when Nalan, John's female interpreter, helps him to his feet and they flee to a place of safety - well, relative safety anyway. While hiding John finds a clue that was missed in the Templar Prophecy - a clue to something new, the Copper Scroll. When they escape - as escape they must - John is on the Iranian's "most wanted" list and there is a bubbling lust between them - John seems very prone to this.

The book is split between 1198 - the time of John's ancestor, Johannes von Hartelius,  who was first charged with protecting the lance - and modern times, while sharing the story of the Copper Scroll which was a treasure of great importance to the Templars.

Frequently these type of stories flit back and forth across the centuries leaving me, as a reader, frustrated at abandoning a story line in which I am heavily involved, or confused as to which era we are in or what was happening last time we were in this century, but in this book the flitting happens only a few times with the book half set in each century although cleverly balanced to not spoil the plot of the other time line.

Violence abounds in times and places renowned for such things although John has difficulty in seeing justice or normality in any of. He comes away - and we know he must - changed and very depressed. And the lust interest? It changes to more of a love interest but can he really hook up with  another woman now? And can't he see that Amira (his reporter ex-girlfriend) is waiting for him? Is he stupid? Answers to all these questions and more are to be found in this, Mario Reading's most excellent and thrilling second Templar novel.

Publisher - Atlantic Books
Genre - Adult thriller

Monday 1 June 2015

Hay Festival - author event - Tiffany Murray and David Mitchell

We're just back from a couple of days away in Wales, including a brief visit to Hay Festival  where I caught the late night event Halloween Comes Early with authors Tiffany Murray and David Mitchell, and chaired by Rosie Goldsmith. As you probably expected with that title, the event was all about ghost stories -

Published last year, Tiffany Murray's Sugar Hall is the spine-tingling tale of a young boy, Dieter, newly moved to the old family home on the English/Welsh border, who encounters the ghost of another young boy - once a slave in the house. Although terrified, Dieter is drawn back and makes friends with him - but as the ghostly boy grows in substance it's obvious that his intentions are evil. I don't normally get on well with ghost stories but this had me hooked - and terrified of what would happen as the story unfolded.

David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, will have his own ghostly book, Slade House, out in October. Down narrow, dark Slade Alley is a small black door that leads into a garden that doesn't quite make sense - Tardis-like it seems too large inside for the space it occupies. Every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a guest enters, but why have they been chosen and by whom....This was the first 'outing' for Slade House so we audience members were very privileged to hear the author read from the opening chapter.

Both authors have themselves had, if not visits from ghosts, than certainly spooky things happen around them - doors which were locked at night were always found open in the morning, and a presence sitting at the end of the bed. The original inspiration for Sugar Hall itself came from a story of a local haunted house which Tiffany Murray was told as a child.
It's always interesting to hear authors themselves read from their books - often it's only a small snippet but this time both authors read much longer sections. The Starlight Stage was an ideal setting for such an event with the twinkling lights in the ceiling dimmed to create the right eerie atmosphere as we heard the opening chapters of these two books, the stories of two small boys, one encountering a ghost, one discovering a beautiful but strange garden.