Friday 31 July 2015

Phoenix Rising by Bryony Pearce

review by Maryom 

 Wanted in almost every port, Toby has rarely set foot on land but lives at sea with his father, captain of the pirate ship The Phoenix. With their fiercely loyal crew they make a precarious living salvaging from the masses of junk to be found floating at sea - for in this dystopian future world, the seas are packed with all sorts of rubbish; lorries, aeroplanes, you name it you'll find it floating somewhere out there! Somewhere out there, they believe there is an island where they could live freely - but to reach it, they first need to salvage enough solar panels to power The Phoenix out into open seas, and their rival The Banshee is also on the trail of them and will stoop to anything to get their hands on them.

Phoenix Rising is a non-stop action-packed adventure full of the 'normal' pirate-y sorts of things - sea-battles, escaping from dungeons, hand to hand combat - but against a bleak, post-apocalypse backdrop. Society as we know it has crumbled, the seas are so full of junk that an ice-breaker is necessary to carve a path through it and the water itself is contaminated from all the leaked acids and oils. The emphasis though is very much on the action, which cracks along at speed, with barely a break for Toby (and the rest of the crew) to catch breath.
It is a male-dominated world but the women in it are as tough and brave as the men (if not more-so) - so should appeal equally to both boys and girls looking for an original action adventure.

Maryom's review -  4 stars
Publisher - Stripes Publishing
Genre -pirate adventure, dystopian, early teens, 12+

Thursday 30 July 2015

Anne Goodwin - guest post

Today we're delighted to welcome Anne Goodwin to the blog to talk about her debut novel Sugar and Snails and the changes it underwent between first draft and finished book....

Three generations of a novel: the transformations of Sugar and Snails from inception to publication

When I worked as a clinical psychologist, I met many people who were disturbed by their failure to live up to their own ideals or the standards set by others. It wasn’t until I moved to a small town in the former Nottinghamshire coalfields that I saw this perceived failure in terms of gender stereotypes. The 1984 miners’ strike had torn communities apart, and the failure of the strike to prevent the pit closures brought both economic and psychological depression in the area and a sense of emasculation among the men.
Around the same time, the country was marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Amid the pomp, reports began to filter through of elderly men being re-traumatised by repressed memories of their wartime experiences coming back to haunt them. As my own father was of this generation, I was touched by the notion that the stiff-upper-lipped version of masculinity might be unsustainable and curious about its impact on the offspring of such men.

I was inspired by Evie Wyld’s impressive début, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, to have a go at writing something similar. Like her, I would explore masculinity and war across three generations but, instead of being set in small-town Australia, my novel would feature the rise and fall of a mining community in England.
My main character was Leonard, the clever only child of solid working-class parents, brought up to want to be more than a miner like his father, yet always a little ashamed at his mental and physical unsuitability for a job underground. Going straight from school to the army, and from there to a German prison camp, he dreams of the life he’ll have when the war is over: a steady job with a wife and kids.
As I delved more into Leonard’s character, the less need I felt to flesh out the parents who had made him who he was. I was more interested in how he’d fare as a husband and father, and what it was about his wartime experience that he so needed to forget.

So what began as a story of men across three generations was transformed into one about a man, his wife and their problem child. In the early drafts of Sugar and Snails, the story unfolded through alternate chapters set in different time bands: the tale of Leonard and Renée’s marriage over almost three decades interspersed with that of Diana, one of their children, a socially-awkward university lecturer in the early years of the twenty-first century, with a secret troubled past.

One of the problems with this structure was that, because Diana had gone by a different name in childhood, it was difficult for readers to trust that the two strands of the narrative would eventually connect. Furthermore, as Diana’s backstory developed, it came to eclipse Leonard’s, unbalancing the novel as a whole. I was advised to rewrite the novel solely from Diana’s point of view.

I didn’t relish the prospect. It wasn’t so much the extra work – I was starting to appreciate that writing a publishable novel requires numerous re-workings and repeated drafts – but that I had grown attached to Leonard and was reluctant to let his story go. Furthermore, as Diana’s life-changing experience occurs at age fifteen, her parents’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviours have a significant impact on who she becomes. In particular, Leonard’s ambitions for his children are shaped by an event of which Diana would have no direct knowledge, it having occurred at the POW camp before she was born.

Cutting Leonard’s scenes was painful. I’d so enjoyed his solitary hikes in the Peak District; his impatience as a father; his confusion at the funeral of his friend from his army days. But the incisions, and the reworking of some elements, make Sugar and Snails a much better novel. Different readers will find different things within it but I was gratified that one early reviewer felt that “One of the best parts of the novel is her relationship to her father, who is himself troubled by his own actions in the past.” Others, if they look closely, might still detect the theme of masculinity across three generations. But this is very much Diana’s story. I hope you enjoy following her journey towards narrowing the gap between the woman she is and the woman she feels she ought to be.

Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her début novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last week by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.

See photo above for more of Anne's blog tour, read Maryom's review of Sugar and Snails here,  or catch up on the book's launch

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Hild by Nicola Griffith

review by Maryom

Seventh century Britain is a divided land of small kingships, each jostling for power over the others; a world of shifting alliances and almost constant war in which even small children are caught up in the power-play, seen as either threats to power, or useful bargaining tools. When her husband, an exiled possible-heir to one of these kingdoms, is murdered, Breguswith seeks refuge for herself and her two daughters with Edwin, King of Northumbria. The eldest, Hereswith, will follow the 'normal' life set out for all royal daughters, to become a 'peacemaker', married off to a distant king to forge an alliance, but for the younger, Hild, there are different plans - following a dream, Breguswith has raised her younger daughter to become a seer, a "light of the world". Hild's uncannily accurate predictions gain her a place at Edwin's court but her position still remains tenuous and dangerous. Although Hild's visions often give Edwin forewarning of his enemies' plans and enable him to outmanoeuvre them, they don't always predict the future a king wants to hear.

 Hild is a captivating glimpse of life in the so-called Dark Ages, which feels like a mix of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and GRR Martin's Game of Thrones; there's all the intimate observation, the capturing of quiet moments outside the rush of historical events of the former, coupled with the blood-thirsty power-struggles of the latter - and the length of both, for this isn't a short slim volume but a 500+ page epic that only covers the early part of Hild's life.
 Hild is an unusual young woman. With her special position as seer, she doesn't fit in to the expectations and assumptions of those around her. She isn't being groomed for marriage in the way that her sister is, instead she learns to fight and defend herself, and leads her men into battle. Perhaps because of this she feels more 'modern' than the other women but none of them seem mere puppets under men's control. Breguswith particularly is shown as trying to influence events and warp them to her advantage, both through personal connections and trade.

As with Wolf Hall, this isn't a book to hurry over but one that had me wanting to savour almost every page, to absorb the moment as Hild herself does, to sit with her and watch the flight of birds or the ripples in a pond. I loved the depth of historical detail that brought day to day life, well, to life - the women's work in the weaving sheds or dairy proving more fascinating to me than battles.

Although this is described as the story of St Hilda, it isn't one of Christian virtues or evangelism. Seventh century Britain is a violent, turbulent place and Edwin, with designs on becoming High King, is out to gain every political advantage -  adopting the Christian faith is just one of them. I know virtually nothing about St Hilda, but Hild is far from the meek-mannered, deeply-religious woman I'd expected and there's also perhaps more sex than you would expect in the life of a saint. None of this affected my enjoyment of the book but it might come as a surprise to some.

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

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Angel City by Jon Steele

Review by The Mole

(Angelus Trilogy 2)

2 years have passed since the happenings at Lausanne Cathedral that resulted in it's total destruction (The Watchers). The "angels" managed to get the building repaired before any of the locals noticed but a chain of events was started that comes to fruition in this, the second book.

Katherine Taylor has had a son and is living in America. Her memory has been wiped of the events surrounding the Cathedral especially any recollection of Harper.

Harper is sent on missions that expose to him more of his own time line through his 2.5 million year life and he learns of his own role in the events that are unfolding.

Meanwhile Astruc, a seemingly mad man and his helper, Goose, are working to hurry the events along.

Action, adventure and plot twists abound as the story develops with violence and explosions figuring highly. Where the story ended up going was very much a surprise to me as fantasy and religious references intertwine to expose the author's take on some of the many bible stories - but not with any irreverence.

My only issue with this book it that it ends on a cliff hanger - and what a cliff hanger!

We very much leap into the characters and pick up the story afresh so much of the work in book 1 is not repeated. Having said that this book COULD be your starting point but you will miss out on so much if you don't start at the beginning of the trilogy. I have started the series late so I don't have long to wait to resolve the cliff hanger but if I'd had a year to wait then perhaps I would be a little frustrated.

Another fantastic fantasy from Steele with just book 3 to go now to resolve all the outstanding issues. And I'm very much looking forward to it.

Publisher -Blue Rider Press
Genre - Adult Fantasy

Monday 27 July 2015

Anne Goodwin - Author Event

By The Mole

Saturday saw the launch of Anne Goodwin's début novel, Sugar and Snails, at Nottingham Writers' Studio - which has been published by Inspired Quill. Inspired Quill is an independent publisher, happy to publish books that deal with social issues and in this case the issue is gender identity.

As with most book launches the evening started very informally with milling, wine, nibbles and cake (of course cake). We got to chat with the publisher about some of the books they publish and the model under which they print them - a model that relies on modern technology but still enables a high level of quality control that the self published market so desperately lacks.

We also got the chance to chat with the author as well as other independent publishers who had come along to support as friends and colleagues. One subject broached was that of reviewing poetry and we were in agreement that this is a difficult area as just because you don't "get" poems or they wash over you doesn't mean they're not good - or perhaps even brilliant - just that they don't work for you. It's because of this fear - yes that's the correct word - that we tend to keep clear of poetry except for the very young, and so - apparently - do many bloggers.

The formalities then started with the publisher introducing Anne and Anne then talking a little about her road to publication. She then read the first chapter. Before she read she asked if anyone had a "blood phobia" which people seemed to take light heartedly but when she read the chapter I was very uncomfortable-not for the blood but because here was a character who needed support and needed it now yet trusted no-one to give it. I have read other books where issues like this happened and even found myself putting the book down for a while to come to terms with it. Perhaps it's a being a dad thing - perhaps I'm wired wrong. But in order to affect me like this it meant the story was drawing me in - even on the first chapter. Time permitting I shall try to pick this book up some time in the future - it certainly seems like it would be worthwhile and Maryom recommends it.

After the reading there was a question and answer session which may well stand Anne in good stead as several questions were asked which she hadn't considered the answers to before. Forewarned is forearmed for future author events.

The evening ended with further whine, nibbles and cake.

An extremely interesting evening and a great start to what will hopefully be a successful start to career for Anne as a novelist.

Anne will be visiting our blog on Thursday to talk about "Three Generations of a Novel" as part of her blog tour.

Friday 24 July 2015

The Corpse Bridge by Stephen Booth

review by Maryom

On Halloween night a dead body is found at the aptly named Corpse Bridge over the river Dove; once part of a route from remote villages to the consecrated burial ground, now it's merely forms part of a pleasant walk by the river. Investigating the ground around the bridge DS Ben Cooper and his team stumble upon signs of witchcraft - an effigy laid out on a slab and witches balls hanging in trees. Could the murder be a ghastly addition to the strange rituals, so far only involving animals, going on in the area?

As Stephen Booth is a 'local' author and his "Cooper and Fry" crime series is set in the Peak District not that far from where I live, I've frequently seen his novels at the library and in bookstores but till now I hadn't  picked one up and read it. Spurred on by his event at Derby Book Festival I decided it was time I did!
Jumping in at book 14 of a series is never a brilliant idea but actually I found it easy enough to slip into Ben Cooper's world - especially as the relationship between him and colleague Diane Fry had been discussed at the Derby event. For other new-comers, Cooper and Fry started out together as detective constables, have now grown older, been promoted, and so on. They're a bit like chalk and cheese as Cooper is a local lad, happiest in the countryside, while Fry is only at home in the city and can't wait to be transferred back there. I won't say any more because at the Derby event a member of the audience mentioned something that happened in, I think, book 12 and it's only on reading The Corpse Bridge that I realised just how HUGE that spoiler was, and I don't want to fall into the same trap!
Despite the chilling title, the presence of dead bodies and suspicions of witchcraft, Booth's writing has a cosier sort of feel to it than many crime novels I've read recently - more Miss Marple or Midsomer Murders than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or The Killing. That said, grubby city back-streets or twisted psychopaths don't automatically make for a better read, and Sherlock Holmes always feared empty country spaces where no one can hear you scream. I rather enjoyed this first encounter with Cooper and Fry - the plot has twists and turns enough to keep anyone guessing, and the added appeal of a location I know. I now have a lot of back-story to catch up on and I'm looking forward to getting to know the main characters better.

Maryom's Review - 4 stars
Publisher - Sphere 
Genre - adult crime,

Thursday 23 July 2015

Early One Morning by Virginia Baily

review by Maryom

In October 1943, with German oppression mounting, Chiara Ravello has decided that Rome is no longer a safe place to be; people are being randomly stopped on the street, and either hauled away for interrogation or shot there on the spot. Chiara intends leaving, taking her sister and heading to their grandmother's house in the hills, but before she can, she is witness to yet another atrocity - the rounding up of Jews for transportation to who knows where. Catching the eye of a mother being hustled aboard a truck with her husband and family, Chiara steps forward and claims one of the children as her nephew. This spontaneous action is to change her life. Looking after someone else's child isn't easy but it's made especially hard as the boy, Daniele, doesn't seem glad to have been rescued and has every inclination to run away at the first opportunity. Gradually though a bond forms between Chiara and Daniele, but the lives of both are shadowed by the war and its aftermath.
 Thirty years or so later, Chiara is living in Rome, single but seemingly happy. At heart, though, she's troubled - Daniele, always a source of worry, after causing immense grief and heart-ache, has disappeared. Chiara has no idea where or how he's been living for the past ten years - or even if he's still alive. Then, out of the blue, she's contacted by a teenager, Maria, claiming to be Daniele's daughter, and Chiara finds herself once again taking a troubled youngster under her wing.

Events unfold from three points of view, skilfully woven together - Chiara's during the war, and both Chiara's and Maria's perspectives in the 1970s; Daniele is seen only through their eyes but his behaviour and actions shape their world.
Chiara acted without thinking, but with immense courage - doing what we all hope we would do in such a situation. With Daniele she takes on a burden which almost breaks her - she finds despair and heart-break but also unexpected love and fulfilment. She tries her best to provide Daniele with a stable environment to grow up in but, always wayward and stubborn, as he gets older he seems trapped by survivor guilt.
Maria meanwhile is searching for a different set of answers - who was her father and why has the truth about him been hidden from her? She's stumbled on information that shatters her world, and I really sympathised with her anger and confusion at her mother's deception.
Their characters are built up carefully, with fine touches here and there adding to the whole, and unexpected revelations bringing to light the little 'kinks' that make them seem as real as you or I.
The story unfolds against the backdrop of Rome -
These separate strands weave together to form a gripping read exploring the consequences of an impromptu act and the long emotional fall-out of war through the thoughts and actions of three troubled people; as events unfolded, I fell completely under its spell. I loved the characters, the writing style and the setting -   in the 1940s' scenes Rome is a dark, rain-drenched, shadowy city, in the 1970s it's filled with sunshine and light and in both periods described in a way to make the reader feel there on the same streets as Chiara or Maria. 

If you're looking for a summer read that falls between the summer romances and thrillers, that's literary but above all readable, then try this!

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Virago
Genre - Adult Fiction,

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Almost Grace by Rosie Rowell

review by Maryom

In the gap between school and university, Cape Town teenagers head off for a taste of freedom - a week's holiday on their own. Grace and her friends, Brett and Louisa, are no exception but instead of heading for the wild parties of Plettenberg Bay they've picked a quiet seaside village on the west coast with miles of beach and great surfing.
Brett and Louisa are confident about what the future holds for them, have their plans all laid out for travelling or university. Grace, though, is less sure of herself - adulthood seems a daunting proposition and she feels out of control of her life. 
When she meets Spook, a drifter, seemingly living life just to surf, Grace is instantly attracted to him, despite him being much older than her. In comparison to the lives of others, his seems relaxed and carefree, but is he really as charming as he appears to be on the surface?
The area of Baboon Point isn't as sleepy and quiet as they'd expected either, but a centre for the illegal trade in abalone shells. Could Spook really be associated with the poachers who make a living this way? It seems so out of keeping with his laid-back hippy vibe ....but how well does Grace really know him?

Almost Grace is a mix of coming of age story and thriller set on the rocky west coast of South Africa. It's unusual because of its setting and occasional use of Afrikaans words, but the everyday problems faced by Grace and her friends are the same as those faced by teenagers anywhere. They soon realise though they've got mixed up in something really dangerous as their carefree holiday rapidly turns into a nightmare filled with guns and poachers.
Grace is a heroine that you quickly come to care about. She's made some bad decisions in the past; with things changing around her so quickly, she's desperately latched on to the one thing she alone can control - what she eats. I found myself desperately willing her to take just another few bites of cake or fruit or to stop caring about the potential calories in everything.

 Maryom's Review - 3.5 stars
Publisher - Hot Key Books
Genre - teen, coming of age, thriller,

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin

review by Maryom

Diana is a forty-something, set-in-her-ways university lecturer; an intensely private person, she lives alone with only a cat for company, and even her closest friend who has known her since their university days isn't aware of the secrets hidden in Diana's past. For thirty years she hasn't told anyone about the momentous event which altered the course of her life completely but now, entering into a new relationship which offers the hope of lasting happiness, that past seems back to haunt her.

Sugar and Snails is a portrait of a woman in crisis; at first Diana's actions seem extreme but as I got to know her, and her back-story, I came to understand her reaction. There's a feeling throughout that Diana is as uncomfortable with who she is now in the present day as she was as a child. Her work as an academic psychologist leads her to suspect the decision she made as a teenager was wrong, to think that maybe, at fifteen, she was too impulsive and ill-informed, and that her actions haven't really led to a happier life. Now Diana has a chance of happiness, but to grab it she needs to step out of her comfort zone and face down her fears. Advised as a teenager to forget about the past, and 'put it behind her', that was exactly what she did but, never truly happy and always frightened that someone would find out, she's put much of her life on hold for 30 years; relationships, as such, have failed and, rather than risk change and scrutiny, she's stayed in one job settling for the familiar but unchallenging and dull.
So, what was the traumatic event 30 years ago? It's kept a secret for much of the book but I'd spotted an accidental reveal in the publishers media-pack. Now this isn't the ideal way to approach a story - it's always nice to have the big reveal sprung upon you the first time through, whether it's the plot twist in Bruce Willis' film The Sixth Sense or not knowing whether Elizabeth and Darcy will get together in the end. Knowing before hand loses some of the tension and build up, but both books and films have to stand up to a second read/viewing and I find myself in the curious place of having read Sugar and Snails once but being able to say that it's a re-readable story; that it doesn't just rely on that one surprise element. Through the flashbacks to Diana's increasingly troubled childhood and adolescence, I could stand back a little and appreciate how the author had cleverly built up hints at what is to come without actually giving anything away, while still being immersed in the unfolding of Diana's life.

This is the story of one specific person and her problem, but it raises a lot of wider issues from gender identity and stereotyping, and the way society forces us to conform, to how impetuous decisions made when young can affect our whole lives. Although she's written many short stories, this is Anne Goodwin's debut novel - I hope to read many more by her.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher -
Inspired Quill
Genre -adult, LGBT

Monday 20 July 2015

The Watchers by Jon Steele

Review by The Mole

(Angelus Trilogy 1)

Three characters pass each other in Lausanne exchanging simple pleasantries unaware how their lives are destined to merge.

Marc Rochat, a young man with a crippled foot who displays lower than average mental capacity but whose heart and trust is so large that the reader will love him from the off. He is the caretaker of Lausanne Cathedral and this is focus of his life until he sees Katherine Taylor.

Katherine Taylor, a woman who had a very challenging start in life but is now one of the highest class prostitutes in Europe. Somehow her openness and honesty means the reader overlooks her life choices but worries over her safety.

And Jay Harper, a man with no memory but steeped in honour. He doesn't miss his past but finds his strings are being pulled by the head of the Swiss police and while he resents it he accepts it as a "fait accompli".

The author develops these characters brilliantly over the book and when they are in jeopardy you truly share their fears. Even the bad guys are developed to the point where you can comfortably hate them.

If you read the synopsis then you know you are embarking on a fantasy, and like most fantasies it is quite a sizeable read at nearly 600 pages.

As you read you get to about half way through before the fantasy starts to become apparent - but somehow it seems unimportant. During the first half the three main characters' lives start to cross with increasing frequency and a bond starts to build between them. We get to know Marc in detail and get to really understand him, we start to really pity and fall in love Katherine while Jay...? Well the enigma that is Jay becomes more intriguing than ever as the head of police controls him more and more. But most importantly the first half of the story flies past with little or no fantasy evident, and holding the reader's attention in a most compelling manner.

Violence and intrigue increase as the book develops and we learn of why Jay has, as yet, no memory. His memory is restored to him piece by piece as he learns what is expected of him and who he really is.

There are "sex"scenes and strong language but always in context and not in any way gratuitous.

The thickness of the book may seem daunting but put that to one side... The story is continually evolving and deepening and while you may not like the ending for several reasons it is, none the less, a most excellent ending that leaves the reader waiting for the second of the Angelus series.

Truly a fantastic read for lovers of fantasy or for newbies trying the genre for the first time.

Publisher -Blue Rider Press
Genre - Adult Fantasy

Friday 17 July 2015

Crime Author Event - 16th July 2015

Yesterday evening we were lucky enough to have tickets to an author event at Nottingham Waterstones featuring not one, not two but THREE crime writers - Hakan Nesser, Michael Robotham and Wiley Cash.

Hakan Nesser is a Swedish author, best known here for his Van Veeteren series, but he's written 'about 30' crime novels in total, though not all are available in English (so brush up on your Swedish!) His latest book - The Living and The Dead in Winsford - is a bit of a move away from 'straightforward' crime, more an exploration of what happens when someone makes a bad decision and on the spur of the moment acts wrongly.

Michael Robotham is an Australian thriller writer, now on his tenth novel -  Life Or Death carries the tag-line  "Why would a man escape from prison the day before he's due to be released?"  - and don't you just want to know why? I certainly do! Read more about it here on Michael's website.

I hope Wiley Cash won't mind me referring to him as the rookie of the threesome - from North Carolina, USA, he was in Nottingham to promote his second novel This Dark Road To Mercy, and again you can find out more on the author's website

The first part of the evening was taken up by each of the authors introducing themselves informally and here it became apparent that crime writers do have a sense of humour. We've witnessed this before where events have staged multiple crime writers together and we felt like we,

as the audience, had been properly invited to a party as it were. You come away from this kind of event really feeling like you truly met the author you went to see but wanting to find out books by the others - almost out of a feeling of loyalty!

There were smiles and sympathy for Wiley as he arrived in the UK but his luggage hasn't - he did go on to compliment Nottingham on the availability of affordable and readily available clothing.

Several questions were put to them to answer individually before the questions were opened up to the floor. This was followed by a very informal book signing - this is something we hadn't really seen before. The author normally sits behind a desk and then is approached formally by a queue - this time the authors were wandering around and meeting people and then signing books on the first available surface.

An excellent evening that had us leaving the event rather later than planned after a truly excellent evening.

Waterstones run these events all around the country, although authors tend to do the odd store here and there but if you keep an eye on their website there may well be a chance to meet and chat with your favourite author somewhere near to where you live.

Thursday 16 July 2015

Girl at War by Sara Novic

review by Maryom

Ana's childhood in Zagreb was carefree and happy but in the summer of 1991 war is spreading throughout Yugoslavia. At first it doesn't disrupt her life much - air raids drills are turned into a source of fun and she plays games around the sandbags in the street with her friend Luka - but soon tragedy strikes and Ana is caught up in a world of ethnic cleansing and child soldiers. Luckily she has a chance to escape to America, but although her foster-family provide a safe haven, it never feels like home and ten years later she's driven to confront her past in a now-peaceful Zagreb.

This is one of those awkward books for which I've seen great reviews but which didn't grab me at all.
The story is told from the point of view of adult Ana looking back at her 10 year old self caught up in the civil war in Yugoslavia. Maybe it's the distance - ten years later Ana is over the worst horrors - but it seems an oddly flat, sanitised, tidied up version of war. Of course, being told by the older Ana, we know she survives but I just didn't feel her fear and dread - for me there was no tension, no immediacy to the events, no capturing of the horror she must have felt as her parents died.

I think what may have thrown me with this is that, despite the title, it isn't really a story about war itself - yes, it gets mentioned, but the story is more concerned with the dislocation that Ana feels. Unlike her friend Luka, who stayed in Zagreb, she's been cut from her roots. Her only remaining family is her younger sister Rahela who doesn't remember Yugoslavia at all and in the US, Ana tries to forgot the past and keeps quiet about her childhood, pretending to be as American as the next girl, but is unsettled and torn between the two places she's known as 'home'. Somehow she needs to reconcile the two parts of her, to which end she revisits Zagreb. Maybe reading it again with this in mind, I'd appreciate it more? I'm not sure.

 Maryom's review - 3 stars
Publisher -
Little, Brown
Genre -adult, war,

Wednesday 15 July 2015

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North

review by Maryom

 Sophie Stark is a film-maker - one who makes visually engaging, often disturbing, films but is unable to connect emotionally at a personal level - in fact she has always found it easier to communicate through visual art. Starting as a child with drawing, moving on to photos and then film, she uses these mediums to explore and explain the world, drawing on the experiences of others for her story-lines and often exploiting their emotions too.

Her story is narrated by the six people who were closest to her, each with a unique insight into her as a person and director - her brother, the guy she had a crush on in college, her actress lover, her singer-songwriter husband, a Hollywood producer/director and a film reviewer. Their accounts build up a portrait of a talented but disturbed young woman. A misfit who finds difficulty in getting close to people and whose only way of communicating her feelings is through her films, Sophie is a weird mix of tough and vulnerable, small in stature, big in attitude, unable to connect emotionally with others, but someone that others are drawn to. I didn't find Sophie an entirely likeable person - she's a complex character, and although obviously her brother and her lovers care for her, as a by-stander I found her actions and manipulation of others unpleasant.
 The author certainly knows how to tell a tale and hook the reader. The story opens with Allison, who goes on to become Sophie's lover and star in her films, telling how she and Sophie first met at an open mic event. Allison is on stage, recounting the tale of a camping trip which went oh-so-wrong - a tale which had me gripped, sent shivers down my spine and set the tone for the whole book.
Each chapter is narrated by a different person, and covers a different time of Sophie's life - from her meeting with Allison, the story moves back to her childhood, then on to college on her first experiment with film, then leaping forward again. Throughout there are excepts from reviews of her films and music videos, which chart Sophie's developing techniques and style, but at the same time still saying a lot about the reviewer himself. After reading these sections, I felt like I had seen the films for myself - the intense moody shots with occasional flashes of brightness; not feel-good films but ones that would leave the viewer moved.
It is a rather dark novel - after all we know from the outset that ultimately the story leads to Sophie's death, that there's unlikely to be a happy ending. Even so it is undoubtedly a gripping book, and one I'd recommend to someone who likes an unusual and compelling read.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Orion (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Genre - adult, literary fiction

Monday 13 July 2015

The Living and The Dead in Winsford by Hakan Nesser

review by Maryom

A few weeks ago Maria and Martin Holinek left Stockholm heading for Morocco, hoping to put a scandal behind them and allow Martin time to write his latest novel, one which threatens to reveal scandalous events that took place in a writers' commune several years ago.
 But now, Maria is arriving in the village of Winsford on Exmoor, alone apart from her dog Castor, intending to spend the next six months in a cottage just outside the village, but having no real plans beyond taking stock of her life and hopefully outliving her dog. Her life is mainly solitary, taking long walks on the moor accompanied by Castor, but gradually she finds herself pulled in to village life - dinner at the pub, visits to the community computer centre, even the beginnings of a romance. As winter starts to grip the moor though, strange things begin to happen and Maria becomes convinced that someone is stalking her - who could it be? and why?

The Living and The Dead in Winsford is a stand-alone psychological thriller from the author of the long-running Van Veeteren series. This time the setting is Exmoor, but a British winter of fogs and rain proves as 'noir' as any Scandinavian setting; the main character a Swedish woman, Maria, hiding under a false name, running from something dreadful and fearing pursuit.
 The story cleverly mixes three threads - why is Maria on her own, no longer with husband Martin? what dark events will Martin's novel reveal? and who is Maria's mysterious stalker? So the reader follows Maria thinking back over the events that have brought her to this cottage on the edge of the moor, discovering along with her, through notebooks and computer files, the secrets that Martin has kept about what happened at a writers' commune back in the 1970s, and fearfully watching for evidence of someone trying to track her down.
The length of the novel gives plenty of space for the author to explore the characters and their backstory in more detail than is often the case with quick-read thrillers, but I still felt a certain ambivalence towards them. Maria didn't ought to be a character for whom I'd feel any sympathy - she has after all committed a serious crime - but I did. On the other hand, as I discovered more about Martin, his secrets and indiscretions, I began to feel he maybe deserved his fate!
Exmoor itself makes an excellent backdrop - one day clear and bright with views out to the distant sea, the next hemmed in by darkness and fog. Come rain or shine, Maria is out on the moor walking her dog, maybe trying to walk away from her past, and the reader gets to experience it in all its moods. Some of the places I'm vaguely familiar with but I was definitely left wanting to visit the area again.
At more or less 470 pages long I'd expected this would prove to be a bit of a lengthy read, so had been rather putting it off, but then I picked it up last Thursday and was so hooked I barely put it down - finishing it the next day!

translated by Laurie Thompson
Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher -
Mantle (Panmacmillan)

Genre -
adult psychological thriller, translated fiction

Friday 10 July 2015

Clariel by Garth Nix

review by Maryom

Clariel is not happy at having to move to Belisaere, the capital city of the Old Kingdom, but her mother has been offered a place in the prestigious Goldsmith's Guild there and so the family must go. While her mother insists Belisaere is a place filled with opportunities - for entering a guild or making an advantageous marriage - Clariel finds both the tightly packed streets and her future prospects stifling. She'd far sooner have stayed in Estwael, living and working in the Forest, maybe in time joining the Borderers who care for it.
The city itself is not as it once was - the king is a recluse, and his granddaughter (and heir) has disappeared, leaving a power vacuum into which Governor Kilp hopes to step, with a little help from Free Magic and from Clariel. Soon she finds herself caught up in events beyond her control, desperately looking for a way out and willing to jump at any chance that appears.

 I first discovered the Old Kingdom series by borrowing my daughter's books, and quickly became a fan, so when I was offered a review copy of Clariel I leapt at it! Set 600 years before the events of  Sabriel, and effectively 'back story' for the series, Clariel is both a great read for fans of Garth Nix's Old Kingdom series and for new-comers. For fans there's the delight of finding out what happened in earlier times, how certain peoples lives were shaped, and the appearance of many places and characters (I especially liked the early version of Mogget); for new readers, there's an insight into the balance between Charter and Free magic, the role of the Abhorsen, charter mages and the Clayr; for both, a compelling story, mixing problems to which we can all relate with a world of magic and fabulous creatures.
Clariel herself is an intriguing heroine, one who, despite her furious rages and momentously bad decision, I found myself curiously sympathetic towards - she prefers to be solitary, left alone in the forest; life in the city holds no attraction for her. Her parents have made no effort to understand her, and just seem intent on forcing her into what they want her to do, so it's not surprising that Clariel leaps at first one, then another, dubious method of getting her own way - and each time she lands her herself further in trouble.
At times I felt the story moved rather slowly - particularly the time spent at the Academy or putting up with Clariel's maid fussing over clothes - but overall it's a fast paced compelling read, especially in the last few chapters,and one which I loved.

Maryom's Review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Hot Key Books
Genre - teen/YA fantasy

Thursday 9 July 2015

Unthology 7 edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones

Review by The Mole

"Wonderful and frightening..." but also much, much more. The fear in this collection comes in many forms. The fear that comes of recognising the danger a character faces who, even in a short story, you have become attached to; the fear of the loss of anchors that made up your childhood; the fear that the responsibility for the loss of a life could be down to your own actions from many years ago; the fear that your actions, though legitimate and well intentioned could now place your own life in jeopardy.

Each of these authors has produced (or been selected for) a work of brilliance that sort of complements at least one more in the collection and they are ordered so that you can detect a thread joining each story. This technique makes this collection potentially the least eclectic collection of the Unthology series and while the eclecticism of the previous collections was their strength in this collection the lack of it is its even greater strength. Each one is a coffee time read that doesn't involve a huge mood swing in to the next - something that I can find means I need a pause between stories.

This collection reinforces the editors' strengths in selecting stories and compiling anthologies - this isn't Unthology 6 with new stories, this IS Unthology 7 - a new selection and a new experience for the Unthology reader. More than any other collection - this is one I will pick up again and reread.

Loved it, loved it, loved it. What can they possibly do to Unthology 8?

I have read the previous 4 books in the Unthology collection and you can read their reviews here:- Unthology 3, Unthology 4, Unthology 5, Unthology 6

Publisher - Unthank Books
Genre - Adult short story anthology

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Frank Derrick's Holiday of a Lifetime by J B Morrison

review by Maryom

Frank Derrick is about to be whisked away from cold damp Fullwind on Sea and his life of charity shop trawling and free bus-rides to the 'big Sainsburys', heading off to sunny California. He may be 82 but he's never been one to act his age so when his daughter Beth phones to tell him two pieces of bad news, he decides he must go and see her - after all what are fathers for if not to help out in a sticky patch? The main problem is Beth lives at least a 12 hour flight away. Then there's the minor issue of how to fund the trip; Frank doesn't exactly have money to spare - more like unpaid debts - but where there's a will there's a way to find the cash. So Frank buys a 'new' set of suitcases from the charity shop, gets out his best Hawaiian shirts and heads west. Arriving in California, he discovers granddaughter Laura has laid on an itinerary not only to show him all the sights, but for a family reunion to bring happiness back to her mum's life.

  Frank's holiday is like a dream come true - he visits all the famous locations he knows from movies and TV, sees the homes of Hollywood stars, walks in their footsteps, and is as over-joyed as a child - but the greatest happiness comes from being with his family again. At the same time, the book is tinged with sadness for even the best of holidays has to come to an end, and what will Frank do then?
 I loved  The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, age 81 , and this second instalment of Frank's adventures is easily as funny as the first. Filled with wry humour, heart-warming without being schmaltzy, JB Morrison's tales of eighty-something Frank are a delight.

Like Extra Ordinary Life, this is a story about seizing opportunities, embracing new things, and not letting age be a reason to slow down and opt out. I hope there are many more adventures still to come for Frank.

Maryom's Review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Pan Books
Genre - adult fiction, humour

Tuesday 7 July 2015

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

review by Maryom

 For a young woman growing up in the early twentieth century, Vivian Rose Spencer has had a remarkably liberated upbringing. An only child, her father has brought Viv up almost as he would have done a son, encouraging her interest in history and archaeology, and supporting her desire to study at university.   Now in the summer of 1914, aged 22, she finds herself in Turkey on a dig supervised by an old family friend. The Armenian-Turkish archaeologist, Tahsin Bey has been a familiar figure since Viv's childhood, but away from home under the blue Mediterranean sky, she begins to fall in love. Their idyll is cut short by war and Viv returns to London, volunteering as a VAD nurse. When the stress of treating wounded soldiers grows too much for her, she 'escapes' from the war by heading to India, to excavations taking place near Peshawar, where she hopes to fulfil a dream of Tahsin Bey -  to re-discover the Circlet of Scylax; a highly-decorated silver 'crown' given to the explorer Scylax by the Persian Emperor Darius and lost for centuries.
Meanwhile Qayyum Gul has come from Peshawar to Europe as part of the British Indian army called in to bolster Britain's forces at Ypres. Amid the horrors of the battlefield his loyalty remains firm but the attitudes he encounters during convalescence after a serious injury start to sow seeds of discontent. Invalided home, he searches for a new meaning to his life in the growing resistance to British rule.

A God in Every Stone is a novel of many themes - a search for lost treasure, an exploration of the relationships between men and women, British and Indians, the conflict between personal desires and duty.
It's wonderfully written, brilliant at capturing atmosphere - from battlefield to dazzling Mediterranean - or bringing to life small personal moments, such Qayyum's first encounter with the ancient statues in Peshawar museum but the storyline seems to dart about at tangents.  I don't want to say too much for fear of plot spoilers but I found this threw me a little, and, because of it, I felt my attention wandering in the middle third of the book. New characters are introduced and take over the centre-stage, particularly in the compelling section with which the novel ends.

Throughout I found echoes of EM Forster's A Passage to India; again people are trying to bridge the gap between cultures and Viv has certain qualities in common with Adela Quested - she's mostly well-intentioned but insensitive to others and often accidentally offensive. This is certainly not just a re-working of an old story though, but a powerful novel in its own right - one that I feel will pull me back to re-read several times.

This is one of this year's Bailey's Prize Shortlist; see other reviews below
A Spool of Blue Thread - Anne Tyler

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Bloomsbury Publishing

Genre - adult literary fiction

Monday 6 July 2015

Dark Suits and Sad Songs by Denzil Meyrick

Review by The Mole

A civil servant decides to take his own life in a spectacular fashion by setting fire to himself. There is no question of murder but still DCI Daley tries to find out why. Then two bodies come to his attention, both have been murdered in a spectacularly gruesome way, but two completely different ways - ways that relate to drug gangs. Can three violent deaths occur in Kinloch so close together and not be related?

Daley's wife makes a big play to win him back while DS Scott tries to return to duty although the pressure is too much and he needs the support of a bottle.

But these come to be the least of his worries as Meyrick takes us on another roller coaster of death and mayhem.

Many of the threads left hanging from The Last Witness are followed through but only some come to a conclusion. We are fed enough clues about some things to place us ahead of Daley which leads to "it's behind you" moments while, at the same time, understanding how Daley got suckered in.

Extremely cleverly plotted and well written but it left me wondering if I understand how everything went together - including the UFOs.

Another most excellent read from this author with enough left to commence the fourth book. There is to be a fourth book isn't there??

Critics have said that Daley is "set to join the ranks of Scottish crime fiction" - and being Scottish critics I can understand that, but let's be honest and fair and omit the 'Scottish'. The world should get to know Kinloch, Daley and Scott.

Publisher - Polygon
Genre - Crime thriller

Thursday 2 July 2015

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

review by Maryom

Catrin and Rachel had been friends for most of their lives till a moment of carelessness on Rachel's part led to the death of Catrin's two sons; since then, as best possible in a small island community, they've ignored each other. Three years on, Catrin feels she has nothing left to live for - apart from revenge. Her plans are disrupted though when a young boy goes missing. Although he's believed to have just wandered away from a family picnic, this isn't an isolated incident - two other boys have disappeared in the last couple of years leading some people to fear there's a killer at large on the island. The thought that one of their own number could be abducting children seems beyond belief, but what other explanation could there be?

Spanning a few days in November 1994 Little Black Lies is a gripping stand-alone psychological thriller from Sharon Bolton, author of the Lacey Flint series It's set on the remote Falkland Islands - a ready-made 'closed room' location of a tight-knit community where visitors are rare, mainly confined to the cruise ships that pass through in Summer. The story is told from three points of view, starting with Catrin, who while seemingly going about her day to day life is constantly thinking about death - that of her sons, her own, and the possibility of causing someone else's. Her version of events is followed by that of  her ex-lover Callum; one of the British paratroopers involved in the Falklands War, he's suffered post traumatic shock ever since, and has found that the only place he's at peace is oddly back on the Falkland islands, but he's still subject to periods of black-out during which he can be aggressive and violent. Lastly, we hear Rachel's point of view - for three years she has lived a life full of guilt and remorse, but maybe now there's a way she can make amends. As each version unfolds, we realise that what we first accepted as solid fact is open to interpretation, and that maybe events aren't as clear cut as we'd believed. I certainly found my sympathies shifting from one character to another as their back stories emerged. It's very cleverly done, and leads the reader first one way, then another, saving the final twist to the last page.
Definitely the sort of book that once started, you won't want to put down till it's finished!

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher -
Bantam Press
Genre -
adult, crime, psychological thriller

Wednesday 1 July 2015

The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham

review by Maryom

 Wyatt Petrie is the owner of a remote country house in Suffolk. Although the place is normally occupied by his uncle, Colonel Coombe, Wyatt regularly throws house parties there. On this particular occasion a group of young people are gathered for the weekend, including
George Abbershaw, a police pathologist, ....and a curiously foolish young man named Albert Campion. After dinner on the first evening, talk turns to a family heirloom, the Black Dudley Dagger and the ritual associated with it, which over time has turned into a parlour game. Just the sort of thing for a country house party - but as you'd expect, the minute the lights go out, someone gets killed. This isn't a random, personal killing though and the visitors soon find themselves embroiled with an important underworld gang leader

The Crime at Black Dudley starts as a classic country house murder mystery but then moves on to more of an action adventure with lots of scuttling through secret passages, attempts to escape from locked rooms and even a car chase. Sadly it's age is showing a little with Bertie Wooster-style dialogue and an insistence that the women of the party are weaker and more terrified than the men - I was longing for one of them to cease the initiative and save the day, or even turn out to be the murderer, but it was a man's world in those days.

This book marks the first appearance of Albert Campion but he's more of a bit-player than the leading man - that role goes to George Abbershaw who, inspired by his love for Meggie Oliphant another of the house guests, steps out of his everyday rather pompous persona and becomes an all-action hero. Campion meanwhile comes over as rather enigmatic - at first sight he's a more than averagely foolish young man but suddenly he takes charge in a surprisingly competent way; I can definitely see why the publishers thought he was the character worth bringing back.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Vintage
Genre - Adult crime