Friday 30 October 2015

Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray - re-read

review by Maryom

In the run up to Halloween publisher Seren Books have been holding a read-a-long of Tiffany Murray's Sugar Hall  - one of the few ghost/horror stories that actually sent shivers down my spine and at times terrified me - so I had to join in! I find a lot of scary stories miss their mark with me - either falling flat or turning to comedy in their desperate attempts to frighten - Sugar Hall didn't.
I thought re-reading a ghost story might be a bit like going back to a crime novel, you know what will happen, all the plot twists, how it ends ...... so how did it go?  Well, actually I found it more terrifying than before ....

Lilia Sugar and her two children have moved from London to her late husband's family home Sugar Hall. It's a place full of secrets, built with money from slave and sugar trade, and it's haunted by one of those slaves - a young boy who saw his mother buried alive, and was then killed by his owner.

On the very first page we meet the ghost -  Lilia's son Dieter is fleeing from something he's seen; he knows it's a ghost, the reader knows it's a ghost but his mother and sister dismiss it as a figment of imagination or an attention-grabbing story. Dieter is lonely, he decides to make friends with the ghost, and, even at the first reading, the reader just knows no good will come of it. Dieter is both attracted and repelled by this slave boy; knows at heart that he should resist him but can't. First time through, I was hooked, wondering what would happen next; this time, knowing what would happen, I was horrified. I just wanted to shake his mother and say "Look at what's happening around you! Do something while you can!" But of course, I couldn't, and the whole ghastly tale reeled out again like a slow-motion car crash.
In some ways it seemed there was more time to 'look around' at the rest of the story, to see the other characters as more than just supporting the main plot. Lilia's story - her flight from Germany just before world war two, her relationships with the men in her life, her barely acknowledged dislike of her daughter - grabbed me more, because I was happy to be distracted from Dieter's growing dependence on the ghost.

It certainly lived up to the horror I'd felt first time .....maybe next year I'll read it again....

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher -
Seren Books
Genre -
adult horror ghost story

Thursday 29 October 2015

The Ghosts Who Danced, and other spooky stories from around the world by Saviour Pirotta

illustrated by Paul Hess

review by Maryom

With Halloween just a day or two away, it seems like an ideal time to review this latest collection of folk tales by Saviour Pirotta. These ten stories from around the world are aimed at the younger reader, or listener, so although spooky they're not terrifying. In many of the stories the ghosts are friendly, willing to help those who are kind to them, and even the most frightening ghost can be out-witted.
There are tales of ghostly ships and wayside inns, of ghosts seeking something taken from them, or trying to make amends for things they did while alive, of mysterious dogs that come to the rescue of travellers, and,of course, the ghosts delighted to find a fiddler to play for them while they dance on Halloween.
As with many folk tales, there's a moral element to the stories - basically, be nice to others, including ghosts, and treat them kindly  - ghosts may reward you if you do, by pointing the way to treasure or helping you out in some other way, but turn into a nuisance if you don't!

It would make a gorgeous gift but won't be the sort that sits unread on the shelf. There are colourful atmospheric illustrations throughout, several full pages and many smaller ones scattered among the text, making it ideal to share with younger children while the slightly older will be delighted to read on their own.

This is the full list of stories with their place of origin, and there are more details about them and how the author discovered  them in the back of the book ; The Ghost Ship ( USA); Dogs to the Rescue (Russia); I’ll Be Back (Lithuania); The Ghosts Who Danced (Ireland); The Haunted Farmhouse (England); Them Bananas (Tanzania); Welcome to the Red Palace Inn ( China); The Guest (Brazil); The Ghost and his Uncle (India); Atchoo! (Korea)

Publisher - Frances Lincoln
Genre - ghost stories, illustrated story book,

Wednesday 28 October 2015

The Woman Under The Ground, and other stories by Megan Taylor

review by Maryom

I first 'discovered' Megan Taylor through These Seven, a collection of stories promoting Nottingham's bid for UNESCO City of Literature status and her story in that, Here We Are Again, persuaded me that she was an author I wanted to read more by - and this collection has just reinforced that view!

I loved the style of writing, the building of atmosphere, the way it lured me in, often with a false sense of security, and then dropped a bombshell on me!
The over-all tone of this collection is decidedly dark - so don't come looking for sweetness and light, and happy endings; these are a little twisted, a little macabre, and frequently disturbing. While some of the stories explore the darker, hidden side of human nature - children turn out to be far from the darling little angels we fondly imagine, adults are enveloped by loss, regret and guilt - others tell of things 'beyond' nature - strange things that shriek in the night or squat unwelcome at the end of the bed, and wishes that might come fatally true.

Through all of them runs a thread of finding one's identity, and of coming to terms with repressed emotions - maybe The Woman Under The Ground represents those buried parts of ourselves that we wouldn't wish to share with even our nearest and dearest?  I'm content to take things close to face value - to have a story that makes me stop a while and mull it over, but that's all. If, on the other hand, you do enjoy dissecting what you've read, pulling back the layers to reveal inner meanings, you'll find plenty to theorise about.

Something, somewhere, somehow reminded me of Mrs Gaskell's  Curious, If True collection of 'strange tales'. It's a description that fits this collection excellently as there's often an ambivalence about what is real and what imagined. Certainly they've crept under my skin, and now I'm longing for more!

 Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Weathervane Press

 Genre - adult fiction, short stories

Tuesday 27 October 2015

The Betrothed Sister by Carol McGrath

 review by Maryom

After the death of her father, King Harold, at the battle of Senlac (Hastings), Thea's family has been split up - her mother has retired out of the world's eye to a convent, her sister Gunnhild is wasting her life away in another; of Thea's brothers, the youngest, Ulf, is being held hostage in Normandy, Magnus has died in an attempt to win back their lands, while the others, with their grandmother and Thea herself, have fled overseas vowing revenge on William the Bastard. In exile at the court of Danish king, Sweyn, Thea and her grandmother work towards finding her a 'match' worthy of her royal blood. When an offer is made on behalf of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, it seems like Thea's dreams are about to come true - but her troubles aren't over yet ....there are many obstacles in her way, years of waiting, first in Denmark, then in Novgorod, while she's 'trained' to become a suitable wife for a Russian prince, and while the power-struggles in Russia are resolved for its a country almost as divided by war-fare as her English home.

This last book in Carol Mcgrath's Daughters of Hastings series tells the story of Thea, daughter of Harold Godwinson and his 'handfasted' wife Elditha. Thea has appeared as a minor character in the previous books but now her story is fully explored. I found this a fascinating read in several ways - Thea's personal story as a homeless wanderer, still cherishing both hopes for happiness and a family, and a grievance against England's Norman conquerors, plays out against the backdrop of Danish and Russian history of the early eleventh century, of which I knew nothing.
It's fiction, of course, so maybe not absolutely 'true' in all ways, but the characters are brought to life as real, breathing people rather than names from a history book (I particularly liked the plain bitchiness of the Danish princesses, even though they made life difficult for Thea), it gives a flavour of the period in general, and the customs of Denmark and Russia at that time - both of which are strange to Thea; she's used to a lot more freedom than the courts of these countries allow women - and doesn't find sitting quietly sewing very suitable to her temperament! Even so, she does come across as more content to wait and let things happen to her, than either her mother (in The Handfasted Wife) or her sister Gunnhild (in The Swan Daughter) but as an outsider,living on the good-will of others, Thea's actions are fa more restricted.
The series as a whole has left me thinking about the lives of these princesses - of how they were caught up in events beyond their control, separated from family, and their lives planned out for them by others. I wonder if any of them found true happiness at all/

 Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher -
Accent Press
 Genre - adult historical fiction

Monday 26 October 2015

Blood Axe by Leigh Russell

Review by The Mole

When a 16 year old girl  is found brutally murdered and robbed, killed by a single blow from an axe, the hunt is on for the killer. DI Peterson looks at the only two suspects that are obvious but the question lingers - Who carries an axe unless it's with the intent to murder?

A few days later a jewellery store is robbed and the manager murdered even more brutally and there are only two things that the crimes have in common - stolen jewellery and the use of an axe as the weapon.

With the media making a meal of these killings the police need to get these crimes solved before the murderer can strike again and it becomes a hunt for a serial killer.

Russell, for me, has hardly put a foot wrong in any of her writing although there was a change in style between the early Geraldine Steel's and the later. In the first, the reader knew the identity and was following Geraldine's detection methods and thinking and in the later they became more "whodunnits". In Blood Axe she has combined those techniques extremely well and we spend time "in the head" of the killer (not a pleasant place at all!!) while not knowing their identity - in fact the surprise of their identity is greater than I expected.

DI Peterson is also becoming a more complete character and where I have always felt Geraldine was my favourite - not any more.

We all have moments when we are reading when we want to understand why the detectives don't broaden their search wider or do this or that but I found this to be Russell's best book yet (and there have been a lot of good ones).

If you can stand the tension of being in the head of the killer - whose reasoning is not as balanced as your own, you will love this book - I did.

Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult Crime Thriller

Thursday 22 October 2015

Heap House by Edward Carey

review by Maryom

The lives of the huge, rambling Iremonger family are inextricably mingled with the rubbish heaps which surround, and at times threaten to engulf, their home, Heap House. Not only have they made their fortune, and their house, from the rubbish, but, out of all the things found in there, a special item is chosen for each Iremonger, given to them at birth and kept close throughout their life. Although the Iremongers are attached to these 'birth objects', they still appear to be just things - but Clod can hear them call out a name; his own sink plug, for example, is named James Henry Hayward. Now his aunt Rosamud has lost her door handle, named Alice Higgs, and the world of the Iremongers is in turmoil. While Clod is enlisted to search Heap House for the door handle, a new servant has arrived from London; her name is Lucy Pennant, and when she and Clod meet they realise there are more things to be uncovered than a mere missing door handle.

This first book of the Iremonger series is a quirky, original read. Carey has built a fantastic steampunk world full of weird but relate-able characters, where plugs, skillets and even a marble mantelpiece have secret names and hide a distressing secret; although so weird it's a world you can fall into and believe in completely. There are illustrations (by the author) to bring the characters to life, and a cut-away diagram displaying the hotch-potch construction of Heap House, with a room salvaged from the Heaps and added on here, and a staircase pushed in there. I know I often say this - perhaps too often - but it's difficult to describe the plot without giving the underlying secret away, but there's a lot of tense adventure, some life-threatening moments, very weird goings-on and, at the bottom of it all, that secret upon which the Iremongers' fortunes have been made.

For anyone who loves the weird and wonderful this is a must read - forget about the target age (10 and over, I'd guess) just read and enjoy! The concept is wondrous, the writing engaging, the tale enthralling - the only downside (slight spoiler), a cliff-hanger ending, isn't too troublesome as the next instalment is already published, and I for one can't wait to read it and find out what happens next!

Maryom's Review - 5 stars
Publisher - Hot Key Books
Genre - steampunk, fantasy, 10+ to adults

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Sand Men by Christopher Fowler

Review by The Mole

Lea, Roy and their 15 year old daughter, Cara, have moved Dubai as Roy searches for work. Roy has been recruited to help build a luxury and exclusive holiday resort for the super rich - but health and safety standards are poor and workers keep dying deaths that should not be happening.

Lea is a journalist but is now expected to be a "stay at home" wife focussed on cooking and hosting dinners, but that's not enough for her - she wants to get into local journalism and pursue her own career. She starts to write articles for a local magazine, focussed on how great life is, and will be, at the resort when she hears about children who have gone missing from the construction town.

Christopher Fowler is probably best know for his Bryant and May stories -  stories of murder and detection with a fair bit of humour on the side - but this is a very different kind of novel. From the start the reader is aware that there is at least one mystery death and we are waiting for more. Lea, the main voice of the story, is unaware for a while and when she does hear then these "industrial accidents" are explained with a full technical cause. The pace starts slowly as Lea suspects nothing untoward and it takes a while before the pace really starts to race towards the book's conclusion but is it all paraphrenia?

Having read only the Bryant and May books before I was taken aback by the significant change of style in this book - everything is done differently - and once I got over that I thought it worked magnificently. Fowler is described as a master of horror and crime and this story reaffirms that title. A brilliantly plotted and told story of truly horrific crimes.

Put aside any expectations from Fowler's previous books and you will enjoy this from page one.

Publisher - Solaris
Genre - adult fiction,  crime mystery

Monday 19 October 2015

The Lake by Sheena Lambert

review by Maryom

In the long dry summer of 1975, the waters of Crumm reservoir are receding ..... and as they do a body is revealed. For Detective Sergeant Frank Ryan it's just an inconvenience - trekking down from Dublin to the remote countryside will disrupt his planned weekend off but he doesn't expect any long term repercussions. For the inhabitants of Crumm, though, it brings back memories of the dreadful time when the valley was cleared to make way for the dam - a time when it was easy for someone to go missing without notice......
Meanwhile, 23 year old Peggy Casey who runs the village's only pub, The Angler's Rest, has troubles of her own. Since her parents died, the ownership and running of the pub has been shared between her and her three siblings - but the others seem to prefer to be anywhere but in Crumm; Carla teaches in Wexford during the week and only returns at weekends, Jerome runs off to Dublin at the slightest excuse, and Hugo works over in London, doing no one quite knows what. Maybe the exciting discovery of a dead body will bring them back home to Crumm.....

Although there's a definite murder mystery here - after all a dead body has just been found - it's as much a tale of family secrets and lies. In that respect it's cosier, and a lot less bloody, than many modern crime thrillers but I rather liked it. It's a little like a good old Agatha Christie murder - all seems quiet and placid in this small Irish village but it's as full of secrets as Miss Marple's St Mary Mead. As I found out more about the villagers of Crumm, and particularly the Casey family, things that had been buried and forgotten came back to light and as you'd expect, many of them seem to have something to hide. I began to make my 'short-list' of possible murderers....the village gossip seems to favour the idea of an IRA related shooting but what about the old-timer who props up the bar every night till closing time, or Jerome off in Dublin up to who-knows-what or even Hugo, absent for so long but who shows a sudden interest when he hears a body has been discovered.....

 Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher -  Killer Reads (Harper Collins)
Genre - adult fiction, crime

Friday 16 October 2015

Jamaicans In Nottingham - Author event

On 15th October Norma Gregory launched her book at an evening event in Waterstones Nottingham. The book is non-fiction and is a collection of "narratives and reflections" on the lives and times of Jamaicans who have been influential both inside and outside the Jamaican community of the city.

After refreshments and a chance to make connections with some of the people in attendance, Norma was introduced by Dan, Waterstones event manager, who explained why he saw this as an important contribution to local history.

Local history is something that is frequently overlooked but it is always fascinating and frequently accessible. But what separates "local" history from history because history is always "local" to somewhere?

Norma explained how she came to write this book, determined that it would be her own efforts and resisted suggestions of applying for funding and how the idea of a booklet grew in size to the point where she needed to consider finding a publisher. Having sent submissions to many publishers (chosen by looking at the books on her bookshelf!) she quickly received feedback from Hansib who publish books for Britain's Caribbean, African and Asian communities.

With many photographs from collections and some taken specifically for this project, this book is anything but a dull collection of words and a timeline at the back of the book contextualises all the entries and helps with understanding. This book could have been much bigger but Norma felt that could lose the accessibility that she was keen to foster.

Local history, such as this story, is something that is ignored in the national curriculum but possibly author visits into schools can get this type of thing into the classroom if only for a few short hours.

Norma went on to explain about her next project which is about the Jamaican miners in south Nottingham - something that will be most interesting to hear about as it will include stories of camaraderie at the coal face followed by life above ground.

Norma's website can be found at:

Thursday 15 October 2015

The Long Siesta by Nick Sweet

review by Maryom

It's summer in Seville in 1998 and Chief Inspector Velasquez of the Homicide Team seems to have a serial killer on his hands. The first victim is an elderly priest found murdered in bizarre circumstances, and a rather too obvious trail leads to an "escort agency" and junky Ramon Ochoa. Then a second priest is found dead in the river, an attempt is made on Ochoa's life, and a third victim is found, this time a Russian gangster. The first two deaths certainly seem related, but what would a Russian gangster have to do with two Spanish priests?

Nordic Noir is cold and chilling, but this thriller set in Spain is the opposite, filled with scorching heat. There are trails leading this way and that  - suspicions about the priest's activities during the Civil War, the involvement of Russian Mafia gangs, a love-lorn man wishing to free his girlfriend from the brothels run by the Russians, and Inspector Velasquez's personal battle with heroin addiction - all of which keep the reader guessing about which way the story will move next.

You expect a certain level of blood and gore within a crime novel - and as regards the human victims this was less distressing and brutal than I've read elsewhere, but something I really disliked was the bullfighting. Ok this is a part of Spanish culture, and had a role within the plot, but I found the whole sequence distasteful in this regard not one for you if you're squeamish.

Maryom's review - 3 stars
Publisher -  Grey Cells Press
Genre - adult fiction, crime

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither by Sara Baume

review by Maryom

When loner Ray finds One-Eye at the dog pound it's like the meeting of two lost souls. Both are misfits, viewed with suspicion by neighbours or dog-wardens, carrying with them an aura of 'otherness', and the potential for violence or danger. At first glance you'd trust neither of them.
 Raised in virtual isolation by a grief-stricken father, Ray's life has been warped from the beginning; he never mixed with children his own age, never had mates to hang out with or a girlfriend, never even had a job. His neighbours see him as a bit weird, and keep their distance. Now, he's 57, and following the death of his father is living alone for the first time - and just doesn't know how to carry on.
For his part, One-Eye isn't the sort of dog you'd pick for a family pet. Looking at the world lop-sidedly from his remaining eye, he has the battered beaten-up appearance of a fighter - but while his wild, ferocious traits have been encouraged and developed by his previous owner, he's also been on the receiving end of violence from both men and animals. Full of fear, it takes time for him to come to trust his new owner.
Gradually a bond forms between these two, but that streak of violence still lurks beneath the surface and events cause the pair to go on the run.

To get this clear from the start, this isn't a sweetly charming tale, not some sentimental mix of Marley and Me and The Shawshank Redemption, where man meets dog, they bond, and live happily ever after; both are too scarred by life for that. It is though a tale of both man and dog trying to recover from deep hurts, striving to put their pasts behind them and start again.
 One-Eye had my sympathy from the start. His fear of people spoke of an abused past, and I believe vicious dogs aren't born, but trained to be that way by man, and are then victimised when that 'training' emerges at an inappropriate time and place. Ray starts out as just a little odd; tolerated in the village where he grew up, eyed with suspicion but basically harmless; it was only as his secrets were revealed that I began to wonder if this view wasn't quite true.

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

For a debut novel, I think this is just amazing.  Baume's writing enlisted my empathy for both of these outsiders, and had me hoping against hope that Ray and One-Eye would in some way be saved.

 Originally published in Eire by Tramp Press, this book came to my attention over summer via Irish book bloggers* singing its praises, and catching Sara Baume at Edinburgh Book Festival, hearing her read from it and speak about it, convinced me it was something I would love, so I'm delighted to see it now published in the UK by Windmill Books.

Longlisted - Guardian First Book Award 2015
Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2015
Newcomer of the Year at the 2015 Irish Book Awards.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Windmill Books
Genre - adult fiction, literary, Guardian First Book Award,

* Bleach House Library review

Monday 12 October 2015

UKYA Extravaganza

Last Saturday, Nottingham Waterstones was taken over by an event devoted to the wide range of books that fall under the banner 'young adult'. Masterminded by local authors Emma Pass and Kerry Drewery, it brought together 28 authors from all over the country - 'locals' from the East Midlands, several up from London, Helen Grant from Perthshire, Scotland, Sheena Wilkinson from Northern Ireland, and Liz de Jager and Teri Terry originally from South Africa and Canada respectively but now settled here and very firmly part of the British YA scene.
 The afternoon was split into a series of panels - groups of four or five authors were given two minutes each to introduce themselves and 'pitch' their novels, overseen by Paula Rawsthorne who made sure no one talked for too long! After that, the audience had 5 minutes to ask questions, and in the breaks between panels chat individually to the authors and get their books signed.
Mention 'Young Adult' and most people probably think of Twilight and other similar vampire-romance fiction, but I don't think there was a single vampire mentioned at all! Instead the authors showed that fiction for young adults is as wide-ranging as for grown-up adults! There are stories dealing with gritty social issues (Bali Rai, Sheena Wilkinson), or emotional ones (David Owen, Sara Benwell, RJ Morgan) the 'glittery urban realism' of Sophia Bennett casting a light on the darker side of glamorous-sounding occupations, 'straight' historical fiction (Lydia Syson), modern adventure (David Massey), sci fi (Nick Cook), fantasy (Liz de Jager describes her Blackhart Legacy trilogy as having "loads of kissing and stabbing with swords") and, yes, paranormal (vampire-free) from Lee Weatherly and SC Ransom.

The authors themselves were as varied as their books. There were newly-published authors like Helen Maslin, whose first book Darkmere ( a romantic horror says the author) was published in August this year, and the much-more experienced - Lucy Coats has been, in her words, 'telling lies' for 24 years; her first YA novel Cleo is her 37th book! Some have always loved reading and wanted to write - Alex Campbell announced her intention aged 8; Emma Pass wrote stories at school during maths tests - while Mike Revell never enjoyed reading as a small child but was hooked when he discovered Harry Potter.  Lauren James has only ever been an author, she graduated from Nottingham university last year and already had a book deal for her re-incarnation romance, The Next Together; Martyn Bedford had held various journalist posts before taking an MA in Creative Writing, has written for adults and now for teens; Lisa Williamson is both an actress (though not THAT Lisa Williamson from Hollyoaks) and a writer. Zoe Marriott draws her inspiration from folk tales, often Japanese; others find their former careers can prove a useful influence - Rachel McIntyre wanted to write something that her class of teenagers would read, while Ben Davis finds his ideas coming to him on his post round.

Among the questions posed to the various panels were - which books/writers had inspired them? - for Rhian Ivory it was  Roald Dahl; for C J Skuse, Melvin Burgess; Helen Grant still finds Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World influencing her; Dave Owen cited the Goosebumps books and the novels of Patrick Ness; SC Ransom loved John Wyndham's The Chrysalids but wished she could have written The Time Traveller's Wife for the brilliance of its plotting;
Were they 'plotters' or 'panters'? - did they plot everything meticulously, or fly by the seat of their pants? Some plotted everything in detail, some started with character development and the characters drive the story, some went for a bit of both.
What were the good, and bad, things about being an author - the good included being able to do something they love, the feedback from readers who have loved a book perhaps even been influenced by it, and the boost in self esteem when someone refers to them as 'doing what JK Rowling does'. The bad? not much - deadlines, perhaps, oh, and Goodreads and the bizarre criticism found there.

The weirdest tale of the day came from Rhian Ivory - not from a story but real life. She set her book The Boy Who Drew the Future in the village of Sible Hedingham in Essex but only discovered, after she'd written spooky things about the setting, that in the 1860s it was the last place in the country to swim, or duck, a witch - now THAT's spooky.

It was a great day for meeting up with authors that I "knew" through social media but had never met, and for discovering more about other authors and their great books.I'm hoping they're be another such event soon, meanwhile next weekend a similar extravaganza is planned, this time for mid-grade readers, at Nottingham Library.

Reviews of some of these authors and their books can be found on the blog;
Lucy Coats Cleo
SC Ransom - Small Blue Thing, Perfectly Reflected, The Beneath
Lee Weatherly - Angel Fire, Angel
Teri Terry -Slated, Fractured, Shattered, Mind Games
Paula Rawsthorne - Blood Tracks, The Truth About Celia Frost, These Seven (short story)
David Massey - Taken, Torn

Friday 9 October 2015

Old Bear's Bedtime Stories by Jane Hissey

Review by The Mole

This book very much speaks for itself - it's a beautiful book to look at, a beautiful book to hold, and a beautiful book to read.

When you open the book the first page you come to is "This book belongs to" - all the really greatest books have that page and it smacks of a book to keep, to share, to pass on to future generations. Every page is a delight with full colour, beautiful, lifelike drawings of the characters in the stories!

When our children were younger I would read them bedtime stories every night and this was, for me, the most special time of the day.

There were a few "special" books and Jane Hissey's Teddy Bear Tales was one such book. This collection of 21 stories and poems is not all new and some of them have been in previous books - including Teddy Bear Tales - but there are many new ones too and they have been written and drawn specifically for this new collection. The link of the old stories to the new stories ensures, in my opinion, a continuity and reassurance to the older fans that Old Bear remains unchanged for the new generations and is something we can share - even if we start to get behind in other areas of their games.

A really fantastic book for grand parents and parents alike to buy for themselves to share with children or just to hoard for themselves, but every child deserves to be read to about Old Bear, his many friends, and adventures.

I don't give star ratings for books but if I did this would certainly be more than the 5 out of 5!

Publisher - Scribblers Books
Genre - Keepsake picture book, Children's

Thursday 8 October 2015

Dirty Bertie - Aliens by David Roberts, written by Alan MacDonald

Review by The Mole

Dirty Bertie is back, once again, for the 26th collection of his mistakes and bloopers. For a boy with "nose pickingly disgusting habits" he is remarkably likeable by parents and children alike - but the problem with Bertie is that when he gets an idea in his head he pursues it until everything comes crashing down around his ears - and it will.

In "Aliens" he gets excited about beings from outer space so sets out to find some.

The second story is "Twitter" - Eugene (Bertie's friend) invites him to go birdwatching with his dad with promises of "lots to do in the woods". Bertie goes along and gets bored and .... well, needless to say things don't go well for everyone.

In "Report", the third story in the book, it's report time at school and Bertie is not happy about his mum and dad seeing his. Enough said - I'm sure you can imagine the kind of thing Bertie may get up to - but will he get away with it? He never gets away with anything does he?

With large print, simple vocabulary and lots of black and white cartoon style illustrations these books are great for getting children reading and, with 25 more to pick up, keep them reading. Bertie's antics are the kind of antics that end up with no real harm done so can be laughed at as children develop their reading skills.

Really great books for the young reader.

Publisher - Stripes Publishing
Genre - Children's early reader

Wednesday 7 October 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

 review by Maryom

The story of the Whitshank family is inseparable from the story of their house. Built for a client by the curiously named family patriarch Junior in the 1930s, it was for him, an ideal house, one he yearned to own and at last, with a little manoeuvring, his wish came true. On his death, his only son Red moved in with his wife Abby and young family, and filled the house again with noise and bustle, but now those children have grown, married, left home and have children of their own.

It's a quiet book - the story really of a fairly average family, to whom nothing extreme happens, either good or bad, they just jog along as most of us do. Their comings and goings are probably of little interest to anyone outside the family, but within the family they're built up to great dramas. They have their secrets of course, and it turns out that the 'accepted' version of family history might not be quite true,

It's a rather simplistic thing to say but if you love Anne Tyler's books, you'll love it, if you find them a bit lacking in 'grit' then like me you'll be left wanting. I've read other books by Anne Tyler and found them pleasant enough but not, for me, anything special. Somehow, being short-listed for both the Bailey's Women's Fiction Prize and the Man Booker Prize, I'd expected a little more in some way from this; sadly it didn't live up to my hopes.

This is one of this year's Bailey's Prize shortlist which I'm working my way through rather slowly. Other reviews below
A God In Every Stone - Kamila Shamsie

Shortlisted for Bailey's Women's Fiction Prize
Shorlisted for Man Booker 2015
Richard and Judy Book Club pick

Maryom's review - 3.5 stars
Publisher - Vintage
Genre - Adult, Family saga

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Anything That Isn't This by Chris Priestley

review by Maryom

Frank Palp has sat the last of his exams, is about to leave school and enter the world of 'work'. It should be a time of opening horizons and fresh opportunities, but that's not how Frank sees it. To him it's possibly the least appealing prospect in the world - not that he liked school, but with every passing year life looks more depressing. In the city where he lives, nearly everyone is employed by the Ministry in one capacity or another. Their lives seem dull and joy-less, their days spent at boring, meaningless jobs, their evenings passed in front of mind-numbing TV programmes, all of course approved by the Ministry. Surely there has to be something better than this? Once, Frank had had plans, dreams of being a writer, a hope of avoiding the tedium he sees in his parents' lives ..... but now he's beginning to realise there's no escape. He heads to the graveyard and talks things over with his (deceased) grandfather, but the enigmatic tales the dead have to tell don't seem to help much. Frank still, though, believes in chance; finding a message in a bottle convinces him that he's found his soul-mate, and an accidental meeting with mysterious man-from-the-Ministry Mr Vertex leads to a quick advancement in Frank's career. Both have to be good things, don't they?

 You've possibly heard of Chris Priestley as the author of horror stories aimed at a youngish audience (though his The Dead of Winter is one of my favourite ghostly reads regardless) but this is a departure - a dystopian love story, with a bit of thriller in there too, for older teens.

It's set in a fictional, vaguely east European country, where after a war and revolution the king remains as a popular figurehead but everything is run by the Ministry - the so-called 'civil servants' are actually police, 'students' are spies, and the old castle towers over the city spreading gloom. But Frank's feelings are universal; he's full of teenage angst about his current situation and his future. His dreams of being a writer aren't likely to be fulfilled, he has no real direction in life, and is being pushed into a job that isn't of his choosing but is what others expect of him. The only light in his life is his love for Olivia - and again he's a typical teen; obsessive, slightly stalkerish and cringingly realistic. What he would hope for is summed up by the wish he finds in a bottle "Anything that isn't this".

 The style, the setting and atmosphere and above all the young couple striving to find something worthwhile in a dull grey world reminded me of Ursula le Guin's Orsinian Tales. I've been reading a digital copy for review, so couldn't fully appreciate the illustrations (also by the author) that echo the sinister mood of the story, but they can be found on the author's facebookpage

A little bit dystopian, a little bit love story, Anything That Isn't This captures the confusion of teenage feelings the world over, is about challenging the norm and searching for hope in a dull grey world. 

Maryom's Review - 5 stars
Publisher - Hot Key Books
Genre - teen/YA

Saturday 3 October 2015

UKYA Extravaganza - author profile

As part of the blog tour ahead of next week's UKYA Extravaganza to be held at Waterstones Nottingham, we bring you a profile of one of the authors appearing there - David Massey.

David Massey's varied career has taken him from teaching and music journalism to presenting, producing and writing for radio.

As the Romanian revolution was ending, David led a team taking supplies to Bucharest and Timisoara. On the way home he stopped near Checkpoint Charlie to help chip holes in the Berlin Wall. Rather fittingly, David and his wife Debi now run Globehuggers Emergency Supplies - a business specializing in bespoke grab bags and emergency equipment.

David's debut young adult novel TORN was published in August 2013 on the Chicken House/Scholastic label. A war story set in Afghanistan, it captured the overpowering heat, freezing nights, dust and stark
beauty of the country, and the fear, camaraderie and bravery of the soldiers. It went on to win the Lancashire Awards Book of the year 2013 and has been nominated in the UK for several other awards including the prestigious Brandford Boase, Leeds Award, and the Coventry Inspiration Award.

 His second novel TAKEN was released in the UK in March 2014 and has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. The story follows the teenage crew of a round-the-world yacht, but a dream-come-true adventure turns into a nightmare when the ship is boarded by pirates and the crew are held hostage. Both stories share common themes -  dangerous, life-threatening situations, comradeship and a strong female lead character.

David is the Patron Of Reading for The Wordsley School near his home town of Stourbridge, and has just completed his latest novel - THE BONE SURFERS

Friday 2 October 2015

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen

review by Maryom

Two middle-aged sisters live in an isolated house in the north of Norway; surrounded by open moorland, far from the nearest village, they live an almost solitary life. One,the narrator, has been handicapped almost all her life; the other, Ragna, has had to become her nurse. For years they've rubbed along together, not always amicably but reasonably so, the whole dynamic of their relationship changes when the unforeseen happens -  in her late forties, Ragna gets married. She now has someone else to care about, and her sister begins to lose the central part she'd played in Ragna's life. Ragna still has to care for her, but the main focus of her affection is her husband ....and the sisters' relationship begins to shift and warp.

I'd half-expected that the story-telling would alternate between the two sisters - giving opposing views of the situation - but it wasn't necessary. Although told throughout from the point of view of the invalid sister, my sympathies moved between the two. My automatic instinct was to side with the disabled sister, after all she's suffered many years of pain and is virtually imprisoned by her lack of mobility, but then, and even though the narrator is slanted against her, I began to empathise with the able-bodied Ragna. Since their parents died, Ragna has been sole carer for her sister, has presumably had to abandon dreams of a career or marriage to act as nurse, and is rarely appreciated for her troubles. Her sister meanwhile listens through walls, rummages through Ragna's belongings while she's out, and tries at times to be as much of a nuisance as possible! Some of her strategies would be hilarious, if the overall situation weren't so dark.

 It's not an easy 'cut and dried' book. Seeing events unfold from the perspective of only one of the 'players' is always suspect. Sometimes, cooped up in her room, the narrator invents scenarios, plays them out in her head to see what might happen - and sometimes the reader knows she's interpreted things wrongly, sometimes we can only guess.
Adding to the sisters' isolation is the landscape of northern Norway - endless expanses of moor and forest stretching to the horizon - and the extremes of weather. The ever-present sun of mid-summer contrasting with the total darkness of midwinter. Both hiding the natural division of day and night, but, whereas in winter the sisters huddle together, finding companionship in facing the elements together, in summer the constant glare is upsetting, disorienting, and works to separate the sisters,    .

 To my mind there were certain echoes of the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane - two sisters forced into living together, one dependent on the other - but there's a lot less over the top drama and thriller-style suspense about it. It's a rather sad tale in the end. The narrator just wants things to carry on as they were, two sisters alone, meaning all the world to each other, but it's not possible.

translated from the Norwegian by John Irons

 Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press

Genre - Adult Literary Fiction

Thursday 1 October 2015

These Seven edited by Ross Bradshaw

review by Maryom

A couple of weeks ago, I went along to Nottingham Waterstones for the launch of These Seven, a collection of short stories commissioned by Nottingham City of Literature featuring authors with a connection to the city and part of its bid for UNESCO City of Literature status. Having heard the authors reading from their work I wanted to read more.....

The collection opens with a story from John Harvey, a crime author best known for his Charlie Resnick series set in Nottingham. Ask Me Now although featuring DS Tom Whitemore of the Public protection team, isn't so much a crime story as one dealing with domestic problems - but problems that could easily slip into abuse.

In Megan Taylor's Here We Are Again, two old friends are meeting up after several years apart. It's told in the first person and captures that expectant but nervous feeling of waiting for someone, when you hope they'll turn up but are afraid that they won't.

Brick's Simone the Stylite is a short graphic novel - Simone has always been a self-reliant person, with no need for masses of friends, but now maybe she's taken things to extremes by taking up residence in the tall Aspire sculpture at Nottingham university. From her vantage point, she sends out notes, little words of wisdom that inspire people. The university though seems quick to institutionalise her and even cash in on their famous hermit!

A Foreign Land by YA author Paula Rawsthorne looks at the plight of failed asylum seekers from the point of view of a young boy. Jay is ten and, with his mum, dad and young sister, has lived in Nottingham for six years. He can't remember his 'homeland' of Darfur but from what he hears it doesn't like the sort of place he'd like to visit. Then his family lose their appeal, and have to return to Sudan.....everything will be ok, won't it? things can't really be as bad as the News claims? Told from Jay's point of view, this is a timely reminder of the terrors that make people flee their own country in a desperate bid to find safety.

Alison Moore will be known to many as author of the Booker-listed The Lighthouse, but her short story is in a very different vein. In Hardanger, a dysfunctional family go away to Norway on a short break ....but there the story changes from one of personal relationships to something rather more in the ghostly or horror style.  The ending left a decidedly uneasy creepy feel behind it.

Shreya Sen Handley's Nimmi's Wall followed on this vaguely supernatural theme. A young Indian woman, recently moved to Nottingham, investigates the strange mist-shrouded wall at the bottom of her garden...and encounters some very strange people there.

The collection rounds off with A Time to Keep a story by, possibly Nottingham's most famous writer, the late Alan Sillitoe, about a teenager, Martin,who nurses a passion for books. In them he finds a world more appealing than his everyday one, but his cousin Raymond has decided its time to introduce him to the grown-up world of 'work'......

Although differing greatly in tone I loved each one, and I'm now intending to seek out more work by these authors.

Publisher - Five Leaves
Genre - short story anthology