Friday 30 December 2016

Maryom's Top Ten of the Year - 2016

It's that time of year when everyone seems to be doing their 'round-ups' and 'best of...' lists, and I'm not going to be left out. I've already done a rather different summing up of the year in Reading Bingo, but here are my favourite books, the ones I feel sure I'll read again and again, the ones I'll be thrusting at people saying "you must read this" ... anyway, here's my Top Ten of the Year ...

First up, a book that I think everyone should read - You Shall Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris This is the account of the first few weeks following the author's wife's death in the terrorist attack on Paris' Bataclan nightclub last November. While the press and social media were filled with hatred, fear and calls for vengeance, Leiris declared that to give way to such feelings would be to let the terrorists win, to also cripple his own life and that of his small son. So instead, he resolved that, despite over-whelming grief, he would continue to live as full a life as possible. It's a book filled with loss, love, horror, and, ultimately, hope.

Breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes is a specially comminsioned book from Peirene Press, bringing to life the individual stories behind the statistics and news reports about the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle', taking the reader behind the stereotypic image, and reminding us that above all they are people like us - who just happen to be running from persecution or a war zone, trying to earn money to send home, or just hoping to be reunited with their families. Another 'mut read'.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon also looks at the way we treat outsiders - but a little closer to home. During the long heatwave of 1976, Mrs Creasy goes missing from her home - and the strange man at Number 11 is immediately suspected of somehow being behind it. It's a story about 'us' (the sheep) and 'them' (the goats), and as events unfold it makes you think about the way a community may treat outsiders, how anyone who doen't quite fit or is a little 'odd' can be ostracised and victimised by the rest of us who consider ourselves 'normal'.

Cove by Cynan Jones  A man out at sea in a kayak is struck by lightning - left drifting, out of sight of land, his sense of direction lost, even his sense of self. All he has to cling on to is his animal instinct which pushes him towards land and home. Jones proves again that a huge word count isn't necessary to make an impact; Cove is less than a hundred pages, doesn't contain a single surplus word, but captures the helplessness, confusion and fear of this man adrift at the mercy of tides and currents. Is it, though, the personal story of one man, or a metaphor for anyone adrift in life, like Stevie Smith's swimmer "much too far out all my life/And not waving but drowning" ?

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker is a book about choices. The German invasion of France poses a dilemma for a young Irish writer - he can return to his family in Ireland, stay there safely for the duration, or, as a citizen of a neutral country, remain in Paris with his lover. Choosing to stay poses another question - should he sit by while the Germans take over, or join the resistance? I love Jo Baker's writing style - the capturing of intense, intimate moments, then building with them to bring a fictional world to life - but what particularly appealed to me about this 'true' story was its 'hero', Samuel Beckett. Having read his books at school, I'd rather had the impression of a dull, geeky guy, obsessed with words and meanings. Jo Baker's story sheds light ona very different side of him - still that odd, literary chap but one with an unsuspected quiet courage.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan Melody Shee is thirty three, abandoned by her husband, pregnant by a Traveller boy barely half her age, frightened, angry, full of guilt - and amazingly brought to life in the first person by a male author! Melody's story revolves around several threads - the difficulties that can at times surround something we take for granted, the birth of a child; the gradual wearing away of a loving marriage by constant recriminations; the way a community makes its own unwritten rules and judges anyone who doesn't conform; and how inflicting pain and suffering on others can bounce back on the giver. Ryan's writing just seems to go from strength to strength, with each novel.


Melissa by Jonathan Taylor The death of Melissa Comb is marked by a strange phenonomen - a burst of music, spreading happiness and pride among her neighbours. The only people who don't hear it are those closest to her - her immediate family, hiding behind closed curtains, is slowly starting the disintegrate. There's a certain level of quirkiness to this story of a family struggling to cope with grief and the intrusion of the media - it's told in a variety of styles (with snippets from newpapers and scientific journals), it doesn't move in a straight line but starts with Melissa's death and moves back to her illness before moving forwards, and seems to only gradually work in towards the heart of the story - but I found it irresistable!

Death and The Seaside by Alison Moore  is a strange, disturbing tale of manipulation, of living up (or down) to people's expectations, and of the interwoven-ness of life and art. Nearing the age of thirty, Bonnie has had a life of missed opportunities, but now her new landlady, Sylvia, has taken an interest in her - encouraging her writing, making plans for a holiday together. Sylvia has an interest, though, in self-fulfilling prophecies, suggestibility and how expectation influences behaviour; the future doesn't really look that rosy for Bonnie. A psychological drama of subtle oozing menace.

The Museum of You by Carys Bray Like Bray's first novel, A Song For Issy Bradley, this is a story about a family trying to cope with death. Clover and her dad Darren form a small, tightly-knit, loving family, but at its centre is a gaping hole left by the death of Clover's mother, not long after Clover was born. To Clover, she's an enigma, someone she's never known but would love to know more about; Darren finds talking about her too distressing and 12 years later still has the spare room full of her belongings. Sad, funny, and heartwarming this story charts their attempts to bridge that gap, as the two try to communicate across the gap, and Clover searches through the hoarded things in an attempt to piece together an image of her mother. Tender and compassionate, it's a joy to read, and Bray has again turned a story with tragedy at its heart into something positive and life-affirming.

Fell by Jenn Ashworth Ashworth is an author I've been intending to read for some years, and, at last having got round to it, I realise what a delight I've been missing. Despite the older work sitting on my TBR pile, I started with her latest, Fell, an atmospheric, beguiling story of home and family, regrets and reconciliation - and loved it. Middle-aged Annette has returned to her childhood home to clear it out and sell it off, but the ghosts of her parents have other ideas. It isn't what you would really describe as aghost story though -  it's rooted firmly in reality, just laced with something otherworldly much like Sarah Winman's A Year of Marvellous Ways or Lucy Wood's Weathering, both of which were among my picks of last year.

That's Ten, my favourites from this year's publications - but I've also loved some older books which, in all fairness, I ought to have read before now.

Firstly, it may be odd, and I'm definitely late to the party, but this is the year I've finally realised what is so great about Neil Gaiman. I'd read some of his work before but having read and loved both The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Neverwhere this year, I consider myself changed from a casual reader to a fan!

Another party to which I'm a late arrival is the Fitz and the Fool series by Robin Hobb. I've had a free download of the first book Assassin's Apprentice sitting on my kindle for seemingly ages, but hearing that after 15 books the series will come to an end next year I've eventually been spurred on to read it - and again discovered something magical and engrossing that I've missed out on. Reading the series will definitely be part of my reading plans for next year!

Thursday 29 December 2016

Painkiller by NJ Fountain

review by Maryom

Since an accident five years ago, Monica has been in almost constant, unbearable pain. Each day she wakes up not knowing what to expect - will this be a rare 'good' day when her pain is manageable enough for her to get up, go out, live a semblance of normal life, or one of the far more frequent days when, despite the cocktail of painkillers, she ends up lying flat on her back all day, her mind made hazy by the drugs, afraid that any movement will cause agony?   One night, kept awake by pain, and looking for something to distract her, Monica finds a letter hidden away - a suicide note she'd written years before when her pain was too bad to cope with. But something doesn't ring true about it; despite her unceasing pain, despite the tricks high doses of painkillers have played with her memory, despite the handwriting appearing to be hers, despite everything her husband Dominic says, Monica finds it impossible to believe she would ever really have contemplated taking her own life. Is someone trying to mess with her mind? or maybe her seemingly loving husband, Dominic, isn't quite as caring and patient as he appears, and has been planning to kill her?

You've probably guessed, from the ambiguous title alone, that Painkiller is a tense psychological thriller with a woman fearing that someone close to her is threatening her life. It starts well, told mainly from Monica's point of view, capturing her constant pain and her equally strong determination to fight it, however she can, and of course the reader is expecting the first step of a psychological thriller - the revelation that not everything is quite as Monica believes.  Perhaps because of that, I found the middle third moved a little slowly for a thriller - it explores Monica's condition more though, and makes both it and the affects of the drugs things the reader can begin to understand. The end speeds up again, with revelations and twists coming thick and fast as the story reaches its climax.

There are definitely echoes of SJ Watson's Before I Go To Sleep, with the plot depending on huge gaps in the narrator's memory, but it's in no way a copy-cat retelling. If Watson had written this as his second book, I'd have been disappointed; as it is, in a different author's hands there's no feeling of re-visiting the same material. It's gripping, well-plotted, and that ideal thriller - a book you won't want to put down.

Maryom's Review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Sphere 
Genre - adult psychological thriller

Thursday 15 December 2016

Reading Bingo - 2016

I spotted this 'game' over on CleopatraLovesBooks a few weeks ago, and had to see how well I'd done with my reading this year. I started off thinking 'Oh, yes, I can tick off every square', then ran into problems when I could only think of one book to cover three categories, but with a little shifting around I managed to find at least one for each. Most are books that I've reviewed this year, and clicking the link will take you there.

A Book With More Than 500 Pages

Let's start with one of the troublesome categories. I thought I'd read quite a number of long books this year, but most of them, when checked, turned out to be an annoying length of 460 or 480 pages. I could only think of Dan Simmons' The Terror for this slot, but I wanted to include it as the 'bottom of the TBR pile' book. Fortunately, last week at Book Club we were discussing the titles we'd read this year, and The Bone Clocks was mentioned ... there it was, my over 500 epic!
The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell; It's a weird, complex story, darting about over time and probably better on a second read after you're got the outline of the plot clear in your head.

A Forgotten Classic

I've been a little 'loose' with my interpretation of classic, but, while not something from the Victorian era, this is certainly an old book, first published in 1995 and the beginning of Robin Hobb's Fitz and the Fool series which has run to, I think, fifteen novels, and will conclude next year. I don't think Hobb's fans have ever forgotten it, but it's been sitting neglected on my kindle for a couple of years or more, so I think it deserves that title.
Assassin's Apprentice - Robin Hobb; fantasy meets political intrigue.An excellent beginning, and now I'm looking forward to discovering the rest of the series.

A Book That Became A Movie

Another troublesome square *sighs* I was on the verge of picking Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere which has been made into a TV series, when a movie website suggested I might like this film - and I realised I'd read the book.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith; it does 'what it says on the tin' really. Austen's words are interspersed with zombie blood and guts to comic effect. It was an amusing read, but not one to revisit.

A Book Published This Year 
As I'm a book reviewer/blogger obviously a lot of what I read is newly published, so I had a lot to choose from.
All We Shall Know - Donal Ryan is going to be making it onto my Top Ten of the year so it's only fair to include it here. Melody Shee is thirty three, alone, pregnant, frightened, angry and riddled with guilt - and amazingly brought to life in the first person by a male author!

A Book With A Number In the Title

I tried really hard to find an alternative here as this is the 'number in the title' book chosen by CleopatraLovesBooks, and just choosing the same one feels like taking an easy option, but I couldn't find another which fitted! The One-in-Million Boy by Monica Wood is the story of a special eleven-year old boy, his relationship with 104 year old Ona Vitkus, and obsession with Guinness Records.

A Book Written By Someone Under Thirty
This was the most troublesome to track down. Most authors don't go around shouting about their ages, so I needed to check on Wikipedia or their publishers' web site, and then quite a few authors just slipped over the magic figure of 30 by a year or two. The easy way would have been to have followed CleopatraLovesBooks again, and chosen Barney Norris and Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, fortunately Stefan Mohamed and his super-hero Stanley came to the rescue with Ace of Spiders

A Book With Non-human Characters
I'd quite a choice here - ghosts, vampires, cats but I've settled on fantasy debut  Infernal by Mark de Jaeger. It's not clear at first who or what the book's hero Stratus is, but it's pretty clear he's not fully human. I'll let you read it to discover his secret - beware though, even for a fantasy novel it's rather violent.

A Funny Book

I'm not really a reader of laugh-out loud funny stories so this is the nearest I could find. The Radleys by Matt Haig is ostensibly a story of vampires hiding in suburbia, but in many ways it's a humorous observation on all of our (middle-aged, middle-class) lives - sort of like The Office but with blood!

A Book By A Female Author
This is another category for which I had a wide range of books to choose from but Carys Bray's second novel The Museum of You is one of my favourites this year. Bray's first novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, told of a family coping with the loss of a child, and that theme of loss is here again in the story of 12 year old Clover struggling to get to know and understand her mother who died shortly after she, Clover, was born. Sad, yes, but funny and heart-warming too.

A Book With A Mystery

I read a lot of crime books so this was a difficult one to pick out but with a girl, covered in scratches and wearing only a man's shirt, running into a busy road, causing a car crash and then disappearing again, I think Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary has the 'mystery' element well and truly covered.

A Book With A One Word Title

Again a lot of choice for this 'square' so I've picked a recent read, short but with huge impact - Cove by Cynan Jones A man out at sea in a kayak is struck by lightning, left drifting, out of sight of land, sense of direction gone. The personal story of one man or a metaphor for all of us?

A Book of Short Stories
There were several I could have picked, but this collection of eight stories inspired by the lives of refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' is a must-read. Commissioned by Peirene Press, the authors Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes spend time in the camp talking to refugees, aid workers and locals, before setting pens to paper (or fingers to keyboards) to bring their stories to life.

A Book Set On A Different Continent

Again, I had several options - The Terror (Antarctica), Michelle Paver's Thin Ice (mountaineering and ghosts in Asia), any number of books set in the USA - but I've picked a dystopian quest/thriller Wolf Road - Beth Lewis, set in post-apocalypse North-West Canada. There were so many things I loved about this story - wilderness survival, the 'quest for home', strong female leads, and a buried secret to haunt the heroine.

A Book Of Non-fiction
Turns out I don't read much non-fiction, so didn't really have a choice. Weatherland  by Alexandra Harris is an excellent book though - concerned not with weather itself but how it's been seen through the words and paintings of poets, writers and artists over the centuries - from Anglo-Saxons huddled round their Great Hall fires keeping the winter cold at bay through the Romantics delight in storms and extremes, to modern writers exploring climate change. It's a long read, just under 400 pages, but interesting whether you read it cover to cover, as I did, or dip in here and there.

The First Book By A Favourite Author

I discovered Elly Griffiths through her second series set in the 1950s world of magic and theatrical illusion, and sort of stayed there, vaguely intending to read her earlier series centred on forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway sometime or other, but always wanting to start with the very first book, The Crossing Places  not jump in part way through. Then I picked up a free e-version of it on my phone, found myself killing time one evening and started reading. I loved it - and now have seven more to catch up with!

A Book You Heard About Online
As a blogger, following authors and publishers, I hear about a LOT of books online, but I always believe it's worth following the recommendations of authors whose own work you like, and that's why this piqued my interest.
Fell by Jenn Ashworth is an atmospheric story of home and family, regrets and reconciliation, in which middle-aged Annette returns to her childhood home to clear it out and sell up, but the ghosts of her parents have different ideas. It isn't a 'ghost' story as such - it has a much firmer rooting in reality, just laced with something otherworldly, much like Sarah Winman's A Year of Marvellous Ways or Lucy Wood's Weathering, both of which were among my picks of last year

A Best-selling Book
Not just a best-seller here, but a debut novel too. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon is set in the heatwave of 1976; as pavements melt and tempers fray, Mrs Creasy goes missing from her home, and everyone immediately lays the blame on the strange man at number 11. Seen through the eyes of ten-year old Grace, it makes you think about the way anyone a little 'odd' can be ostracised and victimised by the rest of us who consider ourselves 'normal'.

A Book Based On A True Story

I've read quite a few books this year that have started out as true stories but what particularly appealed to me about Jo Baker's A Country Road, A Tree was its 'hero'. Having 'suffered' Samuel Beckett's books at school I'd rather had the impression of him as a dull guy, interested in words and meanings, geeky in a literary sort of way, but not anyone you'd want to end up talking to at a party - Jo Baker's story sheds light on a very different side of him; still that odd, literary chap but one with an unsuspected quiet courage.

A Book At The Bottom Of Your To Be Read Pile

I've been making a bit of an effort to clear the huge piles of unread books from around the house, so eventually got round to reading this, The Terror by Dan Simmons which has been waiting for SO long, easily over three, maybe even four, years, so it must count as from the bottom. The story follows the doomed Franklin expedition of 1845 in its search for a sea-route from the Atlantic across the north coast of Canada to the Pacific ocean, but mixes fact and horror; as the ships end up trapped in Arctic Ice, something shadowy and shapeless is lurking and picking off crew members one at a time ...

A Book Your Friend Loves
My elderly neighbour is a great fan of crime novels, but the cosier, less violent sort, which she tends to read once, then pass on to friends and family. So a few months ago, she gave me three of the Hamish MacBeth series by MC Beaton, including Death of a Witch. To be honest, although I liked the TV series starring Robert Carlyle (though perhaps mainly for the Scottish scenery) the books didn't really grab me. I think my tastes in fictional crime are rather different - I prefer something grittier and urban, to this comparatively light-hearted approach.

A Book That Scares You

I nearly chose David Mitchell's Slade House for this square, but he's already represented once by The Bone Clocks (over 500 pages), so I've chosen this YA fantasy thriller The Creeper Man - Dawn Kurtagich. Two young girls flee to their aunt's house in the woods hoping to find safety, but something or someone is out among the tress, creeping ever closer ... It might be aimed at a younger readership but I found it every bit as frightening as many an adult horror story!

A Book That Is More Than Ten Years Old
Another 'trickier to pin down than you'd think' category, much like the 'author under 30' one but this time, books were proving to be too young. Fortunately, Neil Gaiman wrote Neverwhere in 2005, although it's been re-released this year with a new cover, illustrations by Chris Riddell and an additional short story. It's set in the parallel city of  London Below, with a range of fascinating, fantastical characters, is a non-stop adventure, full of danger and excitement, twists and turns - and I loved every page!

The Second Book In A Series

Possibly the biggest cheat of all my responses, as I couldn't track down an actual second story of a series but went for a second bookThe Forgotten and the Fantastical 2,  edited by Teika Bellamy, is a collection of short stories, and doesn't continue series-like from the previous volume. They are alike in being stories of magic and otherness, reinvented fairy tales and the like; is that enough?

A Book With A Blue Cover
The book I've chosen here could have fitted in so many squares - based on a true story, non-human characters, heard about on the web, and, of course, blue cover.
A Ghost's Story by Lorna Gibb is the story of superstar spirit, Katie Green, a favourite of the seance parties of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. It's not a scary book, but it did make me wonder more about the nature of 'ghosts'.

Free Square
Last and by no means least You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris
The author's wife was among those killed by terrorists at the Bataclan nightclub in Paris last November, and a few days later he took to social media, not to encourage hatred against or fear of the French Muslim population but pledging himself to live life to the fullest, and to refuse to have his life defined by one random act. A story of overwhelming, almost unbearable grief but one with a positive note of hope.

Friday 9 December 2016

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

review by Maryom

Fitz is the bastard son of king-in-waiting Prince Chivalry, brought up in the stables of his grandfather's keep, and for most of his childhood generally ignored by his royal family. But his mere existence has upset the line of succession, at a time when the kingdom of the Six Duchies is under threat from both inside (political machinations among King Shrewd's three sons) and outside (sea-raiders who leave their victims in  zombie-like state), and Fitz can't avoid getting embroiled in others' plotting and plans.

I picked this e-book up on a promotional offer a couple of years go, and have somehow never got round to reading it. Then last week I saw that the final tale in the whole Fitz and the Fool series will be published next year, and I decided it was time to take the plunge!
I loved the writing style, and Hobb had me interested in this poor child, unceremoniously dumped on his royal relatives, from page one. But ... fantasy series involving orphaned children have a tendency to follow a given path, however loosely and  at first, the story progresses much as I suppose you'd expect - Fitz is brought up by the kindly but stern stable-master, makes friends among the youngsters in the town, discovers he has a gift, the Wit, which enables him to bond with animals and share their thoughts, although the stable-master disapproves of such goings-on. Then, surprise surprise, the plot twists away from the familiar, moves things up a notch (or several) and turns into a story of royal power struggles, secret alliances and political machinations worthy of House of Cards' Frank Underwood, with all the twists and turns of a crime thriller.
 I've read a lot of fantasy novels, and many rely on weird and wonderful creatures or magical abilities to further the plot; to have one moved along by very human desires and deceits is refreshing. I loved it, and can't wait to read the rest of the series - I think there's maybe 14 more to catch up on before the finale next May, so I my be some while ...

Review of the Liveships Trilogy

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
 Adult fantasy/political thriller

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes

review by Maryom

Peirene Press have made their name as publishers of short, translated fiction, but this collection marks the start of a different project - commissioning authors to explore current issues through fiction, to bring social problems to life in much the same way that Ken Loach's 1960s film Cathy Come Home shed light on homelessness.

Behind the headlines of thousands of refugees heading to the UK are real people, individuals with their personal stories and problems, fears and pressures - fleeing war, persecution, hoping to be able to help family back home or maybe be reunited with family they've been separated from. So for breach, authors Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes went to the 'Jungle' in Calais and spoke to the refugees, volunteers and locals before putting together this collection of eight short stories exploring various aspects of life for those in, and outside, the camp.

These stories are not intended to be verbatim accounts of things told to Popoola and Holmes, but reworkings of the tales they heard. After all, a good newspaper article can wring tears or anger from the reader; this process I would guess is nearer to an author drawing on their own experiences while writing fiction rather than autobiography.
Through the progression of eight tales, we see the plight of the Jungle's residents from a variety of angles; young men, refugees from various places, still trying to make it across Europe to Calais; the enforced calm of the Jungle where violence often lurks just below the surface; the attitude of volunteers, happy to hand out aid but not wanting to get involved at a personal level, and the contrasting view of those forced to accept this charity; the wary French locals, sympathetic and suspicious at the same time; the desperate measures risked to get on a lorry, van, train, or anything going towards England; exploitation by fellow-refugees turned people-smugglers and the often hostile reception that waits once the lucky ones eventually find a way across that slim stretch of water.

Above all, these stories are immensely readable - yes, they're undoubtedly thought-provoking but the story never plays second fiddle to the message.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult contemporary fiction, short stories

Thursday 1 December 2016

Guest post - Paul Fraser Collard

Today we're welcoming Paul Fraser Collard, author of the Jack Lark series, to the blog, talking about how he fits writing in, and around, his 'day job' ... 

Fitting it all in

If you had asked me a few years ago, my image of a writer at work would include an expansive, leather-topped desk near a window with a view over acres of rolling countryside. Or I may have pictured a serious author working in a café, their table liberally scattered with scrunched up notes and a number of empty coffee cups. I would not have imagined a tired office worker hunched over a tiny laptop on a packed commuter train. Yet that is my reality. For me, being an author means cramming my writing into every spare minute and using my daily commute to work as my dedicated writing time.

Fitting writing in is not easy. There are days when I just don’t feel like it. You see, I love a good box set and I will admit there are times when I am on the train and any thought of writing is forgotten as I sit back (or cram into a corner) and devour another episode of Sons of Anarchy, or last week’s episode of Westworld. I try to persuade myself that these somehow form a part of my research. It is my duty after all to remain current and to make sure that my writing reflects something of these wonderful dramas. Yet, I think we all know that is only so much fudge. There is no escaping a novel in progress.

I try my best to maintain a level of daily discipline. I find the morning commute easier, as I travel before the horde and I can pretty much bank on 500 to 1000 words on my way to work. The evening commute is harder. I travel at a busier time and finding my writing nook is often a challenge. But when I do get a seat, I try hard to ignore the lure of that latest downloaded episode and I summon the energy to battle out a decent number of words on my way home. In that way, I can keep that word count ticking over. I will never, ever, have that magic 5000 word day and I cannot foresee a time when I will have the luxury of a whole week or longer to devote to pouring out a great chunk of a novel. But, bit-by-bit, chapter-by-chapter, I can get that crucial first draft done and, with a few weeks worth of commuting time, I can polish that up into something that I can present my editor.

Writing like this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it works for me. It has advantages. It allows me to change things on the fly and, as I don’t produce a great swathe of a book in one go, I can keep reviewing and changing the plot as I go. On the minus side, I find it harder to hang onto every thread in a story especially when there have been many weeks between a character’s appearance in the narrative. There can also be horrible great chunks of repetition, where I forget what I wrote the previous week or month (or day!).

Make no mistake. I love being an author and the creation of a story is one that I enjoy immensely. I am now halfway through the seventh Jack Lark adventure and that proves that this method of writing really does work for me. I don’t see a time when I will move away from this slightly odd life and, if I am honest, I really quite like it this way. I have a feeling that I would find it harder to write if I had the luxury of time and space. It may be, that if the day comes when I become a full-time writer, then you will find me travelling the train network of southeast England, still working on my tiny laptop and still fighting for enough space to type.

Thank you Paul for stopping by. That's certainly NOT how I imagined an author's life to be!

The latest Jack Lark novel, The Last Legionnaire, is out in paperback today, and you can read Maryom's review here

Wednesday 30 November 2016

The Last Legionnaire by Paul Fraser Collard

review by Maryom

Jack Lark has, after many years' absence overseas, found himself back home - at his mother's gin palace in the East End of London. His time in the army, under a variety of aliases, has changed him but he thinks he's now ready to settle down and pick up life where he left it. Things aren't as straight-forward as that though - his mother is having to pay off local 'heavies' for protection, and Mary, the girl he thought he loved, is now a grown woman with a son to look after. Jack soon finds himself mixed up in trouble, and again indebted to army intelligence officer Major Ballard who has a new task for him overseas - this time in Italy, where French and Austrian troops are massing for war.

I've always rather liked Jack Lark and his adventures, and I'm pleased to see that the author is allowing him to grow and change with time, not to remain the impetuous young man he was in the Crimea (The Scarlet Thief) but become more mature, self-aware and able to see the down-side of his chosen career; even the victorious side leaves dead and mutilated soldiers on the field, and Jack now acknowledges than some day he could easily be one of them. This doesn't mean though that he's going to stand back well out of the way of danger; he's supposed to be on more of a mercy mission than actually engaged in the fighting, but Jack is Jack, and if there's a pitched battle or low-level skirmish around then somehow or other he'll find his way to it!

As I've come to expect from Paul Fraser Collard, The Last Legionnaire is a fast-moving action adventure which brings to life an odd bit of history that most of us are probably not aware of. (Although 'the Battle of Solferino' had a vague familiarity to it, I couldn't have said where or when it took place, and certainly had no idea about the involvement of the French Foreign Legion or the origins of the Red Cross). Collard isn't afraid to present the horrors of battle, so be prepared for violence, gore and lopped off body parts. None of this is gratuitous wallowing in blood and guts, but presenting war as it is (or was) and an important part of Jack's development.

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

Monday 28 November 2016

All That Man Is by David Szalay

review by Maryom

Nine men, nine separate stories, exploring 'manhood' in its various guises - from teenagers exploring the world on their own for the first time, to a middle aged millionaire losing all his fortune, and an elderly man trying to come to terms with the fact that his life may be reaching its closing years.

When this book was offered on Netgalley for review I jumped at the chance - after all, it was Booker short-listed, so I was expecting something fairly good. Unfortunately, for me at least, it didn't deliver on its promises. 
Basically, it just didn't grab me.
Firstly I found I didn't much like the format. It isn't a novel so much as a collection of short stories. There are loose links between them with a person or object appearing in more than one story - but to be honest that connection didn't really add anything. Also, they don't feel as rounded or finished off as I like a story to be; more like chapters, than fully stand-alone pieces.
Then there are the men these stories are centred on - and 'centred' is definitely the right word! Whatever their age or circumstances, the trait they have in common is believing the world revolves around them; friends, lovers, wives are just there to cater to their various wants and needs, and no real thought given to how they may feel. Now, I think it's perfectly possible to read a novel with an unsympathetic main character and still like the book - after all, faults make characters more interesting and a perfect person wouldn't have much of an interesting tale to tell - but reading story after story about guys for whom I couldn't feel a shred of empathy just became tiring. 

And, surely, not all men are like this, are they? Maybe that's the question the author is asking. Maybe I'm over-thinking it.

Maryom's review -  3.5 stars
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Genre - adult fiction, short stories, Booker shortlist, 

Wednesday 23 November 2016

The Constant Soldier by William Ryan

review by Maryom

Paul Brandt has returned home from Germany's Russian Front a broken man, but his obvious physical wounds - the lost of an arm and disfiguring facial burns - hide deeper emotional ones. He's ashamed of the conduct of the German army, of the senseless atrocities and mindless killing he's seen, and participated in, and is looking for a way to make amends. In some respects his valley home on the German/Polish border is unchanged but war has still found it's way here - there are no able bodied men to work the land, down the valley lies a concentration camp and closer to hand is a SS Rest Hut, a retreat for those who run the camp, somewhere for them to forgot the horrors of their day to day life. Among the prisoners working at the Hut, Brandt believes he recognises a woman he knew, and loved, before the war, a woman who was part of an anti-Nazi group to which he belonged, and for whose arrest he has always felt responsible. Accepting a position as steward at the Hut, Brandt vows that from now on he will do his utmost to protect her, but meanwhile Russian troops are massing ready to move on Germany, and a time is approaching in which no one will be safe.

The Constant Soldier is a blend of thriller, historical fiction and love story; the sort of book that grabs you on the first page, and which can't be put down. The story of Brandt and his attempts to redeem himself play out like a spy or undercover cop thriller, with him in constant danger of being exposed as someone who no longer has any sympathy for the Nazi regime - something which would surely end swiftly in his death - but it's set against the wider backdrop of Germany in 1944 as the Russians advance and everyone begins to panic. Without labouring the point, Ryan tries to understand the mind-set of the 'average' German, particularly soldiers, who've drifted along with the tide of events and either through apathy or self-advancement found themselves part of an horrific war and an authoritarian regime they never really approved of - and for which now they're going to have to pay.

Reading it today with the recent rise in religious and racial hate crime, and a seeming shift to right-wing policies in many countries, there are disturbing parallels to be seen. Ryan isn't trying to lecture his readership though; The Constant Soldier is primarily a gripping, compelling story. The luxury and 'normality' of the Rest Hut contrasts starkly with the largely unseen life of the concentration camp. Brandt is a character with whom one can easily sympathise. The German's are not seen as stereo-type heel-clicking soldiers but as individuals - disillusioned army officers, disenfranchised Polish farmers, and resistance members on one side, with more-typical uniformed bullies and a power-hungry mayor on the other, and the young schoolboys, soon to become defenders of their piece of Germany, caught in the middle.
It's a book I'd highly recommend whether you read it at face value of historical thriller or as something thought-provoking and perhaps disturbing.

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

Genre - 
adult historical thriller, war story, WW2

Monday 21 November 2016

You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris

translated by Sam Taylor

review by Maryom

Just over a year ago, we were all stunned by the terrorist attack on the Bataclan nightclub in Paris. While the world was filled with rage and demands for vengeance, one man posted on his Facebook page a response to the attackers saying "You will not have my hate", pledging himself to live life to the fullest, with love and laughter, without fear and hate, despite anything such terrorists could do; it was all the more remarkable because that man's wife, mother of his seventeen-month old son, had died in the attack.

In this short book, Antoine Leiris tells of his struggle through the first few weeks after his wife's death. He doesn't enter into the horror of events inside the Bataclan. He doesn't touch on the politics or religious beliefs of the attackers. His account is a very personal one - of a husband at home that night, looking after his son, seeing his world start to fall apart as news broke on TV, and of his gradual attempt to re-build a life for himself and his son.
From the first shock of horror, and the blind panic of that night, through the quandary of explaining events to a child too young to speak properly but fully able to understand that his mother is no longer there, and the overwhelming support from both friends, with their never-ending supply of home-made meals, and strangers inspired by his Facebook post, the reader is with Leiris every step of the way. You can feel the growing dread with which he watches the news bulletins, the gradually dawning horror as his wife cannot be found, and the grief that threatens to overwhelm him when her body is.

This isn't, though, a story of a man consumed by grief. What shines through the anguish is Leiris's determination that, although they took the life of his wife, the terrorists would not have claimed his, or his son's, too. To be consumed by hatred and the desire for vengeance, to give way to fear, to distrust his fellow men, would do just that. Instead, despite the heartbreak, and inspired in part by his son's ability to still find joy in everyday things, Leiris resolves to live life as fully as possible, to refuse to be defined by this one random act, and in this small way to stand up to terrorists whatever they believe in.

This is a book which opens amidst horror but leads to the light. There are undoubtedly overwhelming moments of grief, but the overall feel of the book is a positive one of hope.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Harvill Secker
Genre - 
adult, memoir, autobiography, 

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Warning Cry by Kris Humphrey

Guardians of The Wild - Book 2

Review by The Mole

Nara, a farmer's daughter and Whisperer, has been summoned to Meridar to join with all the other Whisperers so that they can combine their powers to fight the demon army and defend the people of the Kingdom of Meridina. Nara's powers are resented by her family who expect their children to become farmers and help in the running of the farm. When the summons comes to go to Meridar, she says goodbye to her father and leaves to travel further than she has ever travelled - and alone - without a word to her mother or sister. She takes with her Flame, her leopard companion, and finds the journey anything but straightforward.

Book 1 was Whisper of Wolves which told the story of Alice and her companion wolf. In this book we meet a different Whisperer and while Alice may make a cameo appearance we aren't introduced to her.

So many of these young fantasy adventure series are based on one special person that can save the world single handedly and the problem with that is that if you don't like that character... well, it's obvious. In this series we follow a different character (or group of characters) in each story so the reader feels the overall plot expand as it progresses.

A very fast paced, hugely enjoyable, easy reader for the 9+ age group. Although all the lead characters are women or girls (of one age or another) I can see no reason why boys wouldn't enjoy these books as well.

Publisher - Stripes Publishing
Genre - 9+, Fantasy Adventure

Monday 14 November 2016

It's Just The Chronosphere Unfolding As It Should by Ira Nayman

a Radames Trafshanian Time Agency novel (Transdimensional Authority Book 4)

Review by The Mole

In Random Dingoes we met Radames Trafshanian - a Time Agency agent - after Noomi and Crash's case was shown to involve time travel. In this book we follow a case of Radames' as she tries to unravel the occurrences of déjà vu that seem to be causing time anomalies and threaten the stability of the multiverse.

These stories are extremely funny - I am careful with the word "hilarious" as it invokes memories of watching Morecambe and Wise as a child and laughing until my ribs, quite literally, hurt. But who really wants that in a book? You'd never get the book finished as you kept having to find your place on the page! But Nayman's books are just short of that but...

Time travel is one of those things that it's so easy to get totally obsessed with as an author and as a reader, and the concept of the multiverse further complicates that. Nayman somehow sidesteps those problems and leaves you with a novel that almost feels plausibly real - until you think about it.

My own view is that Nayman is actually getting better at these stories and the books (I've only read 1 and 3) were never anything but good but do improve. I know that when I turned the last page to find the appendices came next I was disappointed - disappointed that there was no more and I would have to wait for book 5!

A read for YA/adult readers that love humour and scifi and don't take their reading too seriously.

Genre - YA/Adult Humour, Sci-Fi
Publisher - Elsewhen Press

Friday 11 November 2016

The Terror by Dan Simmons

review by Maryom

In 1845 Sir John Franklin led an expedition to discover the North-West Passage, a sea-route passing through the maze of ice and islands that make up Canada's northern coast to reach Alaska and the Pacific Ocean. His two ships - Terror and Erebus - were equipped with the latest steam technology and ice-breaking hulls, but even that wasn't enough to cope with treacherous Arctic conditions, and the ships became trapped in the ice - not just over winter, but throughout an exceptionally cold summer too.
At that point, history leaves the crew marooned with no real explanation of what happened to them - and that's where Dan Simmons steps in with The Terror ...
After two years stuck in the ice, food and coal supplies are getting low, but a greater danger is stalking the expedition; a huge, nameless, formless thing that attacks and kills crew members one by one.

I've had The Terror sitting around on my 'to be read' shelf for a long while, and picked it up just before Halloween thinking it would be a fitting read, but at over 900 pages, it's taken a while to get through. I would say though that at no point in all those pages was I bored!
As you've probably surmised, the story is a mix of historical adventure and horror - and to be honest I found the history of the expedition fascinating and didn't think the story needed the horror aspect.
I was aware to a certain extent of the Franklin expedition and its search for the North-West passage, but only in the briefest way. Simmons brings those bare facts and dates to life; the conditions on board ship, the extensive supplies designed to last five years, the hopefulness and enthusiasm at the beginning of the voyage and gradual decline in moral as both officers and men realise that they're stuck not merely overwinter (which is to be expected) but through summer and at least another winter in the ice. I was particularly impressed with how Simmons used a mix of flashbacks and conversations to flesh in the details of past voyages to both Arctic and Antarctic, without having to fall back on just listing events. The descriptions of long, dark endless nights, the sound and feel of ice moving and cracking bring the almost alien surroundings vividly to life.
The horror didn't grab me, or frighten me as much, but I wasn't worried; the whole story of the Franklin expedition is a mystery, and fascinating as such, so this is an excellent read as a fictional version of an intriguing piece of history. (For anyone interested, I read somewhere recently that the Erebus may have been discovered at last, making this a doubly timely read)

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - 
Bantam Press
Genre - 
adult, exploration, arctic 

Monday 7 November 2016

Girl In Danger by Leigh Russell

(Lucy Hall Mystery No. 2)
Review by The Mole

Lucy has taken up a post in journalism in Paris but her work is dull and not the exciting headline grabbing work she had imagined so she starts asking around for stories. Out of the blue her phone rings and a voice arranges a clandestine meeting where nothing seems to happen until she, later that evening, finds a key in her pocket. Returning home she finds her flat completely turned over and her flatmate gone. On reporting Nina's disappearance to the police they are not interested because it's  not been long enough and they almost accuse her of wrecking her own flat. Lost, confused and needing help she contacts a private detective and they set about trying to solve the mystery - but with different agendas!

Lucy has matured a lot since her first mystery and this book is a great deal better for it. She still exhibits naivety, but being the young person she is, that is to be expected and in this context it's a breath of fresh air.

The pace of the story varies from chapter to chapter but continues in the typical Leigh Russell way of continuing menace for the "heroes". Nina's plight is terrifying and it's frighteningly realistic the way that she almost welcomes her inevitable fate.

A very different person to the Lucy we met in the first book and a very much more menacing telling of the story. It reminds me of the first Geraldine Steel books where we spent so much time in the killer's head that we were terrified of what they were capable of. I am sure Lucy will lose some of her naivety as the mysteries go on - but not too much, too fast please.

Publisher: Thomas and Mercer Publishing
Genre: Crime Thriller