Friday 29 January 2016

Black Widow by Chris Brookmyre

 review by Maryom 

Diana and Peter didn't at first sight seem to be a couple made for each other - she was a skilled surgeon; he was the "IT Crowd" guy sent in to fix her pc - but somehow they hit it off and after a whirlwind romance married six months later. Another six months more and the dream is shattered when Peter dies in car accident.
Peter's sister Lucy isn't happy with the police's initial findings so she gets journalist Jack Parlabane to nose around and see what he can dig up, and meanwhile policewoman Ali, one of the first at the scene of the crash, begins to have her suspicions too. Suddenly things are starting to look black for Diana....

The story starts as Diana is on trial for murdering her husband, and is told through three threads, approaching from different angles - Diana's narration of her back story, the viewpoints of Jack and Ali. The public image of a fairytale romance is quickly eroded away as the reader discovers the reality behind it, but even so, are things as easily and simply explained away as it seems?

 I've long been a fan of Chris Brookmyre but oddly haven't read many of the Jack Parlabane series, so I don't know how typical this is, but to be honest I was a little disappointed. For starters, there was a lot less of the Fargo or Breaking Bad style black humour that I associate with Brookmyre, and then the plot's big reveals seemed visible from too early on (I don't want to give away spoilers but for anyone who's read it, then, yes, even that shocker at the end!) Despite that it was readable enough but more for the development of character, the insights into blogging and trolling on the internet, and the exposure of a web of lies and secrets, than for the whodunnit aspect.

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

Thursday 28 January 2016

Unthology 8 - Edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones

Review by The Mole

The "introduction" has a subtitle of "How To Unthology" and a most interesting piece it is. It is an extract of a talk that Ashley Stokes gave the London Short Story Festival. If you read it you will understand what you need to do to attract the attention of the editors to get your short story included. But, more importantly, if readers haven't Unthologised in the past then they will get a better understanding of why they should and what they have missed out on.

The collection commences with a fictionalised and shortened extract from the life of Edvard Munch and while I enjoyed this and was moved by parts of it It did sort of feel different to the normal selection.

We then move on to "Bye Bye Ben Ali" - a story of a deluded dictator which was extremely amusing and I did wonder, a few times, if the "dictator" was just a normal although deluded person.

With The Sculptor we start a series of short stories that follow relationships progressively from merely wondering "what if" and going further forward (or backward) through the relationship life cycle and how people can be stupid enough to throw themselves on the rocks for no good reason. My very favourite in this group has to be 10,000 Tiny Pieces.

Not Drowning But Saving is a fascinating concept and while it has been taken to a ridiculous extreme (hasn't it?) it is a story that carries more than a grain of truth - well worth a read for it's own sake. Lines In The Sand had a surprise in store - as do most short stories - but one that would make you pause and think...

As Understood By Women returned to the relationship theme but put a slant on it that was an interesting observation.

And finally.. A Beautiful Noise - an ageing music agent/promoter/publicist takes a nostalgic trip to a gig but his interpretation of people takes us back to The Sculptor.

Another excellent selection of stories by these master editors - but let's not forget that they are also selecting excellent authors work - that takes the reader on a journey across life. And in this case the "life" could be the reader's own.

I found this perhaps the most addictive Unthology yet and may yet have to join Unthologyholics Anonymous.

I have read the previous 5 books in the Unthology collection and you can read their reviews here:- Unthology 3, Unthology 4, Unthology 5, Unthology 6, Unthology 7

Publisher - Unthank Books
Genre - Adult short story anthology

Wednesday 27 January 2016

In A Land Of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

review by Maryom

At the age of six, Henrietta S. Robertson left behind her home in Pingxia village, her Chinese name, Ming-Mei, by which she'd so far been called, and her missionary parents, to go to boarding school  while her parents continued their work.  The story picks up in 1941, when "Etta" is ten, and the Japanese are advancing through China, and even Lushan school on top of its remote mountain is beginning to feel threatened. Despite being surrounded every day by the other pupils and teachers, Etta comes across as lonely and confused. Her search for love and attention draws her into over-dramatising events and claiming she has the gift of prophesy. With the other girls from her dormitory, she sets up the Prophetess Club to look for signs from God - but their actions seem to be heading them straight towards trouble .....

Told mainly in the first person from Etta's point of view, In A Land of Paper Gods is the story of a girl who realises something is missing from her life - but isn't sure what; it may be the love and stability offered by a 'normal' family, the purpose in life that the missionaries and teachers seem to have, or simply her uncomplicated childhood playing with the Chinese children in her home village. To be honest, I didn't find Etta very likeable. Although I could see that at times she was acting out of loneliness, she had too much of a need to be the focus of attention for me to feel really sympathetic. It's only when events take a drastic turn that she begins to shed this self-centred-ness and realise that others have as much right to life and love as she has.

With the multitude of threads running through, this is bound to make an excellent book club choice with lots of topics to discuss - from cultural clashes to personal motivation.
Is Etta deliberately troublesome, attention seeking or does she act out of loneliness, and a need of someone, anyone, to love? are these problems that will always be faced in boarding schools, or were Etta's teachers just totally unaware of the emotional needs of the children they'd taken charge of?
The whole role of missionaries in non-Christian countries like China is again something worthy of discussion - were they really following God's will or was it just another form of imperial expansion? and is it ever right to impose your own religion and culture on others in this way?
A book I think to really polarise people and get them talking and thinking.

 Maryom's review -  4 stars
Publisher - 
Tinder Press
Genre -
Adult fiction,

Monday 25 January 2016

The Janus Cycle by Tej Turner

Review by The Mole

Janus is a nightclub but one with a reputation for tolerance and individuality.

The story is told through lives of 8 separate narrators although each is visited at some point and invited, nay pleaded with, by a girl to go to Janus every Friday. She encounters characters for the first time and refers to them by name but later when she meets them, they know her but she doesn't know them.

Is she making mischief or really a time traveller? And why is she trying to assemble all these people at the same time? And who is she running from?

Time travel is a concept that easily attracts plot flaws but in this short novel (218 pages) Turner has been extremely careful and crafted an excellent story. Some of the characters you will love and some you won't but give them all chance to be a part of the whole - it's well worth it.

Like "The Time Traveller's Wife", there is no technology involved instead there is a genetic trait that makes it possible. You know, believe or suspect from the very start of the book that something terrible is going to happen at Janus but no teasers are offered so when you find out you are totally unprepared for the horror about to unfold.

A real page turner that will keep you reading.

Genre - Adult Thriller, Sci-Fi
Publisher - Elsewhen Press

Friday 22 January 2016

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

review by Maryom

Following the death of his parents, Simon is leaving his home village in the country and heading to London; he has no clear memory of his past and no directions to follow, just a bag filled with objects that, when handled, help him remember very specific incidents, and a scrap of song that will lead him to a friend of his mother. Simon isn't unusual, for in this strange dystopian world memories are wiped clean at the end of each day by the sound of The Chimes, and lives are governed, directions given, goods advertised for sale, and information passed on by music and song.
In London, Simon by chance meets up with another boy, Lucien, who seems to have more ability to remember than most people, and who seems particularly interested in the small snippets Simon can recall from his past. Gradually Simon begins to remember more, and with growing uneasiness realises he was sent to London with a specific purpose.

A bit like plunging into a cold pool, the reader is dropped straight into Simon's world, standing in the rain at the side of the road, sharing his thoughts and limited memories, without preamble or explanation, and left to work things out for themselves. At first it seems like Simon may be the only one suffering from this weird memory-loss but gradually it becomes apparent that everyone does; unless a memory can be imprinted on an object, once out of sight even things as dear as home and family are soon forgotten - so a story that might be akin to Fifty First Dates or Before I Go To Sleep, quickly changes and becomes something darker. My immediate assumption was that everyone was suffering from some form of Alzheimer's-style epidemic, then when Simon encountered the noise and bustle of London, I wondered if memories were being overwhelmed by all the noise in the way that the constant chatter of social media today dulls us in our interactions with our surroundings, even the people we're actually sitting with. As the story progressed, both of these theories were proved wrong but the Chimes remained as an organised, centrally-controlled form of brain-washing.

The world of the Chimes is a wonderfully strange one, yet believable due to the 'thinking through' of the author. World-building alone, though, isn't enough to make a compelling story, so the author has built in a mystery, part of which the reader is privy to even though Simon has forgotten, and a slightly 'thriller' aspect to the plot.
Being told in first person by someone with no knowledge of what has gone before gives a shifting fluid feel to reality in which everything is observed as if for the first time, and deftly captures how it must feel to be in this predicament.

The main characters are young, teenaged or thereabouts, so I'm not sure whether I'd class it as an adult book perfectly suitable for teens with a desire for something a little unusual, or as YA that adults would want to read.

Longlisted for Booker Prize 2015
Maryom's review -  4 stars
Publisher -  Sceptre
Genre - dystopian,

The Chimes Blog Tour - Anna Smaill Author Contribution

Today we're delighted to be part of the blog tour for the paperback publication of The Chimes by Anna Smaill. I'm always intrigued about what sparks an author's imagination, particularly when their creation is a complete new world, so, having the chance to ask, that was what I wanted to know....
I've seen a lot of people talking recently about how the constant chatter of social media dulls us to the surrounding world, even the friends or family we're actually sitting next to,  and the Chimes themselves seemed to me a more organised, centrally-controlled but similar form of brain-washing.
I don't know if these thoughts have any relevance at all but they left me intrigued about how Anna stumbled upon the original idea for The Chimes. .....

The Chimes is really an exploration of two different human drives – the one towards purity and the one towards mess – and how sometimes art seems to encourage us to view these as existing in a sort of irreconcilable binary.

It will surprise no one that this preoccupation behind the book can be traced to my own experience with music. I started playing the violin at quite a young age, seven years old to be exact, and I was far from a natural musician. I loved it, but the sounds I produced were always quite different from the ones I imagined in my head. My experience with music gave rise to a sort of painful dualism. By which I mean, it often felt like my body was a kind of hindrance to what was going on inside, and the things I wanted to express. I felt exhausted by all that was uncontrollable about playing an instrument – those erratic nerves and wayward physical habits. I also felt befuddled by the fact that, even if I played something perfectly and soulfully, a person listening could fail to be swept up in this, could, in fact, just walk past unmoved.

This kind of overthinking wasn’t exactly compatible with a performance degree; I stopped playing the violin in my second year. However, I’ve remained really interested in the way some art seems to inhabit and draw on these frustrations and impulses. It’s not a strange leap that poets like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were drawn to fascist politics – the impulse is in the work, in the straining toward a sort of pure, unimpeachable form of expression, and in the setting up of a quasi-religious aesthetic hierarchy.

The idea that we can ever attain some kind of pure expression is a nonsense, of course. Any two-way communication is always fraught – each party brings their own experiences to the exchange. Mess and impurity is where language and art thrives, evolves and adapts. Discrepancies and clashes of perspective allow memory to modulate into story. Yet my own experience with music is why I didn’t want the Order (the powerful musical elite of The Chimes) to appear in the book as a simple force of evil. I wanted to show the beauty in their extreme commitment and fervor. I wanted to suggest that that there is even something potentially admirable in their vision. I think it’s in all of us, that hunger for extremes.

Hopefully, possibly, some of this seething internal debate is clear in the world of The Chimes! But I should make it clear that I never saw the book as an ‘ideas novel’. I didn’t have an agenda to push or a specific target for critique. I’d hate the book to feel didactic or programmatic in any way. I should, however, probably end by saying that if we are ever in a situation where art is divided between the pure and the impure, I – to quote the wonderful NZ poet Bill Manhire – ‘want to go and stand in the corner with all of the impure people’.

Wednesday 20 January 2016

After You Die by Eva Dolan

review by Maryom

A gas explosion in one of a pair of cottages leads the police to a murder scene in the other. Downstairs they find the body of Dawn Prentice, stabbed in a seemingly frenzied attack; upstairs is her disabled teenage daughter, Holly, who has been left to slowly starve. DS Ferreira of Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit had met the family before when Dawn and Holly had been the targets of harassment, now she begins to wonder if she'd taken their complaints seriously enough.... But as Ferreira and DI Zigic question neighbours, friends, and Dawn's casual boyfriends, it turns out there's quite a list of folk with private reasons for wishing her dead...

I've jumped in here at the third of this series but the case is a 'stand-alone' and the personal backgrounds of Ferreira and Zigic are easily picked up on.
With its village setting and multitude of suspects, After You Die sounds rather like a classic Agatha Christie but the issues lying behind the whodunnit mystery are contemporary and thought-provoking - the physical and emotional  difficulties of coping with a disabled child, the right of someone to decide when and how to die, online harassment, and the protection offered to children taken in to foster care. None of these overwhelms the story-line which twists and turns as the police chase red herrings, get stuck in dead ends, blocked by other police officials, but ultimately find their killer. it doesn't have the tension or thriller aspect of many crime novels - for example, there's no trail of increasingly desperate murders as the killer tries to hide their tracks - but it's still a very compelling read.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher -
Harvill Secker
Genre -
adult, crime,

Monday 18 January 2016

Bryant & May: London's Glory by Christopher Fowler

Review by The Mole

This is a collection of short stories only it's not. It's more than that, it's more like an "annual".

It contains an introduction by the author, an illustration of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a list and brief back story of each of the characters, a list of all the cases so far and a list of the books in Bryant's library as well as 11 short stories. To follow this up with another "annual" could be a tough call.

The stories place, unashamedly, the PCU across different eras and show Bryant and May in crime scene scenarios that try to emulate the kind of mysteries of some famous crime writers of the past.

There is a "country house" mystery where Bryant leaves his own "patch" in London and we see him take a holiday to southern Turkey - on a yacht! There is a "closed room" mystery that is set outside in the open air. And there is one set in 1952 - and B&M are set as still their current age (after all they are Fowler's characters to do with how he pleases) - where Fowler uses the smogs of the time to good effect.

Each one is very different to the last and extremely entertaining. The book feels like Christopher Fowler has indulged himself and produced something that he wants to do rather than something that he needs to do, consequently this book is a real treat for B&M fans but it is also an extremely good introduction to B&M, and their eccentricities, for new readers who aren't quite sure yet.

The Guardian says "unbeatable fun" and they are most certainly right on this one.

Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction,  crime mystery

Thursday 14 January 2016

The Widow by Fiona Barton

review by Maryom

Until three years ago, Jean and Glen Taylor were an average unremarkable couple. Then Glen was accused of the abduction and murder of a small girl, Bella Elliott. Since then, their life has revolved around his attempts to clear himself. Now Glen's dead, and to be honest Jean isn't really sad he's gone, but reporters are besieging her house and at last she's ready to tell her side of the story....

The Widow is the story, not of the accused, but of the loyal wife who stood quietly by his side through court appearances and as he faced the Press. She's seen often enough in newspaper photos or on TV, but no one asks what she knows or how she feels. Does she believe her husband guilty as charged, or does she truly, completely, believe him to be innocent? For Jean the initial allegations came as a shock; her Glen would never do such a thing! But gradually the police investigation reveals a side to Glen's character that she'd never guessed at - so what else might she have been mistaken about? While Glen is held by police awaiting his trial, Jean has to put a brave face on things and face the everyday world, coping with the suspicions of her neighbours, work-colleagues, and even family, and dealing with the barrage of reporters all after a story.

The story is told mainly from three points of view - that of Jean, of reporter Kate Waters, intent on grabbing an exclusive interview, and of detective Bob Sparkes, who never gave up on his belief that Glen Taylor was the man responsible for Bella's abduction. The three story-lines move between the present, just after Glen's death, and the events which were triggered three years ago with the disappearance of Bella, and weave round each other showing Jean's changing attitude towards her husband, the tricks that Kate uses to win her confidence and exploit a seemingly vulnerable woman, and the dogged pursuit embarked on by Bob Sparkes, even at the risk of his career.

 Before I started reading this, I was aware that the reviews appearing from bloggers were a bit mixed - some praising it highly, some unimpressed - but that's always the sort of reaction to get me reading a book and this time I'm glad I did. I think if, from the tag 'psychological thriller', you're expecting Gone Girl style over the top character and events, The Widow may leave you feeling a little flat. This is a much more subtle tale about people who could be anyone you know - your friends, your neighbours, even your own family - and, for me, this is why it works. Jean starts out a little meek and mild, almost adoring the ground Glen walks on, and certainly too gullible when it comes to accepting some of his stories about work, but as events unfold, the balance in their relationship changes till she becomes the stronger partner and her husband reliant on her.

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

Wednesday 13 January 2016

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

review by Maryom

In the summer of 1976, while England suffers under an unnatural heatwave, Mrs Creasy goes missing from her home, Number 8, The Avenue.  Did she just wander off of her own accord? was she abducted? murdered, even? or had she stumbled on the secrets her friends and neighbours keep so carefully hidden? The residents of The Avenue can only agree on two things - the heat makes people do funny things, and the weird guy at number 11 is probably involved somehow... As the rumours spread, ten year old Grace overhears the adults gossiping, picks up on the fear in their voices without really understanding, listens to the vicar talk about goats and sheep, and becomes convinced that if she and her best friend Tilly can only find God, Mrs Creasy is bound to return.

 After a longer than expected Christmas break, this is my first review of the New Year - and what a stunning book to start with! I'm fully expecting this is going to be up there in eleven months among my picks of 2016.

A story of 'Us' and 'Them', The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is an adult story told mainly from a child's perspective, and it was Grace's 'voice' that hooked and held me. The style feels simple and natural, with Grace displaying that curious mix of naivety and insight that children sometimes seem to have. Listening in to the world of adults, Grace hears, often repeats, but doesn't always understand what she's heard, leading to a lot of deadpan-delivery humour. On the other hand, at times her observations can be sharp and cutting, seeing through the evasions that children are fobbed of with and going straight for the truth.
Her child's-eye view of the world is charming, and beautifully captured - but what's happening in that world is unsettling to say the least! For at the heart of this story is a long-hidden secret brought bubbling back to the surface by the disappearance of Mrs Creasy. As summer progresses, and Mrs Creasy shows no signs of returning, the heat and tension rise, and the reader begins to see that behind the respectable lace-curtains something rather nasty has been going on - for this small community has banded together to victimise and ostracise the one person in their street who doesn't quite fit in. Although not necessarily close friends, the residents of The Avenue all get along, share the same set of values and general outlook - except for Walter Bishop at number 11. He's something of a square peg in a round hole, the weird goat among a herd of docile sheep, and a convenient person to blame whenever anything untoward occurs. The author shows how a stray comment can become believed in without a scrap of evidence, how people band together to protect their own but how that soon turns to bullying and intimidation. For a debut novel, this is something rather special, and I'm longing to read whatever Jo Cannon comes up with next!

 I'm not sure if the author personally remembers that long hot summer of 1976 (it's not really polite to ask, is it?) but I can, and can vouch for many of the little details; the half-forgotten food and tv programmes and presenters of the time, the fanatical saving of every drop of water, the parched cracked gardens, the suspiciously green one, often surreptitiously watered after dark, sparking gossip and back-biting among the neighbours but mainly I remember the long glorious sunny days. For me, every summer since then has proved to be rather a disappointment!

If I've enticed you into reading, you don't need to just take my word - there's a free sampler available from the publishers here

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (The Borough Press)
Genre - Adult fiction