Friday 29 April 2016

Death Do Us Part by Steven Dunne

review by Maryom
DI Damen Brook is taking some well-earned leave, walking the Derbyshire countryside and trying to bond with his daughter Terri - but things aren't working out the way he'd hoped. Terri is clearly troubled by something - chain smoking, and drinking heavily each evening - and everything Brook says seems to put her more on edge. Then he receives a letter from a murderer he helped to convict, claiming that a recent murder investigation has been totally bodged by elderly investigating officer, DI Ford. At first Brook's inclined to dismiss it as attention-seeking ramblings but then he begins to wonder...
It all adds up to make Brook more than happy to lend a hand when his DS, John Noble, requests help on a double murder enquiry. 
In a quiet Derby suburb, an elderly couple have been murdered, cleanly, with single shots to the heart, in a style more akin to a gangland execution than a robbery-gone-wrong shooting. Noble also feels there may be links to a similar killing the previous month in a different area of the city - coincidentally another of DI Ford's cases. 

Although I read crime novels before, since I started blogging about books, I've read so many good thrillers that an extra hook is needed to make an individual story or author's work stand out. Steven Dunne's thrillers always hold on to that edge for me. Firstly, for the simple reason that they're set in my home city, Derby - though I hope that we don't have quite so many murderers in our midst as his books would imply! He's created a believable but troubled detective in Damen Brook, always provides a good array of suspects, and also does what might be called 'a good line' in murderers; not a psycho who'll just attack the first person to hand but someone with a warped mind who feels his actions are justified.

Death Do Us Part, with DI Brook making his sixth appearance, is no exception. While most of the action is safely on the far side of town, one murder scene is only a couple of miles from my door. Brook himself seems to be on the way to ridding himself of his personal demons at last - but unfortunately they seem to have moved on to his daughter Terri, whose life looks like it's descending into chaos. There's an excellent line-up of suspects, each of them seemingly quite capable of being the murderer, and, without descending to the squealing tyres of a tv car chase, there's a suitably dramatic ending.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Genre - Adult Crime Thriller

Thursday 28 April 2016

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

review by Maryom

After an absence of many years, the middle-aged narrator has returned to the area in which he grew up, to attend a funeral. But instead of going along with the other mourners, he heads off to visit the, now redeveloped, site of his childhood home, and the farm down the lane where his friend Lettie Hempstock lived. Sitting by the farm pond, he finds himself recalling things that happened when he was a child - things which through the intervening years have been forgotten; the suicide of his family's lodger, the unleashing of supernatural forces, and the stand that he and Lettie took against them ...

I was so over-whelmed by this that, for once, I'm lost for words to say, other than "Wow". I've read other Neil Gaiman books, even own a couple, but never really considered myself a huge fan. The Ocean at the End of the Lane may have changed all that!

You may have guessed, I loved this book. I don't think I've been this gripped by a fantasy novel since I first read Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a child. This story has much of the same feel - it too starts in the real world but soon supernatural horrors are bursting in from another world/dimension, there are strands of myth and folklore running through it, and our hero, the narrator, finds himself caught up in the very centre of the struggle to contain and expel those horrors. Fortunately, he has three generations of Hempstock women on his side -  the old grandmother, the mother, and eleven-year-old Lettie who seems wise beyond her years.

Although the hero is a boy of seven, it's not a children's book - my childhood self would have been terrified - though I'm sure it will appeal to many teens as well as adults. I, meanwhile, will be off to the library to borrow as many Neil Gaiman books as they have!

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Headline Publishing
Genre - adult, YA, teen,  fantasy, 

Tuesday 26 April 2016

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

review by Maryom

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a collection of stories revolving around love and libraries, gardens and diaries, and the keys that can unlock their secrets. The stories are loosely linked, with main characters from one popping up in a minor 'walk-on' role in another, and with the imagery shared by many of them, of hidden secrets and lost treasures.

Throughout there's a blurring of the boundary between real and unreal - some of the stories are very firmly set in the real world, others have a folk tale feel to them, or take flight into a world where puppets are as sentient as you and I. There's a city surrounded by marshlands filled with drowned bodies, one where the clocks have stopped and fixing them is considered an offence; a house where the doors won't stay closed unless locked by key, a twist on the story of Red Riding Hood.

Reading these stories is a bit like dipping in to a collection of fairy tales for adults - the first one even starts 'once upon a time' - and, as in fairy tales and fables, I felt that hidden beneath the story was a moral, but one I couldn't always find. The stories are definitely beautifully written but so much so that I found myself at times carried away by the words, and not grasping the meaning; I was half mesmerised, half perplexed. The collection has, though, whetted my appetite; I hadn't previously read anything by the author, but now I shall check out her previous work.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Picador
Genre -adult, short stories

Thursday 21 April 2016

The Last of Us by Rob Ewing

review by Maryom
On a remote Scottish island only five children are left alive; the rest of its population has died from a deadly disease brought over from the mainland. Led by Elizabeth, the eldest and daughter of the island's two doctors, these children try their best to keep going as 'normal' -  she holds lessons in the deserted school, takes them on 'shopping' trips among the abandoned houses, keeps them remembering the time 'before', makes sure they brush their teeth and that the youngest, Alex, gets his insulin shots every day. But things are obviously far from normal - and childish squabbles that would have no serious repercussions at other times, threaten the fragile community they have. Callum Ian, son of a local fisherman, resents Elizabeth being in charge - she's only a few months older and an 'incomer' to the island. But it's narrator Rona's own actions that lead to the REAL trouble...

Told from the point of view of eight year old Rona, events unfold on two timelines - what is happening 'now' and the events that started three weeks ago and led to the situation that Rona is in. Mingled in with both are Rona's memories of the time 'before', and of her mother who she firmly believes will be back to save her.
The details of what happened are sketchy, as you might expect from a child narrator, but as the full extent of the horror unfolds it becomes apparent that a disease possibly related to small pox spread from the mainland, and overwhelmed the island's meagre medical resources; although the children regularly monitor radio stations, the inference is that no one is alive on the mainland either. 

Post-apocalyptic novels featuring adults are common enough but a scenario where the only survivors are children adds an extra chilling twist to events. Their attempts to cling on to their past, their hope that someone will return and rescue them, the horrors they encounter when having to enter abandoned buildings - and the rapid way in which these have become accepted - are at times heart-breaking. It's a story that will keep you reading- hoping for the best, fearing the worst.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (The Borough Press)

Genre - adult, post-apocalyptic

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Talisman by Paul Murdoch

Review by The Mole

James Peck's dad has walked off into the sunset. His mum, a woman with a local reputation for being bossy and controlling, doesn't seem to care but James is convinced his dad hasn't run off but is in need of finding to help him to safety.

Escaping from gossips in the local shop, James follows a stranger to a weird location and meets Mendel - a wizard from another world who is trapped in another body and needs help to save his own world - Denthan. James agrees on condition that Mendel will help him find his father. So they set off to Denthan but a real best friend doesn't let you enter such adventures alone so Craig forces his presence into the scene - with Bero, his dog.

James's first task is to find a talisman to control the power of an invading wizard - hence the title.

Reading this as an adult - one who grew up living the space race - I found the world created difficult to accept, but that's a "me" thing. It's better to think of Denthan as another dimension - one where the laws of physics are completely different because, after all, they have magic and wizards.

There are, apparently, 7 books in the series and if I had to level criticism it would really be that we stop before we know the role of all the characters in the book - a group enter Denthan quite late and we don't really have any idea why.

Having said that this story is not like any I've read before in that the second group is a motley crew and you are genuinely left wondering what they can hope to achieve.

An excellent story that will delight the younger reader and have them looking for book 2 immediately. Well it was published in November so it's there for the asking.

Publisher - Strident Publishing
Genre - Children's (9+), fantasy

Friday 15 April 2016

Fever At Dawn by Peter Gardos

review by Maryom

Having survived the horrors of Belsen concentration camp, Miklos, a Hungarian Jew, finds himself shipped to Sweden to recuperate. Unfortunately his doctor there has bad news - Miklos's lungs are permanently damaged and he only has about six months to live. Despite this, Miklos is determined to embrace life, and find a wife. With this end in view, he gets hold of the addresses of any women from his old home in Hungary, who like him have been rescued and are now being nursed back to health - and he writes to them all, 117 of them! Several reply, but one in particular, Lili, captures his heart. Confined to their separate hospital camps, the two have to be content with a long-distance postage romance, but Miklos is determined to find his way round the rules and restrictions, and not only meet, but marry.

The story of Miklos and LIli is a true one; that of the author's parents. So, in part, the reader knows from the beginning how the story will end, and the style of writing somehow constantly reminded of this. It shouldn't really matter, because, after all, read a book a second, or third, time and you will know how it ends, but somehow this time I found it a little off-putting. For the most part, I didn't find myself absorbed enough in the story. Sometimes the writing grabbed me enough to forget the ending, others it didn't.
The author is a film director and I began to wonder if this influenced his writing style. Descriptions of place, people and emotions are kept to a minimum, and dialogue and the letters themselves are allowed to carry the story.
Although it didn't grab me as a novel, it has a strong story line and I can see it making a good film.

Maryom's review - 3.5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult, historical fiction

Thursday 14 April 2016

The Forgotten and The Fantastical 2 - edited by Teika Bellamy

review  by Maryom

In The Forgotten and The Fantastical 2, editor Teika Bellamy has once again put together a wonderful collection of re-worked folk and fairy tales, half-familiar from childhood but given a modern twist

The first story, a not-quite-familiar tale of a little man who can spin things into gold, begins, as all good fairy tales should, with those immortal words Once upon a time... and leads the reader on a journey with fairy folk, spirit animals, selkies, magical manipulative mirrors and, or course, wicked step-mothers, through faraway lands, the frozen North, steaming jungle, modern cities, and the deepest, darkest forest of all, the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

These aren't stories to read at bedtime to small children but ones which seek out the darker themes hidden within the cosy, comfortable framework of the folk tale, often giving it a contemporary, feminist slant. There are tales of abduction - seal-women taken from the sea and forced to live as human, or a twist on Hansel and Gretel which asks just HOW could anyone live happily-ever-after after the trauma of being abandoned and imprisoned. There are stories in which animals help heal a grieving heart, and others which explore the deep bond between mother and child, or the manipulation of women - either by men (whether father figure or the stranger offering to turn 'straw' into gold) or by their own obsession with appearance and image.

There are seventeen stories in all ( a larger collection than the original volume); some are short, only a few pages, others longer; some close to the original (The Worm), others totally new work but within the fairy tale framework. I'm not going to go into great detail about all of them - suffice it to say, I enjoyed all.
BUT, of course, I had favourites.
For the retelling of an old myth - Solstice by Deborah Osborne, about the death of the old year, and the birth of the new.
For re-working classic tales - Rumpelstiltskin by Rebecca Ann Smith, and Reve/Revival, Elizabeth Hopkinson's 'green' version of Sleeping Beauty.
For creating a new fairy story out of fact (if I had to choose just one, it would be this) - Icarus by NJ Ramsden which takes the true war-time story of an attempted escape from Colditz castle and re-imagines it as, well, a fairy tale.  Each segment of the story starts with the sentence 'Once there was a man who wanted to fly' (a classic folk tale device of repetition) and tells the tale of  a man who wanted to be free but is forced first to become a paratrooper, then confined in a seemingly impregnable and inescapable fortress by the Germans but never gives up on his dreams. Maybe it's how myths and legends are made ....

Authors - Rebecca Ann Smith, Lindsey Watkins, Ana Salote, Julie Pemberton, Anuradha Gupta, Laura Kayne, Rachel Rivett, NJ Ramsden, Ronne Randall, Sarah Hindmarsh, Finola Scott, Hannah Malhotra, Jane Wright, Deborah Osborne, Elizabeth Hopkinson, Marija Smits

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Mother's Milk Books
Genre - 
adult folk/fairy tales

Tuesday 12 April 2016

The Mark by Rosemary Hayes

Review by The Mole

Jack has been sent to find his next "mark" - who they are or why he's been sent is not something he knows. He doesn't even know who his last mark was but he will know them when he finds them. When he finds them it will be a quick "in and out" and he will move on to his next.

When he finds Rachel it turns out that she's his mark but Jack for some reason finds he can't just do his job and get out like he normally does. There is something about her naivety that Jack feels a need to help her. She is in danger and she doesn't know it.

Jack and Rachel go on the run for their lives and a dependence upon each other flourishes into much more - too much more.

A Young Adult book also suitable for teenagers I found this book to be compelling to say the very least. The reader starts in some confusion, which (coincidentally) is also how we find Jack. How can he know his mark on sight? What is he to do when he meets the mark? Who is he and who is he working for? Yet when we reach the end of this story the ending is just so right and so wrong in so many ways. Yes, we start to get an idea how it will end quite a way before the last chapter and that makes it all the more painful. The story has progressed from a thriller to a thriller with a strong love story element and you want it to end well for the couple - but you know it can't so can anything be salvaged for either of them?

The cover of this book gives nothing away about the story "Two teenagers on the run from their past"... doesn't that sum up so many YA or teen books? But I found I was totally blown away by this one.

I don't really care how you get hold of a copy but find one and read it - I am sure it will have a huge impact on you too. And get your teenagers to read it - they will enjoy it immensely if nothing else.

Publisher - Troika Books
Genre - YA/Teen, Thriller

Monday 11 April 2016

The King's Shadow by Philip Womack

Review by The Mole

The second book in The Darkening Path trilogy follows on from The Broken King to continue the story of Simon's and Flora's efforts to retrieve their siblings.

It feels like it presumes the reader is still very familiar with the story so far so you would benefit from reminding yourself what's happened or, if you haven't read it, reading book 1 first - it's well worth it.  The tale picks up from where it was left and continues apace with new and gruesome new monsters on almost every page. And who to trust?

As they try to find their brother and sister they find out that they've been used from the very beginning by the people they thought were their friends and that they are puppets playing out someone else's wishes. But things don't go the way that had been planned for them...

An excellent second episode of this fast paced fantasy for the younger reader that will leave you on a cliff hanger ending. And while I am a little slow to getting around to reading this one (sorry, guys) the good news is that if you read this now you won't have long to wait for the third and final part of the adventure - The King's Revenge is out on 28th May and I'm sure it will round off a truly magnificent journey for the younger dark fantasy readers.

Described as suitable for 11+ I'm sure this series does, and will, appeal to many younger and capable readers as well.

Publisher - Troika Books
Genre - Children's fantasy, 11+

Thursday 7 April 2016

Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary

review by Maryom
DI Marnie Rome and her team have been searching for missing teenager, May Beswick, for twelve weeks, so when a girl is spotted leaving the site of a car crash, their first hope is that it might be her. But this girl, covered in scratches and dressed only in a man's shirt, has disappeared too, seemingly walking on auto-pilot, into the path of traffic but away again without harm. Following the trail of this unknown girl leads Rome and her DS, Noah Jake, into the world of homeless teens living rough on the streets and a sinister man who offers help and shelter but only on his increasingly controlling terms.

I've been saying this here and there on social media since I first read this, but it's worth saying again - I think Tastes Like Fear is Sarah Hilary's best book yet! It's written in a way to entice the reader in - alternating the investigation from Rome and Jake's point of view with first person insights into the world of the 'rescued' girls, using dialogue to set the scene, forward the plot and reveal character, and, of course, delivering a tense, tightly-plotted story-line.

With a mystery girl appearing and vanishing like a figment of imagination, not quite on page one but nearly, I was hooked immediately. Following the twists and turns of the team's investigation I was variously chilled, intrigued, shocked, and frequently surprised - for the shadowy world where runaways live almost in plain sight is one in which people are rarely what they seem to be; not only the man known as 'Harm', who is menacing and believable enough for the reader to feel the fear he radiates, but other characters as well. (I'm not going to list the others for fear of spoilers, though most parents won't be surprised to know that their teens keep all sorts of secrets from them)

Hilary's special knack has always been to get inside the head of her, frequently warped, characters, and she does that again here, entering the mindset of the teenage runaways, looking for somewhere to belong and call 'home', and 'Harm' who offers this to the girls; she presents even the villain as a believable complex person, for whom at times, it's possible to feel understanding if not quite sympathy.

As you'd expect, the villain's true identity is kept a closely guarded secret till the end, although, in retrospect, the clues leading to it were there all along, so it doesn't spring out as a total, unbelievable, surprise.

This is most definitely a series that goes from strength to strength, so I'm definitely looking  forward to what the author has in store for Marnie Rome and Noah Jake on their next appearance.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Headline Publishing
Genre - adult, crime, police procedural,

Wednesday 6 April 2016

Shtum by Jem Lester

review by Maryom

Ben and Emma Jewell have reached breaking point. Their son, Jonah, was once a cute toddler trying out his first words, but, unlike other children, he hasn't grown up. Those few words were just a false hope as Jonah has turned out to be severely autistic - he doesn't speak, isn't toilet-trained, in short is like an overgrown toddler, with a toddler's rages but an older child's destructive capabilities.
Now it's time for Jonah to be changing schools. Ben and Emma don't feel the standard borough provision is suitable for Jonah; another, far more expensive, boarding school would give him a better quality of life all-round but the borough have to be persuaded to fund it. Apparently, Jonah would be more likely to get a place there if Ben were having to cope as a single father - so Emma throws them both out and sends them to live with Ben's elderly father, Georg.
Georg seems happy enough with the situation - willing to indulge Jonah's moods, to sing to him, to tell stories, even personal ones of his escape from Hungary which Ben has never heard - but it isn't a situation that can continue for long....

Shtum is the story of a couple battling local health authorities, and sometimes each other in an attempt to get the best care possible for their rapidly growing autistic son. He doesn't fit the popular idea of autistic - the socially-inept genius frequently seen on TV and in films - whether Dustin Hoffman's Rainman, The Bridge's Sara Noren or Mercury Rising's code-breaking nine year old Simon. Instead he's just, well, a child who will never grow up; it sounds sort of cute, but think about it, and it isn't - imagine the future of the parent faced with a lifetime of nappy-changing and toddler tantrums! The author writes from personal experience and it's certainly an eye-opener - both in how extreme a condition autism can be, and in how little health/education authorities are willing/able to help.

I don't think I'm giving much away by saying everything ends up happily for Jonah, at least, but I couldn't help wondering what would happen to him as he grew into an adult.

Maryom's review - 3.5 stars 
Publisher - Orion Books

Genre - adult

Friday 1 April 2016

Star Shot by Mary-Ann Constantine

Illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

review by Maryom

Something strange is happening in the centre of Cardiff - as people move around the city, particularly close to the Museum, they are encountering silent spaces where all noise is suddenly cut off. A handful of people seem more aware of the phenomenon than others - Myra, who feels some strange, almost physical, attraction to the museum; Theo, an expert on ponds and the life found in them, who carries out 'guerilla-gardening' style pond installations; single-parent Dan struggling with the loneliness of bringing up his son; Luke carrying out a study into the use of public benches across the city, and his supervising professor - the first to spot the extant of these silent patches and their alarming growth. As the paths and lives of these five cross and connect, the puzzle of the silence grows, and initiatives are put it place to fight it but nothing seems to stop its spread.

Set in a off-skew Cardiff, Star Shot is a fable-like novel that speaks, to me at least, of the dangers of wiping out nature through the spread of concrete urban centres, and of the isolation of individuals in our high pressure, work-obsessed modern society. These ideas are explored, not through highly-moralistic rhetoric, but through the lives of a small group of characters, most of them rootless in the city, cut-off in some way from family and friends, struggling to form new relationships. As the story evolves, we learn more about their backgrounds, how in various ways they are damaged or weighed down by their past. The exception is Theo, the only one who lives outside the city, who you might even say 'lives and breathes' nature. Everything in his life revolves around ponds; employed during the day by corporations and councils to install them as one of their 'green' credentials, and sneaking out at night making wildlife havens on waste ground, with ponds and plants. It seems like he is the one who holds the key - not only to halting the spread of 'silence' but to bringing the others together.

After a short initial confusion, as the characters were introduced in quick succession, I found the story taking off and holding me. It's not your average 'airport' or 'beach' read but an interesting, thought-provoking comment on modern life, which, although I enjoyed it this time, I'd like to re-read in the not too distant future, knowing how the complexities of the plot work round each other.

Seren have previously published a collection of the author's short stories, All The Souls, but this is Mary-Ann Constantine's first full-length novel.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - 
Seren Books
Genre - 
adult literary fiction, modern fable