Tuesday 31 May 2016

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

review by Maryom

Hope Arden is easily forgettable - turn your back on her for a few minutes, and you'll not remember ever having seen . Her condition first appeared during her teenage years; her teachers forgot why she was in their class, her friends no longer recognised her and even her parents began to wonder who she was. Finding 'normal' life impossible, Hope left home and began living off her wits, but when no one can remember you from day to day there are obvious problems. It's impossible to hold down a job, get anything more than quick, basic medical attention, or even have friends or a steady relationship. Fortunately, it has one major advantage - that Hope is very good at stealing things. From helping herself to the basics of food and clothing, to the meticulously planned 'lifting' of expensive jewellery, this has become her way of life.
In Dubai, looking to steal a famous diamond necklace, Hope makes the acquaintance of Reina, a young woman torn between her interest in women's rights and social issues, and the demands of a new phone app, which encourages its users to strive for 'Perfection'. When this conflict leads to Reina's suicide, Hope feels driven to investigate and perhaps expose the app, and its backers, as something potentially dangerous.

It's one thing to invent a character with a 'quirk' but more than that is needed to make an entertaining story - and THAT is Claire North's speciality, as demonstrated in her previous novels, Touch (in which a 'spirit' could pass from one host body to another) and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, (a person living their life time after time). Again, with The Sudden Appearance of Hope, North has chosen a lead character, to all appearances as normal as the next person, but with an extraordinary ability, and put them in the middle of a fast-paced thriller-style read. Looking for a way to destroy the company behind 'Perfection', Hope finds herself travelling round the world, frequently in danger, putting her trust in people that certainly don't have her interests at heart, and finding that the uses of 'Perfection' could be more dangerous than she's imagined.

It would be too easy, I feel, to dream up a condition such as Hope's and focus on only the good side of it, but it's obvious that the author has thought through the negatives as well - especially the social and emotional side. Even when surrounded by people, Hope's is a very lonely existence; she can hardly make friends when they'd forget her after a few minutes, and her love-life, such as it is, is reduced to a series of one-night stands.

Something I particularly liked with this story was the 'social commentary' side - highlighting the modern obsession with looking good, wearing the 'right' clothes, being seen in the 'right' places. The 'Perfection' app takes celebrity/lifestyle/diet magazines one step forward, with a  cynical
manipulation of people's insecurities and the desire to emulate the rich and famous. The app advises (or dictates) what to eat, how much exercise to take, which clothes to buy, where to be seen. It's a constant reminder of how you measure up, or drop behind, on your search for that perfect image, rewarding 'good' behaviour with bonuses, privileges, and medical procedures to take you nearer to your goal, and penalising if you don't follow the rules. It feels like something that's only a technological step or two away ...

For a while I thought I knew where the story was leading and how it would end, so I was pleased that an extra twist or two meant it didn't pan out the way I expected. I'm not quite sure whether to label this 'sci-fi' or not - most of it doesn't seem that far-fetched; it's only Hope's strange affliction that seems out of the ordinary.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Orbit
Genre - Sci-fi, thriller, adult fiction

Friday 20 May 2016

The Butterfly Summer by Harriet Evans

review by Maryom

Nina Parr's father died on an Amazon expedition when she was only a few months old so she has grown up knowing little of him and nothing of his family. Then a chance encounter makes her begin to question everything. An elderly woman insists she recognises Nina, claims she knows her family and that Nina is the heir to Keepsake, an ancient country house surrounded in mystery. Nina's at an awkward point in her life - drifting along, stuck in a dead-end job, divorced for two years but still attracted to her ex - and she feels that following up these hints of a family she's never known will help her 'discover' herself and move on.
Alongside Nina's story runs that of her grandmother Teddy. Brought up as the future owner of Keepsake, she wants nothing more than to leave it and all it stands for.

The Butterfly Summer is a combination of family saga and personal discovery; the two playing out alternately, as the reader follows Nina in the present day, and Teddy in the 1930s. I loved the way this story started - the intrigue of a hidden family history, the hints of something very like a family curse, and the mystery of an old house buried deep in the Cornish countryside, all added up to something Daphne du Maurier might have written. But whereas I found Nina an interesting character whose story continued to hold me throughout, I soon grew to dislike Teddy, for being too self-centred, too immersed in her illicit love affair at the expense of others, and her tale actually became rather predictable.
As the two stories unfold there are, perhaps necessarily, several big plot twists. Now, for such a twist to be believable, there has to be a certain amount of forewarning in the way of hints that the reader might or might not pick up on, but (and perhaps blame it on reading too many crime novels) in this case I found that the clues were so obvious that some of the 'twists' came as no surprise.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Headline Review
Genre - adult fiction, family saga

Tuesday 17 May 2016

This Must Be The Place by Maggie O'Farrell

review by Maryom

When Daniel and Claudette met on a lonely road in Donegal, he was a New York based linguistics professor, bruised and battered by a broken marriage, in Ireland to pick up the ashes of his grandfather, and she was an ex-film star, who had famously disappeared from out of the media spotlight, now hiding out with her young son in a remote, almost derelict, old house. For ten years, they've lived together, had two more children, restored the house, created a home. Life seems to be going well, but then, on the way to visit his estranged father in New York, Daniel hears something disturbing about a woman he knew twenty years before - and his life seems ready to slip off course again.

I haven't read all of Maggie O'Farrell's novels but enough of them to know I'll be settling down to a good read. This Must Be The Place, though, is even better than I expected - in short, engrossing, stunning, compelling, moving, brilliant! 

It tells the story, not only of Claudette and Daniel, but of their wider families - children, siblings, parents, grandparents - juggling a multitude of characters with their individual stories. It doesn't progress in a straight-forward linear way but loops round itself, moving backwards and forwards in time, and from Ireland to the USA to London or Sweden, as the story is teased out, like pulling a length of yarn from a tangled skein, with O'Farrell handling all the threads seemingly with ease (though I'd love to know how she managed to keep track of everything while planning and plotting!) As if that wasn't hard enough, it's told with a variety of different writing styles, moving between first and third person narratives, a script-style interview and an auction listing of Claudette's possessions (which admirably illustrates the scary lengths that 'fans' will go to to possess a little bit of their idol).
I'm not sure Daniel and Claudette are the most loveable book characters ever, but characters with no faults make for a dull book - if they don't have 'real-life' dragons or hijackers to combat, they need internal emotional demons to overcome (otherwise A and B would meet, fall in love and 'lived happily ever after' would come on the second page) In this case, both leads have a streak of self-destructiveness running through their make-up. Daniel's shows in a tendency to drink, to cut himself off from family, to wallow in the remembrance of things that have gone wrong for him. For Claudette, it's her need for extreme privacy - having escaped the invasive media circus that surrounds celebrities, she tends towards a hermit-like existence with an inclination to protect her private space violently if needs be. 
Without it being pointed out and underlined too obsessively, the place, Claudette's tumble-down house, was the healing force that brought them together and helped mend their lives, and those of others around them, but when Daniel leaves on his round of soul-searching, will its influence persist?

In brief, it's a love story about grown-ups; not bright new teenage love but that between older people, set in their ways, not necessarily ready to compromise, and dragging baggage from their past relationships along with them. 
I absolutely loved it! Need I say more?

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult fiction, 

Thursday 12 May 2016

Carrying The Fire by Michael Collins

Review by The Mole

Subtitled "an astronauts journeys" this book is an autobiographical retelling of Michael Collins' flights on Gemini 10 and Apollo 11. Yes, he is the forgotten one, the one whose vital role aboard the command module enabled the first 2 men on the moon (Armstrong and Aldrin) to return to earth after their so historic event.

As a teenager I read and watched everything I could find on the space programs (both American and Russian) - not because I wanted to be an astronaut but because I was fascinated by the engineering achievements that were being made and the leaps forward that were happening.

Collins wrote this account in 1974 at a time when the last Apollo flights had been cancelled, 3 Skylab missions had been flown, the historic rendezvous with Russian Cosmonauts was in the planning and the space shuttle was far from ready. Despite all this I missed this book the first time round and my eldest daughter bought me this for my birthday this year and wrote in a dedication of "To Dad, Love you all the way to the moon, orbit, and back" which I think is lovely but there ought to be an 's' on 'orbit'.

Collins starts the story from his moving to Edwards Air Force Flight Test Centre and hearing about the astronaut program. From here he tells his story with reflections upon his life before.  My only regret with this book is not having read it sooner - like 1974! As a teenager I was fascinated by the technology but did read a few biographies (which, outside of scifi, was the only other genre of books I really read!). Here Collins not only puts men in the rockets, something I obviously knew but didn't really think about, but he actually brings them to life.

Written without a ghost writer it is all his own words (although what editing went on I don't know) and he really can express himself. During his first EVA on Gemini 10 I was genuinely worried for him - which is stupid because we all knew he would return to fly Apollo 11 - and when it came time for his second EVA on the same flight I was hoping it was going to be cancelled! But then I am not a test pilot and would never have wanted to be one. He readily admits to not taking time to stare at the wonders of space but focusing on the mission until time slots presented themselves but when he did look around he describes the sights with hardly an adjective but somehow makes them all the more wondrous for it. At times he seems to worry, as a writer, that he has explained himself enough, for example with reference to seeing the earth from space versus seeing a photograph but he needn't worry because he really makes the point well.

Sometimes 'autobiographies', when ghost written, can make you wonder if the subject is the one you read about but autobiographies without ghosts are generally different - you can get to like the writer or even dislike the writer. I recently read a book on Chris Froome and thought the guy a genuinely nice guy - and I suspect he is - but is that just the guy that David Walsh (the ghost)  knows? I read a  book by a member of one of the shuttle crews and decided, while it was an interesting book, I didn't like the author. Here? Well here is a guy that I would genuinely like to "High Five" and that is rare for me. I don't high five anyone - normally.

I would recommend this book HIGHLY to anyone with the slightest interest in the space program.

Anyway, we try to keep these reviews not too wordy and I've said too much. If you like autobiographies or the space program then read this one - PLEASE. It was republished for its 40th anniversary.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc
Genre: Non-Fiction, Autobiography

Wednesday 11 May 2016

The Radleys by Matt Haig - re-read

review by Maryom

To the casual observer, the Radleys appear to be as normal as any of their neighbours in the pretty commuter-belt village of Bishopthorpe. But if they're that normal, then why do they always walk down the shady side of the street, carefully avoid the slightest hint of garlic, and prefer their meat barely cooked? Why can teenage son Rowan never get to sleep at night? and why is it a really bad idea that daughter Clara has become vegan? ... 
Helen and Peter Radley, though, have been hiding a secret, even from their own children - the fact that they are vampires, abstaining ones who never drink blood or kill, but still, at heart, vampires. Clara is about to discover this in a dreadful way; pushed too far by the amorous advances of a drunken bully, her instincts kick in, with horrific, bloody results. Peter's immediate response is to phone his brother Will to come and sort things out - but Will is a practising vampire, addicted to increasingly dangerous kills and more likely to be bring trouble to their doorstep than offer help.

I loved this book when I first read it a few years ago, so given the chance to vote for it as a book club read I did! I have to admit, I wondered if it would seem as absorbing a second time round - but it definitely did.
 It isn't anything like the Twilight novels or an old Bela Lugosi film but, I feel, about an average family with an inherited 'disability'. For anyone who's seen Being Human, there are certain similarities in the situation, (Will definitely has a touch of Aidan Turner's smouldering appeal) though in this case there are no werewolves or ghosts, just a family of vampires trying to live as normal a life as possible. I think part of its continued appeal is that it isn't JUST about vampires. The Radleys may only be acting the part of a normal family, but many of their problems are faced by normal families too. Quietly married with teenage children, both parents feel hankerings for the heady, youthful days of the past; Peter contemplates an affair with a neighbour, Helen dreams of a long ago romantic fling. Will with his vampire lifestyle represents all that they've given up - he darts about all over the world, parties long and hard all night, lives life in a way that seems fuller and more exciting than their middle-class, middle-age life of dinner parties and book clubs.
Also, like any parents, the Radleys want to shield their children from the unpleasant side of life - in their case, the fact that they are vampires  - and from the consequences of a youthful 'slip-up'. Wouldn't any parent behave the same?
It's also funny - not necessarily laugh-out loud hilarity but a quiet, wry observation of family life. So, yes, it's about vampires, but also about that average family that they're trying so hard to be. 

Maryom's Review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - Canongate 
Genre - YA/adult fiction, vampires, family life

Tuesday 10 May 2016

A Curious Arts Festival

by Maryom

Regular readers of the blog will know we're lovers of any form of book festival - from those, such as Edinburgh and Hay, held in purpose built tented 'book villages', to those using bookshops, libraries, theatres, even churches as venues for events (Derby, Lowdham, Chipping Norton) - but the Curious Arts Festival has another approach.

Running over the weekend 22-24 July, in the grounds of Pylewell Park, Hampshire, a single ticket admits you to the festival, then you choose who you'd like to see ( a small number of 'workshop' style events do still require pre-booking because of limited numbers) Tickets can be bought for a single day or evening, or if you choose to visit for the full weekend you can bring your tent and camp for no extra cost (or check out alternative 'ready-pitched' options).

Carol Ann Duffy
Now, when I go along to a book festival, I tend to pick out just the events involving authors I enjoy;  what I like about the fixed price entrance is that I feel it would encourage me to take a chance on unknown authors too. This year's line up ranges from Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, with events for both adults and children, to thriller writers SJ Watson, Stella Rimington and Renee Knight, from household names such as Deborah Moggach to debut authors Jo Cannon, Max Porter and Harry Parker. You can either just sit back and listen to authors talk about books and life, or sign up for one of the writing workshops. Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, there'll be both a Sonnetathon running the whole weekend, and a Shakespeare Not Stirred master-class in cocktails inspired by the bard!!
Deborah Moggach

The Curious Arts Festival is about more than just books though. There are wine-tasting, yoga and landscape painting activities, a pop-up bookshop, and a programme of music and comedy, with events continuing into the night.
Alice in Wonderland tea-party from 2015
For children there are events running all day - starting with early morning cartoons and films, then puppet-making, a Jabberwocky hunt, their own stand-up comedian, and bug hunts, rounding off each evening with bedtime stories. 

Check out the full list of authors here and more general info, ticket and camping options, here

Thursday 5 May 2016

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker

review by Maryom

In September 1939, Samuel Beckett is an unknown writer, visiting his mother in Dublin and faced with a choice - to return to Paris and his partner Suzanne, or sit the coming war out in safety at home in Ireland. The atmosphere at home is too stifling and restrictive, and staying there feels too much like taking the coward's way out, so he heads back to France. Here, too, there are choices to be made. As the citizen of a neutral country, Beckett could theoretically keep himself to himself, not make a fuss, and wait for the war to be over, but his moral and political leanings won't allow him to sit idly by...

One thing to get straight right from the start is that this isn't an all-action story of daring deeds and shoot-outs between the Resistance and occupying German forces. It's more a story of choices - to keep quiet but safe, or follow one's conscience, probably into danger - and of the day-to-day terror that almost anyone in occupied France must have lived with, especially Resistance members and sympathisers - the knock on the door in the middle of the night, the telegram which says a friend has been arrested, the warning to flee. At the same time, Beckett is growing as a writer, moving out from the shadow of his mentor, James Joyce, so, although the characters are adults, in some ways it can almost be seen as a coming-of-age novel.

As with Jo Baker's Longbourn, there's a feeling that the story is of people standing on the side-lines; in Longbourn's case, she told the story of the servants of Austen's Pride and Prejudice households; this time it's of private individuals, involved against their will in a war, and not even part of the massive armies sweeping across Europe, Africa and Asia at the time; others may be caught up in that whirlwind, the ones we're concerned with are on the periphery.

I love Baker's writing style, even though I find it difficult to describe. She takes small, intimate moments, creates a mood in which the reader can almost experience the same sights, smells, and emotions as the characters, then links these moments to advance the story. From a boy hiding in a tree to evade his mother, to a train packed beyond 'full' with people fleeing Paris, to trying to hide a case of explosives under a display of geraniums, the reader is there in the moment.

The publisher's blurb merely talks of 'a young writer', and it was only a couple of chapters in, with mention of translating 'Murphy', that I realised this writer was Samuel Beckett; someone I have mixed feelings about. I was introduced to his writing at A level via Malone Dies - and I'm not sure it was something I was ready for; it seemed dull, rambling, disjointed, and not at all what I expected from a novel. I always had him rather marked down as an odd, dull guy, obsessed with finding the exact word to express his meaning, dwelling on thoughts and ideas rather than the sweeping plot-driven work of Hardy or Lawrence (also on the A level syllabus). So, to be honest, I'm surprised to find him such an interesting guy after all. I loved Longbourn, and I loved this. Now I wonder if I re-read Samuel Beckett would I love his work too? It's certainly made me reassess my thoughts about him as a man if not a writer.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction, literary fiction, fictionalised biography, WW2

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Follow Me by Victoria Gemmell

review by Maryom 

17 year old Kat Sullivan is trying to move on after her twin, Abby, committed suicide, but she just can't accept that Abby would have done such a thing. They weren't as close as they had been when younger, but surely a twin would have some inkling if her sister was distressed or depressed in any way? Yet Abby had seemed her normal happy self right till the end.
 She wasn't the only teenager to die this way in their small town, in fact she was the fifth in a year, and Kat can't help but believe there's more behind these events that people seem prepared to admit. When she's introduced to The Barn, a secret hangout where older school kids mix with students from the local uni, Kat's suspicions are aroused, for although it seems on the surface to be just a cool place to meet up, there seems to be dark undertone to the place, and an underlying obsession with celebrities who died young.

Follow Me is an excellent teen/YA thriller; the sort of book that quickly grabs the reader and keeps them reading. The story is told in the first person from Kat's perspective, so the reader shares her grief, her belief that there is more than meets the eye to this series of suicides, and her determination to pursue anyone who may have encouraged Abby. The characters are well-drawn and believable, from Kat's parents who have now turned understandably over-protective of their remaining daughter, her friends, who don't know how to talk to her since Abby's death, to Michael and Rob who run The Barn, and could be hiding who knows what in the way of secrets.
As a fairly short read, just over 200 pages, the plot moves along quickly - fortunately, as I was desperate to know what Kat would uncover - with Kat's suspicions veering one way then another but with less of the twists and turns of an adult thriller; even so it's an unputdownable read.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Strident 
Genre - teen/YA thriller