Sunday 31 July 2016

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Andrew Miller

by Maryom

Andrew Miller's event was another one that I tried on spec, and found fascinating. He's and author I've seen highly praised by critics and award-givers, but somehow I've never been persuaded to read his work - but having heard him talk, I shall be adding his latest novel, The Crossing, to my 'must read' list.

Miller's approach to The Crossing started with the central enigmatic character Maud, and thoughts of snug spaces, boats, and a voyage, but he didn't know where it would all lead.
An important aspect that came out of his conversation with Paul Blezard was that Miller likes to write a book that readers don't quite 'get' - that for a while has the reader wondering 'where's this all going?' and leaves them at the end, wondering 'what was that all about then?'  A book, he believes, should take risks for both him as author and for the reader.

 Although he's sailed in the past, Miller put in time for practical research, re-acquainting himself with small boats and yachts off Salcombe and round the Western Isles, so that when he sat down to write he could imagine himself there on Maud's boat and capture the sights, smells, and constant slight discomfort of being cramped and damp.
This ties in with a comment he made about writing to feel engaged with the world but not overwhelmed - if you're out in the rain, he says, you're likely to just want to get inside and dry; writing about being out in the rain, you stop, try to describe how it falls, and how you feel. That is enough to make me want to read his writing!

Saturday 30 July 2016

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Harry Parker

by Maryom

Harry Parker's debut novel, Anatomy of a Soldier, is one I've heard a lot about but not read, so this was one of those events that at a 'pay-as-you-go' book festival I might have missed. As it was, I took a chance on his event and I'm glad I caught it.

Anatomy of a Soldier is the story of Capt Tom Barnes, BA5799, who loses both his legs as the result of an IED explosion, and it clearly draws on Parker's own experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, although the novel's war-zone is never defined.

Instead of going for a first person, biographical-style account, Parker chose to reveal events though the 'eyes' of 45 inanimate objects, closely associated with Tom Barnes, his family and the people who planted the IED. Each object narrates a chapter of Barnes' story, starting with the explosion and moving backwards and forwards in time. These objects are as diverse as a tourniquet, a handbag, a bicycle, or a Persian rug but probably the most gruesome is the saw which amputates Barnes' legs - Parker admits he was trying to write a chapter to make people 'gag'.
And as if this wasn't a challenge enough for a debut author, Parker started out with the interesting concept that the chapters would be self-contained, and possible to read in any order, but abandoned this idea to give him better control over the unwinding of the  plot.

All in all, the event gave me the feeling that this book is a far cry from the slightly sentimental, perhaps overly-patriotic, gung ho read I'd expected, and I shall be adding it to my 'must read' list.

By the way, there's no photo of the actual event because this was one I took the dog along to. It's a lovely idea, but hanging on to his lead makes note-taking difficult and photos almost impossible.

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Joanna Cannon

 by Maryom

Joanna Cannon has scored a massive hit with her debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep - hitting the bestsellers' lists, being translated into innumerable foreign languages, and, as if it matters, one of my favourite books of this year. Coincidentally, she lives quite near me, so I've seen her at book events before but I couldn't NOT see her again, when we were both in the same place.

Cannon isn't one of those writers who always knew that was their calling in life. She left school at 15, going back into education later to retrain as a doctor, but the one thing med-school didn't prepare her for was the emotional impact of the job, and to help her deal with it, she started writing a blog - not discussing any of her patients but talking about her own emotional response to the people she saw. From this she moved on to work on her novel, getting up at 3 in the morning to write (!), then trying to pull in another hour or so during her lunch break.

At this point she was working as a psychiatrist, and it was a profession that taught her to look beyond the label we might put on people - such as alcoholic, or OCD - and see the real person behind. To this she added the misguided public condemnation of Chris Jeffries over the murder of Joanna Yeates - again a case of judging someone on appearance. She believes that generally we should think more kindly of people, be ready to give then the benefit of the doubt and not jump to assumptions. All these thoughts came together for The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, in which, when something odd happens in the quiet suburban atmosphere of The Avenue, the accusing finger of popular opinion has a ready scapegoat to point at.

Interviewer Carrie Plitt was curious why The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is set in the long heatwave of 1976. Mainly due to nostalgia, admitted Cannon, - for the bay City Rollers and Angel Delight, and a time when children were allowed to play freely in the streets - but also from wanting something to bring the residents of The Avenue together - and nothing does that to British people like the weather!

And, possibly that question that authors dread the most, what about her next book? Without going into too much detail we were given some clues - it will be narrated by an elderly woman, and be about growing old, acts of kindness and the legacy one might leave. I can't wait to read it!

Friday 29 July 2016

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Renee Knight

by Maryom

For my third event of the festival - and bear in mind this is still only Saturday lunchtime - I went to see Renee Knight, author of psychological thriller Disclaimer, who'd whizzed down from Harrogate Crime Festival to chat with fellow author SJ Watson (Before I Go To Sleep, Second Life).
Disclaimer is the story of a middle-aged woman who one day idly picking up a book discovers that the tale told within it bears a remarkable similarity to something that once happened to her... It grew out of a previous, unpublished story which drew heavily on real life events, during the writing of which Knight began to see how awful it must be to pick up a book written by a stranger but based on your life ... and Disclaimer was born.

It's the sort of 'domestic noir' novel that seems to romp up the bestseller charts and Disclaimer is currently No1 in the Sunday Times bestsellers list, and has been translated into 30 languages. Both authors' novels fall into this bracket, of thrillers which are set firmly in seemingly happy domestic situations; the 'chill factor' being that readers can easily imagine themselves transported into such a situation, normal and happy on the surface but with secrets lurking underneath, and, after all, how well do we really know anyone? Both agreed though that 'dometic noir' is not a new genre as such but has been around for a long while - Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and Patricia Highsmith's novels being cited as earlier examples.
Asked about influences on her writing, Renee Knight named Lionel Shriver, Zoe Heller, and Colm Toibin, and is currently reading The Circle by Dave Eggers.

The discussion moved on to their fairly similar routes to publication - the first bad novel now hidden in a drawer, the better one that gets published, the usefulness of writing courses (for getting an agent or maybe just for encouraging the budding author to make time to write), and, when all this has paid off, suddenly having to learn to write to publishers' deadlines. The life of a successful author doesn't just involve sitting in solitude writing - there are signings and book events such as this one to attend; fortunately both authors have discovered them to be surprisingly enjoyable - they certainly are for the audience.

Thursday 28 July 2016

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Andrea Wulf

 by Maryom

Most book festivals work on a system of the visitor paying for each event they attend. It's cheaper no doubt but it does mean that I, and no doubt others, rather pick and choose my events, generally authors whose work I've read and liked, occasionally someone who's grabbed headlines or I've heard praised by fellow reviewers. By contrast, at Curious Arts ALL author events (and music, comedy etc) were included in the admission price, and, with them taking place in open-sided tents, it was possible to join proceedings a little late, and to leave a little early. I took advantage of this to catch part of Rowan Pelling's talk with author Andrea Wulf.

Now, I must admit that before she won this year's Costa Biography award I hadn't heard of Andrea Wulf, but hearing her speak so passionately about her subject, Alexander von Humboldt, has convinced me that I'm probably missing out.
Who you might ask (I did) was von Humboldt?
Well, it seems to be only here in Britain that he's unknown; in other countries, not limited to his native Germany, he's as well known as Darwin. Born in Prussia in 1769, his early life was dominated by his mother, and it was only after her death that he could fulfil his dreams of scientific exploration. He headed off to Latin America, climbing mountains, peering into volcanoes, recording the changes in vegetation according to altitude; definitely a very hands-on scientist! I found it fascinating that as early as 1800, he was predicting the impact that human activity might have on climate change, after noticing the devastating effects of clearing and destroying natural habitat as plantations expanded across Latin America.

Although I couldn't stay for the audience questions at the end, I came away feeling that this was a book and an author that I'd missed out on, and should catch up with both as soon as possible.

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Meg Rosoff

by Maryom

Looking at the events programme beforehand, I'd intended arriving at Curious Arts mid-afternoon on Friday with plenty of time to catch Deborah Moggach ... but you know what they say about the best laid plans, and it turned out motorway traffic had other ideas about how I should spend Friday, so my first 'book event' was on Saturday morning - Meg Rosoff talking about her latest novel, Jonathan Unleashed, to Rowan Pelling.

Meg Rosoff is well known as a writer of fiction aimed at teens and YA, and after a string of Carnegie, Whitbread, Guardian, Branford Boase and Costa short-listings and prizes she was recently announced the recipient of this year's Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, but her latest book marks a move to a more 'grown up' audience. She insists it wasn't because of a dare to write a rom-com, but grew out of the first line which popped into her head fully-formed; "Jonathan came home from work one day to find the dogs talking about him" - obviously someone coming home from work is an adult, and the story just evolved from there.

Jonathan has been left in charge of his brother's dogs for six months, and quickly comes to see them as more than mere canine companions. All of us pet-owners give our animals credit for feelings and desires they probably don't possess, but Jonathan seems to take this a step further believing the dogs to suffer from anxieties and yearnings for freedom brought about by living in the city.
Meg herself sees no difference between writing for the different age-groups. What she's interested in is character rather than plot, particularly people struggling to find themselves, looking for more out of life than is offered by their current situation - whether that's Pell Ridley running away from home and her wedding in The Bride's Farewell, or Jonathan himself, trying to be a round peg in a square hole, stuck with the wrong girlfriend and in the wrong job. Jonathan Unleashed draws on the time, 15 years (!), that Rosoff spent in advertising before taking the plunge and becoming a writer - although she describes this novel as her 'revenge' on the advertising industry she's happy to acknowledge the fact that a marriage with both partners involved in creative work is tricky, as some-one needs to be the bread-winner and mortgage-payer. She gives her literary influences as Catch 22, The World According to Garp, and Lucky Jim, and the same quirky kind of humour showed through in her reading from Jonathan Unleashed.

Somehow (who knows?) I'd got an idea that Meg Rosoff was a very serious person, but she didn't prove to be - she's funny, sceptical of success and describes herself as dark and twisted; the sort of person I could imagine chatting to for hours.

Tuesday 26 July 2016

Curious Arts Festival - Family Friendly/Dog Friendly

By The Mole

The festival is held in the beautiful setting of the New Forest within a short walk of the sea and a clear view of the Isle of Wight.

Because we decided to take Dylan with us we chose to take our own tent and sleeping bags. Being new to camping we had chosen to strictly obey the "no food" on site rule and went with a bag of clothes, our tent, air beds and sleeping bags. (Plus food for Dylan because you can't mess with his diet, sorry - and I don't think this is what the rule is about).

The staff around were extremely helpful and friendly and not officious. The tents varied from 2 man bivouacs to 8 berth star shaped huge things and the families attending similarly varied from couples to families with 3 or 4 children.

I had also expected there to be a few dogs there and was surprised that it was dozens! We all know that not all dogs get on and we don't necessarily know why. Dylan is very much an Alpha who doesn't like to have his face sniffed. Other Alphas are offended by his Alphaness and words can be exchanged but it was great that we met no-one who didn't know and understand their dog and everyone behaved responsibly and got along very well. I suspect Dylan was getting a little tired of all the "What a gorgeous dog, may I say 'hello'?" - something he normally can't get enough of.

Dylan has a very thick coat and struggles with heat so has learnt to look for shade to lie in on warm sunny days and Saturday was one beautiful day. Throughout the weekend we were going to our own events and passing Dylan back and forth as we thought venues might be better for him. At the Jo Cannon event I went to a quiet corner of the tent that still had a very good view of the proceedings and sat on the floor with him while he caught up with a little of his much needed sleep. At Laurence Shorter's Lazy Guru event, which was far less formal, he still managed to find a little shade and masses of attention from other attendees who, at times seemed to forget why we were there!

A complete area of the grounds were set aside for children's events and included outdoor games for them as well. The events ranged from activities of making things to story telling, poetry readings and much more. Having no young children of our own (our 19 year old came with us) we didn't attend any full events but did catch a few minutes of Carol Ann Duffy and John Sampson give a reading from the Princess' Blankets, with the children loving it.

With the comedy I think there should have been a warning of content to parents because, at times, some of the language and humour became a little bit adult, although no one seemed to be dragging their children away either.

Now the food... Let's be totally fair - prices were not cheap and we had not expected them to be. The sellers obviously had to pay for their pitch, their staff to be away from home and they also had to ensure that they didn't end up throwing away too much food. (All of which had to be reflected in the cost.) Apparently last year, according to a witness account, by Sunday there was almost no food on site and people had been told they couldn't take their own. And the event was much smaller than this year so the sellers have to take a gamble.

Of all the the food sellers we all had our favourites but for breakfast the most popular seemed to be Tea Sympathy. They produced an extremely nice cup of tea with a variety of teas on offer and bacon muffins whose popularity had them running out of bacon by Sunday morning and the sausage alternative also ran out before everyone had breakfasted. But for lunch and dinner? Anything from Sushi, to Halloumi fries, to fish and chips, to pizza, to pies. Pies? Why pick on pies? I'm afraid I found the pies to be hugely tempting. Feta cheese and pepper quiches, a quiche with cauliflower, cheese and other stuff, chicken pies, beef pies..., it was a huge range. OK, I opted for the vegetarian quiches mostly because I find that a lot of vegetarian food is made tastier than meat equivalents - and I wasn't disappointed. Would I have wanted to feed a small family from the range of food available? Breakfast would have been fine but trying to get 2 or 3 children to choose and agree might have been a nightmare and the fact that some people were flaunting the "no food" rule did not surprise me and the organisers were not enforcing it this year.

So was it Family Friendly and Dog Friendly? You bet it was. Would we go again? Should the opportunity arise then most certainly and we will be watching the calendar. Was it perfect? Well... a few minor issues which I'm sure will be addressed. Last year there were only about 20 tents but this year that number had risen significantly to possibly 150-200 so the portaloos in the immediate area (there were more elsewhere) were a little inadequate in number. There also was no immediate water available to the tents and a bowser, if nothing else, would have been appreciated. Also as a dog friendly event I would have expected to see dog water bowls (or something) by the event tents, food sellers, or even by the stand pipes. (With some signage to the stand pipes too please? Some were hard to find.)

It was a fantastic weekend and I would recommend it to anyone. The events were hugely varied with something for absolutely everyone. More about the events over the coming days.

Monday 25 July 2016

Curious Arts Festival - a quick look

We're just back and catching our breath after a fabulous weekend away at A Curious Arts Festival held in the grounds of Pylewell Park in Hampshire. This is an event which mixes literary chat, comedy, fun and games for children, and late night music. We'd heard about it vaguely through social media last year, and were delighted to be invited along in a blogging capacity.

Celia Imrie

Over the next week or so,we'll be talking in greater detail about individual aspects of the festival but for now here's just a taster of what and who we saw.

Meg Rosoff

Skinny Lister

SJ Watson and Renee Knight

Billy Bragg
Jo Cannon

Andrew Miller talking to Paul Blezard

Thursday 21 July 2016

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

review by Maryom

When the bones of a child are found on the North Norfolk saltmarsh, DCI Harry Nelson half-hopes, half-dreads that they may belong to Lucy Downey who went missing 10 years ago when she was five years old, but these are far older bones. Forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway from the University of North Norfolk dates them as belonging sometime during the Iron Age, probably a ritual burial taking place in the tidal zone belonging to both land and sea. Nelson is struck by the similarities of how Ruth describes this pre-historic event, and instructions of where to find Lucy, contained in letters claiming to be from her abductor. He feels Ruth's knowledge of ancient sites along the coast, and her understanding of the beliefs behind these burials may be of help to him in his modern day, seemingly unsolvable case, and Ruth gradually finds herself involved in this long-standing puzzle. 

The Crossing Places is the first of the Ruth Galloway series, published back in 2009, and a book I've intended reading for quite a while - in fact since I first heard Elly Griffiths talking about the series three years ago.  I'd been intrigued by the mix of modern crime and forensic archaeology, and the setting, which for this story is the misty North Norfolk coast, where I know it's too easy to lose one's bearings and not know which way to head back to dry land - I've fortunately never been caught out on the marshes in a rising tide though, as happens in the story!  Anyway, when recently I spotted a free i-books download offer for The Crossing Places, I jumped at it.

I'd always wanted to start this series here at the beginning, and follow the characters and their changing relationships from the very start, although in some ways, having heard the author speak about them more than once, they were almost like old friends. 
The only downside to eventually getting round to something you've anticipated for so long, is that it might disappoint but happily this lived up to all my expectations. The plot is well-constructed, offering a variety of possible perpetrators and motives, easing into things gently but increasing the tension as Ruth herself is threatened, and the relationship between Ruth and Harry works well as a different thread. 
I loved the character of Ruth - that she's independent and determined to do things her way, ignoring all the presumably well-meaning advice from friends and family about losing weight or getting married and settling down. As it is, she's happy doing what she wants - pursuing her career, living with her cats in a small house in a place she loves, no matter how desolate others find it.

With the series now on Book 8, the Woman in Blue, I know that there's more to come in the relationship between Ruth and Harry Nelson, and more crimes for them to solve. I now intend catching up as quickly as I can.  

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher -
Genre - adult crime thriller

Wednesday 20 July 2016

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

review by Maryom
Even as a young girl, Yael was nothing if not a survivor - at first by keeping quiet, doing as she's told, despite the pain and suffering she undergoes as a scientific 'guinea pig', then when she sees a way, she escapes. Personal survival isn't enough for her though. Working with the Resistance she's determined to overthrow the vicious National Socialist organisation that has ruled Germany, Europe, the Middle East and much of Africa for years - by taking the fight right to the top, and killing Hitler. Now, she has her chance - to take on the persona of Adele Wolfe, the seventeen year old girl who won the round-the-world Axis Tour motorcycle race in 1955, and looks likely to do it again this year, and by impersonating her, get close to the Fuhrer himself. Yael's unique abilities, ironically given to her by experiments carried out in the camps, make her the ideal, if not the only, choice for the task, and the wolves tattooed on her arm, not only serve to hide her camp numbers, but to remind her of those who helped her on her way.
 So Yael changes her appearance, and learns to ride a motorbike, to become as competent and competitive as the girl whose place she will take, but all her research can't let her into Adele's mind - and the relationship between Adele and her brother Felix, and with fellow competitor Luka Lowe could prove to get in the way of Yael's plans.  
Set in an alternate past where Germany won the Second World War, rules Europe, and the resistance is still fighting to topple Hitler, Wolf by Wolf is both an exciting, fast-paced action adventure thriller, and a story of suffering, fear and determination to survive. Yael is a strong, independent heroine in the Katniss Everdeen mould, inspired by her personal history and by the injustices she sees around her, to take on this seemingly impossible task. The story slips easily between the 'present', 1956, and flashbacks to the years that Yael spent in Nazi concentration camps or in hiding with the Resistance, building up the back story that created the person she's become. 
It's a great read, gripping, and exciting, with every page filled with incident as Yael races her way from Germany to Tokyo, up against riders of equal calibre and determination - none of whom are going to accept second place without a fight!

Maryom's Review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - Indigo/Hachette 
Genre -  teen/YA fiction

Tuesday 19 July 2016

The Book of Ralph by Christopher Steinsvold

Review by The Mole

"Drink Diet Coke" - an advert seemingly from the Coca-Cola company appears on the moon in letters so large that it's readable from the Earth. There's a backlash against the company that results in near riots and Marcus West is asked by the American government to establish if the company is really responsible. The conclusion is that they aren't but it's a conclusion no-one wants to accept until a giant can of Campbell's soup lands on the White House lawn.

And Ralph appears from inside the can of soup to deliver a stark warning to the people of Earth but no-one, apart from Marcus, can take him seriously.

The story starts by grabbing the reader's attention - any book should if it's going to succeed - but rather than slow down after achieving that it keeps the pace going and at times I wondered how the author was going to conclude the tale within the pages in my hand. But he does and he does it without rushing the plot or introducing plot "get out" holes. Apart from the incomplete truths that Ralph is constantly telling, everything is there for the reader to try to anticipate the plot - but not too far ahead.

Steinsvold holds a PhD in philosophy and that's what we get given by Ralph. Ralph comes from an older and more intelligent world where they "know" all the philosophical answers which he starts to share. You will probably, like me, doubt the over simplifications that Ralph comes out with but remember that this is a work of fiction so don't get hung up on what you don't agree with just enjoy the story - there's a lot to enjoy.

While it's most certainly SciFi it does contain a lot of sexual references so it may not really be a book for the young SciFi fans.

Publisher - Medallion Press
Genre - YA/Adult SciFi

Monday 18 July 2016

Maysun and the Wingfish by Alison Lock

review by Maryom

Life on Maysun's world is precarious at best. Although her people, the Watterishi, try to live in harmony with other creatures, a shortage of their staple food, leaves of the Gringrow plant, is causing them to over-pick and deplete supplies for both themselves and the Wingfish who also eat them. Then to make matters worse, a rare celestial alignment of their moon at the full and the seemingly wandering planet Ares creates a condition known as the Soomoon, which causes devastation to the  planet. The earth shakes, mountains crack open, lakes overflow, and Maysun's people are left struggling to survive.
Separated from Maysun's valley by a dark, dangerous forest of Ruba trees, lies another world - that of the Peakerfolk who live high among the mountains. They too are slowly starving to death, and at risk from the earth-shaking that the Soomoon brings. Maysun must venture into this (to her) strange world on a quest to bring harmony back to her world. Fortunately, not everyone living above the tree-line is the savage, brutal sort of person tradition had taught Maysun to expect.

In Maysun and the Wingfish, Alison Lock has conjured up an extraordinary world - one in which fish can fly, trees can trap people, and eco-systems change almost overnight by the passing of the planet Ares. The people living there are, not surprisingly, struggling to survive, and it's only by a change in their thinking and moving forward through cooperation that they'll survive.
This isn't though just a book preaching about the dangers of ecological disasters. There are certain magical or fairy-tale elements to it - the dancing flying fish who respond to Maysun's song or the Ruba trees which snare victims in their sticky goo - and most importantly a good story-line following the adventures of Maysun and Barco, a Peakerfolk boy who in his stumbling way helps to bring about reconciliation between at least some of the members of each population.
I'm not sure what age group I'd recommend it for - some of the words would suggest an older readership of maybe 10+, but I think younger children would enjoy it being read to them, and even adults may appreciate this fantasy adventure.

Publisher - Mother's Milk Books
Genre - children's fantasy adventure

Friday 15 July 2016

Unthology 1 edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones

Review by The Mole

Followers of the blog will know that I have a love of the Unthology series of short story anthologies. These collections are marked by two major features...
  1. The first is that a theme is passed from story to story evolving as the book progresses sometimes making you wonder if the story did change or if it's your own imagination.
  2. The second is that the stories are not "safe" stories but 'experimental' leaving the reader often thinking, sometimes uncomfortable but always involved.
When the opportunity presented itself to see how it all started I was delighted to take up the chance. Having heard a little of the development of the series I had heard that a relatively small number of stories were available for this, the very first Unthology, so I was very surprised to find the stories being able to progress thematically as strongly as they do, even at this early stage. In fact the first story seems to start almost where the last story finishes this time.

The stories are varied and will take you through all sorts of moods and situations but my favourite has to be Dicks Life by Maggie Ling and I find myself impressed, as with so many of these unconventional pieces, not only with the quality of the writing but the insight into the situations portrayed.

As a coffee time read these are mostly an ideal length but remember to put the book down again or coffee time could become an all day habit.

I am shortly to read No 2 and that will mean I have read the collection through to 8 and there isn't one I wouldn't recommend.

Publisher - Unthank Books
Genre - Adult short story anthology 

Thursday 14 July 2016

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

review by Maryom

Even before he moved to London, Richard Mayhew was warned that he would have a long way to travel, and that his journey would start with doors ...
For three years Richard's life has been uneventful. He has a steady office job, a steady girlfriend, and plans to settle down and marry, but things are about to change dramatically through an act of kindness. On his way out to dinner one evening, he stops to help an injured girl lying on the pavement, and takes her back to his flat. He assumed the only consequences would be irritating his fiancee, but matters are far more serious than that. For the girl is named Door (due to her ability to find and open them), she's the only surviving member of her family, the same assassins who murdered them are now pursuing her, and, most importantly, she comes from London Below, a shady world that exists beneath and between the streets and buildings of the capital. Some people are born there, some fall between the cracks of the 'real' world and end up there, some, like Richard, encounter its citizens and find themselves trapped between the two worlds. Having helped Door once, he finds he must help again if only to find a way to get home, and, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Richard is off on an adventure in a world that's familiar but wonderfully weird.

No book lover can be entirely unaware of Neil Gaiman but somehow although I'd read many of his short stories and a novel or two, I'd not quite appreciated the full breadth of his writing. Since reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, all that has changed and I can't get enough!

Reading Neverwhere is like being taken back to childhood, to great fantasy adventures such as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which bridge the gap between our everyday world and a hidden fantastical one, but told here in a way to appeal to adults and older teens.

So what specifically is to love about Neverwhere?

Well, first and foremost that parallel world of London Below hidden behind an overlooked doorway, or in an abandoned Tube station, with a 'Floating Maket' that moves from place to place (often familiar London landmarks), a labyrinth guarded by the Beast of London and too many marvellous sights and sites to describe here.
The characters - from Richard, an innocent from London Above, trapped against his will in a world full of danger and excitement; Door, seeking to avenge the death of her family; a female bodyguard who specialises in killing off deadly monsters lurking in the tunnels and sewers beneath cities all over the world, and known only as Hunter; the Marquis de Carabas who carries his life rather differently to mere humans; to angels, temptresses, a bird-man who makes his home on roofs, and a pair of hit-men, currently hired to track down Door, and disappointed when their appetite for killing can't be assuaged. Happily though, it's an urban fantasy that manages to entertain and thrill without the inclusion of vampires!
The way Gaiman has taken familiar place-names, twisted and re-invented them with wholly different meanings - you'll never think of Earl's Court, Down Street, Shepherd's Bush or The Angel, Islington in the same way again.
And ... despite a lot of the story taking place underground, I never once felt claustrophobic!

It's a non-stop adventure, full of danger, excitement and false trails, where, as you half-expect, friends can be disguised as foes, and vice versa.
I absolutely adored this, and much like Richard, didn't want to leave the World of London below, once the adventure's end was reached. Better than The Ocean at the End of the Lane? That's a hard call. I loved both, and wouldn't like to have to pick between them.

Now for a word about some 'technical' matters; this isn't the first version of Neverwhere, in fact several previous editions have appeared - first it was a TV mini series of 1996, then there was a tie-in book, followed by a US edition which explained all those quirky British things that might be meaningless to any foreign reader. This new version brings the best bits of all these together, adds some wonderful,atmospheric illustrations by Chris Riddell, a Q+A with the author and a short story How The Marquis Got His Coat Back set in the same world of London Below to make a gorgeous collectors' edition, a special present for a die-hard Gaiman fan, or just a wonderful 'introduction' for a newcomer like me.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Genre - Adult/YA urban fantasy

Tuesday 12 July 2016

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

review by Maryom

When their babysitter cancels at the last minute, Anne and Marco decide, after an argument, that it will be fine to go round to their neighbours for a dinner party as planned - after all, the houses are joined, they'll be able to take the baby monitor and nip back every half hour to check up on baby Cora ... surely nothing could go wrong?

When Anne and Marco return home the front door is open, and their baby gone. At first, guided by what Anna and Marco appear to be thinking, the reader is led to believe that Cora must have been taken by someone who broke into the house, but then the police arrive, and Detective Rasbach's cynical assessment of the situation and detailing of all the ways parents could kill and dispose of a baby, made me stop and wonder if perhaps Anne and Marco weren't to be trusted all that much....

A thriller tapping in on what must surely be any parent's worst nightmare, The Couple Next Door is a gripping, fairly quick read at just over 300 pages. I found it started rather slowly, setting up the scene, calling in the police etc, but after 50 pages or so the drama kicks off, and then I really, really wanted to see how it all ended, so finished it in a day!
Although told in the third person, the reader is still presented with the 'face' that the characters display in public, and their secrets and motivations are only revealed as the plot twists and turns its way to a resolution - and what secrets they're all hiding! Anne's post-natal depression hides a more serious underlying condition; Marco might not have been quite honest about his relationship with their attractive neighbour, Cynthia; and she, too, has a secret or two hidden away ...
To be honest, I didn't feel the characters had much depth - yes, they're all hiding something, but not deep character flaws, the revelation of which would change who they fundamentally are, and a lot is said of Anne and Marco's shock and grief but I didn't feel it. I don't think it really mattered though, because this is a plot-driven story, leading my suspicions first one way, then another, and keeping me guessing till the end.

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

Monday 11 July 2016

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

review by Maryom

For Amaterasu Takahashi life as she knew it came to an end when the US dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945, causing tens of thousands of deaths, including those of her daughter Yuko and grandson Hideo. After the war, she and her husband, Kenzo, attempted to build a new life in America, but distance wasn't enough to help her forget her grief. 
Now, after Kenzo's death, Amaterasu is living alone and friend-less in Pennsylvania when one cold winter morning, a middle-aged Japanese man arrives at her house, claiming to be her grandson Hideo. The scars on his face prove he's a survivor of the bomb, but his tale of being saved from the rubble of Nagasaki, raised first in an orphanage, then adopted by the doctor there, who happened to be Yuko's former lover, doesn't convince Amaterasu. In his briefcase though, Hideo has brought a packet of letters which force Amaterasu to confront the past, and particularly her actions which caused Yuko to be within the radius of destruction when the bomb fell.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is both the story of a woman coping with the death of her closest family members, and the inevitable survivor's guilt that comes with having avoided the dreadful cataclysm that killed them, and of the unravelling of family secrets. It's told through a mix of Amaterasu's reminiscences, the entries in her daughter's diary and the letters that Hideo has brought from Japan, offering three sides to the story as it unfolds in the years before and during WW2, and each chapter is headed by an explanation of a facet of Japanese culture pertinent to the events that unfold in it. 

It's been a book club choice for both Radio 2 and Richard and Judy, and long-listed for the Bailey's Prize so I'd possibly built my expectations up too high, but something just didn't grab me about this book. Amaterasu's reminiscences definitely caught a feel of pre-war Japan, and it's undoubtedly clever in construction but, maybe because of how the story was told, through letters and diary entries, I didn't 'feel' for the characters, even the horror of Nagasaki in the aftermath of the atomic bomb seemed somehow played down and not as shocking as it might have done. On the other hand, it's bound to provoke discussion, about the characters' actions and which of them (if any) deserves sympathy, so I can see why it would make a good, if not excellent, choice for a book club;

Maryom's review - 3.5 stars
Publisher - Windmill Books 
Genre - adult fiction,

Thursday 7 July 2016

Beth Lewis - The Wolf Road - blog tour

The Wolf Road is a stunning, hard-hitting, post-apocalyptic novel; a story of survival in the forest wilderness of north-west Canada, and probably the most original book I've read this year. So, I'm delighted that today Our Book Reviews is the stopping off point for author Beth Lewis on her blog tour. Here she is to talk about one of the important images of the novel - fire!

My Life with Fire

There’s something about a roaring fire, isn’t there? Staring into those flames, dancing in the grate, it’s utterly mesmeric. Fire brings a family and community together and that’s something that so many cultures share. I spent most of my teenage summers around a campfire or bonfire on the beach. We shared food, drink, and stories with strangers and made new friends who I still cherish today. Fire took center stage in those years and in many different forms. First, there were the bonfires, the beach parties, the coming together of people from all over the country with one shared interest – performance. Then the fire was harnessed, lit and burning on the end of chains to be spun into beautiful, intricate patterns.

Poi have been around for hundreds of years and are now a staple of festivals and fun-loving individuals. I started spinning poi when I was sixteen and lit them on fire soon after. Poi are basically weights on the end of string or chain which you spin around your body into patterns. It becomes a dance and when you chuck fire into the mix, it becomes something so much more. Being inside a fireball is otherworldly. You see only darkness and bright yellow flames, you smell only paraffin and burning and feel only heat and hear nothing but the roar. And boy, there’s nothing like that roar. It’s addictive. One spin with those heavy, flaming poi and I was hooked. I learned to eat fire, trail it over my skin and I took part in a record-breaking attempt to have the most fire spinners going at once. It was well over a hundred, it lit up the tiny Cornish beach. We made a second attempt at a festival a few years later. I made incredible friends doing it too. I met my best friend on a beach, around a bonfire. I had fire spinners at my wedding. It was my life for years and it was magical to be around so many like-minded people from all walks of life. We all shared this very simple love – friends, fun, and fire.

Then I moved to the city and gradually work, life, writing, took over my time. The love of the danger, the addiction to it, have never left me. When I see footage of Glastonbury or old fiery friends post photos of the old days, I get a deep pang of nostalgia and yearning. I can’t get to those festivals as much anymore and that saddens me no end.

It’s no coincidence then, that I wrote fire as such an important part of the story in The Wolf Road. It’s in the background, it’s subtle, but it’s there. Fire appears at key moments in Elka’s story, transformative moments that speak to how she had changed as a character in the time she’s been on her journey. The first is destructive, it’s the catalyst that spurs her into the wilderness. Then it becomes her savior, then her teaching tool, then she shares it with those in need, it brings her close to people she would normally never have trusted. Fire does that. It brings people together and it brings hope, whether to share warmth or food or a couple of beers on the beach, it’s part of the shared human experience. We all need it and I believe that need allows people to put aside their differences and return to a simple, instinctual state. I need a fire, you have a fire, let’s be friends. That’s how I see it and how I see Elka’s journey change from an untrusting, feral girl, into one who sees the value and importance of friendship.

Many thanks to Beth for stopping by. I hope everyone is now intrigued enough to read the book! Meanwhile, you can catch up on the rest of the blog tour as detailed below, check out my review , and read Beth's fascinating Week In The Wild posts on her website.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

review by Maryom

London, 1837 - Sarah Gale is being held in Newgate prison, sentenced to hang after being found guilty of aiding and abetting her former lover, James Greenacre, in the murder of his soon-to-be wife, Hannah Brown. Throughout her trial, Sarah offered barely any defence but when she lodges an appeal against her sentence, the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, is sufficiently sympathetic to allow an investigation to go ahead. Idealistic but impoverished lawyer, Edmund Fleetwood, is appointed to the case, feeling almost from the outset that Sarah has been manipulated by Greenacre, and that the sentence was too harsh. Though Edmund tries to make Sarah talk about events leading up to the murder, she continues to keep quiet about what really occurred; he is convinced she is hiding something, possibly through fear of retribution, but what could it be, and for whom would Sarah sacrifice everything?

I wasn't sure at first that this book would appeal to me - the story is based on real events, a notorious murder which shocked London as the unfortunate victim was hacked into pieces and bits of the corpse dumped in various locations around the city; not quite my kind of read. Having picked it up though, I soon became immersed in Sarah's plight and the battle of wills between her and Edmund. Despite facing the hangman, she's determined to keep her secret at all costs, while he's fixed on uncovering it and saving her. At the same time, hints are subtly laid that stop the reader quite falling for Sarah's story, and it comes as no surprise when, from finding himself attracted to her, Edmund becomes convinced she's been duping him all along. It's difficult to see who Sarah would be covering up for, or who, as the mother of a four-year child, she'd risk her life for, and it's certainly one of those books that reserves its best twist for the end.

 Through Sarah's experiences, the author brings to light the social situation of an unmarried mother, and the dreadful physical conditions in the prison, the bullying by staff and other prisoners, and the lack of hope among the inmates are made painfully clear; it's hardly surprising that Sarah dreads a prison sentence almost as much as death. Without detracting from the plot, mention is made of the work of prison reformers, and of the attitude of forward-thinking lawyers like Edmund who were already trying to abolish the death penalty. Although not strictly accurate with reference to the real Sarah Gale, this is a book I'd recommend for anyone with an interest in social history around the time of young Queen Victoria coming to the throne. I certainly found it a far more gripping read than I'd expected.

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