Friday 30 September 2016

Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick

review by Maryom

In the shanty town of Anapra, Arturo scrapes together a living from work at the local garage and making a few extra pesos at cards. It's a hard, hand-to-mouth life but, for that place, on the Mexican side of the border with the USA, it's not that bad. Then Faustino, an old school friend, comes visiting, asking for a favour. He's not only got himself involved with one of the powerful drug gangs in the area but has 'borrowed' from the money he was supposed to be keeping safe for them. His intentions were good - to buy his girlfriend and baby a safe passage to America, then repay the money somehow - but now the money's wanted, and he hasn't got it to hand. Faustino is hoping that through Arturo's skill at cards the missing dollars can quickly and easily be made up before the narcos notice anything amiss; the alternative, A neither quick nor easy death, doesn't bear thinking about. First though Faustino insists they visit the shrine of Saint Death, to leave an offering and ask for her aid, but she isn't a kindly saint, rather a neutral, aloof one, who welcomes both good folk and evil equally.

Somehow, to my mind at least, Marcus Sedgwick's stories are associated with Eastern Europe, cold climates and, frequently, vampires, but this one is set on the Mexican/US border, a dry, dusty place even as the temperature cools down for winter, and the only 'blood-suckers' around are the Mexican drug-dealing narcos and the US corporations, squeezing the life out of the people one way or another. 

The novel follows Arturo as he attempts to turn a few dollars into the huge amount that Faustino needs to repay - and it isn't as simple as the two old friends had hoped, and it has twists and turns that even I wasn't expecting! - but there's more to this book than just a gripping story-line; it's an eye-opener regarding the conditions in which thousands of people live alongside the border. Looking for a new start in the USA, people travel north from Mexico itself or from further away in South America, hoping to escape the drug gangs, government injustice and poverty they've known all their lives. And, for many, the journey ends here, at the border. Unlikely to get through by legitimate means, they turn to people smugglers who are as likely to take their money and run, as to help them to safety on the other side, or end up living in the makeshift shanties, working for a pittance at factories owned by US corporations, but situated in Mexico, and not really bound by the laws of either. The only way to live a comfortably well-off life - able to afford food, a proper house, maybe a car - is to join one of the gangs of drug-dealers that operate almost freely in the area. It's an eye-opener about the conditions and deprivations suffered in this area of the world! 

Saint Death is maybe intended to be a teen/YA read but, like such a lot of books aimed at that readership, I'd recommend it anyone looking for a tense thriller-style read, with less of the graphic blood and gore of an adults' book.  

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Orion Books

Genre - teen/YA thriller

Thursday 29 September 2016

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

review by Maryom

In the north-west of England lies an empty, flat stretch of coastline known as the Loney; a place where few people live, sand shifts with the tides sweeping across the bay, and the unwary are caught out by rapidly rising water. When storms cause a landslide on the tidal island of Coldbarrow, and the body of a baby is discovered, the narrator is drawn back into events which unfolded thirty years ago. He and his family were part of a church group visiting a shrine in this remote area, in the hope that his brother, Hanny, born with speech and learning difficulties, would be miraculously cured, but boys left to find their own amusement tend to gravitate towards trouble, and things didn't go quite according to plan ...
The Loney was one of the options offered as a read for my book club, and, having heard so much praise for it, I was eager to read it.

Hurley creates the setting brilliantly - the desolate coast, mud flats quickly covered by incoming tides, inhospitable locals, strange objects and hidden rooms found in the holiday house. It all adds up to a tense, eerie atmosphere. I could feel the wind whipping in from the sea, the sands shifting beneath my feet, and imagine the causeway leading out across the flat expanse of mud, but as the story progressed I felt the creation of atmosphere wasn't enough.
It's clear that events are moving towards a big reveal, but somehow it didn't deliver for me,and this is what . A lot of the set up - people revisiting a place after several years absence, strange behaviour of the locals who appear to be part of a pagan cult, remote setting -  all these things feel familiar even if only from films such as The Wicker Man or Hot Fuzz, so there's ample warning of what might happen as events unfold. Even when the crucial event, on which the whole plot revolves, is revealed, I thought, yep, seen that on Babylon 5 (though it's a fairly common sci-fi/fantasy trope which you might have encountered somewhere else).
Although I felt the ending just a little too predictable, the writing makes this book worth a read, and I actually wonder if my rating of it might improve another time - after all, for the second, third, subsequent readings I would know how events unfold, and not be expecting a big surprise.

Maryom's review - 3.5 stars
Genre - Adult Fiction, horror

Monday 26 September 2016

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

review by Maryom

Eileen Dunlop lives a dull and dreary existence in a small town outside Boston. She dresses in her dead mother's clothes, has hardly any friends, works by day as a secretary at a boys' prison and, evenings and weekends, she looks after her alcoholic father, whose behaviour is becoming increasingly erratic and troublesome. She dreams of leaving and running away to the city but it doesn't seem likely that will happen.
Then, a new employee starts at the prison - Rebecca Saint John is glamorous and attractive, and everything dowdy Eileen would love to be. The two strike up an unlikely friendship but Rebecca's actions soon drag Eileen into more trouble than she could have imagined ...

Although this book is billed as a psychological thriller, I wouldn't personally describe it as such, as I didn't feel much tension or threat in the unfolding story line (but I've kept the tag). The story is told through the reminiscences of an elderly Eileen looking back on the events of the week leading up to Christmas 1964, so the reader knows early on that she has done something reprehensible which caused her to leave town in a hurry. There are plenty of hints about what it might be and the part that newcomer Rebecca plays in it but the actual act is kept secret till late, very late, in the novel, and nothing really remarkable happens before.

It's probably because of this lack of movement in the plot that I didn't like it, as the writing is good, and the atmosphere well conjured. I just didn't care about Eileen and her great secret. She certainly isn't a likeable character -  with her dreadful hygiene, morbid obsession with her deceased mother, and sexual hang-ups.

It's Booker shortlisted though, and I've seen good reviews on the web, so presumably someone liked it!

Maryom's review - 2.5 stars 
Publisher - Vintage
Genre - Adult fiction, psychological thriller

Other reviews - The Owl on the Bookshelf

Friday 23 September 2016

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

review by Maryom

Melody Shee's life is a mess; she's thirty three, pregnant, alone, frightened, angry, and riddled with guilt. 
The baby's father is Martin Toppy, a Traveller boy, barely more than half Melody's age. Her husband, Pat, has left in disgust and anger, knowing there's no way the child is his. And, at the back of Melody's mind, always haunting her, is the memory of the dreadful things she did to her best friend, Breedie, back in school. She's so desperate that taking her own life is beginning to seem a welcoming option.
Fortunately, a whim takes Melody to the Travellers' halting site, looking for Martin Toppy. He and his family have moved on but she makes an unlikely acquaintance, Mary Crothery, a nineteen year old Traveller woman with her own problems.
As her pregnancy advances week by week, Melody spills out her thoughts and regrets to her computer, and gradually comes to accept that maybe, after all, the birth of this child is a good thing, and that through it she can begin to forgive herself.

All We Shall Know is another absolutely stunning novel from Donal Ryan, but there's often a difficulty, in that when you've found an author whose work you love, it can be hard for them to surprise and amaze you. I was left, though, feeling equally moved by the story and amazed at Ryan's ability to tell it. Part of the magic of Ryan's story-telling, for me, is that he doesn't seem so much to 'create' characters as to give voice to ones who already exist fully-formed elsewhere, and what impressed me this time was his way of getting not only inside a woman's thoughts, but her physical feelings too - as if he'd experienced the draining emptiness of morning sickness, or a baby kicking and turning, for himself. I've read other novels written by a male author but told in the first person from a woman's point of view, and I've felt unconvinced by the masquerade; this time, I was utterly convinced - so much so that at times during my reading I was surprised to remember this story is written by a man! 

Melody herself isn't a person to quickly take to - she's as outspoken, argumentative and downright stroppy as a teenager! - but as her story unfolded, I came to see her as a person damaged by her past misdeeds, and masking her vulnerability with anger, while caring deeply about her father and husband. The unravelling of Melody's story revolves around several threads - the difficulties that can at times surround something we take for granted; the birth of a child; the gradual wearing away of a loving marriage into a constant battle of recrimination; the way a community makes its own unwritten rules and how quick it is to judge anyone who doesn't conform; and how inflicting pain and suffering on others can bounce back on the giver. 

In many ways, as in The Truth About December, this is a story about people living on the edges of society, shunned by family, friends or community for not behaving as expected; Melody is shunned by her neighbours for being pregnant; Mary by her own mother (!) for her inability to conceive, and then shaming her family by leaving her husband; the Travellers' community as a whole is looked on with suspicion and hatred just for being 'different'.  

For anyone familiar with Ryan's work, there are places where his other stories seep through - a 'courting' couple in a car park at a beauty spot, or a policeman the reader's encountered before - which gives a feel of a whole world continuing its life in the background, just waiting for its story to be told.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult contemporary fiction

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Ace of Spiders by Stefan Mohamed

review by Maryom

Stanly Bird is no ordinary teenager. On his sixteenth birthday he discovered he had 'super powers' - the ability to fly, and move objects via telekinesis. Now, nearly two years later (and after the adventures related in Bitter Sixteen), he's living in London with similarly 'empowered' friends, being encouraged to hide his powers, but feeling that he shouldn't waste them. 
His comparatively quiet life comes to an end though when an assassin is sent after him. Although this time the threat is fought off, Stanly and his friends seem to be under surveillance by the secretive Angel Group, and Stanly refuses to sit idly by while the mysterious corporation pick off those with special powers one by one ... and finds their actions have opened a whole can of worms (and far more scary monsters).

Firstly, I have to admit to not having read Bitter Sixteen as I wasn't actually sure that a YA super-hero story was my kind of read, but Ace of Spiders turned up for review, worked it's way to the top of the TBR pile, and I thought I'd give it a go. I'm so glad I did, as i was soon completely hooked, and now I understand why readers and reviewers were so enthusiastic about the first book in the series!

Stanly starts out looking for some excitement in his life. Influenced by all the super-hero stories he's read, he's looking for a way to put his powers to some practical use helping people, preventing crime, catching criminals and such, so, when he finds out the world itself is under threat from the Angel Group's experiments, he's the first in the queue to try to stop them. He's joined, though maybe a tad less enthusiastically, by his old friends, who'll be familiar to readers of Bitter Sixteen, and some new ones, as the very fabric of the universe tears apart - and hideous monsters crawl and fly through. It may start quietly but soon it's a roller-coaster of action adventure!

Theoretically it's a Young Adult novel, but if you're that bit older (like me!) don't let that put you off. If you're looking for something a little different, full of action, evil villains, good guys trying to save the world and bizarre out-of-this-world monsters - it's just like your favourite video game - give this a read. There's a little of The Matrix, a fair bit of Primeval and references to all sorts of graphic novels/comics mixed in, and it's so refreshing to have a super hero who isn't American and clad in garish Lycra
Oh, and it's funny, and there's a talking dog who frequently saves the day (and Stanly), and lots of improbable scary monsters (did I already mention those? well, they're worth mentioning again).

Obviously, as the second book, Ace of Spiders carries spoilers for its predecessor, so it's probably better to read the series in order, but I picked the story-so-far up easily and was quite prepared to run with it from this point. 

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - YA/adult sci fi fantasy action adventure

Monday 19 September 2016

Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain by Barney Norris

review by Maryom

In the south of England, in the vicinity of Salisbury, five rivers meet and flow together to the sea.
In the similar way, the lives of five people living in and around the city run into each other briefly but then part and continue separately - Rita, a market stall holder who feels that after a life filled with mistakes, this time she's really ruined her life; Sam, a teenager torn between first love and first devastating grief, George an elderly man whose wife has just died, Alison, a middle-aged army wife struggling to fill her lonely days, cut off from her husband posted abroad and unable to communicate with her teenage son, and Liam, a security guard who's abandoned his flash London job in search of something that he can't really name. Their paths have crossed before without them realising but a car crash brings all five together - some directly involved, others as shocked by-standers.

The novel is told through five separate stories, each of which is devoted to one of the five characters and narrated in their own words. Norris definitely has a knack for capturing the essentials of a character, and convincingly bringing them alive through their own 'voice'. There's a downside to this though, in that while I felt sympathy for some of the characters, I found others self-obsessed and tending towards boring because of it (perhaps that's just part of the author's skill though).
Each of them is facing a personal crisis, and, of course, they tackle it in different ways. As they reflect on their lives, the reader becomes privy to their loves and losses, the huge mistakes, the occasional lucky break, and realises, often before the characters themselves, that these five lives have been circling round and touching each other frequently over the years.
Despite the very obvious 'literary' structure, this is still a very readable book, with characters who are easily related to. Certainly an author I'll be watching out for.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult literary fiction

Friday 9 September 2016

The Creeper Man by Dawn Kurtagich

review by Maryom

Silla and Nori have run away from their London home, seeking refuge from their abusive father, and heading for the only place Silla can think of - their Aunt Cath's country manor house. At first it seems like a haven, but Aunt Cath is afraid of the surrounding woods and the Creeper Man who lives in them, and gradually her fears overcome her. She retreats to the attic, leaving the girls to fend for themselves, as the trees appear to move closer to the house and the shadows take on the form of a man creeping along...

Admittedly, I'd expected something scary from the cover but I was surprised just HOW tense and horrific this turned out to be. 
The atmosphere is spooky from the start - an isolated old house in the middle of a wood is just the ideal location for anything mysterious, and this one is painted the colour of blood outside, and dark and cobwebby inside, with strange noises in the night; the perfect setting for a horror movie!
After a brief lull, Kurtagich starts to raise the tension bit by bit, with Aunt Cath's descent into madness, and the arrival of a boy, Gowan, who claims to offer help, but whom Silla feels she daren't trust. Meanwhile, the trees creep ever nearer, claustrophobia builds, and the terrors outside work their way into the house. 
I don't normally consider myself a reader of horror stories but this really grabbed me. It's told mainly in the first person from Silla's point of view, with occasional flashbacks to when her mum and Aunt Cath were young and first summoned the Creeper Man, diary entries written in the 'Broken Book' and snippets of Nori's thoughts; they all add to the atmosphere, and keep the reader guessing whether events really are unfolding as SIlla imagines, or if the horrors are only in her head.
It's obviously not a book for the easily frightened or squeamish, but for lovers of the dark, twisted and creepy it's a must-read ... just maybe not alone, in the dark ...

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Orion Books

Genre - teen, horror thriller

Tuesday 6 September 2016

The Loving Husband by Christobel Kent

review by Maryom

Fran Hall half-wakes one night as her husband, Nathan, comes home from the pub and climbs into bed beside her ... then, an hour or so later, she wakes fully to a scream. Finding the bed beside her empty, she goes downstairs and out into the dark farmhouse yard, where a shocking discovery awaits ... Nathan's dead body slumped in a ditch!

This psychological thriller starts on a high note, grabbing the reader's attention and curiosity, and pretty much stays that way.
As their secrets come tumbling out, Fran and Nathan soon prove to not be the ideal happy couple they seem, their move from London to the countryside something forced by Nathan rather than a joint decision and even the whole basis for their marriage suddenly seems to be in question. 
The story is told from Fran's point of view, so, while the police seem to only be investigating her as a possible suspect, we don't really know what information they have or what other lines of enquiry they might be following. She believes the police are just wasting time, not following up on all possible leads, and so decides to investigate things herself, to track down the shadowy figure she spotted across the fields on the night of the murder. .. but, to be honest, Fran seems so confused and uncertain about events of that night that it's possible to believe she could be hiding something crucial to the investigation from both police and reader, or suffering from amnesia.  
The atmosphere of flat, empty wintry fen-land is wonderfully captured, there are plenty of red herrings and dead ends, and a surprise ending, all of which add up to an excellent domestic noir style thriller.

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

Thursday 1 September 2016

Lament For The Fallen by Gavin Chait

review by Maryom

When a spaceship crash-lands near to their isolated West African community, Joshua and fellow townsfolk don't expect to find any survivors - but there is one; a strange 'enhanced' human named Samara, from the orbiting city-world of Achenia,via the prison-planet of Tartarus from which he's escaped. Suffering from injuries which would have killed a 'normal' man, Samara lies in a coma while his self-healing systems work, and the townsfolk fend off the attention of the local warlord interested in the possibility of valuable metals to be salvaged. 
Survival isn't enough though for this strange being from the sky. Samara is determined to go back to Tartarus and free the prisoners kept there under inhuman conditions, so the community find themselves involved with sourcing the equipment he'll need and again attracting notice from the gangs who effectively 'rule' the area.
Set in a vaguely future time when technology has advanced sufficiently to build artificial 'planets' orbiting the Earth, while government in Africa seems to have regressed to the point where the best-armed, most vicious, war-lord rules, Lament For The Fallen is an interesting, intriguing read. It's one I'd recommend to readers who normally steer clear of sci-fi, as the story focuses more on the characters and the politics of their situation - Joshua and his townsfolk trying to build a harmonious city where people can live in peace, but beginning to feel the problems of outsiders looking to find safety there, or the desire of the orbiting worlds to be free of the Earth-bound countries that built them; the science - whether that which built the artificial worlds or the use of symbionts to enhance and prolong life among Samara's people - is taken for granted. To be honest, I liked the earlier half/three quarters of the book set in Africa, as Samara tells his parable-like stories and we glimpse the events that lead to his imprisonment, more than the 'space battle' ending, but I still enjoyed it.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction, sci-fi