Wednesday 30 November 2016

The Last Legionnaire by Paul Fraser Collard

review by Maryom

Jack Lark has, after many years' absence overseas, found himself back home - at his mother's gin palace in the East End of London. His time in the army, under a variety of aliases, has changed him but he thinks he's now ready to settle down and pick up life where he left it. Things aren't as straight-forward as that though - his mother is having to pay off local 'heavies' for protection, and Mary, the girl he thought he loved, is now a grown woman with a son to look after. Jack soon finds himself mixed up in trouble, and again indebted to army intelligence officer Major Ballard who has a new task for him overseas - this time in Italy, where French and Austrian troops are massing for war.

I've always rather liked Jack Lark and his adventures, and I'm pleased to see that the author is allowing him to grow and change with time, not to remain the impetuous young man he was in the Crimea (The Scarlet Thief) but become more mature, self-aware and able to see the down-side of his chosen career; even the victorious side leaves dead and mutilated soldiers on the field, and Jack now acknowledges than some day he could easily be one of them. This doesn't mean though that he's going to stand back well out of the way of danger; he's supposed to be on more of a mercy mission than actually engaged in the fighting, but Jack is Jack, and if there's a pitched battle or low-level skirmish around then somehow or other he'll find his way to it!

As I've come to expect from Paul Fraser Collard, The Last Legionnaire is a fast-moving action adventure which brings to life an odd bit of history that most of us are probably not aware of. (Although 'the Battle of Solferino' had a vague familiarity to it, I couldn't have said where or when it took place, and certainly had no idea about the involvement of the French Foreign Legion or the origins of the Red Cross). Collard isn't afraid to present the horrors of battle, so be prepared for violence, gore and lopped off body parts. None of this is gratuitous wallowing in blood and guts, but presenting war as it is (or was) and an important part of Jack's development.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Headline
Genre - adult historical adventure

Monday 28 November 2016

All That Man Is by David Szalay

review by Maryom

Nine men, nine separate stories, exploring 'manhood' in its various guises - from teenagers exploring the world on their own for the first time, to a middle aged millionaire losing all his fortune, and an elderly man trying to come to terms with the fact that his life may be reaching its closing years.

When this book was offered on Netgalley for review I jumped at the chance - after all, it was Booker short-listed, so I was expecting something fairly good. Unfortunately, for me at least, it didn't deliver on its promises. 
Basically, it just didn't grab me.
Firstly I found I didn't much like the format. It isn't a novel so much as a collection of short stories. There are loose links between them with a person or object appearing in more than one story - but to be honest that connection didn't really add anything. Also, they don't feel as rounded or finished off as I like a story to be; more like chapters, than fully stand-alone pieces.
Then there are the men these stories are centred on - and 'centred' is definitely the right word! Whatever their age or circumstances, the trait they have in common is believing the world revolves around them; friends, lovers, wives are just there to cater to their various wants and needs, and no real thought given to how they may feel. Now, I think it's perfectly possible to read a novel with an unsympathetic main character and still like the book - after all, faults make characters more interesting and a perfect person wouldn't have much of an interesting tale to tell - but reading story after story about guys for whom I couldn't feel a shred of empathy just became tiring. 

And, surely, not all men are like this, are they? Maybe that's the question the author is asking. Maybe I'm over-thinking it.

Maryom's review -  3.5 stars
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Genre - adult fiction, short stories, Booker shortlist, 

Wednesday 23 November 2016

The Constant Soldier by William Ryan

review by Maryom

Paul Brandt has returned home from Germany's Russian Front a broken man, but his obvious physical wounds - the lost of an arm and disfiguring facial burns - hide deeper emotional ones. He's ashamed of the conduct of the German army, of the senseless atrocities and mindless killing he's seen, and participated in, and is looking for a way to make amends. In some respects his valley home on the German/Polish border is unchanged but war has still found it's way here - there are no able bodied men to work the land, down the valley lies a concentration camp and closer to hand is a SS Rest Hut, a retreat for those who run the camp, somewhere for them to forgot the horrors of their day to day life. Among the prisoners working at the Hut, Brandt believes he recognises a woman he knew, and loved, before the war, a woman who was part of an anti-Nazi group to which he belonged, and for whose arrest he has always felt responsible. Accepting a position as steward at the Hut, Brandt vows that from now on he will do his utmost to protect her, but meanwhile Russian troops are massing ready to move on Germany, and a time is approaching in which no one will be safe.

The Constant Soldier is a blend of thriller, historical fiction and love story; the sort of book that grabs you on the first page, and which can't be put down. The story of Brandt and his attempts to redeem himself play out like a spy or undercover cop thriller, with him in constant danger of being exposed as someone who no longer has any sympathy for the Nazi regime - something which would surely end swiftly in his death - but it's set against the wider backdrop of Germany in 1944 as the Russians advance and everyone begins to panic. Without labouring the point, Ryan tries to understand the mind-set of the 'average' German, particularly soldiers, who've drifted along with the tide of events and either through apathy or self-advancement found themselves part of an horrific war and an authoritarian regime they never really approved of - and for which now they're going to have to pay.

Reading it today with the recent rise in religious and racial hate crime, and a seeming shift to right-wing policies in many countries, there are disturbing parallels to be seen. Ryan isn't trying to lecture his readership though; The Constant Soldier is primarily a gripping, compelling story. The luxury and 'normality' of the Rest Hut contrasts starkly with the largely unseen life of the concentration camp. Brandt is a character with whom one can easily sympathise. The German's are not seen as stereo-type heel-clicking soldiers but as individuals - disillusioned army officers, disenfranchised Polish farmers, and resistance members on one side, with more-typical uniformed bullies and a power-hungry mayor on the other, and the young schoolboys, soon to become defenders of their piece of Germany, caught in the middle.
It's a book I'd highly recommend whether you read it at face value of historical thriller or as something thought-provoking and perhaps disturbing.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - 
Mantle (Panmacmillan)

Genre - 
adult historical thriller, war story, WW2

Monday 21 November 2016

You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris

translated by Sam Taylor

review by Maryom

Just over a year ago, we were all stunned by the terrorist attack on the Bataclan nightclub in Paris. While the world was filled with rage and demands for vengeance, one man posted on his Facebook page a response to the attackers saying "You will not have my hate", pledging himself to live life to the fullest, with love and laughter, without fear and hate, despite anything such terrorists could do; it was all the more remarkable because that man's wife, mother of his seventeen-month old son, had died in the attack.

In this short book, Antoine Leiris tells of his struggle through the first few weeks after his wife's death. He doesn't enter into the horror of events inside the Bataclan. He doesn't touch on the politics or religious beliefs of the attackers. His account is a very personal one - of a husband at home that night, looking after his son, seeing his world start to fall apart as news broke on TV, and of his gradual attempt to re-build a life for himself and his son.
From the first shock of horror, and the blind panic of that night, through the quandary of explaining events to a child too young to speak properly but fully able to understand that his mother is no longer there, and the overwhelming support from both friends, with their never-ending supply of home-made meals, and strangers inspired by his Facebook post, the reader is with Leiris every step of the way. You can feel the growing dread with which he watches the news bulletins, the gradually dawning horror as his wife cannot be found, and the grief that threatens to overwhelm him when her body is.

This isn't, though, a story of a man consumed by grief. What shines through the anguish is Leiris's determination that, although they took the life of his wife, the terrorists would not have claimed his, or his son's, too. To be consumed by hatred and the desire for vengeance, to give way to fear, to distrust his fellow men, would do just that. Instead, despite the heartbreak, and inspired in part by his son's ability to still find joy in everyday things, Leiris resolves to live life as fully as possible, to refuse to be defined by this one random act, and in this small way to stand up to terrorists whatever they believe in.

This is a book which opens amidst horror but leads to the light. There are undoubtedly overwhelming moments of grief, but the overall feel of the book is a positive one of hope.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Harvill Secker
Genre - 
adult, memoir, autobiography, 

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Warning Cry by Kris Humphrey

Guardians of The Wild - Book 2

Review by The Mole

Nara, a farmer's daughter and Whisperer, has been summoned to Meridar to join with all the other Whisperers so that they can combine their powers to fight the demon army and defend the people of the Kingdom of Meridina. Nara's powers are resented by her family who expect their children to become farmers and help in the running of the farm. When the summons comes to go to Meridar, she says goodbye to her father and leaves to travel further than she has ever travelled - and alone - without a word to her mother or sister. She takes with her Flame, her leopard companion, and finds the journey anything but straightforward.

Book 1 was Whisper of Wolves which told the story of Alice and her companion wolf. In this book we meet a different Whisperer and while Alice may make a cameo appearance we aren't introduced to her.

So many of these young fantasy adventure series are based on one special person that can save the world single handedly and the problem with that is that if you don't like that character... well, it's obvious. In this series we follow a different character (or group of characters) in each story so the reader feels the overall plot expand as it progresses.

A very fast paced, hugely enjoyable, easy reader for the 9+ age group. Although all the lead characters are women or girls (of one age or another) I can see no reason why boys wouldn't enjoy these books as well.

Publisher - Stripes Publishing
Genre - 9+, Fantasy Adventure

Monday 14 November 2016

It's Just The Chronosphere Unfolding As It Should by Ira Nayman

a Radames Trafshanian Time Agency novel (Transdimensional Authority Book 4)

Review by The Mole

In Random Dingoes we met Radames Trafshanian - a Time Agency agent - after Noomi and Crash's case was shown to involve time travel. In this book we follow a case of Radames' as she tries to unravel the occurrences of déjà vu that seem to be causing time anomalies and threaten the stability of the multiverse.

These stories are extremely funny - I am careful with the word "hilarious" as it invokes memories of watching Morecambe and Wise as a child and laughing until my ribs, quite literally, hurt. But who really wants that in a book? You'd never get the book finished as you kept having to find your place on the page! But Nayman's books are just short of that but...

Time travel is one of those things that it's so easy to get totally obsessed with as an author and as a reader, and the concept of the multiverse further complicates that. Nayman somehow sidesteps those problems and leaves you with a novel that almost feels plausibly real - until you think about it.

My own view is that Nayman is actually getting better at these stories and the books (I've only read 1 and 3) were never anything but good but do improve. I know that when I turned the last page to find the appendices came next I was disappointed - disappointed that there was no more and I would have to wait for book 5!

A read for YA/adult readers that love humour and scifi and don't take their reading too seriously.

Genre - YA/Adult Humour, Sci-Fi
Publisher - Elsewhen Press

Friday 11 November 2016

The Terror by Dan Simmons

review by Maryom

In 1845 Sir John Franklin led an expedition to discover the North-West Passage, a sea-route passing through the maze of ice and islands that make up Canada's northern coast to reach Alaska and the Pacific Ocean. His two ships - Terror and Erebus - were equipped with the latest steam technology and ice-breaking hulls, but even that wasn't enough to cope with treacherous Arctic conditions, and the ships became trapped in the ice - not just over winter, but throughout an exceptionally cold summer too.
At that point, history leaves the crew marooned with no real explanation of what happened to them - and that's where Dan Simmons steps in with The Terror ...
After two years stuck in the ice, food and coal supplies are getting low, but a greater danger is stalking the expedition; a huge, nameless, formless thing that attacks and kills crew members one by one.

I've had The Terror sitting around on my 'to be read' shelf for a long while, and picked it up just before Halloween thinking it would be a fitting read, but at over 900 pages, it's taken a while to get through. I would say though that at no point in all those pages was I bored!
As you've probably surmised, the story is a mix of historical adventure and horror - and to be honest I found the history of the expedition fascinating and didn't think the story needed the horror aspect.
I was aware to a certain extent of the Franklin expedition and its search for the North-West passage, but only in the briefest way. Simmons brings those bare facts and dates to life; the conditions on board ship, the extensive supplies designed to last five years, the hopefulness and enthusiasm at the beginning of the voyage and gradual decline in moral as both officers and men realise that they're stuck not merely overwinter (which is to be expected) but through summer and at least another winter in the ice. I was particularly impressed with how Simmons used a mix of flashbacks and conversations to flesh in the details of past voyages to both Arctic and Antarctic, without having to fall back on just listing events. The descriptions of long, dark endless nights, the sound and feel of ice moving and cracking bring the almost alien surroundings vividly to life.
The horror didn't grab me, or frighten me as much, but I wasn't worried; the whole story of the Franklin expedition is a mystery, and fascinating as such, so this is an excellent read as a fictional version of an intriguing piece of history. (For anyone interested, I read somewhere recently that the Erebus may have been discovered at last, making this a doubly timely read)

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - 
Bantam Press
Genre - 
adult, exploration, arctic 

Monday 7 November 2016

Girl In Danger by Leigh Russell

(Lucy Hall Mystery No. 2)
Review by The Mole

Lucy has taken up a post in journalism in Paris but her work is dull and not the exciting headline grabbing work she had imagined so she starts asking around for stories. Out of the blue her phone rings and a voice arranges a clandestine meeting where nothing seems to happen until she, later that evening, finds a key in her pocket. Returning home she finds her flat completely turned over and her flatmate gone. On reporting Nina's disappearance to the police they are not interested because it's  not been long enough and they almost accuse her of wrecking her own flat. Lost, confused and needing help she contacts a private detective and they set about trying to solve the mystery - but with different agendas!

Lucy has matured a lot since her first mystery and this book is a great deal better for it. She still exhibits naivety, but being the young person she is, that is to be expected and in this context it's a breath of fresh air.

The pace of the story varies from chapter to chapter but continues in the typical Leigh Russell way of continuing menace for the "heroes". Nina's plight is terrifying and it's frighteningly realistic the way that she almost welcomes her inevitable fate.

A very different person to the Lucy we met in the first book and a very much more menacing telling of the story. It reminds me of the first Geraldine Steel books where we spent so much time in the killer's head that we were terrified of what they were capable of. I am sure Lucy will lose some of her naivety as the mysteries go on - but not too much, too fast please.

Publisher: Thomas and Mercer Publishing
Genre: Crime Thriller

Friday 4 November 2016

Two Books for Younger Readers from Cornelia Funke and Monica Armino

review by Maryom

Usually when children's picture books arrive I leave the reviewing of them to The Mole, but these were so beautiful they caught my eye, and I wouldn't let him see them!
I've long been a fan of Cornelia Funke after sharing Dragon Rider and Inkheart with our youngest daughter, and these two books hold the same sort of magic but for younger readers. 

The first is a picture book, illustrated by Monica Armino, for 'beginner' readers or for sharing with toddlers. Gawain Greytail and the Terrible Tab - Sir Tristan of Twitstream is fed up of having his castle over-run by mice. So he gets a cat, the Terrible Tab, to hunt them down, and soon the castle is an almost mouse-free zone. The three remaining mice are unhappy and fearing for their own lives but fortunately, Gawain Greytail, the mouse knight, comes to the rescue, teaching them some tricks to help outwit Tab the cat. it's a fun, exciting tale of under-dogs (or mice) standing up to a bully, and you can't help but cheer as the mice win the day!

The second, The Moonshine Dragon, is for more confident readers. One moonlit night, when Patrick should have been asleep, he sees a tiny silver dragon appear from the pages of a story book, chased by an equally small White Knight. Patrick soon finds himself shrunk to the same size, and battling to save the dragon. Will he be any match for the knight? ... 
A magical adventure that will delight its readers. It's exciting, a little tense, but not scary. A 'chapter' book but, illustrated again by Monica Armino in shades to echo the magical moonlight, there are pictures on almost every page bringing Patrick, the dragon and the knight to life - as much a delight as the story itself. I almost missed an additional feature; the back and front flaps hide puzzles that tie in with the story - spot the difference between two White Knights, and guide the dragon safely home through the maze.

As always from Barrington Stoke, the books are designed with dyslexia-friendly features in mind - both font and print-colour are designed to help the less confident reader, but without detracting from the stories. I loved them both!

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - children's 5-8 years, picture book

Thursday 3 November 2016

Cove by Cynan Jones

review by Maryom

A man is paddling far out at sea when a sudden electrical storm bursts around him, lightning running down to the water - and attracted to him and his kayak. When he regains consciousness, he's out of sight of land, injured, dazed, no idea of how much time has passed, of who is is, why he's there, his paddles are lost, his sense of direction gone... Instinct alone forces him to attempt the seemingly impossible journey to land.
"a man locked in an uneven struggle with the forces of nature" is how the blurb describes Cove. Well, to me, that sounds too much like some hunky hero in an all action-packed drama facing huge mountainous waves, and fighting off killer jellyfish or attacking sharks. Rest assured - this book isn't like that at all!
It's a quiet, undramatic tale, which is surprising considering its subject. It's short at under a hundred pages. Tightly written with not a surplus word left, but it still captures the helplessness of being adrift at sea, and the man's confusion of not knowing who he is, where he belongs, and his fear at the physical enormity of the waters surrounding him - the depth below, the expanse on all sides with no sight of land.

Jones proves once again that a book doesn't need to have a massive word count to make an impact. he gives the reader enough to set their imagination to work - to feel the pain, the fear, the physical and emotional numbness, the tightly bottled-down panic, and the buried animal instinct which strives for survival without, or may even despite, man's rational thought processes.
It's a book to devour whole in one sitting, and then turn over and examine in your mind, to see various aspects and themes appear.

Although Cove is very much about one man, in one very specific situation, it also feels like a story with wider application relating to anyone drifting, astray in life, trying to find their way back to something indefinable but lost. I couldn't help but be reminded of Stevie Smith's "I was much too far out all my life/And not waving but drowning", particularly when the kayaker spots a beach in the distance, with families paddling, but he still drifts helplessly past carried by currents beyond his control.

I suspect the ending may divide readers but I see it as a hopeful one, like rushing headlong to a re-birth. Maybe I just like to be an optimist.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Granta Books
Genre - Adult literary fiction 

Other reviews; Tim Hannigan