Tuesday 19 December 2017

A Maigret Christmas by Georges Simenon

translated by David Coward

review by Maryom

Madame Maigret is hoping for a quiet Christmas Day, spent peacefully at home with her husband, with no interruptions from his police work. She's out of luck! Inspector Maigret is barely up, and certainly not properly dressed, before two women from the opposite apartment block arrive with a tale of a man, dressed up as Father Christmas, having visited the daughter of one of them in the night. Whether or not he believes in Santa, Maigret immediately suspects something fishy is afoot, and sets out to investigate the matter, while barely moving from the comfort of his armchair.

This story featuring Georges Simenon's most famous character, Inspector Maigret, is one of a collection of three, all set in Paris at Christmas - the perfect read for a quiet moment (if there is such a thing) after Christmas Day dinner. For long-term fans of Maigret, it's a little festive gem. For those less familiar, it works as an introduction to the Inspector, his police team, and personal life; I was particularly impressed with how much of the Maigrets' family life was explored in such a short story without stealing the show from the investigation. A few words here and there from the author, and I felt like I knew this couple intimately.
The mystery itself is probably not all that complex, but after all this is a short story, not a full-length novel which has time for more false trails and diversions, and it makes an enjoyable festive crime read.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - Penguin Classics 
Genre - crime, Christmas 

Thursday 14 December 2017

The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths

review by Maryom
"Christmas 1953. Max Mephisto and his daughter Ruby are headlining Brighton Hippodrome, an achievement only slightly marred by the less-than-savoury support act: a tableau show of naked 'living statues'. This might appear to have nothing in common with DI Edgar Stephens' investigation into the death of a quiet flowerseller, but if there's one thing the old comrades have learned it's that, in Brighton, the line between art and life - and death - is all too easily blurred..."

This fourth Stephens and Mephisto mystery takes the reader to a snowy 1950s Brighton, where, as always when these two old army comrades are together, the glamour of theatre life rubs shoulders with murder. In her boarding-house room, Lily Burtenshaw's body is found, posed to resemble a famous painting of an historical event. Only nineteen years old, Lily was a quiet, shy girl, who worked at a local flowershop, but the positioning of her dead body bears a resemblance to the 'tableaux' presented by the 'living statues' act currently engaged at the Hippodrome Theatre. Surely there couldn't be a connection between them? Maybe Lily was mistakenly killed by someone who assumed she was one of the female performers temporarily staying at the same boarding-house? It's a disturbing, unlikely crime for Brighton, and the leads uncovered by DI Edgar Stephens seem to take him only to blind alleys. Max meanwhile has been befriended by one of the 'living statues', an unlikely move given their respective ages, and one which he treats with a degree of scepticism, but maybe this young, attractive woman can shed light on the identity of Lily's murderer ...

Elly Griffiths has again transported the reader back to a time which feels like it ought to be gentler and more innocent - after all, it snows for Christmas - but seems more to balance on a knife-edge between glamorous and sordid - the (almost) nude performers are only allowed if they stand rigidly still, complying with a ruling which deems them 'artistic' rather than 'rude'. Human nature being what it is though, particularly in crime novels, someone always finds themselves driven to murder.

After an excess of psychological thrillers and domestic noir, I'm finding myself increasingly drawn back to the whodunnit school of crime fiction - perhaps because it's presented more as a puzzle to solve. Someone is murdered, the police, perhaps with the assistance of an interested 'bystander' such as Miss Marple or Max Mephisto, set about finding the culprit, and, after a number of dead ends and red herrings, find him or her. That's not to say there isn't tension, but it's not the over the top nerve-racking suspense of a psychological thriller. Elly Griffiths' stories fit me perfectly, whether the Ruth Galloway series mixing archaeology and murder in modern-day Norfolk, or this Stephens and Mephisto '50s set series.
There's a nice balance between the two aspects of the story - the crime-solving and the personal lives of the 'regular' characters - which makes this possible to read as a stand-alone novel while it fits into a longer story-arc of the characters personal lives - and much as in the Ruth Galloway series, it's difficult to anticipate which route those lives will take.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher -
Genre - adult historical crime

Tuesday 12 December 2017

I Killed Father Christmas by Anthony McGowan

illustrated by Chris Riddell

review by Maryom

Jo-Jo has annoyed his dad with an enormous list of  presents he wants for Christmas, and now his dad and mum are arguing. Despite hiding under his pillow, Jo-Jo can't avoid hearing them, especially when his mum says "You've killed Christmas". Although she's talking to his dad, Jo-Jo knows it's all his fault, and, with Father Christmas dead, it's up to him to make amends. He can't travel all round the world, but wearing his mum's red coat, and laden with pillowcases filled with old toys, Jo-Jo sets out to bring Christmas to his street at least.

 Anthony McGowan's words and Chris Riddell's illustrations join to bring this delightful, heart-warming seasonal story to life. While reminding us that Christmas is about loving and sharing, rather than the quantity or expense of the presents we receive, it's a fun read rather than an over-sentimental, cloying one.

One of Barrington Stoke's Little Gem series, it comes with all those dyslexia-friendly features you'd expect - cream paper, easy-to-read font, lots of pictures, and short, punchy sentences - but you'll probably be so wrapped up in the story that you won't notice them.

It's a perfect stocking-filler for young, capable readers, or a story you might choose to read to a younger child. Don't overlook the end-papers, though - there are Christmassy cracker-style jokes at the front, and a maze puzzle - can Jo-Jo and Father Christmas reach the parcels and deliver them? - at the back  ... and it explains how Father Christmas gets all those presents down all the chimneys.

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - children's picture book, early read, dyslexia friendly, 5-9, 

Friday 8 December 2017

Year One by Nora Roberts

review by Maryom

Out shooting pheasants in the Scottish countryside, businessman Ross MacLeod inadvertently lets loose a deadly virus. Spreading at an alarming rate, it's barely any time before millions are dead, and the survivors struggling to hold the world together. The story follows three separate groups who leave New York, heading for the perceived 'safety' of less populated areas, trying to re-establish their lives there. So far, it's your average apocalypse tale, but there's a twist. Some of the survivors suddenly find themselves gifted with uncanny abilities - to see the future in a person's touch, or to move people and things, for example. Of course, these gifts don't pass un-noted - there are rumours of governmental, scientific or military departments imprisoning them to investigate and harness these talents, and lynch mobs roam the countryside looking to kill them. There's hope though for the survivors, particularly in the shape of three babies born at the height of the plague, and another conceived then.

Now, I'm generally up for a good apocalypse - from Twenty Eight Days Later or I Am Legend to Shaun of the Dead - and yes, they do generally all follow a pattern, with a group of lucky survivors struggling to re-build civilisation (or grab a pint down the Winchester) despite all the forces ranged against them, but Year One just didn't work for me. In part it was too similar to many novels that have gone before; on the other hand, the sudden appearance of paranormal abilities and the whole mystical aspect rather turned me off. I think if you've read /seen less apocalyptic fiction you'd find it more compelling, but as it followed the tried and trusted tropes associated with such stories, it failed to hold my interest. The ending too I found a bit of a  let-down - a lot of sub-lots abandoned as the novel followed one story-line, but these others may be re-visited as Year One is the first book of a planned trilogy. For my money, I'd go for Station Eleven by Emily StJohn Mandel or Micheal F Russell's Lie of the Land

Maryom's review -  3 stars
Publisher - Piatkus (Little, Brown)
Genre - adult post-apocalyptic fiction

Tuesday 5 December 2017

Coldmaker by Daniel A Cohen

review by Maryom

 In a world which is blazing hot, cold falls from the sky at night to be collected by the slave-class Jadans and used by the Nobles. One class live in luxury; the other in desperate need. The balance kept by a religion which reinforces the Jadans lower status.  In the city of Paphos though, things are changing. A young Jadan boy, Micah, has a knack for 'tinkering', making objects from salvaged rubbish. One night, out hunting for useful scraps, he sees an odd girl - a Jadan from her appearance, though not bent in submission as he and everyone he knows is, but walking tall and straight, as if she had as much right to as the Nobles. Is she in some way linked to the signs of rebellion appearing throughout the city? From his first glimpse of her, Micah's life certainly begins to change.

Coldmaker is a brilliant book. Well-drawn characters, a story-line which doesn't follow the expected path, gruelling heat that you can almost feel, and excellent world-building - for me, the stand-out feature of the book.
Firstly there are the weird climatic conditions that plague Paphos. I must admit I'd at first imagined the Cold that falls at night to be something like hail, but it turns out to be a more complex thing, capable of being stored in its natural state, kept as treasure, or used for both cooling water, buildings, and gardens, and powering the inventions that Micah makes.
Then there's the class system. The Nobles are in charge; the Jadans kept like slaves. A lot of dystopian novels have a similar set-up of a ruling class virtually enslaving the rest of the population, and I often wonder why the 'slaves' don't rebel. The clever bit here is the invention of a religious system in which the Jadans are considered the cause of the annihilating heat, therefore always 'unworthy' of the benefits of the Cold, and permanently subservient to the Nobles. Punishment is random and brutal, but, indoctrinated from an early age, the Jadans fear worse if they rebel. Micah has to take a psychological leap to understand that he won't be struck down for challenging the status quo, and I found his development fascinating.
At the same time, it's a compelling adventure, full of danger and tension, which doesn't pan out quite as I think you'd expect.

Crossing the boundaries of adult and young adult fiction, this is an excellent read for anyone looking for a new dystopian 'fix'.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre - YA/adult dystopian fantasy 

Friday 1 December 2017

Class Murder by Leigh Russell

Review by The Mole

"With so many potential victims to choose from, there would be many deaths. He was spoiled for choice, really, but he was determined to take his time and select his targets carefully. Only by controlling his feelings could he maintain his success. He smiled to himself. If he was clever, he would never have to stop. And he was clever. He was very clever. Far too clever to be caught."

First of all, a confession. For the first time I have missed a Geraldine Steel out of the series so her current situation came as a surprise to me.

Demoted for the rest of her career and sent north to a new area she is once again working with Ian Peterson. A girl is murdered and the crime scene is clinically clean leaving the police almost nothing to go on. The case struggles on when a second murder is committed in the small rural area but there is almost nothing to link the crimes together. With the size of the population the only link seems far too tenuous to be substantial. Then the press find the link and start to make a story out of it. Then there is a third murder...

Russell has really returned to her roots with this story. We enter the head of the murderer without finding out 'why' and learn his cold, psychopathic thinking - and hating him more each time. Rooting for Steel and Peterson but we find Peterson wants to play 100% by the rules and do everything that's expected of him while Steel pushes her neck further and further out to the point...

Does their previous friendship have any real meaning anymore? Is Steel really now alone hundreds of miles from home?

Russell at her very best and Steel crying out to be turned into a TV series. I loved this book as much as any of the previous 8 out of 9 that I've read. I really can't wait for number 11.

Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult Crime Thriller

Wednesday 29 November 2017

Shakespeare's Ghost by Mary Hoffman

review by Maryom

Ned Lambert is a young actor with Will Shakespeare's company of players, The King's Men. In his teens, he's of an age to be moving from boys' parts playing women to 'proper' men's roles, and his future is looking bright. His attraction to Charity, the young seamstress who helps with the company's costumes, seems to be returned, Shakespeare himself has taken a shine to Ned and promised him a continuing place in the company, and he's even been noticed and befriended by Henry, the Prince of Wales. So, with all these things going right for him, why should Ned feel unsettled? Well, he's become entranced by a beautiful, mysterious woman, glimpsed fleetingly around the theatre. Could she really be, as she claims, a fairy drawn through from their world by her desire for Ned? Whoever she is Ned finds her irresistible, almost enough to leave his life behind and follow here where ever she leads. Talking his dilemma through with Shakespeare, Ned discovers Will too has been visited by the fairy folk, one of them returning frequently to inspire his writing. but are these other-worldly influences for good, or evil?

In Shakespeare's Ghost, Mary Hoffman takes the reader back to early seventeenth century London and the reign of James I, bringing to life  the wealth and privilege of the Court, the cramped, unsanitary housing of  'common' folk, and the make-believe world of the theatres. Over all Londoners though, no matter what their station in life, hangs the horrific threat of the Plague.
But although the backdrop is entirely realistic, against it plays out a story involving fantasy, other-worldly characters - the two aspects weaving together seamlessly, and maybe explaining Shakespeare's fascination with fairies and other paranormal creatures.

Although (without the reader realising it) there's a lot of social history to be picked up, this book is primarily an entertaining and engaging read, and a great way to persuade younger teens that Shakespeare isn't just that dull, dead guy whose plays you're forced to read at school. Ned is a character that I think readers will identify and sympathise with. A boy on the brink of manhood, forced to choose between a safe but possibly dull life with childhood sweetheart Charity, and one of seemingly impossible delight with Faelinn. Admittedly, the average person doesn't normally face such a choice but his dilemma reflects the more humdrum decisions we all have to make at times.

By pure coincidence, my previous read involved a young man being tempted by a strange, possibly other-worldly woman, and the one before that involved a young actor with Shakespeare's players, on the cusp of growing out of women's roles and taking on men's. How strange that this book combines both threads!

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - The Greystones Press 
Genre - teen historical fiction fantasy

Monday 27 November 2017

Fool's Errand by Robin Hobb

 review by Maryom

My epic reading of Robin Hobb's fantasy continues, back to the world of Fitz and the Fool with Fool's Errand, the first of the Tawny Man trilogy.

15 years have passed since the ending of the Farseer trilogy, during which Fitz has grown from youth to adult, but his wolf,  Nighteyes, is now approaching old age - wit-bonding with Fitz has given him a longer life than that of a 'normal' wolf, but his years are definitely catching up with him. When the story opens, they're living a quiet existence in a cottage by the sea, content growing vegetables, keeping hens, and catching rabbits, letting events in the wider world pass them by. Things are about to change though, as the Farseer dynasty has problems  - the heir to the throne, Prince Dutiful,has disappeared just before he was due to be betrothed in a union of political necessity - and Fitz with his unique abilities is the only man to solve them.

I'm not going to say I didn't love the Liveship Trilogy but I DO love the Fitz and The Fool stories more; maybe because Fitz has grown from boy to man in the series; maybe because of his 'witted' bond with animals, particularly Nighteyes (I think most dog owners would love to have this bond and truly share the lives of their 'pets'); because of the odd and changing relationship he has with The Fool, particularly as Fitz seems to be not noticing something which is evident to the reader. Certainly, I didn't care about any individual from the Liveships stories as much as for Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool.
I'm glad I took time out to read the Liveships stories though, for they add in extra background to the dragons, the wider world outside the Six Duchies, and (treading carefully here for fear of spoilers) some of the characters who appear in both series.
Again, although ostensibly a fantasy adventure story, Hobb touches on wider matters  - the superiority that the 'unwitted' feel they have, and the hatred and fear with which they regard the 'witted', echo the divisions of race and religion you can sadly find almost anywhere in our 'real' world. I think this is what lifts her stories beyond the mass of fantasy novels. "Fantasy as it ought to be written" says the cover quote from George R R Martin, and you can't really argue with him!

Previously reviewed - Assassin's Apprentice (Farseer Trilogy, Book1)
                                    The Liveships Trilogy

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
 Adult fantasy

Friday 24 November 2017

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

review by Maryom

Richard Shakespeare is at a difficult point in his acting career - too old to play female parts, and not sure if his current company of players will keep him on in men's roles, even though it's part-owned by his brother William. So when he hears of a possible opportunity at a new theatre, he's definitely tempted. But the competition between the playhouses of Elizabethan London is intense, and there'd be a price to pay for Richard's new position - stealing the script of his brother's latest play (the one set in Verona about star-crossed lovers...)

Now, I haven't read much of Bernard Cornwell's work, but this feels very different to the few Sharpe novels I've read, or to The Last Kingdom as seen on TV. There are no huge pitched battles, or even small skirmishes; it's more of a foray behind the scenes of the playhouses, taverns and palaces of sixteenth century London. It's a rather cut-throat world with playhouses willing to go to almost any lengths to draw the crowds in by staging something bigger, better, and newer than their opponents, and the theatrical community faces threats from outside as well - particularly from the Puritans, eager to see all such entertainments closed down. Cornwell brings it all wonderfully to life; the players with their rivalries and superstitions, the backstage peep at rehearsals for A Midsummer's Night Dream, the excitement of opening night or the dread of something going horribly wrong. To my mind, there's more than a touch of Shakespeare in Love about Fools and Mortals - not in the plot but in the representations of some of the characters, in the theatrical banter, and Will Shakespeare's as yet untitled work in progress  - but it's not a bad thing. In fact, I loved it.

As with the Sharpe novels, there's a blend of fact and fiction. The Lord Chamberlain's Men were a real acting company, and our hero, Richard, rubs shoulders with real historical figures - both actors - Kemp, Burbage, and of course William Shakespeare - and their noble patrons, including the Lord Chamberlain, a close relative of the Queen, and his family.

Generally it's a good, entertaining 'fun' adventure, with a little violence but not much. I'd say this counts as adult fiction, but if you have any teens struggling with Shakespeare at school, finding him and his plays too dull for words, give them this to read; it might just change their minds.

As I said above, Fools and Mortals is a new departure for Bernard Cornwell, and perhaps the first of a series. I hope so. 

Maryom's review - 4.5
Publisher - Harper Collins 
Genre -
 Adult historical fiction

Monday 20 November 2017

Ragdoll by Daniel Cole

Review by The Mole

"A body is discovered with the dismembered parts of six victims stitched together, nicknamed by the press as the 'Ragdoll'. Assigned to the shocking case are Detective William 'Wolf' Fawkes, recently reinstated to the London Met, and his former partner Detective Emily Baxter.

The 'Ragdoll Killer' taunts the police by releasing a list of names to the media, and the dates on which he intends to murder them. With six people to save, can Fawkes and Baxter catch a killer when the world is watching their every move?"

Very fast paced and complex this is a book that will have you wanting to keep going back and asking "How?". You'll be drawing timelines and plotting events to see how it all fits together. But it does, so forget all that and just sit back and enjoy this devious plot that you may not truly understand until the very end. If, like me, you decide who's guilty early on then be honest and and admit that you changed your mind at least a couple of times as the plot develops.

And at the end, as the end game is revealed and things fall into place, you won't believe how it all fits together. At least you won't want to believe it.

A murder mystery written with a very convoluted plot and brilliantly executed. Very much an author to watch in the future.

Publisher: Trapeze (Orion)
Genre: Adult Murder Mystery/Thriller

Thursday 16 November 2017

Molly Rogers Pirate Girl by Cornelia Funke

illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek

review by Maryom

Captain Firebeard thinks he's the fiercest pirate in the world, but at last he's met his match - in a little girl named Molly!
When the crew of the Horrible Haddock kidnap Molly in one of their raids, they've taken on more than they realise. Molly is set to work peeling potatoes, scrubbing the decks and patching sails, while Captain Firebeard wonders how he can get a ransom for her. Molly, though, isn't going to let him get his way for long - she has plans to escape and knows someone who is a better, bolder pirate than he is!

 Cornelia Funke (Dragonrider, Inkheart) tells a tale of fearsome pirates sailing the seas, raiding other ships and carrying off the spoils - but with a feminist twist. It's not only men who can be bold, brave pirates; Molly is easily as fearless and clever as Captain Firebeard, and the mere mention of her mum's name is enough to strike him and his crew with fear.

Kasia Matyjaszek's colourful illustrations, full of life and energy, bring Molly, the pirate crew, and their parrot, to life, and should take away any fears raised in smaller children by the thought of Molly being thrown to the sharks (plot spoiler; she isn't!)

Suitable for either children taking the first steps in learning to read or as a picture book for adults to share with younger children, Barrington Stoke's dyslexia-friendly features make this a comfortable read for anyone (parent or child).

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - picture book, early read, dyslexia friendly

Tuesday 14 November 2017

The Last Hours by Minette Walters

review by Maryom

Summer 1348, and rumours are spreading throughout Dorset of a virulent plague which kills everyone who comes into contact with it. Alarmed by the news, Lady Anne of Develish decides to take drastic precautionary measures, bringing all the estate's serfs and freemen within the bounds of the manor house's moat and refusing entry to everyone else - including her husband, who has just returned from a neighbouring estate infected with the disease! 

This possible haven is threatened from both within and without. People, animals and chickens cram themselves into the moated area, but, after an initial flurry of settling in, there's little to do but wait out the pestilence, and tensions are running high; a situation exacerbated by the positively weird behaviour of Lady Anne's teenage daughter Eleanor. Their situation is threatened by armed soldiers roaming the countryside, and, despite moving the villagers' stores into the hall, supplies won't last long and ultimately someone must venture out to find food, and check on the situation on neighbouring estates.

This novel is another case (there seem to be quite a few around at the moment) of an author 'jumping' genres. Minette Walters is known for her crime novels; here she's taken on a mix of historical and apocalyptic fiction. I suppose we tend to think of apocalyptic fiction as belonging to sci-fi or futuristic writings, but the Black Death was very real, sweeping through Europe and in places killing half the population. 

I'd expected a somehow 'busier' story, more action-packed with Lady Anne and her followers almost constantly fighting off attackers; instead it's slow burn sort of read, but one that's grabs the reader. An enclosed community is bound to suffer from tensions, without taking a plague ravaging the countryside into consideration, and this one is no exception. It's only when a group is forced to venture out and confront the devastation left by the plague that they realise how lucky they were.

There's an amazing amount of period detail, fitted in round the story rather than obscuring it, explaining the social structure under which serfs were bonded to a lord, unable to leave his property, limited in the work they can do to better their own lot; that lord paying allegiance to a higher lord; and everything ultimately being at the king's disposal. And of course, women at every level having least say of all in their lives.
Lady Anne is an unusual women - raised in a convent, with firm beliefs on cleanliness and sanitation, but not meek and mild as you would expect. She's well aware of the wrongs committed by her husband, and where ever she can, she's taken a stand against them, altering their serfs' lives for the better. When others are saying the plague is sent by God as punishment for sins, she looks for more practical reasons behind the outbreak. Maybe she feels at times just a little too modern and informed, but if monks at the time could have thinking on the same lines, why shouldn't a clever, convent-raised woman?

Maryom's review -  4.stars
Publisher - Allen and Unwin
Genre - adult historical fiction

Friday 10 November 2017

Winds of October by Alan Gibbons

review by Maryom

Alan Gibbons' first foray into adult fiction takes us to 1917 when Russia is held in the grip of revolution. The streets of Petrograd are in turmoil, its people on the march, demanding better working and living conditions, a government that really represents them, and an end to the war with Germany. Striking workers are joined in their protests by students and soldiers, and an unstoppable wind of change is blowing.
The story brings these tumultuous events to life through the intertwined stories of three young people - Raisa, who, following the death of her mother, was forced into prostitution. A violent, yet ultimately lucky, encounter sees her escape this life and she's more than ready to embrace the freedom offered.
Kolya, a young student, firm in his Bolshevik ideals, with a rousing slogan for almost every occasion, but of very little experience in the world. He's talked about revolution a lot, but will it live up to his expectations?
Pavel, an army conscript, who doesn't see why he should sacrifice his life fighting the war against Germany, and finds himself thrust into the front ranks of the Revolution after shooting an officer.
All three have a lot of growing up to do - mentally, emotionally, and sexually - as chaos overwhelms the city, and they become part of a growing mass of angry workers, ready to take on anyone who opposes them. Through their eyes the reader shares the hopes and fears, gains and setbacks, of a year marked by strikes, lockouts, and demonstrations, as the first revolution of February falls flat and tensions continue to simmer through spring and summer.
As you'd expect the main historical figures of the time put in appearances - Kerensky driving past in a limousine, a glimpse of Lenin looking unimpressive, British suffragette Jessie Kenney addressing the crowds - but the emphasis is firmly on three main characters, their friends and lovers: this isn't a political novel but one of real people caught up in world-changing events.
Although billed as an adult novel, with the main characters being all fairly young I think this would appeal to teens - of course with revolution and rebellion comes a certain level of violence and bloodshed, and there's a fair amount of sex in it so definitely OLDER teens (maybe the equivalent of a 15-rated film)

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Circaidy Gregory Press

Genre -adult, older teen, historical fiction, Russian Revolution, 

Tuesday 7 November 2017

At the Turn of the Century by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

review by Maryom

Although she's probably best known for her Oscar-winning screenplays of Room With A View and Howard's End for Merchant Ivory Productions, and her Booker-winning novel, Heat and Dust, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was also a prolific writer of short stories. In At the Turn of the Century, seventeen of those stories (previously published elsewhere) are brought together to form a body of work spanning 50 years.

The earlier stories are set in Prawer Jhabvala's adopted homeland of India, telling of the lives of both Indians themselves and the English who seem drawn there looking to 'discover' themselves, through the spiritual guidance of gurus or by immersing themselves in a world which somehow seems more 'authentic' than materialistic twentieth century England; for both young hippies in the '60s or supposedly happily-married wives posted abroad with their husbands, India holds a mesmerising attraction.
When Prawer Jhabvala's work took her to the US, the setting of her stories moved too; the people at the centre of them now being wealthy New Yorkers or, in one, the film-makers of  California. In this more mature phase, there's a new recurring theme - that of unconventional marriages and households.
Whatever the setting, the focus lies on the interactions of characters - within couples, families or wider groups - on the give and take of relationships, the compromises sometimes necessary to find, if not happiness, then at least contentment.
My favourites? (well, it may be wrong to choose favourites but there are always some) A Course of English Studies, about a young Indian girl's experiences at an English university, and A Choice of Heritage, in which a half English, half Indian girl gradually comes to realise that her background may not quite be what she had believed.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - 
Little, Brown
Genre -adult, short stories

Thursday 2 November 2017

The World Gone Missing by Laurie Ann Doyle

review by Maryom

The twelve short stories that make up this collection are linked by two things - their location - in and around San Francisco - and the theme of absence.
In each, someone or something is missing. It may be a close friend or relative who died, a father who up and left his family behind, a brother who has wandered off without leaving a word, a birth-mother who has shunned all contact with her child, but in each story someone has been left with a void in their life. Sometimes their search will bring them towards a moment of redemption, a filling of that gaping hole; other stories tail off, leaving unanswered questions, and unfulfilled hopes - perhaps to be honest, in a closer reflection of life.

Although some of these stories have appeared in various publications, even been nominated for awards, together they form the first collection by Laurie Ann Doyle. Short stories are always difficult to review without going into time-consuming details of each and every one; suffice it to say that I enjoyed them all. The style and 'voice' change from piece to piece - varying from third to first person, past tense to present - creating a varied compilation. Taken as a whole though, these are the kind of easily readable stories that feel simple till you begin to reflect on them, whereupon they turn into something more complex and thought-provoking.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Regal House Publishing

Genre -adult, short stories 

Tuesday 31 October 2017

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

review by Maryom

Jane Harper's first crime thriller, The Dry, transported the reader to the hot, dusty, drought-ridden spaces of rural Australia. This time, we're again far from the safety of the cities, but in the misty, rain-soaked bush country of the Giralang Ranges. In this remote spot, Executive Adventures run corporate team-building retreats, encouraging stressed office workers to get outdoors and bond while trekking through the bush. The latest group of ten co-workers from finance company BaileyTennant is expected back any minute. The five men show up, a little early, but of the women's group there's no sign. Search parties are sent out, with no success. As darkness is dropping, the women's group eventually stumbles back to base ... but one of them, Alice Russell, is missing ...

I'm not sure from their reputation that any of these team-building, bonding exercises work, even in real life, but in fiction they lead to the opposite - irritation and fractious bickering leading gradually to the group falling out and heading for disaster in one shape or another - and this story is no exception. Immediately you latch onto the fact that the five woman may work together but are not friends at all; they're all outside their comfort zone; Jill is isolated by her position as one of the company's owners; twins Bree and Beth would sooner be anywhere rather than together, especially out in the Bush, Alice and Lauren may have been at school together but now they now seem locked in a battle of one-up-man-ship over jobs, houses and the achievements of their children; add in the fact that Alice has been providing the police with inside information about possible illegal deals taking place, and you've got a recipe for trouble. Oh, and the Giralang area was once the base of a serial killer...

Federal agent Aaron Falk, from The Dry, is back as Alice's police contact, and he and his partner, Carmen Cooper, are immediately alarmed by news of her disappearance, suspecting it could be related to their investigation, and so are dragged in to the search for her. While more experienced men take on the physical task of scouring the bush, Falk and Cooper talk to her colleagues and family, and try to build a picture of Alice's circumstances and state of mind. At the same time, a different thread of story goes back a couple of days, and follows the BaileyTennant staff as they head off into the bush.

The Dry was a wonderful example of a claustrophobic small town whodunnit and, in this totally different setting, Harper has created a thriller, possibly a murder mystery, that will grab you immediately, and keep you hooked till the end. The countryside and weather are again used to great effect to create atmosphere and highlight mood, with rain and mist adding to the growing menace, and clouding the investigation as much as they do the landscape. I raced through the book, eager to know what happened to Alice, and whether she'd be found alive or not. Although Force of Nature again features Aaron Falk it is a complete standalone story, so there's no need to have read The Dry beforehand. 

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Little, Brown
Genre -adult, crime, Australia

Wednesday 25 October 2017

The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins

review by Maryom

Olivia Sweetman seems to have it all. She's a respected professor of history, now becoming known to the wider public through a popular TV series and guest appearances on other programmes, happily married with three children, and now she's about to break into the publishing world with her first book, Annabel, about a Victorian feminist, one of the first female surgeons, and perhaps a murderer, it's sure to be a best-seller.
Behind this public facade, though, things are not so rosy. Her husband's actions have disturbed their marital harmony, her eldest son is behaving like the stroppiest teenager ever, and Vivian Tester, the woman who helped with so much of the research for Annabel, is refusing to accept that their partnership is over, and she holds a secret that could break Olivia.

In brief outline, this doesn't seem an unfamiliar plot - well known, glamorous media personage is stalked by the 'little guy' they've trampled over to reach their position, but as the story unfolds, seeing events from first one woman's point of view then the other's, it becomes apparent that the relationship between the two women isn't that simple. Each has behaved badly and in some way wronged the other, they both have secrets to hide, and I found it difficult, with my sympathies swapping from one to the other, to decide who was the most injured party. Although some of the 'extras' are fairly sketchy, Olivia and Vivian are particularly well-drawn and fleshed out; not the common two-dimensional characters of many thrillers, but real people you can empathise with, which makes for a more compelling read. 
As you'd expect there are twists and turns, and a bombshell or two, as the story unfolds, and maybe the only downside to it is that it won't have the same impact on a second read.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher -
Genre - adult psychological thriller

Monday 23 October 2017

Tattletale by Sarah J Naughton

Review by The Mole

Abe Mackenzie is lying with severe head injuries at the foot of the stairs. Jody, his fiancée, is with him and calling for the emergency services. It seems he has committed suicide although no-one saw it happen and the police record his death as such.

Mags, his sister who hasn't had contact with him since she ran away from home at the age of 15, is contacted at her office in the USA to come and take the role of next of kin. Mags is now a successful lawyer and sees suspicion and doubt in anything she doesn't immediately understand. And she doesn't understand why he jumped.

Mags clearly learnt her investigative skills at the Morse school of detection and blunders from one accusation to the next with the reader at least one step ahead all the time but this really works to keep the reader engaged. Each accusation leads to one more thread of lies in the story unpicked taking us ever closer to understanding what really happened that night - which should come as no surprise to most readers before the end. But will justice be served? Can justice be served?

At times thrilling, at times very emotional as damaged characters unload some of their burden on the reader and at other times a condemnation of the way the justice system can completely fail the damaged and vulnerable.

A truly excellent read that will keep you turning the pages until the very end - but the real very end you may have to fill in for yourself.

Publisher - Trapeze (Orion)
Genre - Adult Thriller

Thursday 19 October 2017

The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) by Marie Gameson

review by Maryom

Following a moment of revelation on a mountain top in Taiwan, Winifred Rigby believes she's attained a state of enlightenment, discarding all thoughts of  'self' along with her memories. Now forced by her family to return to London, she tries her best to live a life of Buddhist detachment and mindfulness, concentrating on the present, and forgetting the past, but is puzzled and frustrated by the almost obsessive care shown by her mother and sister, and, despite her intentions, the past seems unwilling to let go of Winnie. First she's approached by one of her former teachers who believes he is being haunted by his father, Mr Gadd, and that the answer to how to appease this ghost is to be found in an old school essay's of Winnie's - The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased). This leads to other random encounters  - with her best friend from her teenage years, and a former boyfriend - and more deliberate journeys into the past through her school essays. Maybe Winnie needs to re-connect with her past to find a future?

The story (apart from a short 'epilogue' is narrated by Winnie herself, and at first I took her words as 'true'. She believes that her family have tricked her in various ways - pretending her sister was ill to make Winnie come home from Taiwan, clearing a large amount of money from her back account, acting as if her father were dead when Winnie herself has seen him selling Big Issue at the tube station. I loved the tone of Winnie's voice, but it's obvious from the first page that Winnie and her family aren't quite communicating on the same wavelength and gradually I began to get the feeling that Winnie wasn't exactly the most reliable of narrators. Soon a number of mysteries emerge - why does her sister Ursula keep such a close eye on Winnie? what really happened to bring Winnie home from Taiwan? has Winnie chosen to forget the past or has she lost her memory in some way?  - and, of course, I needed to know why/what/ how, and was hooked.
Thought-provoking is a tag often used when reviewing books, but here, without stressing or labouring over them, the author introduces a variety of themes to mull over or discuss with bookclub friends - how do you care for or continue to love a person who has undergone a radical personality change? isn't change of some sort necessary to personal growth? is it good or bad to cut oneself loose from the past? is the detachment that Winnie seeks necessarily a good thing or can it make us careless of other people's emotions? It's a book I feel I could return to time and again, and always find something new hidden there.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - Adult fiction

Thursday 12 October 2017

The Strategist by Gerrard Cowan

Review by The Mole
(The Machinery Trilogy, Book 2)

(Book 1 - The Machinery)

"Ruin is coming.

For ten millennia, the Machinery Selected the greatest leaders of humanity, bringing glory to the Overland. But the Machinery came with a Prophecy: in the 10,000th year, it will break, and Ruin will come.

Now, the Prophecy is being fulfilled. The Machinery has Selected a terrible being to rule the Overland, an immortal who cares little for the humans she governs. Some call her the Strategist. Others call her the One. Everyone knows her as Mother.

Mother will do anything to find the Machinery and finally bring Ruin. But only one creature knows where the Machinery is – the Dust Queen, an ancient being of three bodies and endless power.

And if Mother wants the Dust Queen’s help, she must ready herself for a game. A game from older times. A game of memory. A game in which mortals are nothing more than pawns."

Book 1 left us on a cliff hanger ending and, as with all such books, it's difficult to précis the next without including spoilers. It would be simple to say that the immortals are going to play a game where some of our mortals from The Machinery are pawns and this book sets the game up - but that sounds dull and boring while the action is anything but.

It appears that no-one is who they seem and this comes as a shock to them while we also meet a whole raft of new characters in engaging action that has you not wanting to put the book down. Once again the author leaves us on not one cliff hanger, but several as each character moves closer to the game. It's very much a story of 'pick your hero', particularly amongst the mortals.

I really loved this book and had forgotten how much I enjoyed the first one. Bring on book 3 (The Memory) please and let's see if the game starts and who actually gets to play.

This is classified as science fiction/fantasy but still carries a strong steampunk feel.

I read The Machinery 2 years ago and the paperback of The Strategist is only out in January 2018 (although the Kindle version has been available quite a while) but I found that picking the cliffhanger up after so long a little difficult - as well as remembering each of the characters etc. But the good news is that The Memory comes out in Kindle form in June 2018 so picking this up (or starting the trilogy again) now would be a good time to do it.

An excellent read for SF/Fantasy/Steampunk fans of all ages.

Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre - Fantasy 

Tuesday 10 October 2017

Darien by CF Iggulden

review by Maryom
Conn Iggulden is well known as a writer of historical fiction, but here he's taking the first steps into the world of fantasy, under the slightly different name of CF Iggulden - and although Darien is only the first book of a trilogy, it certainly bodes well for the stories still to come. 
To be honest, apart from the addition of a sprinkling of magic, there's often little difference between fantasy and historical fiction set, as Iggulden's novels are, in the ancient world - the story will generally be set at a time of upheaval, armies will march across the land, battles be fought over thrones, and sometimes there's one special character with a special skill - whether magical or merely the charisma to influence others - around whom the plot turns. Basically it's the stuff of legends, whether set in our own world, or one of the author's imaginings. In outline, I'd say Darien falls pretty much under that synopsis.

Darien itself is a huge city-state, nominally ruled by a king but the real power is held by twelve families, with their own armies to back them if necessary. The King's most experienced and feared general, though, holds the belief that he would be the fittest person to rule - and is about to act on that, with a plan to assassinate the king and seize power in the chaos that follows; caught up in his schemes are Elias Post, a hunter with special Neo/Matrix-like sword-dodging skills, and Vic Deeds, a master of the new martial art of gun-fighting. As the general's forces advance on the city, life is continuing as always - elderly ex-swordsman,Tellius, sends his gang of young pickpockets out into the streets and takes a new one under his wing, while Daw Threefold, always looking out for ways to get rich, finds Nancy, a girl with a special gift which might make him a fortune.
It's a really enjoyable read - not too violent considering the amount of bloodshed of a civil war, and with great array of characters, each with their faults and foibles to make them rounded and more human than some rather 2D fantasy hero. It's especially nice to see among them, in Nancy and Lady Sallet, strong female characters with interests beyond clothes, jewels and men. They're not all necessarily likeable (after all that would be stretching the imagination too far), and you're bound to have favourites among them, those you hope will win through and live happily ever after (though this is book one of three, so don't be too relieved even if your favourite made it to the end of this story). I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - 
Michael Joseph
Genre - Adult fantasy fiction

Thursday 28 September 2017

The Liveships Trilogy by Robin Hobb

review by Maryom

It's a little unusual (and maybe a little lazy) to review a trilogy at one go but this really is one long story (extremely long as even an individual book can be over 900 pages!)

I'm a late-comer to Robin Hobb's work, only really plunging into it last year with Assassin's Apprentice  I'd started out with the plan of reading all Robin Hobb's Farseer novels before publication of the last - Assassin's Fate - but that plan fell well behind. I'm still carrying on though as I'm become enthralled by her world-building and story-telling and sheer range of imagination. Something that also makes Hobb's stories stand apart is that, as in Ursula le Guin's work, among the twisting plot-lines and fantastic creatures you'll come across an idea - political, moral or ecological - that is just as applicable to our world as it is to the fantasy one.

At the heart of this trilogy are the Liveships themselves - made from special 'wizard' wood, after their owners have lived and, just as importantly, died on their decks, the ships become sentient and bond with their captain. When her father dies, Althea Vestrit is denied the chance to bond with her family's ship Vivacia, as her brother in law decides he will be the new captain, forcing his son to become the bond with the ship - but that's only a little part of the story. There are slave traders, pirates who are determined to disrupt that trade, mysterious masked people who live along the Rain Wild river and control the source of wizard wood, intelligent giant sea-serpents, and dragons.
The Liveships trilogy fits into the complete series as Books 4-6, though could easily be read as a stand-alone story, and after the first three, Assassin's trilogy, came as a complete change of pace and setting. To be honest I didn't settle in quite so quickly,  mainly because I'd expected to be back in Fitz's world, perhaps with him playing a minor role in the story, although obviously not a central character. As it is, at first the two story-lines don't seem related at all. It's only perhaps halfway through the second Liveships book that the connection becomes apparent, but by that point I was well and truly engrossed in this new, astounding world.

That's six of the series read, and I'll now be returning to Fitz and the Fool with the first book of  the Tawny Man trilogy - Fool's Errand.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
 Adult fantasy

Tuesday 26 September 2017

Flesh of the Peach by Helen McClory

review by Maryom

Twenty-seven year old Sarah Browne is struggling to make her way as an artist in New York when she's hit by two major emotional blows - the married woman she's been having an affair with decides to return to her husband, and news arrives that her estranged mother has died, leaving Sarah a large inheritance including a cabin in New Mexico. Doubly cast adrift, Sarah decides she'll not return home to England for her mother's funeral but head off to New Mexico - to start again, maybe to find some connection to her mother that was lacking in life, or maybe just to hide the way an injured animal will. The cabin is remote and isolated; the only neighbours, Theo and his middle-aged mother, living on the opposite side of the valley. Sarah soon embarks on a relationship with Theo, earning his mother's disapproval, but it's an uneven, unstable relationship bound to end, possibly in violence.

I had slightly mixed feelings about this book from its synopsis. I hope the author will forgive me for suggesting it sounded like the story of a pampered woman, running out on her responsibilities, to 'get in touch with herself' in the wilderness, and then presumably going to find true love; a light, almost romcom scenario. It's not at all like that. It's a much darker read, exploring the way grief, particularly unacknowledged grief, can work on people turning them to anger and violence. 

Sarah is a complex character, shaped by the unresolved issues stemming from her childhood - a odd upbringing in a house of women; her mother and aunt (both alcoholics if Sarah's point of view is to be believed) and surprisingly level headed, well-adjusted cousin. Always feeling neglected by her mother, she alternately loved and hated her in return, eventually running away from home at 17. With her mother's death the outside chance of a reconciliation is gone, but also so is the focus of Sarah's anger. She won't acknowledge any love for her mother, or grief at her death, yet it's easy to see that both are buried somewhere deep inside her. 

This is a book which I found growing on me as I read - initially because I realised it wasn't going to be that light fluffy read I'd dreaded, but then as I became immersed in Sarah's troubles and dreading how she might act. She's somewhat like a pressure cooker, waiting to burst, or even the extinct volcano that formed the valley her mother's cabin sits in; anger simmers just below the surface, and it's obvious that sometime or other Sarah will 'explode'.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Freight Books
Genre -  Adult literary

Wednesday 20 September 2017

How Much the Heart Can Hold edited by Emma Herdman

review by Maryom

Last week I was out at a book event the theme of which was the short story, and by pure coincidence my first review this week is of a short story collection.  How Much The Heart Can Hold describes itself as 'seven stories on love', but these aren't romantic tales of falling in love and living happily ever after. Instead they explore the different forms that love can take. The ancient Greeks drew distinctions between seven types of love - for self, for family, charitable love for all mankind, love that borders on obsession, is unrequited, or endures for ever, and, of course, sexual, erotic love - and here they're taken as the starting point for seven very different short stories, each by a different author. The paperback edition which I was given for review contains an extra story - It Was Summer by Phoebe Roy, the winning entry for the SceptreLoves short story prize.
I came to this book just after finishing an epic 900+ page fantasy novel, so at least each tale was short if not necessarily sweet. Faced with a collection from a variety of authors, I'm often tempted to seek out the familiar names and start reading there, but there's a theory that says the editor does more than check for spelling mistakes, also deciding on the order of the pieces and shapes the feel of the whole, and I think that's certainly the case here. Ending, as the original collection did, on Bernadine Evaristo's story of universal love, The Human World, brings a feeling of completeness to the work.
I did, of course, have my favourites, and, yes, they were by those favourite authors, Carys Bray and Donal Ryan. Bray's story, Codas, explores the love and bonds of family from the point of view of a single mother suddenly having to deal with her father's illness after a stroke, balancing his needs against those of her son. Ryan's Magdala, Who Slips Sometimes is a story of obsession, in which a woman clings desperately to the belief that, despite his marriage and children, her teenage sweetheart still loves her above all others.
This isn't to say that the others weren't enjoyable - they all were in their way, though some seemed hard at first to fit to their 'brief'. Of these, I particularly liked Before It Disappears by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, a tale of love that's no longer returned; Nikesh Shukla's White Wine, about learning to love oneself rather than change to fit others' expectations; and Bernadine Evaristo's The Human World, a sad, yet humorous look at what it's like to care for the whole world. Just don't go into this book expecting hearts, flowers and cuddly teddies; love is more complex than the romantic hype of Valentine's Day and this story collection reflects that.

authors; - Carys Bray, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Bernadine Evaristo, Grace McCleen, Donal Ryan, Nikesh Shukla, DW Wilson, and Phoebe Roy.

Maryom's review -  4.5 stars
Publisher -  Sceptre
Genre - short stories, 

Monday 18 September 2017

Nomad by James Swallow

Review by The Mole

Marc Dane is a man with a dark past and is working with MI6 on covert activities within the comfort of the support vehicle behind the lines. He is part of the Nomad team, as is his girlfriend Sam, when everything goes pear shaped and he finds himself of the run from MI6. But others also want him dead except a guardian angel who wants him kept alive - but Marc is unaware of this angel.

If you want an action thriller without flaws then you are going to be very hard pressed to find one - ever. But Nomad is as close as they come and it takes you away from your daily routine to an action packed, gory, blood spattered world that won't creep you out. I know because I am the king of squeamish.

The moment you meet Marc for the first time you know that; here is the hero, this guy will still be with us on page 487 and that he won't hurt a fly if he doesn't have to. It sounds a bit sickly sweet, but truly it works very well.

It keeps you on the edge of your seat. No, it doesn't because you KNOW Marc will survive but you still won't put the book down while the action unfolds. And it starts unfolding on page 1 and doesn't finish unfolding on the last page - Pass the sequel.

A great book that should offend no-one and entertain any reader who likes an action thriller.

Publisher: Zaffre
Genre: Adult Action Thriller

Friday 15 September 2017

Keeping It Short - book event

 On Tuesday evening we went out to a book event at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham - it's not the first time I've been to the shop, but it is the first time I've attended an event there, and I was impressed with how many people they shoe-horned into the available space. Unlike the large Waterstones store round the corner, Five Leaves don't have a separate room to give over to events so chairs were lined up in and around the books (this is quite handy actually as in any free moments we could browse the books on sale, mainly to say Oh I keep meaning to read that ... and that... and ... there's never enough time for all the books, is there?)
The event was entitled Keeping It Short, and featured four authors for whom the short story holds a special place;

Alison Moore, author of Booker listed The Lighthouse, whose short stories have been collected in The Pre-War House;

Megan Taylor, a local writer with three published novels and a short story collection (The Woman Under The Ground) to her credit;

Nicholas Royle, editor, university lecturer, publisher (Nightjar Press), competition judge and, when he can find the time, author of seven novels and two short story collections;

and Giselle Leeb whose short stories have appeared in various publications including Salt's Best British Short Stories 2017.

Things kicked off with the authors each reading one of their short stories - three of them having a certain ghostly/supernatural twist to them; Alison Moore's exploring ideas which reappear in her latest novel, Death and The Seaside while Nicholas Royle's was only finished that day and so is, as yet, unpublished.

After a break for complementary refreshments, the event continued with 'question time' - the authors fielding queries about how to organise time, how long is a short story and when does it become a novella.

The question about organising time is pretty universal but was put by Mother's Milk publisher and writer Teika Bellamy to Nicholas Royle with his many hats so had a special relevance. While the other writers were also drawn into the conversation it, fascinatingly, risked completely diverging into a discussion on postage costs!

The question about the length of a short story and Nicholas Royle's dislike of the term 'flash fiction' was, in it's own way, also fascinating and the general consensus amongst the four was that it was the content and not the length of it that defines the short story. Giselle Leeb had written a 2,000 word story which she called a novel.

A question was put to Nicholas Royle about the Manchester Fiction Prize and how a panel of just 3 judges managed to judge the many thousands of entries there are each year - this reverted to the subject of time management and was why the word count for submissions had been lowered from 5,000.

A truly fascinating and intimate evening that overran but who was clock watching? (Until after, of course)