Monday 27 February 2017

The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer

Review by The Mole

"Gripping" is a word used to describe this and it is well worthy of that title. Fast moving from the off we meet Alex/Juliana/The Chemist - an agent who worked in an undocumented and highly secret department where she used her skills to get the truth from people who were suspected of security related crimes. She was the best until one day "they" decided to dispose of both her and her work colleague. Her colleague died but she escaped and has been running for three years and she intends remaining alive.

Alex, as we get to think of her, is a very resourceful individual who we very quickly grow to admire despite her efficiency in her job. The action is fast paced and captivating until... Well this is the first Stephenie Meyer I have read but I have heard of her reputation for "love" scenes in the Twilight series so when one presents itself it came as no surprise except perhaps that Alex's head could be turned so easily. And, surprisingly, while I felt this aspect was a bit overplayed for my taste, it didn't detract from the story line which was gripping to the last as Alex, single handedly, saves the day. And possibly the USA of course.

Gripping, fast paced but overall a fun read that is not likely to upset the squeamish, nor titillate anyone either come to that.

Publisher - Little, Brown Book Group
Genre - Crime, Thriller

Friday 24 February 2017

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne

review by Maryom 

Starting in 1940s Ireland and running to the present day, The Heart's Invisible Furies is the story - cradle to grave - of Cyril Avery. Even before his birth, it's made clear that he's not wanted by society - his unmarried mother is shamed in front of her family and neighbours by the village priest, physically thrown out of the church and told in no uncertain terms to leave town and never come back! As an adopted child and later a homosexual man, Cyril is constantly made to feel an outsider, unwanted and unloved. 

Given a home by an odd emotion-less couple, Cyril is deprived of affection, constantly told he isn't a 'real Avery' by his adoptive father and generally treated rather like a decorative piece of furniture. It's no surprise therefore that when he meets charismatic youngster Julian, Cyril is instantly infatuated and the seeds are sown for an on/off lifetime friendship. As he grows into manhood, Cyril comes to acknowledge that he's gay, again putting himself outside society's norms (at least for 1960s Ireland), forcing him to lead a double life, hiding his true self and ultimately leading to a foolish act which forces him to flee Ireland. 

This latest work by John Boyne is a wonderful, sweeping epic spanning seventy years. Although it deals with many 'issues', this is the tale of one particular man's life, but a life inextricably bound up with Ireland's own story - from the tyrannical role played by the church in the 40s and 50s, and the degrading of anyone who doesn't fit within the accepted norms, to the liberal attitude of today. Throughout Cyril's life, from IRA outrages to mingling with politicians and literary figures, he seems to have been involved in, or on the periphery of, major events.

The book opens dramatically with a scene that, with its echoes of Hester Prynne's shaming in The Scarlet Letter, feels more like something from 17th century New England than 20th century Europe. Although I've read much about the near absolute control held over people's lives by the Catholic Church in Ireland, I was still stunned that such a scene could have taken place not that long ago!
From there, the story leaps forward in bursts, picking up Cyril's story at seven year intervals, each marking a significant point in his life, as he struggles to define himself (he's certainly not a 'real Avery', as his adoptive father never fails to point out!), and to find acceptance and love. His choices aren't always the best but it does feel that he's trying to be honest and do what he feels is right - the consequences though are too often tragic. 

Telling the story in the first person, Boyne uses dialogue to both further the story and shed insight on characters' emotions. I particularly loved the exchanges between Cyril and the women in his life, which capture their warmth and playfulness of their relationships; I actually thought at one point that his mother might steal the show from him completely, with her talk of elderly ladies ogling their gym instructor! The structure still allows the reader to know things which Cyril doesn't, and characters appear time and again without Cyril realising their significance to his story; it's cleverly done, and doesn't feel like too great a coincidence but I did find myself urging Cyril to ask just the right question that would reveal so much.

I read a review e-copy so didn't realise the length - just over 600 pages - till I was searching out links for this review, but I loved every bit and wouldn't want to cut a single page. It's full of everything from joy to despair, and I can't believe anyone could read it and not be moved. 

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

Friday 17 February 2017

Space Team by Barry Hutchison

Review by The Mole

Cal Carter is an habitual criminal and has landed himself in jail. The wrong jail and the wrong cell. He is put in a cell with a cannibalistic murderer. And things go badly. For everyone but Cal who is kidnapped and recruited as part of an intergalactic conspiracy. But it's not Cal they wanted...

The title and cover might infer this is a children's book - but not for any child I know. YA or adult is the target audience and fans of Adams, Holt, Pratchett and Rankin (Robert NOT Ian) will enjoy this one. Some describe it as laugh out loud and that's not a label I would put on it. It's funny, in a Marvel film sort of way, also in keeping with Holt and Rankin but the sort of humour that blends into the plot and doesn't distract from it.

It's fast paced making it difficult to put down but do you get to really deeply understand the characters? I didn't and frankly I didn't want to - I just wanted to follow the story and it felt like this page's hero could be the next pages bad guy anyway.

Extremely well written and balanced with the emphasis on telling the story. Although there will be more Space Team books this was not a scene setter but a proper stand alone book.

In summary - I loved it! well done Mr H.

Publisher - Zertex Books 
Genre - Adult/YA Sci-Fi Humour

Wednesday 15 February 2017

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

review by Maryom

Recently widowed Cora Seaborne wants to be free of London and the conventional life she's forced into living there, so heads off to Colchester where rumours are spreading of the return of the mythical Essex Serpent to the small coastal village of Aldwinter. Cora is convinced this is merely a previously unrecognised species, and hopes to have her moment of fame by being the one to identify it, but the local vicar William Ransome views its appearance as a test of faith. Despite their opposing views, the two strike up a quick friendship, which becomes more intense and passionate as Ransome's wife falls ill.

 Despite appearing on longlists and shortlists for all sorts of literary prizes - Dylan Thomas, Wellcome, Costa - and being voted Waterstones Book of the Year, to be honest I didn't warm to the Essex Serpent. A lot of the writing itself, with its echoes of Dickens and Hardy, appealed to me, but I didn't like the story itself, as it seemed amorphous and shifted about too much in focus, darting from serpents in Essex to pioneering surgery and workers' conditions in London. In keeping with the Dickensian style, there's a wide array of characters - and while all were brilliantly brought to life, some of them seemed unnecessary.

 Cora herself is a wonderfully eccentric character - the Victorian wife's round of polite social chitchat isn't for her. Instead she's happier dressed in an old coat and heavy boots out hiking round the marches of Essex hoping to find signs of the mythical serpent, and fame for herself as the discoverer of a new species. William Ransome, too, torn between his affection for his wife and the fascination unconsciously exerted on him by Cora with her disregard for society's conventions, is a character you can believe in. But somehow, put together, their actions didn't quite fit - and the story lines concerning their families and friends seemed to detract from the main one rather than add to it.

In some ways, it feels like a book they may improve with a second or subsequent reading BUT I feel I'm not really likely to try it ...

Maryom's review - 3 stars 
Publisher - Serpent's Tail

Genre - 
adult, historical fiction

Thursday 9 February 2017

My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

review by Maryom

Katie likes everyone to believe she's leading the perfect life - a dream job in London, a fancy apartment, wining and dining at the trendiest places - but really nothing could be further from the truth - her job is entry-level admin, she lives in a tiny room in a house shared with dreadful house mates, and her insider knowledge of where to eat comes from newspapers and magazines. One day, her life will match her dreams, until then she endures the commute, manages without space for a wardrobe, and stalks her mega-talented, oh-so-successful boss Demeter, who really does seem to be living the dream.
Could Katie's not-so-perfect life get worse? Unfortunately, yes. The gorgeous man she's just met turns out to be having an affair with Demeter, and on top of that, Katie loses her job. There's nothing for it but to head home to Somerset and help with her dad's latest project, turning the family farm into a swish glamping location, pretending all the while that she's merely on sabbatical ...

As you'd expect from Sophie Kinsella, this is a light, fun read - one to curl up with and forget the world, like comfort food in a book. I'm happy enough to read a gritty thriller, or a heavy literary classic , but there' still space on my shelf for a well-crafted romcom, and Kinsella is one of my favourite authors in this field.
The characters are vaguely familiar - a young, impressionable woman, trying to live the dream but frequently disappointed; a tall, handsome man with a twinkle in his eye that says he'd like to know her better, but (of course, there's a 'but') he might not be as free as Katie thinks; and the formidable 'other woman', in this case Katie's boss, Demeter - but familiarity is part of the comfort of a light romcom read. It's funny and a little wicked, as Katie tries to get her revenge by coaxing Demeter into joining in bizarre spiritual rituals, because "Gwyneth" does, and we can all laugh, because we'd never be persuaded to do that, right?
 There is, if you like, a message here too - that, no matter what you read or how you feel, everyone else is NOT leading that perfect life, that social media and aspirational blogs only show a slanted view of life, capturing the good times, and ignoring the bad - so don't believe everything you read on the web ...

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

Tuesday 7 February 2017

The Good People by Hannah Kent

review by Maryom

When first her daughter, then her husband, die within months of each other, Nora is left struggling to cope - she not only has to keep their fields worked and rent paid but also to care for her ill four year old grandson Micheal alone. Once he was a happy healthy little boy but since his mother died a few months ago he's thin and wasted, and has lost the ability to walk and talk. Nora hopes it's merely an illness that will pass with good food and care, but when she employs a maid Mary to help care for him, she immediately thinks the boy is possessed by a fairy spirit. Neither doctor nor priest can offer help, so in desperation Nora turns to the local healer Nance, an elderly woman knowledgeable in the use of herbs and the ways of the fairies, the "Good People", but just how far will the three women go in trying for a cure ...

The Good People is a story of belief, superstition and desperation set in a remote Irish village in the early 19th century, where people still totally accept that a curse has power, that people are stolen away by fairies, and a disabled child is actually a fairy changeling capable of casting the evil eye on a village, spoiling crops, making cattle run dry, hens stop laying. In this world a healer such as Nance has a place, treating ailments with the 'medicines' she has to hand - but the new village priest is forward looking and dismisses such beliefs as superstition, and, after a series of misfortunes striking those who've asked for her help, even the villagers are beginning to question her abilities.
It would be too easy to be smug and sophisticated, to laugh at the villagers' ignorance, but Kent avoids that. Instead she build a sympathetic, understanding picture of this community, entering fully into their mindset to which the meddling of the fairies is as obvious a fact as the sun rising each morning, while at the same time balancing the interpretation of Nora and Nance's actions - do they firmly believe they are doing their best for the boy, or are they deliberately, maliciously, harming him? I think that's one for the reader to decide.

The description of countryside is lyrical and atmospheric, the bend of the grass, the flow of the river making a beautiful setting for potentially dark deeds occurring in the half-light of dawn and dusk. The story itself moves inexorably towards its climax as this compelling psychological dram plays itself out, and Nance tries ever more extreme treatments to help the child.
And, in case you think it's all too far fetched, it is based on actual events...

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Picador
Genre - adult, 

Friday 3 February 2017

Help! I'm an Alien by Jo Franklin

Review by The Mole

Daniel Kendal is different—different to the other Kendals anyway. After all, he’s the only one with brown hair and brown eyes and what’s more, he’s taller than his family, his friends and probably everyone else in the entire world.

Big sister Jessie has made it clear just how different Daniel is, by explaining that he is in fact, an alien, kindly adopted by her parents. Confused, Daniel turns to his best friends, Eddie and Gordon the Geek, for help. Together perhaps they can work out where he really belongs.

When well meaning friends come to the rescue nothing is guaranteed to go well. Moving rapidly from disaster to disaster, his friends try to help him sort out his dilemma and end up getting his parents taken hostage!

An easy but funny read which is bound to appeal to young readers. Listed as age 7-9, advanced readers will enjoy it sooner and older kids may enjoy it in secret - it's not a 'cool' type of book for the older child but they will enjoy it. Frequent black and white illustrations add substance to the well written characters and help to bring the story to life.

Fun and full of silliness but also touching on some slightly deeper issues of phobias and friendships.

Publisher - Troika Books
Genre - Children's 7-9 humorous fiction