Friday 28 April 2017

Mark of the Cyclops by Saviour Pirotta

illustrated by Freya Hartas

review by Maryom

Nico and Thrax both work for professional poet and singer, Ariston, but there is one important difference between the two boys - Nico is a freeborn apprentice and Thrax a slave. Their master travels all round Greece performing at weddings and festivals, and it's while on a trip to a wedding in Corinth, that the boys become amateur detectives. A precious vase, a gift for the bride, is broken and suspicion falls on a slave girl, Gaia. Nico and Thrax believe her story that a mystery intruder disguised in a Cyclops mask was responsible, and set out to clear her name.

Mark of the Cyclops is the first in a series of adventures for children set in Ancient Greece. Nico and Thrax are a little bit like younger versions of  Sherlock Holmes and Watson; Thrax is the one with the investigative mind, Nico his chronicler and 'author' of this adventure. Together they find themselves on the trail of a smuggling gang, which isn't without its danger (though not too frightening for young readers). The story is fun and exciting, and at the same time brings the world of Ancient Greece vividly to life, with facts about everyday life, beliefs, and customs, worked in without detracting from the story-line, plus there are excellent black and white illustrations throughout from Freya Hartas which again help readers picture the characters and setting. Children, and even their parents, will pick up a lot of historical facts without even realising!

This first book centres on the two boys, Nico and Thrax, but I feel the overall story arc is shaping up so that Gaia and her young mistress Fotini will have more important roles in future. I thoroughly enjoyed Mark of the Cyclops, and I'm sure young readers will too.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Genre - children's whodunnit adventure, historical, Ancient Greece

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Red Moon Rising by JT Brannan

review by Maryom

Once a high-powered New York Assistant DA, Jessica Hudson's career came to an end when she was hit by a would-be-assassin's bullet. After months in a coma, she's trying to build a new life, almost as far away as she can get, in the wilds of Alaska. Then late one night a naked, battered girl staggers up to Jessica's door, and her refuge becomes the centre of a murder investigation, with police and on-lookers swarming about ... until Jessica wakes next morning and finds no traces of the previous evening's events. Has she really jumped in time while she slept? woken BEFORE the girl was abducted and tortured? if so, is there a way she can prevent the crime happening? 

It's a bit difficult to know how to describe Red Moon Rising  - is it time travel? psychological thriller? murder mystery? It's probably best to say 'a bit of all',  but it's definitely a story that had me hooked as, along with main character Jessica, I tried to find out exactly WHAT was happening. 
I don't normally read/review self-published books, but I've read JT Brannan's previous novels - Origin and Extinction - published through Headline, and enjoyed both of them (and the Mole has also read Brannan's self-published Stop At Nothing), so I was happy to read Red Moon Rising when approached by the author.  
As I say, the story's a mix of crime thriller and time travel, with Jessica moving backwards and forwards trying to prevent the murder of a teenage girl, while coping with her own personal demons. Obviously things don't go as simply as nipping back a day or so and altering the course of events, but the author's thought through the advantages and drawbacks to travelling through time, knowing what will happen before anyone else, and affecting events, and doesn't leave loose ends (a bugbear of mine). The story is fast-paced, sometimes leaving the reader wondering what's going on - but Jessica's in the same position and as she figures things out, so does the reader - and, while she's wondering whether everything is really happening or some coma nightmare she's trapped in, Jessica has a crime to solve and a would-be murderer to catch. There are plenty of suspects, from her callous ex-boyfriend to locals with prior convictions, and a twist to catch you unaware. 
A bit of warning that the violence and injuries are described a bit too graphically, and may prove unsettling for some readers, otherwise it's an enjoyable, gripping read.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Genre - adult, crime thriller, time travel

Monday 24 April 2017

Wild Chamber (Bryant and May) by Christopher Fowler

Review by The Mole

After a few historic events, setting what will become background to the next case, we are treated to a letter from Raymond Land (the head of the Peculiar Crimes Unit) to the staff. For new readers this is a great introduction to the team members, the unit and the antics up to which they get. It's sets the mood light-heartedly though the plot doesn't remain this light-hearted for very long - this is a murder mystery after all is said and done.

The book is split into 7 days as the case progresses and Bryant and May find, once again, that the race is on not only to find the killer but also to save their careers and the PCU.

Combining all the best techniques Fowler produces some of the very best in crime fiction. The cover photo does, however, give a spoiler to one particular incident in the story.

Fast paced, compelling, challenging are all words we expect to be used when describing good crime fiction and this IS good crime fiction but unlike many such series it's not just about the detectives. We know a lot about Bryant, not as much about May but Fowler also fleshes out a little of each of the rest of the team - including the intern who is temporary secondment from Cologne and is learning about British policing.

Bryant and May at their very eccentric best.

Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction,  crime mystery

Thursday 20 April 2017

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 3 - edited by Teika Bellamy

review by Maryom

Having seen editor Teika Bellamy on social media first asking for submissions, then talking about her difficulties in choosing which would make the cut, I've been eagerly waiting to read this, the third collection of re-imagined fairy tales from Mother's Milk Books. Most of us start our reading with fairy stories and for me that love of magic and mystery has stayed, but reading with an adult's view the children's versions have all the "otherness" and magic washed out of them. Here, in these seventeen stories, that returns.

As you'd imagine there are many of the familiar 'faces' included - animals are turned into men, and vice versa, mermaids sing their siren songs, children go missing lured away by by an enchantment, a woman is made of flowers, a child made of salt.
Some are set in the familiar never-never-land of fairy stories with dark, forbidden forests where people mustn't stray from their village or a lady from her tower. Others in more contemporary surroundings - an orphaned child with strange eyes is found on a bomb site, the Little Match Girl is transported to present day London, and that fairy tale regular, the old crone, sits on a park bench and admires the youth and fitness of a triathlete. They even transport well to the future - the dangers of a forest are replaced by an airless planet and fairy folk by 'aliens', and our obsession with social media becomes a cautionary tale for the children of our descendants.
The stories vary in length from a couple of pages to a dozen or so, some are funny, some magical, but all are enjoyable, and look beyond the obvious day to day world. I'm not going to go into details about every story but here are three of my favourites -

Dan Micklethwaite's Midnight Riders in which the story of Cinderella's coachman is played out in London's Underground
Sarah Armstrong's The Truth About Tea in which a mother decides to check out the young woman her son intends to marry (in this modern day, you can't really try the pea-under-the-mattress test)
Clair Wright's Spawned, a 'sequel' to the tale of the Frog Prince which underlines that love is really all you need.

Authors; Poppy O'Neil, Dan Micklethwaite, Lynden Ware, Angi Holden, Ronne Randall, Sophie Sellars, Elizabeth Hopkinson, Claire Stephenson, NJ Ramsden, Moira Garland, Ness Owen, Clair Wright, Carys Crossen, Marie Gethins, Rachel Rivett, Sarah Armstrong, Sarah Hindmarsh

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Mother's Milk Books
Genre - 
adult folk/fairy tales

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Billionaires' Banquet by Ron Butlin

review by Maryom

It's 1985, the middle of the Thatcher era, and in Edinburgh three unemployed ex-students - Hume (philosophy PhD), "St" Francis (dropped out of training for priesthood)  and the Cat (awaiting results of her Pure Maths degree) are living amicably enough in their cheap, down at heel fourth floor flat, drifting along with no clear plans for their future but with the hope that something with turn up one day - even when the Cat disappears mysteriously in the middle of a party their lives continue with barely a flicker of concern. But change is coming from outside - even on Edinburgh's streets you can see homeless people sleeping rough, and Hume's new girlfriend DD isn't happy with his attitude to life, so delivers an ultimatum; basically, get a job or I'm off!
With this threat hanging over him, Hume decides to ditch his theoretical philosophy in favour of something more money-making, dragging St Francis along with him into a scheme providing butlers for up-market gatherings.  Hume is on his way to making loadsamoney ...
Their story is picked up twenty years later, as Edinburgh is occupied by anti-G8 protesters and London shaken by bombs, and Hume hosts a "Billionaires' Banquet" at which the winners of a lottery will be waited on hand and foot, and the losers doled out rice and water ...

Billionaires' Banquet is a rags to riches story, invoking the heady get-rich-quick schemes of the Thatcher era, and the human cost underlying them. Hume's business is typical for the times, conjured up from nothing more than a few props, hot air and wishful thinking, but it caters to clients' feelings of self-importance and Edinburgh falls for it. It isn't without its downside though - for both the people Hume employs and his family.
It's very much a novel of Edinburgh too, of the changes made to it by time and economics, as one area rises in status while another declines, and, something I always love, streets and parks are named so you can follow the characters' movements in your mind or on a map.

The story is insightful, funny, scathing, and farcical by turns but I think you need a liking for dark satire to really appreciate it, and possibly a re-read to catch all the nuances. As such, I think it may not be an instantly appealing book but a slow-burner that simmers at the back of your mind for longer.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - Adult fiction

Tuesday 18 April 2017

Until We Win by Linda Newbery

review by Maryom

Lizzy thinks of herself as a modern girl, with an office job in town and a bicycle to carry her to and fro, but a chance meeting with two Suffragettes makes her realise how sheltered her life has been. Soon she's caught up in the fight for women's votes, attending meeting and rallies, even getting imprisoned for her part in demonstrations.

This story by Linda Newbery takes the reader back to the early twentieth century when women were still fighting for the right to vote. Despite living in very different times, the reader can easily sympathise with Lizzy and her hopes for a better, more equal future for women. Her story brings to life the passion, commitment and determination of the Suffragettes from all walks of life - from the wealthy, political classes to office-girls like Lizzy -  and shows in contrast how many people, both men and women, dismissed their claims as silly or irrelevant.
As always, publisher Barrington Stoke has printed in a format found to be more acceptable to dyslexic and reluctant readers, and hopefully the story will engage and draw them in while learning about an important political issue.

You can read the first chapter here on the publisher's website

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - 12+  historical fiction, feminism, politics

Thursday 13 April 2017

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

review by Maryom
When Nona is saved from the hangman by the Abbess of the Convent of Sweet Mercy it isn't through some pure-minded, altruistic concern for a wrongly-accused child, for Nona is far from innocent of the charges against her, and the Abbess is interested in the special 'talents' (an inborn aptitude for killing) that led Nona to this point, and the possibility that Nona may have a part to play in fulfilling a prophecy. Neither is the Convent the tranquil, contemplative place you might expect - the young girls who are admitted there are trained through martial arts, stealth, magic and poisons to become killers,and it's only through becoming one that Nona will be able to rid herself of the enemies she's created.

This is the first book I've read by Mark Lawrence but I saw folk enthusing about him on social media so, feeling in the mood for a little fantasy adventure, took a risk and really enjoyed it.

After the dramatic opening, the story slows somewhat as Nona becomes settled into her new life as a novice at the Convent. Yes, there are echoes of Harry Potter in the training for the various skills a novice must master, and there are similarities with the many other fantasy series centred on a special child who will rescue the princess/save the world/dispose of the bad guys, but the Convent of Sweet Mercy is a bloodier, more violent place than Hogwarts (Red Sister certainly isn't a story for children) and the story individual enough to stand up to other fantasy novels.

Red Sister is the first of a new series, The Book of the Ancestor, set on a world almost totally enveloped by ice; only a narrow corridor is habitable, this is warmed, not by the red sun, but by an artificial moon which reflects light down to heat the land at night. Civilisation seems to be at the vague medieval level of most fantasy novels but there are hints of a more technological past - for example, the different off-world 'tribes' that settled the planet, the 'ships heart' that provides heat for the convent and the circling artificial moon. Another aspect hinted at is the mysterious prophecy which Nona may or may not be in line to fulfil  - again it's a familiar fantasy trope but handled well and I liked the fact that there's a lot more doubt about which novice it refers to than in, say, Harry Potter or Eragon. The strange columns which guard the approach to the Convent, especially with Sister Thorn facing down her enemies there, reminded me of the fight scenes from The House of Flying Daggers set in bamboo groves, and so my whole imagining of setting and characters was tinged with this - it's probably not at all how the author envisaged it but one of the joys of fantasy is creating your own world out of the writer's words.
As the story builds to its dramatic close, there are more glimpses of the future which awaits Nona, with hints of invaders and war, and possible treachery among both the rulers of her world, and her friends. So although the first part of Nona's story has come to an end, I'm left wanting to read more...

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
 Adult fantasy

Tuesday 11 April 2017

The Ammuchi Puchi by Sharanya Manivannan and Nerina Canzi

review by Maryom

When Anjali and Aditya were very small they were a little frightened by the ghost stories told by their grandmother, Ammuchi, but as they grew up they came to love them, and join in making tales of their own. When their grandmother dies though, the whole family is left feeling sad, and not even telling her stories can make them feel better. Then something strange and maybe a little magical happens, as if Grandmother Ammuchi has come back to them as one of the ghosts from her stories.

Flicking through the Lantana Publishing catalogue, what first caught my attention about this book were Nerina Canzi's vibrant illustrations - the rich, bright colours and exotic flowers and foliage which leap out from almost every page - but then I saw that behind those attractive pictures was a story trying to make sense of something very hard for a child to understand - the death of a loved family member.

Sharanya Manivannan's words tell of two children, their love of their grandmother and their grief following her death - but suggest a way through that painful time and hold out the possibility that maybe our loved ones are always there watching over us.

Despite the subject matter, this isn't a glum, depressing book - helped no doubt by the enchanting, exuberant pictures, it comes over as joyous and full of life - and, while it will help children come to terms with their feelings of loss, I think it would also be enjoyed as 'just' a story.

The publishers suggest a reading age of 7 to 9, but the bright pictures will appeal to younger children, who could share it with a parent or older sibling.

Publisher - Lantana
genre - children's picture book, 7-9, bereavement

Monday 10 April 2017

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

review by Maryom

Rebecca Shaw, on a New Year holiday with her parents, goes out walking on the moors one day, and disappears. The locals gather to help the police search the area, and at first the talk is of a twisted ankle, or the girl deliberately staying out, trying to frighten her parents, and expectations are high that she'll soon be found. But there are so many things that could have happened - she could have fallen into a quarry, be trapped down an abandoned mine, sucked into one of the bogs on the moor, or even hitched a lift to the nearest city, - and as the days, weeks, months pass, finding her seems unlikely. Despite their initial shock and concern, the villagers soon find that life continues, at first slowly but speeding up with the passing of the years - Spring comes with lambs and fox cubs, wild flowers blossom in the hedgerows, vegetables sprout up at the allotments; babies are born, children grow, relationships develop or falter, the elderly die, newcomers arrive, and ultimately people begin to forget about a missing girl.

I usually try to avoid spoilers when  writing reviews but I don't think that's possible here because a lot of my thoughts revolve around what the book IS, and what it ISN'T.

Although the book opens with Rebecca's disappearance, it ISN'T a crime thriller, with clues to unearth, false leads to pursue, but ultimately leading to a resolution. Over the years, various times of Rebecca's clothing are found but no real evidence of what happened or clue to her whereabouts discovered. Instead the focus is on the impact to the people living in this quiet out-of-the-way village - something devastating has happened on their doorstep, but to an outsider that most of them had never met. Naturally they're shocked, but for how long can they be expected to grieve and put their lives on hold?

Personally I found a lot of similarities with McGregor's first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. In much the same way, it encourages the reader to see and remark upon the small happenings that occur from day to day around us but which are so often missed in the rush of life; to stop for a while and watch a butterfly, listen to birdsong, or notice our children growing from infants to teenagers. It's a mesmerising, beautifully written book charting the emotional and physical changes within a small tightly-knit community over thirteen years, but this time I was left wanting something more. As the years pass, snippets of information come to light about Rebecca's disappearance, various items of her clothing are found on the moors, but no explanation of her disappearance is forthcoming. This may, in all honesty, be truer to life than a crime novel which neatly closes all leads off by the final page, and reaches some nature of resolution, even if not a happy one, but, even so, I was left unsatisfied. Somewhere I read that the mark of a literary novel is that it ends without resolution - this is certainly literary, not crime, fiction.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Genre - adult literary fiction, 

Thursday 6 April 2017

Before The Fall by Noah Hawley

review by Maryom

Scott Burroughs is a struggling, almost penniless, artist who doesn't usually mix with the rich crowd that visit Martha's Vineyard over the summer but one day he gets chatting to Maggie Bateman, wife of a TV channel CEO, at the farmer's market. She takes a casual interest in his art and, when he mentions having to return to New York for meetings with galleries and agents, equally casually offers him a lift in the family private jet. What should have been an easy trip turns into a nightmare when, only minutes after take-off, the plane plunges into the sea, and, of the eleven people on board, only Scott and the Bateman's small son, J J, survive.
The media are immediately interested. One of their own doesn't die in such dramatic circumstances without a LOT of coverage, but Scott's heroic swim to shore with J J, and the illegal business dealings of one of the other passengers are also the stuff of headlines and the focus of investigation by the civil aviation authorities, FBI  etc

Starting from the plane's departure, the story moves both back and forwards. In the lead up to the flight, it tells the lives of the passengers and crew on board that evening, while looking for clues to what brought about the crash  - pilot error, technical malfunction or even a bomb aimed at either David Bateman or dodgy financier Ben Kipling. In the aftermath, the reader follows Scott's epic struggle to reach shore, and the unrolling of events as investigators and media begin to shape the story how they see it having happened.
I've not quite sure how I'd define the story - it has mainly similarities with a psychological thriller, but less of the tension. It's more an investigation into human nature, of what drives a person to make the choices they do, and how sometimes life can revolve around coincidence and chance.

I wasn't aware before that Noah Hawley as well as being the creator of Fargo, was also an author, but being a huge fan of the TV series, I was definitely intrigued when I heard about Before the Fall. It doesn't share the casual violence of Fargo but the themes of chance and coincidence are present in both, directing lives without regard to the people involved. It's an interesting read, of the sort you want to flip through as speedily as possible to found out how it ends, but maybe a little on the light side for my tastes.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Genre - Adult

Tuesday 4 April 2017

How To Be a Grown Up

review by Maryom

For any of you (and, yes, maybe that includes me too) who've ever wondered what the secret is to being an adult, here is Grazia "Agony Aunt" Daisy Buchanan to help. Daisy has made her share of mistakes, with jobs, love, sex, health, and, the biggest, most secret one of them all, money, and now she's drawing on those experiences to offer advice on the minefield that is 'adulting'.

Now a book offering advice on, well, anything, can easily be dry and lecturing in tone, but How To Be A Grown Up is far from that. Daisy offers her advice with a large dollop of humour, and isn't afraid to laugh at herself and her past mistakes, making for a fun, enjoyable read even if you feel you don't need her help. Sometimes her life reads like that of a rom com heroine - messing up at work, being unable to remember the 'night before' or falling for the wrong man, time and again - but along the way Daisy has come up with a plan for surviving adulthood.

 Although aimed primarily at 20-somethings, fresh out of university, and experiencing the world truly on their own for the first time, suddenly without the emotional or financial support of family or long-term friends, it's a book in which lots of us, of any age, could find useful advice. My route to adulthood was very different to Daisy's - I was married with a mortgage at 19, and my first child was born when I was 21 - so I never had wild careful years in my twenties. Even so Daisy's advice would have been helpful - particularly on learning to relax, take time out for oneself, and not dressing to impress or how you feel you 'should' dress, but aiming for something which expresses your individual style.

Obviously there's no simple answer to the problems we encounter in life, but merely knowing that we're not alone, that others go through the same things, suffer the same embarrassments, fears and doubts, can help in itself - it's believing that our problems are unique that often makes them crippling. I'm definitely not the target demographic, but I loved this book, above all because it's fun. Not all the advice will suit everyone (spending anything more than 5 minutes quickly washing my hair in the shower would seem like a chore to me, not a pleasure) but it will start you thinking about how you might take steps to improve your life.

There's only one snag - I think my teen may have been hoping that it would teach me how to be more dignified and less foolish, but actually it's reinforced my tendency to embrace my awkward, inappropriate side, and just be myself.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Headline
Genre - self-help, non-fiction