Thursday 29 June 2017

The Child by Fiona Barton

review by Maryom

When builders demolishing a row of houses find a buried baby's body it's barely worth a few lines in a newspaper - but three woman can't ignore them. For Emma, it brings back memories of something that she thought was long forgotten. For Angela, it's a reminder of the child she lost over forty years before. For Kate, it's the hint of a story that could be huge. 

With the help of her police contact, Bob Sparkes, journalist Kate is soon on the trail of Angela's missing baby. Left for a few minutes while Angela went to shower, baby Alice was taken from her cot in a maternity ward, and no further trace ever found. The police enquiry at the time came up with no leads and was eventually dropped. Is there an outside chance that this newly discovered baby could be Alice? Although she's carried the hope that one day her baby would be found, this would at least give Angela, a chance for closure. How, though, does Emma fit into the story? As a child and teenager she and her mother lived in the area now about to be demolished. She never knew her father, and left home while still young after arguments with, and about, her mother's new boyfriend, but something that happened in her teenage years has haunted her ever since. 

Fiona Barton's debut novel, The Widow, was a huge hit, and personally I think The Child is better - even though I'd guessed the plot twist quite early on, the writing had me hooked and I had to finish the story. Events unfold with alternating chapters told from the perspectives of the three main female characters, and occasionally the odd one from Emma's mother, Jude, and the reader gets to really see inside their heads - to share their hopes and fears - while being teased along by the gradual revealing of secrets.

Kate Waters, the journalist we were introduced to in The Widow, returns with more of a central role. Her police contact, Bob Sparkes, appears again, but his is more of a brief 'cameo', and I liked the way the emphasis of 'detecting' is moving from the police to a reporter (or perhaps two if apprentice Joe becomes a permanent fixture). There's nothing  that says crime, fictional crime at least, has to be solved by the police - Miss Marple is one of my all time favourite crime-busters, and the Annika Bengtzon series by Liza Marklund, which I love, has a reporter at the forefront of nosing out and solving a mystery. I hope Kate will remain at the centre of further stories in the series.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Penguin

Genre - adult crime fiction

Monday 26 June 2017

How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza

review by Maryom

Behind Mary's garden, squeezed in between her road and the one backing on to it, is a wild wooded piece of ground - and in that wood lives a fox, coming out at night to sneak from one garden to the next, and scavenge through the dustbins. One day Mary comes home from work to find him on her lawn - and she feels that in some way they've made a connection, that she and this fox can be friends.

To be frank, I struggled with this book. I got to around the 10% mark without feeling any interest in it, and gave up. After reading a couple of other books I went back to it, read a little more, and still thought I'd not bother ... Third time was lucky though. The story had moved on to a point where Mary's creepy, manipulative boyfriend has re-appeared on the scene, trying to worm his way back into her life, and it held my attention more. Even so, overall it didn't grab me, and I'm puzzled why, because I feel it ought to have done.
The story unfolds from Mary's point of view, told in the third person but still seeing events through her eyes - and she doesn't feel like the most reliable of narrators. It's not clear at times whether things are actually happening or if Mary's imagining them, which left me a bit baffled.
At the same time, I think I took the story too literally - I saw a sad, lonely woman, possibly starved of human contact, indulfing in really bizarre behaviour - making friends with a fox in the way that some surround themselves with cats, deluding herself that the fox reciprocates her feelings and attachment, treating it as a pet or even a baby. She lets the fox into her house and cuddles up with it on a blanket - while my mind was yelling "Don't do that! Think of fleas, ticks, mange!".  I had more sympathy for Mary's neighbours who saw the fox as a threat to their children and cat.

Maryom's review - 3 stars 
Publisher - 
Genre - adult fiction,

Friday 23 June 2017

October Is The Coldest Month by Christoffer Carlsson

translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles
review by Maryom

Sixteen year old Vega is at home alone when the police come looking for her older brother Jakob. It's lucky for her really because, not only does she manage to fend off their queries, she avoids any potentially awkward questions from her mother, who will realise that whatever it is that Jakob's become involved in, Vega should have been with him. Vega's desperate to speak to Jakob too, but he's disappeared, and trying to find him only draws Vega further into his troubles ...

Set in rural Sweden, this YA crime novel is grittier and harder-hitting than a lot of fiction aimed at that age group. Vega has been drawn unwittingly into the cover up of what she assumes was a murder, though she doesn't know what has happened to the body, or even whose it was. She's also terrified that both she and her brother could now be in danger. Looking for Jakob brings her into contact with two guys she'd rather avoid - Jakob's best friend to whom she's attracted, and a boy she had a very brief, wholly sexual, relationship with.

A tense, claustrophobic atmosphere pervades the whole book. Vega's home is in an isolated village, the kind of place where everyone knows each other, but doesn't necessarily get along with them, where illicit businesses flourish away from the law, and old feuds don't die but slumber on ready to restart. The houses are scattered, hidden from their neighbour by the surrounding forest, where anyone could be hiding. Add some dark, damp autumnal weather, and you've got the perfect Nordic Noir -style setting. As Vega sets about finding her brother, discovering how much the police know and getting some answers about what actually happened, you won't want to put the book down!

It's a dark, brooding novel, that alongside the crime element deals openly with sex and desire, so definitely one aimed at older teens.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Scribe

Genre - YA crime thriller

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Some Of Us Glow More Than Others by Tania Hershman

Review by The Mole

Broken down into seven small collections of stories this book came as a surprise to me - but not for that. The stories vary in length from just a few lines to several pages and while unusual not to have average length stories of several pages that too was not what surprised me.

In trying to say what surprised me about this book it could be construed that it is superior to other collections I've read - but it's not. It's different - in a good way but just very different.

The surprise came in the writing style. The writing is for the main part almost like reading poetry while definitely being prose but making all the stories feel soft and lyrical whatever the subject matter. A really easy read that you can pick up for coffee time, read a few pieces and then put the book down again.

Many of the stories are about science and/or scientists (Tania Hershman is a former science journalist) but, before that puts you off, it contains zero science except a few words that are designed to impress (but not you) other characters in stories.

But it also achieves everything I like in a short story - it stops short of telling you everything and lets you finish it the way you would like.

A really excellent collection of short stories that you are sure to enjoy and if you're unsure about the genre then this is an excellent place to start.

Publisher - Unthank Books
Genre - Adult short story anthology 

Some of the author's work has been featured and/or performed on Radio 4.

Monday 19 June 2017

Godblind by Anna Stephens

review by Maryom

For a thousand years, the Red Gods, lovers of blood,war and sacrifice, have been banished from the world of men, and their followers, the Mireces people, exiled to cold, barely habitable mountain ranges, while the Rilporians, worshippers of the Gods of Light occupy the warmer, fertile plains. Now all that is about to change. The new Mirece king, Corvus, has been planning and plotting, making allies among the nobles of Rilpor and is ready to bring the Red Gods back from beyond the Veil. Meanwhile, among the Watchers who've helped maintain the uneasy truce between Mireces and Rilporians, is Dom, a 'calestar' who talks with the Gods of Light, passing on their messages and warnings to his people. 

A tale filled with violence and betrayal, with one side egged on my their bloodthirsty Gods, and the other almost helpless against their onslaught, doesn't make this seem like a jolly story but I honestly found it one of those which once started, can't be put down. 

The dialogue is 'adult', the brutality shocking but at the same time, the characterisation and world-building are excellent.

It starts a little confusingly with a large cast of characters to come to terms with in a short space, and each chapter following events from a different person's perspective, but these slight quibbles are soon overcome. The chapters are often short and events move along quickly, so I was soon hooked. The only downside, and I should have half-expected it with a fantasy novel, is that this is Book 1 of a series, and there's a wait for the next instalment.

If you like your fantasy dark, gripping, and bloody, this is the book for you! 

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

Thursday 15 June 2017

Superpowerless by Chris Priestley

review by Maryom

To an outsider, sixteen year old David looks and behaves much like any other guy his age - prefers his own company and hanging out in his bedroom to almost anything else. Maybe he's a little less social than others, but he's been through a rough time since his dad died in a car accident, so for a while friends and family have been prepared to cut him some slack. Now though, when they feel he ought to be getting his act together and putting the past behind him, David seems to be getting increasingly unsocial, obsessed with his dad's old super-hero comics and getting decidedly secretive. What his friends don't know is that David has superpowers himself. His super-hearing allows him to eavesdrop on conversations, being invisible means no one notices him (particularly girls) and his ability to fly lets him swoop over the town to help prevent accidents - or so he would like to think. He has another secret too, one that he's equally anxious to hide - that he's using a bird-watching scope to spy on his slightly older, attractive, bikini-clad neighbour, Holly. In doing so he stumbles on a very personal secret she'd like to keep hidden too. When he confronts her, the two form an unlikely bond, with Holly offering practical advice on the mysterious subject of girls and sex, while David tries his best to help her, but puts almost every foot wrong.

This is a story of being that awkward age between child and adult, of learning to accept that we can't always change things to be how we would like, and of first experiments with the opposite sex.
To be honest, especially perhaps from an adult's point of view, David isn't instantly likeable. He's too self-absorbed, too quick to lie to his mum and drag his best friend into the deception too, zooming in on his sunbathing female neighbour isn't polite, and as for imagining he has super-powers? isn't that a bit childish? But give him chance and he begins to grow on you. even when his behaviour is definitely cringe-worthy. It's easy of course to read a story and tell the hero he's making a mess of things, pulling all the wrong moves and making himself look foolish, arrogant and seriously un-cool, but that's how life is, particularly teenage life - full of mistakes we wish we'd avoided, and chances we've missed out on. The author could have created a teen hero who was, well, just that, a hero, the perfect guy in every respect, but David with all his flaws is far nearer to a real teenager, someone that readers can empathise with, and maybe it will give female readers an insight into that most mysterious of places, a teenage boy's mind.

It's odd that only last week I saw someone talking about the lack of books looking at teenage relationships from a boy's perspective, and then this week I've come across two excellent ones - first Anthony McGowan's Rook aimed at younger teens, then this with an older target readership. They're very different but I've loved them both.

Maryom's Review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Hot Key Books 
Genre - YA, relationships, 

Tuesday 13 June 2017

Rook by Anthony McGowan

review by Maryom

Out walking their dog one day, Kenny and Nicky find a rook, attacked by a hawk and only clinging on to life by the merest thread. Kenny, always naive and too trusting, remembers how they saved a baby badger, and is sure they can do the same again for 'Rooky', but Nicky isn't convinced. In fact he's not really interested. With Kenny's learning disability, and his dad's troubles after their mum left, Nicky always feels he has to be the one to look after the family, but now  his dad's got a new girlfriend and is starting to get his life in order, and Kenny is busy making new friends at his school. Meanwhile  Nicky has problems of his own mounting up - trying to attract the attention of his first love, and avoid the attention of the school bully. Life's about to get complicated for him ...

Nicky has fallen for a girl in his year, Sarah Stanhope, but how can he even start to talk to her?  At school he's either surrounded by his mates who suddenly seem so very childish or on the receiving end of the school bully's attentions. Trying to catch her after school seems like a good idea, apart from the way it turns into stalking. In fact, if you could think of a wrong way to attract a girl's attention, that's probably what Nicky's doing! To make matters worse, that school bully is her brother! If Nicky's to win Sarah over, or even get to talk to her, shouldn't he make a stand against him? But when that plan goes disastrously wrong, Nicky looks like losing everything.

Brothers Kenny and Nicky, familiar from Anthony McGowan's previous stories, Brock and Pike, are back with a third instalment of their story, this time about the thorny problems of teenage relationships.  I can't claim to having seen every book published for teens, but there generally seem to be more stories dealing with teen relationships from the girl's point of view. McGowan takes the reader on a boy's eye view of the world - where you maybe feel a need to stand up physically against bullies, where a good idea so quickly and easily turns into a disastrous one, and girls have suddenly become strange beings that it's impossible to talk to. Sometimes you'll laugh with him, sometimes at him, sometimes just cringe for him, but throughout the reader is firmly on Nicky's side.

Barrington Stoke books are designed to appeal to reluctant and dyslexic readers, with an off-white background and clear font, but above all they're interesting, compelling stories. The reading age for Rook is 8+ but the story is definitely one to appeal to teen readers.
Read the first chapter here 

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - teenage/teenage reluctant readers 

Monday 12 June 2017

The Night Brother by Rosie Garland

review by Maryom

As young children, siblings Edie and Gnome are inseparable, sneaking out of their bedroom at night to explore their home city of Manchester, but as they grow older their ways part. Edie is only seen during the day, when she tries her hardest to help her mother and grandmother around the public house they run, aiming to please but generally not succeeding. At night, Gnome comes out to play, or at least hang out in the streets with gangs of youths, often up to trouble. Although both mother and grandmother are well aware of what is happening, Edie herself is puzzled why she wakes each morning feeling like she's hardly slept, with tousled hair and dirt under her fingernails.

The Night Brother is an intriguing re-working of the Jekyll and Hyde story set against the backdrop of late 19th/early 20th century Manchester.
I loved the many historical elements of the book, and the atmospheric capturing of the feel of the city - the excitement of a childhood trip to see fireworks, the bustle of the streets. the defiance of the Suffragettes - but the concept at the heart of the story left me unconvinced.
I don't want to go into details as that would lead to a huge plot spoiler, but the lack of real explanation of this family 'curse' left me a bit frustrated. I'm sure I've read something with a similar gender-challenging idea in a sci-fi novel, possibly by Ursula le Guin, and whereas it's easy to explain it away in 'aliens', it's harder when dealing with people who are outwardly as normal as the next person. Maybe I'm looking at it all too literally, and expecting scientific explanations where there aren't any, maybe the story is more allegory that real, but it stopped me rating the book higher.

I'm not sure how I'd define this - historical fantasy maybe?

Maryom's review - 3.5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (The Borough Press)

Genre - adult, historical, fantasy, 

Sunday 11 June 2017

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

One day. Sixteen songs. The soundtrack of a lifetime...

review by Maryom

Once a famous singer/songwriter, a British rival to Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell, Cass Wheeler has been living a lonely, reclusive life following a personal tragedy and time spent in re-hab. Now she's ready to make a come back. A new album is recorded, a launch party planned, but first Cass wants to spend a day in the studio listening to her old records and picking out the ones that she considers to be her 'greatest hits' - not the ones that sold best but those that are more personal and private, representing key moments in her life. Over the course of the day, listening to her old songs, Cass revisits her fractured childhood, headstrong teenage years, meteoric rise to fame, and the troubles that seemed to follow fast on its heels.

Now, I loved Laura Barnett's debut novel, The Versions of Us, and the minute I heard there was another on the way, I was eager to read it, but at the same time a little cautious as I often am with second novels, plus I thought the theme of ex-rock-star-making-a comeback was maybe a little predictable. How wrong could I have been? I absolutely love Greatest Hits!

For me, this is a story that comes with a huge slice of nostalgia -  Cass is the sort of singer I'd have listened to as a young teen, followed in the music magazines of the day, maybe even dreaming of living a life such as hers - but Greatest Hits isn't just a story of music and fame.

I think without the various time-lines of The Versions of Us, there's more opportunity this time to appreciate the author's writing style, and skill at story-telling. Starting in the present day, Cass's life story unfolds in a series of flashbacks; one thread follows her life from childhood to present day; another the more recent events of the past few months. Moving between the two, like adding the layers and depths to a painting, Barnett builds an intimate portrait of a woman and the events that have shaped her.

From a childhood that feels deprived of love, Cass moves through teenage rebellion, an over-confident belief in her own decision making, and rejection of the people who care most for her, to the heady heights of stardom, with its jealousies and betrayals, till she ends up feeling she may have failed at everything - as daughter, wife, mother, musician. Although there are hints at the tragedy that changed her life, there's still enough mystery shrouding it, and the hope that Cass may find happiness at last, to lure the reader on.

Something that really intrigues me is the way that, not only does each chapter start with the lyrics to one of those 'greatest hits', but Laura Barnett has worked with singer/songwriter Kathryn Williams to have them brought to 'musical' life. An album is to be released shortly after the book's publication but for now you can hear the first song "Common Ground" by following the links on Kathryn Williams web site.

Although the story takes Cass on a journey through loss and grief, the overwhelming mood is upbeat. If you haven't discovered Laura Barnett yet, do read it. It's definitely one for fans of Maggie O'Farrell, but with a musical setting reminiscent of Tiffany Murray's Diamond Star Halo, and deserves to be a huge hit itself!

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Orion (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 
Genre - adult, 

Wednesday 7 June 2017

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay

translated by Sheila Fischman

review by Maryom

Despite the war raging around them, nine year old twins, Ahmed and Aziz, live a comparatively peaceful life on their family's orange grove - a tranquil, green spot hard won from the surrounding bare landscape. Then a bomb strikes their grandparents' house, and the boys find themselves caught up in retaliation for the attack. The leader of a group of militants, an important, pious man, both respected and feared in the area, prevails upon their father to persuade one of the boys to become a suicide bomber. The impossible decision of which twin this will be, is one which will split the family.
Years later, grown up and living in Canada, the surviving twin finds the past hard to leave behind, and impossible to explain to people who've never experienced war. Is it possible for him to find a way forward?

The Orange Grove is a short, powerful, chilling story of lost innocence, and the long-term emotional repercussions that follow the 'martyrdom' of this young boy. In our peaceful Western world, we believe that children should be sheltered from the horrors of war, but for those caught up in it, there's no such a luxury - in fact, men, women and children have lost their worth as individuals and become mere objects and statistics. The militants' leader has no qualms about manipulating the father through fear and religion so that he daren't refuse the 'honour' granted to his son; one son believes the hype, that becoming a martyr will be a glorious act, resulting in the deaths of his enemies and rewarded in heaven; the other is more pragmatic and would rather live, but this is marked down as cowardice. 

The Orange Grove is a disturbing, distressing read, dealing as it does with the forced recruitment of children into a war they don't understand,but one that I'd unreservedly recommend. By forcing the younger generation to take part in the escalating, reciprocated violence, the circle of war continues. While A attacks B, B strikes back, and A retaliates, there will always be one side calling for revenge on their attackers, and it feels like the conflict could never end. To break out of the destructive circle needs one side, or maybe just one person, to forgive.

This was an extremely thought-provoking read, even by Peirene's standards, and my original review draft contained a variety of rambling thoughts relating what I'd read to the recent events in Manchester and London. I've decided to delete them in the end, as they weren't really relevant in terms of a book review.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult Literary Translated Fiction

Monday 5 June 2017

Anne Goodwin - Underneath - blog tour

Today we're welcoming Anne Goodwin as part of a blog tour to promote and discuss her latest novel Underneath. To get an insight into it check out Maryom's review but here's a little synopsis from the publisher ... 

"He never intended to be a jailer …
After years of travelling, responsible to no-one but himself, Steve has resolved to settle down. He gets a job, buys a house and persuades Liesel to move in with him.
Life’s perfect, until Liesel delivers her ultimatum: if he won’t agree to start a family, she’ll have to leave. He can’t bear to lose her, but how can he face the prospect of fatherhood when he has no idea what being a father means? If he could somehow make her stay, he wouldn’t have to choose … and it would be a shame not to make use of the cellar.

Will this be the solution to his problems, or the catalyst for his own unravelling?"

Maryom; I think my first question has to be, What was the starting point for this novel? Was it the thought of an underground room, and the purposes it might be put to, or did it grow from Steve's character?

Anne; It’s always difficult to be completely accurate about where a novel started, but I’d been thinking about insecure attachment and extreme forms of vulnerability, such as the experience of a baby totally dependent on unresponsive caregivers. When some shocking reports came to light of women imprisoned in a hideaway, within, or attached to, an ordinary house, I thought the emotional experience might be similar. I’m not entirely sure how that got turned around to writing from the point of view of the jailer, except that I had the image of an unhappy little boy in mind and I’m curious about the way in which vulnerability can be expressed in actions that seem, at least on the surface, to come from strength and power.

As I said in my review Underneath isn't the domestic noir or thriller that a reader might expect from its synopsis. Were you ever tempted to go down that route? 

I wasn’t aware of domestic noir as a genre when I started writing this novel in 2010 but, even if I had been, I doubt I’d have wanted to write one, despite their popularity. With some exceptions, I’m not drawn to thrillers as a reader because of the way in which character and credibility can be compromised for the sake of plot. But the potential for overlap is tricky in describing Underneath: I think the synopsis is a fair reflection of the story but appreciate that some readers will be disappointed that it falls short on the twists and turns of the classic thriller; others, like yourself, will be pleasantly surprised it takes a different route. But, given the difficulty of predicting reader responses, I’m content to take the themes and ideas that are of interest to me and crafting them into the best story I can manage.

How much do you draw on your experience as a clinical psychologist when creating characters? and  do they appear fully formed or develop along with the story?

Having studied psychology in one form or another for over a decade, and worked as a clinical psychologist for twenty-five years, that experience – and perhaps even more the style of thinking – is integral to who I am. My background gives me empathy for my characters – even the villains like Steve – and an awareness of the complexities and contradictions of the human condition. But, like many people who gravitate to the helping professions, my own vulnerabilities aren’t so different to those of the people I’ve worked with, so I draw on my own demons too.
I couldn’t imagine a character arriving fully formed unless I’d based them on someone I knew, which doesn’t particularly appeal to me, so they develop over various rewrites in conjunction with the story.

By the end of the novel, I felt that, although I wouldn't condone Steve's actions, he was more a victim of his childhood and upbringing than an out and out villain. Is this how you saw him as his character unfolded? How much responsibility for his adult character can be laid on his mother and sisters? Do you think there was a point in his life at which events could have taken a different path?

I’m pleased Steve had that effect on you, Mary. Although I have little experience of working with offenders, I generally found as a clinical psychologist that, if I could support clients to be open and honest with me, I felt a significant degree of warmth and compassion even if I wouldn’t have been drawn to them in ordinary life. Steve first took root in my mind as a sad little boy, so I was always conscious of his vulnerability and, while I was writing, I was very much – perhaps too much – on his side, wanting him to get his own way. In fact, even though I’ve stepped back from him now, I still have a soft spot for Steve. However, although I think he’s partly a victim of his circumstances, he does have choices, and sometimes he’s taken the wrong ones. While his mother’s grief and emotional neglect, and his sisters’ bullying, have shaped his character, they too were doing their best in difficult circumstances and I don’t see them as responsible for what he does. I’ve written in more detail about these issues in some other guest posts:

Fictionalising the Mentally Disordered Offender

Child, lover, jailer: The three faces of Steve

Compassion for the Criminal, Condemnation of the Crime

Victims, villains and vulnerability

The Child in the Clothes of the Criminal

Finally, I like your question about whether there was a point at which his life could have taken a different course. Psychological support for the family when the mother is briefly hospitalised and the children taken into care might have helped, and there’s a huge gap in our knowledge of Steve as an adolescent and young adult where a sympathetic teacher might have channelled him into a more stabilising career. (Perhaps he could have become a clinical psychologist, or an art therapist like Liesel!) But relative to a lot of children and families who come to the attention of services, he wouldn’t appear particularly disturbed and I think there’s an element of bad luck in how things turned out.

Thank you, Anne, that was a fascinating chat, and I'm looking forward to reading your other posts in this tour.