Thursday 24 August 2017

Dance By The Canal by Kerstin Hensel

translated by Jen Calleja

review by Maryom

Gabriela has no place to live, no job, no friends or family who could help her, but for now she's found a snug spot under a bridge by the canal, and a stash of paper on which to write her life story. Born in the East German town of Leibnitz, the daughter of a respected surgeon, Gabriela's early life should have been an easy one of privilege but her parents seem remote and unloving, wanting an ideal child with talents to brag about, and at school she manages to make the 'wrong' sort of friends, irritating her parents even more.
Her father meanwhile is becoming increasingly outspoken about the Communist regime, her mother takes a younger lover, and by the time Gabriela is a teenager their comfortable villa has been exchanged for a tiny flat, and things are definitely on a downward slide ...
Then the Berlin Wall falls, and Gabriela hopes for better things, but has she by then become too much of a misfit to ever fit in?

From the point when Gabriela is homeless, sitting under the canal bridge and beginning to tell of her life, the story moves in two timelines - starting with her childhood one follows her troubles trying to fit in with what first her parents, and then the state, expect of her; the other begins at that moment sitting under the bridge, as she reflects on the past and is 'discovered' by a women's magazine and courted as an 'authentic' voice of the homeless. 
A square peg in a round hole is one way, perhaps slightly lazy way, of describing Gabriela - she never seems to quite understand what people expect of her, therefore can't play by their rules, and make a success of things. She's rootless and homeless long before she's without a roof over her head - her parents are distant and more concerned with their own lives that her well-being - and the only constant in her life is the canal - from childhood when she spent her happiest times playing and dancing there with her 'unsuitable' friend, to the shelter it offers her now.

It's a story which captures the readers attention and imagination. How could someone born into a position of security and respectability end up living homeless? Is it a slip anyone could make, or just Gabriela's fault? But, as I neared the end, I began to have second thoughts about Gabriela in her capacity as narrator. A word here, a sentence there, made me begin to think she wasn't maybe quite as she'd presented herself, but creating a persona to fit the expectations of the magazine editors. I read the relevant passages again, and still wasn't sure if I'd imagined it and was reading in something that wasn't there. It's one occasion when I've wondered if the translation of a Peirene novella didn't quite capture the feeling of the original. I definitely feel I need to re-read this book, but meanwhile if anyone has read Dance by the Canal, what did you think?
Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult Literary Translated Fiction

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Rarity From The Hollow by Robert Eggleton

Review by The Mole

Twelve year old Lacy Dawn lives in the Hollow, a place that the world seems to have forgotten. Her father suffers from PTSD after the Gulf War and family abuse follows as a result. Lacy Dawn's friend's family suffer similarly but her friend was killed through it. But Lacy Dawn has another friend who has his own spaceship - and when Lacy Dawn isn't talking to trees or her dead friend she is taking lessons in the spaceship and falling in love with a robot.

...and Lacy Dawn has to save the universe?

Lacy Dawn is a difficult character to get to grips with as she is intelligent beyond her years yet always the child that she is, as well. Her parents (she is an only child) came across to me as genuine and well written and plausible and her other friends and relatives similarly.

Drugs, used recreationally, feature highly in the books - although not for Lacy Dawn - but they are used to highlight some of the erratic behaviour of characters. Sex also features regularly but behind closed doors only and NOT with Lacy Dawn involved - she is saving herself for when Dotcom marries her. Dotcom is her robot boyfriend from outer space.

Tension and edge of the seat reading did not feature in this book for me but none the less it was a compelling read - one that didn't get me uptight, which was nice for once. It was also laced with humour, not laugh out loud or share with someone in the room humour, but enough to lighten the mood just a little.

It has been described as "an adult literary novel with a social science fiction" but I very much found it science fiction with a little fantasy but very much focussed on social issues - including abuse within the family.

And family abuse (in which the children always suffer in some way shape or form) is something the author has spent his career working against so the author proceeds of the current edition of this book are going to a children's home charity.

A great book that doesn't in any way preach yet brings home 2 things:
(1) important social messages
(2) a truly entertaining story

Genre - Adult Science Fiction
Publisher - Dog Horn Publishing

Friday 18 August 2017

Yesterday by Felicia Yap

review by Maryom

A body has been found in the river by Grantchester meadows. The coat pockets laden with pebbles point to suicide; the bump on the head says otherwise. So the police begin investigations - but things are tricky in a world where the majority of people can only remember the events of yesterday, and the pressure is on for a speedy resolution.

This book starts with an interesting premise - that most adults only retain memories of the previous day, the lucky few remember two days - then throws in a murder mystery, but it soon lost its hold on me as it turned into a fairly predictable domestic noir.
 Although the book isn't promoted as such, I'd expected a more 'sci-fi' take to the story. After all, a whole population coping with memory problems like that would surely be really weird. How did it develop in the first place? How do people cope from day to day? Would staying awake for long periods (perhaps with the help of drugs) keep someone's memory intact or is time the factor that governs this strange condition? And how can you hope to solve a murder when the facts will start to slip away from witnesses' minds at the end of the day? The aspects which intrigued me most weren't addressed as the book is much more murder mystery than speculative fiction, and as for coping day to day, well that's solved by the use of diaries - filled in every night to make sure important events and feelings are remembered, and read every morning to convert 'memories' into 'facts' which are never forgotten. To be honest, I felt these characters probably had a better grasp of what happened last week, by referring to their diaries, than I have with only a memory to count on!
I also found it a bit bizarre that events took place in what feels like a familiar setting, Granchester Meadows - I half expected Sidney Chambers and his entourage to show up and help solve the mystery!
If you're reading this as another domestic noir, you'll probably like it well enough, but I'm not particularly fond of the genre, and, comparing it to other fiction involving memory loss, Yesterday didn't have the tension of SJ Watson's Before I Go to Sleep, total world immersion of Emily Barr's The One Memory of Flora Banks or the grittiness of the Christopher Nolan film Momento.

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

Tuesday 15 August 2017

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

review by Maryom
The city of Sorlost stands at the heart of an empire that was once the richest the world had ever known. But its glory days are past. While titled families still play court to a puppet Emperor, and spend wildly and extravagantly on their own pleasures, the streets are filled with the desperate and homeless. Orhan Emmereth has decided it's time things were changed, and a band of mercenaries are heading across the desert to put his plans into action. They're a hotchpotch band of experienced fighters and raw recruits, but the strangest among their number is the youngster Marith, running away from something ( a common enough scenario for mercenaries) yet filled at times with a berserker killing rage beyond anything his comrades have seen, and somehow carrying a feel of impending doom or glorious destiny about him.
Meanwhile, in the temple in Sorlost, the High Priestess Thalia continues her routine of prayers and sacrifices, never wondering what lies beyond the enclosing walls ...

To be honest, I found it a little difficult to get started with this story - it has that problem frequently found in fantasy books (or even hulking great classics like Middlemarch or War and Peace) of such a huge cast of characters to be introduced within the first few chapters, that it can be hard to start to piece together the overall plot-line; I just got to grips with one group of characters and the story jumped elsewhere and to different players. If you find this, bear with it. Get past those first few chapters, and the book will grow on you - well, it did on me! Gradually, the scenario emerges - a decaying empire, someone eager to gain control of it, mercenaries with their own aims which may not run in the same course as their employer's, a young man hiding secrets in his past and a probably unfortunate destiny in his the future, and a beautiful woman dedicated since childhood as a priestess.
It has all the things I love in fantasy novels. The world-building is excellent, the writing rich and varied, and the characters behave as real people with human foibles, failings, and strengths. Yes, there are mages ready to whip up pyrotechnic displays, beautiful selkie women from the sea, even a dragon or two, but the story is powered by qualities we can recognise - ambition, fear, or desire - not the wave of a magician's wand.
If you love a tale in which alliances are made and broken, god and armies are ready to battle till no one's left standing, and trustworthy friends are as eager to betray you as your enemy is, then this is for you. Be warned though, the story is dark, violent, there's plenty of blood and gore, and the description of Marith's beserker rampages deeply unsettling. It's maybe odd then that the images and scenes which stood out most for me were of quieter moments -  the descriptions of the once glorious but now down at heel city of Sorlost, the desolate emptiness of the desert or its brief flowering after rain, Marith's delight in the seaside haunts of his childhood, and two lovers stealing a day away from treachery and death. Maybe it's something to do with the balance between the two aspects of the story but as the first book in a series it's grabbed me in a way that off hand I can only think of Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice having done before. I just hope there isn't too long to wait for Book 2.

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

Friday 11 August 2017

The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

Review by The Mole

When the steamship that May Bedloe is on explodes she finds herself on the banks of the Ohio with only the clothes she is wearing. Separated from Comfort, her cousin she was travelling with, she looks for some way to carry on. She joins the Floating Theatre as a seamstress, front of house, pianist, stage manager, show promotions, ticket maker and seller, in fact anything that is not actually on stage.

Then enter Mrs Howard, to who she owes money, to blackmail her into helping in the underground railroad.

When I saw this book I was very curious... I reviewed "O Freedom" a while ago, which is a book for younger readers, that follows a family along the underground railroad. Then "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction (a book I haven't read) so another book touching on the same topic intrigued me.

The plot follows the theatre, which drifts down the river that marks the border between north and south, and is towed back up the river at end of season. We are introduced to theatre life in this cramped environment as well as a little of lives along the river and the coming of coal mining to the area - the fuel of the steamships.

May is a character that cannot lie - she corrects the smallest of errors in speech - so the theatre is an odd place to find her - stories and plays are "lies" after all. I found her a fascinating character to follow and how she coped with the pressures of blackmail that forced her to more than lie, but to break the law.

The story also covered an aspect of the railroad that I didn't know existed.

All in all an intriguing story told very well that left me with an idea what life on the Ohio at that time may have been like.

Genre - Adult historical fiction
Publisher - Zaffre Publishing

Tuesday 8 August 2017

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

review by Maryom

"For sisters Liz and Jane, coming home to suburban Cincinnati means being paraded at the Lucas family’s BBQ, where burgers are served alongside the eligible men. But it’s difficult to focus on re-booting their love lives when the family’s mock-Tudor house starts to crumble around them. Yet as their mother reminds them, it’s not every day you meet a pair of handsome single doctors . . ."

Mr and Mrs Bennet of Cincinnati have been blessed with five daughters. Now ranging in ages from mid-twenties to late thirties Mrs Bennet feels it's time they settled down and got married, preferably to someone wealthy. The two eldest, Jane and Liz, have returned home temporarily due to their father's ill-health, and Mrs Bennet sees this as an ideal time to pursue her plans, especially when they're introduced to two doctors newly-arrived in town, and by all criteria eminently eligible.
In some on line listings, this book is sub-titled A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice, so if you hadn't guessed already, you know now where this story is taking us - into familiar territory with Jane and Liz Bennet, Chip Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Obviously the Bennet sister's lives are different in the 21st century, (though the younger three are still trying their best to live off Mom and Dad, rather than strike out on their own as independent women) but some things don't change so, although a rich husband is no longer a necessity, everyone is looking for a lasting, loving relationship.

I'm not a purist so I've no problem with re-workings of Austen's work, from books such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to films like Bride and Prejudice or Clueless, and really rather liked Eligible. transporting the Bennet sisters to present day America worked better than I thought it would, and although there's less of Austen's cutting satire, I felt overall the book really captured her style.

I'm not sure though that I'd say it's what Austen would write if she were around today. In her time she was innovative, exploring what could be achieved in a relatively new art form, so today I'd don't think she'd be in the 'romantic fiction' section of the book shop. Instead I imagine her writing graphic novels, feminist stand-up comedy, or The Thick of It style political satire - and if the Bennet sisters have a place there, it's a very different one.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (The Borough Press)
Genre - Adult fiction

Friday 4 August 2017

The Woman in the Shadows by Carol McGrath

review by Maryom

Elizabeth Williams is newly widowed, after a love-less marriage arranged by her father. She's still young, has a head for trade and figures, and is determined to keep her independence by taking over her husband's cloth business. It's not an unknown course of action for a widow, but Elizabeth has opponents among London's cloth merchants and, closer to home, in her father who thinks she should do no such thing, but either let him merge the business with his, or marry again. An arson attack on her premises leaves her shaken but still firm in her intentions, though concerned that someone may have uncovered her late husband's secrets ...
Meanwhile, she finds herself attracted to Thomas Cromwell, cloth merchant turned lawyer, who represents a chance for both love and security.

I think anyone with an interest in historical fiction will be aware of the huge number of books out there set in the Tudor period, but most focus on Henry VIII's court, and, of course, his multitude of wives. In The Woman in the Shadows, Carol McGrath approaches the matter from a different angle - that of a woman from the merchant class, involved in trade both at home and abroad, seeing the noblemen and women of the court as potential customers for her finer stock but little concerned with their lives. Once she marries Thomas Cromwell her life begins to change - for Thomas is intent on furthering his career, and in Tudor times that means becoming involved with the court and its politics. If you've read, or watched the TV version of, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, you'll know what happens to him later in life, but here we're concerned with him BEFORE he became a major player on the Tudor political scene. Seen through Elizabeth's eyes, he's ambitious, a little too secretive, and definitely too radical in his views! Elizabeth is portrayed as a modest, religious woman, not wholly comfortable with some of her husband's ideas or his growing involvement with the movers and shakers of Henry's court. In one respect I wasn't comfortable with her outlook - along with no doubt many others at the time, she sees homosexuality as a sin, condemned by the church, and punished after death, but it's important to bear in mind that she's a Tudor woman with the attitudes and opinions of her time, and influenced heavily by the Church's stance.
The insight into everyday Tudor life is fascinating. From the details of Elizabeth's clothes, cleaning and decorating a house, to dressing up and celebrating feast days almost every aspect is covered as Elizabeth and Thomas go about their daily lives. It's also interesting to see that long before celebrity magazines the public were eager for news of the famous folk of the day - Henry's longing for a son, and his extra-marital affairs are pretty much public knowledge, and discussed eagerly among the cloth merchants' wives (and I suspect by their husbands too). All these details help bring the period to life, a living backdrop to Elizabeth's personal story.

You can also read a guest post from Carol McGrath talking about Elizabeth Cromwell and Women in Tudor Times here

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - 
Accent Press
 Genre - adult historical fiction

Thursday 3 August 2017

Curious Arts festival - author event - Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers (left)

by Maryom

Dave Eggers's book event proved to be unusual as it wasn't really about books as such.
He was interviewed by Patrick Keogh, one of the team behind Curious Arts, and the two discussed Eggers' opinions, ideas, and beliefs, but didn't talk much about his books. It was certainly an interesting event though.
Keogh started by asking "What about Trump?" Now, this is one of those questions that we'd probably ALL like to ask American voters and
Eggers was one of those many Americans who didn't believe it was possible that Trump would be elected. When Trump got the republication nomination, Eggers thought Hilary Clinton would just walk all over him. Then at a rally in California he realised that the average voter saw things differently - that Trump was someone different to the average politician, a guy they'd seen on TV, and somehow thought he was nearer in outlook to them. Even so Eggers was shocked with the election results, comparing the mood in Clinton's office to the fall of Saigon.
Somehow, via a brief mention of Eggers' latest book, Heroes of the Frontier, the conversation moved on to children, their dependence on technology, and lack of self-reliance. Eggers is from Chicago which is a very cynical,cautious place, slow to embrace change, but moving to San Francisco he found himself mixing with the pioneers of the internet,and he knows tech executives who insist that their children lead totally tech-free lives, even sending them to schools where parents pledge their children will not be exposed to social media or even TV at home. He himself is not concerned about kids becoming too dependent on the internet. He was delighted by the Jabberwocky Hunt that had taken place at Curious Arts, and firmly believes that if you leave kids to get bored - for like a minute and a half - they'll find something to do, or make up their own games. They suffer, he thinks, from protection paradox - children are rarely seen out and about alone in SF, they're chaperoned to the park or to school, and this level of protection, although understandable, lets them grow up not knowing how to protect themselves, either in an urban street wise way, or out in the wilds.

And via children in general, they ended up discussing Egger's 826 Valencia project. He wanted to set up a place where kids struggling with English as a second language could be helped with school work, getting writers with time on their hands to assist the project, but the zoning laws stipulated the chosen premises had to be retail, so the front half of the space became a shop full of pirate related stuff - eye patches, peg legs, parrot food - to comply, and the non-profit tutoring centre occupied the rear. The model was so successful that the ideas expanded to other cities across the US, with superheroes or Big Foot as the shop's theme, and Danny Boyle and Nick Hornby have brought the concept over to Dublin and London.

Certainly, as I said, an interesting event. I've not read any of Eggers' books, but now  I think i shall have to.

Pete Brown at Curious Arts Festival

 By The Mole

Beer. What could be more British than beer? There are just four major ingredients as the book cover says: hops, barley, water and yeast. But barley won't make beer - well, not until it's been malted. Malting is getting the barley to germinate and before it's finished, roasting it. But who found that out? It was being done centuries before the chemistry was understood so how did hat happen? Beer is one fascinating subject in its own right with a tremendous amount of history about it and this book is very much going on my 'wish list'.

And then there's cider... another fascinating subject - but so is the apple tree. Pete Brown talked a little about it's vagaries and unpredictability in cultivation. We all have out favourite apples but do you know that all Bramley apples originated from one tree? Or any other variety? This book explores apples from around the world and their history. Another for my 'wish list'

Wednesday 2 August 2017

Carol McGrath - The Woman in the Shadows - blog tour

Today we're delighted to be hosting the blog tour for Carol McGrath's The Woman in the Shadows, the story of Elizabeth Cromwell, the wife of Tudor statesman Thomas, with a piece from the author on the role of women in Tudor times ...

Elizabeth Cromwell and Women in Tudor Times

My new novel The Woman in the Shadows will be published on 4th August. This novel’s protagonist is Thomas Cromwell’s wife Elizabeth Cromwell. It was difficult to find recorded history about Elizabeth Cromwell, so to bring the wife of Henry VIII’s infamous statesman to the page, I undertook an enormous amount of research into the lives of Tudor women and, in particular, into the lives of women belonging to London’s merchant class. Here are snippets of what I discovered and integrated into the world of The Woman in the Shadows.

Elizabeth was a young widow when she married Thomas Cromwell circa 1514. The age at which a first marriage took place varied depending on social background. The average would have been twenty to twenty-six. I suggest twenty-two. He would have been twenty-eight. A marriage was the joining of whole families and, as the Cromwells business interests expanded, relatives were drawn in. In fact, it was a relative who helped Cromwell get employed by Cardinal Wolsey. Widows could choose their second husband. They could inherit their husband’s business interests and a third portion if they had children by that husband. Once married, her property became her husband’s property even if they parted. I like to think there was love and mutual respect between Elizabeth and Thomas. It is recorded fact that his friends admired Elizabeth.

This was an important function of marriage. Elizabeth was not continually pregnant but she had three children with Thomas Cromwell. There was little pre-natal care. Dietary advice was based on the humours. Fish and milk, for instance, were considered phlegmatic. On birth the belief in talismans was common. Eagle-stones and the St Catherine’s belt were popular. Many churches apparently possessed this reliquary or its imitation and lent the belt out to women for their labour. A pregnant woman took to her chamber four weeks before the birth. It was hung with best hangings and the shutters were fastened up against fresh air. After the birth, the mother was confined to bed for three days and then to her chamber until her churching, a simple thanksgiving service, over a month later.

Both middle-class boys and girls had an informal education including instruction in religion. Girls were taught to be good, obedient faithful wives and to raise children as devout Christians. Children of Elizabeth’s class were taught to make themselves pleasing in company and useful to those above them. Even apprentices were taught good manners. Elizabeth had to be capable of looking after her house and children properly, and above all to have a care for her husband’s comfort. She was, as many women were, involved in their business interests, even if Thomas was the main bread-earner. Even though she could be a female merchant the professions such as the legal professions were closed to her. Women often did the accounts, and she may well have done these in the early days of their marriage. Yet, even if she was clever she was expected to be soft and delicate, and could never think of herself as a man’s equal.

Tudors washed more frequently than given credit for. Bathing was a wooden tub for most. They strip-washed every day and it was a matter of pride to have clean linen. Women made scented washing balls from expensive imported olive oil soap by adding herbs and flower scents to them. A respectable Tudor never sat down to eat without washing hands first as they ate with fingers. Cleanliness about the household was vital. The dairy especially must be clean. General cleaning was an extremely time-consuming task. Elizabeth would have had servants and cooks but it was her responsibility to train them.

Food and Cooking
A good display at meal times was important. Thomas Cromwell was exceptionally social and apparently good company. He was witty and possessed a phenomenal memory. The family would lose face if the house-wife could not present guests with a variety of dishes. These would include plain boiled and roasted meats accompanied with fancy spiced sauces. Exotic ingredients could be found in Elizabeth’s kitchen. One example mentioned in the novel is Russian isinglass - an expensive, pure form of gelatin found in the swim bladders of sturgeon. White leach was made by boiling new milk with isinglass and leaving it to cool and set firm until it could be cut into squares that might be gilded.

There is much, much more and limited space here. The book’s world is packed with a woman’s life in the Early Tudor period. At this time the exact nature of a woman was under debate as was the effect of education on women. I like to think that as a Humanist, a man of the new learning, a Renaissance man, Thomas Cromwell was enlightened and in favour of education for women, just like Thomas More who famously had his daughters educated. Tudor women, in general, none the less, had skills that even though not completely acknowledged, were as essential to society as those belonging to their brothers, fathers, and husbands. They, like today’s women, were true multi-taskers. They were both similar and different, and, for me, incorporating this concept into Elizabeth’s story was the novel’s real challenge.

Tuesday 1 August 2017

Climbing Trees at Curious Arts

By The Mole

(This event was part of Niddfest Comes South)

Do you ever look at a tree and think "I could pull myself up on that branch, climb onto that one and work my up" and then move on without even approaching the tree? This certainly happens to me but one day Jack Cooke did approach that tree and started climbing. And since then he has climbed tree after tree after tree. Many of his trees have been in London where, believe it or not, there are 3,000,000 trees.

This book is written so that you can 'dip in' and out of as he tells of different trees he has climbed. Trees where you bump into someone sitting eating their lunch. Trees where someone dials 999 because they think you are going to commit suicide. Trees where you ask a passing stranger for a leg up to get started. Trees where things don't go quite as planned. Bumps and scrapes are the order of the day but you get to see so much from up there as well as in the tree itself. I may start climbing trees again myself. Certainly one I shall be looking to read soon.

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Susanna Beard

by Maryom

Sunday morning was sunny and bright, and a perfect day for relaxing in deckchairs in the small Arcadia tent, to listen to Paul Blezard chat to Susanna Beard about her debut novel Dare To Remember. After a career in PR, promoting everything from wifi to wine, Susanna wanted to pursue her dream of writing a novel, and while doing so enrolled on one of the Faber courses, through which such a lot of authors have come to notice.

She wasn't setting out to write a crime novel as such, but just wrote a story and ignored which genre it might fall into. In the end, Dare to Remember is a mix of crime, thriller and psychological drama, not easily falling into one single category, and is the story of a woman recovering from a violent attack. Following it, Lisa cuts herself off from friends and family, and leaves town for the quiet of the country, but even there she can't escape what happened. Trauma has wiped her memory of the awful events, yet glimpses insist on coming back to her, and the only way forward for her seems to be to re-encounter the past.

While plotting and writing, Susanna found she needed to do research - into trauma, PTSD, victim support and the restorative Justice Council. Even though a lot of the details didn't actually find their way into the book, she felt they were needed for her to understand the emotions and process Lisa was undergoing. Susanna read a short section of Lisa having a 'panic attack' in her local village store after seeing the butcher carrying a knife, and she really seems to have caught the horror that overwhelms Lisa at that point.

A question often asked of debut authors is What next? Well, Susanna is ahead of the game, and her second novel, this time set in Lithuania, is already with her publishers.