Thursday 28 September 2017

The Liveships Trilogy by Robin Hobb

review by Maryom

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 26 September 2017

Flesh of the Peach by Helen McClory

review by Maryom

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 20 September 2017

How Much the Heart Can Hold edited by Emma Herdman

review by Maryom

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

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

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

Monday 18 September 2017

Nomad by James Swallow

Review by The Mole

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher: Zaffre
Genre: Adult Action Thriller

Friday 15 September 2017

Keeping It Short - book event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 12 September 2017

The Ravenmaster's Boy by Mary Hoffman

review by Maryom

When his parents die of the plague, Kit is taken in by the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London. Growing up with, handling and feeding the birds in his adoptive father's charge, Kit discovers he has a unique gift - to actually communicate with the ravens. When a new prisoner arrives at the Tower, Kit decides he should put his skill to use, for his sympathies lie with this new 'inmate', King Henry's wife, Anne Boleyn. Only a few years before, the king divorced his first wife in order to marry Anne, but now, with no son to inherit his throne, Henry is starting to look for a new wife, and a way to rid himself of his current one. Kit can't do much to save Anne but with the help of the ravens, he can pass messages for her beyond the Tower's forbidding walls. Dabbling in the King's affairs is a dangerous game, though, and Kit begins to realise that he may have got too involved in events beyond his control ...

Aimed at teen and YA readers, The Ravenmaster's Boy is an excellent blend of historical fact and compelling story, with an additional touch of magic in Kit's ability to talk to the ravens.
As all good historical fiction should, The Ravenmaster's Boy brings the past to life without stopping to lecture the reader. I've always found that history can be rather dull unless you can imagine the people involved, start to understand their hopes and fears, decide whether you'd side with them, or against - and while Anne and King Henry will probably be familiar from history lessons here they're 'fleshed out'; real people whose lives are no longer a string of facts and dates, but a gripping 'true life' drama.
Although the story is partly that of Anne, her imprisonment and trial, it's also about Kit, an average boy with an unusual talent - and a truly gripping story it is! Living in the Tower of London, he's seen prisoners come and go before - some released, most heading only for the gallows - but something about the young queen makes him want to help her in her distress, and with him, the reader sneaks behind the scenes, shares Anne's private moments, and her public trial. An older person might have hesitated to help, knowing and fearing the consequences if discovered, but Kit is sixteen, a little smitten by the beautiful young queen, and doesn't hesitate. Too late, he begins to wonder where his actions might have led him and the friends who've helped him. So, yes, the reader will absorb historical facts along the way, but primarily they'll be pulled along by the story, wanting to know how things turn out for Kit.
Although (obviously) it's aimed at a young audience, I really enjoyed it, and, considering I've never really sympathised with her, was just slightly surprised to find my attitude changing towards Anne.

The ravens of the Tower of London are legendary themselves - stories say that if the birds ever desert the Tower, the city of London will fall; the keepers make sure they never do, by clipping the birds' wings, and limiting their flight!

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - The Greystones Press 
Genre - teen/YA historical fiction 

Friday 8 September 2017

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

review by Maryom

Elsie Bainbridge is being held in a mental asylum, accused of arson and murder. Trauma and smoke damage have rendered her mute, so there's no way she can plead her innocence to her jailers, even if she wanted to revisit the horrific incidents that led to her imprisonment. Then along comes a new, sympathetic doctor whose non-threatening ways and willingness to communicate start to open up Elsie's memories, and so she begins her tale - of an old mansion deep in the country, strange noises at night, mysterious deaths, lifelike wooden figures which seem to move on their own, and a centuries old diary that might hold clues to the horrors which stalk the house ...

This is without doubt one of the creepiest stories I've read - full of tension and steadily increasing horror, it's one to give you goosebumps up the arms, and shivers down the spine. At the heart of it lies the old Bainbridge family home, The Bridge, its rather strange collection of 'silent companions' and events which happened centuries ago.
The house has been crumbling quietly, looked after by the minimum of staff, but the return of newly-married Rupert Bainbridge seems to waken something malevolent there. After his sudden death, his widow Elsie arrives at the house, accompanied by her late husband's penniless cousin Sarah, in a swirl of mist. The nearby small village is tumbledown; the locals hostile and wary, peering from their windows to watch the 'gentry' go past; the house itself neglected and overgrown with ivy. What could be a better setting for a gothic horror tale?

 And things progress with a growing sense of unease. There are tales of skeletons discovered in the grounds, noises are heard at night from the permanently locked attic, the painted 'silent companions', once intended as a talking point for guests, take on a far more sinister aspect, and as Elsie's back story gradually emerges that seems to have been equally full of horrors though of a more human, less supernatural, kind.

For me, it definitely wasn't the sort of book to read at night when everyone else had gone to bed. Within the story there's a feeling of things happening just out of sight, of someone or something creeping up behind Elsie's back, and this began to creep over me while reading. I loved it, but at times I found the mounting tension too much and just wanted to walk away from it, go outside, see the sunshine, or talk to someone, just to get away from the slow relentless build up of horror! A thoroughly excellent read, if you're happy to be spooked!

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Raven (Bloomsbury)
Genre - Adult (but will appeal to teens with a taste for the dark and spooky) gothic horror

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Love Apples by Melissa van Maasdyk

review by Maryom

On paper, Kate Richmond seems to have her life sorted. Her relationship with wine-writer Daniel is strong and secure. Her job entails writing about her passion - food - and she's even got promotion, and been put in charge of the magazine's photo shoot in Mauritius... but she's within a hair's breadth of losing everything. The assignment to Mauritius gets off to a rocky start and goes downhill from there, with a cyclone thrown in for good effect! And as for staying faithful to Daniel, Kate's barely settled into her hotel before she's attracted to Fai Li, one of the local reps they're supposed to be working with, and whether she calls this 'love' or not, no such emotion is around when she's propositioned by one of the hotel's managers ...  Can Kate salvage both her career and her love-life from this mess? 

You get plenty of romantic comedy style books - well, this is more of a romantic disaster! Kate's life should be plain sailing but she manages to mess almost everything up. Her job, she claims, is more important than marriage, or even a steady relationship, but she's in above her head and everything's about to fall apart around her.
It's hard at times to like a book in which the main character isn't likeable, and unfortunately Kate isn't, or at least I didn't find her so. In putting job before marriage/relationships, she seems cold-hearted and a little mercenary. Her behaviour leaves a lot to be desired - she totally misleads not just Daniel at home, but Fai in Mauritius - obviously neither are best pleased when they find out what she's been up to and with whom, and who can blame them! 

In fairness it's probably best to say I'm not much of a romantic fiction reader, so that's probably why this book didn't grab me. What tempted me to read it and what saves the book though is the food. As Kate tosses a salad, grills a main course,whips up a little something for desert, the flavours leap off the page - and there are even recipes at the en in case you wish to try some dishes for yourself.

Publisher - Lulu publishing
Genre - romcom/chicklit