Wednesday 29 November 2017

Shakespeare's Ghost by Mary Hoffman

review by Maryom

Ned Lambert is a young actor with Will Shakespeare's company of players, The King's Men. In his teens, he's of an age to be moving from boys' parts playing women to 'proper' men's roles, and his future is looking bright. His attraction to Charity, the young seamstress who helps with the company's costumes, seems to be returned, Shakespeare himself has taken a shine to Ned and promised him a continuing place in the company, and he's even been noticed and befriended by Henry, the Prince of Wales. So, with all these things going right for him, why should Ned feel unsettled? Well, he's become entranced by a beautiful, mysterious woman, glimpsed fleetingly around the theatre. Could she really be, as she claims, a fairy drawn through from their world by her desire for Ned? Whoever she is Ned finds her irresistible, almost enough to leave his life behind and follow here where ever she leads. Talking his dilemma through with Shakespeare, Ned discovers Will too has been visited by the fairy folk, one of them returning frequently to inspire his writing. but are these other-worldly influences for good, or evil?

In Shakespeare's Ghost, Mary Hoffman takes the reader back to early seventeenth century London and the reign of James I, bringing to life  the wealth and privilege of the Court, the cramped, unsanitary housing of  'common' folk, and the make-believe world of the theatres. Over all Londoners though, no matter what their station in life, hangs the horrific threat of the Plague.
But although the backdrop is entirely realistic, against it plays out a story involving fantasy, other-worldly characters - the two aspects weaving together seamlessly, and maybe explaining Shakespeare's fascination with fairies and other paranormal creatures.

Although (without the reader realising it) there's a lot of social history to be picked up, this book is primarily an entertaining and engaging read, and a great way to persuade younger teens that Shakespeare isn't just that dull, dead guy whose plays you're forced to read at school. Ned is a character that I think readers will identify and sympathise with. A boy on the brink of manhood, forced to choose between a safe but possibly dull life with childhood sweetheart Charity, and one of seemingly impossible delight with Faelinn. Admittedly, the average person doesn't normally face such a choice but his dilemma reflects the more humdrum decisions we all have to make at times.

By pure coincidence, my previous read involved a young man being tempted by a strange, possibly other-worldly woman, and the one before that involved a young actor with Shakespeare's players, on the cusp of growing out of women's roles and taking on men's. How strange that this book combines both threads!

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - The Greystones Press 
Genre - teen historical fiction fantasy

Monday 27 November 2017

Fool's Errand by Robin Hobb

 review by Maryom

My epic reading of Robin Hobb's fantasy continues, back to the world of Fitz and the Fool with Fool's Errand, the first of the Tawny Man trilogy.

15 years have passed since the ending of the Farseer trilogy, during which Fitz has grown from youth to adult, but his wolf,  Nighteyes, is now approaching old age - wit-bonding with Fitz has given him a longer life than that of a 'normal' wolf, but his years are definitely catching up with him. When the story opens, they're living a quiet existence in a cottage by the sea, content growing vegetables, keeping hens, and catching rabbits, letting events in the wider world pass them by. Things are about to change though, as the Farseer dynasty has problems  - the heir to the throne, Prince Dutiful,has disappeared just before he was due to be betrothed in a union of political necessity - and Fitz with his unique abilities is the only man to solve them.

I'm not going to say I didn't love the Liveship Trilogy but I DO love the Fitz and The Fool stories more; maybe because Fitz has grown from boy to man in the series; maybe because of his 'witted' bond with animals, particularly Nighteyes (I think most dog owners would love to have this bond and truly share the lives of their 'pets'); because of the odd and changing relationship he has with The Fool, particularly as Fitz seems to be not noticing something which is evident to the reader. Certainly, I didn't care about any individual from the Liveships stories as much as for Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool.
I'm glad I took time out to read the Liveships stories though, for they add in extra background to the dragons, the wider world outside the Six Duchies, and (treading carefully here for fear of spoilers) some of the characters who appear in both series.
Again, although ostensibly a fantasy adventure story, Hobb touches on wider matters  - the superiority that the 'unwitted' feel they have, and the hatred and fear with which they regard the 'witted', echo the divisions of race and religion you can sadly find almost anywhere in our 'real' world. I think this is what lifts her stories beyond the mass of fantasy novels. "Fantasy as it ought to be written" says the cover quote from George R R Martin, and you can't really argue with him!

Previously reviewed - Assassin's Apprentice (Farseer Trilogy, Book1)
                                    The Liveships Trilogy

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

Friday 24 November 2017

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

review by Maryom

Richard Shakespeare is at a difficult point in his acting career - too old to play female parts, and not sure if his current company of players will keep him on in men's roles, even though it's part-owned by his brother William. So when he hears of a possible opportunity at a new theatre, he's definitely tempted. But the competition between the playhouses of Elizabethan London is intense, and there'd be a price to pay for Richard's new position - stealing the script of his brother's latest play (the one set in Verona about star-crossed lovers...)

Now, I haven't read much of Bernard Cornwell's work, but this feels very different to the few Sharpe novels I've read, or to The Last Kingdom as seen on TV. There are no huge pitched battles, or even small skirmishes; it's more of a foray behind the scenes of the playhouses, taverns and palaces of sixteenth century London. It's a rather cut-throat world with playhouses willing to go to almost any lengths to draw the crowds in by staging something bigger, better, and newer than their opponents, and the theatrical community faces threats from outside as well - particularly from the Puritans, eager to see all such entertainments closed down. Cornwell brings it all wonderfully to life; the players with their rivalries and superstitions, the backstage peep at rehearsals for A Midsummer's Night Dream, the excitement of opening night or the dread of something going horribly wrong. To my mind, there's more than a touch of Shakespeare in Love about Fools and Mortals - not in the plot but in the representations of some of the characters, in the theatrical banter, and Will Shakespeare's as yet untitled work in progress  - but it's not a bad thing. In fact, I loved it.

As with the Sharpe novels, there's a blend of fact and fiction. The Lord Chamberlain's Men were a real acting company, and our hero, Richard, rubs shoulders with real historical figures - both actors - Kemp, Burbage, and of course William Shakespeare - and their noble patrons, including the Lord Chamberlain, a close relative of the Queen, and his family.

Generally it's a good, entertaining 'fun' adventure, with a little violence but not much. I'd say this counts as adult fiction, but if you have any teens struggling with Shakespeare at school, finding him and his plays too dull for words, give them this to read; it might just change their minds.

As I said above, Fools and Mortals is a new departure for Bernard Cornwell, and perhaps the first of a series. I hope so. 

Maryom's review - 4.5
Publisher - Harper Collins 
Genre -
 Adult historical fiction

Monday 20 November 2017

Ragdoll by Daniel Cole

Review by The Mole

"A body is discovered with the dismembered parts of six victims stitched together, nicknamed by the press as the 'Ragdoll'. Assigned to the shocking case are Detective William 'Wolf' Fawkes, recently reinstated to the London Met, and his former partner Detective Emily Baxter.

The 'Ragdoll Killer' taunts the police by releasing a list of names to the media, and the dates on which he intends to murder them. With six people to save, can Fawkes and Baxter catch a killer when the world is watching their every move?"

Very fast paced and complex this is a book that will have you wanting to keep going back and asking "How?". You'll be drawing timelines and plotting events to see how it all fits together. But it does, so forget all that and just sit back and enjoy this devious plot that you may not truly understand until the very end. If, like me, you decide who's guilty early on then be honest and and admit that you changed your mind at least a couple of times as the plot develops.

And at the end, as the end game is revealed and things fall into place, you won't believe how it all fits together. At least you won't want to believe it.

A murder mystery written with a very convoluted plot and brilliantly executed. Very much an author to watch in the future.

Publisher: Trapeze (Orion)
Genre: Adult Murder Mystery/Thriller

Thursday 16 November 2017

Molly Rogers Pirate Girl by Cornelia Funke

illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek

review by Maryom

Captain Firebeard thinks he's the fiercest pirate in the world, but at last he's met his match - in a little girl named Molly!
When the crew of the Horrible Haddock kidnap Molly in one of their raids, they've taken on more than they realise. Molly is set to work peeling potatoes, scrubbing the decks and patching sails, while Captain Firebeard wonders how he can get a ransom for her. Molly, though, isn't going to let him get his way for long - she has plans to escape and knows someone who is a better, bolder pirate than he is!

 Cornelia Funke (Dragonrider, Inkheart) tells a tale of fearsome pirates sailing the seas, raiding other ships and carrying off the spoils - but with a feminist twist. It's not only men who can be bold, brave pirates; Molly is easily as fearless and clever as Captain Firebeard, and the mere mention of her mum's name is enough to strike him and his crew with fear.

Kasia Matyjaszek's colourful illustrations, full of life and energy, bring Molly, the pirate crew, and their parrot, to life, and should take away any fears raised in smaller children by the thought of Molly being thrown to the sharks (plot spoiler; she isn't!)

Suitable for either children taking the first steps in learning to read or as a picture book for adults to share with younger children, Barrington Stoke's dyslexia-friendly features make this a comfortable read for anyone (parent or child).

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - picture book, early read, dyslexia friendly

Tuesday 14 November 2017

The Last Hours by Minette Walters

review by Maryom

Summer 1348, and rumours are spreading throughout Dorset of a virulent plague which kills everyone who comes into contact with it. Alarmed by the news, Lady Anne of Develish decides to take drastic precautionary measures, bringing all the estate's serfs and freemen within the bounds of the manor house's moat and refusing entry to everyone else - including her husband, who has just returned from a neighbouring estate infected with the disease! 

This possible haven is threatened from both within and without. People, animals and chickens cram themselves into the moated area, but, after an initial flurry of settling in, there's little to do but wait out the pestilence, and tensions are running high; a situation exacerbated by the positively weird behaviour of Lady Anne's teenage daughter Eleanor. Their situation is threatened by armed soldiers roaming the countryside, and, despite moving the villagers' stores into the hall, supplies won't last long and ultimately someone must venture out to find food, and check on the situation on neighbouring estates.

This novel is another case (there seem to be quite a few around at the moment) of an author 'jumping' genres. Minette Walters is known for her crime novels; here she's taken on a mix of historical and apocalyptic fiction. I suppose we tend to think of apocalyptic fiction as belonging to sci-fi or futuristic writings, but the Black Death was very real, sweeping through Europe and in places killing half the population. 

I'd expected a somehow 'busier' story, more action-packed with Lady Anne and her followers almost constantly fighting off attackers; instead it's slow burn sort of read, but one that's grabs the reader. An enclosed community is bound to suffer from tensions, without taking a plague ravaging the countryside into consideration, and this one is no exception. It's only when a group is forced to venture out and confront the devastation left by the plague that they realise how lucky they were.

There's an amazing amount of period detail, fitted in round the story rather than obscuring it, explaining the social structure under which serfs were bonded to a lord, unable to leave his property, limited in the work they can do to better their own lot; that lord paying allegiance to a higher lord; and everything ultimately being at the king's disposal. And of course, women at every level having least say of all in their lives.
Lady Anne is an unusual women - raised in a convent, with firm beliefs on cleanliness and sanitation, but not meek and mild as you would expect. She's well aware of the wrongs committed by her husband, and where ever she can, she's taken a stand against them, altering their serfs' lives for the better. When others are saying the plague is sent by God as punishment for sins, she looks for more practical reasons behind the outbreak. Maybe she feels at times just a little too modern and informed, but if monks at the time could have thinking on the same lines, why shouldn't a clever, convent-raised woman?

Maryom's review -  4.stars
Publisher - Allen and Unwin
Genre - adult historical fiction

Friday 10 November 2017

Winds of October by Alan Gibbons

review by Maryom

Alan Gibbons' first foray into adult fiction takes us to 1917 when Russia is held in the grip of revolution. The streets of Petrograd are in turmoil, its people on the march, demanding better working and living conditions, a government that really represents them, and an end to the war with Germany. Striking workers are joined in their protests by students and soldiers, and an unstoppable wind of change is blowing.
The story brings these tumultuous events to life through the intertwined stories of three young people - Raisa, who, following the death of her mother, was forced into prostitution. A violent, yet ultimately lucky, encounter sees her escape this life and she's more than ready to embrace the freedom offered.
Kolya, a young student, firm in his Bolshevik ideals, with a rousing slogan for almost every occasion, but of very little experience in the world. He's talked about revolution a lot, but will it live up to his expectations?
Pavel, an army conscript, who doesn't see why he should sacrifice his life fighting the war against Germany, and finds himself thrust into the front ranks of the Revolution after shooting an officer.
All three have a lot of growing up to do - mentally, emotionally, and sexually - as chaos overwhelms the city, and they become part of a growing mass of angry workers, ready to take on anyone who opposes them. Through their eyes the reader shares the hopes and fears, gains and setbacks, of a year marked by strikes, lockouts, and demonstrations, as the first revolution of February falls flat and tensions continue to simmer through spring and summer.
As you'd expect the main historical figures of the time put in appearances - Kerensky driving past in a limousine, a glimpse of Lenin looking unimpressive, British suffragette Jessie Kenney addressing the crowds - but the emphasis is firmly on three main characters, their friends and lovers: this isn't a political novel but one of real people caught up in world-changing events.
Although billed as an adult novel, with the main characters being all fairly young I think this would appeal to teens - of course with revolution and rebellion comes a certain level of violence and bloodshed, and there's a fair amount of sex in it so definitely OLDER teens (maybe the equivalent of a 15-rated film)

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Circaidy Gregory Press

Genre -adult, older teen, historical fiction, Russian Revolution, 

Tuesday 7 November 2017

At the Turn of the Century by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

review by Maryom

Although she's probably best known for her Oscar-winning screenplays of Room With A View and Howard's End for Merchant Ivory Productions, and her Booker-winning novel, Heat and Dust, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was also a prolific writer of short stories. In At the Turn of the Century, seventeen of those stories (previously published elsewhere) are brought together to form a body of work spanning 50 years.

The earlier stories are set in Prawer Jhabvala's adopted homeland of India, telling of the lives of both Indians themselves and the English who seem drawn there looking to 'discover' themselves, through the spiritual guidance of gurus or by immersing themselves in a world which somehow seems more 'authentic' than materialistic twentieth century England; for both young hippies in the '60s or supposedly happily-married wives posted abroad with their husbands, India holds a mesmerising attraction.
When Prawer Jhabvala's work took her to the US, the setting of her stories moved too; the people at the centre of them now being wealthy New Yorkers or, in one, the film-makers of  California. In this more mature phase, there's a new recurring theme - that of unconventional marriages and households.
Whatever the setting, the focus lies on the interactions of characters - within couples, families or wider groups - on the give and take of relationships, the compromises sometimes necessary to find, if not happiness, then at least contentment.
My favourites? (well, it may be wrong to choose favourites but there are always some) A Course of English Studies, about a young Indian girl's experiences at an English university, and A Choice of Heritage, in which a half English, half Indian girl gradually comes to realise that her background may not quite be what she had believed.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - 
Little, Brown
Genre -adult, short stories

Thursday 2 November 2017

The World Gone Missing by Laurie Ann Doyle

review by Maryom

The twelve short stories that make up this collection are linked by two things - their location - in and around San Francisco - and the theme of absence.
In each, someone or something is missing. It may be a close friend or relative who died, a father who up and left his family behind, a brother who has wandered off without leaving a word, a birth-mother who has shunned all contact with her child, but in each story someone has been left with a void in their life. Sometimes their search will bring them towards a moment of redemption, a filling of that gaping hole; other stories tail off, leaving unanswered questions, and unfulfilled hopes - perhaps to be honest, in a closer reflection of life.

Although some of these stories have appeared in various publications, even been nominated for awards, together they form the first collection by Laurie Ann Doyle. Short stories are always difficult to review without going into time-consuming details of each and every one; suffice it to say that I enjoyed them all. The style and 'voice' change from piece to piece - varying from third to first person, past tense to present - creating a varied compilation. Taken as a whole though, these are the kind of easily readable stories that feel simple till you begin to reflect on them, whereupon they turn into something more complex and thought-provoking.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Regal House Publishing

Genre -adult, short stories