Monday 17 December 2018

Sunny and the Ghosts by Alison Moore

'Sometimes, when you open a door or lift a lid, you find exactly what you expected to find: coats in the coat cupboard, bread in the bread bin, toys in the toy box. And sometimes you don’t.'

illustrated by Ross Collins

review by Maryom 

Sunny's parents like old things - clocks and pianos, books and ornaments - so bought an antique shop, with a flat above where they live. Sunny helps in the shop by polishing mirrors, brass coal scuttles and copper kettles, out of which he always thinks a genie might appear. It isn't a genie he finds hiding among the old blanket chests and wardrobes, though, but a ghost ... then another ... and then a third is found locked in a cupboard! The ghosts all seem friendly, and hardly any trouble at all (unless you count playing the piano at night), but someone seems to be causing trouble in the shop. Books are thrown off their shelves, an ornament broken, dozens of cats let in to wander round the shop, sit on furniture and cushions, sleep in pots and pans. Sunny suspects there must be another ghost, a naughty one, playing pranks and getting up to mischief, but how can he make the ghost show himself, and then leave?

You'll probably have heard of Alison Moore as an award-winning author, listed for the Booker and such, but this is her first book aimed at a younger readership. 
It does share some characteristics of Moore's 'adult' novels - an interest in the meanings behind words and phrases, a brevity of words to describe people and situations, but it most definitely isn't a grown-ups novel dumbed down for children. It's a light-hearted and fun read, with line-drawings by Ross Collins bringing characters and situations to life, eminently suitable for children who find scary, hide under the bedsheets ghost stories just too frightening. The plot moves along quickly, and once Sunny finds one ghost, more seem to appear every day, popping up in all sorts of odd places around the shop. It's all jolly, apart from the puzzle of who, or what, is behind the trouble in the shop. Sunny's parents seem inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and don't blame him for it, but I'm not sure they really believe his tale of ghosts either. With a little help from his spectral friends though Sunny manages to track down the trouble maker, and find a way to settle the problem. 
Further stories are planned so this looks like being the beginning of quite an adventure for Sunny and the Ghosts.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - children's ghost stories 9+

Friday 14 December 2018

The Truth about Archie and Pye by Jonathan Pinnock

review by Maryom

Heading home on the train after a career-ending bad day at work, Tom Winscombe isn't really in the mood for social chitchat but gets drawn into conversation with the guy sitting next to him - George Burgess, an author of 'conspiracy' books, currently working on a biography of mathematical geniuses Archibald and Pythagoras Vavasor, who died in suspicious circumstances ten years ago. Getting off the train, Burgess leaves his case behind, and Tom decides he'll return it the next day. Before he has chance to, Burgess is killed, and Tom finds himself holding documents that people are willing to kill for. Very soon he finds himself pulled into the murky world of conspiracy theories, murder, mathematics and Belorussian mafia.

If you like your thrillers a little quirky and off-beat, this is the book for you. Basically the story is one of slightly irritating but still like-able guy drawn into the realm of ruthless killers, through no fault of his own except maybe a certain innocent gullibility - Tom is the sort of guy who rushes in where cautious folk fear to tread, who hearing howling noises from a lonely deserted house would go to investigate, and wonder why he stumbled on a crime scene straight out of a horror story. Don't expect a serious Nordic Noir style thriller but something more the style of a Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently novel with the added frenzy of a Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright film. It's fun, fast-paced and full of intrigue, and I loved it!  

Also, don't let the subtitle 'a mathematical mystery' put you off. While it's the basis of a lot of in-jokes, the reader doesn't need to understand the finer points of maths, any more than you need to understand astro-physics to watch The Big Bang Theory - it's enough to know that someone somewhere is willing to murder to obtain the Vavasors' notes. 

The Truth About Archie and Pye is the first of a series, and I for one am eagerly anticipating Book 2!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Farrago
Genre - adult thriller 

Thursday 13 December 2018

Shadow of the Centaurs by Saviour Pirotta

illustrated by Freya Hartas

review by Maryom
Three months have passed since their last adventure, and Nico and his friend Thrax are back in Athens, attending to their master, Ariston, a not-very-successful travelling poet. Nico is his scribe, with the job of writing down all his poems (no matter how bad); Thrax, his personal slave, taking care of clothes and running errands, but with hopes of saving enough money to buy his freedom one day.
After their exciting stay on the island of Aegina, the boys are a little bored and hoping for a mystery to solve, but perhaps they should be careful what they wish for, as an innocuous investigation into a case of a kidnapped dog leads the boys into something far more dangerous. As the festival of Anthesteria approaches, Athens is transformed into a place of street parties and lavish entertainments with everyone throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the celebrations, but hidden in the crowd is a secret society plotting the downfall of Athens' leader, General Pericles, and Thrax is determined to foil their plans.
Nico and Thrax have had several thrilling adventures together, but this fourth in the series is sadly the last (for now, at least). These two amateur sleuths, and their growing band of young helpers who make up the Medusa League, have brought the long ago world of the Ancient Greeks to life in a way to appeal to young readers. Real historical figures, such as Sophocles and General Pericles, share the story with Nico and Thrax, and facts about everyday life are scattered throughout in a natural, unobtrusive way. If you can't pick up the meaning of a word from its context, there's a glossary at the end of the book, so you won't be left in doubt as to how to wear a petasos or chiton, or what to do with a kalamos. Also, there's a brief introduction to Greek gods and goddesses who might be mentioned within the story.
The story, though, is always the most important aspect of the book. This time an odd incident of a stolen dog leads the two young detectives into peril as they seek to uncover the threat to Athens posed by a secret society. Readers are sure to be gripped as Thrax and Nico try their best to make sense of the clues leading them to this dangerous gang.

I've really enjoyed this series, and although Nico and Thrax have reached a natural break in their story I hope they'll be back for more adventures.

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

Monday 10 December 2018

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

'The autumn of 1933 is the most beautiful Edie Mather can remember, although the Great War still casts its shadow over the fields and villages around her beloved home, Wych Farm.
Constance FitzAllen arrives from London to document fading rural traditions and beliefs. For Edie, who must soon face the unsettling pressures of adulthood, the glamorous and worldly outsider appears to be a godsend. But there is more to the older woman than meets the eye.
As harvest time approaches and pressures mount on the entire community, Edie must find a way to trust her instincts and save herself from disaster.'

review by Maryom

I'd better start by saying straight off that I seem to be one of the few people who didn't fall head over heals in love with this book. I loved Melissa Harrison's previous novel - At Hawthorn Time - partly I suspect because it represented the countryside in a 'warts and all' way. It wasn't shown as a pastoral idyll but as a place of work, with many ugly sides to it - from road kill to the destruction of landscape.
With All Among the Barley it feels like Harrison has swung the other way - to a view of the Suffolk countryside seen through rose-tinted glasses, and it just didn't grab me. Teenage narrator Edith certainly sees it this way, waxing lyrical over fruit laden hedges, with descriptions of nature and landscape just too overdone and fulsome. For a fourteen year old (my mother, born roughly the same time, commuted from her village into town to work in a factory at 14) Edith seems remarkable naive - of the grimmer aspects of farming, her father's associated drinking and rages, and the world outside the narrow confines of her village. Gradually though I began to see Edith as unreliable, neither as clever as she purports to be nor possessed of the special powers she claims. So should the reader see her pastoral idyll as equally fake? Is most of her tale just a hankering for a world that never existed? On the other hand, every review I've read seems to have taken Edith at face value, so I appear to be the odd one out here.

Publisher - Bloomsbury Publishing
Genre - adult fiction

Monday 3 December 2018

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

review by Maryom

In the Swan Inn on the banks of the Thames at Radcot, regulars are whiling away the long dark winter's night telling stories when in walks a stranger with the drowned body of a child in his arms. He's battered and bruised, and at first the child appears dead. Who is he? Is the girl his daughter?  where did she come from? the storytellers are quickly at work spinning a new tale from the night's extraordinary events ... then to everyone's amazement the child begins to stir ...

Once Upon a River is a marvelous flowing tale, deep and full as the Thames itself, with a story which whirls away into eddies and backwaters, then rushes forward with the full force of the current.

At its heart lies the mystery of the girl's identity, and a potential tug of love over which family she'll stay with. The Vaughans' young daughter, kidnapped two years ago, has never been traced. Could she have somehow miraculously returned? On the other hand, the Armstrongs have just discovered that their eldest wayward son not only has has a daughter, but has left her, and her mother, in poverty. She's gone missing from her last known home, so could this rescued child be her?

It's also a story about stories, and about how we tell them to make sense of the mysteries and inconsistencies of life. For the Swan's regulars anything that happens must be shaped, given structure, a proper beginning, middle and end, and its heroes and villains identified; the story of a dead girl coming back to life is both a blessing - such an amazing tale to tell - and a difficulty - for who can tell how it will end? As the river hides currents and treacherous weeds beneath its smooth surface, there's more to any of these stories than at first apparent. I loved the way these untrained story-tellers sat around and discussed how a story would best progress, helping each other hone their tales for the better enjoyment of all.

Once Upon a River is an astounding piece of storycraft. Its various threads twisting round each other, as the reader is swept along by its current. It will definitely be heading straight for my 'best of ...' lists, but here's a problem. Which year does it belong in? It's published in the US and Canada, and as an e-book on 4th December 2018, but UK hardback publication is not till 17th January 2019. Maybe it can somehow sneak into both years' lists.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction

Saturday 1 December 2018

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake

review by Maryom

Thirteen year old Paul lives a protected life in the upmarket sixth arrondissement of Paris. His divorced parents have little time for him; his father busy with work and his obsessive fitness regime; his mother with her young wannabe rock star lover. Appearances and social achievement are what matter to the exclusion of all else. Paul is deemed by them to be a failure (not passing appropriate school entrance exams) and so he's left searching for affection elsewhere.
At school there's a new girl, Scarlett, challenging opinion and style in typical manic pixie way, and of course all the boys fancy her, including Paul. At first she only dates cool kids, but gradually a friendship builds between her and Paul. Will he find the unconditional love he craves with her?

This coming-of-age story brilliantly captures the chic but heartless and empty world in which Paul lives; success, or at least the appearance of it, matters more than happiness. I loved the writing style and found that in mood there was much to remind the reader of Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse. I was really enjoying it ... BUT ... and it was a big 'but' that alienated me ...  as the story progressed I became unsettled by seeming-homophobia on behalf of many of the characters. Some of it I could forgive as the violent reaction of a young teenager, especially considering the way in which he stumbles on the relationship, but no one took time out (ok, we've already established the heartless lack of care of his parents) to explain that there was nothing wrong with this relationship - that it was a valid expression of sexuality, rather than the immoral, degenerate behaviour Paul sees it as - and it left a sour taste which diminished an otherwise wonderful novel.

Publisher - Picador
Genre - adult/teen coming of age story 

Friday 16 November 2018

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkeviciute

translated by Dalija Valiukenas

review by Maryom

in 1941, as the German army advances from the west, thousands of Lithuanians, including 14 year old Dalia and her family, are deported by the Russians. First they're moved east, to work on a beetroot farm, then north to the Siberian arctic where they are part of a project to establish fishing factories along the coast. They have to build their own barracks, work twelve hour days (and more), receive barely enough food to survive on, succumb to lice, malnutrition, scurvy. The conditions are horrendous; life expectancy low. Somehow though, some of them manage to survive.

Based on actual events, in the words Dalia scribbled down and hid when she eventually returned to Lithuania, this book is a gripping, moving account of survival in harsh, inhospitable conditions made worse by lack of the basic human requisites of adequate food and shelter - in fact, existence is only made possible by stealing and burning wood from building supplies, and taking the fish which should be processed and sent south and west to feed Russian cities. 

Dalia isn't asking for our sympathy. There's little reminiscing about life back home. Although she does occasionally contrast 'then' and 'now', she knows that isn't the way to survive. Bad as the situation as, she has no choice but to accept it, make the best of it, and not give on on the hope that one day she will make it out alive.

The mass deportation of Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians was something I was aware of from history lessons, as were the often crazy, ill-informed schemes the Socialist bureaucracy came up with for harnessing the potential of their vast country. But dealing with people in their thousands and millions deprives them of humanity. This book brings a very personal insight into the suffering caused by these actions, putting a face on at least one of the nameless thousands involved.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult Translated Fiction/non-fiction

Friday 9 November 2018

The First King of England: the story of Athelstan by Stuart Hill

review by Maryom

Fourteen year old Edwin is one of the lowest of the servants in the Royal Hall at Tamworth, doing all the boring, dirty jobs in the kitchens, till one day he accidentally picks a fight with the young prince Athelstan. Fortunately, instead of sending him off for punishment, Athelstan takes a liking to Edwin, and makes him his personal servant. From then on the two boys are constantly together and their relationship becomes more one of two friends than master and servant. As they get older, Athelstan assumes the role of king of the Saxons, but he's determined to be more than just their king - taking on the might of the Vikings, Scots and Welsh to make one united country, Britain.

One of Bloomsbury's Flashback series, aimed at the over-sevens, this story of an unlikely friendship between a prince, Athelstan, and and his personal servant, Edwin, takes the reader to a tumultuous time in British history when Saxons, Vikings, Welsh and Scots were struggling for dominance. Through Edwin's eyes and words we're introduced to the Wessex court - its way of life, the behind-the-scenes politics of its rulers, the training for battle that all boys undergo but which is more important for Edwin as he will be protecting Athelstan in battle, feasts at which Edwin must now serve his master, and quieter domestic times when Athelstan and Edwin are just two boys playing games with their dog.

Part of the aim of The First King of England is to provide support for Key Stage 2 - but don't let that put you off! It's not a dull text book but a rattling good read. There are obviously a lot of non-current words used from aethling to burgh, place names such as Wessex and Mercia, and back story of the historical characters to catch up on, but they're all explained as Edwin encounters them. The battle scenes make the story gripping and exciting without glorifying war itself, or being too violent, making this an excellent read for any children who thought they might like to watch The Last Kingdom or Vikings, but were stopped by parents!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Genre - historical fiction, 7+, Key Stage 2

Monday 29 October 2018

A House of Ghosts by W C Ryan

review by Maryom

It's Christmas 1917, and guests are gathering at Blackwater Abbey, the island home of Lord and Lady Highmount. This isn't a normal festive gathering though - on the longest night of the year, while the war continues to rage in France, a seance is to be held under the supervision of Madame Feda and Count Orlov, two celebrated mediums, to contact the Highmounts' two sons, both killed in the conflict, and possibly another young man - Arthur Cartwright, who's been posted as 'missing', but is believed to also have died. The party therefore includes his parents, and sister Kate, long-time friends of the Highmounts, but Kate has a second secret reason to be there.

Lord Highmount is an important arms manufacturer, and some of his weapon designs have been found in enemy hands, so Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, head of the government department in which Kate works, is sending along an undercover operative, Robert Donovan, to track down who is leaking such valuable information, and Kate with her insider knowledge of the house and its inhabitants is to help him where ever possible.

 I found A House of Ghosts to be a rather odd book - not so much it itself, as the way it's promoted - as I'd expected something ghostly and spooky, and didn't really find it to be. There ARE ghosts, plenty of them - people who've lived and worked at Blackwater Abbey in the past, men who've died in trenches of the Somme  - but Kate and the other medium who can see them treat them in so matter a fact way that I didn't find them scary, even when speaking through the mediums.

On the other hand it's an excellent blend of 'country house' and 'spy' thriller. The setting is pure Agatha Christie - guests arriving at an old brooding house, finding themselves cut off from the world, and help should it be needed (you can bet it will!), as a wild winter storm rages outside. And then someone starts to attack the guests one by one ...
It's gripping and tense, but just not spooky in my opinion.

And if you like a bit of romantic interest along with the sleuthing, there are signs of a growing attraction between Donovan and Kate, an aspect that I feel may be further explored in future stories - for I'm certain we haven't seen the last of this pair.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - 
Genre - adult, spy thriller, country house mystery

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Tell Me No Truths by Gill Vickery

review by Maryom

Twins Jade and Amber have always been fascinated by the stories their granddad told of his Italian childhood. During the war he was a member of a partisan group, fighting against the fascists, but at the end of the war he moved to England, and never returned to Italy. Now the twins are heading to Florence on holiday with their parents, and while the adults are off admiring art and antiquities, they hope to visit Borgo Sant'Angelo, the village their grandfather grew up in just outside Florence, and maybe track down their long lost relatives. 
In Florence they meet another English teenager on the trail of mystery. Nico and his mum both love the crime thrillers written by reclusive author E J Holm, and set in the area around Florence. The author is so secretive that no one is even sure if they're male or female, but both Nico and his mum feel by tracing the locations of the novels, they will uncover E J Holm. His mum may be expecting they'll be working together but Nico hopes his mum will be sidetracked by her latest, rather irritating, boyfriend, and he, Nico, can uncover E J Holm's identity on his own.
The three teenagers join forces to give their parents the slip, but soon find their investigations entwining as the family history uncovered by the twins starts to show a remarkable resemblance to the back stories of E J Holm's fictional victims.

Tell Me No Truths is a totally gripping teen 'detective' story, moving between present day Italy and the 1940s, uncovering wartime love and betrayal, and the identity of a secretive writer. The three teenagers are on the hunt for answers to a variety of questions - Jade and Amber's search is a purely personal, family matter, whereas Nico's is born of insatiable curiosity, and a need to solve the puzzle before his mum does! 

Their adventures are interspersed with the reminiscences of a British soldier sheltering with Italian anti-fascist Partisans, and as the reader soon begins to realise that these memories tie up with the tales recounted by the Twins' grandfather, but aren't quite the same. Someone has changed vital details as they've told the story! His tale also brings into sharp contrast the modern, careful, happy, bustling with tourists holiday vibe of Florence today, and the fear and hatred gripping its inhabitants in the 1940s; giving the reader an insight into those troubled times and bringing the past vividly to life.

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

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale

review by Maryom

Eustace has reached the sort of age where he feels there's little left in life to surprise him. Now in his fifties, he's survived AIDS, and settled to an uneventful single life shared with his dog, Joyce, and close friend, Naomi.Then his comfortable world is rocked. First by falling in love again, rather ridiculously with a man he hasn't even met. Then by fearing he might die.
Through long solitary hours of treatment in hospital, he listens to a mix-tape of cello music prepared by Naomi, and reflects on his life, the anxiety and fumbling sexual misadventures of his teen years, and the escape from his dull, repressive home life discovered through music, and his charismatic cello-teacher Carla.

In many ways you could claim this is much like any other coming of age story -  discovering music, sex, and the fallibility of parents, making friends who will last a lifetime, and finding love - but at the same time the story-telling and Eustace himself make it unique.
Gale's writing is engrossing, intelligent, compelling, warm and welcoming like wrapping oneself in a snugly blanket. As I read, I wanted to both hold every moment, slow right down and immerse myself in each unfolding scene, and dash through to find out how gauche, troubled teenage Eustace became the contented, sophisticated mid-life man we met at the beginning of the story. As a boy, he's so naive and vulnerable that it's impossible to not care about him, and to dread that his innocence will be harshly taken away, with suffering to come before he achieves happiness.

As events unfold, you begin to see how cleverly put together the story is. Told from Eustace's perspective, it only hints at events outside his immediate knowledge and understanding, but there's enough for the reader to put the clues together, and realise the motivations of the other players in his life.

A tiny part of me was worried when I realised music played a huge part in this book - despite my mother's attempts to turn me into a pianist, I'm not musically inclined, and frequently books referencing it too much can leave me cold. Fortunately, I found that didn't matter here. Gale captures Eustace's enthusiasm so well that I could understand it without having to had shared it. Maybe if you know and love the pieces Eustace plays, you'll have an extra attachment to the book, but I loved it anyway, and didn't feel excluded.

I'm not sure I've really caught how much I loved this book, so to end on here's a little aside (no plot spoilers) to show how well Gale immerses the reader in a moment and brings it to life.  I found myself one day recently wondering about a new recipe I'd heard of for cooking pasta sauce, and after pondering over cook books and websites, I realised - it was here! A simple tomato sauce cooked by one of Carla's friends, lovingly described by the author, that's stayed in my mind.

Ostensibly an adult read (and that's how I've labelled it), but see if you can encourage your teens to read it too. It make help them make sense of the turmoil of adolescence.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult fiction, coming of age, LGBT

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Evolution by Teri Terry

review by Maryom

Here we are at last at the concluding part of Teri Terry's YA sci fi/conspiracy theory thriller trilogy, and there's been a lot of change and upheaval since Shay and Kai started looking for his missing sister Callie, back in book one, Contagion. In fact, normal life for most of the country has ceased as a flu-style epidemic spread rapidly causing unknown numbers of deaths. Very few survive, those who do are changed forever, and hunted down by the remaining authorities as a threat. The search for Callie has become part of the search to discover more about this dreadful disease, where it came from, and if there's any possibility of a cure, or at least for something to stop the virus's spread.
Shay and Kai have meanwhile become separated again; although sharing the same goals, they each believe their way is the best to proceed. In a normal world this would probably be little more than a lovers' tiff, but the world isn't normal any more, and the decisions they make could mean life or death.

These three books have definitely been a roller coaster of a read, with the tension constantly cranked high, and just when you think the story's moving towards a happy ending there are some nasty shocks to come. It's been absolutely brilliant though. The plotting is ingenious and devious. Conspiracy is hidden behind conspiracy. Whisk away a layer of secrets and lies, and there'll be more beneath, like peeling an onion, or opening a Russian doll. On those rare occasions when Shay, Kai and the reader thought they'd found the heart of the web of secrets, events would take an unexpected turn, and you'd realise nothing had been half as simple as you thought.
The author doesn't pull punches, or hold back on violence. The evil mastermind is unscrupulous, not held back by any normal human 'weaknesses' like fair play or sympathy for others, and, unsurprisingly perhaps, behaves as ruthlessly and single-mindedly as you would expect evil villains to.
An excellent series - but be prepared for your favourite characters to suffer.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Orchard Books
Genre - 
teen, sci fi/ conspiracy theory thriller

Thursday 9 August 2018

Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela

review by Maryom

A while ago Our Book Reviews Online took part in a blog tour for this, a new collection of Leila Aboulela's short stories, but at the time I hadn't had chance to read it due to family issues. I was aware of her writing though, having read The Kindness of Enemies some years ago, and was intrigued to read these stories. 
I started, a bit oddly, in the middle of the book. Our blog tour post had been an extract from the story The Ostrich, and having read that snippet, I wanted to finish the story. A young women, Samra, is returning from a trip home to Khartoum, back to join her husband in London, experiencing the culture (and weather) shock that hits every time she makes this journey. Her husband, although Sudanese like herself, is desperate to appear at home in London, determined to embrace British customs and habits as his own. His wife should walk alongside, not behind, him; she shouldn't cover her hair - as he believes others will view these things as 'backward, barbaric'. She meanwhile longs for her African home, and the easy, familiar way of life there - an emotion increased by a casual encounter on the flight with someone she went to school with. Her bittersweet memories of the past make her begin to question her life, but does she really regret the marriage that brought her to England, or is this a mood that will pass once she settles back into life with her husband? Samra's situation, caught off guard as she tries to readjust to her life in London, is brought vividly and sympathetically before the reader. 

Echoes of this theme are found throughout the other stories too. The characters are torn between past and future, religion and relationships, and, most importantly, two worlds - Africa and the UK - no longer fitting seamlessly in either place, struggling to reconcile the two aspects of their lives. Sometimes Africa is warm, welcoming, vibrant, and Britain, in contrast, wet, cold, cramped, always hovering on the edge of hostility. Seen differently, Britain is modern, a place of opportunity and advancement, whereas Africa is old-fashioned with limited prospects. 

Similar ideas are found in Expecting To Give, in which a pregnant woman finds her experience doesn't live up to the version seen in glossy parenting mags, and Pages Of Fruit, where a reader's expectations of her favourite author don't match the reality.

I found this a moving, thought-provoking, poignant collection, dealing as it does with the search for 'home', and the difficulties faced by migrants attempting in live in an environment and culture very different to their own. Aboulela writes in a way which brings to life both the outer physical world - the heat of Khartoum or Cairo,  off-set by the delight of icy air-conditioning, or the damp, dull streets of london or Aberdeen - and the internal conflicts of her characters. I wonder whether I've made these seem rather down-beat stories, but for the most part they aren't; at the end of our short peep into their lives, characters are generally left hopeful for the future.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Telegram
Genre - Adult contemporary fiction, short stories

Friday 3 August 2018

Shatila Stories - edited by Meike Ziervogel

translated by Nashwa Gowanlock

Reham and her family are fleeing Syria in fear for their lives. She, her parents, her husband Marwan, younger brother Adam, and anything they can carry, plus a driver, packed into a small car. Their hope, to reach the comparative safety of Beirut and the Shatila refugee camp there, but first impressions are not good - rats scurry around their feet, flies crawl over the rubbish dumps, tottering buildings reach up to the sky, electric cables garland the alleyways. This is home now, for the foreseeable future, and there's nothing to do but make the best of it.

Peirene Press made themselves a name as publishers of short translated fiction, but they've recently become commissioners of original work exploring today's social and political problems to be published under the Peirene Now! banner. Their first foray into this field was to send two authors - Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes - into the Calais Jungle refugee camp to bring to life the stories of the people there. Their second, a look at both sides of the Brexit question, in Anthony Cartwright's The Cut. This third takes the reader to the refugee camps of Lebanon, specifically the Shatila camp in Beirut, established as a temporary settlement for Palestinians in 1942, infamous as the scene of an horrendous massacre in 1982, and still receiving refugees today. This time the authors are not outsiders, but members of that refugee community brought together through the work of Peirene publisher Meike Ziervogel, London-based Syrian editor Suhir Helal, and Lebanon-based charity Basmeh & Zeitooneh. Meike and Suhir traveled to Beirut to meet with these keen but inexperienced writers, work with them for several days, showing them how to structure their stories, create tension and story arcs. From this came a series of stories which were then woven together and amalgamated to produce this book.

News headlines can tell us of the numbers of refugees fleeing Syria, which countries will offer them shelter in a camp, which ones won't - but behind those headlines lie people like us, not statistics for politicians to play with, and new articles often don't bring the day to day lives of the people concerned to life in the way that fiction can. Written by inhabitants of Shatila camp, this collection of interlinked stories sheds light on the plight of these homeless, stateless people born into refugee camps, effectively trapped there - with the wrong nationality on their passport, living or even just finding work outside the camp is nigh on impossible. There are stories which could be heard almost anywhere - a failing marriage, young love, a father forced to extremes to safeguard his daughter, a desire to rise above one's beginnings and make something of life - yet they remain unique to Shatila, and are an eye-opener on the world refugees are caught in.

Authors; Omar Khaled Ahmad, Nibal Alalo, Safa Khaled Algharbawi, Omar Abdellatif Alndaf, Rayan Mohamad Sukkar, Safiya Badran, Fatima Omar Ghazawi, Samih Mahmoud, Hiba Mareb

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult contemporary fiction, short stories

Although labelled and marketed as 'adult' fiction give it to your curious open-minded teenagers to help them understand lives very different to their own

Monday 30 July 2018

The Little Lady Agency by Hester Browne

"Gentlemen! No Little Lady in Your Life? Call the Little Lady Agency: everything organised, from your home to your wardrobe, your social life to you. No funny business or laundry.

review by Maryom

Melissa has made such a good job of organizing the estate agents office she works in, and making sure everything there runs smoothly, that they no longer have any need for her, and, when it merges with a big American firm, she's the first to be made redundant. After a close call with the 'wrong' sort of agency, she decides to set up her own, sorting out the lives and wardrobes of London's clueless, but rich, young men. Ditching her dull 'hockey-sticks' persona, she becomes glamorous Honey, the 'little lady' who'll make sure they know which knife and fork to use, provide a 'plus one' to weddings and family events, and help with your present buying problems - there are a million and one ways she can help a lazy, unorganised bachelor.
Then she meets Jonathan, part of the team who took over her former employers. He's new to London, caught in a messy divorce, wanting someone to organize his social schedule and provide a hostess for his parties -  and suddenly Melissa's not sure where to draw the line between business and pleasure ... 

Sometimes all we want from a book is something light-hearted and fun - and The Little Lady Agency is exactly that.

Don't look for deep character analysis, this is rom-com land. Melissa seems awfully naive for the public-schooled daughter of an MP who's had his share of sex scandals, and a lot of the characters seem so incredibly posh that they could have stepped straight out of a modern day Downton Abbey, but don't worry, take them at their face value, and enjoy the fun.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher -
Genre - adult chick lit/romcom

Thursday 26 July 2018

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

review by Maryom

Daniel is on the road, following the railway tracks north, looking for his sister. For a while they lived an idyllic sort of life - him, Daddy, and older sister Cathy - in a house Daddy built himself in a small patch of unwanted isolated woodland. They lived almost completely 'off grid', hunting and foraging for food, having little to do with folk in the nearby village. At home their life was one of peace and simplicity but away from it, Daddy's life was one of violence, clandestine prize-fights and acting as a 'fixer' when debts weren't paid. When these two worlds collide, someone's bound to get hurt ...

Daddy's 'occupation' allows him to live on the fringe of society, but the 'real' world can't be ignored forever, and the woodland idyll is threatened by folk who care about law, property ownership, and their rights. Piece by piece, Mozley raises the tension, building a great sense of brooding violence in which you feel almost anything could happen, and Daddy is backed into a corner with only one way to respond.

It's a story rather reminiscent of a Martin McDonagh script - folk going about their day to day lives getting caught up in violence outside their control - or one in which a retired hitman is called on to do one last job, with devastating consequences to his family, mashed up with a Robin Hood style tale of the 'little man' trying to overcome those with land and the backing of law.
The peaceful existence in the wood jars harshly with the outside world, and Mozley seems equally at home bringing both to life on the page - a delight when the reader's experiencing the woodland through Daniel's eyes, a horror when violence erupts.
Things start a bit slowly, with lots of back story and I wondered where the plot was going, and how long it might take. To be honest, there were times when I nearly gave up ... but then the beautifully descriptive writing caught me, and the sharks started to circle Daniel's little bit of heaven, waiting for the first opportunity to oust his family, and I found it a book I couldn't put down.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Genre - Adult Fiction,

Friday 20 July 2018

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 4 - edited by Teika Bellamy

illustrated by Emma Howitt

review by Maryom

"Modern fables and ancient tales" is how this book, comprising fourteen weird and wonderful stories, describes itself, and, as with the previous volumes of The Forgotten and The Fantastical, this fourth collection takes fairy tales away from the nursery, and puts them back in their original place on the adult bookshelf. I don't know what it is about fairy tales - maybe that their themes seem universal, as fitting today as ever, maybe that in an increasingly urban, digital world we're seeking a connection with nature, or a simpler time when the world divided into good and evil - but something about them always appeals, and this latest anthology is no exception.

I've found there's often a strong feminist/earth mother streak in the work published by Mother's Milk, exploring the strength of female characters, their bonds with nature, and although this isn't a particularly 'themed' collection many revolve around a central female character, rather than the more traditional hero of folk tales. Several, in fact explore a similar concept - that of women breaking free from the demands and expectations of men, rejecting the 'safe' world created for them, often no more than a gilded cage, to find fulfillment and explore the world themselves.
In Belle/Bete by Renee Anderson, a badly burned woman is encouraged by her lover to shun the world, in order to avoid the taunts she might suffer there, but effectively locking her away from life.
Katy Jones' retelling of 'Snow White and Rose Red', A Beast of the Forest, follows the girls and the 'bear' beyond the traditional happy ending with the heroine choosing to embrace the natural world rather than the fake sophistication of the Court. In Lisa Fransson's The Moss Child a smith tries to keep his daughter 'protected' from the natural world of forest and birds which form her birthright, while Lynden Wade's Sins of the Fathers again features a smith, a man who seeks to avoid the mistakes made by his father and grandfather, and create himself a wife of iron. Rosemary Collins reinterprets Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen into a fable about the perils of global warming, as Cold-Brained Kay (female in this version) goes on a quest to find cold and ice, and bring back winter. Elizabeth Hopkinson's Juanita draws on the life of a seventeenth century Mexican nun/scholar/poet who challenged the authority of bishops and philosophers (all male).

Some of the stories are set in traditional 'once upon a time' never-never land; Rachel Rivett's Wild Man, Holly James' Faraway Woman. Some set in recognisable historical times - A Story in Two Parts by Leslie Muzingo which centres on the lives of those 'creators' of fairy tales - Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm. Others bring magic and fairytale characters into contemporary settings - Ruth Asch's The Microwave is a modern equivalent of the magic never-empty purse, The Godmother's Fairy Tale Ending by Donna M Day takes place in a care home for the elderly, and Matthew Keeley's Winging In in a therapist's consulting room.

Susie Hennessey's Lowden House appears to be set in some bleak dystopian future (though in reality it's a place much closer to home), while in the world envisaged by Victoria Haslam in Strange Traits genetic modifications can turn you into almost any creature you'd like to be.

An eclectic, enjoyable collection for anyone who feels fairy stories are not only for the young and innocent.

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

Friday 13 July 2018

The Wives by Lauren Weisberger

review by Maryom

Emily, formerly bitchy assistant to equally bitchy fashion editor Miranda Priestly, is now a stylist/PR consultant in Hollywood, but perhaps she's starting to lose her touch because she's losing clients left, right and centre. Licking her wounds, she takes refuge with old friend Miriam, in the wealthy New York suburb of Greenwich. Miriam and her family have only recently moved there. It may be a better place to bring up your children, but she's finding it hard to fit in with the fitness-obsessed designer mum set. It's certainly not the sort of place Emily wants to stay for long, but then Miriam's friend, former super-model Karolina, is set up on a DUI charge, then publicly dumped on TV (!) by her senator, wannabe presidential candidate, husband. Emily believes it's time for some female solidarity, and vows to help Karolina get her own back, and perhaps help salvage her own career.

Some times in life, you want easy, funny, biting reads - something guaranteed to take your mind off day to day worries - and for me this entirely fits the bill. 

 Lauren Weisberger is turning her sharp, sarcastic eye on the wealthy suburban housewives of Greenwich. They've given up high-powered city jobs to spend time with their young families but nannies are left in charge of the kids while mothers spend their days between gym, yoga class, coffee shop and sex-toy parties. It takes 'Desperate Housewives' to a whole new level!
I'm labeling it as chick lit/romcom but it's not really a romantic story. It's sharp and funny, scathing and witty, mocking these women with too much time and money on their hands, while promoting the value of strong female friendships. I really enjoyed it. 'The Wives' works well as a stand-alone read, so it's not necessary to have read or seen 'The Devil Wears Prada', or even know who Miranda Priestly is!

Published in the UK as 'The Wives', in the US it's sold as 'When Life Gives You Lululemons'.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - HarperCollins
Genre - 
adult fiction, chicklit/romcom

Monday 9 July 2018

Meet Me At the Museum by Anne Youngson

review by Maryom

Tina Hopgood is a middle-aged farmer's wife. Her life so far has been quiet and uneventful, but the death of her one close friend leaves her feeling regretful about opportunities she's missed. One of these was a visit, much talked about with her friend but never taken, to visit Silkeborg museum and view the remains of the famous 'bog body', Tollund Man, so she writes to the professor who sparked their interest long ago, and receives an answer from his successor. This casual exchange of letters sparks a correspondence that becomes more personal, sharing their lives, regrets, hopes, and gradually moving beyond friendship to something deeper.

To be honest, after the build up I'd seen from publicists and bloggers on social media, I was a little disappointed with this book. It's nice enough; a gently-blossoming romance between two middle-aged people, charted through the letters they write to each other, but it didn't really grab me. Everything plods along much as you'd expect it to. No curveballs, no plot twists (I'd have loved it if Anders had turned out to be lying and still married!)
I think one of my problems was with the character of Tina, and a feeling that somehow she's supposed to represent ALL middle-aged women. Well, I'm Tina's age, and tbh she struck me as meek, dull and old - not someone I could sympathise with, and I think this influenced my view of the novel as a whole.

Still, it's not bad, and if you like gentle romance you'll probably like this. It just wasn't for me.

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

Thursday 5 July 2018

Leila Aboulela - Elsewhere, Home - blog tour

Today we're taking part in the blog tour for Leila Aboulela's new collection of short stories - Elsewhere, Home. A prize-winning author of several novels and a previous story collection, Aboulela was born in Khartoum, and now lives in Aberdeen. She first came to my attention with The Kindness of Enemies, and I'm intrigued and impatient to read this latest volume of her work.

Meanwhile, here's an extract from one of the stories. I hope it whets your appetite for more ...

The Ostrich

  ‘You look beautiful in blue,’ the Ostrich said, and when I was cruel he said, ‘but I can be a judge of voices can I not?’ I didn’t ask him what he thought of my voice. I walked away. It must have been in the evening that I was wearing blue. It was white tobes in the morning, coloured ones for the evening. The evening lectures were special, leisurely; there was time after lunch to shower, to have a nap. To walk from the hostels in groups and pairs, past the young boy selling peanuts, past the closed post office, past the neem trees with the broken benches underneath. Jangly earrings, teeth smacking chewing gum and kohl in our eyes. The tobes slipping off our carefully combed hair, lifting our hands, putting them back on again. Tightening the material, holding it under our left arm. I miss these gestures, already left behind. Majdy says, ‘If you cover your hair in London they’ll think I am forcing you to do that. They won’t believe it is what you want.’ So I must walk unclothed, imagining cotton on my hair, lifting my hand to adjust an imaginary tobe.
 The sunset prayers were a break in the middle of these evening lectures. One communist lecturer, keen to assert his atheism, ignored the rustling of the notebooks, the shuffling of restless feet, the screech of the Ostrich’s alarm. Only when someone called out, ‘A break for the prayers!’ did he stop teaching. I will always see the grass, patches of dry yellow, the rugs of palm fibre laid out. They curl at the edges and when I put my forehead on the ground I can smell the grass underneath. Now that we have a break we must hurry, for it is as if the birds have heard the azan and started to pray before us. I can hear their praises, see the branches bow down low to receive them as they dart to the trees. We wash from a corner tap, taking turns. The Ostrich squats and puts his whole head under the tap. He shakes it backwards and drops of water balance on top of his hair. I borrow a mug from the canteen and I am proud, a little vain knowing that I can wash my hands, face, arms and feet with only one mug. Sandals discarded, we line up and the boy from the canteen joins us, his torn clothes stained with tea. Another lecturer, not finding room on the mat, spreads his handkerchief on the grass. If I was not praying I would stand with my feet crunching the gravel stones and watch the straight lines, the men in front, the colourful tobes behind. I would know that I was part of this harmony, that I needed no permission to belong. Here in London, the birds pray discreetly and I pray alone. A printed booklet, not a muezzin, tells me the times. Here in London, Majdy does not pray. ‘This country,’ he says, ‘chips away at your faith bit by bit.’


Elsewhere, Home is published by Telegram, an imprint of Saqi publishing, and is available on Kindle and in paperback.

Monday 2 July 2018

Unthology 10 edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones

Review by The Mole

Unthology 10 is, once again, a carefully and cleverly collated mix of short stories through which a trail can be followed, a trail of change. In each story we see a character touched by an incident that changes them - mostly for the better. This Unthology is, like the nine before it, the sum of it's parts - and if you construct using only the best parts then the result has got to be something special and this, once again, excels. The crafting that went into each of these stories is excellent. Well done once again Unthank in finding the very best and putting together yet another brilliant Unthology anthology.

Highly recommended coffee time reading - except you may find one story is not enough.

In Rosa and Kelsey (by Kathryn Simmonds), Matthew had agreed to share childcare but he doesn't have 100% buy-in to the idea. A chance encounter in a park causes him to think again.

Ursa Minor (by K M Elkes) tells of Jack and Carrie, a young couple, who wish to start a family but things aren't happening when they have a chance encounter with a bear in the woods. Jack feels he needs to address the bear issue once and for all.

In One For The Ditch (by Brian Coughlan) a drunk encounters an alcoholic and, despite protestations of not knowing him, the reader is left to re-eveluate their relationship.

Blowhole (by Tom Vowler) is a letter from Susie, who finds herself in an abusive relationship but feels she must carry on despite her dreams of being a mother probably never coming to fruition.

In Cafeteria (by Jay Merill) a child's mother shows kindness to a woman, known to be a prostitute, and the child observes and learns from the encounter, trying to emulate all that is good.

Tenth Circle (by Liam Hogan) deviates from the theme and shows how, even though centuries may pass, certain attitudes and beliefs remain unchanged. And it laces the tail with humour. Nice one!

When Nature Calls (by Gareth E Rees) also has a sad smile to it but a lesson is learned that defying nature is rarely successful.

The Best Way to Kill a Butterfly (by Hannah Stevens) brings out the worst in people and we learn a little of why Michael left.

Confessions of an Irresolute Ethnic Writer (by Elaine Chiew) sees the writer have a brush with mythology... or does he?

Household Gods (by Tracy Fells) tells the story of a mans loves for his mother and the wife it was arranged he should marry. But does he love his wife?

A Moment Could Last Them Forever (by Daniel Carpenter) tells of a sort of medium who gets invested rather more than usual in a case - a case she believes she's failing in.

Take Away the Sky (by Mark Mayes) sees a man, alone, set to take his own life when he has an epiphany and takes comfort from a phone number he will never use.

In Livestock (by Valerie O'Riordan) a vet's daughter sees herself in a young girl who is seemingly running away and wonders why she felt so different.

End Times (by Maxim Loskutoff) tells of a woman who struggles to come to terms with the fact that her injured dog won't live, while her husband has already given up.

Publisher - Unthank Books
Genre - Adult short story anthology