Tuesday 30 January 2018

The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

review by Maryom

Scarcross Hall sits high on the moors, bleak and isolated, but for Mercy Booth this place is home; she's as hefted to the spot as the sheep she and her elderly father raise on the moorland.

Old rumours of horrific events, and the possibility of a curse on the place, have never troubled her before, but of late a creeping presence is unsettling her. Noises are heard at night in unused rooms, small items are going missing, and, at times, Mercy has sensed a shadowy figure watching her.

Taking on a new man to help with lambing does nothing to settle her mind, and, as the year turns, the odd incidents become more frequent and far more disturbing in nature. Something evil really does seem to be stalking the inhabitants of Scarcross Hall, perhaps seeking some form of retribution ...

Set in the years after the Civil War, the Coffin Path is a dark, atmospheric tale - not quite a ghost story, in my opinion, but a spine-tingler nonetheless. Mercy is an independent self-reliant woman, taking part in the day to day practicalities of running the farm, and used to the bleakness of her surroundings and the hardships encountered there - so not one to be disturbed by a few odd night-time noises. 

The spooky disturbing atmosphere is quickly established, with Mercy's feeling of someone constantly watching, and her equivocal attitude towards the new man, Ellis, whose arrival coincides with an increase in strange occurrences around the hall, but somehow, somewhere around the halfway mark, the tale lost its grip on me, as if the tension and creepiness had peaked too early. Fortunately, the ending picks up again, with revelations about the Booth family's past coming thick and fast, and over turning much of what Mercy herself had been brought up believing.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Headline Review
Genre - adult historical supernatural fiction, 

Friday 26 January 2018

Killer Christmas by Leigh Russell

Review by The Mole

Everyone has plans for Christmas, mostly doing again what we did last year, but Geraldine's plans fall through at the last minute and she is stuck in York on Christmas Eve. On her own. With no-one to share the holiday with.

Sitting in a pop-up bar and having a quiet drink when a murder is committed - except no-one saw it happen and Geraldine was on the spot.

This is the first short story by Leigh Russell that I've read and frankly I had no idea what to expect. The normal format of her stories requires a lot of plotting and blind alleys etc. But in a short story how do you tackle  a murder mystery? Well Russell does it very well indeed. I was very surprised the way it unfolded without compromising the genre yet giving the reader exactly what they want.

This short story is still free on Kindle from Amazon or you can go to the No Exit Press website and purchase a hard copy so if you haven't read any Geraldine Steel yet now's your chance to sample for free.

I really did enjoy this a great deal.

Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult Crime Thriller, Short Story

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Ursula Le Guin

I've always been a watcher and reader of science fiction - from my early days of watching Fireball XL5 - but didn't discover Ursula Le Guin till my early twenties. I'd been reading my way through my husband's collection of sc-fi paperbacks - lots of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Poul Anderson and the series of adventures 'starring' Perry Rhodan - when I stumbled on The Dispossessed. By and large, so far everything had been about rockets, aliens, wars in space with the emphasis on plot rather than characterisation (the odd exception being Asimov's I Robot stories) but The Dispossessed was different. Yes, it was set on fictitious planets, but it was about people, society, and the failure of a Utopian ideal, rather than the mechanics of space flight.

From there, with the help of the local library, I found The Word for World is Forest, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Wizard of Earthsea, and numerous other books and short stories, in all of which Le Guin used an alien setting to explore very 'human' social, cultural and political themes (even when writing about werewolves). This is what appealed to me so much,a nd I don't think I've found another writer who so exactly mirrored my views while expressing them far better than I could.

Eventually I picked up what has become one of my favourite collections of short stories - Orsinian Tales. Set in a fictitious East European country, rather than on a distant planet, these stories highlight moments of that country's development from the Middle Ages through to the Cold War era, but with the emphasis always being on the personal aspect, exploring what we might consider as contemporary issues - feminism, identity, freedom of thought and speech. My favourites have changed over the years, but today I'll pick The Fountains (what it means to be 'free') and Imaginary Countries (a pure nostalgia trip for a time and place that never was). There's also a longer novel, Malafrena, set in Orsinia, in the early nineteenth century, a time of rebellion and revolution across Eastern Europe. It always feels a bit side-lined by Le Guin fans but I love it.

Reading through the obituaries this morning I came across a quote from The Left Hand of Darkness "It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters, in the end". Thanks for sharing the journey, RIP Ursula Le Guin.

Thursday 18 January 2018

The Wilful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb

review by Maryom

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know I've been working my way (very slowly) through Robin Hobb's Farseer/Liveships/Rainwild series, and loving every page of the way. So, I was delighted to find this - The Wilful Princess and the Piebald Prince - in my Christmas stocking.

It's not actually part of the Farseer saga but a sort of prequel set long before the birth of Fitzchivalry Farseer.
It's often hinted in the story of Fitz that the Wit, the ability he has to communicate and even bond with animals, was once an accepted, even prized, skill but attitudes changed and it became something disreputable, despised, and evil; instead of having a gift, a Witted person was now seen as cursed.

Legend, as quoted in the Farseer books, blames this change of opinion on the actions and behaviour of Princess Caution, the Wilful Princess, and her son Prince Charger, the Piebald Prince. But in the two stories that make up this volume, Robin Hobb tells a different tale, through the words of Felicity, childhood friend and handmaiden to Princess Caution, then wet-nurse to her son, Charger. It's the story of a princess who contradicted her name at every possible chance, who gave up everything for love and her son, and that son, who, marked from birth, found his whole life a struggle - for acceptance, for power, and for love.

It reads as a folk tale - the sort you might know about King Arthur or his knights - but for me highlights one of the things I love about Hobb's work - the creation of a complete world with a complex history stretching back hundreds of years as a backdrop against which the adventures of Fitzchivalry and the Fool, or the Vestritt family take place. If you've read more fantasy you may know other examples but he only comparable world-building I can think of is Tolkein's Middle-earth.

There are a couple of things to note here - this is a short, novella length book (just over 150 pages) with a simpler plot than you may expect from Hobb's other full-length, 500+ page, and it probably doesn't work well as a stand-alone piece, so best seen as a 'curiosity' for Farseer fans. On the other hand, it's illustrated by Jackie Morris (who is responsible for many of Robin Hobb's covers) with horses and hounds along the margins, and the occasional half and full-page, giving the feel of an ancient manuscript reproduced for a modern reader.

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

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

review by Maryom

84 year old Florence Claybourne has fallen, and is lying on the floor of her sheltered accommodation flat until someone comes to rescue her. While she waits, she checks out the rubbish accumulated under the sofa, imagines who her rescuer will be and how they'll react, and reminisces about her lifelong friendship with Elsie. There are three special things about Elsie. The first two are simple - that she's Florence's best friend, and that she always knows the right things to say to make Florence feel better - the third is harder to explain. As Florence's mind drifts back over the years we begin to see the important part Elsie has played in her life, but Florence's memories are troubled by a new arrival at the Cherry Tree sheltered housing. He's calling himself Gabriel Price, but Florence believes he's someone she once knew long ago, under a different name. Is her memory playing up, or has Ronnie Butler come back (possibly from the dead) to in some way get his revenge?

Taken at its simplest, Three Things About Elsie is a gentle mystery story revolving around incidents from the characters' youth. Who is the mysterious Gabriel/Ronnie? What happened back in the 50s to make Florence so afraid of him? Of course, if Florence's memory were clearer, we'd know the answers in a second. As it is, the reader has to follow her meanderings and side-tracking as the puzzle pieces gradually slot together one by one.

More importantly, it's a sympathetic look at a section of society that's easily written off as boring and irrelevant - the elderly. In Greenbank, the care home to which Cherry Tree's residents are sent as they become less self-reliant, the photos on the walls remind the staff of WHO their patients once were. Now they may be senile, bedridden, barely distinguishable from each other, but once they too were young, had hopes and dreams, fell in love, raised families, enjoyed dancing or cricket or reading - basically were individuals. Through Florence's eyes we see what it's like to be dismissed as a forgetful old woman, while she still feels like her younger self.

And the 'third thing' about Elsie? Well, that's something to make your own mind up about.

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

Monday 8 January 2018

Picks of 2017

 by Maryom

 Well, I've managed to be really late with my top picks from 2017, but here they are at last, in no particular order. Trying to choose which books to include, I noticed that, for me, this year's picks seem remarkably up-beat, though Larry Tremblay's The Orange Grove is as far from that as you could want ...

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett
Reclusive former singer/songwriter Cass Wheeler looks back on her life through her 'greatest hits', the songs from a lifetime that represent key moments from her fractured childhood, rebellious teen years, meteoric rise to fame and the troubles that quickly followed. Loved it!

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne

Starting in 1940s Ireland and running to the present day, this is the story - cradle to grave - of Cyril Avery. As an adopted child and later a homosexual man, Cyril is constantly made to feel an outsider, unwanted and unloved, but it's also a story of the changing attitudes in Ireland, and Cyril ultimately is welcomed in this new, inclusive world. It's full of everything from joy to despair, and I can't believe anyone could read it and not be moved. 

 The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) by Marie Gameson

 Following a moment of revelation on a mountain top in Taiwan, Winifred Rigby believes she's attained a state of enlightenment, discarding all thoughts of  'self' along with her memories. Now forced by her family to return to London, she tries her best to live a life of Buddhist detachment and mindfulness, concentrating on the present, and forgetting the past, but is puzzled and frustrated by the almost obsessive care shown by her mother and sister, and, despite her intentions, the past seems unwilling to let go of Winnie. Circling round the difficulties of caring for someone who has undergone a radical change of personality, it's a perceptive, thought-provoking read.

The Good People by Hannah Kent

 Recently widowed Nora is left struggling to cope with her disabled grandson. When all else fails, she approaches the local healer Nance, a woman knowledgeable in the use of herbs and the ways of the fairies, the 'Good People'. But Nance's 'cures' lead the women on a dangerous path ... are they truly hoping to cure the boy, or maliciously harming him?

The  Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay

A short powerful story about the loss of innocence and how children, and their parents, are manipulated in times of war.

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

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. A neglected country house, overgrown with ivy, shrouded in mist, tales of skeletons discovered in the grounds and strange wooden 'companions' who seem to have developed a life of their own ... What more could you ask for in a gothic horror tale?

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume

Frankie has reached crisis point. She feels isolated, lost, and without purpose. One day, everything just proves too overwhelming so she does what she always does - phones her mum who understands without questioning and is ready to come to the rescue. Hunkering down in her grandmother's old bungalow, Frankie attempts to put her world back together piece by piece, step by step. An intimate account of someone gripped by depression but desperately trying to walk out of its depths.

Kit heads out to Italy to find the father she's never knew, and finds a different story to the one told by her mother. The story is one of a young woman searching for identity and a place to belong, of the complexities of personal relationships, the steadfastness of love, and the sometimes disastrous results of trying to do the right thing, but what made it stand out for me was the atmospheric setting - a cliff-side garden filled with an abundance of flowers, herbs and shrubs, a terrace strung with twinkling lights, the sea as backdrop - and the food - from breakfast pastries, through biscuits of almonds and chocolate fresh from the oven, platters of antipasti with sunset-coloured aperitifs as the sun goes down, to dinners of pasta in all its shapes and tastes, with breads strewn with salt, rosemary and even strawberries, every morsel is a joy and I wanted to try it all!

I've read fewer crime and psychological thrillers this year, but of those I have read, Joseph Knox's debt Sirens stands out - a sort of Chandleresque private eye story - 
and Elly Griffiths was back with both Ruth Galloway(The Chalk Pit), and Stephens and Mephisto (The Vanishing Box) novels; The Chalk Pit was my favourite of the two, but only because I've followed more of Ruth's personal story over the longer series.

On the other hand, I think I've read more fantasy than usual - highlights being my continued trek through Robin Hobbs' Farseer series, having completed the Liveships Trilogy and returned to Fitz and The Fool with Fool's Errand, If you've already read these books, try newcomer Anna Smith Spark's The Court of Broken Knives - as a first novel, and first in a series, it's grabbed me in the the way only Robin Hobb's work has.