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