Friday 31 May 2019

Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi

translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah

In 1819 a scientific expedition sets out from Paris to north-west Russia, in search of a lost tribe belonging to the Paphlagonian people. It's led by Professor Moltique of the Academie des Sciences, a veteran of many similar expeditions including one in which he claimed to have encountered a yeti. He's accompanied by Iax Agolasky, an enthusiastic young man, somewhat in awe of Moltique, who will take notes of everything they find, and, as the expedition is expected to last several years, nine or so men to take on the practical, physical work around their camp. They settle in to their remote camp, but it's several months before they find any signs of the people they've come to look for. At first they believe the creatures they've sighted are animals with odd human characteristics. But it's equally possible that they could be children with animal-type 'disfigurements'. Opinion in the camp is divided. Moltique swings between a variety of explanations, seeming to be searching for the one which will give him most fame. The men in general treat them as game to be hunted. Only Agolasky sees and responds to them as human beings. And now they've been discovered, what will happen to these Children of the Cave?

Presented mainly as extracts from diaries kept by Agolasky, with linking commentary from an editor, this novel examines the response of so-called civilised men to encountering others outside their norm - fear (often expressing itself in violence), curiosity, and the desire to profit from them dominate, with little fellow-feeling for the children. Agolasky alone treats them as humans, wants to befriend them and learn how and why they came to live here so far removed from other people.

Agolasky isn't a shining example though. He has a tendency to consider himself 'above' the practical members of the expedition, despising them, dismissing them as mere brutes, governed by animal passions, who could never appreciate his finer feelings. 
As the years pass the restraints of society slip away (Lord of the Flies style) with outbursts of violent anger among the men, leading Agolasky at times to fear for his life. 

As so often with Peirene's publications, the story is short but packs a punch - chilling reminder of what can happen if we begin to treat others, particularly those outside our tiny social circle, as less than us, of dehumanising others because they don't conform to our ideas of appearance and/or behaviour. It's something that is seen around us, on the news, on social media, all too often.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult Literary Translated Fiction

Friday 24 May 2019

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Wake's End, home of the Stearne family, sits in a remote part of the fens, cut off from the world by the water and reed beds; even in the '60s 'progress' in the shape of draining the fen has not reached here. The last of the family, Maud, lives there quietly, surrounded by her memories of an horrific crime, for which her father, Edmund, was imprisoned. For fifty years, the events at Wake's End have been forgotten but now some of Edmund Stearne's paintings have come to light - strange disturbing images he worked on while an inmate at Broadmoor - and the press have begun to snoop around, putting their own lurid interpretation on events, and wanting to know more. Maud at last is forced to talk about her long ago childhood, and the discovery of the Wakenhyrst Doom painting which sparked her father's monomania.

This is one of those books which start at the end - so you're always aware that something deeply disturbing happened many years ago - and then travels back to the lead up to that incident. Of course, this leads the reader to try to guess how all the pieces fit together, but there are unexpected twists there to surprise.

Although it has a lot of the trappings of a horror story, it's more the story of one man's descent into madness and obsession, helped on his way by his odd religious beliefs, fixation on the 'devil' painting uncovered at the local church, and guilt over on incident from his childhood.

Maybe it's not as terrifying as the publisher's blurb might lead you to believe but it's still a chills-up-the-spine read, filled with that sense of creeping horror that Paver did so well in Dark Matter  - this time with a gothic twist which no doubt helps the ominous atmosphere and build up of tension. Good creepy stuff!

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Head Of Zeus
Genre - gothic horror

Monday 20 May 2019

Curious Arts Festival 2019

After five years at Pylewell Park in the New Forest, Curious Arts Festival is on the move - physically to Pippingford Park in East Sussex, and with a change of date from July to August Bank Holiday weekend. The keen-eyed among you will notice this is the same date and place as Byline Festival - and, yes, the two are somewhat joining forces, with ticket holders for Curious Arts having access to both festivals.

John Cleese

The event will be opened by John Cleese on Friday 23rd August, and as always at Curious Arts there will be the wonderful mix of music, comedy, and book events, with a full weekend of activities for children running alongside - everything from author events to insect walks, journalism to late-night music - but here our primary interest is in the literary side of things.

Philippa Perry

The mix of authors and genres is as eclectic and diverse as Curious Arts itself - you can see Misha Glenny of McMafia fame chatting crime networks, hacking and dark markets,  Green Carnation Prize-listed author Niven Govinden with his new novel, This Brutal House, psychotherapist Philippa Perry talking about her 'self-help' books How To Stay Sane and The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and your children will be glad that you did),  and Dan Richards recounting his journeys in search of isolation and silence, that led to  Outpost - A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth (excellent for an armchair adventurer like myself!)

Candice Carty-Williams

Tom Rachmam will discuss his Costa-shortlisted, latest novel The Italian Teacher, debut author Candice Carty-Williams her novel Queenie, described as a politicised Bridget Jones about a 25 year old black woman straddling two cultures, and Max Porter, author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, will be there talking about his new novel, Lanny - a 'missing boy' story that taps into English folklore, described as 'a song to difference and imagination, to friendship, youth and love'

If you prefer 'real life' to fiction, then catch Lemn Sissay talking about his memoir, My Name is Why, which explores his heritage, the meaning of family, and his childhood in care homes, or Guy Kennaway on his personal experience of assisted suicide as recounted in Time To Go.

Other names announced include Ian Birch discussing revolutionary magazine covers, David Nott talking about his time as a voluntary doctor in war zones and areas of natural disaster, and Gina Rippon on her first book for the general reader, The Gendered Brain. You can find more details of these authors and more here on Curious Arts' website.

We attended two Curious Arts Festivals at Pylewell, as guests in 2016 and 2017, and loved every minute of both (except maybe the rain in the second year). The new location is not such an easy one for us to reach, but it would make an excellent excuse to explore an area that I've never visited, so maybe we will be there.

Wednesday 15 May 2019

A Boy and his Dog at the End of the World by C A Fletcher

The world (as we know it, at least) has come to an end - not with the bang of a nuclear bomb, but a whimper as humans lost the ability to reproduce. Babies were born to only the fortunate few, and as the population aged and died, the number of people left plummeted.
A generation or so on, Griz lives on the island of Mingulay, almost but not quite the most southerly island of the Outer Hebrides. It's a hard, barely above subsistence level, life, but above all, it's lonely. Apart from immediate family of parents and siblings, Griz has seen only a handful of  people. The nearest neighbours live far away on Lewis, the northern-most island of the chain (if you're not familiar with Scottish geography, look at the weather forecast map to see series of islands off Scotland's north-west coast to grasp the distance between the two). To see anyone else is extremely rare, so when Brand shows up in his red sailed boat, he's given a cautious welcome, but not entirely trusted. Unfortunately the family are not on guard against his charm and seeming good nature, and the next morning he sails away with Griz's beloved dog, Jess. Filled with anger, Griz isn't prepared to put up with this underhand stealing of Jess, and before the rest of the family are aware of what has happened, Griz is in a boat and underway, chasing Brand - at first through familiar waters off the Scottish coast, then on foot across a country reclaimed by nature.

I seem to have been reading quite a few post-apocalypse books recently (more reviews to come) and this is one of my favourites. It's nice, for starters, to have such a novel set in locations that are familiar to British readers. And it's nice to not be constantly criticizing the ways in which the characters have managed to survive during and after the wiping out of civilisation. I tend to get too involved in the practicalities of post-apocalypse existence, ready to spot anything I consider a mistake, and I was delighted to see Griz's parents having taken some of the measures I would have considered (though I'm a land-based person, and would never have thought of acquiring boats)

The story, as told by Griz in an account scribbled down at a later date, is engrossing and compelling. Despite Griz having set off on what frankly appeared to be a wild goose chase, I really wanted to see the rescue mission succeed and Jess brought home again, but there were just a few little things that let the book down as a whole. I've heard others refer to this as more of  a YA, than adult, novel, and in some respects I'm inclined to agree. The plot structure was just a little too simple for me - a sort of straight run from A to B to C etc, with adventures and surprises along the way, but no real unexpected detours - and somehow it was all just a little too upbeat, not the unrelieved misery that I half-expect from an adult post-apocalyptic novel. Otherwise, it's a great read. Enjoy it, then pass it on to your teens.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Orbit

Genre - post-apocalyptic, road trip

Thursday 9 May 2019

I Still Dream by James Smythe

While still a teenager at school, Laura Bow develops a computer program, called Organon, to share her secrets with, vent her frustrations at, and generally play the role of best friend. She maybe doesn't realise its full potential at this point but it's her passport to an internship with a major computer development company in the US. As Laura's skills improve, so does Organon, but both the company she works for and its competitors are developing other artificial intelligences, without the moral safe-guards Laura believes are an intrinsic part of her creation.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. From the publisher's blurb, I hadn't really expected it to appeal to me at all, let alone the amount it did. A few pages in and I was finding it compelling reading - I wanted to discover where Laura's life would take her, and how Organon would develop.

It was the writing style that continued to hold me as it isn't really a plot driven story - more a character study of Laura and her artificial friend, as their lives entwine over the years - and as the end approached I found myself a little disappointed that something more dramatic hadn't occurred.

There are a lot of similarities to be made with other stories of attempts to create artificial intelligences, or of the interaction between humans and computers, so often there's a feeling of this being nothing new (partly why I've rated it 4 stars rather than 5). It is very readable though, and rest assured, Organon is a nice AI, not evil like 2001's HAL.

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

Thursday 2 May 2019

The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby

"Birmingham, 1885.
Born in a gaol and raised in a workhouse, Cora Burns has always struggled to control the violence inside her.
Haunted by memories of a terrible crime, she seeks a new life working as a servant in the house of scientist Thomas Jerwood. Here, Cora befriends a young girl, Violet, who seems to be the subject of a living experiment. But is Jerwood also secretly studying Cora...?"

When the reader first meets Cora she's setting out for a new place of employment, in fact it's her first taste of life outside the gaol, workhouse, and, her only previous employment, the asylum laundry. She's out-of-place, awkward, surly, almost determined to fail, but somehow she doesn't. As her story progresses we learn more of her past, of a life spent inside institutions, but, although not told in the first person, events are seen from Cora's perspective - and her memories are twisted and unreliable, so it takes a long while to discover the root of her problems. I must say, I didn't like Cora. She seemed to pick quarrels unnecessarily, to goad others into disliking her - maybe this was a reflection on her upbringing (if her life born into gaol can be considered an 'upbringing'); maybe this is how her character would have developed regardless. These are the sorts of questions that her new employer Jerwood is interested in. Is 'nature' or 'nurture' the more important factor in character and temperament? Is there a criminal 'type'? His research methods seem biased and unreliable to the modern reader, but I assume he's a fairly accurate representation of a Victorian gentleman with an interest in science and social theories. I hope they weren't all as unscrupulous, though, for he puts ambition and the making of his name above any concern for the individuals he uses as case studies.

It's a slow burn of a read, and to be honest, there were many times when I thought I'd give up on it, but I didn't, drawn in more, I think, by writing style than by concern for the characters. 

Maryom's review - 3 stars
Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - adult historical fiction