Tuesday 5 December 2023
Tuesday 21 November 2023
A man, Nealon, returns home to find his house empty; not just empty but seemingly abandoned. No heating. No lights. No inhabitants. The only welcome (as such) is from an unknown man on the telephone. A man who seems to know all about Nealon, and certainly more than the reader does..
As days pass more of Nealon's life is revealed - his childhood in rural Ireland, his career as an artist, his relationship with his wife and son, and, crucially, where he's been for the past few months - but he himself remains an enigma. He may, or may not, have been behind an enormous insurance fraud. He may be the person behind an ongoing security alert ... but, then again, he may not
This is definitely a difficult book to describe, but for its length (under 200 pages) it gives the reader a lot to think about. It's a strange book, weird but absorbing, enigmatic like its protagonist, which raises more questions about characters and events than get answered. (I once read that a lack of resolution was the mark of a literary novel - in which case this must be the most literary of them all). For me, it's a book that I'd go back to and mull over; I feel like there are hints and details along the way that didn't register with me on a first read-through but which would help clarify the ending.
I haven't read anything previously by Mike McCormack but knew he'd been long-listed for the Booker, so was intrigued when I saw this come up on Netgalley. I'm not certain if this is typical of McCormack's style but to me it seemed reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's work, with that feeling of a character creating the world around him as he names things and people.
Tuesday 31 October 2023
The Shell House Detectives are back. Thrown together over the solving of a murder case, unlikely couple Ally, the widow of a retired country policeman, and Jayden a much younger ex-city cop have set up the Shell House Detective Agency. Over summer they've solved some low key cases but the approach of Christmas finds them on the fringes of another murder.
Ally Bright is in Mousehole for a fun evening of carols and Christmas lights when the evening's festivities are cut short by the discovery of a dead body. Her friend Gus, despite being a budding crime writer, wants to head home immediately, but Ally is eager to find out more. This time, though, she really does have to leave things to the police.
The dead man is quickly identified as J P Sharpe, a chef at a local restaurant, and someone with a string of enemies. An added complication is an unposted letter found in his coat pocket, which might be the solution to a local family mystery. This is something Ali and Jayden can get involved in, especially as they know those involved, but their inquiries lead them back to the killer and a dangerous situation they may not be able to get out of.
I really enjoyed the first in this cosy crime series, The Shell House Detectives, and if anything this return to Porthpella is better. I felt there was more opportunity this time for Hall's ability to create atmosphere and location. The real Cornish fishing village of Mousehole, setting for the murder; with its jolly festive lights sharply contrasting with the empty dunes and lonely out-of-season vibes of Porthpella.
There's also opportunity to get to know the characters better. To explore Ally's unsettled relationship with Gus, Jayden's absorption with fatherhood and misgivings about leaving the police force, plus the lives and backstories of the 'supporting cast' of Saffron, the cafe-owning surfer, and Mullins, the inexperienced and slightly immature local policeman.
If you're looking for a Christmassy cosy crime adventure this is perfect, but if you're looking for a snow-filled coming-of-age mystery I'd also add a suggestion to track down one of Emylia Hall's earlier novels - A Heart Bent Out of Shape
Thursday 19 October 2023
To be honest, when I first heard about 'Julia' I wondered if we really needed a re-telling of "!984" - it's a dystopian classic after all - but I was intrigued enough to read it, and I'm glad I did.The story is told this time from the point of view of Winston Smith's lover Julia, and their relationship given a new twist.
While outwardly following the rules laid down by Big Brother and the Party, following the dull, regimented life expected of lower Party members, Julia has found ways to sidestep the regulations and live a slightly fuller life - or so she thinks. Big Brother has eyes everywhere, Julia's activities have been noted, and she finds herself drawn into a plot against Smith.
Newman has managed to catch Orwell's writing style, cleverly twining a new story around the original, and incorporating much of his dialogue. If anything the dreariness of existence under Big Brother's regime seems more overwhelming - perhaps because Julia desires more from life than Winston does. Unqualified support of the Party is necessary, sex and marriage are frowned on, and entertainment consists mainly of meetings given over to Party propaganda and the occasional game of table tennis. Being selected as part of a conspiracy plays into Julia's craving for excitement, but she isn't as essential as she feels; in fact she's merely being manipulated along with everyone else.
To say I 'enjoyed' this is maybe not the accurate word - hard hitting and brutal, it's a story about living without hope and with no real prospect of any in the future - but it's a powerful read. A word of warning - there are disturbing torture scenes, and explicit sex scenes.
Out of curiosity, I decided to reread "1984" immediately afterward, and actually found "Julia" the better of the two. Maybe it speaks more directly to me as a woman, but it benefits, I feel, from losing the long chapters of Goldstein's subversive text and the torture scenes which go on for far too long. In Julia they're short and sharp, but lose none of their terror.
Also, when your lover has betrayed you rather than face a couple of rats, what do you do? Julia's way is gruesome, if not sickening, but definitely effective. Proving once again that the female of her species is more deadly than the male
Saturday 14 October 2023
Thursday 5 October 2023
Thursday 21 September 2023
Meet Sally Pinner - the most beautiful young woman you're likely to meet. All her life Sally's looks have stopped people in their tracks, and attracted attention. Throughout her childhood she was kept quietly hidden away in the backrooms of her parents' shop, but now, as she's growing up, her widowed father doesn't know what to do to keep Sally safe from the men who flock around whenever she appears. At first he tries moving from London to a sleepy village near Cambridge, but even there the threat of her being 'discovered' by undergraduates gives him cause for alarm.
Wednesday 13 September 2023
Following on from What it was like to be a Viking, Blue Peter Award winner David Long takes us to Ancient Rome to discover what life was like there.
Illustrated by Stefano Tambellini, this is a short but all-encompassing introduction to life in Ancient Rome aimed at readers of 9 and over (KS2). It introduces children to the history of Rome, from a group of huts to a sprawling empire, and its many accomplishments of roads and buildings, legal systems and calendars, echoes of which can still be seen today. They can learn about amphitheatres and bath houses, about life in town or country, what Romans ate, what jobs they would have had, the gods and goddesses they worshiped, and what ultimately led to the Empire's downfall.
An excellent introduction to the Roman world whether to spark an interest in history or back up school lessons.
Friday 8 September 2023
This latest offering from Kate Atkinson is a collection of eleven slightly off-beat short stories. They range from an oddly quiet end of the world apocalypse to a fairy tale in which a queen bargains for her daughter's life, and are interconnected as locations and similar, if not identical, characters pop up in more than one story - they might make their fortune by listening to a talking horse, they might find themselves framed for murder.
A whimsical collection like this ought to have right up my street, and normally I love Kate Atkinson's work, but somehow I quickly found it failing to engage me. I almost didn't finish.
An odd thought, but one which might prove helpful, is that I felt I disliked it in the way I dislike Pratchett/Gaiman's Good Omens. Maybe they share something in style or substance
Thursday 24 August 2023
Time is moving on though. Troy is defeated. Helen is back in Sparta with her husband Menelaus. Soldiers and sailors are now returned - all except Odysseus. On Ithaca, Penelope's position has become more precarious than ever after her son left in search of his father. With only a council of elderly men to support her, she needs to maintain peace and independence.
Enter Orestes and Elektra, children of Agamemnon, caught up in their own Greek tragedy - their sister killed by their father, their father killed by their mother, Clytemnestra, who was in turn slain by Orestes in the name of justice. Remorse now seems to have driven Orestes to madness, and Elektra fears what will happen to both of them when word gets out. Their uncle, Menelaus, flush with his victory in Troy, seeks to take over Orestes' throne and make himself king of all the Greeks.
Book One, Ithaca, was told from the omniscient viewpoint of the goddess Hera. Now her role is taken over by Aphrodite, goddess of love with an eye for warriors' rippling muscles or women's softly turned limbs. She's sly and playful, but a fierce advocate of love in all its forms - romantic, familial, or just between friends.
Penelope is a lonely figure, in need of compassion and love. Her maids try their best but Penelope is still queen with the isolation and responsibility that position brings. She has though found a better path through the rules and restrictions laid down by the patriarchal society in which she lives than her fellow queens. As the story evolves Penelope is proving to be just as wily and cunning as her renowned husband. While she manoeuvres men, playing them like chess pieces, and hiding her own involvement, Helen employs a different sort of subterfuge. Subjected to her husband's beatings and repeated rapes, she hides her thoughts and feelings behind the cover of childishness and drunkenness, while biding her time for opportunities for revenge. Clytemnestra, throwing off any subterfuge, and openly taking a lover while her husband is absent was never going to succeed and live happily ever after; the rules of her world would never allow it.
I loved Ithaca with its story of the resilient, resourceful women of Ithaca, left behind to cope without their menfolk, and was just that little worried that House of Odysseus might not live up to it - but it did, possibly even surpassing it.
Wednesday 23 August 2023
Friday 11 August 2023
Friday 4 August 2023
Marshall thinks this is an ideal place to get away from his dad and his moods. He and Rory can make it their own secret hideout where no one can find them. But Rory wants to share it with some of his friends, and a difference of opinion quickly turns into something potentially nasty.
The Den is an easily read, easily relatable tale of boys being, well, boys. Their friendships, their arguments, the bravado hiding their fears and insecurities. There's a real sense of tension from both investigating the 'den', and the way emotions easily run out of control. It feels like a wrong decision could easily lead to disaster.
Balanced between childhood and teenage, Marshall and Rory are also learning to cope with family issues - Rory's mum wants to know his every move; Marshall's dad is so caught up with his own problems that he doesn't care.
Presented in Barrington Stoke's dyslexia-friendly font on cream pages, it's aimed at 11 years and over, but with a reading age of 8 to entice readers who might not feel too confident of their abilities.
Thursday 3 August 2023
Thursday 20 July 2023
Friday 14 July 2023
Tim Hannigan is a travel writer known for covering far flung destinations such as Indonesia. This time though he's looking at somewhere much closer to home - to his native Cornwall.
Starting at the Tamar, the traditional boundary separating Cornwall from the rest of England, his journey zig zags from coast to coast heading towards the furthest point of Land's End. It's a journey that could be made in under two hours by car (according to Google Maps, and making allowances for holiday traffic) but this is a slower winding way, mainly on foot, taking the reader up and over empty, boggy moorland and the spoil tips of China clay works, down to tourist-packed hotspots and quiet seaside villages, from places which sound quintessentially English to those with a definite flavour of Brittany in their names.
Along the way, the author discusses the geology of the area, its history, tries to pin down what exactly makes Cornwall different to the rest of the country, and what it means to be Cornish, while putting paid to a lot of the myths about King Arthur, wreckers, and smugglers.
Hannigan's own personal history weaves around that of the inhabitants of, and visitors to, this remote-seeming peninsula - of the Neolithic builders of burial cairns, Phoenician tin traders, the early 'tourists' venturing into a barren, desolate area, or, more recently, artists in search of its beauty, and holiday-makers searching for sun and surf.
For many of us Cornwall is the place of summer holidays, with Betjeman's 'Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea', or the setting for the novels of Daphne du Maurier and Winston Graham with rain-lashed moorlands and brooding heroes.The scenery is either balmy and idyllic, or dramatic and wild. It's not the post-industrial landscape of China clay workings and ruined engine houses left from tin mining. It's not the centre of sea trade with European neighbours, or the countryside that thousands left as work there dried up. But this is an insider's view, a behind-the-scenes-look at a place we think we know. Part travelogue, part history, I found this a fascinating read. Apart from a small area around Polzeath, I haven't visited Cornwall as an adult, and now I realise how little I know about the rest of the county. Time, I think, for me to plan a visit. Meanwhile, if you're heading down west this summer, have a read - it may open your eyes.
Wednesday 5 July 2023
When I, and perhaps many of us, think of historic or prehistoric remains what immediately jumps to mind is a castle perched on hill top, or perhaps the stone outline of a Roman fort, maybe an old earthwork where people and animals sheltered from raiders, or perhaps the strange standing stones of Stonehenge or Kilmartin Glen. But these are all static remains.
Thursday 29 June 2023
Monday 22 May 2023
Livira grew up in a huddle of huts out on the Dust. A place of hand-to-mouth existence, plagued by creatures living within the Dust, and Sabbers attacking from without. It's one of these attacks that leads Livira to a new future; to the city of Crath and the library there.
Evar and his family live in another library, one which they cannot leave. They've food and water, and all the books they could ever read, but Evar longs for escape.
The two meet in a place between worlds; somewhere outside the normal boundaries of time and/or space, and from which they can travel to multiple other worlds. Are Livira's and Evar's home libraries in the same world but at different times, or at the same time on different worlds? In Evar's world civilisation has fallen to the Sabbers; in Livira's it looks like it will happen soon. Is there a way to avoid the cycle of rise and destruction that plaques both worlds.
This is a book which starts out simply with Livira being forced from her home and resettling in the city, but which gradually expands to bring in themes of love crossing all boundaries, of the danger of having unlimited knowledge without checks and curbs on its use, of who should limit that knowledge, of mankind's destiny to repeat its mistakes again and again. The plot twists and turns through time so much that I was left dizzy, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. As Book 1 of a series, not everything is nicely tied off at the end, and I can't wait to read 'whats happens next'.
A great startb to a new trilogy from Mark Lawrence.
Friday 5 May 2023
Corvina Clemm had never expected to be going to university so to say she's surprised to receive an admission invitation to University of Verenmore would be putting things mildly, but she's not going to turn down the opportunity now she's been offered it.
Situated on a mountain top, cut off from the neighbouring town by dense forests, Verenmore is a place of mystery, dangerous cults, and unexplained deaths, but Corvina finds herself at home there. She also finds herself irresistibly attracted to her tutor Vad Deverell, a man who rumour would associate with strange deaths on campus. Their forbidden relationship could unravel some of Verenmore's mysteries; or it could end in disaster.
I wasn't sure quite what to expect with this book but I'm finding that lately I'm enjoying quirky, gothic reads, so decided to try it - and I was hooked. Despite the familiar start - unexpected acceptance to a mysterious university/boarding school, with a host of unexplained events in its history - it soon goes its own way. Corvina is a strange protagonist, raised by her single mother in virtual isolation with no friends or family, and to be honest I didn't necessarily trust her intuitions, especially regarding Vad, but that ambiguity is part of the book's appeal.
It's a very readable book, one which keeps you turning the pages, but it's dark, very dark, filled with death and forbidden passion, and sex - lots of sex (don't imagine we're talking Harry Potter here, or even Wednesday Addams, grown up a little). In a preface to my review copy, the Author cautions readers about the subjects raised - death, suicide, parental neglect - and the explicit nature of the sex scenes; it's definitely an 'adult' read, not for younger teens.
Saturday 29 April 2023
Wednesday 12 April 2023
Victoria's life was probably destined to be one of drudgery; cooking and cleaning for her father and brother, helping in the orchard, selling the fruit. Till she meets Wilson, she's accepted this without question, but now through grief and adversity she discovers a stronger, more independent side to her nature. She's forced to make her decisions, uproot herself, and start over again elsewhere. Like a river, having encountered an immovable rock, she follows a different course.
Friday 24 March 2023
Wednesday 15 February 2023
As a teenager, Margo ran away from home to live with her older boyfriend, Richard. Their love affair continued, they married and had three daughters - Rachel, Imogen, and Sasha. Then one day Richard left, leaving Margo plunged into despair, and the girls having to fend for themselves. When she picked herself up, Margo vowed that her girls would never suffer as she had. So she brings them up to be well-educated, strong career women, to marry safe, dependable men, to create for themselves the life that she would have wanted, but somewhere long the way the girls, trying so hard to live up to Margo's expectations, lose sight of themselves and their own desires. Now young women, each successful in her field, they have to confront the impact of their father's sudden disappearance from their lives before they can find true happiness.There's been a lot of hype about The Garnett Girls - the author is, after all, a publicist - but it's a stunning, captivating debut that definitely lives up to everything I've read about it. A warm, intimate story of the Garnett family - Margo the matriarch, and her girls, Rachel, Imogen, and Sasha - their loves and losses, the secrets they keep, and the younger generation's struggles for independence from their mother's overwhelming influence and expectations. In many ways, living up to Margo's standards has stunted her daughters' emotional development, and I felt it was telling that Rachel, Imogen and Sasha are more often seen as a trio - the Garnett girls - rather than as individuals and as women.
The story is not wholly set on the Isle of Wight but Sandcove, the family home, plays such an important part in the Garnett's lives that it's like a character in itself. It's the place they come to to settle family disagreements, to heal, to find themselves, to party on the beach till dawn.
I loved every page - and I now want to live by the beach and drink cocktails every night.
Friday 10 February 2023
Thursday 2 February 2023