Monday, 26 June 2017

How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza

review by Maryom

Behind Mary's garden, squeezed in between her road and the one backing on to it, is a wild wooded piece of ground - and in that wood lives a fox, coming out at night to sneak from one garden to the next, and scavenge through the dustbins. One day Mary comes home from work to find him on her lawn - and she feels that in some way they've made a connection, that she and this fox can be friends.

To be frank, I struggled with this book. I got to around the 10% mark without feeling any interest in it, and gave up. After reading a couple of other books I went back to it, read a little more, and still thought I'd not bother ... Third time was lucky though. The story had moved on to a point where Mary's creepy, manipulative boyfriend has re-appeared on the scene, trying to worm his way back into her life, and it held my attention more. Even so, overall it didn't grab me, and I'm puzzled why, because I feel it ought to have done.
The story unfolds from Mary's point of view, told in the third person but still seeing events through her eyes - and she doesn't feel like the most reliable of narrators. It's not clear at times whether things are actually happening or if Mary's imagining them, which left me a bit baffled.
At the same time, I think I took the story too literally - I saw a sad, lonely woman, possibly starved of human contact, indulfing in really bizarre behaviour - making friends with a fox in the way that some surround themselves with cats, deluding herself that the fox reciprocates her feelings and attachment, treating it as a pet or even a baby. She lets the fox into her house and cuddles up with it on a blanket - while my mind was yelling "Don't do that! Think of fleas, ticks, mange!".  I had more sympathy for Mary's neighbours who saw the fox as a threat to their children and cat.


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

Friday, 23 June 2017

October Is The Coldest Month by Christoffer Carlsson


translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles
review by Maryom

Sixteen year old Vega is at home alone when the police come looking for her older brother Jakob. It's lucky for her really because, not only does she manage to fend off their queries, she avoids any potentially awkward questions from her mother, who will realise that whatever it is that Jakob's become involved in, Vega should have been with him. Vega's desperate to speak to Jakob too, but he's disappeared, and trying to find him only draws Vega further into his troubles ...


Set in rural Sweden, this YA crime novel is grittier and harder-hitting than a lot of fiction aimed at that age group. Vega has been drawn unwittingly into the cover up of what she assumes was a murder, though she doesn't know what has happened to the body, or even whose it was. She's also terrified that both she and her brother could now be in danger. Looking for Jakob brings her into contact with two guys she'd rather avoid - Jakob's best friend to whom she's attracted, and a boy she had a very brief, wholly sexual, relationship with.

A tense, claustrophobic atmosphere pervades the whole book. Vega's home is in an isolated village, the kind of place where everyone knows each other, but doesn't necessarily get along with them, where illicit businesses flourish away from the law, and old feuds don't die but slumber on ready to restart. The houses are scattered, hidden from their neighbour by the surrounding forest, where anyone could be hiding. Add some dark, damp autumnal weather, and you've got the perfect Nordic Noir -style setting. As Vega sets about finding her brother, discovering how much the police know and getting some answers about what actually happened, you won't want to put the book down!

It's a dark, brooding novel, that alongside the crime element deals openly with sex and desire, so definitely one aimed at older teens.


Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Scribe

Genre - YA crime thriller

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Some Of Us Glow More Than Others by Tania Hershman

Review by The Mole

Broken down into seven small collections of stories this book came as a surprise to me - but not for that. The stories vary in length from just a few lines to several pages and while unusual not to have average length stories of several pages that too was not what surprised me.

In trying to say what surprised me about this book it could be construed that it is superior to other collections I've read - but it's not. It's different - in a good way but just very different.

The surprise came in the writing style. The writing is for the main part almost like reading poetry while definitely being prose but making all the stories feel soft and lyrical whatever the subject matter. A really easy read that you can pick up for coffee time, read a few pieces and then put the book down again.

Many of the stories are about science and/or scientists (Tania Hershman is a former science journalist) but, before that puts you off, it contains zero science except a few words that are designed to impress (but not you) other characters in stories.

But it also achieves everything I like in a short story - it stops short of telling you everything and lets you finish it the way you would like.

A really excellent collection of short stories that you are sure to enjoy and if you're unsure about the genre then this is an excellent place to start.

Publisher - Unthank Books
Genre - Adult short story anthology 


Some of the author's work has been featured and/or performed on Radio 4.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Godblind by Anna Stephens



review by Maryom

For a thousand years, the Red Gods, lovers of blood,war and sacrifice, have been banished from the world of men, and their followers, the Mireces people, exiled to cold, barely habitable mountain ranges, while the Rilporians, worshippers of the Gods of Light occupy the warmer, fertile plains. Now all that is about to change. The new Mirece king, Corvus, has been planning and plotting, making allies among the nobles of Rilpor and is ready to bring the Red Gods back from beyond the Veil. Meanwhile, among the Watchers who've helped maintain the uneasy truce between Mireces and Rilporians, is Dom, a 'calestar' who talks with the Gods of Light, passing on their messages and warnings to his people. 


A tale filled with violence and betrayal, with one side egged on my their bloodthirsty Gods, and the other almost helpless against their onslaught, doesn't make this seem like a jolly story but I honestly found it one of those which once started, can't be put down. 

The dialogue is 'adult', the brutality shocking but at the same time, the characterisation and world-building are excellent.

It starts a little confusingly with a large cast of characters to come to terms with in a short space, and each chapter following events from a different person's perspective, but these slight quibbles are soon overcome. The chapters are often short and events move along quickly, so I was soon hooked. The only downside, and I should have half-expected it with a fantasy novel, is that this is Book 1 of a series, and there's a wait for the next instalment.

If you like your fantasy dark, gripping, and bloody, this is the book for you! 


Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
 Adult fantasy

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Superpowerless by Chris Priestley


review by Maryom

To an outsider, sixteen year old David looks and behaves much like any other guy his age - prefers his own company and hanging out in his bedroom to almost anything else. Maybe he's a little less social than others, but he's been through a rough time since his dad died in a car accident, so for a while friends and family have been prepared to cut him some slack. Now though, when they feel he ought to be getting his act together and putting the past behind him, David seems to be getting increasingly unsocial, obsessed with his dad's old super-hero comics and getting decidedly secretive. What his friends don't know is that David has superpowers himself. His super-hearing allows him to eavesdrop on conversations, being invisible means no one notices him (particularly girls) and his ability to fly lets him swoop over the town to help prevent accidents - or so he would like to think. He has another secret too, one that he's equally anxious to hide - that he's using a bird-watching scope to spy on his slightly older, attractive, bikini-clad neighbour, Holly. In doing so he stumbles on a very personal secret she'd like to keep hidden too. When he confronts her, the two form an unlikely bond, with Holly offering practical advice on the mysterious subject of girls and sex, while David tries his best to help her, but puts almost every foot wrong.


This is a story of being that awkward age between child and adult, of learning to accept that we can't always change things to be how we would like, and of first experiments with the opposite sex.
To be honest, especially perhaps from an adult's point of view, David isn't instantly likeable. He's too self-absorbed, too quick to lie to his mum and drag his best friend into the deception too, zooming in on his sunbathing female neighbour isn't polite, and as for imagining he has super-powers? isn't that a bit childish? But give him chance and he begins to grow on you. even when his behaviour is definitely cringe-worthy. It's easy of course to read a story and tell the hero he's making a mess of things, pulling all the wrong moves and making himself look foolish, arrogant and seriously un-cool, but that's how life is, particularly teenage life - full of mistakes we wish we'd avoided, and chances we've missed out on. The author could have created a teen hero who was, well, just that, a hero, the perfect guy in every respect, but David with all his flaws is far nearer to a real teenager, someone that readers can empathise with, and maybe it will give female readers an insight into that most mysterious of places, a teenage boy's mind.

It's odd that only last week I saw someone talking about the lack of books looking at teenage relationships from a boy's perspective, and then this week I've come across two excellent ones - first Anthony McGowan's Rook aimed at younger teens, then this with an older target readership. They're very different but I've loved them both.



Maryom's Review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Hot Key Books 
Genre - YA, relationships, 

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Rook by Anthony McGowan

review by Maryom

Out walking their dog one day, Kenny and Nicky find a rook, attacked by a hawk and only clinging on to life by the merest thread. Kenny, always naive and too trusting, remembers how they saved a baby badger, and is sure they can do the same again for 'Rooky', but Nicky isn't convinced. In fact he's not really interested. With Kenny's learning disability, and his dad's troubles after their mum left, Nicky always feels he has to be the one to look after the family, but now  his dad's got a new girlfriend and is starting to get his life in order, and Kenny is busy making new friends at his school. Meanwhile  Nicky has problems of his own mounting up - trying to attract the attention of his first love, and avoid the attention of the school bully. Life's about to get complicated for him ...


Nicky has fallen for a girl in his year, Sarah Stanhope, but how can he even start to talk to her?  At school he's either surrounded by his mates who suddenly seem so very childish or on the receiving end of the school bully's attentions. Trying to catch her after school seems like a good idea, apart from the way it turns into stalking. In fact, if you could think of a wrong way to attract a girl's attention, that's probably what Nicky's doing! To make matters worse, that school bully is her brother! If Nicky's to win Sarah over, or even get to talk to her, shouldn't he make a stand against him? But when that plan goes disastrously wrong, Nicky looks like losing everything.

Brothers Kenny and Nicky, familiar from Anthony McGowan's previous stories, Brock and Pike, are back with a third instalment of their story, this time about the thorny problems of teenage relationships.  I can't claim to having seen every book published for teens, but there generally seem to be more stories dealing with teen relationships from the girl's point of view. McGowan takes the reader on a boy's eye view of the world - where you maybe feel a need to stand up physically against bullies, where a good idea so quickly and easily turns into a disastrous one, and girls have suddenly become strange beings that it's impossible to talk to. Sometimes you'll laugh with him, sometimes at him, sometimes just cringe for him, but throughout the reader is firmly on Nicky's side.

Barrington Stoke books are designed to appeal to reluctant and dyslexic readers, with an off-white background and clear font, but above all they're interesting, compelling stories. The reading age for Rook is 8+ but the story is definitely one to appeal to teen readers.
Read the first chapter here 

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - teenage/teenage reluctant readers 

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Night Brother by Rosie Garland


review by Maryom

As young children, siblings Edie and Gnome are inseparable, sneaking out of their bedroom at night to explore their home city of Manchester, but as they grow older their ways part. Edie is only seen during the day, when she tries her hardest to help her mother and grandmother around the public house they run, aiming to please but generally not succeeding. At night, Gnome comes out to play, or at least hang out in the streets with gangs of youths, often up to trouble. Although both mother and grandmother are well aware of what is happening, Edie herself is puzzled why she wakes each morning feeling like she's hardly slept, with tousled hair and dirt under her fingernails.

The Night Brother is an intriguing re-working of the Jekyll and Hyde story set against the backdrop of late 19th/early 20th century Manchester.
I loved the many historical elements of the book, and the atmospheric capturing of the feel of the city - the excitement of a childhood trip to see fireworks, the bustle of the streets. the defiance of the Suffragettes - but the concept at the heart of the story left me unconvinced.
I don't want to go into details as that would lead to a huge plot spoiler, but the lack of real explanation of this family 'curse' left me a bit frustrated. I'm sure I've read something with a similar gender-challenging idea in a sci-fi novel, possibly by Ursula le Guin, and whereas it's easy to explain it away in 'aliens', it's harder when dealing with people who are outwardly as normal as the next person. Maybe I'm looking at it all too literally, and expecting scientific explanations where there aren't any, maybe the story is more allegory that real, but it stopped me rating the book higher.

I'm not sure how I'd define this - historical fantasy maybe?

Maryom's review - 3.5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (The Borough Press)

Genre - adult, historical, fantasy, 

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

One day. Sixteen songs. The soundtrack of a lifetime...


review by Maryom

Once a famous singer/songwriter, a British rival to Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell, Cass Wheeler has been living a lonely, reclusive life following a personal tragedy and time spent in re-hab. Now she's ready to make a come back. A new album is recorded, a launch party planned, but first Cass wants to spend a day in the studio listening to her old records and picking out the ones that she considers to be her 'greatest hits' - not the ones that sold best but those that are more personal and private, representing key moments in her life. Over the course of the day, listening to her old songs, Cass revisits her fractured childhood, headstrong teenage years, meteoric rise to fame, and the troubles that seemed to follow fast on its heels.


Now, I loved Laura Barnett's debut novel, The Versions of Us, and the minute I heard there was another on the way, I was eager to read it, but at the same time a little cautious as I often am with second novels, plus I thought the theme of ex-rock-star-making-a comeback was maybe a little predictable. How wrong could I have been? I absolutely love Greatest Hits!

For me, this is a story that comes with a huge slice of nostalgia -  Cass is the sort of singer I'd have listened to as a young teen, followed in the music magazines of the day, maybe even dreaming of living a life such as hers - but Greatest Hits isn't just a story of music and fame.

I think without the various time-lines of The Versions of Us, there's more opportunity this time to appreciate the author's writing style, and skill at story-telling. Starting in the present day, Cass's life story unfolds in a series of flashbacks; one thread follows her life from childhood to present day; another the more recent events of the past few months. Moving between the two, like adding the layers and depths to a painting, Barnett builds an intimate portrait of a woman and the events that have shaped her.

From a childhood that feels deprived of love, Cass moves through teenage rebellion, an over-confident belief in her own decision making, and rejection of the people who care most for her, to the heady heights of stardom, with its jealousies and betrayals, till she ends up feeling she may have failed at everything - as daughter, wife, mother, musician. Although there are hints at the tragedy that changed her life, there's still enough mystery shrouding it, and the hope that Cass may find happiness at last, to lure the reader on.

Something that really intrigues me is the way that, not only does each chapter start with the lyrics to one of those 'greatest hits', but Laura Barnett has worked with singer/songwriter Kathryn Williams to have them brought to 'musical' life. An album is to be released shortly after the book's publication but for now you can hear the first song "Common Ground" by following the links on Kathryn Williams web site.


Although the story takes Cass on a journey through loss and grief, the overwhelming mood is upbeat. If you haven't discovered Laura Barnett yet, do read it. It's definitely one for fans of Maggie O'Farrell, but with a musical setting reminiscent of Tiffany Murray's Diamond Star Halo, and deserves to be a huge hit itself!



Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Orion (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 
Genre - adult, 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay


translated by Sheila Fischman

review by Maryom

Despite the war raging around them, nine year old twins, Ahmed and Aziz, live a comparatively peaceful life on their family's orange grove - a tranquil, green spot hard won from the surrounding bare landscape. Then a bomb strikes their grandparents' house, and the boys find themselves caught up in retaliation for the attack. The leader of a group of militants, an important, pious man, both respected and feared in the area, prevails upon their father to persuade one of the boys to become a suicide bomber. The impossible decision of which twin this will be, is one which will split the family.
Years later, grown up and living in Canada, the surviving twin finds the past hard to leave behind, and impossible to explain to people who've never experienced war. Is it possible for him to find a way forward?

The Orange Grove is a short, powerful, chilling story of lost innocence, and the long-term emotional repercussions that follow the 'martyrdom' of this young boy. In our peaceful Western world, we believe that children should be sheltered from the horrors of war, but for those caught up in it, there's no such a luxury - in fact, men, women and children have lost their worth as individuals and become mere objects and statistics. The militants' leader has no qualms about manipulating the father through fear and religion so that he daren't refuse the 'honour' granted to his son; one son believes the hype, that becoming a martyr will be a glorious act, resulting in the deaths of his enemies and rewarded in heaven; the other is more pragmatic and would rather live, but this is marked down as cowardice. 

The Orange Grove is a disturbing, distressing read, dealing as it does with the forced recruitment of children into a war they don't understand,but one that I'd unreservedly recommend. By forcing the younger generation to take part in the escalating, reciprocated violence, the circle of war continues. While A attacks B, B strikes back, and A retaliates, there will always be one side calling for revenge on their attackers, and it feels like the conflict could never end. To break out of the destructive circle needs one side, or maybe just one person, to forgive.

This was an extremely thought-provoking read, even by Peirene's standards, and my original review draft contained a variety of rambling thoughts relating what I'd read to the recent events in Manchester and London. I've decided to delete them in the end, as they weren't really relevant in terms of a book review.

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





Monday, 5 June 2017

Anne Goodwin - Underneath - blog tour



Today we're welcoming Anne Goodwin as part of a blog tour to promote and discuss her latest novel Underneath. To get an insight into it check out Maryom's review but here's a little synopsis from the publisher ... 

"He never intended to be a jailer …
After years of travelling, responsible to no-one but himself, Steve has resolved to settle down. He gets a job, buys a house and persuades Liesel to move in with him.
Life’s perfect, until Liesel delivers her ultimatum: if he won’t agree to start a family, she’ll have to leave. He can’t bear to lose her, but how can he face the prospect of fatherhood when he has no idea what being a father means? If he could somehow make her stay, he wouldn’t have to choose … and it would be a shame not to make use of the cellar.

Will this be the solution to his problems, or the catalyst for his own unravelling?"


Maryom; I think my first question has to be, What was the starting point for this novel? Was it the thought of an underground room, and the purposes it might be put to, or did it grow from Steve's character?

Anne; It’s always difficult to be completely accurate about where a novel started, but I’d been thinking about insecure attachment and extreme forms of vulnerability, such as the experience of a baby totally dependent on unresponsive caregivers. When some shocking reports came to light of women imprisoned in a hideaway, within, or attached to, an ordinary house, I thought the emotional experience might be similar. I’m not entirely sure how that got turned around to writing from the point of view of the jailer, except that I had the image of an unhappy little boy in mind and I’m curious about the way in which vulnerability can be expressed in actions that seem, at least on the surface, to come from strength and power.

As I said in my review Underneath isn't the domestic noir or thriller that a reader might expect from its synopsis. Were you ever tempted to go down that route? 

I wasn’t aware of domestic noir as a genre when I started writing this novel in 2010 but, even if I had been, I doubt I’d have wanted to write one, despite their popularity. With some exceptions, I’m not drawn to thrillers as a reader because of the way in which character and credibility can be compromised for the sake of plot. But the potential for overlap is tricky in describing Underneath: I think the synopsis is a fair reflection of the story but appreciate that some readers will be disappointed that it falls short on the twists and turns of the classic thriller; others, like yourself, will be pleasantly surprised it takes a different route. But, given the difficulty of predicting reader responses, I’m content to take the themes and ideas that are of interest to me and crafting them into the best story I can manage.


How much do you draw on your experience as a clinical psychologist when creating characters? and  do they appear fully formed or develop along with the story?

Having studied psychology in one form or another for over a decade, and worked as a clinical psychologist for twenty-five years, that experience – and perhaps even more the style of thinking – is integral to who I am. My background gives me empathy for my characters – even the villains like Steve – and an awareness of the complexities and contradictions of the human condition. But, like many people who gravitate to the helping professions, my own vulnerabilities aren’t so different to those of the people I’ve worked with, so I draw on my own demons too.
I couldn’t imagine a character arriving fully formed unless I’d based them on someone I knew, which doesn’t particularly appeal to me, so they develop over various rewrites in conjunction with the story.

By the end of the novel, I felt that, although I wouldn't condone Steve's actions, he was more a victim of his childhood and upbringing than an out and out villain. Is this how you saw him as his character unfolded? How much responsibility for his adult character can be laid on his mother and sisters? Do you think there was a point in his life at which events could have taken a different path?

I’m pleased Steve had that effect on you, Mary. Although I have little experience of working with offenders, I generally found as a clinical psychologist that, if I could support clients to be open and honest with me, I felt a significant degree of warmth and compassion even if I wouldn’t have been drawn to them in ordinary life. Steve first took root in my mind as a sad little boy, so I was always conscious of his vulnerability and, while I was writing, I was very much – perhaps too much – on his side, wanting him to get his own way. In fact, even though I’ve stepped back from him now, I still have a soft spot for Steve. However, although I think he’s partly a victim of his circumstances, he does have choices, and sometimes he’s taken the wrong ones. While his mother’s grief and emotional neglect, and his sisters’ bullying, have shaped his character, they too were doing their best in difficult circumstances and I don’t see them as responsible for what he does. I’ve written in more detail about these issues in some other guest posts:

Fictionalising the Mentally Disordered Offender

Child, lover, jailer: The three faces of Steve

Compassion for the Criminal, Condemnation of the Crime

Victims, villains and vulnerability

The Child in the Clothes of the Criminal

Finally, I like your question about whether there was a point at which his life could have taken a different course. Psychological support for the family when the mother is briefly hospitalised and the children taken into care might have helped, and there’s a huge gap in our knowledge of Steve as an adolescent and young adult where a sympathetic teacher might have channelled him into a more stabilising career. (Perhaps he could have become a clinical psychologist, or an art therapist like Liesel!) But relative to a lot of children and families who come to the attention of services, he wouldn’t appear particularly disturbed and I think there’s an element of bad luck in how things turned out.

Thank you, Anne, that was a fascinating chat, and I'm looking forward to reading your other posts in this tour.


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Sleep well, Siba and Saba by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl

illustrated by Sandra van Doorn

review by Maryom

Sisters Siba and Saba are always losing things - slippers, sweaters, a satin sash, a shawl - and when they go to sleep, they dream of them. Until one night when their dreams change, and instead of dreaming of the things they've lost, they imagine things that will happen in the future.



This is a charming, engaging picture book that will fill children with delight. While reading the story (or having it read to them) they can search the pictures to find the seven sweaters and the seven speeding busses they were lost on, see where the silver slippers ended up, who has found the lost bedroom slippers, or even how many words beginning with 'S' they can spot - and then, when Siba and Saba begin to dream about the future, the reader can imagine what exciting things lie ahead for them too.

As with others in their catalogue, this book reflects Lantana's intent to produce picture books recognising and celebrating diversity. The story is universal, but the beautiful illustrations reflect the author's Ugandan heritage with  flamingos, pelicans, and other exotic birds flitting across the pages, lending a magical quality to the tale.

The story will help children come to terms with the idea that some things lie in the past and can only be recollected in dreams, but that there are always new things to discover, that perhaps we haven't even dreamed of yet!


Publisher - Lantana
genre - children's picture book, 4-8

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Underneath by Anne Goodwin



review by Maryom

By any reckoning, Steve should be happy - he's finally decided to settle down after spending most of his adult life travelling the world; he's won enough on the lottery to buy a nice house; he's got a new attractive girlfriend who's willing to move in with him. How could it all go wrong? But somehow it has, because the reader knows from the outset that Steve has a woman imprisoned in his cellar ...

It sounds rather like the set-up for a psychological thriller or domestic noir full of improbable emotions and outrageous violence, but Anne Goodwin's Underneath couldn't be further away from those stereo-types. Instead it's a quiet novel that gradually unpicks the past to discover what lies behind the facade that Steve presents to the world.
The story is told in the first person from Steve's viewpoint, and so the reader is privy to his current thoughts and hopes, and his flashbacks to childhood, a time which should have been full of love and happiness, but wasn't.
On a superficial acquaintance, Steve is an average guy, perhaps a little more interesting than some even because he's spent most of his life travelling the world, working in undeveloped countries, not sitting at an office desk, but behind that facade he's a troubled man, permanently damaged by his upbringing. His father died before Steve was born, and, with a mother consumed by grief, and older twin sisters who bullied him throughout childhood, Steve's childhood lacked the love and kindness that most of us take for granted. Obviously drawing on her experience as a clinical psychologist, Anne Goodwin takes what could have been a dry case study and builds it into a compelling read.

It's a novel I'd highly recommend for Book Clubs. there's much to discuss about Steve's life and his relationship with women - is his travelling part of an un-rooted feeling? is he permanently searching for home? is his girlfriend unreasonable in her demands, and would they have lived happily ever after if she hadn't been?

It's frequently said that to understand all is to forgive all, and strangely, by the end, although I condemned the way he acted, I felt rather sorry for Steve - he should have been the villain of the piece but it seemed that he was so influenced by events beyond his control that he was more a victim of circumstances.


Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - 
Inspired Quill 
Genre -adult fiction



Monday, 22 May 2017

Caroline Wallace - The Finding of Martha Lost - blog tour


Today we're delighted to be taking part in the  blog tour for The Finding of Martha Lost. Martha was found as a baby on the platform of Liverpool's Lime Street station, and has spent all her life there, living in the flat above the lost property office. Setting is obviously a key point to the novel and  author Caroline Wallace is here to talk about just that ... 


The original plan was to set The Finding of Martha Lost in Paris. For many years, I’d been infatuated with the culture, the romance, the language too. At eighteen, I even ran away to France, to find myself and to fall in love; neither happened.

My outline for The Finding of Martha Lost was to focus on a character called Martha being lost, then found, on departures and arrivals in a train station, with a host of quirks that I imagined would feel at home in France. The novel was forming nicely in my mind, despite the many obstacles of the setting being overseas, but everything changed when I walked through Lime Street Station in Liverpool (on my way to a Nik Kershaw concert).

I needed cash but couldn’t recall where the cash machines were located inside the station. After several minutes of searching, and having spotted a man sitting inside, I stepped into Lime Street Station’s lost property office and asked for help. The man behind the counter glared at me. I swear he growled as he pointed at a laminated sign on his desk: ‘CASH MACHINES ON PLATFORM 7’. I laughed, he didn’t. He continued to scowl, so I thanked him and hurried out of his lost property office. As I turned and looked back, I considered the amount of times the man must have been asked that same question before deciding he needed the sign. The thought made me smile.

That was the seed, or perhaps the switch.

That’s when I started wondering if Paris was the correct location for Martha Lost to live. I thought about when I’d first arrived into Liverpool by train, freshly broken from France, all lost and alone. I thought about the city and how its people had embraced me. I thought about falling in love with a local boy, about finding myself, about the friends I’d made, about the stories I’d been told. I thought about how the city had saved me, about walking down the aisle to The Beatles’ When I’m 64 on my wedding day and about how I couldn’t imagine ever living anywhere else. I thought about how the funniest, grumpiest, friendliest people live in Liverpool, a place that was my rescuer and soon became my home. I thought about how the people were defiant, brave and (often brutally) honest, so far from stereotypes in popular culture that had been created to mock. I realised that I was a fan of Liverpool’s culture, the romance to be found, the language too.
It didn’t take long for me to grasp that Paris didn’t hold the passion or the quirks that I needed for The Finding of Martha Lost. I realised that everything and more could be found in my city and that Lime Street Station would function at the heart of my story. Somehow, and unexpectedly, my Parisian novel transformed into a love letter to Liverpool.

Thank you Caroline - I personally can't imagine the novel being set anywhere but Lime Street station. 

If you're now intrigued and want to know more about The Finding of Martha Lost, check out Maryom's review here

Friday, 19 May 2017

Contagion by Teri Terry


URGENT!
An epidemic is sweeping the country.
You are among the infected. There is no cure; and you cannot be permitted to infect others. You are now under quarantine. 
The very few of the infected who survive are dangerous and will be taken into the custody of the army.



review by Maryom

Kai's younger sister, Callie, has been missing without trace for a year, so when a girl called Shay contacts him with new information, he has no doubts about dashing up from Newcastle to the small village of Killin in Scotland to investigate the lead. Together they try to piece together Callie's last known movements but events in the wider world are working against them.
A secret scientific facility on Shetland has been conducting some very dodgy experiments, and when a supposed earthquake destroys it, a horrendous,highly-infectious, fast-acting flu virus is leaked into the world. Special army units are called in and quarantine zones are soon established across Scotland, making it difficult to travel, but even so the disease continues to claim victims at a dreadful rate. Very few survive, and those who do are considered too dangerous to be left at large.
Against this backdrop, Kai and Shay pursue the leads to uncover what exactly happened to Callie, and why ...

Anyone who's read this blog will know how much I love Teri Terry's teen/YA novels, whether set in the dystopian worlds of the Slated trilogy and Mind Games, or the urban fantasy of Book of Lies. This time the story is  a mix of dystopian horror as a mystery illness sweeps the country, thriller and conspiracy theory as Kai and Shay uncover far more than they'd expected in their search for Callie.
It's a great read, with characters to warm to, and a plot to entice you in - the sort of book you don't want to put down, but read in one sitting (no matter how late you have to stay up to do that!). You'll be left wanting more though, as this is the first book of a trilogy, and, although it ends at a logical point, a lot of questions have been raised and not answered yet. I can't wait to see how things develop in Book 2!

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







Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

review by Maryom

Set in the turbulent years of the 900s, when England as a country was more of a dream than reality, Dunstan is the story of a rather un-saintly saint, and of the part he played in these formative years. His life spanned the reign of seven English kings, from Æthelstan, the first to consider himself King of all Britain, to Ethelred; some considered him a friend and adviser; others saw him as a foe, one even banishing him overseas. But whether welcome at court in Winchester or not, Dunstan is always plotting and planning, furthering his own ends as much as the king's.


This is period of history I know little about - I think for many readers the time from Alfred the Great to William the Conqueror will be a blur - but, from this story of a man caught in the middle of it, it's as full of treachery, double dealing, and political machinations as you could imagine.
The story is told as the remembrances of an old man looking back on his long, tumultuous life, his achievements and mistakes, the part he played in history as builder of church monuments and adviser to kings. The portrait Iggulden paints of Dunstan is of a complex man. A younger son with few other prospects, he's drawn to the church more for the possibilities of power and learning, than any religious calling. Tales of miracles and visions surround him and Dunstan becomes Abbot of Glastonbury at an early age, spending much of his life building of monasteries and cathedrals. On the other hand, he's full of petty jealousies, not wanting anyone to stand in his way, holding grudges against those opposed to him, and paying them back with violence. He's not a man you'd want to get on the wrong side of!

It isn't the sort of book that I'd normally pick up but I've been watching The Last Kingdom on TV and as this is set a couple of generations or so later I was intrigued. There's some, though not a tremendous amount of, war and violence because of the nature of the times, but the story only really concerns itself with events Dunstan witnesses first hand, and as a man in holy orders he's not on the front line of every battle and skirmish.  Dunstan brings the period to life in an enjoyable, readable way - and there are historical notes at the end if, like me, you want to know how the story compares to what really happened.



Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - 
Michael Joseph
Genre - Adult historical fiction





Monday, 15 May 2017

The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel

review by Maryom

Based on the story of her grandparents, Meike's Ziervogel's latest novel returns to the scene of her first, Magda - Germany in the 1930s and '40s. This time though the focus is not on the Nazi elite, but on an 'average' couple - Trude and Albert.
They meet in 1933, and, despite Trude's mother's objections, after a whirlwind romance leave Germany to travel round Europe while Albert begins to make his mark as a photographer. With war approaching they return home to Pomerania in the east of Germany, but Albert is soon forced to join the army, and as the war sweeps first east then west, the family is separated by forces beyond their control.
Through this small family of mother, daughter, son-in-law, and grandson, we see the desperate hardships and heart-breaking decisions that faced many German families - to volunteer or try to avoid conscription, to remain in the family home or flee with only the minimum of clothing and mementos; it's a story that in many ways is being echoed today in other parts of the world.
So many war-time 'romances' end with the return of the soldier to a hero's welcome; the Photographer doesn't. Trude and Albert's story continues in the harsh environment of refugee camps, where they have to readjust, learn to love each other again, and Albert particularly has to forget the past few years and rediscover the person he was before. The horrors he's seen are largely unmentioned, but have obviously affected him; as he wanders around, picking up his camera but never ready to commit to actually taking a photograph, there's an almost unbearable sense of a man lost and not able to find his way back to 'normality'.
In length, the story is short - 170 pages - but it's not one to rush. Take your time, because every word counts. Ziervogel's prose is pared back, almost to a minimum, and leaves the reader to put in some effort. At times the motivation behind the characters' actions is left a little 'open', and the reader can maybe choose their own interpretation  - for instance, one may see Trude's mother as an interfering busybody, another as a concerned, patriotic mother. I quite like this in a novel - the story isn't cast in stone, but can be re-interpreted according to my mood or influences outside the book.


Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - Adult historical fiction, WW2, 

Friday, 12 May 2017

Unthology 9 - Edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones

Review by The Mole

This, the latest, anthology feels like a deviation from the style of the earlier ones - but that doesn't lessen the quality of the collection or each of the stories in the group of 17.

We start with the atmospheric telling of a dream-like narration of a suicide by drowning - but within that we learn something of that has brought them to this.

The next tells of an old man's journey through life and his search for something from his childhood for one last time.

So the collection has what would normally be  very dark theme - in fact "The End" would be an appropriate subtitle for this collection. But most of the stories aren't dark and they don't, in anyway shape or form, glamorise death.

As Linda Was Buying Tulips, About Time  and Traffic are complete steps away from the theme and You May As Well Give Up Trying To Make Something Of Yourself makes you wonder and left me later thinking "What did happen there?".

My real favourite deals in life and death in a manner I've never read before and left me wondering about Ego and the Surgeon - In Rehearsal by Sarah Evans.

Each story can be read in a coffee break and give you something to think about and waiting for another cuppa.

The collection returns to suicide by drowning but the circle we have come does not fully close itself.

A really spellbinding collection of stories once again with appeal to even those of us who don't like dark themes.

Publisher - Unthank Books
Genre - Adult short story anthology 

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings

review by Maryom

The quiet country town of Heathcote is being disturbed by rumours of someone sneaking into houses, sometimes even when the owners are at home. No one has seen this mysterious person, nick-named The Fox for his sneaky habits, and nothing has been stolen, but people report their possessions being moved, as if picked up and replaced in the wrong spot. In a small community where everyone knows their neighbours, it's a disquieting feeling. Then events escalate with the disappearance of Anna, a quiet young woman who lived alone, and everyone fears she's been abducted by The Fox. As the local police call in reinforcements, people hide indoors behind locked windows and chained doors, all fearing they might be the next victim ...

Set in the 1980s and inspired by real events of the time, We All Begin As Strangers is a really impressive debut. Although revolving around a crime, it isn't quite a crime novel, and although it's a psychological study of what goes on behind the net curtains of a small, fairly prosperous English town, is definitely isn't a psychological thriller. It's closer to Joanna Cannon's The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, or Jon McGregor's Reservoir 13, both of which use the whodunnit format to explore the relationships and secrets of a small community.
The story is told in the third person, with each of the four parts of the novel being told from a different character's point of view - that of  Deloris, who's been married for only a year, but is finding the reality of married life doesn't live up to her hopes and expectations; Jim, the lay preacher who knew Anna through her help at the church, and is running from something shameful in his past; Brian, the local policeman, whose life revolves around caring for his older brother disabled in a freak accident; and Stan the supermarket manager, another person hiding a guilty secret. Anna herself, around whom everything revolves, remains an enigma - pleasant, kind, always busy with charity work, or helping at the church, well thought of by her neighbours, but not really close to any of them.
The author shows a real understanding of her characters' emotions and thoughts, their strengths or flaws, and brings them to life with care and sympathy - any or all feel like they could be your neighbours.




Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Orion Books

Genre - adult fiction

Monday, 8 May 2017

Spot the Mistake:Lands of Long Ago by Amanda Wood and Mike Jolley

illustrated by Frances Castle

"Would a Mayan warrior have worn a watch? Would a Viking have used a compass? Test your knowledge of history and spot 20 mistakes in every scene. Then, turn the page to discover if you were right and learn more fun facts about ancient civilisations, including the Ancient Greeks, the Ancient Egyptians, the Romans, the Mayans, the Vikings, and many more!"

review by Maryom

I know I'm not the target reader but I love this book!
It's split into ten sections, each covering a different period of time from the prehistoric Stone Age through the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Greece, Rome, China and central America to Medieval Knights, Vikings, the Mughal Empire in India and seventeenth century Caribbean Pirates just like Jack Sparrow! For each time period there's a double-page spread showing typical activities BUT there are mistakes. In each picture are twenty things which do not belong, and which the reader has to spot.
Now, I always find that there's something about a 'spot the mistake' game that drags me in, so obviously I had to try and spot them. Some were obvious - there were no cameras in Ancient Greece, and pirates didn't play on the beach making sandcastles - but there were some I didn't know - no chickens in Neolithic Britain or carrots in the time of the Pharaohs - and some sneaky ones that I couldn't find. Maybe you need sharper eyes than mine, but if you don't spot every mistake, don't worry; the answers are given on the next page, along with more interesting facts about the time period.

Every page has bright, colourful illustrations, and while children are looking at tham and trying to spot all the mistakes, they'll be learning about the past without really realising.



Publisher - Wide Eyed Editions
Genre - Non-fiction, history, children's 7+

Friday, 5 May 2017

The Wooden Camel by Wanuri Kahiu



illustrated by Manuela Adreani




review by Maryom

Etabo is too small to race camels, but he watches his brother racing and imagines it must feel like flying. One day, he's sure, he'll be better than his brother, possibly even the best camel racer ever. Times are hard for his family though. The cost of necessities like water is rising, and Etabo's father is forced to sell their camels. Left alone to look after the family gosts, Etabo can still dream ... but is it enough?

We can't always have what we want. Sometimes hopes and dreams have to be put on hold for a while - and waiting a month can seem like forever to a child. This universal story of keeping those dreams alive through imagination could have been set anywhere, but by choosing the dry desert of the north-west of her native Kenya, Wanuri Kahiu introduces children to a life very different to their own. Here we expect to turn on a tap and fill our glasses and mugs with clean water for 'free'; to live in a place where such a necessity can become almost too expensive to buy seems shocking, but sadly this is the case in many areas of the world. Children won't realise they're learning about the world though, they'll be caught up in Etabo's story, and wondering how he will follow his dreams.
Illustrator Manuela Adreani brings Etabo's world to life in colourful full page spreads that capture the arid heat, dry sandy ground, and, of course, the swiftness of camels.
The Wooden Camel is a lovely book which emphasises that no matter how different our lives may be we all have dreams, and through our imagination can pursue them.

Publisher - Lantana
genre - children's picture book,


Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Author event - Robin Hobb


 US fantasy author Robin Hobb (aka Megan Lindholm) is here in the UK at the moment promoting her latest book, and last in the long-running Fitz and the Fool series, Assassin's Fate, and last night she was at Nottingham Waterstones to talk to a packed room.



As you can see, we were right at the back, so please excuse the blurry photos!


I'm a relative new-comer to the world of Fitz and the Fool. Although I read the first Rain Wild chronicle a few years ago, I really got into the Farseer world when I read Assassin's Apprentice, last December. I'd hoped to read the whole series before publication date of Assassin's Fate came around, but that plan hasn't really worked - I'm only on the fifth book, The Mad Ship. I have, though, become a great fan, and my new resolve is to finish them all before paperback publication of Assassin's Fate (so, in a way, I'm hoping that's many months away)
Robin opened last night's event by reading from Assassin's Fate and, although I didn't really know the characters and their circumstances, I could glean enough to guess some of the plot developments between where I've reached and this final instalment. I was left with a dilemma - part of me wants to jump ahead, and see how everything ends, then go back and take things slowly through the series; the other part thinks I should read each book in turn with no jumping ahead and plot spoilers. I'll probably go for the traditional, sequential route but try to avoid that desire to 'know how it all ends', which can cause me to rush.








I don't usually bother about the actual physical appearance of a book - after all the story inside is the most important aspect, the cover just a way to keep the pages together - but this one, from a painting by Jackie Morris, is something really special. So gorgeous, in fact that I'd almost frame it and hang it on the wall!

Friday, 28 April 2017

Mark of the Cyclops by Saviour Pirotta

illustrated by Freya Hartas

review by Maryom

Nico and Thrax both work for professional poet and singer, Ariston, but there is one important difference between the two boys - Nico is a freeborn apprentice and Thrax a slave. Their master travels all round Greece performing at weddings and festivals, and it's while on a trip to a wedding in Corinth, that the boys become amateur detectives. A precious vase, a gift for the bride, is broken and suspicion falls on a slave girl, Gaia. Nico and Thrax believe her story that a mystery intruder disguised in a Cyclops mask was responsible, and set out to clear her name.

Mark of the Cyclops is the first in a series of adventures for children set in Ancient Greece. Nico and Thrax are a little bit like younger versions of  Sherlock Holmes and Watson; Thrax is the one with the investigative mind, Nico his chronicler and 'author' of this adventure. Together they find themselves on the trail of a smuggling gang, which isn't without its danger (though not too frightening for young readers). The story is fun and exciting, and at the same time brings the world of Ancient Greece vividly to life, with facts about everyday life, beliefs, and customs, worked in without detracting from the story-line, plus there are excellent black and white illustrations throughout from Freya Hartas which again help readers picture the characters and setting. Children, and even their parents, will pick up a lot of historical facts without even realising!

This first book centres on the two boys, Nico and Thrax, but I feel the overall story arc is shaping up so that Gaia and her young mistress Fotini will have more important roles in future. I thoroughly enjoyed Mark of the Cyclops, and I'm sure young readers will too.

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

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Red Moon Rising by JT Brannan


review by Maryom

Once a high-powered New York Assistant DA, Jessica Hudson's career came to an end when she was hit by a would-be-assassin's bullet. After months in a coma, she's trying to build a new life, almost as far away as she can get, in the wilds of Alaska. Then late one night a naked, battered girl staggers up to Jessica's door, and her refuge becomes the centre of a murder investigation, with police and on-lookers swarming about ... until Jessica wakes next morning and finds no traces of the previous evening's events. Has she really jumped in time while she slept? woken BEFORE the girl was abducted and tortured? if so, is there a way she can prevent the crime happening? 

It's a bit difficult to know how to describe Red Moon Rising  - is it time travel? psychological thriller? murder mystery? It's probably best to say 'a bit of all',  but it's definitely a story that had me hooked as, along with main character Jessica, I tried to find out exactly WHAT was happening. 
I don't normally read/review self-published books, but I've read JT Brannan's previous novels - Origin and Extinction - published through Headline, and enjoyed both of them (and the Mole has also read Brannan's self-published Stop At Nothing), so I was happy to read Red Moon Rising when approached by the author.  
As I say, the story's a mix of crime thriller and time travel, with Jessica moving backwards and forwards trying to prevent the murder of a teenage girl, while coping with her own personal demons. Obviously things don't go as simply as nipping back a day or so and altering the course of events, but the author's thought through the advantages and drawbacks to travelling through time, knowing what will happen before anyone else, and affecting events, and doesn't leave loose ends (a bugbear of mine). The story is fast-paced, sometimes leaving the reader wondering what's going on - but Jessica's in the same position and as she figures things out, so does the reader - and, while she's wondering whether everything is really happening or some coma nightmare she's trapped in, Jessica has a crime to solve and a would-be murderer to catch. There are plenty of suspects, from her callous ex-boyfriend to locals with prior convictions, and a twist to catch you unaware. 
A bit of warning that the violence and injuries are described a bit too graphically, and may prove unsettling for some readers, otherwise it's an enjoyable, gripping read.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Genre - adult, crime thriller, time travel

Monday, 24 April 2017

Wild Chamber (Bryant and May) by Christopher Fowler

Review by The Mole

After a few historic events, setting what will become background to the next case, we are treated to a letter from Raymond Land (the head of the Peculiar Crimes Unit) to the staff. For new readers this is a great introduction to the team members, the unit and the antics up to which they get. It's sets the mood light-heartedly though the plot doesn't remain this light-hearted for very long - this is a murder mystery after all is said and done.

The book is split into 7 days as the case progresses and Bryant and May find, once again, that the race is on not only to find the killer but also to save their careers and the PCU.

Combining all the best techniques Fowler produces some of the very best in crime fiction. The cover photo does, however, give a spoiler to one particular incident in the story.

Fast paced, compelling, challenging are all words we expect to be used when describing good crime fiction and this IS good crime fiction but unlike many such series it's not just about the detectives. We know a lot about Bryant, not as much about May but Fowler also fleshes out a little of each of the rest of the team - including the intern who is temporary secondment from Cologne and is learning about British policing.

Bryant and May at their very eccentric best.

Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction,  crime mystery

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 3 - edited by Teika Bellamy

review by Maryom

Having seen editor Teika Bellamy on social media first asking for submissions, then talking about her difficulties in choosing which would make the cut, I've been eagerly waiting to read this, the third collection of re-imagined fairy tales from Mother's Milk Books. Most of us start our reading with fairy stories and for me that love of magic and mystery has stayed, but reading with an adult's view the children's versions have all the "otherness" and magic washed out of them. Here, in these seventeen stories, that returns.

As you'd imagine there are many of the familiar 'faces' included - animals are turned into men, and vice versa, mermaids sing their siren songs, children go missing lured away by by an enchantment, a woman is made of flowers, a child made of salt.
Some are set in the familiar never-never-land of fairy stories with dark, forbidden forests where people mustn't stray from their village or a lady from her tower. Others in more contemporary surroundings - an orphaned child with strange eyes is found on a bomb site, the Little Match Girl is transported to present day London, and that fairy tale regular, the old crone, sits on a park bench and admires the youth and fitness of a triathlete. They even transport well to the future - the dangers of a forest are replaced by an airless planet and fairy folk by 'aliens', and our obsession with social media becomes a cautionary tale for the children of our descendants.
The stories vary in length from a couple of pages to a dozen or so, some are funny, some magical, but all are enjoyable, and look beyond the obvious day to day world. I'm not going to go into details about every story but here are three of my favourites -

Dan Micklethwaite's Midnight Riders in which the story of Cinderella's coachman is played out in London's Underground
Sarah Armstrong's The Truth About Tea in which a mother decides to check out the young woman her son intends to marry (in this modern day, you can't really try the pea-under-the-mattress test)
Clair Wright's Spawned, a 'sequel' to the tale of the Frog Prince which underlines that love is really all you need.

Authors; Poppy O'Neil, Dan Micklethwaite, Lynden Ware, Angi Holden, Ronne Randall, Sophie Sellars, Elizabeth Hopkinson, Claire Stephenson, NJ Ramsden, Moira Garland, Ness Owen, Clair Wright, Carys Crossen, Marie Gethins, Rachel Rivett, Sarah Armstrong, Sarah Hindmarsh

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