Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Rarity From The Hollow by Robert Eggleton

Review by The Mole

Twelve year old Lacy Dawn lives in the Hollow, a place that the world seems to have forgotten. Her father suffers from PTSD after the Gulf War and family abuse follows as a result. Lacy Dawn's friend's family suffer similarly but her friend was killed through it. But Lacy Dawn has another friend who has his own spaceship - and when Lacy Dawn isn't talking to trees or her dead friend she is taking lessons in the spaceship and falling in love with a robot.

...and Lacy Dawn has to save the universe?

Lacy Dawn is a difficult character to get to grips with as she is intelligent beyond her years yet always the child that she is, as well. Her parents (she is an only child) came across to me as genuine and well written and plausible and her other friends and relatives similarly.

Drugs, used recreationally, feature highly in the books - although not for Lacy Dawn - but they are used to highlight some of the erratic behaviour of characters. Sex also features regularly but behind closed doors only and NOT with Lacy Dawn involved - she is saving herself for when Dotcom marries her. Dotcom is her robot boyfriend from outer space.

Tension and edge of the seat reading did not feature in this book for me but none the less it was a compelling read - one that didn't get me uptight, which was nice for once. It was also laced with humour, not laugh out loud or share with someone in the room humour, but enough to lighten the mood just a little.

It has been described as "an adult literary novel with a social science fiction" but I very much found it science fiction with a little fantasy but very much focussed on social issues - including abuse within the family.

And family abuse (in which the children always suffer in some way shape or form) is something the author has spent his career working against so the author proceeds of the current edition of this book are going to a children's home charity.

A great book that doesn't in any way preach yet brings home 2 things:
(1) important social messages
(2) a truly entertaining story

Genre - Adult Science Fiction
Publisher - Dog Horn Publishing

Friday, 18 August 2017

Yesterday by Felicia Yap

review by Maryom

A body has been found in the river by Grantchester meadows. The coat pockets laden with pebbles point to suicide; the bump on the head says otherwise. So the police begin investigations - but things are tricky in a world where the majority of people can only remember the events of yesterday, and the pressure is on for a speedy resolution.

This book starts with an interesting premise - that most adults only retain memories of the previous day, the lucky few remember two days - then throws in a murder mystery, but it soon lost its hold on me as it turned into a fairly predictable domestic noir.
 Although the book isn't promoted as such, I'd expected a more 'sci-fi' take to the story. After all, a whole population coping with memory problems like that would surely be really weird. How did it develop in the first place? How do people cope from day to day? Would staying awake for long periods (perhaps with the help of drugs) keep someone's memory intact or is time the factor that governs this strange condition? And how can you hope to solve a murder when the facts will start to slip away from witnesses' minds at the end of the day? The aspects which intrigued me most weren't addressed as the book is much more murder mystery than speculative fiction, and as for coping day to day, well that's solved by the use of diaries - filled in every night to make sure important events and feelings are remembered, and read every morning to convert 'memories' into 'facts' which are never forgotten. To be honest, I felt these characters probably had a better grasp of what happened last week, by referring to their diaries, than I have with only a memory to count on!
I also found it a bit bizarre that events took place in what feels like a familiar setting, Granchester Meadows - I half expected Sidney Chambers and his entourage to show up and help solve the mystery!
If you're reading this as another domestic noir, you'll probably like it well enough, but I'm not particularly fond of the genre, and, comparing it to other fiction involving memory loss, Yesterday didn't have the tension of SJ Watson's Before I Go to Sleep, total world immersion of Emily Barr's The One Memory of Flora Banks or the grittiness of the Christopher Nolan film Momento.

Maryom's review - 3 stars
Publisher - Wildfire 
Genre - domestic noir, adult fiction

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

review by Maryom
The city of Sorlost stands at the heart of an empire that was once the richest the world had ever known. But its glory days are past. While titled families still play court to a puppet Emperor, and spend wildly and extravagantly on their own pleasures, the streets are filled with the desperate and homeless. Orhan Emmereth has decided it's time things were changed, and a band of mercenaries are heading across the desert to put his plans into action. They're a hotchpotch band of experienced fighters and raw recruits, but the strangest among their number is the youngster Marith, running away from something ( a common enough scenario for mercenaries) yet filled at times with a berserker killing rage beyond anything his comrades have seen, and somehow carrying a feel of impending doom or glorious destiny about him.
Meanwhile, in the temple in Sorlost, the High Priestess Thalia continues her routine of prayers and sacrifices, never wondering what lies beyond the enclosing walls ...

To be honest, I found it a little difficult to get started with this story - it has that problem frequently found in fantasy books (or even hulking great classics like Middlemarch or War and Peace) of such a huge cast of characters to be introduced within the first few chapters, that it can be hard to start to piece together the overall plot-line; I just got to grips with one group of characters and the story jumped elsewhere and to different players. If you find this, bear with it. Get past those first few chapters, and the book will grow on you - well, it did on me! Gradually, the scenario emerges - a decaying empire, someone eager to gain control of it, mercenaries with their own aims which may not run in the same course as their employer's, a young man hiding secrets in his past and a probably unfortunate destiny in his the future, and a beautiful woman dedicated since childhood as a priestess.
It has all the things I love in fantasy novels. The world-building is excellent, the writing rich and varied, and the characters behave as real people with human foibles, failings, and strengths. Yes, there are mages ready to whip up pyrotechnic displays, beautiful selkie women from the sea, even a dragon or two, but the story is powered by qualities we can recognise - ambition, fear, or desire - not the wave of a magician's wand.
If you love a tale in which alliances are made and broken, god and armies are ready to battle till no one's left standing, and trustworthy friends are as eager to betray you as your enemy is, then this is for you. Be warned though, the story is dark, violent, there's plenty of blood and gore, and the description of Marith's beserker rampages deeply unsettling. It's maybe odd then that the images and scenes which stood out most for me were of quieter moments -  the descriptions of the once glorious but now down at heel city of Sorlost, the desolate emptiness of the desert or its brief flowering after rain, Marith's delight in the seaside haunts of his childhood, and two lovers stealing a day away from treachery and death. Maybe it's something to do with the balance between the two aspects of the story but as the first book in a series it's grabbed me in a way that off hand I can only think of Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice having done before. I just hope there isn't too long to wait for Book 2.

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

Friday, 11 August 2017

The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

Review by The Mole

When the steamship that May Bedloe is on explodes she finds herself on the banks of the Ohio with only the clothes she is wearing. Separated from Comfort, her cousin she was travelling with, she looks for some way to carry on. She joins the Floating Theatre as a seamstress, front of house, pianist, stage manager, show promotions, ticket maker and seller, in fact anything that is not actually on stage.

Then enter Mrs Howard, to who she owes money, to blackmail her into helping in the underground railroad.

When I saw this book I was very curious... I reviewed "O Freedom" a while ago, which is a book for younger readers, that follows a family along the underground railroad. Then "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction (a book I haven't read) so another book touching on the same topic intrigued me.

The plot follows the theatre, which drifts down the river that marks the border between north and south, and is towed back up the river at end of season. We are introduced to theatre life in this cramped environment as well as a little of lives along the river and the coming of coal mining to the area - the fuel of the steamships.

May is a character that cannot lie - she corrects the smallest of errors in speech - so the theatre is an odd place to find her - stories and plays are "lies" after all. I found her a fascinating character to follow and how she coped with the pressures of blackmail that forced her to more than lie, but to break the law.

The story also covered an aspect of the railroad that I didn't know existed.

All in all an intriguing story told very well that left me with an idea what life on the Ohio at that time may have been like.

Genre - Adult historical fiction
Publisher - Zaffre Publishing

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

review by Maryom

"For sisters Liz and Jane, coming home to suburban Cincinnati means being paraded at the Lucas family’s BBQ, where burgers are served alongside the eligible men. But it’s difficult to focus on re-booting their love lives when the family’s mock-Tudor house starts to crumble around them. Yet as their mother reminds them, it’s not every day you meet a pair of handsome single doctors . . ."

Mr and Mrs Bennet of Cincinnati have been blessed with five daughters. Now ranging in ages from mid-twenties to late thirties Mrs Bennet feels it's time they settled down and got married, preferably to someone wealthy. The two eldest, Jane and Liz, have returned home temporarily due to their father's ill-health, and Mrs Bennet sees this as an ideal time to pursue her plans, especially when they're introduced to two doctors newly-arrived in town, and by all criteria eminently eligible.
In some on line listings, this book is sub-titled A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice, so if you hadn't guessed already, you know now where this story is taking us - into familiar territory with Jane and Liz Bennet, Chip Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Obviously the Bennet sister's lives are different in the 21st century, (though the younger three are still trying their best to live off Mom and Dad, rather than strike out on their own as independent women) but some things don't change so, although a rich husband is no longer a necessity, everyone is looking for a lasting, loving relationship.

I'm not a purist so I've no problem with re-workings of Austen's work, from books such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to films like Bride and Prejudice or Clueless, and really rather liked Eligible. transporting the Bennet sisters to present day America worked better than I thought it would, and although there's less of Austen's cutting satire, I felt overall the book really captured her style.

I'm not sure though that I'd say it's what Austen would write if she were around today. In her time she was innovative, exploring what could be achieved in a relatively new art form, so today I'd don't think she'd be in the 'romantic fiction' section of the book shop. Instead I imagine her writing graphic novels, feminist stand-up comedy, or The Thick of It style political satire - and if the Bennet sisters have a place there, it's a very different one.

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

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Woman in the Shadows by Carol McGrath

review by Maryom

Elizabeth Williams is newly widowed, after a love-less marriage arranged by her father. She's still young, has a head for trade and figures, and is determined to keep her independence by taking over her husband's cloth business. It's not an unknown course of action for a widow, but Elizabeth has opponents among London's cloth merchants and, closer to home, in her father who thinks she should do no such thing, but either let him merge the business with his, or marry again. An arson attack on her premises leaves her shaken but still firm in her intentions, though concerned that someone may have uncovered her late husband's secrets ...
Meanwhile, she finds herself attracted to Thomas Cromwell, cloth merchant turned lawyer, who represents a chance for both love and security.

I think anyone with an interest in historical fiction will be aware of the huge number of books out there set in the Tudor period, but most focus on Henry VIII's court, and, of course, his multitude of wives. In The Woman in the Shadows, Carol McGrath approaches the matter from a different angle - that of a woman from the merchant class, involved in trade both at home and abroad, seeing the noblemen and women of the court as potential customers for her finer stock but little concerned with their lives. Once she marries Thomas Cromwell her life begins to change - for Thomas is intent on furthering his career, and in Tudor times that means becoming involved with the court and its politics. If you've read, or watched the TV version of, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, you'll know what happens to him later in life, but here we're concerned with him BEFORE he became a major player on the Tudor political scene. Seen through Elizabeth's eyes, he's ambitious, a little too secretive, and definitely too radical in his views! Elizabeth is portrayed as a modest, religious woman, not wholly comfortable with some of her husband's ideas or his growing involvement with the movers and shakers of Henry's court. In one respect I wasn't comfortable with her outlook - along with no doubt many others at the time, she sees homosexuality as a sin, condemned by the church, and punished after death, but it's important to bear in mind that she's a Tudor woman with the attitudes and opinions of her time, and influenced heavily by the Church's stance.
The insight into everyday Tudor life is fascinating. From the details of Elizabeth's clothes, cleaning and decorating a house, to dressing up and celebrating feast days almost every aspect is covered as Elizabeth and Thomas go about their daily lives. It's also interesting to see that long before celebrity magazines the public were eager for news of the famous folk of the day - Henry's longing for a son, and his extra-marital affairs are pretty much public knowledge, and discussed eagerly among the cloth merchants' wives (and I suspect by their husbands too). All these details help bring the period to life, a living backdrop to Elizabeth's personal story.

You can also read a guest post from Carol McGrath talking about Elizabeth Cromwell and Women in Tudor Times here

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - 
Accent Press
 Genre - adult historical fiction

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Curious Arts festival - author event - Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers (left)

by Maryom

Dave Eggers's book event proved to be unusual as it wasn't really about books as such.
He was interviewed by Patrick Keogh, one of the team behind Curious Arts, and the two discussed Eggers' opinions, ideas, and beliefs, but didn't talk much about his books. It was certainly an interesting event though.
Keogh started by asking "What about Trump?" Now, this is one of those questions that we'd probably ALL like to ask American voters and
Eggers was one of those many Americans who didn't believe it was possible that Trump would be elected. When Trump got the republication nomination, Eggers thought Hilary Clinton would just walk all over him. Then at a rally in California he realised that the average voter saw things differently - that Trump was someone different to the average politician, a guy they'd seen on TV, and somehow thought he was nearer in outlook to them. Even so Eggers was shocked with the election results, comparing the mood in Clinton's office to the fall of Saigon.
Somehow, via a brief mention of Eggers' latest book, Heroes of the Frontier, the conversation moved on to children, their dependence on technology, and lack of self-reliance. Eggers is from Chicago which is a very cynical,cautious place, slow to embrace change, but moving to San Francisco he found himself mixing with the pioneers of the internet,and he knows tech executives who insist that their children lead totally tech-free lives, even sending them to schools where parents pledge their children will not be exposed to social media or even TV at home. He himself is not concerned about kids becoming too dependent on the internet. He was delighted by the Jabberwocky Hunt that had taken place at Curious Arts, and firmly believes that if you leave kids to get bored - for like a minute and a half - they'll find something to do, or make up their own games. They suffer, he thinks, from protection paradox - children are rarely seen out and about alone in SF, they're chaperoned to the park or to school, and this level of protection, although understandable, lets them grow up not knowing how to protect themselves, either in an urban street wise way, or out in the wilds.

And via children in general, they ended up discussing Egger's 826 Valencia project. He wanted to set up a place where kids struggling with English as a second language could be helped with school work, getting writers with time on their hands to assist the project, but the zoning laws stipulated the chosen premises had to be retail, so the front half of the space became a shop full of pirate related stuff - eye patches, peg legs, parrot food - to comply, and the non-profit tutoring centre occupied the rear. The model was so successful that the ideas expanded to other cities across the US, with superheroes or Big Foot as the shop's theme, and Danny Boyle and Nick Hornby have brought the concept over to Dublin and London.

Certainly, as I said, an interesting event. I've not read any of Eggers' books, but now  I think i shall have to.

Pete Brown at Curious Arts Festival

 By The Mole

Beer. What could be more British than beer? There are just four major ingredients as the book cover says: hops, barley, water and yeast. But barley won't make beer - well, not until it's been malted. Malting is getting the barley to germinate and before it's finished, roasting it. But who found that out? It was being done centuries before the chemistry was understood so how did hat happen? Beer is one fascinating subject in its own right with a tremendous amount of history about it and this book is very much going on my 'wish list'.

And then there's cider... another fascinating subject - but so is the apple tree. Pete Brown talked a little about it's vagaries and unpredictability in cultivation. We all have out favourite apples but do you know that all Bramley apples originated from one tree? Or any other variety? This book explores apples from around the world and their history. Another for my 'wish list'

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Carol McGrath - The Woman in the Shadows - blog tour

Today we're delighted to be hosting the blog tour for Carol McGrath's The Woman in the Shadows, the story of Elizabeth Cromwell, the wife of Tudor statesman Thomas, with a piece from the author on the role of women in Tudor times ...

Elizabeth Cromwell and Women in Tudor Times

My new novel The Woman in the Shadows will be published on 4th August. This novel’s protagonist is Thomas Cromwell’s wife Elizabeth Cromwell. It was difficult to find recorded history about Elizabeth Cromwell, so to bring the wife of Henry VIII’s infamous statesman to the page, I undertook an enormous amount of research into the lives of Tudor women and, in particular, into the lives of women belonging to London’s merchant class. Here are snippets of what I discovered and integrated into the world of The Woman in the Shadows.

Elizabeth was a young widow when she married Thomas Cromwell circa 1514. The age at which a first marriage took place varied depending on social background. The average would have been twenty to twenty-six. I suggest twenty-two. He would have been twenty-eight. A marriage was the joining of whole families and, as the Cromwells business interests expanded, relatives were drawn in. In fact, it was a relative who helped Cromwell get employed by Cardinal Wolsey. Widows could choose their second husband. They could inherit their husband’s business interests and a third portion if they had children by that husband. Once married, her property became her husband’s property even if they parted. I like to think there was love and mutual respect between Elizabeth and Thomas. It is recorded fact that his friends admired Elizabeth.

This was an important function of marriage. Elizabeth was not continually pregnant but she had three children with Thomas Cromwell. There was little pre-natal care. Dietary advice was based on the humours. Fish and milk, for instance, were considered phlegmatic. On birth the belief in talismans was common. Eagle-stones and the St Catherine’s belt were popular. Many churches apparently possessed this reliquary or its imitation and lent the belt out to women for their labour. A pregnant woman took to her chamber four weeks before the birth. It was hung with best hangings and the shutters were fastened up against fresh air. After the birth, the mother was confined to bed for three days and then to her chamber until her churching, a simple thanksgiving service, over a month later.

Both middle-class boys and girls had an informal education including instruction in religion. Girls were taught to be good, obedient faithful wives and to raise children as devout Christians. Children of Elizabeth’s class were taught to make themselves pleasing in company and useful to those above them. Even apprentices were taught good manners. Elizabeth had to be capable of looking after her house and children properly, and above all to have a care for her husband’s comfort. She was, as many women were, involved in their business interests, even if Thomas was the main bread-earner. Even though she could be a female merchant the professions such as the legal professions were closed to her. Women often did the accounts, and she may well have done these in the early days of their marriage. Yet, even if she was clever she was expected to be soft and delicate, and could never think of herself as a man’s equal.

Tudors washed more frequently than given credit for. Bathing was a wooden tub for most. They strip-washed every day and it was a matter of pride to have clean linen. Women made scented washing balls from expensive imported olive oil soap by adding herbs and flower scents to them. A respectable Tudor never sat down to eat without washing hands first as they ate with fingers. Cleanliness about the household was vital. The dairy especially must be clean. General cleaning was an extremely time-consuming task. Elizabeth would have had servants and cooks but it was her responsibility to train them.

Food and Cooking
A good display at meal times was important. Thomas Cromwell was exceptionally social and apparently good company. He was witty and possessed a phenomenal memory. The family would lose face if the house-wife could not present guests with a variety of dishes. These would include plain boiled and roasted meats accompanied with fancy spiced sauces. Exotic ingredients could be found in Elizabeth’s kitchen. One example mentioned in the novel is Russian isinglass - an expensive, pure form of gelatin found in the swim bladders of sturgeon. White leach was made by boiling new milk with isinglass and leaving it to cool and set firm until it could be cut into squares that might be gilded.

There is much, much more and limited space here. The book’s world is packed with a woman’s life in the Early Tudor period. At this time the exact nature of a woman was under debate as was the effect of education on women. I like to think that as a Humanist, a man of the new learning, a Renaissance man, Thomas Cromwell was enlightened and in favour of education for women, just like Thomas More who famously had his daughters educated. Tudor women, in general, none the less, had skills that even though not completely acknowledged, were as essential to society as those belonging to their brothers, fathers, and husbands. They, like today’s women, were true multi-taskers. They were both similar and different, and, for me, incorporating this concept into Elizabeth’s story was the novel’s real challenge.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Climbing Trees at Curious Arts

By The Mole

(This event was part of Niddfest Comes South)

Do you ever look at a tree and think "I could pull myself up on that branch, climb onto that one and work my up" and then move on without even approaching the tree? This certainly happens to me but one day Jack Cooke did approach that tree and started climbing. And since then he has climbed tree after tree after tree. Many of his trees have been in London where, believe it or not, there are 3,000,000 trees.

This book is written so that you can 'dip in' and out of as he tells of different trees he has climbed. Trees where you bump into someone sitting eating their lunch. Trees where someone dials 999 because they think you are going to commit suicide. Trees where you ask a passing stranger for a leg up to get started. Trees where things don't go quite as planned. Bumps and scrapes are the order of the day but you get to see so much from up there as well as in the tree itself. I may start climbing trees again myself. Certainly one I shall be looking to read soon.

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Susanna Beard

by Maryom

Sunday morning was sunny and bright, and a perfect day for relaxing in deckchairs in the small Arcadia tent, to listen to Paul Blezard chat to Susanna Beard about her debut novel Dare To Remember. After a career in PR, promoting everything from wifi to wine, Susanna wanted to pursue her dream of writing a novel, and while doing so enrolled on one of the Faber courses, through which such a lot of authors have come to notice.

She wasn't setting out to write a crime novel as such, but just wrote a story and ignored which genre it might fall into. In the end, Dare to Remember is a mix of crime, thriller and psychological drama, not easily falling into one single category, and is the story of a woman recovering from a violent attack. Following it, Lisa cuts herself off from friends and family, and leaves town for the quiet of the country, but even there she can't escape what happened. Trauma has wiped her memory of the awful events, yet glimpses insist on coming back to her, and the only way forward for her seems to be to re-encounter the past.

While plotting and writing, Susanna found she needed to do research - into trauma, PTSD, victim support and the restorative Justice Council. Even though a lot of the details didn't actually find their way into the book, she felt they were needed for her to understand the emotions and process Lisa was undergoing. Susanna read a short section of Lisa having a 'panic attack' in her local village store after seeing the butcher carrying a knife, and she really seems to have caught the horror that overwhelms Lisa at that point.

A question often asked of debut authors is What next? Well, Susanna is ahead of the game, and her second novel, this time set in Lithuania, is already with her publishers.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Eimear McBride

by Maryom

Usually I feel the public (including me) goes along to a book event to see an author that they've read and loved, but  I was drawn along to this event for the opposite reason -  I've heard such a lot about Eimear McBride's work but not read any of it!
It was impossible to miss the excitement among the book blogging community over her first novel A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, but somehow I'd flagged it as 'to read when there's time', and then forgotten it. Then her second book was published and I found myself lagging even further behind, but also at that place where you begin to wonder if anyone ever could live up to the hype (and having seen the reviews on you-know-where while writing this piece they're mixed to say the least!) Hearing McBride talk about, and read from, her book seemed like the ideal way to get to know her and her work better - and, from the snippet I heard, I now want to rush out and read both books!
Georgina Godwin started the event by discussing McBride's early life, and its possible influence on her work - she was born in Liverpool to Irish parents, whose work as psychiatric nurses undoubtedly opened the door on a world of emotionally and mentally disturbed people. The family moved to Sligo when McBride was three, and since then she's moved to England (London, this time for drama school), back to Ireland, back again to England and somewhere in between lived in Russia. Her first novel, A Girl is A Half-formed Thing accompanied her on some of these travels until a random conversation in a Norwich book shop led to her meeting her future publishers Galley Beggar Press. The original print run was for only 500 copies, then the Times Literary Supplement ran a favourable review and the number was doubled. All sold out in a month!
Meanwhile, McBride had started writing The Lesser Bohemians - working on it for nine years and at one point having written 800 pages before cutting most of it.

She admits to being influenced by both Dostoyevsky - for his concept of hidden narrative, which isn't strictly necessary to the storyline but which when revealed gives a whole new slant to it - and Joyce (though a bit tired of being asked about him, as if there's no other author an Irish writer can be compared to) for his use of language, and stream of consciousness style. Her acting training plays a role in her writing as she tries to make language do the same as Stanislavsky's 'method' does, incorporating everything both important and trivial, so inhabiting the character in a way that the reader becomes privy to everything inside and out.

All in all a fascinating insight into the author and her work. This is the publisher's 'blurb' for The Lesser Bohemians -

"An eighteen-year-old Irish girl arrives in London to study drama and falls violently in love with an older actor. This older man has a disturbing past that the young girl is unprepared for. The young girl has a troubling past of her own. This is her story and their story.
The Lesser Bohemians is about sexual passion. It is about innocence and -the loss of it. At once epic and exquisitely intimate, it is a celebration of the dark and the light in love"    - 

and following a short reading from it, I'm determined that at last I WILL get hold of a copy and read it!

Friday, 28 July 2017

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Matt Haig

by Maryom

The second author event I attended over the Curious Arts weekend was again held in the "Big Top" tent and pulled in quite a crowd to listen to Matt Haig talk about his latest novel, "How To Stop Time". 

Over the last twelve years Matt Haig has been writing books for both children and adults, but is perhaps best known for his recent non-fiction, Reasons To Stay Alive, dealing with depression and how he came through it. After a book which proved so harrowing to write, Matt decided to turn to something a little more fun - two children's books, A Boy Called Christmas and The Girl Who Saved Christmas - and now one for adults - How To Stop Time, which he describes as a love story/action adventure/philosophy mash up.
It's the story of Tom Hazzard, who may look like an average 40-something history teacher, but has a secret - due to  a rare condition, he ages very, very slowly, and has been alive for 439 years! Asked if this is something that would appeal to him, Matt answered with a very definite "No", as a self-confessed hypochondriac he thought it wouldn't be much fun. 
Writing this story does seem to have been fun though, from creating the character of the "baddy" to indulging in his love of social history, and being "in charge" of Tom's adventures, allowed Matt to visit some of his favourite historical periods and meet the historical figures he'd have loved to encounter - from Shakespeare to Captain Cook, Charlie Chaplin to Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald, Tom gets to rub shoulders with them all!
Matt's future plans include projects as diverse as a third children's "Christmas" book, Father Christmas and Me, and collaborating on song-writing Andy Burrows (who I was to see later that evening as drummer for Tom Odell), while plans are afoot for "How to Stop Time" to be filmed with Benedict Cumberbatch. Exciting times!

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Mole's Curious Arts Festival - 2017

Murray Lachlan Young
The last event of Friday was Murray Lachlan Young.

Simon Evans (R4 fame)
Saturday and Sunday, for me, both started with Breakfast Club in Drift, and a grand way to start the day it is. It does surprise me each time with how close to my own political views the panels (some the same, some changed) are each day and the inclusion of Simon Evans to truly lighten the mood this year was extremely good. I will forgive the chairman his gaffs on Le Tour De France and Chris Froome - not everyone follows cycling and reads biographies like The Climb. In fact the only downside this year was not being able to watch the last two days of TDF live.

Saturday continued with Robert McCrum and Every Third Thought. After suffering a stroke he found himself starting to reflect on mortality and death more than he ever had before and in this book he explores, through research with experts in their fields, what death is and what, if anything, comes next.

I was then fortunate to catch the last few minutes of the Edward Goldsmith Discussion which had a panel of Bron Taylor, Helen Scales, Valentine Waner, and Tony Juniper. The audience had been large - and not because of the weather I believe - and had many questions hinged around reconnecting with nature. This was an important theme that many would be considering over the course of the weekend.

I then enjoyed Eimar McBride's event in which Georgina Godwin talked to her about her latest book The Lesser Bohemians - Maryom plans on discussing this event further so keep an eye out for it.

Dylan and I managed to catch some of comedy, particularly Ed Byrne who completely failed to disappoint, as ever!

Junius Meyvant in the Gorse tent
Music in Gorse followed and Junius Meyvant - a band from Iceland - were extremely good. This was to be followed by Whoredogs with John Illsley of Dire Straits. At this point the tent (huge though it was) became too crowded to be safe for Dylan so we went for a walk but could still enjoy the music from the adjacent field. Later Tom Odell took to the stage to delight the crowd - and the rest of us around the site.

Southern Companion
After Breakfast Club on Sunday morning I caught the excellent Dave Eggers before moving on to catch Pete Brown and his event about beer. Well you would wouldn't you? More on this from me later.

I later caught Jack Cooke - a man of quality who immediately recognised in Dylan one fabulous dog - in his event about tree climbing and left me wishing I'd climbed more trees in the past. Once again, more on this event later. This event was part of a few that made up Niddfest Comes South and the synergy between the two festivals is very distinctive.

The last event of the festival, sadly, for me was to be catching Southern Companion in the acoustic tent, a place I'd dipped into a few times over the weekend. But with over 200 miles to get home and it threatening to take up to 5 hours to drive - we had to miss the comedy (which again was headlined by Ed Byrne) and The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra playing the music of Bond. Perhaps another year we will be able to stay Sunday night.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Joanna Trollope

by Maryom

I'd hoped to start my round of book-ish events at this year's Curious Arts Festival on Friday, with Rachel Joyce, but our late arrival due to traffic delays put paid to that, and so I had to wait till the next day, and Joanna Trollope's event. She's one of those authors frequently referred to as a house-hold name, and most of us will have read at least one of her books or seen TV adaptations of them - along with others of my age, I probably 'discovered' her through Ch 4's The Rector's Wife back in 1994. In her long career she's written twenty novels as Joanna Trollope, and more under the pseudonym of Caroline Harvey.

On Saturday, she was talking to Rowan Pelling about her latest novel, City of Friends - the story of four women, firm friends from their university days, who by chance rather than design studied economics  and went on to have jobs in the finance sector, and specifically of Stacey, who, as the book opens, has just lost her job at a top private equity firm. 

Asked why she chose to write a novel centring on the 'work' aspect of women's lives, Trollope replied that there have been endless novels about women and relationships, women and family, women and sex, women and children, but the relationship between women and work hasn't been explored anything like as much. She then chose that the 'work' in question should be that of finance as this is still seen as a male bastion, and placed her characters in management consultancy, private equity and banks.  

During her research for City of Friends, Trollope spoke to many women working in Canary Wharf, in positions similar to those of her characters, and came to believe that there's only really space for one career-minded person in a marriage, and echoed an assumption that many of us have encountered - that no matter who is the major breadwinner in a family, dealing with the 'human' problems of children or ageing parents is the responsibility of women. She also feels that the dream of having it all - high-powered job, loving husband, lovely home, adoring kids - is basically just that, a dream, a modern fairy tale to replace the one of marrying a prince and living happy ever after in a castle.

In writing her characters, Trollope hopes to recreate that friend you have, who most of the time you'll agree, and get on well, with, but at others they'll irritate you beyond imagining. So, while she agrees at times with things they say or actions they take, she definitely doesn't agree with everything they say or do; in fact. it's necessary for a character to at times behave in ways she doesn't approve of, as they must above all be true to themselves, otherwise they lose credibility. 

In answer to the 'how do you start a new story', Trollope explained that she starts with a theme - this time, as mentioned above, it's that of the relationship between women and their work - then adds in the characters. As regards structuring the book, she plans the first quarter, and knows how the story will end, but in between events are allowed to develop as they will, within reason.

I thought it was a particularly interesting author talk, raising matters of equality, feminism, and our attitudes towards career women which stretched far beyond the boundaries of the novel itself.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Curious Arts Festival - 21/23rd July 2017

By The Mole

Izzy Bizu
Once again we were given the opportunity to attend the festival with complimentary tickets. Last years event was blessed with magnificent weather and a fabulous time was had so we were delighted to be attending once again.

Before we set out we knew the forecast was not as good as last year but we remained undaunted. We arrived as it started to rain and immediately started the erection of the tent which went well and we were soon undercover.

The drive down had taken longer than planned and we missed the first events we had hoped to see. Having arrived late we needed tea - a cuppa and so we went to research food and drink. The range had been extremely wide last year and we found that the range was equally diverse this year but different concessions with the addition (a wonderful addition) of one doing 24 hour tea and coffee. Yes, towards the end of the weekend they were looking tired but still provided our essential brew with a smile.

The larger Gorse tent
Gurkha curry was our choice of food and we then settled to some music in the much larger that last year's Gorse tent. Larger was a significant theme this year as, in its fourth year, the festival continues to grow. Friday night's headline act was Izzy Bizu whose "White Tiger" you are sure to have heard on the radio. We then caught Murray Lachlan Young, the poet, before retiring for the first night under canvas for a year.

Sunshine across tents
The camping area and car park, throughout the weekend, reflected the increased size and success of the event as a whole - as did the names on the program. The weather did curtail some of the children's outdoor activities but the many children didn't seem to mind and attended many of the adult events instead - although the new acoustic stage which was on throughout the day was a very popular choice.
Dylan admiring the car park

And dogs... Just as many dogs as last year with owners behaving very responsibly and causing other festival goers no nuisance whatsoever. Dylan enjoyed it all immensely and his fan club, once again, increased in size many fold.

On Saturday we saw Joanna Trollope, Matt Haig, Eimear McBride, Robert McCrum and all with an ongoing musical background from The Wandering Hearts, Marthagunn  and others in the acoustic tent. The evening was rounded off with music, once again, in Gorse where Whoredogs with John Illsley performed including music from Dire Straits followed by Tom Odell! And comedy... Simon Evans (R4) presented comedy with George Egg, Ferdy Ray, Paul Tonkinson and headlining with Mock The Week's Ed Byrne!

Sunday saw names such as Dave Eggers, Julian and Isabel Bannerman, Susanna Beard, Pete Brown and Jack Cooke to the strains of Southern Companion, and Morrissey and Marshall amongst others from the acoustic tent. Sunday's Gorse line up started with MJ's Big Choir (which included attendees of the festival) giving their much rehearsed performance and rounding off the festival with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing music from the bond movies. Comedy, once again introduced by Simon Evans, was headlined by the inimitable Ed Byrne.
You never know when you may have a "poet emergency"

We will be having quite a lot more to say about the festival in the coming days so watch out for it all. We did enjoy it immensely despite needing a slight push to get the car off the field at the end.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Free Lance and the Lake of Skulls by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

review by Maryom

The jousting season is over, and Free Lance is making his way from town to town looking for ways to earn his keep - a small tournament, a sword display, even a joust on the village green. One day he finds himself accepting a curious challenge -  a lord wants Lance to go in search of an enchanted crown, and in return he'll get a bag of gold. Lance is quick to accept but has he maybe been too eager? In the middle of a lake lies an island, and on that island is a mountain of skulls, the topmost of which belongs to an ancient king, and is still wearing his golden crown. It sounds like a simple task (ok, maybe not) but if the pile of skulls wasn't scary enough, there are creatures waiting for Lance in the lake ... and Chris Riddell's illustrations bring them to life in all their horror.

As always with books from Barrington Stoke publishers, care has been taken with the font, lay-out and even colour of the pages to make the book more appealing to dyslexic and struggling reader, but without compromising on telling a great story. There are illustrations on almost every page to lure the reader in, but, to be honest, I think the story will have grabbed them anyway. Each chapter ends at a 'cliffhanger' moment encouraging the reader to find out what happens next, rather than put the book down. 
 Lance may be a knight down on his luck, with rusted, dented armour, and an old, tired horse, but he's definitely the hero of the story. He's a bit quick to get into brawls in the inn but he's brave enough to trek alone through dark deep forests, paddle across the sinister lake and then climb that mountain of skulls, without once thinking of turning back. Kids will love him!
Yes it's gruesome and scary, but in a way to delight a young reader, and I think they'll squeal as much with laughter as with terror (maybe not suitable for the more squeamish though)

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - 8+, specially suitable for reluctant, dyslexic and struggling readers, knights, 

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

review by Maryom

On a small island lives a group of people who believe themselves to be the only survivors of the plague and fires that scourged everywhere else. Their world is small, with no outside contact, patriarchal and repressive, with life following the rules, the "shalt-nots" set down long ago by the founders. The only people allowed to leave the island are the Wanderers, all men, who regularly travel to the "wastelands" in search of things the island cannot produce, and very occasionally bring back a family to settle on the island. Although claiming to hold their women in high regard, the men exploit them; a girl is married shockingly young - the first year she's old enough to bear children - she's allowed two children, and then her husband's sexual desires turn elsewhere. Childhood is brief, and for the most part hedged round by restrictions, but each summer when the mosquitoes are biting, the children run wild and free, naked and covered in mud from head to foot, over the island while the adults stay indoors. But one summer, rumours spread about something one of the girls has seen, which calls into question everything they've ever been taught.
Janey has always been known as an angry, troublesome girl, one who questions the rules they live by, and is determined to avoid marriage and the inevitable child-bearing, so by starving herself has delayed puberty. Her extra years give her a natural authority over the other unmarried girls, and when she decides to run away from home and live wild, they gradually join her. Janey's actions are seen as rebellion against the established order, which must be stamped out at all costs.
Gather the Daughters is disturbing, yet gripping, dystopian read, but a difficult one to review without giving away some of the huge reveals and plot twists within it.
In such an isolated community, whoever is seen as 'in charge' can bend facts to suit themselves - and that certainly seems to have been going on here for many years.  With a hint here and a revelation there, the reader comes to realise that everything is not quite as the islanders believe.  Anything could be happening in the wider world, but everyone has been brainwashed into believing the tradition that they are the few remaining survivors of the devastation; could it be nothing more than a horror story to frighten the islanders into obedience? It's hard to see how they'd accept that, but, with no one to tell a different story, they do. Same for the way girls and women are treated, and the dubious sexual practices considered 'normal' by the islanders; no one knows any different way, and although some feel it isn't right they are considered the odd ones out.
For some the emphasis may fall on the weird cult-like community and the treatment of their daughters, but to me there's a wider issue being raised here; in our alleged post-truth world, with little social media bubbles of like-thinking folk, how do we choose which sources of information to trust, and which beliefs to follow? It's becomes easier to see how people may become indoctrinated into believing almost anything, and convinced that theirs is the right and proper way to live ...

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult dystopian fiction,

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

review by Maryom

Through a series of seemingly unrelated stories, A State of Freedom paints a complex picture of an India in flux, with its great divide between rich and poor. On one side are the owners of luxury apartments, employing servants to cook and clean, and security guards to keep out the uninvited; on the other, not only those cooks, cleaners, and guards, but their even poorer relatives, left behind in isolated rural communities, living hand to mouth, with no financial safety net for illness or a ruined crop, often dependent on any money that can be sent home by those you've left.
At first we see India through the eyes of comparative 'outsiders', ie Indians living abroad - an American academic and his small son visiting historic sites, a young man returning home for his annual visit, at odds with his parents and their attitudes - then move on to those still 'trapped' by India. And 'trapped' does seem to be the appropriate word here - the caste system may no longer exist but people are still limited in every way by the circumstances of their birth, which for the majority is into a life of grinding poverty. The well-meaning outsider may try to understand their lives, but without having lived them, it's a gap almost impossible to bridge.

Attempting to leave that poverty behind is the great desire that fuels everyone's life, whether through joining guerrilla forces fighting for equality, trying to make a break for freedom as a wandering entertainer with a dancing bear, or moving to the city where there's work to be had supporting the lifestyles of the wealthy. The lucky find a relatively stable job, but still choose to live as cheaply as possible in appalling conditions, sending money home to their families who are worse off, or to finance their children's future.
 Plans, savings, dreams can disappear overnight and yet, maybe because there's no other choice, people carry on - strive to find a better job, save to put their children through school or university - and for a lucky few the dream comes true  - not quite the Slumdog Millionaire fantasy, but a boy from a poor farming family can win scholarships, and, supported by the selfless devotion of a family member, find himself at university in Europe.

From the  safety of our comfortable lives, this isn't always an easy read. The level of poverty and squalor is almost beyond our understanding, but Mukherjee gives these 'third world problems' a human face, makes us care for the individuals when we might ignore the masses caught in the same plight, and maybe it might change a few minds about people from all countries who choose to take a chance and try for a better life here.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Chatto and Windus 
Genre - adult literary fiction

Friday, 14 July 2017

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

review by Maryom

On a run-down backstreet of a city lies a small parade of shops - a religious gift shop, an undertakers, a tattoo artist, a Polish bakery ... and a record shop, packed with everything from punk to classics. Arriving one day in his battered van carrying little besides his records, Frank has made the music shop his home, and his life's work, but this is the 80s, and a shop dedicated to vinyl is a rarity and not overly profitable. First cassettes, and now those new-fangled CDs have threatened to take over, while Frank continues to insist that the proper, if not the only, way to hear music is on a record. It's a rather quiet shop but the welcome Frank extends to everyone, and the gift he has for picking the right music to suit his customer's mood, has helped him build a regular clientele. Then one day Ilse Brauchmann finds her way to his shop - and collapses outside it.
Frank is drawn to her, but puzzled because that feeling he has of which music would sooth or cheer anyone else is entirely absent. How can he hope to connect with her?
At the same time, Frank and his neighbouring shop-owners are having to fend off the attentions of a property development company intent on buying out their businesses, demolishing the street and building something new, exciting, but lacking all charm, in its place.

Rachel Joyce's latest novel is a tale of two lonely, introverted people, determined to hide their hurts from the world but, after so long building barriers to hide behind, can they open up enough to let love in? There's a light, heart-warming, rom-com feel to The Music Shop (there are plenty of occasions when you can easily imagine how it would appear on film), with its two engaging 'leads' and support of quirky characters, and, after troubles that take the story in an unexpected direction, that welcome feel good ending. But at the same time, it speaks of the value of community in the face of faceless development businesses, of the possibility of second chances, and music can help when almost everything else fails

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Nondula by Ana Salote

(The waifs of Duldred - book 2)
Review by The Mole

We left the waifs trying to escape from Duldred and getting hit by a storm. The storm carries them to Nondula where the people welcome them and try to help settle them into the lives they deserve. But the Felluns, their neighbours, are a violent dominant race who wish to enslave everyone else.

It becomes apparent (as we saw in Oy Yew) that Oy has certain abilities with regards to healing and this brings him into conflict with the Felluns and he becomes enslaved in animal pits. The other waifs try to find him and set off to rescue him. They also try to shake the Nondulans from their subservient acceptance of Fellun treatment in order to help them in their task

Candy Gourlay said of the first book "Oy Yew is a book that deserves to be discovered. Lyrical and magical". Lyrical and magical? It sounds trite but there is certainly something in the style and characterisation  that makes this really true. This story complements the first without compromising the style, the message or the innocence of the waifs.

In OyYew the story focussed around the title character but here we learn more about each of them and their "powers" or talents. But these powers stretch to being able to organise and catalogue, to being able to think on your feet in a tight situation, or the ability to use colour in design - skills that children can identify with and already possess in some measure - a message to underline that the reader is just as special as most of the characters.

Salote ties these characters together in a truly compelling way that keeps the reader involved, rooting for the waifs and, more importantly, reading.

I highly recommend this as a read for younger readers or to share with younger readers (and you may well, like me, enjoy it) but please make sure you start with "Oy Yew" or you will miss so much about the characters.

Publisher - Mother's Milk Books
Genre - Children's/Adult crossover,  dystopian

Friday, 7 July 2017

Almost time for Curious Arts Festival ...

by Maryom

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you might remember how much we loved our first trip to Curious Arts Festival last year, so we're delighted to have been asked back again. For those of you not 'in the know' it's held in the grounds of Pylewell Park, near Lymington in the New Forest, and this year will run from 21-23 July. You can visit for the day, evening, or all weekend, and, a little unusually for a book festival, events aren't individually charged - one ticket gives entry to all events within your chosen time-slot (though some workshops have a small extra fee).

As the date is getting closer, I've been keeping an eye on the programme, so the important question is Who would I like to see?
Firstly, the literary 'headliners' -

On Friday -  Rachel Joyce, author of best-selling The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,  will be there as part of a tour promoting her latest book, The Music Shop ;

Saturday - Joanna Trollope, author of so many highly-acclaimed novels, talking about her most recent,  City of Friends;

Matt Haig discussing his recently published How to Stop Time, the tale of a man who is much, much older than you'd think, and which is to be filmed starring Benedict Cumberbatch;

On Sunday there's American author Dave Eggers whose Heroes of the Frontier is a tale of one woman's escape to the wilderness
and poet Lemn Sissay.

Then I'd really like to catch Eimear McBride,  whose debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing won so many awards  - and there are others I know little or nothing about but sound like they could be interesting. Robert McCrum talking  "life, death and the endgame" in Every Third Thought; Rick Stroud's Lonely Courage telling the stories of female spies employed in WWII; Tony Juniper and What's Really Happening To Our Planet; marine biologist Dr Helen Scales; gardeners to HRH the Prince of Wales Isabel and Julian Bannerman ... I'm just hoping none of these events clash ...

Ed Byrne

The literary events aren't the sum total of Curious Arts Festival though - there's a comedy line up each evening, headed by Ed Byrne on Saturday, and music later at night - ranging from Tom Odell to the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra with the Music of Bond.

Tom Odell

Each day has a selection of  "Curious Adventures" - the festival opens with a cricket match on Friday afternoon, you could join in with a choir, catch a drinks masterclass or listen to the recitation of Paradise Lost, try your hand at life drawing or sculpting something in clay, take part in Jane Austen parlour games, or chill out in the Kanga Wellness Spa.

For children there are arts. crafts and musical activities all day long, writing and songwriting workshops, and films and cartoons to start and end the day. They can go Hunting the Jabberwocky with Jack Union, Victorian Monster Hunter, or on a nature walk where they'll hear tales of insects and the natural world. They probably won't even need the bedtime story session to send them to sleep.

And, as if  the festival wasn't wonderful enough already, there's the food ... alongside pizzas and a BBQ offering rare breed sausages and a hog roast,  there's Japanese cuisine, Nepalese curries, seafood, a pop-up bakery, and a specialist vegetarian supplier, with beers, cider and sparkling wine by Chapel Down, and cocktails by Fever Tree to round off your meal.

All that's left to chance is the weather. Hopefully it will be as gloriously sunny a weekend as last year.

For more info, tickets, details of camping/glamping options, or to pre-book your Curious Adventure check out the Curious Arts website