Friday, 29 August 2014

Two cautionary tales by Jon Klassen

 review by Maryom

It's a two-for-the-price-of-one review today - both of these delightful, yet slightly wicked, children's books by Jon Klassen were introduced to me by Jackie Morris at one of her book events. (Never say authors are only interested in promoting their own work!)
In a way both books are new versions of the old morality tales - basically, if you behave badly you'll pay the price!
I Want My Hat Back tells the story of a bear who has lost his hat. One by one he asks his friends if they have seen it - none of them have. Just as he's about to give up in despair, Bear realises he has seen the hat, being worn by one of his friends. Will bear get his hat back? and, more importantly, what will happen to the hat-stealing friend?

The second story is also about a hat - This Is Not My Hat.
A small fish has found a hat that fits him perfectly. Unfortunately, it belongs to a much larger fish who won't be pleased to have had his hat stolen. Small fish can find places to hide though, can't they? Places where big fish can't go and small fish will be safe - or will they?

Both are excellent books to read to a child - with plenty of scope for playing with different voices and expression - or for young readers to discover themselves. In a fun and quirky way, they reinforce the value that stealing and lying are wrong - and that, in the animal kingdom at least, punishment can be swift and savage. The endings of both are left slightly ambiguous; hinted at, rather than out and out stated, so you could claim a 'happier' end if reading to younger or more easily frightened children.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Walker Books

Genre - children's picture book, early reader

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Iain Maloney – First Time Solo. Guest Post.

   Following on from yesterday's book review, we're delighted to welcome author Iain Maloney to share the inspiration behind his debut, Not-the-Booker short-listed, novel, First Time Solo.


 ‘Grandad, what did you do during the war?’
    ‘I hid.’
    That flippant half-joke was the single cell that eventually evolved into First Time Solo. My Grandfather joined the RAF in 1942 when he was 18. You could be conscripted into the Army or the Navy but to become a pilot you had to volunteer, pass a strict medical and a fiendish maths exam. He succeeded and was told ‘wait for orders’. For a year he continued working in his father’s pharmacy. Although no one knew it at the time, the war had peaked and the Axis powers were on the back foot. The Battle of Britain had decimated the Luftwaffe and without the resources to rebuild, Hitler turned his attention to the Soviet Union, particularly the oil fields in the Ukraine. That, as we know, proved futile. The Luftwaffe was a spent force and the Allies had effective control over the skies of Europe. Put bluntly, the RAF were losing pilots and aeroplanes at a slower than anticipated rate.
    He was finally called up in 1943, did his initial training in England and was posted to Canada for his flight training. He was destined never to see combat, and remained in
Canada until May 1945, a highly trained but unwanted RAF pilot. He was demobbed and went into horticulture and agriculture. Had he been conscripted in 1942 he’d have been in battle within a few months. Because he was attracted to the romance of the Spitfire and the dream of flight, he spent much of the war in the safest place in the world. His brothers saw combat. His family in Peterhead suffered air raids. His friends fought. Many of them died. He tried to join them but circumstances were against him. That struck me. Everyone around you is fighting. You want to fight. You try to fight. But you can’t. How would that make you feel?
    He told me a story. He was sitting in the pub with two of his mates. The first had been in the Army. He told them about his time in North Africa, sleeping in a foxhole in the desert, mortars bursting around him, the tanks, the guns, the searing heat of day and the bone-chilling cold of night. The second had been in the Navy. He’d been torpedoed twice by U-Boats, adrift in a life raft for days without food or water. Then it was my Grandfather’s turn. ‘It was hellish,’ he said. ‘I remember this one time when, for two whole weeks, they didn’t change our sheets.’
    You’ve got to laugh. What’s the alternative?
    I tried a few different ways of exploring that paradox, but nothing seemed quite right. I wrote two complete versions of First Time Solo, more than 200’000 words in total and threw them in the bin. Life in the military, particularly during training, is boring. You study, you march, you exercise, you take exams and if you pass, you do it all over again. I needed a way in. I found that in Japan.
    Yukio Mishima, in his novel Confessions of a Mask, wrote about his own experience as a teenager in Japan. From a young age he was aware that when he became a man, he would fight and die for the Emperor. In addition to the terror this caused him, it also allowed him a kind of freedom. He knew he was going to die so why worry about school? Why worry about further education, a career, making money, finding a wife, having children? He’d be dead by twenty so none of that would ever matter. Mishima’s tragedy, he thought, was that he didn’t die. He was given a future for which he hadn’t prepared.
    In Britain, those who turned eighteen and nineteen in 1943 were fourteen and fifteen when war broke out. They watched the war come at them for four years, watched their older brothers, fathers, uncles go off to fight. They watched the telegrams come back. They knew their fate, knew it wouldn’t be over by Christmas. Did they feel as liberated as Mishima? Or did they push back against a system that decreed their lives a worthy sacrifice? That was my way in.
    The answer is both. Some embraced hedonism. An influx of American servicemen mixed with a population already hooked on jazz and in clubs and dance halls in places like London, Manchester and Glasgow people were dancing to forget. Seize the moment. Revel in alcohol, women and jazz. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.
    Others embraced ideologies. Britain went into the war an imperial power still clinging to the vestiges of Victoriana, and emerged a broken, bankrupt nation which immediately rejected the Establishment for a Labour government that introduced the welfare state. In Parliament Aneurin Bevan warned the Conservatives: ‘The British Army is not fighting for the old world. If honourable Members opposite think we are going through this in order to keep their Malayan Swamps, they are making a mistake.’ They were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
    First Time Solo isn’t a traditional war novel. There are no battles. The lads want to fight, but there is a long way to go before they get near a Spitfire. Perhaps they never will. In the meantime they play jazz, chase women and get into fights, they argue about politics and make money on the black market. It’s the everyday that allows us to grasp the extraordinary and in between Dunkirk and D-Day there was a lot of everyday. Life wasn’t put on hold for six years, it continued amidst the craters and sirens, the gas masks and the telegrams.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

First Time Solo by Iain Maloney

review by Maryom

It's 1943 and Jack Devine, a farmer's son from Aberdeenshire, has been impatiently waiting his chance to join in the War. Swayed by the glamorous image of the RAF, he volunteers as a trainee pilot. After being accepted, he has to wait - a long year spent kicking his heels at home while his friends are called up for the army. Eventually he thinks his chance has come but it's more like going back to school - studying aerodynamics, engineering, maths and law, exams to pass before moving on to the next round of training, more studying, only interspersed with marching, PT and more marching. Will he ever actually get to fly?

First Time Solo shows us the WW2 from an unusual angle -  the perspective of a group of 18/19 year olds; just old enough to fight but through having chosen the RAF, held back from joining in and 'doing their bit'. Their frustration and impotence bubble through on every page, all too often bursting out in violence. The only relief comes through drinking and jazz. With his two new friends - short, pugnacious Glaswegian Joe and black-marketeer Terry with his suitcase crammed with chocolate, nylons and cigarettes - Jack sets up a jazz band but Joe's loud Communist sympathies and readiness for a fight soon threaten to pull the threesome apart.

 Told in the first person from Jack's point of view, it all seems rather school-boyish at times with endless cramming for exams, skiving off cross-country running to play cards and petty animosities building between them. School-boy 'ragging' soon escalates - and they've the opportunity and means to turn it into something really nasty. Jack himself, although obviously greatly affected by events such as his brother's death and a friend's injury, tries to maintain a manly 'stiff-upper lip' and dismisses his emotions in short, curt phrases, and I sometimes wondered if a third person narration would have given greater emotional impact.

The story is based partly on the war-time experiences of the author's grandfather - watch this space as we'll have a guest post tomorrow from Iain Maloney talking about the transition from family history to fiction.

All in all an intriguing debut, one that's made its way to the short list for 2014's Not The Booker prize, and definitely an author to watch out for.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Freight Books
Genre -  Adult, historical fiction, WW2

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Brick Mother by SJ Bradley

Review by The Mole

The story is set in a secure psychiatric hospital where patients with very varying illnesses are kept. The staff are constantly short handed and competence levels seem to vary immensely. The reader knows from page one that this is a powder keg ready to blow and awaits each new page for it to happen. There isn't one hero and one villain, in fact I'm not sure there's a hero at all, but we experience a little of what life is like for the staff with their power struggles and capabilities.

I was amazed by this book because I was over half way through before I realised that nothing had actually 'happened' but I was still reading. Despite the setting for this book the reader will see parallels in almost every employment sector they have been in - people held back by being too much of a threat; people promoted beyond their competence; people without the authority to stop what they see shouldn't happen; people recruited to fill seats without adequate training and understanding and much more.

I did find it compelling and slightly worrying, and the ending is not what I would have voted for.

My version was a review copy as it was nominated for the long list of The Guardian's "Not The Booker prize 2014" and I have to admit to being disappointed by the quality of the editing in MY COPY and also the fact that it hasn't made the short list.

A disturbing read but one that will keep you reading and make you wonder about mental heath care.

Publisher - Dead Ink Books
Genre - Adult contemporary fiction

Monday, 25 August 2014


 It's August so it must be time for Edinburgh International Book Festival!

This year we went for four days and tried to pack in as much as possible (along with seeing the sights of Edinburgh and catching a variety of shows at the Fringe Festival)
Having won tickets to the event Protest! with Phil Jupitus, Hollie McNish, Hannah Silva and Elvis McGonagall we went along to see what performance poetry was about.

Phil Jupitus was the "anchor" that brought them all together and he told us a little of performance poetry in the UK and how he got into it. I was intrigued that bands on tour used to have a supporting poet rather than, as now, a supporting band. But these poets were generally delivering protest poems - protest being the 'thing' to be into throughout the 60s and 70s. Phil Jupitus, who 'supported' the likes of The Style Council, gave us some of his poetry from then and also some of his more recent work.

Elvis McGonagall then followed and had the audience laughing along to some of his older poetry as well his more modern stuff. His style was extremely different  and entertained in a different but just as compelling.

Hannah Silva's work was extremely different and frankly I was sceptical at first. Using a foot operated sound machine she recorded, played back and edited her own voice to create poetry - and there can be no other name for it - that really blew me away. It was poetry that can only be listened to, not read, and it left a mark on me like no other poetry ever has. It was fantastic and a completely new experience.

Last, and certainly not least!, was Hollie McNish. Her poetry, although more conventional, was fast, modern, highly topical and still very entertaining.

All these poets left me wondering.. If I had attempted to read their work would I have got as much from it?

Meanwhile Maryom headed to the other side of town to see author/illustrator Jackie Morris at The Golden Hare bookshop in the Grassmarket. This was a joint story-telling and painting session, with Jackie reading her own Song of the Golden Hare and children colouring in their versions of the book's illustrations. Lots of Jackie's books were there on display - even early copies of Something About a Bear (published in October '14 by Frances Lincoln) and Cat Walk (September '14 by Graffeg) both of which will be launched at Solva Woollen Mill in Pembrokeshire. Jackie also talked about her current project involving feathers which are being sent to her from all over the world - see here for how to join in.

We find that the book festival is a great place for meeting friends and authors whose work you have appreciated and this year The Mole came face-to-face with Kirkland Ciccone whose book Conjuring The Infinite won Catalyst Book Award this year. Kirkland does quite a few school visits and is known for his spotted shirt - something that helped me find him amongst the throng of festival goers. Sitting in the bookshop cafe, drinking tea and enjoying a scone, he explained a little about his much awaited second book, The Endless Empress, and told me that the genre of young adult fiction fantasy is not one he is likely to desert in the near future and if Conjuring The Infinite is anything to go by then he certainly shouldn't. Good luck Kirkland!

Maryom had hoped to catch James Mayhew's Big Draw event on the Sunday - but it was just too popular with children and parents queuing to get in. She managed to meet up afterwards though for a very brief chat. James was at the Book Festival as Illustrator-in-residence to celebrate 25 years of his Katie books which introduce art to children by stepping through the picture frame.

Monday was time for another brief meeting - this time with Linda Strachan, author of several YA novels (Don't Judge Me, Spider, Dead Boy Talking)  and the Hamish McHaggis series for younger readers. Unfortunately Linda's Bookfest events took place after we'd left but it was lovely to catch up and hear a little insider gossip about her up-coming projects.

On Monday evening Maryom made her way to the joint Michele Forbes/Donal Ryan event, which she'd been looking forward to since the holiday was booked. Michele Forbes was a bit of an unknown quantity but Donal Ryan's novels have made a huge impact on her. Both writers are from Ireland - Michele Forbes' debut novel, Ghost Moth, is set in Belfast, alternating between the 1960s and 1940s; Donal Ryan's two novels are set in a small country town around the time of the Celtic Tiger economic boom of the late '90s and the subsequent crash. The writers talked,of course, about their books and the inspirations behind them - it was interesting to discover that Donal Ryan's first published book The Spinning Heart had actually been the second to be written, which explains the plot spoiler within it for The Thing About December. Then there were questions from the audience followed by the all-important chance for a few private words with the authors while books were signed.

And in between all this there was also time for soaking up the sun in a deckchair or two...

.....catching sight of Nicholas Parsons, Chris Brookmyre and Tom Rob Smith signing books after their events, and spotting Phil Jupitus again, browsing in the bookshop.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh

Review by The Mole

This is a semi-autobiographical telling that is 68% true and 32% fiction and the author will say no more.

I needed to choose a book from the pile - something quick, something easy - so I selected 4 books and started reading a bit from each. The first three were OK but I was going to try the fourth before I made a decision. Any Other Mouth was the fourth. I was several chapters in before I realised that the decision had been made!

People who have had sound bites quoted have said things like "shocking", "brutally honest", "this is the best thing I've read in years" and on the whole I found it all to be true, although while I would say it is now my book of 2014 but whether it is "the best I've read in years"... the jury is out on that one.

What I found very surprising about it was that while many things happen in the telling that are immensely sad, truly horrific, terribly shocking or merely very deep the author doesn't pull you in and involve you but merely seeks to inform you. It's a ploy that keeps you reading when you might otherwise feel that you can take no more and close the book - but I still developed a degree of empathy for the author.

Relationships, self harm, rape, grief are all covered and I came away with one big regret and that is that I missed seeing her at Edinburgh as her event was over before we even set out on our annual sojourn. While on the subject of Edinburgh International Book Festival... if you find yourself in that neck of the woods why not slip into the bookshop, pick up a copy, start reading it and see if you can put it down - and then consider voting for it as the d├ębut book of the year? I did.

Publisher - Freight Books
Genre -  Adult, contemporary fiction

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Savage Magic by Lloyd Shepherd

review by Maryom

1814 - another killer is on the loose in London. This time the victims are all members of a group of privileged young men whose main aim in life is the pursuit of pleasure in all its forms. The victims are found behind closed doors, with no signs of forced entry, all left wearing a satyr's mask. A classic closed-doors mystery? Not really, for, as usual when Charles Horton finds himself involved, the signs point to a more supernatural force.

This time Horton is on his own as John Harriott is indisposed. Sent by Magistrate Aaron Graham to Thorpe Lee House in Surrey, Horton at first finds himself investigating an outbreak of witchcraft, then getting pulled in to the spate of murders in London.
Horton's wife Abigail is indisposed too - the events of The Poisoned Island have left her disturbed in her mind. To seek a cure, she commits herself to a madhouse. Soon, perhaps inevitably, Horton's investigations and the series of deaths begin to point in the direction of one of Abigail's fellow inmates.

Savage Magic is another wonderful mystery in Lloyd Shepherd's signature mix of history and supernatural.
While I didn't find it quite as enthralling as Horton and Harriott's last outing in The Poisoned Island
I did still enjoy it. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader enthralled; though there are equally occasions when the reader, having a better overview of events, knows more than Horton ( I really wanted someone to prod him in the right direction at times).
Although she was always independent for the time, definitely not a shrinking violet hiding from the seamier side of life,  I very much like that Abigail has a larger part to play in events. And,who knows, maybe in future she'll be even more involved with her husband's cases.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Genre - adult, crime, historical fiction, supernatural

other reviews; Curiosity Killed the Bookworm ,
                        For Winter Nights