Friday, 5 February 2016

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

review by Maryom

For the patients at Sharston asylum, Friday evenings are special. The men and women, so carefully segregated the rest of the week, are allowed to meet in the fabulous ballroom at the heart of the building, to listen to music, to dance, to meet and behave as 'normal' people. In this unlikely setting, John and Ella meet, and fall in love. But participation is a treat reserved for the 'well-behaved', permission is given and withdrawn on the whim of the doctors, and not all of Ella's efforts to 'be good' can avoid the couple being parted.

For this her second novel, Anna Hope goes back to 1911, to a remote asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, for a story about finding love in the most unlikely place, a story in which human feelings clash with science and ambition.
The story unfolds from three points of view - those of John, Ella and Dr Charles Fuller. The reader is introduced to the asylum through Ella's eyes as she is first admitted - the reason for her incarceration is a fit of temper or despair at the mindless,monotonous drudgery of life at the mill where she works. In her frustration she breaks a window, and fights viciously with the men who try to restrain her, but while she expects to be arrested for her act, finding herself in a mental asylum comes as a shock. She soon realises that the only possibility of leaving lies through following her mother's advice 'be good'.
John is melancholy and depressed, but Ella opens up new possibilities for him, of love, freedom and hope.
Initially the regime at Sharston asylum seems progressive and comparatively enlightened - there's none of the electric shock treatment or cold plunge baths that I've read of elsewhere; perhaps those forms of treatment are reserved for the chronically ill who disappear to their own wing of the building unlikely to ever emerge. For those deemed 'acute' and therefore curable, rehabilitation consists mainly of a combination of strenuous physical work in the mornings and quiet reflective times in the afternoons when one of the younger doctors, Charles Fuller, has introduced the concept of playing the piano to calm his patients' anxieties. But the lives of the patients still depend entirely on the whims of the staff and doctors  - and as Fuller begins to feel these enlightened ideas leading him down what he sees as a slippery slope to depravity, he reacts by adopting a hostile, repressive attitude. Oddly, perhaps, as I felt no sympathy for him, Charles' character development was the most interesting of the three; from seeing his patients as people in need of solicitude and encouragement, he becomes eager to oppress them whenever possible, turning his feeling of self-hatred on to them.

I found Anna Hope's debut Wake moving and engrossing, and the Ballroom is too - but even better! The slow reveal of character, the balancing of a love story against the building of tension between John and Charles, the growing dread that in his role as doctor, Charles has the opportunity to enact revenge in the name of science and progress, all add up to a wonderful read. As with so many novels that I love, it can be read at various 'depths' - take it at its surface as a compelling read or seek out the underlying issues, both scientific and personal. I loved it, and I think it will be one of this year's 'must reads'.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult historical fiction,

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

review by Maryom 

A 30-something childless Japanese couple live quietly in the former guest-house to a large mansion-like property, till one day their life is intruded upon by a cat belonging to one of the neighbours. The cat, like all felines, has no sense of boundaries and belonging, and is happy to share its time between the two houses, eating, sleeping and generally making itself at home in both. Both husband and wife become quietly obsessed by the cat, watching her comings and goings, playing with her, and gradually it comes to fill a void that they didn't realise existed.

This was one of my book club reads, probably one I wouldn't have chosen for myself but reading is all about exploring new things as well as sticking to the familiar. I don't quite know what I was expecting - possibly a cross between Tom Cox's cat books, Talk To The Tail or Under The Paw, and John Grogan's Marley And Me - but this small volume wasn't at all like either of them.
 Narrated by the husband, the story tells how the cat turned up, how, despite not really being pet-lovers, they became enchanted by its ways, but as I read, I was unsure whether this considered itself as a novel or a memoir - it certainly reads very like the latter! - and somehow I just felt something was lacking. I often criticise stories that I feel are too much 'tell', and not enough 'show', and I think that was a big problem here; I could see how the cat came to feel like part of the couple's life, but I didn't feel for any of the characters. In part this may have been due to the translation, to American English, not British; some words jarred, and some of the phrasing and expressions seemed odd - so much so that at times I felt that I couldn't engage with the story. At other points, I wondered if the author had intended to be funny, but humour doesn't translate well, and I wasn't sure. 
It's an award-winner in Japan, and a best-seller in France and the US, so I think somehow, somewhere, I missed something. It just didn't grab me but I'm going to pass it on to my cat-loving neighbour and see how she feels.

Maryom's review - 2 stars
Publisher - Picador
Genre -adult, cats

Monday, 1 February 2016

Used to Be by Elizabeth Baines

Review by The Mole

This anthology of short stories is split into 2 - "What Was, What Is" and "What May Be".

The first collection is very much about the past: a car journey that is fraught with tension as a nervous passenger is bombarded with stories by a driver who may, or may not, be paying enough attention to the road; revisiting places of youth and trying to find things that were landmarks; infatuations of youth that are not what they seem; the death of a stranger that means nothing; the story of extended family and the tugs of love and resentment with in it; and a ghost story - or is it?

The second part  is about possibilities: an incident that causes a train to be late and some of the people affected by it; a woman reflects on a summer when she had to choose between safe boyfriend or risky artist; someone meets a person whose language she can't speak and questions what they want from them; what happens when someone starts falling over; when your career and life is going nowhere and there are choices to be made; a visit to the sea that leads to reflection on the future.

I found myself wondering where I had read stories so like a few of these before that it was distracting. Fortunately the acknowledgements in the back revealed all - Unthologys! That, in itself, says a great deal for the quality of the stories and writing in this collection. I am a huge fan of the Unthology collections and anyone who is part of any of those collections has to be worthy of a further read.

Each and everyone of these stories will give you cause to pause and think - and the last story is one of those "why did the author stop there leaving me to chose 'what next'" stories (possibly the worst way to end a book? Discuss).

A really great collection that you will enjoy, identify with, wish that worm hadn't got into your head - and each of these in equal measure.

Publisher - Salt Publishing
Genre - Adult fiction, short stories

Friday, 29 January 2016

Black Widow by Chris Brookmyre

 review by Maryom 

Diana and Peter didn't at first sight seem to be a couple made for each other - she was a skilled surgeon; he was the "IT Crowd" guy sent in to fix her pc - but somehow they hit it off and after a whirlwind romance married six months later. Another six months more and the dream is shattered when Peter dies in car accident.
Peter's sister Lucy isn't happy with the police's initial findings so she gets journalist Jack Parlabane to nose around and see what he can dig up, and meanwhile policewoman Ali, one of the first at the scene of the crash, begins to have her suspicions too. Suddenly things are starting to look black for Diana....

The story starts as Diana is on trial for murdering her husband, and is told through three threads, approaching from different angles - Diana's narration of her back story, the viewpoints of Jack and Ali. The public image of a fairytale romance is quickly eroded away as the reader discovers the reality behind it, but even so, are things as easily and simply explained away as it seems?

 I've long been a fan of Chris Brookmyre but oddly haven't read many of the Jack Parlabane series, so I don't know how typical this is, but to be honest I was a little disappointed. For starters, there was a lot less of the Fargo or Breaking Bad style black humour that I associate with Brookmyre, and then the plot's big reveals seemed visible from too early on (I don't want to give away spoilers but for anyone who's read it, then, yes, even that shocker at the end!) Despite that it was readable enough but more for the development of character, the insights into blogging and trolling on the internet, and the exposure of a web of lies and secrets, than for the whodunnit aspect.

 Maryom's review - 3.5 stars
Publisher -
Little, Brown
Genre -adult, psychological thriller

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Unthology 8 - Edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones

Review by The Mole

The "introduction" has a subtitle of "How To Unthology" and a most interesting piece it is. It is an extract of a talk that Ashley Stokes gave the London Short Story Festival. If you read it you will understand what you need to do to attract the attention of the editors to get your short story included. But, more importantly, if readers haven't Unthologised in the past then they will get a better understanding of why they should and what they have missed out on.

The collection commences with a fictionalised and shortened extract from the life of Edvard Munch and while I enjoyed this and was moved by parts of it It did sort of feel different to the normal selection.

We then move on to "Bye Bye Ben Ali" - a story of a deluded dictator which was extremely amusing and I did wonder, a few times, if the "dictator" was just a normal although deluded person.

With The Sculptor we start a series of short stories that follow relationships progressively from merely wondering "what if" and going further forward (or backward) through the relationship life cycle and how people can be stupid enough to throw themselves on the rocks for no good reason. My very favourite in this group has to be 10,000 Tiny Pieces.

Not Drowning But Saving is a fascinating concept and while it has been taken to a ridiculous extreme (hasn't it?) it is a story that carries more than a grain of truth - well worth a read for it's own sake. Lines In The Sand had a surprise in store - as do most short stories - but one that would make you pause and think...

As Understood By Women returned to the relationship theme but put a slant on it that was an interesting observation.

And finally.. A Beautiful Noise - an ageing music agent/promoter/publicist takes a nostalgic trip to a gig but his interpretation of people takes us back to The Sculptor.

Another excellent selection of stories by these master editors - but let's not forget that they are also selecting excellent authors work - that takes the reader on a journey across life. And in this case the "life" could be the reader's own.

I found this perhaps the most addictive Unthology yet and may yet have to join Unthologyholics Anonymous.

I have read the previous 5 books in the Unthology collection and you can read their reviews here:- Unthology 3, Unthology 4, Unthology 5, Unthology 6, Unthology 7

Publisher - Unthank Books
Genre - Adult short story anthology

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

In A Land Of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

review by Maryom

At the age of six, Henrietta S. Robertson left behind her home in Pingxia village, her Chinese name, Ming-Mei, by which she'd so far been called, and her missionary parents, to go to boarding school  while her parents continued their work.  The story picks up in 1941, when "Etta" is ten, and the Japanese are advancing through China, and even Lushan school on top of its remote mountain is beginning to feel threatened. Despite being surrounded every day by the other pupils and teachers, Etta comes across as lonely and confused. Her search for love and attention draws her into over-dramatising events and claiming she has the gift of prophesy. With the other girls from her dormitory, she sets up the Prophetess Club to look for signs from God - but their actions seem to be heading them straight towards trouble .....

Told mainly in the first person from Etta's point of view, In A Land of Paper Gods is the story of a girl who realises something is missing from her life - but isn't sure what; it may be the love and stability offered by a 'normal' family, the purpose in life that the missionaries and teachers seem to have, or simply her uncomplicated childhood playing with the Chinese children in her home village. To be honest, I didn't find Etta very likeable. Although I could see that at times she was acting out of loneliness, she had too much of a need to be the focus of attention for me to feel really sympathetic. It's only when events take a drastic turn that she begins to shed this self-centred-ness and realise that others have as much right to life and love as she has.

With the multitude of threads running through, this is bound to make an excellent book club choice with lots of topics to discuss - from cultural clashes to personal motivation.
Is Etta deliberately troublesome, attention seeking or does she act out of loneliness, and a need of someone, anyone, to love? are these problems that will always be faced in boarding schools, or were Etta's teachers just totally unaware of the emotional needs of the children they'd taken charge of?
The whole role of missionaries in non-Christian countries like China is again something worthy of discussion - were they really following God's will or was it just another form of imperial expansion? and is it ever right to impose your own religion and culture on others in this way?
A book I think to really polarise people and get them talking and thinking.

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

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Janus Cycle by Tej Turner

Review by The Mole

Janus is a nightclub but one with a reputation for tolerance and individuality.

The story is told through lives of 8 separate narrators although each is visited at some point and invited, nay pleaded with, by a girl to go to Janus every Friday. She encounters characters for the first time and refers to them by name but later when she meets them, they know her but she doesn't know them.

Is she making mischief or really a time traveller? And why is she trying to assemble all these people at the same time? And who is she running from?

Time travel is a concept that easily attracts plot flaws but in this short novel (218 pages) Turner has been extremely careful and crafted an excellent story. Some of the characters you will love and some you won't but give them all chance to be a part of the whole - it's well worth it.

Like "The Time Traveller's Wife", there is no technology involved instead there is a genetic trait that makes it possible. You know, believe or suspect from the very start of the book that something terrible is going to happen at Janus but no teasers are offered so when you find out you are totally unprepared for the horror about to unfold.

A real page turner that will keep you reading.

Genre - Adult Thriller, Sci-Fi
Publisher - Elsewhen Press