Thursday, 5 May 2016

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker

review by Maryom

In September 1939, Samuel Beckett is an unknown writer, visiting his mother in Dublin and faced with a choice - to return to Paris and his partner Suzanne, or sit the coming war out in safety at home in Ireland. The atmosphere at home is too stifling and restrictive, and staying there feels too much like taking the coward's way out, so he heads back to France. Here, too, there are choices to be made. As the citizen of a neutral country, Beckett could theoretically keep himself to himself, not make a fuss, and wait for the war to be over, but his moral and political leanings won't allow him to sit idly by...

One thing to get straight right from the start is that this isn't an all-action story of daring deeds and shoot-outs between the Resistance and occupying German forces. It's more a story of choices - to keep quiet but safe, or follow one's conscience, probably into danger - and of the day-to-day terror that almost anyone in occupied France must have lived with, especially Resistance members and sympathisers - the knock on the door in the middle of the night, the telegram which says a friend has been arrested, the warning to flee. At the same time, Beckett is growing as a writer, moving out from the shadow of his mentor, James Joyce, so, although the characters are adults, in some ways it can almost be seen as a coming-of-age novel.

As with Jo Baker's Longbourn, there's a feeling that the story is of people standing on the side-lines; in Longbourn's case, she told the story of the servants of Austen's Pride and Prejudice households; this time it's of private individuals, involved against their will in a war, and not even part of the massive armies sweeping across Europe, Africa and Asia at the time; others may be caught up in that whirlwind, the ones we're concerned with are on the periphery.

I love Baker's writing style, even though I find it difficult to describe. She takes small, intimate moments, creates a mood in which the reader can almost experience the same sights, smells, and emotions as the characters, then links these moments to advance the story. From a boy hiding in a tree to evade his mother, to a train packed beyond 'full' with people fleeing Paris, to trying to hide a case of explosives under a display of geraniums, the reader is there in the moment.

The publisher's blurb merely talks of 'a young writer', and it was only a couple of chapters in, with mention of translating 'Murphy', that I realised this writer was Samuel Beckett; someone I have mixed feelings about. I was introduced to his writing at A level via Malone Dies - and I'm not sure it was something I was ready for; it seemed dull, rambling, disjointed, and not at all what I expected from a novel. I always had him rather marked down as an odd, dull guy, obsessed with finding the exact word to express his meaning, dwelling on thoughts and ideas rather than the sweeping plot-driven work of Hardy or Lawrence (also on the A level syllabus). So, to be honest, I'm surprised to find him such an interesting guy after all. I loved Longbourn, and I loved this. Now I wonder if I re-read Samuel Beckett would I love his work too? It's certainly made me reassess my thoughts about him as a man if not a writer.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction, literary fiction, fictionalised biography, WW2

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Follow Me by Victoria Gemmell

review by Maryom 

17 year old Kat Sullivan is trying to move on after her twin, Abby, committed suicide, but she just can't accept that Abby would have done such a thing. They weren't as close as they had been when younger, but surely a twin would have some inkling if her sister was distressed or depressed in any way? Yet Abby had seemed her normal happy self right till the end.
 She wasn't the only teenager to die this way in their small town, in fact she was the fifth in a year, and Kat can't help but believe there's more behind these events that people seem prepared to admit. When she's introduced to The Barn, a secret hangout where older school kids mix with students from the local uni, Kat's suspicions are aroused, for although it seems on the surface to be just a cool place to meet up, there seems to be dark undertone to the place, and an underlying obsession with celebrities who died young.

Follow Me is an excellent teen/YA thriller; the sort of book that quickly grabs the reader and keeps them reading. The story is told in the first person from Kat's perspective, so the reader shares her grief, her belief that there is more than meets the eye to this series of suicides, and her determination to pursue anyone who may have encouraged Abby. The characters are well-drawn and believable, from Kat's parents who have now turned understandably over-protective of their remaining daughter, her friends, who don't know how to talk to her since Abby's death, to Michael and Rob who run The Barn, and could be hiding who knows what in the way of secrets.
As a fairly short read, just over 200 pages, the plot moves along quickly - fortunately, as I was desperate to know what Kat would uncover - with Kat's suspicions veering one way then another but with less of the twists and turns of an adult thriller; even so it's an unputdownable read.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Strident 
Genre - teen/YA thriller

Friday, 29 April 2016

Death Do Us Part by Steven Dunne

review by Maryom
DI Damen Brook is taking some well-earned leave, walking the Derbyshire countryside and trying to bond with his daughter Terri - but things aren't working out the way he'd hoped. Terri is clearly troubled by something - chain smoking, and drinking heavily each evening - and everything Brook says seems to put her more on edge. Then he receives a letter from a murderer he helped to convict, claiming that a recent murder investigation has been totally bodged by elderly investigating officer, DI Ford. At first Brook's inclined to dismiss it as attention-seeking ramblings but then he begins to wonder...
It all adds up to make Brook more than happy to lend a hand when his DS, John Noble, requests help on a double murder enquiry. 
In a quiet Derby suburb, an elderly couple have been murdered, cleanly, with single shots to the heart, in a style more akin to a gangland execution than a robbery-gone-wrong shooting. Noble also feels there may be links to a similar killing the previous month in a different area of the city - coincidentally another of DI Ford's cases. 

Although I read crime novels before, since I started blogging about books, I've read so many good thrillers that an extra hook is needed to make an individual story or author's work stand out. Steven Dunne's thrillers always hold on to that edge for me. Firstly, for the simple reason that they're set in my home city, Derby - though I hope that we don't have quite so many murderers in our midst as his books would imply! He's created a believable but troubled detective in Damen Brook, always provides a good array of suspects, and also does what might be called 'a good line' in murderers; not a psycho who'll just attack the first person to hand but someone with a warped mind who feels his actions are justified.

Death Do Us Part, with DI Brook making his sixth appearance, is no exception. While most of the action is safely on the far side of town, one murder scene is only a couple of miles from my door. Brook himself seems to be on the way to ridding himself of his personal demons at last - but unfortunately they seem to have moved on to his daughter Terri, whose life looks like it's descending into chaos. There's an excellent line-up of suspects, each of them seemingly quite capable of being the murderer, and, without descending to the squealing tyres of a tv car chase, there's a suitably dramatic ending.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Genre - Adult Crime Thriller

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

review by Maryom

After an absence of many years, the middle-aged narrator has returned to the area in which he grew up, to attend a funeral. But instead of going along with the other mourners, he heads off to visit the, now redeveloped, site of his childhood home, and the farm down the lane where his friend Lettie Hempstock lived. Sitting by the farm pond, he finds himself recalling things that happened when he was a child - things which through the intervening years have been forgotten; the suicide of his family's lodger, the unleashing of supernatural forces, and the stand that he and Lettie took against them ...

I was so over-whelmed by this that, for once, I'm lost for words to say, other than "Wow". I've read other Neil Gaiman books, even own a couple, but never really considered myself a huge fan. The Ocean at the End of the Lane may have changed all that!

You may have guessed, I loved this book. I don't think I've been this gripped by a fantasy novel since I first read Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a child. This story has much of the same feel - it too starts in the real world but soon supernatural horrors are bursting in from another world/dimension, there are strands of myth and folklore running through it, and our hero, the narrator, finds himself caught up in the very centre of the struggle to contain and expel those horrors. Fortunately, he has three generations of Hempstock women on his side -  the old grandmother, the mother, and eleven-year-old Lettie who seems wise beyond her years.

Although the hero is a boy of seven, it's not a children's book - my childhood self would have been terrified - though I'm sure it will appeal to many teens as well as adults. I, meanwhile, will be off to the library to borrow as many Neil Gaiman books as they have!

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Headline Publishing
Genre - adult, YA, teen,  fantasy, 

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

review by Maryom

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a collection of stories revolving around love and libraries, gardens and diaries, and the keys that can unlock their secrets. The stories are loosely linked, with main characters from one popping up in a minor 'walk-on' role in another, and with the imagery shared by many of them, of hidden secrets and lost treasures.

Throughout there's a blurring of the boundary between real and unreal - some of the stories are very firmly set in the real world, others have a folk tale feel to them, or take flight into a world where puppets are as sentient as you and I. There's a city surrounded by marshlands filled with drowned bodies, one where the clocks have stopped and fixing them is considered an offence; a house where the doors won't stay closed unless locked by key, a twist on the story of Red Riding Hood.

Reading these stories is a bit like dipping in to a collection of fairy tales for adults - the first one even starts 'once upon a time' - and, as in fairy tales and fables, I felt that hidden beneath the story was a moral, but one I couldn't always find. The stories are definitely beautifully written but so much so that I found myself at times carried away by the words, and not grasping the meaning; I was half mesmerised, half perplexed. The collection has, though, whetted my appetite; I hadn't previously read anything by the author, but now I shall check out her previous work.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Picador
Genre -adult, short stories

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Last of Us by Rob Ewing

review by Maryom
On a remote Scottish island only five children are left alive; the rest of its population has died from a deadly disease brought over from the mainland. Led by Elizabeth, the eldest and daughter of the island's two doctors, these children try their best to keep going as 'normal' -  she holds lessons in the deserted school, takes them on 'shopping' trips among the abandoned houses, keeps them remembering the time 'before', makes sure they brush their teeth and that the youngest, Alex, gets his insulin shots every day. But things are obviously far from normal - and childish squabbles that would have no serious repercussions at other times, threaten the fragile community they have. Callum Ian, son of a local fisherman, resents Elizabeth being in charge - she's only a few months older and an 'incomer' to the island. But it's narrator Rona's own actions that lead to the REAL trouble...

Told from the point of view of eight year old Rona, events unfold on two timelines - what is happening 'now' and the events that started three weeks ago and led to the situation that Rona is in. Mingled in with both are Rona's memories of the time 'before', and of her mother who she firmly believes will be back to save her.
The details of what happened are sketchy, as you might expect from a child narrator, but as the full extent of the horror unfolds it becomes apparent that a disease possibly related to small pox spread from the mainland, and overwhelmed the island's meagre medical resources; although the children regularly monitor radio stations, the inference is that no one is alive on the mainland either. 

Post-apocalyptic novels featuring adults are common enough but a scenario where the only survivors are children adds an extra chilling twist to events. Their attempts to cling on to their past, their hope that someone will return and rescue them, the horrors they encounter when having to enter abandoned buildings - and the rapid way in which these have become accepted - are at times heart-breaking. It's a story that will keep you reading- hoping for the best, fearing the worst.

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

Genre - adult, post-apocalyptic

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Talisman by Paul Murdoch

Review by The Mole

James Peck's dad has walked off into the sunset. His mum, a woman with a local reputation for being bossy and controlling, doesn't seem to care but James is convinced his dad hasn't run off but is in need of finding to help him to safety.

Escaping from gossips in the local shop, James follows a stranger to a weird location and meets Mendel - a wizard from another world who is trapped in another body and needs help to save his own world - Denthan. James agrees on condition that Mendel will help him find his father. So they set off to Denthan but a real best friend doesn't let you enter such adventures alone so Craig forces his presence into the scene - with Bero, his dog.

James's first task is to find a talisman to control the power of an invading wizard - hence the title.

Reading this as an adult - one who grew up living the space race - I found the world created difficult to accept, but that's a "me" thing. It's better to think of Denthan as another dimension - one where the laws of physics are completely different because, after all, they have magic and wizards.

There are, apparently, 7 books in the series and if I had to level criticism it would really be that we stop before we know the role of all the characters in the book - a group enter Denthan quite late and we don't really have any idea why.

Having said that this story is not like any I've read before in that the second group is a motley crew and you are genuinely left wondering what they can hope to achieve.

An excellent story that will delight the younger reader and have them looking for book 2 immediately. Well it was published in November so it's there for the asking.

Publisher - Strident Publishing
Genre - Children's (9+), fantasy