Monday, 22 December 2014

Maryom's Picks of the Year - 2014

 Last year I couldn't cut my 'picks of the year' down to a small selection at all. This year, I'm being more ruthless and from an extensive longlist I've chosen a Top Twelve.....

I think there's a tendency to pick more recently read books for a list like this but, just to prove there are exceptions, top of my list is the first book I reviewed this year - Donal Ryan's The Thing About December The heart-breaking story of gentle but dim-witted Johnsey Cunliffe is played out over a year, a chapter for each month, leading to the climax in December; an immensely sad but compelling read.

Sticking with the grim side of life, and another book from early in the year - Cynan Jones' The Dig charts a clash of wills and lifestyles between Daniel, a farmer committed to his land and animals, and an anonymous badger-baiter, earning his living through cruelty. It's raw and bleak, a definite eye-opener for anyone who thinks the countryside is a rural idyll.

In A History of Loneliness John Boyne tackles the fallout from the paedophile scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland. Father Odran Yates has been a priest for forty years, has tried to live a good, blameless life, ignoring the abuses of power taking place around him, but now has to face up to his niggling conscience.

Carys Bray's debut novel, A Song For Issy Bradley, is about loss, hope, faith and family as a Mormon family face up to probably the most devastating thing that can happen - the death of a child. Ian and Claire, and teenage children Zippy and Alma struggle with their faith and their loss; only 7 year old Jacob can see an answer - to work a miracle and bring Issy back. Ultimately hopeful and life-affirming, there are without doubt some dreadfully dark moments but they're balanced by light, humour and love.

  Another family - this time the Saddeqs from Lahore in Pakistan. Roopa Farooki's The Good Children explores the complex relationships within this family- between children and parents, and between children themselves - as they grow up, spread their wings, leave home for England or the US, but always feel that tug that binds them together. It's grand in scale - moving from the1940s to the present day - and size - 620 pages, though it didn't feel a page too long.

I struggle to find ghost stories that scare me, so I was oddly delighted to stumble across this - Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray. While his mother makes plans for a new life in the old family home, Dieter, the boy-heir, encounters a strange ghostly boy with evil designs. With a growing feeling of menace, this is a truly spine-chilling read, probably best avoided late at night.

 Another debut, this time an excellent sci-fi dystopian thriller. Tomorrow and Tomorrow follows grief-consumed Dominic as he wanders through the virtual archive that brings nuclear-blast destroyed Pittsburgh and its inhabitants back to life.  Not-too-distant future dystopia with TV-like 'adware' that constantly streams news, adverts and reality TV style porn direct into the brain, a destroyed city recreated in virtual form, a twisting turning thriller and grief-struck hero combine to create a wonderful, complex story.

 The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh could easily have been just another tale of sun, sea and illicit sex but it's so much more; a perceptive portrait of a family reaching a turning point in their lives, a marriage that's a little too stale, and a woman seeking to re-gain her lost youth by tumbling heads over heels in lust with a hot 17 year old. I absolutely loved it.

The storyline to Hamid Ismailov's The Dead Lake reads almost like a fairy tale - a young boy ventures into a forbidden lake and is cursed for life - but the evil wizard here is the Russian government and the lake has been polluted by atomic testing. The first of Peirene's 2014 Coming of Age series deals with a boy who doesn't grow up, and a whole region caught, literally and figuratively, in the fallout from the arms race. Told in plain, straightforward prose, it's a tale to make your heart ache.

I've read a lot of crime novels over the year but this was my favourite. The fourth of Sharon Bolton's Lacey Flint series, A Dark and Twisted Tide, is set among the old wharfs and  abandoned warehouses of London. A complex story that developed in unforeseen ways, with the story told from multiple points of view and a timeline that jumps backwards and forwards. It's only at the very end that everything comes together - and in a totally unexpected way.

...and to round off my list two rather different 'lighter' reads...

First, something very dark and wicked - Lizzie Prain finds an unusual way to dispose of her husband's dead body as she lovingly cooks her way through his remains in Season To Taste or How To Eat Your Husband. Natalie Young's humour is dark and twisted - think Sweeney Todd meets Desperate Housewives - and not for the squeamish.

Last, not least but certainly the lightest of my list, another debut - from actor Sara Crowe. Campari for Breakfast is a delightfully quirky coming of age tale about finding love and finding oneself. There are family secrets to be unearthed and a ghostly visitor to be braved, while the house threatens to crumble down and desperate ways are sought to save it. I absolutely adored this. It's light, funny and sad by turns, but overwhelmingly full of 17 year old heroine Sue's belief that one day she'll find love and begin to live decadently, sipping campari for breakfast!

Not really eligible for this list were some really amazing books published in previous years; Andrea Levy's Small Island, George Mackay Brown's Greenvoe, and Roopa Farooki's The Flying Man

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Life I Left Behind by Colette McBeth

review by Maryom

It's five years since Melody Pieterson was attacked and nearly died.In those five years she's become a new person; she's barely able to leave the house on her own, has come to distrust her own judgement to the extent that she can hardly make a decision about the simplest thing, but on the plus side, she's in a new relationship and about to get married. But then, mere weeks after Melody's attacker is released from jail, the body of another women is found; she looks like Mel, is found in similar circumstances, and, like Mel, is found with a bird cage necklace. This woman was called Eve Elliot, and she was helping Mel's attacker in his attempt to clear his name - could he really have struck again?

The Life I Left Behind is told from three points of view - Melody's, investigating police officer DI Victoria Rutter's and, from beyond the grave, Eve Elliot's. The only drawback to this is that if we could have asked Eve straight out Who did it?, she could have told us - but of course there'd be very little story left then! As it is, events unfold from the three women's perspectives.
I found Melody to be the most interesting of the three - she was always dubious about the identification of her attacker but, having no memory of that night, had to accept the evidence the police presented her with. This is what lies at the heart of her current situation - having once been so mistaken about a person, how can she trust her own judgement on anything, no matter how trivial? From being a lively, out-going person, she's become virtually a recluse, and the luxurious new house built to her fiancé's specifications has begun to feel like a cage. When Melody hears of Eve Elliot's death while investigating a possible miscarriage of justice in the sentencing of her, Melody's, attacker, it brings the past and all Melody's doubts back to life. Maybe the police had been wrong all along.
Meanwhile, investigating Eve's death, DI Rutter finds herself doubting the original investigation too - even though she played a part in it.
And so the three threads wind together, upping the suspense towards a nail-biting climax.
I liked this more that Colette McBeth's debut thriller Precious Thing The characters seemed more rounded and believable, even given that one was dead, and Melody particularly was a disturbing portrait of how violence can change a life completely.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher -
Genre - Adult Psychological Crime Thriller

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Goodhouse by Peyton Marshall

review by Maryom

Late 21st century America has found a new way of dealing with criminals - advances in DNA analysis means that boys with a predisposition to violence and criminal behaviour can be identified, removed from their families and brought up in strictly run correctional schools. Within this Goodhouse system, the boys are brought up to be obedient and docile, striving for the goal of being allowed to rejoin the outside world as good upright workers. Like so many systems though it's open to abuse..
James was taken from his family at the age of 3 and brought up within a series of these Goodhouse establishments; his life has been an endless round of Goodhouse-approved books and videos encouraging a productive, well-behaved role when they're reintroduced into society. Now 17, he's getting his first taste of the outside world on a Community Day - a day which should have cemented all his aspirations but instead leads to them falling apart. He spends the day with a 'normal' family but within that family is Bethany, a girl of his own age (and remember he's been brought up in a school of only boys) who proves to be the catalyst that brings down his world.

Goodhouse is a rivetting read - part action thriller and part chilling dystopian vision of a not-so-distant future.
The world, of course, isn't the straightforward prosperous place James has been led to believe in. Various factions have their differing views on what should happen to the Goodhouse boys - not all pleasant - and even those trusted with their care are exploiting them. James' expectations of a respectable life are threatened as much by his teachers and carers as the sudden downturn in his behaviour. His only hope of survival is to find out exactly what is going on behind the scenes at Ione Goodhouse, and somehow bring it to the attention of the outside world - obviously a plan that has its own dangers.

Behind the story, lurks the science- and it's chilling. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that DNA researchers could identify a gene associated with criminal behaviour and it's too easy to envisage a society that would set up houses of correction for anyone born with it. Of course, get a group that no one really cares about effectively imprisoned, and it's a license for the jailers to do as they want. Can it ever be right to step in and control peoples lives, even when it's ostensibly for their own good?

Taken together, the two aspects make an exciting, thought-provoking read for both adults and teens.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre -dystopian

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Job by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

Review by The Mole

Nick Fox, master con-man, is caught on camera committing a simple but audacious theft. FBI Special Agent Kate O'Hare is the only person to have arrested Fox in the past and so she is requested for the case. The problem is that the FBI have recruited Fox and Kate is convinced that the crime is not his style and she trusts him not to be working his stings any more. Another "Fox" crime occurs elsewhere in Europe but this time Fox is with Kate at the time - not that she can admit that to anyone! Between them Kate and Nick take on one of the biggest crime lords on the planet in a scheme that is audacious, dangerous and a massive con.

I have previously read "The Heist" - the first of this series of books - and it was a serious amount of fun. Fast furious and totally unbelievable - escapism at it's very best. This book seems more settled, comfortable in that the writers seem to know the characters better and both Nick and Kate - although Kate still has distinct boundaries - are allowed to get away with more.

And we find listed a recipe for mushy peas... well, the writers are American so I suppose we can forgive them that mistake.

I can really see these books making the big screen as they have all the elements and while little bits are a little "adult" they could so easily be good family fun.

A real pleasure to read - watch out for this pair (Fox and O'Hare OR Evanovich and Goldberg).

Publisher - Headline
Genre - Adult thriller

Friday, 12 December 2014

Ruthless by Cath Staincliffe

 review by Maryom

At first an abandoned chapel going up in flames looks like just another case of arson but then a body is found amongst the ashes. Local thugs Neil and Noel Perry, both with previous convictions for arson, were seen in the vicinity but what motive would they have for shooting a harmless homeless guy? And where could they have got the weapon? While DCI Murray's team set to work on door to door enquiries trying to pick up leads, another building in the same area goes up in flames.....

Ruthless fits nicely in-between series 2 and 3 of the Scott and Bailey TV series, as Rachel is settling down to married life, or not, Janet and Ade are back living together but their marriage is definitely on the rocks, and Gill's husband is putting in a most unwelcome appearance. If you're a fan you'll know the set-up, if not the book gives enough back-story to fill you in, without giving too much away. I love the series for its strong female leads - there's not just the odd woman outnumbered in a male dominated department, but a more-or-less evenly split team, including Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey and led by the confident, commanding  DCI Gill Murray - this though is the first of the novels I've read. As I'd expected it very much picks up where the televised story leaves off, following the troubled private lives of the three women while they try to clear up a spate of arson attacks and murder. The plot is twisting, turning and unpredictable, but I think for once the drama in the lives of Janet and her elder daughter Elise might almost overshadow the police investigation.
Helped no doubt by having seen them brought to life on TV, the characters feel like real people that I can relate to, understand the conflict they find between home-life and work, and their desire to do the job to their best ability while still having some semblance of a normal life outside it.

It's definitely a book for fans of the TV series, but even if you've never watched it (why?) give this a read, you won't be disappointed. I really enjoyed it and will be reading more of the Scott and Bailey novels in future.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Corgi/Transworld
Genre - adult crime fiction

Thursday, 11 December 2014

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

review by Maryom

For forty years, Odran Yates has been a priest - at first pushed into choosing this career by his mother who claimed he had a vocation, but soon settling into the role. His life has been spent happily enough, mainly at a boys' boarding school, but now, even in his sheltered environment, he can no longer ignore the scandals rocking the Catholic Church in Ireland, or the nagging voice of his conscience. Even when he first entered the seminary at 17, there were incidents between his fellow students which worried him, but Odran has always been able to close his eyes, has never wanted to stir up trouble and always accepted the dubious assurances of his superiors. Finally forced into acknowledging the abuses of trust and power that have been going on around him, Odran comes to realise that by keeping silent he is as guilty as anyone.

A History of Loneliness is a story of shame and pain, the loss of innocence of one man in particular and his country in general. Odran Yates has tried to live a good life in keeping with the dictates of his conscience and his church, but that church has now let him down - not only have some of its members abused their positions of trust and power, but these abuses have been covered up by officials within the church. From being the holder of a revered position, he's now become a distrusted and hated figure, tainted by the guilt of others, reviled by passers by on the street and even his own family.
The story moves from the present, as Odran tries to cope with his sister's deteriorating health and the new troubled world of the priesthood, to his childhood, marred by tragedy, and the progression of his career - his initial enthusiasm, the temptation that nearly led him astray, and the ever-present doubts and qualms to which he resolutely turns a blind eye.  For this is Odran's sin - to have kept quiet, lulled into a state of acceptance and acquiescence by his desire for a peaceful life.

It would no doubt have been easier for the author to have tackled this subject from the standpoint of one of the victims, or their abuser, to have given the reader a clear-cut figure to hate but instead he gives us a character for whom we can feel sympathy; one who at first seems unfairly labelled due to the actions of others, who has tried live up to his ideals but has done as many of us might have - kept quiet for the sake of a peaceful life. Maybe, as his story unwinds, we come to feel that Odran wasn't quite that naive, that his ignorance was deliberate, but ultimately he comes to realise that by keeping quiet he was complicit in the harm that's been done.

I'd expected a moving, hard-hitting read, which A History of Loneliness certainly delivers; I hadn't expected the humour that peeps through from time to time, as it will in life.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult contemporary literary fiction

John Boyne author event 2013

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

After Helen by Paul Cavanagh

Review by The Mole

Irving Cruickshank is an unassuming history teacher grieving the death of his beautiful and headstrong wife Helen. Though their relationship was tumultuous at best, Irving is determined to hold on to his happier memories of Helen. Their teenaged daughter Severn, however, is unable to come to terms with her death. When Severn disappears after stealing a book that may reveal more about her mother than she ever wanted to know, Irving is frantic. He follows her to Toronto where he’s forced to confront his life with Helen; from their chance encounter at her father’s bookshop to his clumsy courtship and their turbulent marriage. Irving gradually realises that some truths can’t be changed and that he must face up to the reality of Helen if he has any chance of repairing his relationship with his daughter.

You know when you pick up a book and then realise you have mistaken the author for someone else and the further you get into the book the more delighted you become to have made the mistake? That.

The story is told chapter by chapter alternating between Irving and Helen's turbulent past and Irving and Severn's confrontational present in smallish chunks. Irving starts out frustrated at Severn's rebellion and her running away. In order to find Severn he joins forces with Marla, the mother of Severn's boyfriend. Slowly, with Marla's common sense approach, the atmosphere settles but can Irving and Severn ever reconcile their differences with everything they have learned about Helen?

This is Cavanagh's first book that was originally published in Canada and while it has received critical acclaim it has only now become available to the rest of the world.

While it is an emotional roller coaster it's not overly sentimental and didn't draw me in the way many books do but is a well executed story of parental relationships with teenage children and the needs of both adult and child, and the space and support they both need from each other and those around them.

I was swept along from page one and only slightly frustrated occasionally when a chapter ended at what felt like an inappropriate point. Was it a story that blew my socks off? Well perhaps not but I still did really enjoy it.

Publisher  - Paperback and ebook from all the usual sources
Genre - Adult Fiction