Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Place for Us (part 2) by Harriet Evans

review by Maryom

The far-flung Winter family have all gathered at the family home to celebrate the eightieth birthday of matriarch Martha. Renowned for her fabulous parties, Martha has invited anyone and everyone from the neighbourhood to help her celebrate but she also has an important announcement to be made - to family members only - at lunch the next day. After the revelations of Part 1, can there be any more surprises to come? Well, yes, several in fact!

A Place for Us is being serialised in four parts and reading it is a bit like tuning in each week to catch your favourite TV drama. Part 1 set the scene, introduced us to this scattered family and the secrets they hide from each other, and ended on a real cliff-hanger. Now as they gather for the party, we learn more about their lives and most importantly discover the bombshell that Martha plans to drop at her birthday lunch. It wasn't at all what I expected - and I can't easily see how the family is going to recover from it!

I'm really enjoying this book. It has a great cast of characters; some to love; others, not quite to hate but certainly to feel less sympathy for. The gradual reveal of their back-stories alternating with the present day plot has me hooked and wanting to know what will happen next. I can't wait for part 3!

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Headline Review
Genre - adult fiction, family saga

Monday, 15 September 2014

Small Island by Andrea Levy

review by Maryom

Gilbert Joseph was one of many Jamaican men who left home and came to help their 'mother country' Britain during WW2. During his time in the RAF he was treated with a certain level of curiosity, but nothing that could have prepared him for the outright hostility that meets him when he decides to find work in London in 1948. Fortunately, his wartime friend Queenie Bligh, still awaiting the return of her husband, has a large house with rooms to spare. When Gilbert's wife Hortense arrives though, things aren't as she'd imagined. From all the stories told in Jamaica, and everything she'd learned at school, Hortense expects to find, if not quite streets paved with gold, a refined, sophisticated city full of well-spoken, cultured people. What she doesn't expect is the crumbling buildings and shabby, post-war feel of post-war London, people's everyday rudeness and, above all, the prejudice and discrimination against black people that she soon encounters.

Small Island is one of those vast sweeping books that moves backwards and forwards in time and geography, as the lives of four people join, split apart and rejoin.  Set in 1948, with flashbacks to the war-time years, it tells the stories of two young couples, Jamaicans Hortense and Gilbert, and  English Queenie and Bernard, and through them of the prejudice and bigotry facing the post-war wave of West Indian immigrants.

Dealing with the weighty issues of immigration and racism, it could all have fell flat in a dull but worthy way; instead the author tackles them in a readable manner, with the emphasis being on the story; exposing all the prejudice without preaching - just showing events and leaving the reader to their own conclusions. Although it helped me to understand the fears and prejudices of my parents' generation (that of Queenie and Bernard), the British attitude was enough to make me cringe. Even so, it seemed positively welcoming at the side of Americans with institutionalised racism, protected by law and custom.

Among a raft of awards Small Island picked up Whitbread Book of the Year and Orange Prize for fiction and is now back in a tenth anniversary edition. Shame to say I hadn't read it till now. I'd tried to watch the TV series but abandoned it as a bit dull, thinking that I'd try the book instead. Then my daughter read it at college and said how really good it was, but that I might not like it. Well, she was wrong! I loved it!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
Tinder Press
Genre -
Adult fiction, literary

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Quarry by Iain Banks

review by Maryom

Kit is an autistic teenager brought up solely by his father Guy, never knowing who his mother is. Till now they've managed ok living in the old house by the quarry where Guy spent his student years, but time is running out for Guy who is dying of cancer. With this in mind, all Guy's oldest, closest friends from student days have been invited along for the weekend for one last get-together before his time runs out.  His friends though have something else on their minds - a video tape, one of several that were made back when they were film and media students, but one which could prove to be extremely embarrassing if made public. So between the drinking, political arguments and bitchy reveals about who slept with whom, they search, either secretly or as a group, for it.

I've taken a while to get round to reading this last novel by Iain Banks but spotting it on a library shelf I decided it was time to go for it. As I'd half expected from other reviews it isn't his greatest work (for me that will always be The Crow Road) but it feels much more personal. It's difficult not to believe that many of Guy's harangues against life, death and everything in between aren't Banks' own.

It reads well, as you'd expect, and unfolding events pull you in nicely. The whole 'scattered friends meet up for the weekend' concept feels a little bit like an Alan Ayckbourn farce meets Agatha Christie so you're not sure whether to expect laughs or murder - and with Banks it could be either. Sitting on the sidelines, distanced by his age and autism, Kit closely observes events without necessarily catching the undercurrents.  and he's always on the lookout for clues about his mother's identity. There's lots of threads to be unravelled and it was only afterwards that I thought the plot seemed a little thin. For any other writer I'd probably have said it was great, but it's not Iain Banks at his brilliant, mind-blowing best.   

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

Other reviews; Women's Prize for Fiction Book Reviews

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Clara's Daughter by Meike Ziervogel

 review by Maryom

 Michele appears to be a woman who has everything - a successful career, two grown up children and a happy marriage - but cracks have started to form underneath the surface and her world's about to crumble. 
Don't read my summary and expect a thriller! Meike Ziervogel's second novel is a quiet, intimate portrayal of a life falling apart as Michele is pulled in opposite directions by loyalty to her husband and mother. Things start in an idyllic seeming way - a cycle ride and an early morning swim shared by Michele and husband Jim but already there are signs that Jim expects life to be lived his way and that, now the children are independent, his wife's attention should be on him.  Michele has other concerns and obligations though - ideally she'd concentrate her time and efforts on her work, an important deal is in the offing and as CEO she wants to be there and in charge .... but then there's her elderly mother, Clara, who increasingly needs to be looked after. Her sister Hilary would love to help out, so she says, but always finds a reason not to, while manoeuvring Michele into doing everything. A care home would be ideal but will Michele's conscience allow her to send her mother there?  Where is the midst of these conflicting ties is there space for Michele herself?

As in Meike Ziervogel's debut novel  Magda, the central relationship is that between mother and daughter; how it changes through the years, with the balance of dependence and help shifting between the two. Jim shares the idea that I feel is in the back of many couple's minds that once the children have grown, then their time will be free to do with as they please - a luxury cruise, golfing holidays in the Algarve or, in Jim's case, downsizing to a remote cottage by the sea. Life isn't that simple though, there are always obligations to be met and, as parents age, children, once cared for become the carers themselves. Clara I felt to be just as much the victim of circumstances as her daughter - although terrified at the thought of being institutionalised in a home or hospital, living as a dependant in a converted basement was certainly not how she'd have chosen to spend her old age.
Alongside this core, it explores Michele's relationships with her self-centred, laid back husband and manipulative sister, and looks at the different roles we play at various stages of life - daughter, mother, sister, wife, artist, businesswoman; how they pull us in opposite directions, are sometimes impossible to combine, some having to be sacrificed for others and how ultimately they shape and define us, rather than us choosing and determining our own future.

 It's a short book, just over 130 pages, but one that requires a little effort on behalf of the reader, in the form of some input and response. Don't sit back and expect everything to be laid out in plain sight - it's a little like watching a play; the characters' feelings and motivations have to be interpreted from their words and actions, and I suspect everyone will see things slightly differently, informed by their own feelings and experiences.

The structure is a little curious - two timelines, one of which charts a week leading up to a decisive point in Michele and Jim's relationship; the other darting ahead into the future, a month, six months, a year, eighteen months, charting the more lasting effects- so the reader needs to retain track of both to fully appreciate he unfolding of events.
Clara's Daughter is an amazing book, packing so much into such a short space, and one that while telling a very specific story about two women raises matters that are of consequence to all of us. Best of all, it's a book that I expect to improve with further reading.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - Adult literary fiction

Monday, 8 September 2014

Take It Cool by Jonathan Pinnock

review by Maryom

 Author Jonathan Pinnock has always felt that his surname is about as far removed from cool as you can get; you may get Pinnocks who are strange, eccentric or even mad but at "two consonants away from disaster" being cool eludes them. Then, searching through a pile of second-hand records, he stumbled on something that would change his whole outlook - a reggae single "Take It Cool" by Dennis Pinnock. At last a Pinnock who was well and truly cool - but also, curiously, a Jamaican black Pinnock, as far removed from the author's white West Country background as it's surely possible to get. Could there really be any family ties between Dennis and Jonathan?

Now, the author had guessed before he started out on his quest that any, even the shallowest, search into Jamaica's past was going to lead him to the slave trade and plantation owners - so he was rather hoping there wouldn't be a connection! Even so he tracks down the early Pinnock colonists of the seventeenth century and their descendants, including one who quickly earns the name "Dog-face Phil". Alongside this story, he tries to track down Dennis himself via record label back-catalogues and that miracle of research tools, the internet, in the hope that one day the cool and un-cool branches of the Pinnocks may meet.
Now if you've watched the BBC's Who Do you Think You Are? you'll know that researching family history is a lot of pot-luck - sometimes it's full of surprises and stories, while sometimes it's of little interest to anyone beyond relatives. Having read Jonathan Pinnock's fiction, I expected him to turn what could be a plodding piece of research into something interesting and fun - and he did!  The different threads are easily-followed, and build an amusingly-told story that held the attention of a non-Pinnock with no interest in reggae (I didn't even recognise the names of it's stars!)

And for anyone interested in researching their own family history, there are a few pointers at websites and organisations that may prove useful

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher -   Two Ravens Press
Genre - non-fiction, family history

Friday, 5 September 2014

Spies in Disguise: Boy in a Tutu by Kate Scott

Review by The Mole

We first met Jo(si)e and Sam in Boy in Tights when, due to his parents having been rumbled as government spies they needed to relocate and change identities. Now Josie and Sam are given a real mission to protect some valuable World Cup memorabilia as the local leisure centre - the only thing is they must join ballet classes as part of their cover. And it becomes obvious that someone is taking too much interest in Josie.

The best thing about "Spies in Disguise" is that they are not meant as  serious spy novels - even for it's target readership. they are meant as funny escapism - even 6+ readers want that - and Kate Scott achieves it in spades! Without resorting to belches and farts she brings laughs with wit that entertains adults as well as children, which would make these excellent bed time stories. And they are stories - ones where the plot hangs together properly no matter how ridiculous the plot or action may seem to an adult. And it's not all light and roses for our duo either - there are spats and fallings out along the way, but teamwork is needed to succeed.

And there's no preaching to the reader either. Another great book for the very early reader - but why stop with just them?

Publisher - Piccadilly Press
Genre - Children's (6+) Spy Story, humour

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Station Eleven by Emily StJohn Mandel

review by Maryom

One day, much like any other, with people going about their daily routine, the Georgia Flu hits. With a 99% mortality rate, survivors are few and far between and within weeks the world as we know it is only a memory.
Twenty years later, and the initial years of violence and horror have died down, leaving a fairly settled 'armed peace'. Through this setting. a group of performers known as The Travelling Symphony are travelling, taking music and Shakespeare to the scattered communities in the Great Lakes area. Meanwhile in a disused airport lounge, an elderly man has set up a Museum of Civilisation, a collection of curiosities, things that were once part of everyday life  - credit cards, mobile phones - but now seem meaningless.

Station Eleven is a dystopian post-apocalypse novel with a difference - not just about surviving the the initial catastrophe but about how society/civilisation, call it what you will, continues afterwards. The story weaves backwards and forwards from the years before the epidemic, the outbreak and chaos of it and twenty years after, following the intertwined lives of the main characters, all of whom have links back to famous Shakespearean actor Arthur Leander who died the night the epidemic broke; his wife Miranda, son Tyler, best friend Clark,  Kirsten, once a child actor and now part of The Symphony and an excellent knife-thrower and Jeevan the man who came to Arthur's aid as he collapsed on stage.
I think Station Eleven is a book that readers will see many different things in - to me, the motto "Survival is Insufficient", taken by the Symphony as a whole, and Kirsten personally, is the key to the novel. Borrowed from Star Trek Voyager's Seven of Nine, it encapsulates the idea that mere subsistence level living is not enough - that being able to explore one's own individuality, to create, through art, music or words, is key to being human. For the Symphony specifically its what defines them as people - when civilisation started to collapse around them, their musical instruments were the things they saved. Kirsten saves a paperweight for its beauty alone and no practical reason. To quote Chakotay from the same Voyager episode, "There's a difference between surviving and living", which for me sums up the feeling behind this novel.

It's not Shaun of the Dead or 28 Days Later but a deeper, philosophical look at a sudden break-down of society. There's a lot within it to appeal to geeks like me - with references to greek myths, Shakespeare and Star Trek; the latter being particularly relevant as it was never afraid to move beyond science fiction to wider questions of philosophy, morals and humanity in a similar way to Station Eleven itself.

Sadness permeates the book, not just for friends and family lost to the epidemic but for the disappearance of a whole way of life. Overall though the feeling is upbeat and positive, hopeful that people can re-build a world as good if not better than it was before.

I really enjoyed my first read-through and it feels like a book that hasn't revealed all its depths yet but will re-pay further reads with fresh discoveries to be made.

Maryom's review - 5 stars

Publisher - Picador
Genre - dystopian, post-apocalyptic, adult fiction

Other reviews; Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
 For Winter Nights 
Girl! Reporter