Friday, 21 October 2016

The Ice Lands by Steinar Bragi

review by Maryom

Four thirty-something friends have headed off into the wild interior of Iceland on a camping trip. The two guys, Egill and Hrafin, have been friends since childhood, and over the years have had their falling-outs and getting-back togethers but old resentments still linger; their partners, Anna and Vigdis, are comparative strangers who don't really get on. The trip is supposed to be a time to bond, as a group, and with nature, but Icelandic nature can be inhospitable, tempers are quick to flare, and an argument and the sudden dropping of heavy fog lead to their jeep crashing into a farmhouse. The four seek refuge inside, but the elderly couple who live there seem strange, insisting on barricading the only door at night for fear of something which lurks outside. As the group's attempts to get back to 'civilisation' fail time and again, the behaviour of the couple becomes even weirder, and the odd things found in the vicinity - dead animals, an abandoned village, piles of bones - lead them to wonder what exactly they've inadvertently discovered.

The Ice Lands is a mix of psycholgical thriller and horror tale following that well-tested plot in which city folk head off into the wilds and encounter more than they'd bargained for - think Blair Witch Project or House of Wax, depending on your preference in horror. So, I'd expected something straight forward along these lines (and if it's done well I do love a good horror) and there are a lot of very creepy moments as, splitting into various sub-groups, the friends explore the area, try to drive or walk to the nearest town, and end up circling back to the strange farmhouse that sits at the centre of this puzzle. Intermittently the story line is broken by flashbacks to the past histories of the four, and I somehow assumed these were irrelevant - just so much padding to lengthen what would have been a short story - but the ending made me realise I'd been wrong-footed; I changed my mind, decided they WERE an integral part of the overall plot, and wished I'd paid closer attention to them. For this is a story with a very odd ending - the sort that makes you reassess everything that's gone before and leave you wondering how much was 'real', and how much was taking place in someone's mind.
The other stand-out feature is the barren, sandy terrain of Iceland. The volcanic landscape is totally hostile to life; no trees or grass, just mile after mile of empty dessert where a breeze can easily whip up and impenetrable sand storm. Definitely not the place for your car to break down! 

Maryom's review - 3 stars 
Publisher - 
Genre - Adult Translated Fiction, horror, psychological thriller

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

translated by Jamie Bulloch

review by Maryom

Passing by a Viennese cake shop a young woman is enticed into sharing a Gugelhupf cake with an elderly lady dressed in a strange antiquated style, from head to toe in black. Normally this young woman is very conscious of what she eats, its calories and sugar levels, but somehow her usual objections fade when faced with the formidable Frau Hohenembs. The two new acquaintances head back to Frau Hohenembs' apartment, a space filled with strange curios and shared by parrots, an Irish wolfhound and a plump, equally black-clad, housekeeper, Ida.
There they share Frau Hohenembs' half of the cake, and the narrator finds herself being pulled into the life of this very strange and manipulative woman. They go for walks with the dog or visit museums - all very normal on the surface, but Frau Hohenembs is following a bizarre agenda, attacking and stealing items associated with the Empress Elisabeth, and the narrator feels compelled to go along with her plans.
Interleaved with this ongoing narrative, are reminiscences about the Empress Elisabeth by one of her loyal servants; a relationship which bears striking resemblances to that between Frau Hohenembs and Ida.

How would I describe The Empress and the Cake? Well, it's part subtle, tense psychological thriller but also an examination of addiction and loss of control. The Narrator (she's never named) has a history of eating disorders, of binge-eating and purging, which has been in abeyance for fifteen years, but which returns immediately after her first meeting with Frau Hohenembs. Throughout, she claims to be in charge of herself and the situation, believing she could walk away any time she chooses, but the reader can see that this is far from true; some part of her has come to rely on Frau Hohenembs, to need her dictating what to do and when.

The Empress and The Cake is part of Peirene's fairy tale series and Frau Hohenembs has at least a hint of the old crone, or even wicked witch, of folk tales about her; luring the innocent in with tempting food only to enslave them, or, as in the case of Hansel and Gretel, eat them!

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult Literary Translated Fiction

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Boy Who Made God Smile - book launch

by Maryom

I have a vague sort of idea that the general public think that book launches are only for 'insiders' from the publishing world (like Bridget Jones and her colleagues) and close friends of the author, but, apart from a select high profile events, they're generally open to anyone interested. So, finding myself with a spare hour or so in Nottingham on Friday, I dropped into Waterstones for the launch for GJ (Garry) Martin's latest novel - The Boy Who Made God Smile.

Garry was in conversation with Henderson Mullin, chief executive of Writing East Midlands, discussing his route to publication. Although he always wanted to be a writer, for many years Garry felt he should pursue a more regular, reliable career, and for much of his life has been a teacher. this fortunately allowed him time for writing, including an extended 'working holiday' to India researching the 'god business' of superstar style gurus, which resulted in the original idea that grew into The Boy Who Made God Smile.

Moving between Birmingham and Bangalore, this is the story of three generations of an Indian/British family in crisis. Ari is taken to India to visit his terminally ill grandfather, and, while his father finds returning to his home baffling and strange, Ari finds it to be a fascinating place. I definitely got the impression that Ari was a youngster intent on poking his nose where the adults didn't want him to, and asking the kind of questions adults don't want to answer!

Garry also talked about being chosen to take part in the Writing East Midlands mentoring scheme. Under this, three aspiring writers are chosen and work alongside an established author, in his case crime writer Anne Zouroudi, who through feedback and advice helps them make good writing better. In Garry's case, this involved turning a single narrative into three threads which wove about each other, and cutting certain 'surplus' characters - he tried to reintroduce one of these at the proof stage but she, somewhat spookily, still ended up on a publishing version of the cutting room floor and never made it into print.

The Boy Who Made God Smile is published through Colley Books

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Secret Life and Curious Death of Miss Jean Milne by Andrew Nicoll

review by Maryom

The small town of Broughty Ferry is a gentile, refined place - not like the city of Dundee "that sink of iniquity and depravity" just a few miles further along the coast - so its inhabitants and police force are especially shocked when Jean Milne, an elderly spinster, is found murdered in her own home, the victim of a frenzied attack. Alerted by the postman who notices Miss Milne's mail hasn't been moved for several days, if not weeks, Sergeant John Fraser is one of the first upon the scene and starts to gather evidence and witness statements, but, determined to resist the interference of the Dundee police, Broughty's Chief Constable Sempill calls in a renowned investigator from Glasgow, Detective Lieutenant Trench, a man who very quickly decides the frenzied attack must be the work of a foreigner or a maniac. The facts gathered quickly lead to a supposition that Jean Milne had a younger man, assumed to be her lover, staying with her at the time of her murder - and soon the hunt is on for him.

Based on a true unsolved case of 1912, this story gives an interesting glimpse into police methods in an almost 'modern' setting within the context of a compelling whodunnit read. The hunt for the murderer takes Sempill to London and Antwerp, following clues, conducting identity parades, and checking alibis - you might be tempted to think it unrealistic and far-fetched if the story weren't based on police records from the time! To a regular crime reader, it's obvious that the police haven't attempted to follow up on all of the clues but instead spent too much time trying to make evidence fit their sole suspect. Nicoll's interpretation of the 'ignored' evidence is interesting but even so I wasn't quite convinced with his version of events. That wasn't anything to disrupt my enjoyment of the novel though.
Nicoll does an excellent job of capturing the feel of a small early twentieth century town, the pride its police force has in being at the forefront of modern methods and techniques - the use of fingerprints, telephones and telegrams to aid their investigation - and its use of the press to inform, misinform and seek witnesses. In some ways, I wish it hadn't been a 'true crime', but that there could have been further investigations for Sergeant Fraser and Detective Trench. 

Maryom's review -  4 stars
Publisher -  Black and White Publishing
Genre - historical crime

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Fell by Jenn Ashworth

review by Maryom

Annette Clifford is a bit of a drifter, never holding down a job or staying in the same place for long. Now middle-aged, alone and between jobs, she's returned to her childhood home in the northern seaside town of Grange-over-Sands, inherited by her on the death of her step-mother. It isn't a place she feels much, if any, affection for, and now the large house lies empty and neglected, inhabited only by starlings, and undermined by the roots of the sycamores it was named after; just somewhere Annette would like to spruce up and sell as quickly and profitably as possible. Once, though, the house had been the focus of her parents' hopes and dreams. Having inherited the house while still quite young, Jack and his new wife, Netty, had hoped to meet the running costs of such a huge place by taking in lodgers, and to perhaps one day live out their retirement there in comfort. Life of course rarely goes to plan ...
Now their spirits have been woken by Annette's return, and they watch over her anxiously, realising that over the years their daughter had been neglected - first in favour of the lodgers, then by their total absorption in Netty's illness and their desperate hope for a cure. This time, they're determined to not let her down.

It's difficult to talk about Fell without making it seem like a ghost story, with friendly spirits intervening to ease Annette's life and push it in a certain direction - but it isn't really. Rather it's a beguiling, atmospheric tale of family, regrets and reconciliation, rooted in reality but laced with something other worldly much like Sarah Winman's A Year of Marvellous Ways  or Lucy Wood's Weathering.

The story moves back and forth in time - between the present day, as Annette struggles to overcome her hostile attitude towards the house, taking out her anger on the enormous sycamores that overwhelm everything, and the summer of 1963 when Netty was ill, beyond hope of conventional medicine, and putting her faith in a young lodger, Timothy Richardson, who appeared to have a magical, miraculous healing touch. The spirits are employed as narrators who can look back to the past, remembering when they were 'young Jack and Netty', filled with such hopes for their home and life together, while also knowing how those hopes foundered when Netty became ill, and being full of regret for how their and Annette's lives turned out - it's a clever, tricky way of telling a tale but Ashworth manages it excellently.

It sounds like it might be a depressing read, but ultimately it feels full of hope.

To my mind, there's a theme throughout of the unpredictability of nature - whether represented in the shifting sands of Morecambe Bay, which once brought the river channel to Grange but have since diverted it to the middle of the bay, the erratic psychic 'gifts' that both Annette and Richardson appear to have or the cancer that spreads slowly, inexorably through Netty - and maybe there's a parallel to be found between the attempts to fell the sycamores and the efforts to combat Netty's illness. In this light, the almost ceremonial downing of the huge sycamores seems to represent a triumph of order over wildness, for a short time if not for ever.

Jenn Ashworth is an author I've been intending to read since I saw her three years ago at Edinburgh Book Festival talking about The Friday Gospels, but somehow, and despite having a copy of Cold Light waiting on a shelf, I've never quite got round to it. (Sorry!) Fortunately there's nothing like a Netgalley review copy for focusing my mind, and, having realised what I'm missing, I now fully intend to get properly acquainted with her writing - I'm glad I have a back catalogue to look forward to!

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

Monday, 10 October 2016

Unthology 2 edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones

Review by The Mole

With reading Unthology 2 I can now say I have read the Unthology anthologies up to the latest one. And enjoyed every story (at some level) in every one.

In this collection we get a true flavour of what  is to come in the future books, unthologically speaking.

A failed stag night in Prague, a failed society and lifts, a failed help line call, a failed support meeting... We start to see a trend and while the trend between tales changes with each book in the Unthology series, it's as strong in book 2 as it is in the very latest.

What surprised me most was 'Siramina' by M Pinchuk - not so much as a story or outcome but it's style as being so reminiscent of the stories from the very much later short story collection from Unthank that is THE END: FIFTEEN ENDINGS TO FIFTEEN PAINTINGS in fact it could almost have been written for it!

Yes, I am biased when it comes to short stories (particularly the choices of the Unthank editors) because I love the variety of styles and the hanging endings that leave you wanting to know more. This is another for any collector of short stories - a definite must.

Publisher - Unthank Books
Genre - Adult short story anthology 

Friday, 7 October 2016

Mind Writer by Steve Cole

illustrated by Nelson Evergreen

review by Maryom

Luke has always been able to guess what other people were thinking - to know the answers to the teacher's question, or the moves other football players were about to make - but now he can hear actual thoughts, and it's like having someone shouting at him all day. Then he meets Samira, the one person whose mind is closed to him - and not only that, she seems intent on taking over control of Luke's thoughts!

Mind Writer is another excellent book with masses of reader-appeal from publishers Barrington Stoke. The plot revolves around a boy who can read minds - which turns out to be less fun than you'd imagine, and that's before a demon tries to take over his mind! Events move quickly, grabbing and keeping the reader's attention, and the dark, atmospheric illustrations add extra appeal.

An excellent supernatural/fantasy read for the 8-12 age group; it's a little on the spooky side, but not too much so.

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - children's 8-12, supernatural, fantasy adventure