Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Weatherland by Alexandra Harris


review by Maryom

English weather is renowned for being changeable, so it's not surprising that over the years, and centuries, the attitude of writers, poets and artists towards it has changed too. In this epic work, nearly 400 pages of small type, Alexandra Harris explores shifts in attitude from Anglo-Saxons in the 8 and 9th centuries huddled round the mead-hall fire telling tales of the surrounding cold and dark, through gentleman scientists collating weather statistics, Shelley's delight in things that fly or T S Eliot's parched landscape of The Waste Land, to authors beginning to look beyond today's weather and worry about the impact of global warming. 

Obviously the real weather affects everyone - from frost fairs held on the frozen Thames, to the dreadful summers of 1783 and 1816 when volcanic eruptions (from Laki in Iceland and Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies, respectively) polluted the atmosphere and affected weather world wide or the dreadful hurricane of November 1703 when 'barely a building survived intact', writers and artists have responded and interpreted events. I'm inclined to accept the weather as it comes, wet or dry, maybe complaining if it stays either for too long, and I was surprised to discover that the weather, or at least its representation in art and writing, has been subject to fashion in much the way that the length or cut of skirts might be, and that what was written or painted says as much about the attitude of the author/artist as it does about the actual weather experienced by the public. So, at times, a sunny day has been barely worth mentioning; real weather could only be experienced in a dramatic storm with thunder and lightning shaking the world according to Coleridge or Wordsworth, or by glimpsing the landscape through obscuring mists and tumultuous clouds (Constable). It also reflects the mood of the period too; the Victorian era was damp, drippy, or shrouded in fog; the 1920s with modern housing and transport, drier and brighter. 

Without doubt this work is a vast undertaking, including snippets from authors and poets throughout the centuries, fortunately, there's a useful index at the back, so if, say, you want to find the sections referencing Jane Austen's novels, or changing attitudes to rain (see also drizzle,floods and showers) throughout the centuries you can, but don't expect a tidily laid out book of all-occasion quotes. 

It won't be everybody's idea of a good read, but I found it fascinating, especially the little things that gave insight into life in past times - the fact that before Chaucer no one had really thought to celebrate the arrival of Spring, or that as early as 1661, people were commenting on pollution from chimney smoke! It covers a huge period of writing and art, charting changing attitudes to what surely has to be our favourite topic of conversation, but a couple of omissions surprised me. Although the heatwave of 1976 gets a mention via Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden written in that year, the seeming flurry of more recent books set then - Joanna Cannon's The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, and Maggie O'Farrell's Instructions for a Heatwave are the ones that instantly spring to mind - aren't covered. Another aspect of the relationship between weather and writers not explored, was its use in crime novels - many a crime writer, from Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers to Ellis Peters, has involved snow, floods, or fog, to help along a plot, often working real 'freak' weather into a story.
It also made me realise how comparatively sheltered we are these days. Few of us need to spend long periods of time outdoors if the weather doesn't suit us - perhaps why today the emphasis falls on good days when we want to be outside.


Publisher -  Thames and Hudson
Genre - Adult non-fiction, art, weather, literature,

Friday, 19 August 2016

The End - Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings - edited by Ashley Stokes

Review by The Mole

The inspiration behind the short stories in this collection is the artwork of Nicolas Ruston. Fifteen different paintings were created together, all in the same medium and all with one thing in common - they all featured the words "The End". Unthank then charged fifteen authors with coming up with the stories behind those paintings.

An image of the painting appears before the start of each story and its sub title - the story's  title - is added on replacing the number the artist originally gave the piece. The book was launched at an exhibition of the paintings in Norwich earlier this month with readings from some of the authors and even wine - The End Wine - in bottles featuring the images of the paintings and quotations from the stories. Sadly it was a launch I could not attend despite being one I would have loved to.

The first story in the collection reflects on what endings are. With each painting resembling the final scene in an old black and white movie it's easy to imagine what an ending might be, but why be constrained by expectations? - step outside of it and explore other endings - and being from the stable of Unthology that's exactly what these tales do.

Each of these works is a big step away from the other fourteen in both style and content and while melancholy is frequently a major factor it is presented in so many different ways. Being an Untholoholic I expected great things of this book and was not disappointed.

I often reflect on my favourite short story in any anthology - in this case I had fifteen so we won't go into too much detail.

  • Loose Ends reflects on the many kinds of ending that there can be but then the other writers add to that list.
  • The Slyest of Foxes is the story of an 'incomer' to a small community with insights to share.
  • If you have a heart of stone you won't be moved by Coup De Grace - it was a little too close to real for me.
  • Perturbation was a style that surprised me in a good way with a story I suspected the end to but found I wasn't quite right.
  • Ariel... we've all been there but perhaps don't realise it.
  • Chaconne in G Minor is a story of loss that captures that emotion brilliantly.
  • What Happens Next is an ironic tale of a change in life that leads to its own ending.
  • Burning The Ants is a story that goes to a dark place I'd rather not go - I still loved it though.
  • Harbour Lights will leave you reflecting on the depth of true love.
  • Decompression Chamber... well it certainly covers endings but it's hard to say much more - another brilliant piece though.
  • The Crow... a very unusual tale, a story of an end. Or is it?
  • Souls... a tale of justice that will horrify and satisfy - I think.
  • The Sense Of An Ending - what is going on here? What would you like to be going on here? What could be going on here?
  • All The TVs In Town - a story to creep you out quite a lot and leave you checking what's on TV ...anything will do.
  • Nowhere Nothing Fuck-Up... a story that will set you thinking big time.

There isn't one story that doesn't 'belong' and every one will bring something to your reading. Another brilliant idea and collection from Unthank that once again begs the question "What next?". I have seen speculation about the idea of "The End II" but it's difficult to see how it could be as great as this - but this publisher has surprised me too often in the past.

Publisher - Unthank Books
Genre - Adult short story anthology 

Contributors - AJ Ashworth, Gordon Collins, Ailsa Cox, Michael Crossan, Sarah Dobbs, Tania Hershman, Zoe Lambert, Dan Powell, Aiden O’Reilly, UV Ray, Angela Readman, David Rose, Ashley Stokes, Tim Sykes, Jonathan Taylor

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Baby X by Rebecca Ann Smith

review by Maryom

Alex Mansfield was the cool-headed research scientist heading up an experimental human reproductive programme attempting to grow a baby in an artificial womb ... but somewhere along the line she's become emotionally involved - and is now on the run with that baby, hiding out from colleagues, police and the baby's parents. Is she just trying to claim the baby as her own, justifying her actions by claiming he was in danger? or do her fears have any basis in fact?

Surrogate parenting of any sort is an emotive subject, but in Baby X Rebecca Ann Smith has managed to combine thought-provoking insights into the ethics behind the science with the compelling read of a thriller.
By telling the story from the differing perspectives of three women the author, and reader with her, can explore the issue from a multitude of angles - Alex, the scientist who although initially only interested in helping infertile couples becomes emotionally entangled in her work, her junior, Dolly, who manages to stand back and see her work objectively, and Karen, the woman who desperately wants to be a mother but can't. She also shows the uneven coverage such a project could attract from the media - sympathising with the parents in their desire to have a family (providing they play nice with the press) while demonising the scientist who can fulfil their dreams as a Frankenstein figure - and, through the fears of Dolly's mother, the threats that research establishments face from protesters.

This isn't just a fictionalised debate about ethics though - it soon becomes apparent that someone has been accessing data from the project, possibly putting it, and Baby X's life, in jeopardy. The thriller aspect changes from 'will Alex be caught up with and the baby saved?' to ' will she be caught up with and the baby endangered?'. You won't want to put the book down until you know ...

I'm hesitating over how I'd label Baby X - 'medical drama' smacks of House hunting down a cure for a mystery illness, or George Clooney in ER gazing soulfully up at the camera; sci-fi, although artificial gestation is a common enough concept there, seems too high-tech and Star Trek-y. The science involved seems only a step or two into the future, and at heart this a story about people and their motivations, for good or bad, with the reader's sympathy and suspicions moving from one character to another. With such a lot of aspects to debate, it's a story I'd definitely recommend for book groups.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - 
Mother's Milk Books
Genre - 
adult fiction, thriller

Monday, 15 August 2016

Death and The Seaside - book launch



by Maryom


Although Alison Moore's latest novel Death and the Seaside was published on the first of this month, the launch party didn't take place till last Friday(12th), so that evening we drove over to Nottingham Waterstones for an evening of book-ish chat, nibbles and drinks. There we ran into quite a number of friends from Nottingham's writing community, several of whom we've met through Nottingham's bid for City of literature status, as well as, obviously, the star of the evening Alison Moore.

After a while for chatting and grazing the refreshments, the formal part of the event got underway with a reading from the second chapter of Death and the Seaside which introduces the main character, Bonnie Falls (if you've read the book, you'll know why that chapter, not the first). It's always interesting to hear an author read their own work, as they often place emphasis on a different word or phrase to my internal reading, and can throw a different light on the story. Hearing an early section of the book again, I was struck by how many seemingly unimportant things foreshadow events later in the story.

This was followed by a really interesting Q+A session. People are always interested to know about writers' habits, where and when they work, do they have a routine, a special notebook, but I was more engrossed in the questions revolving around the ideas that went into the novel itself.

Death and The Seaside is Moore's third novel; "a psychological thriller about life, art, and inescapable fate" being how I described it in my review.  It started life while she was in the coastal town of Seaton and working on The Harvestman; a short story, again set by the seaside, about fear, and how fear can actually attract danger. So some of the themes that went on to be developed in Death and the Seaside were already present then, and even Seaton itself figures in the novel.

Responding to prompts from the audienece, Moore went on to talk about the wider role of 'the seaside' in European novels - how it's a place that characters arrive at when in crisis, or at a pivotal point in their lives; the story being resolved either by death in the sea, or, having come to a life-changing decision, the character then returns to their 'inland' life. It's all rather contrary to our every-day view of the seaside as a jolly place for summer holidays.
All of this gave me a lot of food for thought. Firstly as in my review of Death and the Seaside, I'd concentrated on psychological manipulation and living up (or down) to people's expectations, rather than seaside-related symbolism, and also because I'd recently read Elly Griffiths' crime novel The Crossing Places which references an Iron Age belief that the places where water and land met and merged - tidal flats, marshlands, bogs - were special zones at which the barrier between life and death was thin.
They may not all be relevant in this case but I'm really hoping I can make time to re-read Death and the Seaside soon, with these thoughts in mind.





Friday, 12 August 2016

Infernal by Mark de Jager


review by Maryom

Stratus slowly regains consciousness, with no memory of who he is, or why he's lying immobile while vultures circle overhead ready to feast on him. All he knows is his name, that the body he's in doesn't feel like his and that lurking in his mind is something twisted and bestial, full of rage.
Told in the first person, the story follows Stratus as he attempts to find answers to his questions of who, what, and maybe even why, he is. He may look like a man, but their world is strange to him, and he doesn't understand their motivations or fears, making him seem callous and often brutal. Add to this his dark skin, strength, and fits of rage when the beast inside can't be subdued, and it's easy to see why most who encounter him immediately label Stratus as a demon, but seeing events from his point of view he comes over as an innocent gifted with superhuman strength (with a certain similarity to Frankenstein's monster).

Stratus stumbles his way onward through this unknown world, struggling to make sense of what he encounters, meeting violence with violence, realising that he has sorcery within him that can shape men's thoughts and actions, but still needing answers. The kingdom of Krandin in which Stratus finds himself is torn apart by war, falling before the forces of the Penullin empire led by the Worm Lord and an army of wizards - and opinion is divided as to whether he has been sent by this magic-wielding war lord, or could prove to be a weapon against him - either way, no one really has Stratus's best interests at heart, so he continues on his personal quest. 

As you may have guessed, this is a rather violent book - so not one for the faint-hearted and squeamish - but I loved it; the most troubling section I found to be when Stratus has ventured into crypts and caverns far underground - and someone mentions the weight of earth piled above! It's also funny, in a dark, warped way, often turning Stratus's lack of understanding, and even his threats to life and limb, into deadpan humour, which I liked.  Although the backdrop of kingdoms at war, one holding an unfair advantage due to drawing on (probably evil) magic, is fairly familiar within the fantasy genre, having an amnesiac protagonist with deep dark secrets gave it a new, compelling twist. All in all, it's an excellent debut. I'm sure the story isn't finished yet, and I for one will be looking forward to the next instalment.


Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Genre - adult fantasy

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

review by Maryom

When she was ten years old, Mia Corvere's father was executed as a traitor, and her mother and baby brother thrown into prison to die; she herself only escaped death due to help from a shady presence, which since then has accompanied her, in the vague, shadowy form of a cat. In the six years since then, Mia's life has focused on preparing herself for the day she can claim her revenge, learning the skills that will enable her to join the secretive Red Church, which trains the best assassins in the land.

With the other new students, she'll be schooled in not merely the obvious fighting skills, but also stealing, poisoning, and seduction - all arts an assassin can put to good use when pursuing their target. While training, the students themselves are at considerable risk, from both their instructors, who, for example, think nothing of poisoning the class to see how quickly they can work out an antidote, and some of their fellow apprentices who, like Mia, have joined up with vengeance in mind. Not all of them will make it to the end of training, and, of those who do, only four will achieve the status of Blade.

The basic plot is a familiar enough from many a fantasy, sci-fi, even historical, novel; a youngster, frequently orphaned or dispossessed of their birthright, vows to get even with the world, gets taken under the wing of a wise old man, undergoes years of training and emerges as a hero - it could be anyone from Luke Skywalker to Arya Stark. But just because it's a familiar story in outline, doesn't stop this being an enjoyable, gripping read.
Mia is an interesting lead character; born to a life of luxury and comfort, she's become hardened and steadfast in her plans for revenge, but is still haunted by horrors in her past. Her shadowy cat-shaped companion, Mister Kindly, has probably assisted more than Mia realises, because he absorbs her fear, but she's only just beginning to understand her powers with regard to manipulating these shadows, so it should be interesting to see how those skills evolve in the coming books. The reader knows that Mia goes on to become a renowned assassin - the story is told by an omniscient narrator from a future standpoint - but the exact reasons for her fame aren't revealed.
There's excellent world-building -  from the combination of suns which leads to an almost constant state of daylight, the vaguely Roman feel to civilisation and name, the city built in and around the bones of an ancient god, to the Red Church and its dedication to a god of murder.

A slight downside, I thought, was the rather 'boarding school' feel to the Red Church's apprentice training, but it's probably excellent for readers who grew up with Harry Potter and now want something similar but more adult. Don't be fooled though into thinking it's a book for children; the story opens with sex and violence, and both are present, often in graphic detail, throughout the book.


Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
 Adult fantasy

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Oh, Freedom by Francesco D'Adamo

Translated from the original Italian by Sian Williams.

Review by The Mole

This book, set in Alabama in 1850, tells the story of young Tommy and his family who are living in slavery on a cotton plantation. When a stranger with a wooden leg arrives, he offers to take them to freedom along the Underground Railroad to Canada.

I expect we have all heard of the slavery in North America prior to the civil war and know that the era is safely behind us. But what was it like for the victims? And did freedom really await them later?

This book tells the story of one group who make a bid for freedom, and through the skill of the author exposes the reader to a small idea of what it may have been like for those people.

Peg Leg Joe, who leads the escape, is a legendary character who may have existed but could be a compiled fiction from many others who really lead such escape attempts.

At one point Tommy expresses his disappointment in his father to Joe, who takes him to task explaining why his father accepted slavery and didn't make a bid for freedom; before and during this exchange I really felt a better understanding of what slavery was all about.

An excellent read targeted at the younger reader.

NB - I know that there was and still is far more to slavery than just the Americas - and that it is still widely practised throughout the world today (including the 'west'!) But this story is an historical tale of bravery and heroism that improved the lives of some and, possibly, helped to destabilise the practice in one country.

Publisher - Darf Publishers
Genre - Children's Historical Fiction