Friday, 21 July 2017

Free Lance and the Lake of Skulls by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

review by Maryom

The jousting season is over, and Free Lance is making his way from town to town looking for ways to earn his keep - a small tournament, a sword display, even a joust on the village green. One day he finds himself accepting a curious challenge -  a lord wants Lance to go in search of an enchanted crown, and in return he'll get a bag of gold. Lance is quick to accept but has he maybe been too eager? In the middle of a lake lies an island, and on that island is a mountain of skulls, the topmost of which belongs to an ancient king, and is still wearing his golden crown. It sounds like a simple task (ok, maybe not) but if the pile of skulls wasn't scary enough, there are creatures waiting for Lance in the lake ... and Chris Riddell's illustrations bring them to life in all their horror.

As always with books from Barrington Stoke publishers, care has been taken with the font, lay-out and even colour of the pages to make the book more appealing to dyslexic and struggling reader, but without compromising on telling a great story. There are illustrations on almost every page to lure the reader in, but, to be honest, I think the story will have grabbed them anyway. Each chapter ends at a 'cliffhanger' moment encouraging the reader to find out what happens next, rather than put the book down. 
 Lance may be a knight down on his luck, with rusted, dented armour, and an old, tired horse, but he's definitely the hero of the story. He's a bit quick to get into brawls in the inn but he's brave enough to trek alone through dark deep forests, paddle across the sinister lake and then climb that mountain of skulls, without once thinking of turning back. Kids will love him!
Yes it's gruesome and scary, but in a way to delight a young reader, and I think they'll squeal as much with laughter as with terror (maybe not suitable for the more squeamish though)

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - 8+, specially suitable for reluctant, dyslexic and struggling readers, knights, 

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

review by Maryom

On a small island lives a group of people who believe themselves to be the only survivors of the plague and fires that scourged everywhere else. Their world is small, with no outside contact, patriarchal and repressive, with life following the rules, the "shalt-nots" set down long ago by the founders. The only people allowed to leave the island are the Wanderers, all men, who regularly travel to the "wastelands" in search of things the island cannot produce, and very occasionally bring back a family to settle on the island. Although claiming to hold their women in high regard, the men exploit them; a girl is married shockingly young - the first year she's old enough to bear children - she's allowed two children, and then her husband's sexual desires turn elsewhere. Childhood is brief, and for the most part hedged round by restrictions, but each summer when the mosquitoes are biting, the children run wild and free, naked and covered in mud from head to foot, over the island while the adults stay indoors. But one summer, rumours spread about something one of the girls has seen, which calls into question everything they've ever been taught.
Janey has always been known as an angry, troublesome girl, one who questions the rules they live by, and is determined to avoid marriage and the inevitable child-bearing, so by starving herself has delayed puberty. Her extra years give her a natural authority over the other unmarried girls, and when she decides to run away from home and live wild, they gradually join her. Janey's actions are seen as rebellion against the established order, which must be stamped out at all costs.
Gather the Daughters is disturbing, yet gripping, dystopian read, but a difficult one to review without giving away some of the huge reveals and plot twists within it.
In such an isolated community, whoever is seen as 'in charge' can bend facts to suit themselves - and that certainly seems to have been going on here for many years.  With a hint here and a revelation there, the reader comes to realise that everything is not quite as the islanders believe.  Anything could be happening in the wider world, but everyone has been brainwashed into believing the tradition that they are the few remaining survivors of the devastation; could it be nothing more than a horror story to frighten the islanders into obedience? It's hard to see how they'd accept that, but, with no one to tell a different story, they do. Same for the way girls and women are treated, and the dubious sexual practices considered 'normal' by the islanders; no one knows any different way, and although some feel it isn't right they are considered the odd ones out.
For some the emphasis may fall on the weird cult-like community and the treatment of their daughters, but to me there's a wider issue being raised here; in our alleged post-truth world, with little social media bubbles of like-thinking folk, how do we choose which sources of information to trust, and which beliefs to follow? It's becomes easier to see how people may become indoctrinated into believing almost anything, and convinced that theirs is the right and proper way to live ...

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult dystopian fiction,

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

review by Maryom

Through a series of seemingly unrelated stories, A State of Freedom paints a complex picture of an India in flux, with its great divide between rich and poor. On one side are the owners of luxury apartments, employing servants to cook and clean, and security guards to keep out the uninvited; on the other, not only those cooks, cleaners, and guards, but their even poorer relatives, left behind in isolated rural communities, living hand to mouth, with no financial safety net for illness or a ruined crop, often dependent on any money that can be sent home by those you've left.
At first we see India through the eyes of comparative 'outsiders', ie Indians living abroad - an American academic and his small son visiting historic sites, a young man returning home for his annual visit, at odds with his parents and their attitudes - then move on to those still 'trapped' by India. And 'trapped' does seem to be the appropriate word here - the caste system may no longer exist but people are still limited in every way by the circumstances of their birth, which for the majority is into a life of grinding poverty. The well-meaning outsider may try to understand their lives, but without having lived them, it's a gap almost impossible to bridge.

Attempting to leave that poverty behind is the great desire that fuels everyone's life, whether through joining guerrilla forces fighting for equality, trying to make a break for freedom as a wandering entertainer with a dancing bear, or moving to the city where there's work to be had supporting the lifestyles of the wealthy. The lucky find a relatively stable job, but still choose to live as cheaply as possible in appalling conditions, sending money home to their families who are worse off, or to finance their children's future.
 Plans, savings, dreams can disappear overnight and yet, maybe because there's no other choice, people carry on - strive to find a better job, save to put their children through school or university - and for a lucky few the dream comes true  - not quite the Slumdog Millionaire fantasy, but a boy from a poor farming family can win scholarships, and, supported by the selfless devotion of a family member, find himself at university in Europe.

From the  safety of our comfortable lives, this isn't always an easy read. The level of poverty and squalor is almost beyond our understanding, but Mukherjee gives these 'third world problems' a human face, makes us care for the individuals when we might ignore the masses caught in the same plight, and maybe it might change a few minds about people from all countries who choose to take a chance and try for a better life here.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Chatto and Windus 
Genre - adult literary fiction

Friday, 14 July 2017

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

review by Maryom

On a run-down backstreet of a city lies a small parade of shops - a religious gift shop, an undertakers, a tattoo artist, a Polish bakery ... and a record shop, packed with everything from punk to classics. Arriving one day in his battered van carrying little besides his records, Frank has made the music shop his home, and his life's work, but this is the 80s, and a shop dedicated to vinyl is a rarity and not overly profitable. First cassettes, and now those new-fangled CDs have threatened to take over, while Frank continues to insist that the proper, if not the only, way to hear music is on a record. It's a rather quiet shop but the welcome Frank extends to everyone, and the gift he has for picking the right music to suit his customer's mood, has helped him build a regular clientele. Then one day Ilse Brauchmann finds her way to his shop - and collapses outside it.
Frank is drawn to her, but puzzled because that feeling he has of which music would sooth or cheer anyone else is entirely absent. How can he hope to connect with her?
At the same time, Frank and his neighbouring shop-owners are having to fend off the attentions of a property development company intent on buying out their businesses, demolishing the street and building something new, exciting, but lacking all charm, in its place.

Rachel Joyce's latest novel is a tale of two lonely, introverted people, determined to hide their hurts from the world but, after so long building barriers to hide behind, can they open up enough to let love in? There's a light, heart-warming, rom-com feel to The Music Shop (there are plenty of occasions when you can easily imagine how it would appear on film), with its two engaging 'leads' and support of quirky characters, and, after troubles that take the story in an unexpected direction, that welcome feel good ending. But at the same time, it speaks of the value of community in the face of faceless development businesses, of the possibility of second chances, and music can help when almost everything else fails

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

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Nondula by Ana Salote

(The waifs of Duldred - book 2)
Review by The Mole

We left the waifs trying to escape from Duldred and getting hit by a storm. The storm carries them to Nondula where the people welcome them and try to help settle them into the lives they deserve. But the Felluns, their neighbours, are a violent dominant race who wish to enslave everyone else.

It becomes apparent (as we saw in Oy Yew) that Oy has certain abilities with regards to healing and this brings him into conflict with the Felluns and he becomes enslaved in animal pits. The other waifs try to find him and set off to rescue him. They also try to shake the Nondulans from their subservient acceptance of Fellun treatment in order to help them in their task

Candy Gourlay said of the first book "Oy Yew is a book that deserves to be discovered. Lyrical and magical". Lyrical and magical? It sounds trite but there is certainly something in the style and characterisation  that makes this really true. This story complements the first without compromising the style, the message or the innocence of the waifs.

In OyYew the story focussed around the title character but here we learn more about each of them and their "powers" or talents. But these powers stretch to being able to organise and catalogue, to being able to think on your feet in a tight situation, or the ability to use colour in design - skills that children can identify with and already possess in some measure - a message to underline that the reader is just as special as most of the characters.

Salote ties these characters together in a truly compelling way that keeps the reader involved, rooting for the waifs and, more importantly, reading.

I highly recommend this as a read for younger readers or to share with younger readers (and you may well, like me, enjoy it) but please make sure you start with "Oy Yew" or you will miss so much about the characters.

Publisher - Mother's Milk Books
Genre - Children's/Adult crossover,  dystopian

Friday, 7 July 2017

Almost time for Curious Arts Festival ...

by Maryom

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you might remember how much we loved our first trip to Curious Arts Festival last year, so we're delighted to have been asked back again. For those of you not 'in the know' it's held in the grounds of Pylewell Park, near Lymington in the New Forest, and this year will run from 21-23 July. You can visit for the day, evening, or all weekend, and, a little unusually for a book festival, events aren't individually charged - one ticket gives entry to all events within your chosen time-slot (though some workshops have a small extra fee).

As the date is getting closer, I've been keeping an eye on the programme, so the important question is Who would I like to see?
Firstly, the literary 'headliners' -

On Friday -  Rachel Joyce, author of best-selling The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,  will be there as part of a tour promoting her latest book, The Music Shop ;

Saturday - Joanna Trollope, author of so many highly-acclaimed novels, talking about her most recent,  City of Friends;

Matt Haig discussing his recently published How to Stop Time, the tale of a man who is much, much older than you'd think, and which is to be filmed starring Benedict Cumberbatch;

On Sunday there's American author Dave Eggers whose Heroes of the Frontier is a tale of one woman's escape to the wilderness
and poet Lemn Sissay.

Then I'd really like to catch Eimear McBride,  whose debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing won so many awards  - and there are others I know little or nothing about but sound like they could be interesting. Robert McCrum talking  "life, death and the endgame" in Every Third Thought; Rick Stroud's Lonely Courage telling the stories of female spies employed in WWII; Tony Juniper and What's Really Happening To Our Planet; marine biologist Dr Helen Scales; gardeners to HRH the Prince of Wales Isabel and Julian Bannerman ... I'm just hoping none of these events clash ...

Ed Byrne

The literary events aren't the sum total of Curious Arts Festival though - there's a comedy line up each evening, headed by Ed Byrne on Saturday, and music later at night - ranging from Tom Odell to the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra with the Music of Bond.

Tom Odell

Each day has a selection of  "Curious Adventures" - the festival opens with a cricket match on Friday afternoon, you could join in with a choir, catch a drinks masterclass or listen to the recitation of Paradise Lost, try your hand at life drawing or sculpting something in clay, take part in Jane Austen parlour games, or chill out in the Kanga Wellness Spa.

For children there are arts. crafts and musical activities all day long, writing and songwriting workshops, and films and cartoons to start and end the day. They can go Hunting the Jabberwocky with Jack Union, Victorian Monster Hunter, or on a nature walk where they'll hear tales of insects and the natural world. They probably won't even need the bedtime story session to send them to sleep.

And, as if  the festival wasn't wonderful enough already, there's the food ... alongside pizzas and a BBQ offering rare breed sausages and a hog roast,  there's Japanese cuisine, Nepalese curries, seafood, a pop-up bakery, and a specialist vegetarian supplier, with beers, cider and sparkling wine by Chapel Down, and cocktails by Fever Tree to round off your meal.

All that's left to chance is the weather. Hopefully it will be as gloriously sunny a weekend as last year.

For more info, tickets, details of camping/glamping options, or to pre-book your Curious Adventure check out the Curious Arts website

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Thousand Lights Hotel by Emylia Hall

review by Maryom

For thirty years, Kit's family has been tiny, made up of just her and her mother.  She was brought up never knowing her father's name, merely that he was a "not very nice" man, who died before she was born, and having no real idea why her mother chose to leave Italy for England. To press her mother for details always seemed to drag up such bad memories that Kit stopped asking. Then, as she lies dying in hospital, her mother admits the truth - Kit's father is still alive, and his name is Valentino Colosimo.
Weighed down by grief, Kit decides to go in search of the only relative she has - maybe to confront him with the anger her mother hoarded for all those years, maybe just to find some answers.

Tracking him down to the Hotel Mille Luci on Elba, Kit discovers a man nothing like her expectations. This Valentino is charming and kind, welcoming to all his guests, catering for their smallest needs, trying to anticipate every desire. Kit is taken aback - this surely can't be the man her mother despised so much? While she's trying to build up the courage to confront him, an added complication comes along in the shape of Oliviero, the hotel's chef, to whom Kit finds herself attracted before discovering he's presumably her half-brother! 

The Thousand Lights Hotel is Emylia Hall's fourth novel, and another one I've completely loved. The story is one of a young woman searching for identity and a place to belong, of the complexities of personal relationships, the steadfastness of love, and the sometimes disastrous results of trying to do the right thing. There are misunderstandings, and twists and turns enough for a crime novel, on the way to Kit and Valentino finally unravelling what happened thirty years before.
BUT the extra somethings that bewitched me and made me fall completely in love with the book were, firstly, the atmospheric setting - a cliff-side garden filled with an abundance of flowers, herbs and shrubs, a terrace strung with twinkling lights, the sea as backdrop. It's not the same, but there's a lot that reminded me of the garden of San Salvatore in The Enchanted April  and the feeling that as near as is possible here's a little piece of paradise on earth. For the ladies visiting San Salvatore, though, Italian food is a mystery, something to be braved and endured, whereas Hall and her characters delight in it; which brings me to the second wonderful aspect of this book - the food!  From breakfast pastries, through biscuits of almonds and chocolate fresh from the oven, platters of antipasti with sunset-coloured aperitifs as the sun goes down, to dinners of pasta in all its shapes and tastes, with breads strewn with salt, rosemary and even strawberries, every morsel is a joy and I wanted to try it all! Hall's evocation of Hungarian food in The Book of Summers hooked me in the same way, and her love of these tastes, textures and flavours shines through; it's like watching Nigella enthuse as she whips up a little something in her studio kitchen.

The Thousand Lights Hotel is a perfect beach read, but not a book you'll casually throw away at the end of summer. It's one to treasure, savour it as you might the food, to read in winter when summer seems so far away, and dream of being at the Hotel Mille Luci.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Headline
Genre -