Friday, 18 August 2017

Yesterday by Felicia Yap

review by Maryom

A body has been found in the river by Grantchester meadows. The coat pockets laden with pebbles point to suicide; the bump on the head says otherwise. So the police begin investigations - but things are tricky in a world where the majority of people can only remember the events of yesterday, and the pressure is on for a speedy resolution.

This book starts with an interesting premise - that most adults only retain memories of the previous day, the lucky few remember two days - then throws in a murder mystery, but it soon lost its hold on me as it turned into a fairly predictable domestic noir.
 Although the book isn't promoted as such, I'd expected a more 'sci-fi' take to the story. After all, a whole population coping with memory problems like that would surely be really weird. How did it develop in the first place? How do people cope from day to day? Would staying awake for long periods (perhaps with the help of drugs) keep someone's memory intact or is time the factor that governs this strange condition? And how can you hope to solve a murder when the facts will start to slip away from witnesses' minds at the end of the day? The aspects which intrigued me most weren't addressed as the book is much more murder mystery than speculative fiction, and as for coping day to day, well that's solved by the use of diaries - filled in every night to make sure important events and feelings are remembered, and read every morning to convert 'memories' into 'facts' which are never forgotten. To be honest, I felt these characters probably had a better grasp of what happened last week, by referring to their diaries, than I have with only a memory to count on!
I also found it a bit bizarre that events took place in what feels like a familiar setting, Granchester Meadows - I half expected Sidney Chambers and his entourage to show up and help solve the mystery!
If you're reading this as another domestic noir, you'll probably like it well enough, but I'm not particularly fond of the genre, and, comparing it to other fiction involving memory loss, Yesterday didn't have the tension of SJ Watson's Before I Go to Sleep, total world immersion of Emily Barr's The One Memory of Flora Banks or the grittiness of the Christopher Nolan film Momento.

Maryom's review - 3 stars
Publisher - Wildfire 
Genre - domestic noir, adult fiction

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

review by Maryom
The city of Sorlost stands at the heart of an empire that was once the richest the world had ever known. But its glory days are past. While titled families still play court to a puppet Emperor, and spend wildly and extravagantly on their own pleasures, the streets are filled with the desperate and homeless. Orhan Emmereth has decided it's time things were changed, and a band of mercenaries are heading across the desert to put his plans into action. They're a hotchpotch band of experienced fighters and raw recruits, but the strangest among their number is the youngster Marith, running away from something ( a common enough scenario for mercenaries) yet filled at times with a berserker killing rage beyond anything his comrades have seen, and somehow carrying a feel of impending doom or glorious destiny about him.
Meanwhile, in the temple in Sorlost, the High Priestess Thalia continues her routine of prayers and sacrifices, never wondering what lies beyond the enclosing walls ...

To be honest, I found it a little difficult to get started with this story - it has that problem frequently found in fantasy books (or even hulking great classics like Middlemarch or War and Peace) of such a huge cast of characters to be introduced within the first few chapters, that it can be hard to start to piece together the overall plot-line; I just got to grips with one group of characters and the story jumped elsewhere and to different players. If you find this, bear with it. Get past those first few chapters, and the book will grow on you - well, it did on me! Gradually, the scenario emerges - a decaying empire, someone eager to gain control of it, mercenaries with their own aims which may not run in the same course as their employer's, a young man hiding secrets in his past and a probably unfortunate destiny in his the future, and a beautiful woman dedicated since childhood as a priestess.
It has all the things I love in fantasy novels. The world-building is excellent, the writing rich and varied, and the characters behave as real people with human foibles, failings, and strengths. Yes, there are mages ready to whip up pyrotechnic displays, beautiful selkie women from the sea, even a dragon or two, but the story is powered by qualities we can recognise - ambition, fear, or desire - not the wave of a magician's wand.
If you love a tale in which alliances are made and broken, god and armies are ready to battle till no one's left standing, and trustworthy friends are as eager to betray you as your enemy is, then this is for you. Be warned though, the story is dark, violent, there's plenty of blood and gore, and the description of Marith's beserker rampages deeply unsettling. It's maybe odd then that the images and scenes which stood out most for me were of quieter moments -  the descriptions of the once glorious but now down at heel city of Sorlost, the desolate emptiness of the desert or its brief flowering after rain, Marith's delight in the seaside haunts of his childhood, and two lovers stealing a day away from treachery and death. Maybe it's something to do with the balance between the two aspects of the story but as the first book in a series it's grabbed me in a way that off hand I can only think of Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice having done before. I just hope there isn't too long to wait for Book 2.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
 Adult fantasy

Friday, 11 August 2017

The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

Review by The Mole

When the steamship that May Bedloe is on explodes she finds herself on the banks of the Ohio with only the clothes she is wearing. Separated from Comfort, her cousin she was travelling with, she looks for some way to carry on. She joins the Floating Theatre as a seamstress, front of house, pianist, stage manager, show promotions, ticket maker and seller, in fact anything that is not actually on stage.

Then enter Mrs Howard, to who she owes money, to blackmail her into helping in the underground railroad.

When I saw this book I was very curious... I reviewed "O Freedom" a while ago, which is a book for younger readers, that follows a family along the underground railroad. Then "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction (a book I haven't read) so another book touching on the same topic intrigued me.

The plot follows the theatre, which drifts down the river that marks the border between north and south, and is towed back up the river at end of season. We are introduced to theatre life in this cramped environment as well as a little of lives along the river and the coming of coal mining to the area - the fuel of the steamships.

May is a character that cannot lie - she corrects the smallest of errors in speech - so the theatre is an odd place to find her - stories and plays are "lies" after all. I found her a fascinating character to follow and how she coped with the pressures of blackmail that forced her to more than lie, but to break the law.

The story also covered an aspect of the railroad that I didn't know existed.

All in all an intriguing story told very well that left me with an idea what life on the Ohio at that time may have been like.

Genre - Adult historical fiction
Publisher - Zaffre Publishing

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

review by Maryom

"For sisters Liz and Jane, coming home to suburban Cincinnati means being paraded at the Lucas family’s BBQ, where burgers are served alongside the eligible men. But it’s difficult to focus on re-booting their love lives when the family’s mock-Tudor house starts to crumble around them. Yet as their mother reminds them, it’s not every day you meet a pair of handsome single doctors . . ."

Mr and Mrs Bennet of Cincinnati have been blessed with five daughters. Now ranging in ages from mid-twenties to late thirties Mrs Bennet feels it's time they settled down and got married, preferably to someone wealthy. The two eldest, Jane and Liz, have returned home temporarily due to their father's ill-health, and Mrs Bennet sees this as an ideal time to pursue her plans, especially when they're introduced to two doctors newly-arrived in town, and by all criteria eminently eligible.
In some on line listings, this book is sub-titled A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice, so if you hadn't guessed already, you know now where this story is taking us - into familiar territory with Jane and Liz Bennet, Chip Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Obviously the Bennet sister's lives are different in the 21st century, (though the younger three are still trying their best to live off Mom and Dad, rather than strike out on their own as independent women) but some things don't change so, although a rich husband is no longer a necessity, everyone is looking for a lasting, loving relationship.

I'm not a purist so I've no problem with re-workings of Austen's work, from books such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to films like Bride and Prejudice or Clueless, and really rather liked Eligible. transporting the Bennet sisters to present day America worked better than I thought it would, and although there's less of Austen's cutting satire, I felt overall the book really captured her style.

I'm not sure though that I'd say it's what Austen would write if she were around today. In her time she was innovative, exploring what could be achieved in a relatively new art form, so today I'd don't think she'd be in the 'romantic fiction' section of the book shop. Instead I imagine her writing graphic novels, feminist stand-up comedy, or The Thick of It style political satire - and if the Bennet sisters have a place there, it's a very different one.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (The Borough Press)
Genre - Adult fiction

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Woman in the Shadows by Carol McGrath

review by Maryom

Elizabeth Williams is newly widowed, after a love-less marriage arranged by her father. She's still young, has a head for trade and figures, and is determined to keep her independence by taking over her husband's cloth business. It's not an unknown course of action for a widow, but Elizabeth has opponents among London's cloth merchants and, closer to home, in her father who thinks she should do no such thing, but either let him merge the business with his, or marry again. An arson attack on her premises leaves her shaken but still firm in her intentions, though concerned that someone may have uncovered her late husband's secrets ...
Meanwhile, she finds herself attracted to Thomas Cromwell, cloth merchant turned lawyer, who represents a chance for both love and security.

I think anyone with an interest in historical fiction will be aware of the huge number of books out there set in the Tudor period, but most focus on Henry VIII's court, and, of course, his multitude of wives. In The Woman in the Shadows, Carol McGrath approaches the matter from a different angle - that of a woman from the merchant class, involved in trade both at home and abroad, seeing the noblemen and women of the court as potential customers for her finer stock but little concerned with their lives. Once she marries Thomas Cromwell her life begins to change - for Thomas is intent on furthering his career, and in Tudor times that means becoming involved with the court and its politics. If you've read, or watched the TV version of, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, you'll know what happens to him later in life, but here we're concerned with him BEFORE he became a major player on the Tudor political scene. Seen through Elizabeth's eyes, he's ambitious, a little too secretive, and definitely too radical in his views! Elizabeth is portrayed as a modest, religious woman, not wholly comfortable with some of her husband's ideas or his growing involvement with the movers and shakers of Henry's court. In one respect I wasn't comfortable with her outlook - along with no doubt many others at the time, she sees homosexuality as a sin, condemned by the church, and punished after death, but it's important to bear in mind that she's a Tudor woman with the attitudes and opinions of her time, and influenced heavily by the Church's stance.
The insight into everyday Tudor life is fascinating. From the details of Elizabeth's clothes, cleaning and decorating a house, to dressing up and celebrating feast days almost every aspect is covered as Elizabeth and Thomas go about their daily lives. It's also interesting to see that long before celebrity magazines the public were eager for news of the famous folk of the day - Henry's longing for a son, and his extra-marital affairs are pretty much public knowledge, and discussed eagerly among the cloth merchants' wives (and I suspect by their husbands too). All these details help bring the period to life, a living backdrop to Elizabeth's personal story.

You can also read a guest post from Carol McGrath talking about Elizabeth Cromwell and Women in Tudor Times here

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - 
Accent Press
 Genre - adult historical fiction

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Curious Arts festival - author event - Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers (left)

by Maryom

Dave Eggers's book event proved to be unusual as it wasn't really about books as such.
He was interviewed by Patrick Keogh, one of the team behind Curious Arts, and the two discussed Eggers' opinions, ideas, and beliefs, but didn't talk much about his books. It was certainly an interesting event though.
Keogh started by asking "What about Trump?" Now, this is one of those questions that we'd probably ALL like to ask American voters and
Eggers was one of those many Americans who didn't believe it was possible that Trump would be elected. When Trump got the republication nomination, Eggers thought Hilary Clinton would just walk all over him. Then at a rally in California he realised that the average voter saw things differently - that Trump was someone different to the average politician, a guy they'd seen on TV, and somehow thought he was nearer in outlook to them. Even so Eggers was shocked with the election results, comparing the mood in Clinton's office to the fall of Saigon.
Somehow, via a brief mention of Eggers' latest book, Heroes of the Frontier, the conversation moved on to children, their dependence on technology, and lack of self-reliance. Eggers is from Chicago which is a very cynical,cautious place, slow to embrace change, but moving to San Francisco he found himself mixing with the pioneers of the internet,and he knows tech executives who insist that their children lead totally tech-free lives, even sending them to schools where parents pledge their children will not be exposed to social media or even TV at home. He himself is not concerned about kids becoming too dependent on the internet. He was delighted by the Jabberwocky Hunt that had taken place at Curious Arts, and firmly believes that if you leave kids to get bored - for like a minute and a half - they'll find something to do, or make up their own games. They suffer, he thinks, from protection paradox - children are rarely seen out and about alone in SF, they're chaperoned to the park or to school, and this level of protection, although understandable, lets them grow up not knowing how to protect themselves, either in an urban street wise way, or out in the wilds.

And via children in general, they ended up discussing Egger's 826 Valencia project. He wanted to set up a place where kids struggling with English as a second language could be helped with school work, getting writers with time on their hands to assist the project, but the zoning laws stipulated the chosen premises had to be retail, so the front half of the space became a shop full of pirate related stuff - eye patches, peg legs, parrot food - to comply, and the non-profit tutoring centre occupied the rear. The model was so successful that the ideas expanded to other cities across the US, with superheroes or Big Foot as the shop's theme, and Danny Boyle and Nick Hornby have brought the concept over to Dublin and London.

Certainly, as I said, an interesting event. I've not read any of Eggers' books, but now  I think i shall have to.

Pete Brown at Curious Arts Festival

 By The Mole

Beer. What could be more British than beer? There are just four major ingredients as the book cover says: hops, barley, water and yeast. But barley won't make beer - well, not until it's been malted. Malting is getting the barley to germinate and before it's finished, roasting it. But who found that out? It was being done centuries before the chemistry was understood so how did hat happen? Beer is one fascinating subject in its own right with a tremendous amount of history about it and this book is very much going on my 'wish list'.

And then there's cider... another fascinating subject - but so is the apple tree. Pete Brown talked a little about it's vagaries and unpredictability in cultivation. We all have out favourite apples but do you know that all Bramley apples originated from one tree? Or any other variety? This book explores apples from around the world and their history. Another for my 'wish list'