Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Sea Between Us by Emylia Hall

review by Maryom

 When her parents decide to move and live by the sea in Cornwall, Robyn Swinton doesn't expect to settle and make her home there - after all she's already finished her first year at university and is looking forward to striking out on her own in some more glamorous, bustling, generally exciting place like London. Then she discovers her own private cove almost at the end of the garden and the beginnings of a love affair, or two; one with surfing, the other with Jago, the boy-next-door. For when a boy rescues a girl from the sea, they have to fall in love, don't they? If only life were that simple!

This, Emylia Hall's third novel, is the nearest yet to a straight forward love story. The relationship between Robyn and Jago grows and changes over a seven year span, as instant attraction turns to something deeper, but fate seems determined to push them apart. Theirs is a story of missed chances, of so often being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of letters and messages going astray, of other relationships getting in the way - a little bit like Friends' Ross and Rachel, a little like Emma and Dexter from David Nicholls' One Day - but while it's a love story, there's so much more to it than that.
What I've loved about Emylia Hall's previous books, and has made them stand out for me above so many others, has been the capturing of place and atmosphere; in The Book of Summers it's the hot, lazy days of Hungarian summers; in A Heart Bent Out of Shape it's the snow-filled streets of Lausanne in winter. This time, she's chosen a setting closer to home - the far west of Cornwall - and almost every page is filled with yearning for the sea and surf, from the shock of the first cold wave to the elation of a few seconds upright catching a wave, she captures that tug that the sea exerts on many of us, a longing to throw oneself in and become part of it. From her first surfing attempt with a huge board and her wetsuit on back to front, comical but charming in the way of a toddler's first steps, Robyn is hooked on it!
I also loved the artistic passion that permeates the story - from Robyn's attempts to capture the pull and sweep of the waves or the play of light on the ocean through painting, to Jago's instinctive understanding of wood or the 'high' that Eliot gets playing music on stage in front of a live crowd. It's very much a book fizzing with the joy of life, and the delight in finding the thing that one 'must' do.

With it's sea-swept atmosphere, it's a great book for summer, but it's one that will linger with you far longer than a lot of other holiday reads.

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

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Killer Plan by Leigh Russell

Review by The Mole

Following Caroline's brief encounter with a school friend of some 20 years ago her husband is brutally murdered. Caroline suspects the meeting wasn't an accident after all but feels she can't inform the police without implicating herself.

Then one of her identical twins goes missing - she believes he has been kidnapped.

DI Geraldine Steel's boss is looking for a fast close to the case when a second body found - it is that of her colleague, DI Nick Williams. A second murder investigation is opened and, despite sharing an office with Nick, Geraldine insists on being on the second team. But Geraldine is harbouring her own secrets which could jeopardise her career.

Geraldine Steel returns in this her seventh book and is as good as ever - in fact maybe even better. In a return to the style of the early Geraldine Steel books we, as the reader, know full well who has done what and to whom and scratch our heads wondering how Geraldine can find those missing clues to draw the puzzles together.

Russell manages to bring each character to life in a way that defies understanding. Each character we meet has their own little "foibles" with no-one - even the witnesses - being a "stock" character that produces a statement and walks away. The only problem with this kind of story is you get to see inside the head of characters that maybe, just maybe, you would rather not see - it is well worth the look though.

More about Geraldine Steel and her creator, Leigh Russell here

Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult Crime Thriller

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson

 review by Maryom

Poor Thomas Hawkins has got himself in a mess again - and this time he's on his way to the gallows, convicted of murder!
After his previous adventures in The Devil in the Marshalsea anyone would think Tom would be ready to settle down to a quiet life, but living comfortably with Kitty Sparks, above the "specialist' bookshop she inherited from her guardian, is proving just too dull. Kitty is very much in charge of the shop and its income, even refusing to marry Thomas to prevent him gambling her money away, so when he's offered the chance to earn a little cash he jumps at the offer, even though it comes from one of London's most notorious criminals. 
But while Thomas gets himself involved in court intrigue surrounding the king's mistress and her estranged bully of a husband, another crime is taking place on his doorstep - his quiet law-abiding neighbour has been found brutally, and messily, murdered in his own bed. All the windows and doors of his property were locked and bolted, so the murderer had to have been someone from inside - his children, his apprentice, or his maid - but popular suspicion points at Thomas, especially as he'd been seen hammering on his neighbour's door and threatening him!
As Thomas is transported to the gallows, he reflects on the circumstances that have brought him there and tries desperately to keep up his hopes of a last minute pardon .....will this really prove to be his Last Confession?

 This second outing for Thomas Hawkins takes the reader back to the hustle and bustle of Georgian London - but whereas his previous adventure took place mainly within the confines of the Marshalsea debtors prison, this time he has the freedom of the whole city, from the slums of St Giles, and the coffee shops and brothels of Covent Garden, to the royal court itself; all life is there to be seen. The author has obviously done her research to bring it alive so vividly but it's displayed almost casually in the little details as the action moves forward, rather trotted out lecture-style in lengthy descriptions.
 The main story is the murder of which Thomas stands accused - a closed-room killing, with a limited number of suspects, all with grievances against the victim but none seemingly worth murdering for. Alongside and around this weave a variety of other threads - a bullying husband threatening his wife, a do-gooder trying to reform and clean up the streets, and through all of them the love story between Thomas and Kitty. Thomas remains almost boyish is his desire for adventure, unfortunately it tends to take him to both physically and financially dangerous places; Kitty is clever and shrewd, able to run her business successfully, and,while at times eager to share Tom's adventures, luckily has sense enough for the two of them; together they make a great couple.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Hodder & Stoughton
Genre - adult fiction, historical crime

Monday, 24 August 2015

The Man from Berlin by Luke McCallin

review by Maryom

Sarajevo, 1943; the murder of young journalist/filmmaker Marija Vukic would probably have been left to the local police if it weren't for the presence of another dead body at the scene - that of a German officer. As it is, Captain Gregor Reinhardt, an ex-policeman now working for Abwehr, German military intelligence, finds himself involved in, and intrigued by, the case. The Yugoslavian investigation seems to be aimed at getting a quick result, not necessarily accurate, and preferably one that will point the finger at the anti-German Partisan movement, but Reinhardt is not at all convinced and persists in digging deeper, in the process annoying both local police and German officials.

The second book in this series is out on Thursday but I thought I'd be better to start at the beginning, and I'm glad I did as I think more of Reinhardt's background will have been explored here. A hero of the first world war, Reinhardt's life since then has not been so happy, his wife has died, he's estranged from his Nazi-indoctrinated son, and he feels his conduct in this second war has been not entirely 'becoming'; he's lost his faith in the people running the country and in the war itself. In this way, Reinhardt is set up as that fairly familiar honest detective, happy to antagonise his superiors, not prepared to go along with orders that don't make sense to him, and ready to take extra risks if necessary to do 'right'. But instead of being part of a modern metropolitan police force, Reinhardt is part of army intelligence in German-occupied Yugoslavia - a country that's a melting pot for many different races and religions, in which it's difficult to keep track of which groups are on the same side. Against this backdrop, almost any murder is bound to have political and military implications, and Reinhardt is happy to take his time, ask his awkward questions and slowly, surely, get to the bottom of the things.
I really enjoyed this mix of whodunnit and historical novel. The time and place are vividly brought to life; the characters, despite a certain superficial similarity with so many from old war movies, well defined and credible; and the plot twists and turns in more ways than you might expect.  I'm certainly looking forward to Reinhardt's further adventures in The Pale House!

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult historical crime whodunnit World War 2

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

review by Maryom

 For Charlotte and Henry the Cambridge winter of 1963 seems to be stretching on for ever. Their small cottage, once cosy and welcoming for two, now feels cramped and damp, filled with baby paraphernalia and wet washing. Overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood, Charlotte has neither time nor energy to pursue her artistic career, and, when the doctor confirms her fear that another baby is on the way, she feels the walls closing in and suffocating her. Henry, born and raised in India, has never really acclimatised to the English weather and craves heat and dryness. When he sees a brochure advertising assisted passage to Australia, he thinks he's found the answer to all their problems - the weather will be warmer, there'll be no more sodden winters, they've have plenty of space to bring up their children with a larger house and a garden; Charlotte, too tired to argue, goes along with his plans, never really believing they'll come to fruition.

The Other Side of the World is a compelling, insightful read charting the break-down of a marriage. Both Charlotte and Henry are searching something that's been lost as the realities of life have taken over.
Charlotte feels her identity slipping away and fears she's becoming nothing more than a child-minding machine. Although the scenes where she takes out her frustration on the children were difficult to read, I could totally empathise with Charlotte about the boredom of being stuck at home all day with no one more intelligent than a three-year old to talk to. These days of course many of these problems wouldn't arise - her children would go along to nursery and she'd pick up her work, but it left me wondering how many women, until recently, felt compelled to stay at home, to put their 'real' lives on hold out of necessity rather than choice.
Henry's issues are different - he's not quite 'British', and not quite 'Indian', was sent away from home to boarding school, first in India, then in England, and since then has been searching for that elusive concept of 'home'. Maybe because Charlotte's problems resonated with me, I didn't feel Henry's situation was explored as much.

It's beautifully written, will make you cry and tear your hair out in desperation but it's the characterisation that makes this book - as a portrait of a mother stretched beyond tolerance it's up there with Maggie O'Farrell's The Hand That First Held Mine but too much is down to it, and the plot/story arc alone couldn't have held me.

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

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Kauthar by Meike Ziervogel

review by Maryom

All her life Lydia has been looking for something to which she can dedicate herself. As a child she wanted to follow her father and become a champion gymnast, to gain the adulation and admiration of a spellbound crowd. As an adult, trying to regain her self-respect after a disastrous affair, she discovers Islam - the cleansing and prayer rituals, the rules by which she must live her life offer a framework within which she can lose herself and find love.
Lydia changes her name to Kauthar, wears hijab, marries a Muslim Iraq-born doctor and her life seems complete. But somehow she still doesn't feel quite fulfilled - maybe a child will fill the gap, or joining her husband helping the injured in his war-torn home country.....  What Lydia/Kauthar encounters there leads her towards what she sees as the ultimate sacrifice of self but others view as terrorism.

It's a bit flippant to say that Meike Ziervogel likes to explore the concept of  'women behaving badly' but here again, as with Magda, she does just that. The book opens, as it ends, with a suicide bombing - a horrific act, designed to shock and terrify, but that leaves us wondering why would someone do such thing. Through hate, or a desire for vengeance? well, from Kauthar's perspective it's an act of love. The story doesn't dwell on the sensationalist aspects  - the scattered body parts or the number of dead and injured  - but is interested in that question "Why?"
There's obviously no easy, one-size-fits-all answer but the author offers a plausible account of how one well-educated, white British woman might come to commit such a devastating act. Moving between childhood and adult years, the reader follows Lydia/Kauthar's life, trying to understand her, her reasoning and motivation, the psychological triggers that have pushed her and shaped her. As before in Ziervogel's work, there's a hint of the troubled relationship between mother and daughter. Lydia feels closest to her father, and her mother frequently seems dismissive of Lydia, belittling her and her aims and ideals as both child and adult.

 In 144 pages, the author draws a portrait of a woman struggling to fill an empty, gaping hole in her life - there never seems to be enough, or maybe the right sort of, love, to satisfy her need, and in desperation she twists her religion to fill that void.  This is without doubt another stunning, thought-provoking novella from Meike Ziervogel. Like those she publishes, the stories she writes tackle subjects that others might shy away from; they may be short but are deep and satisfying  - it doesn't feel an extra page or dozen would add anything.

There's a proverb (French I think) that claims that to understand all is to forgive all - and Kauthar (again like Magda) has committed an act that feels impossible to forgive. I certainly felt I understood Lydia/Kauthar but would I be able to forgive her? I don't think so.

 Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - Adult fiction, literary

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

review by Maryom

Marvellous Ways has lived in the small Cornish hamlet of St Ophere for most of her life. Despite its size, it was once a bustling sort of place, by 1947 the cottages sit empty and abandoned - only Marvellous in her old gypsy caravan remains. At eighty nine, she lives quietly, alone but not necessarily lonely, swims in the creek each day, and is still waiting for something, although she doesn't know what.
Unknowingly heading for Marvellous's creek is Drake, a soldier returning from World War Two, battered both physically and emotionally by the things he's encountered. Gradually with the help of Marvellous, he begins to recover, and prepare to face life again.

Woven through with magic, with tales of mermaids and long-lost love, this is an absolutely, well, marvellous story. The setting is enchanting, and enchanted, the creek a place of peace and healing, the story-telling lyrical, the whole permeated by myth and magic.

I wasn't sure whether the magic rested in the place or Marvellous herself. She's renowned for her healing, has helped and treated everyone from babies struggling into the world, to the elderly and ill readying themselves to depart. She's both spirit of the place, like a Roman genius loci, and guardian of it.
In sharp contrast, Drake is a rootless, ungrounded person without friends or relations; he never knew his father, his mother died when he was young, the elderly aunts who took him in have passed on too - all that's left is a hope that the cousin he loves might still be alive, despite them losing touch during the war, and a promise to deliver the letter of a dying man.
Throughout I was struggling to recall what, or more precisely which book, I was reminded of. Having given it some thought it's the 'tub of love' from The Enchanted April  mixed with the enchanted pool of The Drowning of Arthur Braxton  All three stories have a mix of everyday and mystical, are as much about 'place' as about people, and are about the healing of the damaged and world weary by peace, tranquillity and a magical something in the atmosphere.

 If you like your stories prosaic cut and dry with no mystery or magic, this won't be for you, but from the first page I slipped into this otherworldly place and didn't want to leave. 

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
Tinder Press
Genre -
Adult fiction, literary - but with a touch of fantasy