Saturday, 3 October 2015

UKYA Extravaganza - author profile

As part of the blog tour ahead of next week's UKYA Extravaganza to be held at Waterstones Nottingham, we bring you a profile of one of the authors appearing there - David Massey.

David Massey's varied career has taken him from teaching and music journalism to presenting, producing and writing for radio.

As the Romanian revolution was ending, David led a team taking supplies to Bucharest and Timisoara. On the way home he stopped near Checkpoint Charlie to help chip holes in the Berlin Wall. Rather fittingly, David and his wife Debi now run Globehuggers Emergency Supplies - a business specializing in bespoke grab bags and emergency equipment.

David's debut young adult novel TORN was published in August 2013 on the Chicken House/Scholastic label. A war story set in Afghanistan, it captured the overpowering heat, freezing nights, dust and stark
beauty of the country, and the fear, camaraderie and bravery of the soldiers. It went on to win the Lancashire Awards Book of the year 2013 and has been nominated in the UK for several other awards including the prestigious Brandford Boase, Leeds Award, and the Coventry Inspiration Award.

 His second novel TAKEN was released in the UK in March 2014 and has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. The story follows the teenage crew of a round-the-world yacht, but a dream-come-true adventure turns into a nightmare when the ship is boarded by pirates and the crew are held hostage. Both stories share common themes -  dangerous, life-threatening situations, comradeship and a strong female lead character.

David is the Patron Of Reading for The Wordsley School near his home town of Stourbridge, and has just completed his latest novel - THE BONE SURFERS

Friday, 2 October 2015

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen

review by Maryom

Two middle-aged sisters live in an isolated house in the north of Norway; surrounded by open moorland, far from the nearest village, they live an almost solitary life. One,the narrator, has been handicapped almost all her life; the other, Ragna, has had to become her nurse. For years they've rubbed along together, not always amicably but reasonably so, the whole dynamic of their relationship changes when the unforeseen happens -  in her late forties, Ragna gets married. She now has someone else to care about, and her sister begins to lose the central part she'd played in Ragna's life. Ragna still has to care for her, but the main focus of her affection is her husband ....and the sisters' relationship begins to shift and warp.

I'd half-expected that the story-telling would alternate between the two sisters - giving opposing views of the situation - but it wasn't necessary. Although told throughout from the point of view of the invalid sister, my sympathies moved between the two. My automatic instinct was to side with the disabled sister, after all she's suffered many years of pain and is virtually imprisoned by her lack of mobility, but then, and even though the narrator is slanted against her, I began to empathise with the able-bodied Ragna. Since their parents died, Ragna has been sole carer for her sister, has presumably had to abandon dreams of a career or marriage to act as nurse, and is rarely appreciated for her troubles. Her sister meanwhile listens through walls, rummages through Ragna's belongings while she's out, and tries at times to be as much of a nuisance as possible! Some of her strategies would be hilarious, if the overall situation weren't so dark.

 It's not an easy 'cut and dried' book. Seeing events unfold from the perspective of only one of the 'players' is always suspect. Sometimes, cooped up in her room, the narrator invents scenarios, plays them out in her head to see what might happen - and sometimes the reader knows she's interpreted things wrongly, sometimes we can only guess.
Adding to the sisters' isolation is the landscape of northern Norway - endless expanses of moor and forest stretching to the horizon - and the extremes of weather. The ever-present sun of mid-summer contrasting with the total darkness of midwinter. Both hiding the natural division of day and night, but, whereas in winter the sisters huddle together, finding companionship in facing the elements together, in summer the constant glare is upsetting, disorienting, and works to separate the sisters,    .

 To my mind there were certain echoes of the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane - two sisters forced into living together, one dependent on the other - but there's a lot less over the top drama and thriller-style suspense about it. It's a rather sad tale in the end. The narrator just wants things to carry on as they were, two sisters alone, meaning all the world to each other, but it's not possible.

translated from the Norwegian by John Irons

 Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press

Genre - Adult Literary Fiction

Thursday, 1 October 2015

These Seven edited by Ross Bradshaw

review by Maryom

A couple of weeks ago, I went along to Nottingham Waterstones for the launch of These Seven, a collection of short stories commissioned by Nottingham City of Literature featuring authors with a connection to the city and part of its bid for UNESCO City of Literature status. Having heard the authors reading from their work I wanted to read more.....

The collection opens with a story from John Harvey, a crime author best known for his Charlie Resnick series set in Nottingham. Ask Me Now although featuring DS Tom Whitemore of the Public protection team, isn't so much a crime story as one dealing with domestic problems - but problems that could easily slip into abuse.

In Megan Taylor's Here We Are Again, two old friends are meeting up after several years apart. It's told in the first person and captures that expectant but nervous feeling of waiting for someone, when you hope they'll turn up but are afraid that they won't.

Brick's Simone the Stylite is a short graphic novel - Simone has always been a self-reliant person, with no need for masses of friends, but now maybe she's taken things to extremes by taking up residence in the tall Aspire sculpture at Nottingham university. From her vantage point, she sends out notes, little words of wisdom that inspire people. The university though seems quick to institutionalise her and even cash in on their famous hermit!

A Foreign Land by YA author Paula Rawsthorne looks at the plight of failed asylum seekers from the point of view of a young boy. Jay is ten and, with his mum, dad and young sister, has lived in Nottingham for six years. He can't remember his 'homeland' of Darfur but from what he hears it doesn't like the sort of place he'd like to visit. Then his family lose their appeal, and have to return to Sudan.....everything will be ok, won't it? things can't really be as bad as the News claims? Told from Jay's point of view, this is a timely reminder of the terrors that make people flee their own country in a desperate bid to find safety.

Alison Moore will be known to many as author of the Booker-listed The Lighthouse, but her short story is in a very different vein. In Hardanger, a dysfunctional family go away to Norway on a short break ....but there the story changes from one of personal relationships to something rather more in the ghostly or horror style.  The ending left a decidedly uneasy creepy feel behind it.

Shreya Sen Handley's Nimmi's Wall followed on this vaguely supernatural theme. A young Indian woman, recently moved to Nottingham, investigates the strange mist-shrouded wall at the bottom of her garden...and encounters some very strange people there.

The collection rounds off with A Time to Keep a story by, possibly Nottingham's most famous writer, the late Alan Sillitoe, about a teenager, Martin,who nurses a passion for books. In them he finds a world more appealing than his everyday one, but his cousin Raymond has decided its time to introduce him to the grown-up world of 'work'......

Although differing greatly in tone I loved each one, and I'm now intending to seek out more work by these authors.

Publisher - Five Leaves
Genre - short story anthology

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Wild Swans by Jackie Morris

review  by Maryom 

About eighteen months ago, writer and artist Jackie Morris and publishers Frances Lincoln came together to produce a little gem of a book East of the Sun, West of the Moon 
beautifully written, exquisitely illustrated, bringing new life to an old folk tale in a format designed to appeal to both old and young. All it lacked was a companion or two. Now it has one - a re-telling of Hans Christian Anderson's The Wild Swans.
It's a tale familiar from childhood; eleven princes are turned into swans by their step-mother, and their sister, Eliza,  is the only one who can rescue them. Folk tale curses and enchantments are usually lifted by someone having to undertake a daunting, possibly life-risking, task or journey; here the task is maybe not so dangerous, but certainly very painful - Eliza must gather, thresh and spin nettles (bare-hand and footed) and then knit shirts from the thread, while never speaking a word to anyone! As Eliza goes about her task, more obstacles hinder her; sometimes people believing they're taking care of her, sometimes people wishing her harm. In the author's own words "It is a story about love, endurance, magic, silence and communication, misunderstandings, mistakes, courage". And it proves that the feisty young heroine isn't just an invention of modern fiction.

These books are perfect for those of us who, while still enthralled by folk or fairy tales, feel ourselves a little too old for 'children's books'. At 173 pages the story is longer than the brief version offered to small children, giving time for characters to be developed beyond the stereotypical doting sister, cursed prince or evil step-mother. Jackie Morris' illustrations are, as always, a delight - a fairy-tale world evoked in watercolours, and reproduced in several double-page spreads and smaller gems scattered among the text. This is above all a book that feels special, with attention to the little details so often skimped on - heavy pages, 'proper' binding, the title embossed on the slip-cover; a true gift of a book.

 See Jackie Morris reading from The Wild Swans here on You Tube

 Publisher - Frances Lincoln
Genre -
folk tale, age? almost any!

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Zoo by Jamie Mollart

review by Maryom

James Marlowe was an ad man at the top of his game, able to target the demographic, spin a warm, caring, desirable image for his customers, twist a few facts if necessary and SELL just about anything. Focusing on winning the next high-revenue contract, celebrating long and hard when he did, fuelling his lifestyle with drink and drugs, ignoring the  - all started to poison his personal relationships and alienate his wife and friends. Now his glorious career is in the past, and he's a shattered man, detained in a psychiatric unit, believing himself at the mercy of a group of plastic figures collectively referred to as The Zoo, trying to piece together how things went so very, very wrong.

 Through one man's crisis, Mollart explores the shallow, cynical world of advertising, giving his protagonist just enough conscience to feel uneasy about his role in promoting an unethical business, but not enough to actually do something about them. He isn't going to turn whistle-blower and spill insider information to the press; instead he bottles his doubts for too long, subduing them with drink and drugs - until they burst out in as messy a way as possible. From the first page, in fact the first sentence, the reader is plunged into the troubled mind of a man struggling to cope, feeling himself tyrannised and controlled by a set of models - in fact it reads rather like the beginning of a horror story. As the story alternates between 'now' in the psychiatric ward, and 'before' as events in James' life start to unwind, it becomes apparent that this is no fantasy horror but one that's very much part of the real world.
At times it's a very troubling story; not only from James' personal perspective (after all he does seem determined on self-destruction) but also by raising questions about the consumerism that makes the modern world go round and the advertising industry that helps it. Throughout the figurines remain enigmatic - sometimes they seem to represent different aspects of James, at others various attributes belonging to family or colleagues - but however you see them, they remain scary, particularly in the influence James grants them.
Especially for a debut novel, this is an absolute stunner! Something - possibly the hallucinations experienced by James, possibly something in the writing style itself  - reminded me of Iain Banks' work, making Jamie Mollart an author I'll definitely be looking out for. I've read some great debuts this year, and this is up there with the best of them.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Sandstone Press
Genre - Contemporary Adult Fiction

Monday, 28 September 2015

Candy Gourlay - UKMG Extravaganza - Author Contribution

Candy Gourlay (@candygourlay) is a Filipino author based in London. Her books have been listed for awards such as the Carnegie, the Blue Peter, the Waterstones and the Guardian Children's Book Prize. She blogs on Notes from the Slushpile and on .
With warm thanks to the UKMG Extravaganza Book Tour and  Maryom and The Mole for hosting me on Our Book Reviews!

The other day, I saw a funny Filipino meme doing the rounds on Facebook. The images were so hilarious, I used Photoshop to repurpose the comic into the one on the right.

I was gratified when a librarian from Culford School Library reposted it with the caption:

I promise not to judge your choice of reading matter.

Thanks, Culford School Library - you totally got the message that reading should first and foremost be about pleasure.

You'd think the idea of reading for pleasure is obvious, but it isn't.


The younger a reader, the less control she has on what she reads. Grown-ups - parents, teachers, librarians - will dictate what books enter her world.

And when it comes to children, grown-ups will always have an agenda ... since printing began, books have been seen as a means to instruct, to teach a moral lesson, to mould the unformed child into a good adult.

(Teenagers are an interesting mixture of independence and adult influence. The emergence of Young Adult fiction as a strong genre comes as no surprise - there is a commercial element to defining age boundaries. The idea of the 'teenager' emerged after the second world war when teenagers became recognised as a consumer demographic with money to spend.)


For forever, I've been aware of 'Middle Grade' as a category of children's books for ages eight to twelve. But that's because I come from a country with strong ties to the United States, where the label first emerged.

But MG is a recent arrival to the United Kingdom, prompting irritation from people like Carnegie-winning author Philip Reeve (Mortal Engineswho described the label as a "nonsense".

Reeve wrote: "If you call your books 'middle grade', you are associating them with 'grade', which sounds vaguely educational, and 'middle'. That's 'Middle', as in 'middle England', 'middle class', 'middle of the road','middle of nowhere', 'middlebrow','middling'."

Phew! Strong words (although, as an immigrant, I have always wondered why there is such a negativity attached to being middle class in my poor native Philippines, middle class is what everyone aspires to be).

Personally, I'm happy to embrace the label ... though I agree that the use of the word 'Grade' is problematic in that it suggests children should be reading for educational purposes.

Really, we are not talking about a Middle Grade Reader but a Reader in the Middle.


Under current legislation, middle schools in England have to 'deem' themselves as either primary or secondary. The 'middles-deemed-primary' is enjoined to stick to a primary-style curriculum. The 'middles-deemed-secondary' is enjoined to follow the approach of a secondary school.

It perfectly captures the conundrum of the Reader in the Middle. Too old for baby books and beginning readers. Too young for the Young Adult free for all.

In fact I have written two books that are being marketed as middle grade, but they occupy opposite ends of the Middle Grade spectrum.

Technically, the first, Tall Story, is written simply enough for a seven-year-old bookworm to cope with. The themes of family and the smattering of magic is ideal for a reader from nine years old up. If Tall Story were a school, it would be a middles-deemed-primary.
Tall Story by Candy Gourlay, Shine by Candy Gourlay

My second book, Shine, is a different matter. The themes are more mature, the writing - with a mysterious storyline sewn into the main narrative -  will be challenging for a middle grade reader who is only just beginning to develop a reading habit. If my first book had not been MG, I suspect it would easily be classified as a teen novel. In any event, if it were a school it would be a middles-deemed-secondary.


My friend Jane McLoughlin (The Crowham Martyrs) came up with a witty label for the more mature end of Middle Grade the other day: OMG, for Older Middle Grade.

I love it because it so aptly captures the surprise and emotional satisfaction of an excellent Middle Grade title.

What makes a book middle grade though? Ahh ... dare I attempt an answer? There is great resistance to attempts to pin down targeted reading ages in children's books.

 In 2008, when publishers floated the idea of age-banding books with labels (5+, 7+, 11+, 13+/teen) there was an uproar.

Philip Pullman led the charge. Here is what he told the Telegraph: "I don't want to see the book itself declaring officially, as if with my approval, that it is for readers of 11 and upwards or whatever. I write books for whoever is interested. When I write a book I don't have an age group in mind."

My own publisher, David Fickling, liked to say: 'Tall Story is not just for children. It's an ALL-READ.' Which was very nice of him. But when people ask me, I say it's for 10 plus. (It's considered Young Adult in the Philippines, but that's another story)

After the Age Banding furore died down, I couldn't help noticing that publishers quietly printed suggested reading ages on the back covers of books anyway. If the reader is not the person with the wallet, I guess it helps to have advice at point-of-sale.


When I visit schools though (whether they are middles-deemed-primary or deemed-secondary), what Middle Grade is becomes very, very clear to me.

I see it in the children who loved my books. I see it in the children who found some of it a bit difficult to read. I see it in their enthusiasm for the magical elements in my stories. I see it in the way each child seems to know somebody who is just like their favourite characters. I see it in the way every favourite book a child mentions reflects an aspiration.

In writing Middle Grade, I've learned that you cannot separate out the what from the who, because the Reader in the Middle is what he reads. 

I don't know if the label 'Middle Grade' will be supplanted by some other marketing category. But authors like me would do well to remember that the label means nothing without the reader.

And who is that reader in between?

The Reader in the Middle
The Reader in the Middle is always looking for adventure.
The Reader in the Middle has experienced enough life to identify with social reality, but not enough life to have hindsight.
The Reader in the Middle wants a story in which things happen.
The Reader in the Middle can figure things out for herself but not all the time, so sometimes it's okay to tell as well as show.
The Reader in the Middle has his whole future ahead of him - and he needs hope.
The Reader in the Middle can be anybody she wants to be - and characters will help her achieve that.
The Reader in the Middle wants a story not a lesson.
The Reader in the Middle wants to be the hero of every story.
The Reader in the Middle wants to visit another world.
The Reader in the Middle is growing the reader he is going to be - and we authors in the middle are so lucky to be there with him.

Friday, 25 September 2015

The Machinery by Gerrard Cowan

Review by The Mole

For 10,000 years the life of the Overlanders has been run, almost ruled, by The Machinery. The Machinery, run by The Operator, is an integral part of their lives and it selects their leaders and sets their path. Over the 10,000 years they have slowly expanded to take over the entire Plateau and are on the verge of expansion beyond their shores. But there was a prophecy that The Machinery would break down in the 10,000th year and the One would come and bring ruin with them. It is the 10,000th year and the Strategist Kane has died in mysterious circumstances and a new leader must be selected. Is this an omen or a ploy to demoralise the citizens?

Some years earlier Katrina Paprissi witnessed The Operator, Jandell, - and inventor of The Machinery - kidnap her brother, Alexander, and now -in the 10,000th year someone has set a breadcrumb trail for her to follow that will lead her to her brother.

As I read this book I kept wondering where it was going to go and I feel this spoiled my enjoyment - I had failed to realise that this is part one of a trilogy, in fact I only realised this in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. When you know it's a series then you don't expect the ends to tie up nicely - and here we are left almost on a cliff hanger.

It felt, throughout, that it was going to become a steampunk novel but always just hung in the balance. While The Machinery, and a seemingly complex structure of Strategist, Tacticians and Watchers, rule their lives, the most "advanced" technology they have acquired is cannon - and that was not all their own efforts!

We switched between characters from all sides of the story and Cowan manages to convince us, in his own way, that they are all 'good guys' because everyone seems to do despicable things. The only way to understand which side to root for is to carry on reading the next book in the series - but will we learn then?

Time and again we are introduced to strong confident characters who we can take as an anchor within the plot only to have them portrayed in a more open and vulnerable light.

When we meet Shirka then things start to change rapidly, death and mayhem follow - but not, I stress, at Shirkra's hands - and the previously established order that we have been following, understanding, and becoming embroiled in, suddenly starts to transform completely.

This is going to be a series that must be read in order so now is the time to get started.

A great read that is perhaps more fantasy than anything but may well also appeal to steampunk fans. The second book, The Strategist, comes out in May 2016.

Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre - Fantasy