Monday, 21 April 2014

Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash

Review by The Mole

"A deeply humane, piercingly funny, and already widely acclaimed new short story collection that features men and women we all know or might be.
The stories in Tom Barbash's evocative and often darkly funny collection explore the myriad ways we try to connect to one another and to the sometimes cruel world around us. The newly single mother in 'The Break' interferes with her son's love life over his Christmas vacation from college. The anxious young man in 'Balloon Night' persists in hosting his and his wife's annual watch-the-Macy's-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-floats-be-inflated party, while trying to keep the myth of his marriage equally afloat. The young narrator in 'The Women' watches his widowed father become the toast of Manhattan's midlife dating scene, as he struggles to find his own footing.
The characters in Stay Up with Me find new truths when the old ones have given out or shifted course. Barbash laces his narratives with sharp humour, psychological acuity, and pathos, creating deeply resonant and engaging stories that pierce the heart and linger in the imagination.

I generally prefer anthologies of short stories by different authors but this collection of stories really has a great harmony and style that works tremendously well. Summing the collection up is not easy which is why I have borrowed the publisher's synopsis. Overall its appeal comes from the continuity of style and the way that the approach to the theme differs so much with each story, yet it manages to be one complete collection.

David Mitchell is credited as saying that his favourite "...was always the story I'd just finished." and I certainly found that my favourite was the last in the book - "The Women". Or perhaps it was just such a perfect story to finish on? Or was it "Somebody's Son" because I found myself pondering it long after I'd moved on? Although the mother we see in "The Break" is someone we all know even if not quite to the same extreme. Or was it...? Perhaps I don't end up with a favourite after all but this collection will certainly go onto my shelf as I'm sure there is more enjoyment to be got from it on a re-read.

A really great read and the stories are short enough for coffee time reads although whether you will concentrate on anything else after, I don't know.

Currently available in kindle and hardback but shortly to be available in paperback.

Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Genre - Adult Short Stories

Buy Stay Up With Me from Amazon

Friday, 18 April 2014

Fatal Act by Leigh Russell

Review by The Mole

After an argument a woman, an actress, storms out of the house of her boyfriend, a famous producer, and drives away in her Porsche only to die in a head-on collision with her boyfriend's van whose driver has disappeared. The question has to be asked as to why this has been referred as a murder investigation? A second actress dies and the common factor appears to be the producer. When the producer's son is murdered then there can only be one name in the frame, surely?

Returning for her sixth investigation, Geraldine Steel once again leads us through the routine encumbered by a boss who has decided who is guilty and wants no time wasted on pointless enquiries. At the same time her sergeant is constantly pushing her opinions and her 'sister', Celia, is trying to get her to maintain her social life and Nick, an inspector that shares her office, is trying to get her to go on a date. Chaos continues to surround Geraldine when DS Peterson - her sergeant from before her move to the met - phones to go out for a drink creating a temporary oasis of calm.

I really did like the way this incident with Peterson is mirrored in "Cold Sacrifice" which is the first DS Peterson mystery; it manages to add a degree of continuity to both stories. I have to say that early on I had figured a feature of the killer - I suspect we are supposed to - but the story is about finding out who and how Geraldine gets to the killer.

Geraldine is one of my favourite fictional detectives and this mystery does nothing to diminish her status. A great read with a twist at the end that I won't even hint at! (Check the murder count - ooops).

I really enjoyed this book and it is sure to please whodunnit readers and Steel fans wherever they may be. We were recently part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of Fatal Act and Leigh talked about browser history

Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult Crime Thriller

Buy Fatal Act (A Geraldine Steel Mystery) from Amazon

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Shattered by Teri Terry

review by Maryom

Shattered is the last  instalment of Teri Terry's gripping dystopian trilogy set in a not too distant future, where the standard punishment for offending teenagers is to be given a new start with their minds wiped clean - Slated. This is what happened to Kyla, but for some reason some of her memories have leaked back, leaving her with broken, disjointed glimpses of her past. I don't want to say more for fear of plot spoilers - if you've read Slated and Fractured  you know what's happened so far, and if you haven't I'd just completely ruin them for you.
Now, with a new look and a new identity, Kyla is off to the Lake District trying to behave as anyone of her age would - and, in fact, must according to government regulations - staying in an approved girls' hostel and signing up for an apprenticeship scheme. She's also on a journey into her past - meeting her 'real' mother of whom she has no recollection - and discovering, as her memories return, that there are more surprises in her past than she'd ever imagined possible.
As the last in the trilogy, the plot is bound to head for a grand showdown between good and evil, exposing the bad guys and with everyone living happily ever after....isn't it? Well, some of those elements are there but maybe not in quite the way you'd expect. There are more twists and turns, more doubt about who's on the good side and who on the bad, and the tension doesn't let up until the very end. Kyla is still full of doubt about who to trust, reason pulls her one way, feelings another. I could see that the author had faced some hard choices about how Kyla's story should end and I'm glad she didn't go for the easy way out - even though I'm not sure all readers will agree with me.

Shattered, in fact the whole trilogy, is a fantastic thriller but also touches on some interesting ideas about punishment and rehabilitation, and how a person's character is formed - is it 'hard-wired' from birth or capable of being changed for good or bad through circumstances? - making it an excellent choice for readers looking for something entertaining but thought-provoking.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Orchard Books

Genre - Teenage Dystopian Thriller

Buy Shattered (Slated Trilogy) from Amazon

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E Smith

review by Maryom

Despite living in the same apartment block, in the normal course of events Owen and Lucy would never have met. He lives in the basement with his newly-widowed father, the building's superintendent; she lives up on the 24th floor, with her rarely present jet-setting parents. But fate decides to take a hand in the form of a power cut - and when two people are stranded together in a lift, they can't help but say hello.With both of them left 'home alone', they decide to spend the rest of the blackout together and start out on the first steps to falling in love.
Having thrown them together, fate then decides to tear them apart - Lucy's parents insist she joins them in London, where she learns that they're to relocate from New York to Edinburgh; Owen meanwhile sets outs on a roadtrip across the US with his dad - echoing the one his parents took when they first met. They try to remain in touch through postcards and the odd e-mail but circumstances seem really set against them.

Despite starting with one of my most dreadful nightmares - being stuck in a lift - this is an absolutely delightful read. Yes, it's unashamedly romantic fiction, but without being gushy and sentimental, and although aimed at the teen market, I really enjoyed it.
It's not without it's darker, sadder side - Owen's mother has recently died and both he and his father are still trying to come to terms with their loss and grief. Both are in limbo - unable to come to terms with what's happened and move on with their lives - and so the road trip idea takes shape as a way to say 'goodbye' and look to the future. Their closeness is something that Lucy has never experienced - her parents have always been happy to leave her and her brothers in the care of nannies when younger or alone as they grew up - but in Europe she discovers a new family bond.
I loved the author's previous novel  This Is What Happy Looks Like and The Geography of You and Me is another irresistible romantic read.

Maryom's review -  4.5 stars
Publisher - Headline  
Genre - rom com, teen/YA 

 Buy The Geography Of You And Me from Amazon

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Betrayed by Jacqui Rose

Review by The Mole

Bunny Barker has dark secrets - secrets she won't share even with Del, the man she loves, and outside of Claudia, her protector and helper, she trusts no-one - not even Del.

In the criminal underworld Del is king but the Russians and Teddy, a corrupt police officer, want to dethrone him. He needs the trust and support of those he loves.

When I read this book it brought to mind Black Widow by Jessie Keane but only as far as genre - that's where the similarity ends.

The story starts feeling very disjointed in a few harrowing scenes of murder and child abuse - scenes that may anger the reader or horrify - but sadly these things do happen - but the author manages to stop early enough without giving the detail to titillate the perverted and cause the rest to put the book in the incinerator but the reader knows how those scenes will end. The story then jumps and becomes what the book is about. There is an element of farce involved... this is no story of well organised gangs controlling everything day-to-day - it's a story of taking each day as it comes without planning and without really thinking about tomorrow and what the consequences might be.

The farcical element really makes this book something very special with almost EVERY character at one point or another wanting to 'put the hit' on one or more of the other characters and no-one is exempt from it. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and might even describe Rose as the 'Janet Evanovich of the bad guy world'.

The reader does become involved and appalled, not only at the beginning but by other scenes too, and let's also include 'page turner' as it's well deserving of that one too - but overall it's a great fun read with bad guys bumping into each other all over the place.

Oh, there's boats, helicopters and bullet proof cars too!

Publisher - Avon Books
Genre - Adult Crime, Thriller

Buy BETRAYED from Amazon

Monday, 14 April 2014

Cynan Jones - Author Interview

"It’s an extraordinary example of the kind of ruptured power that the weakly cruel get off on."

Today Cynan Jones 'visits' the blog to talk about his latest book "The Dig" and the contentious matter of badger baiting...

The Dig is shocking, at times horrifying, so what inspired you to write it?

I wanted to write about the way we try to create a safe space for ourselves – physically, emotionally – and how an external force can break into it. Generally, I look for some allegorical vehicle that will carry along a narrative about what people go through. In the case of The Dig, the deep, sheltered place of a badger sett provided the allegory. Once you choose to write about a subject, you can’t back out. The processes of lambing and capturing are unavoidably visceral and physical. The language and story had to defer to that.

Country life as depicted seems very harsh - not the pastoral idyll of holiday brochures or glossy 'country' magazines. Do you think yours is the more accurate representation?

Having lived here all my life (barring the odd couple of years in cities) I know that it is. There’s an industry built on fictionalising the countryside as an aspirational place. Even the phrase ‘country life’ comes with a rosy-cheeked, rustic-kitchened kind of condescension.

It is idyllic. But that’s balanced with a bleakness sometimes (which, contrarily, I also find compelling). You spend all night in a freezing cold lambing shed, the rain hammering. Then in the morning, the rain passed, you turn the lambs out in the top field and the wide view of the bay is breathtaking. It’s all about balance.

So, the harshness and isolation of Daniel's life are more a reflection of his personal circumstances?

Lambing is a tough time physically. He’s using the immersion of that, the demand of it, as a mechanism to keep going, and we should feel throughout that he’s running out of steam. Life, as it were, is not harsh or isolated so much. But – as with a number of lifestyles – farming entails a massive requirement at times. Given Daniel’s circumstances, and what he’s trying to navigate, that requirement and his emotional state is a brutal combination.

Many of the scenes in The Dig, from lambing to badger baiting, are very hands on.  How much, and what sort of, research do you do before writing?

I generally do a lot of research. It’s the writer’s responsibility to do what they can to make sure the facts they’re using are right. No doubt I’ll muddle something sometime but it won’t be because I was lazy, or made assumptions.

Having helped through lambing, those details were simply there. In terms of the capturing and baiting scenes, I spoke with Gordon Lumby of Dyfed Badger Watch and Rescue who confirmed many of the things I found out about people involved in the ‘sport’. I researched dog breeding, dog training, trapping, the releasing of mink, all sorts. Written accounts – mainly historical – of badger digs. (Sometimes whole villages would attend after church). I created fake profiles on forums to talk with baiters and fighting dog breeders. Often, I wished I hadn’t.

I’ve been asked numerous times whether I’ve been badger digging. No. It’s abhorrent. The scenes are accurate because I’ve experienced the processes that surround the act. You don’t have to have dug a badger, but you have to have dug, and you have to have been in the woods that time of the morning.

The badger baiter also provides an in-demand service, ridding farms of rats which are definitely seen as expendable vermin. There seems to me to be a thin line between which animals fall into this category, and which don't; the government with its cull is certainly trying to put badgers in it. Do you think they should be? Are there any easy answers to the badger/TB question?

I’ve had some fairly harsh swipes from all angles (threats from diggers, comments from cattle farmers, anger from environmentalists who assume I’m glamorising the ‘sport’). From the start I’ve avoided being drawn into this question. It’s not what the book is about.

I personally feel the cull is lunacy. It simply has no grounding, and the science – which I researched quite hard at the time – doesn’t stack up. (They tried – and abandoned - the cull in Wales a few years before attempting the same thing in England. I’m not sure how aware people are of that). However, the book is about people and I deliberately avoided a political remit.

Something I commented on in my review was the attitude of the boy taken along digging for badgers by his father; his feeling that he had to join in, to pretend he was enjoying it even, otherwise he'd be seen as weak and childish. Do you think this is how such barbaric 'sports' are perpetuated?

I think we all– to varying degrees – want to be accepted. Another boy might go along to a football match with his father, or go for a bike ride. But this boy’s father digs badgers.

I fear it’s not how the thing is perpetuated however. I’m afraid it’s simply perpetual. There will always be people who do this.

The one thing I couldn’t navigate during the work was why anyone is drawn to badger digging. Like it or not, I could accept there was a thrill to the fox chase, or the ‘frenzy’ of ratting, and a personal achievement to shooting on target. But badger digging is an inane bullying. The excuse is often ‘it works the dogs’. It’s an extraordinary example of the kind of ruptured power that the weakly cruel get off on.

The badger baiter is a very brutal man whereas Daniel the farmer is caring and compassionate to both his animals and the land he farms. Is it too simplistic to see these men in terms of good versus evil? Or reading too much into things to see Daniel as some form of sacrifice?
While I prefer to let the reader decide whether something is right or wrong, good or evil, there is a definite pitting of one force against another. I tried to show both characters simply as they are, but their actions are good, and are bad. That arch element to the story (what some have called the ‘mythic’) was very deliberate, and I pushed the language at times to reflect that. Given that, yes, I’ve implied a sacrificial motivation. But what exactly is Daniel sacrificing himself for, or because of?

Do you ever consider the possibility of manipulating the story to bring it to a 'happy end'? Would that have been too unrealistic?

The story is God. Once you’ve set out a set of circumstances and drop determined characters into them, you have to be true to the way things would play out. The Dig went through a number of rewrites. It was, at one stage, a much broader book (90,000 words or so, and, in fact, two connected short novels really), but I cut 60,000 words to focus on the collision between Daniel and the badger baiter. An ending played out further in a previous draft.

Do you ever find that characters want to take events into their own hands? Particularly did you find that once created Daniel and the badger baiter were bound to clash?

I try to know what I am going to write before I get pen to page. To know that, I have to know the characters. Those characters are then capable only of actions authentic to themselves. Daniel had to go and investigate the sound he hears. So yes, the two men are bound from the start to clash. The Dig is essentially a narrative of collision.

Since I read The Dig, I accidentally came across this quote from Big Sur by Jack Kerouac which I thought summed up that one brief moment of complete happiness for Daniel -  “On soft Spring nights I'll stand in the yard under the stars - Something good will come out of all things yet - And it will be golden and eternal just like that - There's no need to say another word.” A pure coincidence or were you aware of this piece?

That’s pure coincidence, and the first time I’ve seen it. But one thing that recurs when you work on the right book is coincidence. It’s extraordinary sometimes what happens, how many things feed in – almost to keep urging you along, to tell you: you’re doing the right thing. Mostly, you’re not trying to deliver some huge original insight, you’re trying to communicate something many people acknowledge but perhaps can’t articulate quite. It’s likely then that other writers hit the same notes for things that are universally felt. And that’s because they’re true.

I know you've been busy on your next book, so can you tell us a little about it?

The next book is (very) different from The Dig. Granta have just read a first draft. I would have held back longer before showing it them as I knew the book was far from ready. But as it’s so different I needed to know it was the right thing to work on. We’re pretty sure it is. 

Thanks for visiting today Cynan and best of luck with your future projects - we'll certainly be eagerly awaiting them.

Bits and pieces that may be of interest;
Author's website
Our Reviews: The Dig
               Everything I Found On The Beach
               Bird, Blood, Snow
               The Fart (short story)
and previous interviews - re Everything I Found On The Beach
                                Bringing Down the Giants - reworking the Tale of Peredur; Bird, Blood, Snow

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Accident by C L Taylor

review by Maryom

When 15 year old Charlotte is knocked down by a bus and ends up in hospital in a coma, her mother Sue is convinced it cannot have been the tragic accident that everyone else claims. Reading through her daughter's diary, Sue finds an entry that she's sure supports this. She feels that if she can find out WHY Charlotte took the dreadful action she did, she can be convinced that everything is safe now and come out of her coma. She discovers that she really had very little idea about her daughter's life - what she was doing when out in the evening or who her friends were - but also that Sue's own past, in the shape of an abusive, manipulative boyfriend, is catching up with her with devastating consequences.

The story is told in two alternating parts - the present day with Charlotte lying in a coma and Sue's diary from 20 years ago, so Sue's struggle to convince others that Charlotte is not a random accident victim is interleaved with her own story of a love affair rapidly turning sour. For a while there seems to be no connection between the two but gradually all is revealed...

While I found this a quick read, that I whizzed through to find out who did what and why, sadly it didn't really grab me. The characters all seemed a little too over the top to feel real and therefore for me to care about. Although there's a general consensus of opinion that parents have no idea what their teenagers are getting up to, this too seemed taken to extremes - both Sue and her husband Brian seemed  to have been wilfully blind to their daughter's behaviour, letting her come and go at all hours without questioning where she'd been.
As the narrator, Sue seemed full of contradictions - maybe these were in part down to her PTSD and paranoia, but she just didn't ring true. I never felt in any doubt that Sue was right - although she goes off at odd tangents, leaping to wrong conclusions on the slightest of evidence, her overall premise that something had caused Charlotte to step in front of the bus never seemed in doubt.

Maryom's review - 3 stars
Publisher -
Harper Collins (Avon)

Genre - adult,
psychological thriller

Buy THE ACCIDENT from Amazon