Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Wilful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb

review by Maryom

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know I've been working my way (very slowly) through Robin Hobb's Farseer/Liveships/Rainwild series, and loving every page of the way. So, I was delighted to find this - The Wilful Princess and the Piebald Prince - in my Christmas stocking.

It's not actually part of the Farseer saga but a sort of prequel set long before the birth of Fitzchivalry Farseer.
It's often hinted in the story of Fitz that the Wit, the ability he has to communicate and even bond with animals, was once an accepted, even prized, skill but attitudes changed and it became something disreputable, despised, and evil; instead of having a gift, a Witted person was now seen as cursed.

Legend, as quoted in the Farseer books, blames this change of opinion on the actions and behaviour of Princess Caution, the Wilful Princess, and her son Prince Charger, the Piebald Prince. But in the two stories that make up this volume, Robin Hobb tells a different tale, through the words of Felicity, childhood friend and handmaiden to Princess Caution, then wet-nurse to her son, Charger. It's the story of a princess who contradicted her name at every possible chance, who gave up everything for love and her son, and that son, who, marked from birth, found his whole life a struggle - for acceptance, for power, and for love.

It reads as a folk tale - the sort you might know about King Arthur or his knights - but for me highlights one of the things I love about Hobb's work - the creation of a complete world with a complex history stretching back hundreds of years as a backdrop against which the adventures of Fitzchivalry and the Fool, or the Vestritt family take place. If you've read more fantasy you may know other examples but he only comparable world-building I can think of is Tolkein's Middle-earth.

There are a couple of things to note here - this is a short, novella length book (just over 150 pages) with a simpler plot than you may expect from Hobb's other full-length, 500+ page, and it probably doesn't work well as a stand-alone piece, so best seen as a 'curiosity' for Farseer fans. On the other hand, it's illustrated by Jackie Morris (who is responsible for many of Robin Hobb's covers) with horses and hounds along the margins, and the occasional half and full-page, giving the feel of an ancient manuscript reproduced for a modern reader.

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

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

review by Maryom

84 year old Florence Claybourne has fallen, and is lying on the floor of her sheltered accommodation flat until someone comes to rescue her. While she waits, she checks out the rubbish accumulated under the sofa, imagines who her rescuer will be and how they'll react, and reminisces about her lifelong friendship with Elsie. There are three special things about Elsie. The first two are simple - that she's Florence's best friend, and that she always knows the right things to say to make Florence feel better - the third is harder to explain. As Florence's mind drifts back over the years we begin to see the important part Elsie has played in her life, but Florence's memories are troubled by a new arrival at the Cherry Tree sheltered housing. He's calling himself Gabriel Price, but Florence believes he's someone she once knew long ago, under a different name. Is her memory playing up, or has Ronnie Butler come back (possibly from the dead) to in some way get his revenge?

Taken at its simplest, Three Things About Elsie is a gentle mystery story revolving around incidents from the characters' youth. Who is the mysterious Gabriel/Ronnie? What happened back in the 50s to make Florence so afraid of him? Of course, if Florence's memory were clearer, we'd know the answers in a second. As it is, the reader has to follow her meanderings and side-tracking as the puzzle pieces gradually slot together one by one.

More importantly, it's a sympathetic look at a section of society that's easily written off as boring and irrelevant - the elderly. In Greenbank, the care home to which Cherry Tree's residents are sent as they become less self-reliant, the photos on the walls remind the staff of WHO their patients once were. Now they may be senile, bedridden, barely distinguishable from each other, but once they too were young, had hopes and dreams, fell in love, raised families, enjoyed dancing or cricket or reading - basically were individuals. Through Florence's eyes we see what it's like to be dismissed as a forgetful old woman, while she still feels like her younger self.

And the 'third thing' about Elsie? Well, that's something to make your own mind up about.

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

Monday, 8 January 2018

Picks of 2017

 by Maryom

 Well, I've managed to be really late with my top picks from 2017, but here they are at last, in no particular order. Trying to choose which books to include, I noticed that, for me, this year's picks seem remarkably up-beat, though Larry Tremblay's The Orange Grove is as far from that as you could want ...

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett
Reclusive former singer/songwriter Cass Wheeler looks back on her life through her 'greatest hits', the songs from a lifetime that represent key moments from her fractured childhood, rebellious teen years, meteoric rise to fame and the troubles that quickly followed. Loved it!

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne

Starting in 1940s Ireland and running to the present day, this is the story - cradle to grave - of Cyril Avery. As an adopted child and later a homosexual man, Cyril is constantly made to feel an outsider, unwanted and unloved, but it's also a story of the changing attitudes in Ireland, and Cyril ultimately is welcomed in this new, inclusive world. It's full of everything from joy to despair, and I can't believe anyone could read it and not be moved. 

 The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) by Marie Gameson

 Following a moment of revelation on a mountain top in Taiwan, Winifred Rigby believes she's attained a state of enlightenment, discarding all thoughts of  'self' along with her memories. Now forced by her family to return to London, she tries her best to live a life of Buddhist detachment and mindfulness, concentrating on the present, and forgetting the past, but is puzzled and frustrated by the almost obsessive care shown by her mother and sister, and, despite her intentions, the past seems unwilling to let go of Winnie. Circling round the difficulties of caring for someone who has undergone a radical change of personality, it's a perceptive, thought-provoking read.

The Good People by Hannah Kent

 Recently widowed Nora is left struggling to cope with her disabled grandson. When all else fails, she approaches the local healer Nance, a woman knowledgeable in the use of herbs and the ways of the fairies, the 'Good People'. But Nance's 'cures' lead the women on a dangerous path ... are they truly hoping to cure the boy, or maliciously harming him?

The  Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay

A short powerful story about the loss of innocence and how children, and their parents, are manipulated in times of war.

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

This is without doubt one of the creepiest stories I've read - full of tension and steadily increasing horror, it's one to give you goosebumps up the arms, and shivers down the spine. A neglected country house, overgrown with ivy, shrouded in mist, tales of skeletons discovered in the grounds and strange wooden 'companions' who seem to have developed a life of their own ... What more could you ask for in a gothic horror tale?

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume

Frankie has reached crisis point. She feels isolated, lost, and without purpose. One day, everything just proves too overwhelming so she does what she always does - phones her mum who understands without questioning and is ready to come to the rescue. Hunkering down in her grandmother's old bungalow, Frankie attempts to put her world back together piece by piece, step by step. An intimate account of someone gripped by depression but desperately trying to walk out of its depths.

Kit heads out to Italy to find the father she's never knew, and finds a different story to the one told by her mother. 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, but what made it stand out for me was 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 - and 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!

I've read fewer crime and psychological thrillers this year, but of those I have read, Joseph Knox's debt Sirens stands out - a sort of Chandleresque private eye story - 
and Elly Griffiths was back with both Ruth Galloway(The Chalk Pit), and Stephens and Mephisto (The Vanishing Box) novels; The Chalk Pit was my favourite of the two, but only because I've followed more of Ruth's personal story over the longer series.

On the other hand, I think I've read more fantasy than usual - highlights being my continued trek through Robin Hobbs' Farseer series, having completed the Liveships Trilogy and returned to Fitz and The Fool with Fool's Errand, If you've already read these books, try newcomer Anna Smith Spark's The Court of Broken Knives - as a first novel, and first in a series, it's grabbed me in the the way only Robin Hobb's work has.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

A Maigret Christmas by Georges Simenon

translated by David Coward

review by Maryom

Madame Maigret is hoping for a quiet Christmas Day, spent peacefully at home with her husband, with no interruptions from his police work. She's out of luck! Inspector Maigret is barely up, and certainly not properly dressed, before two women from the opposite apartment block arrive with a tale of a man, dressed up as Father Christmas, having visited the daughter of one of them in the night. Whether or not he believes in Santa, Maigret immediately suspects something fishy is afoot, and sets out to investigate the matter, while barely moving from the comfort of his armchair.

This story featuring Georges Simenon's most famous character, Inspector Maigret, is one of a collection of three, all set in Paris at Christmas - the perfect read for a quiet moment (if there is such a thing) after Christmas Day dinner. For long-term fans of Maigret, it's a little festive gem. For those less familiar, it works as an introduction to the Inspector, his police team, and personal life; I was particularly impressed with how much of the Maigrets' family life was explored in such a short story without stealing the show from the investigation. A few words here and there from the author, and I felt like I knew this couple intimately.
The mystery itself is probably not all that complex, but after all this is a short story, not a full-length novel which has time for more false trails and diversions, and it makes an enjoyable festive crime read.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - Penguin Classics 
Genre - crime, Christmas 

Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths

review by Maryom
"Christmas 1953. Max Mephisto and his daughter Ruby are headlining Brighton Hippodrome, an achievement only slightly marred by the less-than-savoury support act: a tableau show of naked 'living statues'. This might appear to have nothing in common with DI Edgar Stephens' investigation into the death of a quiet flowerseller, but if there's one thing the old comrades have learned it's that, in Brighton, the line between art and life - and death - is all too easily blurred..."

This fourth Stephens and Mephisto mystery takes the reader to a snowy 1950s Brighton, where, as always when these two old army comrades are together, the glamour of theatre life rubs shoulders with murder. In her boarding-house room, Lily Burtenshaw's body is found, posed to resemble a famous painting of an historical event. Only nineteen years old, Lily was a quiet, shy girl, who worked at a local flowershop, but the positioning of her dead body bears a resemblance to the 'tableaux' presented by the 'living statues' act currently engaged at the Hippodrome Theatre. Surely there couldn't be a connection between them? Maybe Lily was mistakenly killed by someone who assumed she was one of the female performers temporarily staying at the same boarding-house? It's a disturbing, unlikely crime for Brighton, and the leads uncovered by DI Edgar Stephens seem to take him only to blind alleys. Max meanwhile has been befriended by one of the 'living statues', an unlikely move given their respective ages, and one which he treats with a degree of scepticism, but maybe this young, attractive woman can shed light on the identity of Lily's murderer ...

Elly Griffiths has again transported the reader back to a time which feels like it ought to be gentler and more innocent - after all, it snows for Christmas - but seems more to balance on a knife-edge between glamorous and sordid - the (almost) nude performers are only allowed if they stand rigidly still, complying with a ruling which deems them 'artistic' rather than 'rude'. Human nature being what it is though, particularly in crime novels, someone always finds themselves driven to murder.

After an excess of psychological thrillers and domestic noir, I'm finding myself increasingly drawn back to the whodunnit school of crime fiction - perhaps because it's presented more as a puzzle to solve. Someone is murdered, the police, perhaps with the assistance of an interested 'bystander' such as Miss Marple or Max Mephisto, set about finding the culprit, and, after a number of dead ends and red herrings, find him or her. That's not to say there isn't tension, but it's not the over the top nerve-racking suspense of a psychological thriller. Elly Griffiths' stories fit me perfectly, whether the Ruth Galloway series mixing archaeology and murder in modern-day Norfolk, or this Stephens and Mephisto '50s set series.
There's a nice balance between the two aspects of the story - the crime-solving and the personal lives of the 'regular' characters - which makes this possible to read as a stand-alone novel while it fits into a longer story-arc of the characters personal lives - and much as in the Ruth Galloway series, it's difficult to anticipate which route those lives will take.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher -
Genre - adult historical crime

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

I Killed Father Christmas by Anthony McGowan

illustrated by Chris Riddell

review by Maryom

Jo-Jo has annoyed his dad with an enormous list of  presents he wants for Christmas, and now his dad and mum are arguing. Despite hiding under his pillow, Jo-Jo can't avoid hearing them, especially when his mum says "You've killed Christmas". Although she's talking to his dad, Jo-Jo knows it's all his fault, and, with Father Christmas dead, it's up to him to make amends. He can't travel all round the world, but wearing his mum's red coat, and laden with pillowcases filled with old toys, Jo-Jo sets out to bring Christmas to his street at least.

 Anthony McGowan's words and Chris Riddell's illustrations join to bring this delightful, heart-warming seasonal story to life. While reminding us that Christmas is about loving and sharing, rather than the quantity or expense of the presents we receive, it's a fun read rather than an over-sentimental, cloying one.

One of Barrington Stoke's Little Gem series, it comes with all those dyslexia-friendly features you'd expect - cream paper, easy-to-read font, lots of pictures, and short, punchy sentences - but you'll probably be so wrapped up in the story that you won't notice them.

It's a perfect stocking-filler for young, capable readers, or a story you might choose to read to a younger child. Don't overlook the end-papers, though - there are Christmassy cracker-style jokes at the front, and a maze puzzle - can Jo-Jo and Father Christmas reach the parcels and deliver them? - at the back  ... and it explains how Father Christmas gets all those presents down all the chimneys.

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - children's picture book, early read, dyslexia friendly, 5-9, 

Friday, 8 December 2017

Year One by Nora Roberts

review by Maryom

Out shooting pheasants in the Scottish countryside, businessman Ross MacLeod inadvertently lets loose a deadly virus. Spreading at an alarming rate, it's barely any time before millions are dead, and the survivors struggling to hold the world together. The story follows three separate groups who leave New York, heading for the perceived 'safety' of less populated areas, trying to re-establish their lives there. So far, it's your average apocalypse tale, but there's a twist. Some of the survivors suddenly find themselves gifted with uncanny abilities - to see the future in a person's touch, or to move people and things, for example. Of course, these gifts don't pass un-noted - there are rumours of governmental, scientific or military departments imprisoning them to investigate and harness these talents, and lynch mobs roam the countryside looking to kill them. There's hope though for the survivors, particularly in the shape of three babies born at the height of the plague, and another conceived then.

Now, I'm generally up for a good apocalypse - from Twenty Eight Days Later or I Am Legend to Shaun of the Dead - and yes, they do generally all follow a pattern, with a group of lucky survivors struggling to re-build civilisation (or grab a pint down the Winchester) despite all the forces ranged against them, but Year One just didn't work for me. In part it was too similar to many novels that have gone before; on the other hand, the sudden appearance of paranormal abilities and the whole mystical aspect rather turned me off. I think if you've read /seen less apocalyptic fiction you'd find it more compelling, but as it followed the tried and trusted tropes associated with such stories, it failed to hold my interest. The ending too I found a bit of a  let-down - a lot of sub-lots abandoned as the novel followed one story-line, but these others may be re-visited as Year One is the first book of a planned trilogy. For my money, I'd go for Station Eleven by Emily StJohn Mandel or Micheal F Russell's Lie of the Land

Maryom's review -  3 stars
Publisher - Piatkus (Little, Brown)
Genre - adult post-apocalyptic fiction