Friday, 28 October 2016

The Other World, It Whispers by Stephanie Victoire

review by Maryom

These nine short stories make a deliciously spine-tingling collection that treads that fine line between the real world and the ghostly, faery one. 

A boy lets a silent girl into his house from the snow, hoping she will rescue him from his domineering mother; another is uncomfortable in his body and longs to change it, with the help of a little magic; a life-sized wooden sculpture of a man comes to life to commit a crime; in an 'alternative' version of Red Riding Hood, a young girl armed with an axe takes revenge on the predator stalking young girls in the forest; beautiful flowers hide a deadly secret; spirits journey on a train in the resting period before they're sent back to be born again and life another human life. Deals are made with gods, the fey queen, a witch and an old man who may actually be the devil - but you can't use magic to further your ends and ambitions without some sort of pay-back, and when revealed, will the cost be too high?

When it comes to scary reads, I'm always a fan of the subtly disquieting rather than over-stated horror, and of stories that, although they involve magic, still speak of very human feelings and failures - of love, revenge, fear or desire. These stories do just that. Some are downright creepy, others more like fairy-tales with a twist, but they all echo real emotions and situations. I loved them. 

The writing too is wonderfully atmospheric, whether describing the gloom of forests, the lure of the sea or the sparkle and glitz of a masked ball the author makes the scene appear before the readers eyes.

Unfortunately, this collection isn't published till mid-November. Otherwise it would make an ideal read for Halloween when the veil between worlds is weak.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - Adult fiction,short stories, ghosts, fairy tales, fantasy

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

A Ghost's Story by Lorna Gibb

review by Maryom

Katie King was a superstar 'spirit' of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Along with her male counterpart John, she appeared at seances and spiritualist meetings in America, Britain, Russia and Italy. Some people believed in her whole-heartedly; others believed her to be just trick being played on the unsuspecting. Sometimes she would move objects, sometimes glide across the room or speak through a medium, but as she feels her powers failing she decides to write her story and help people understand what lies 'on the other side'. 
The spirit comes to consciousness in the early 1800s, slipping into and changing a boy's life; thereafter whenever she can she seeks out that boy as he grows to adulthood and,inevitably, old age. But Katie can only go where she is called, so is often frustrated in her wishes, and begins to learn about human emotions - the longing for companionship and even love. 

Katie's story is told through a collection of spirit writings - some dictated through mediums, others written directly by her on a computer - gathered from various sources around the world by researcher Adam Marcus, working for The Magic Circle, and while Katie's evolution, from wispy spirit to one who could manipulate objects and people, forms the main story, alongside in the footnotes is the tale of Adam's original scepticism, his failing health, and his growing belief that Katie isn't a figment of imagination or a piece of theatrical fakery but a being as alive as himself.

First off I would say this isn't maybe the kind of spooky ghost story you would expect - Katie isn't a malevolent ghost out for revenge, haunting an ancestral home or the place she was killed while seeking retribution, or even an unsettled spirit yearning to be re-united with a loved one. She doesn't remember a corporeal life at all, just a series of rushed, blurred images, always associated with death, before she fully gains 'consciousness'. Nonetheless, I found it an extremely fascinating, compelling read. Her 'memoirs' take the reader behind the scenes at seances in places as diverse as log cabins on the American frontier and the splendour of the Russian Court, though mainly they take place in the respectable homes of Victorian era professional mediums - some of whom have a real connection to the spirit world (according to Katie), some are just plain charlatans, but all rely on a range of gimmicks to impress their audience. 
Katie herself is, at various times, amused, irritated, curious, bored, witty, vivacious, sad; in fact, she's completely human. 

Unlike the stories which set out to frighten the reader, this one made me wonder what exactly ghosts might be - not the dead, returned to pass on messages, but other unknown spirits maybe. For me, though, at heart, this is a very human story, one of the search for love, which surely all of us can relate to.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Granta Books
Genre - Adult, ghost stories

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Dragonfish by Vu Tran

Review by The Mole

"Robert, an Oakland cop, still can't let go of Suzy, the enigmatic Vietnamese wife who left him two years ago. Now she's disappeared from her new husband, Sonny, a violent Vietnamese smuggler and gambler who is blackmailing Robert into finding her for him. As he pursues her through the sleek and seamy gambling dens of Las Vegas, shadowed by Sonny's sadistic son, 'Junior', and assisted by unexpected and reluctant allies, Robert learns more about his ex-wife than he ever did during their marriage. He finds himself chasing the ghosts of her past, one that reaches back to a refugee camp in Malaysia after the fall of Saigon, and his investigation uncovers the existence of an elusive packet of her secret letters to someone she left behind long ago. 

As Robert starts illuminating the dark corners of Suzy's life, the legacy of her sins threatens to immolate them all."

The story is delivered to the reader in two distinctly different styles and paces. The first is the fast, often violent but always menacing pace of the here and now as Robert tries to find out where Suzy has gone and why Sonny wants HIM to do the finding. The second is through the calm and reflective, although still often violent, pace of the letters.

I found the switch in pace and style, which is very significant, disruptive to my reading of the book. I did enjoy the story a lot but when the pace switches it very much feels like an invitation to put the book down and take a breather - this made it a longer read than it should have been.

The characters seem an eccentric mix but the ideas seem to be drawn from the author's own experiences so gain credibility through that. The conclusion is certainly not what I expected but complements the telling very well. Not one for the faint-hearted though.

Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult Crime thriller

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Ice Lands by Steinar Bragi

review by Maryom

Four thirty-something friends have headed off into the wild interior of Iceland on a camping trip. The two guys, Egill and Hrafin, have been friends since childhood, and over the years have had their falling-outs and getting-back togethers but old resentments still linger; their partners, Anna and Vigdis, are comparative strangers who don't really get on. The trip is supposed to be a time to bond, as a group, and with nature, but Icelandic nature can be inhospitable, tempers are quick to flare, and an argument and the sudden dropping of heavy fog lead to their jeep crashing into a farmhouse. The four seek refuge inside, but the elderly couple who live there seem strange, insisting on barricading the only door at night for fear of something which lurks outside. As the group's attempts to get back to 'civilisation' fail time and again, the behaviour of the couple becomes even weirder, and the odd things found in the vicinity - dead animals, an abandoned village, piles of bones - lead them to wonder what exactly they've inadvertently discovered.

The Ice Lands is a mix of psycholgical thriller and horror tale following that well-tested plot in which city folk head off into the wilds and encounter more than they'd bargained for - think Blair Witch Project or House of Wax, depending on your preference in horror. So, I'd expected something straight forward along these lines (and if it's done well I do love a good horror) and there are a lot of very creepy moments as, splitting into various sub-groups, the friends explore the area, try to drive or walk to the nearest town, and end up circling back to the strange farmhouse that sits at the centre of this puzzle. Intermittently the story line is broken by flashbacks to the past histories of the four, and I somehow assumed these were irrelevant - just so much padding to lengthen what would have been a short story - but the ending made me realise I'd been wrong-footed; I changed my mind, decided they WERE an integral part of the overall plot, and wished I'd paid closer attention to them. For this is a story with a very odd ending - the sort that makes you reassess everything that's gone before and leave you wondering how much was 'real', and how much was taking place in someone's mind.
The other stand-out feature is the barren, sandy terrain of Iceland. The volcanic landscape is totally hostile to life; no trees or grass, just mile after mile of empty dessert where a breeze can easily whip up and impenetrable sand storm. Definitely not the place for your car to break down! 

Maryom's review - 3 stars 
Publisher - 
Genre - Adult Translated Fiction, horror, psychological thriller

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

translated by Jamie Bulloch

review by Maryom

Passing by a Viennese cake shop a young woman is enticed into sharing a Gugelhupf cake with an elderly lady dressed in a strange antiquated style, from head to toe in black. Normally this young woman is very conscious of what she eats, its calories and sugar levels, but somehow her usual objections fade when faced with the formidable Frau Hohenembs. The two new acquaintances head back to Frau Hohenembs' apartment, a space filled with strange curios and shared by parrots, an Irish wolfhound and a plump, equally black-clad, housekeeper, Ida.
There they share Frau Hohenembs' half of the cake, and the narrator finds herself being pulled into the life of this very strange and manipulative woman. They go for walks with the dog or visit museums - all very normal on the surface, but Frau Hohenembs is following a bizarre agenda, attacking and stealing items associated with the Empress Elisabeth, and the narrator feels compelled to go along with her plans.
Interleaved with this ongoing narrative, are reminiscences about the Empress Elisabeth by one of her loyal servants; a relationship which bears striking resemblances to that between Frau Hohenembs and Ida.

How would I describe The Empress and the Cake? Well, it's part subtle, tense psychological thriller but also an examination of addiction and loss of control. The Narrator (she's never named) has a history of eating disorders, of binge-eating and purging, which has been in abeyance for fifteen years, but which returns immediately after her first meeting with Frau Hohenembs. Throughout, she claims to be in charge of herself and the situation, believing she could walk away any time she chooses, but the reader can see that this is far from true; some part of her has come to rely on Frau Hohenembs, to need her dictating what to do and when.

The Empress and The Cake is part of Peirene's fairy tale series and Frau Hohenembs has at least a hint of the old crone, or even wicked witch, of folk tales about her; luring the innocent in with tempting food only to enslave them, or, as in the case of Hansel and Gretel, eat them!

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult Literary Translated Fiction

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Boy Who Made God Smile - book launch

by Maryom

I have a vague sort of idea that the general public think that book launches are only for 'insiders' from the publishing world (like Bridget Jones and her colleagues) and close friends of the author, but, apart from a select high profile events, they're generally open to anyone interested. So, finding myself with a spare hour or so in Nottingham on Friday, I dropped into Waterstones for the launch for GJ (Garry) Martin's latest novel - The Boy Who Made God Smile.

Garry was in conversation with Henderson Mullin, chief executive of Writing East Midlands, discussing his route to publication. Although he always wanted to be a writer, for many years Garry felt he should pursue a more regular, reliable career, and for much of his life has been a teacher. this fortunately allowed him time for writing, including an extended 'working holiday' to India researching the 'god business' of superstar style gurus, which resulted in the original idea that grew into The Boy Who Made God Smile.

Moving between Birmingham and Bangalore, this is the story of three generations of an Indian/British family in crisis. Ari is taken to India to visit his terminally ill grandfather, and, while his father finds returning to his home baffling and strange, Ari finds it to be a fascinating place. I definitely got the impression that Ari was a youngster intent on poking his nose where the adults didn't want him to, and asking the kind of questions adults don't want to answer!

Garry also talked about being chosen to take part in the Writing East Midlands mentoring scheme. Under this, three aspiring writers are chosen and work alongside an established author, in his case crime writer Anne Zouroudi, who through feedback and advice helps them make good writing better. In Garry's case, this involved turning a single narrative into three threads which wove about each other, and cutting certain 'surplus' characters - he tried to reintroduce one of these at the proof stage but she, somewhat spookily, still ended up on a publishing version of the cutting room floor and never made it into print.

The Boy Who Made God Smile is published through Colley Books

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Secret Life and Curious Death of Miss Jean Milne by Andrew Nicoll

review by Maryom

The small town of Broughty Ferry is a gentile, refined place - not like the city of Dundee "that sink of iniquity and depravity" just a few miles further along the coast - so its inhabitants and police force are especially shocked when Jean Milne, an elderly spinster, is found murdered in her own home, the victim of a frenzied attack. Alerted by the postman who notices Miss Milne's mail hasn't been moved for several days, if not weeks, Sergeant John Fraser is one of the first upon the scene and starts to gather evidence and witness statements, but, determined to resist the interference of the Dundee police, Broughty's Chief Constable Sempill calls in a renowned investigator from Glasgow, Detective Lieutenant Trench, a man who very quickly decides the frenzied attack must be the work of a foreigner or a maniac. The facts gathered quickly lead to a supposition that Jean Milne had a younger man, assumed to be her lover, staying with her at the time of her murder - and soon the hunt is on for him.

Based on a true unsolved case of 1912, this story gives an interesting glimpse into police methods in an almost 'modern' setting within the context of a compelling whodunnit read. The hunt for the murderer takes Sempill to London and Antwerp, following clues, conducting identity parades, and checking alibis - you might be tempted to think it unrealistic and far-fetched if the story weren't based on police records from the time! To a regular crime reader, it's obvious that the police haven't attempted to follow up on all of the clues but instead spent too much time trying to make evidence fit their sole suspect. Nicoll's interpretation of the 'ignored' evidence is interesting but even so I wasn't quite convinced with his version of events. That wasn't anything to disrupt my enjoyment of the novel though.
Nicoll does an excellent job of capturing the feel of a small early twentieth century town, the pride its police force has in being at the forefront of modern methods and techniques - the use of fingerprints, telephones and telegrams to aid their investigation - and its use of the press to inform, misinform and seek witnesses. In some ways, I wish it hadn't been a 'true crime', but that there could have been further investigations for Sergeant Fraser and Detective Trench. 

Maryom's review -  4 stars
Publisher -  Black and White Publishing
Genre - historical crime