Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Pirates of Poseidon by Saviour Pirotta


illustrated by Freya Hartas


review by Maryom

Following a disastrous performance of his first-ever play, the poet Ariston has decided to leave Corinth, and take up a position as tutor on the island of Aegina, where no one knows him. Travelling with him, of course, are Thrax, his personal slave, and Nico, his scribe, and where those two boys go, adventure is sure to follow!
A valuable ring has gone missing, and Thrax believes he can track it down, but when the trail leads the boys into the clutches of pirates you begin to wonder if this time, he and Nico have taken on too much...

Pirates of Poseidon is the third book in this excellent children's detective series set in Ancient Greece (but it doesn't matter if you haven't read the first two). Thrax and Nico work for the pompous, smug poet and singer Ariston; Thrax is a slave, attending to his master's clothes and running errands, and hoping one day to buy his freedom; Nico is free-born and works as a scribe, writing down verses and lyrics for Ariston, but life is pretty much the same for them, at their master's back and call most hours of the day.  Both boys have a 'nose' for solving crime and generally succeed in solving a mystery where their elders fail. Thrax is the 'detective' of the pair, uncovering clues, and following leads, while Nico follows along, acting as a sounding-box for Thrax's theories, and recording their adventures.
The story is fun and exciting, with a touch of danger, making it a compelling read, and along the way there's a lot to be learned about Ancient Greece - possibly without the reader even realising it! From a parent's or teacher's point of view this is the beauty of this series; children will be absorbed in the story - trying to guess the villain ahead of Thrax and Nico, laughing at the antics of their master, unable to bear putting the book down when the boys get into danger - but at the same time they're picking up lots of information about the Ancient Greeks - how they dressed, what they ate, what they did for fun. There are some perhaps confusing words, such as references to gods or everyday Greek objects, but the glossary explains them all. (A cunning tip for parents - read the glossary before your child reads the book, then you can appear an expert on everything about Ancient Greece :) )
This is a series I can't wait to share with my grandson when he's older, and I hope Thrax and Nico will have had many more adventures before then.



Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Genre - children's whodunnit adventure, historical, Ancient Greece


Friday, 18 May 2018

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan



review by Maryom

Donal Ryan's latest book tells the stories of three very different men, whose lives are joined in only the slightest of ways, but who share the pain and scars of grief; Farouk, persuaded to leave his war-torn homeland, and risk all on a journey west; broken-hearted Lampy, who dreams big but achieves little; and unscrupulous accountant/lobbyist John, who, finding death drawing close, seeks forgiveness from a God he claims not to believe in. For all of them sorrow has crept up unawares, like the Normans sailing 'from a low and quiet sea' to engulf Ireland, and overwhelmed them.

The first three sections read as totally unrelated stories, but the last ties them together - not an unusual format, and you are half-expecting it to happen, but, the pulling together and tying off of separate threads is done with style and doesn't feel in any way contrived.
 I've always found Donal Ryan to have an amazing way with words, allowing the reader for a short space of time, to walk in someone else's shoes, to experience their hopes and losses, and in this sympathetic, but not sentimental, study of grief  he does it again. He frequently seems drawn towards fractured, broken people in his work (or maybe it's just that, as with Tolstoy's happy marriages,  happy people are all the same and don't have much of a story to tell), and that's how most of the characters in this seem. The loss of home and family, the pain of heartbreak, regret for past actions and a need to confess - these don't seem cheery topics for a book, but the characters seem to be heading towards some level of resolution, a glimpse of hope and happiness, or maybe just acceptance, lying ahead until ...  As with Ryan's first novel, The Thing About December, the bodyblow shock is kept till the end. Surprising, appalling. I found myself backtracking and changing my estimation of those involved - and Ryan's skill is shown in that, by now, these were 'people' not 'characters'.





Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult contemporary fiction



Monday, 14 May 2018

Missing by Alison Moore

review by Maryom

Alison Moore's latest little gem (less than 200 pages) follows Jessie Noon for a few weeks in winter - from late November to the start of January - as she goes about her life in the Scottish Borders town of Hawick. It's a life which feels strangely cut off and isolated, from neighbours, friends and family. For the past year she's been living alone with just a cat and a bizarrely named dog for company, after her (second) husband walked out one morning leaving a parting message in the steam on the bathroom mirror. As the story progresses, Jessie starts up a new relationship, tries to get in touch with her grown-up son, who she hasn't heard from in years, and to improve her relationship with her parents and elder sister, but something is missing. She's haunted and weighed down by a dreadful event from her past, which leaves her wandering around in a fog - able to concentrate on the tiny, mundane everyday things immediately around her but unable to see a bigger picture.

Jessie's story unfolds in two ways. As we follow her day to day (frankly quite dull) routine, Jessie slips, stream of consciousness-like, into random reminiscences brought about by the things she sees. These chapters are interspersed by sections set back in 1985, as events move relentlessly towards the tragedy which has shadowed Jessie and her family since.

The writing is wordy in the way that Moore's books often are - not in length but in playing with meanings. The power of words is central to the tale; a misunderstood instruction led to the dreadful event which plagues Jessie's life - ironic as she's a translator by trade, and spends hours, if not days, mulling over the subtle meanings of words, trying to find an exact English match for each one.
So I found myself, of course, thinking about 'missing' and all its various forms - a missing person, missing someone who's no longer in your life, missing your bus, missing your step, missing a turning, a near miss, or just missing out on life, as Jessie is. Her life has been irrevocably changed by a child going missing, and other people disappear from her life with seeming regularity, but smaller things also get lost - a jigsaw piece, items of jewellery, a jar of marmalade - and perhaps the finding of them towards the book's end marks a turning point in Jessie's life.
There's also a feel of things and people being in limbo - waiting for some dramatic revelation or event to give meaning and purpose to them. 

In part, it's a book in which little seems to happen but beneath that superficial appearance so much does. Moore's words hold the reader, building atmosphere and emotion, but then in a tender, heart-warming or -breaking moment there'll be a burst of unexpected humour to flip the mood around.
It may be short, but has plenty to get your (literary) teeth into and certainly left me with plenty to mull over.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - Adult literary fiction

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

review by Maryom

Yusuf, Selvon and Ardan have grown up together under the shadow of Stones Estate's four tower blocks - attended the same schools, played football together, hung out listening to music, the things kids and teens do. To them, ethnicity, colour, background don't matter. But around them the world feels differently. A soldier has been killed; Muslims (ALL Muslims) blamed. Tensions are mounting. Anger rising. White racist skinheads on one side; radicalised Muslims on the other; waiting to clash ...


Guy Gunaratne's debut novel is a gripping and moving portrayal of life on a run-down inner city estate, of the precarious balance between hope and despair with which its inhabitants live.
The story, set over a period of forty-eight hours, is told from a variety of viewpoints; mainly from the perspective of three teenagers - Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf - but also that of Selvon's invalid father, Nelson, and Ardan's mother, Caroline, both of whom remember similar events from the past, and give context and perspective to the current wave of violence. It's hard to believe that this is Guy Gubaratne's debut novel. He balances the various first person narratives brilliantly - each person speaking/thinking in their own way. The chapters are headed by the narrator's name but after a while you can tell who is talking by the words, the rhythm and style of their speech. Just occasionally I found the 'street' talk tricky to follow (I'm neither a Londoner nor young) but found if I just let it wash over me, as I might if someone were actually talking that way to me; the definition of every individual word didn't matter, as the over-all meaning was clear.

The three teenagers feel trapped by their environment, but react differently. Selvon is hopeful - he spends his life training - running, boxing, gym work - hoping his promise will lead to a ticket out, a university place and athletic fame. Ardan is despondent - doesn't see his way with words, his rapping and music, as a talent he can exploit, and a way to leave. Fate seems to have dealt Yusuf the worst hand - his world was once safe and secure but following the recent death of his father, he's lost and alone, feeling the new wave of Muslim radicalisation reaching out to ensnare him, and not knowing how to resist.

Their lives are all about to be derailed though by the riots ready to engulf their home. In one way it's new force - white versus Muslim - in another it's a repeat of previous incidents of racial hatred. Nelson remembers the race riots of the late 50s when a white mob attacked the newly-arrived West Indians; Caroline was sent to London, while a young woman, by her Republican family to escape the violence of the Irish Troubles. A stark warning that while ever we divide society into 'us' and 'them' such tension, with its inevitable outbreaks of violence, with continue to exist.
It's a stunning read, that gets behind the headlines of racial hatred or inner city housing issues, bringing life to the day to day struggles and pressures, showing us 'people' not 'problems'. Without questioning its 'adult fiction' tag, I'd also recommend it for older teens - the main characters are 18 year old, school-leaving age, concerned with the normal teenage things - music, football, sex - and I think it would appeal to readers of a similar age. 


Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult fiction, literary

Friday, 20 April 2018

You're Safe With Me by Chitra Soundar


illustrated by Poonam Mistry


review by Maryom


Night is falling, and the stars are beginning to shine, so it's time for the little animals to go to sleep. But this night they're troubled. Wind gusts through the trees, thunder crashes, lightning flashes - all things to upset little ones. Fortunately, Mama Elephant is there to calm their fears and reassure them "You're Safe With Me"

Any parent will have encountered those stormy nights when a child is too frightened by the noises of the weather to settle down and sleep. This story, with its wonderfully intricate illustrations, is a great one to share at such times to help lessen their fears. Mama Elephant is a loving, protective figure, who doesn't ignore or belittle the young animals fears. Instead, she soothes them by diverting their attention away from the frightening aspects of the storm, stressing the good things that wind and rain bring - distributing seeds, and watering them - and, with the repetition of "You're safe with me", instils a feeling of calm. Hopefully a feeling that the young reader will share.


Both comforting and distracting, it's the sort of book I can imagine becoming a regular bedtime read for nights when the thunder growls and lightning flashes.





Publisher - Lantana
genre - children's picture book, 4-8

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George RR Martin

illustrated by Gary Gianni 

review by Maryom

Dunk - or as he's more formally known, Ser Duncan the Tall - is a hedge knight, travelling the land seeking adventures, competing in jousting contests, maybe taking on a semi-permanent position with a lord for a few months. On his way to the tourney at Ashford, he encounters a strange, bald, skinny, stable lad, Egg, who, despite Dunk's attempts to dissuade him, insists on following along and serving as Dunk's squire. Egg isn't quite who he seems though, so, while Dunk takes on greater odds than he expected at the tourney, Egg is as vital to saving the day as Dunk's prowess with lance and sword.
Their two further adventures see the unlikely pair wandering the length and breadth of Westeros - for, you've guessed, these three novellas are set in the world of Game of Thrones, though about a hundred years earlier - when the world was a quieter, less violent place, and older folk could still remember seeing dragons. Since reading tales of King Arthur as a child, I've always been a lover of tales of chivalry and jousting knights, so I really enjoyed these stories. For a Game of Thrones fan I suspect there's a lot of background and history to be uncovered - things that previously have only been hinted at - and also I wondered if Dunk and Egg had become legendary heroes by the time of the series. Even for someone like me, who's not watched the whole TV series or read any of the books, there are still familiar names and places - Targaryens and Lannisters, Kings Landing and Winterfell - but it's not necessary to know anything about the Game of Thrones world to enjoy this book.

It's a tricky book to label - fantasy or historical. The fantasy elements are limited to dragons, in 'flashback' to events many years previous, and their precious eggs. On the other hand, while the jousting tournaments could have taken place almost anywhere in Medieval Europe, the history isn't of our world; it's true fiction. It's also tricky to recommend what age group it might be suitable for - obviously adult readers, but I'd also suggest a lot of teen readers would enjoy it. In fact, with the wonderful illustrations form Gary Gianni it would probably appeal to even younger reader - I'm just not sure whether some scenes would be suitable for them.




Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
 Adult/teen fantasy

Friday, 13 April 2018

Bone Music by Katherine Roberts


review by Maryom

Temujin is the eldest son of Yesugei the Brave, the leader of the Mongol Alliance. Guided by a prophecy, he is betrothed, while still a child, to Borta, princess of another clan; their union should create a new nation, of which Temujin would be khan. Prophecies rarely work out that simply, though, and events don't go as planned. On the journey home, Temujin's father is killed, control of the Alliance seized by another clan chief, and Temujin and his family cast out into exile. Their only ally is an orphaned boy, Jamukha, who becomes Temujin's blood brother but despite their spiritual bond, there are tensions between them as they struggle to determine which of them will claim Borta as his bride, claim leadership of the Mongol clans, and fulfil the prophecy to become Genghis Khan.

You've probably heard, at least vaguely, of Genghis Khan - a Mongol chief who united all the clans behind him and established an empire stretching across Asia and into China (whether he actually 'totally ravaged China" as claimed in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure might be a bit less certain), But even a terrible warlord like Genghis Khan had to have been young once, and this is the story, based on the 13th century text, The Secret History of the Mongols, of the boy he was, before he was 'khan'.
This is an absolutely gripping read, bringing a perhaps sketchily known period of history vividly to life. The story is told in three parts, each following the thoughts and actions of one of the main characters, and told from their point of view, so the reader sees events unfold from each perspective, giving a different slant to them. I had a slight difficulty here, in relating the different narratives to each other, so quickly skimmed back to set things straight in my mind; the rest of it I loved. There'a real 'feel' for the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols, and it's easy to picture their encampments with banners flying, huddling under furs inside their yurts to keep warm, or the shamans working their magic and playing their 'violins' made from animal skulls. Although you might dismiss shaman magic as mere fantasy, it fits within the context of the story in a way that makes it totally believable. Against this 'alien' backdrop, a story plays out that any of us could relate to - one of love, jealousy, and treachery. 

It's an excellent read, whether you're interested in the historical aspect, or just looking for something a little like Game of Thrones, but less violent. Age-rating is perhaps a tricky issue; the main characters are young, teenagers at most, and while there's violence and sex neither is too graphic, so I'd say 13 or 14 plus. 

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - The Greystones Press 
 
Genre - teen historical fiction