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Review: Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias

DfekKqhWsAAzJ7nIt’s lovely when you discover a new book by accident rather than hype. In this case, Tracey is a regular customer with excellent taste in YA novels. And has written one I have proudly added to our shelves – and so should you!

Set in the very near future, England is a place of totalitarianism and suspicion. It is ruled by The Party, a far-right version of the worst of any right-leaning existing political groups, who have clamped down on anyone not ‘BB’ (British Born). There is an underlying atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust in every area of life from school to work, on public transport and online.

Think Nineteen Eighty Four with teenagers. But much more believable. And terrifying.

There’s Ash, a teen obsessed with calculating the passage of time in seconds, mourning the unexpected death of his sister Sophie. And Zara, homeschooled and under the radar, never without her copies of The Four Quartets and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  Their paths cross during a blackout on the Underground in Camden but their stories are already linked via Ash’s sister Sophie. A chance meeting, a tragic death, dangerous secrets, unknowing betrayal all conflate for this potentially doomed couple. Yes, it’s a love story which nicely lightens the oppressive political tension. The romance is slowly built up, contrasting with a few fast-paced ‘cat and mouse’ sequences with real tension and peril. The teenage protagonists are likeable and believable; they are neither idealised or outrageously flawed. Similarly, parents are both flawed and heroic. (I particularly liked Ash’s dad’s flash new car always referred to as ‘The Mid-Life Crisis’)

What is Zara’s secret? How will Ash react? What happened to Sophie on the night of the party? Will The Party find them?

This is certainly a novel for now, for a society which fears the ‘other’ and seeks to close borders rather than welcome other human beings into a civilised, humane society. At times, the story felt too real; the draconian regime was personal and very, very menacing.

(As an aside, I particularly liked the tying in of Eliot’s The Four Quartets, both his magnificent, mysterious poetry and the setting of Little Gidding. Ironic that we often think of Eliot as a very ‘English’ establishment poet, yet he was an American immigrant, ‘taking’ a respectable publishing job from a BB. My MA thesis was based around 4Q, yet I still cannot say I understand these epic poems; well done to Zara for making some sense of them!)

An excellent read for anyone over the age of, say, twelve; it’s certainly not ‘just’ a YA novel.

Read it – that’s The Party line.

 

Thanks to Scholastic, and to Tracey for a signed, hand delivered copy (and, of course, for writing this story). Looking forward to more YA chats at Waterstones Finchley Road O2…

ISBN 9781407188003

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Posted by on 02/07/2018 in review

 

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On (Not) Chick Lit – Summer Reads

In my younger, more foolish years, I was a bit of a book snob. I wouldn’t want to be seen to read anything too populist.

Then I had kids and got over myself. I realised that it’s not just literary style and, dare I say it, a dash of pretentiousness, that makes a ‘good read’. There’s got to be plot to keep you turning the pages, characters you can relate to in some way and are invested in their lives, and a mixture of light and shade, humour and pathos.

And so I stopped being a book snob, and learnt to love good writing, good stories and good books. Regardless of their pastel coloured covers and looped faux-handwritten titles.

Just as my tastes have broadened, so have book jacket designers. ‘Contemporary women’s fiction’ comes in many guises.

Three titles I’ve read recently, in a break from children’s fiction, are certainly worth reading, and come with my recommendation.

Never Greener – Ruth Jones

(ISBN 9780593078068  publiNever Greenershed in hardback April 2018; I had a proof copy)

As you would expect from a writer and actor who came up with Gavin and Stacy, and Stella, there are well-realised, funny and flawed characters aplenty. In essence, tit’s the story of Callum and Kate. They first meet on a shift at Callum’s brother’s pub in 1985. Despite their decades large age gap (and the not insignificant that Callum’s wife is pregnant with his third child), they get together and conduct a secret affair. Twenty years later, their paths cross again. How do they react? Is anything rekindled? Is the grass greener on the other side?

This is an excellent debut; Ruth Jones’ experience in screenwriting certainly shows. The domestic details, conversations, and the dramatic tension are all handled confidently.

I look forward to another novel; much more than ‘just’ a celebrity novel, the beginning of a good writing career ahead is possible.

Expect plenty of media coverage too…

 

How Do You Like Me Now?: – Holly Bourne

(ISBN     published in hardback June 2018; lovely proof from Hodder)

This is Holly’s debut ‘adult’ novel, having already published a range of YA novels. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Another book about existential angst at reaching the grand old age of 30? (I’m a decade ahead of that; I was giving birth the eve I turned 30 – best birthday present, ever! Any existential angst was overtaken with actual pain)

Although the main subject is reaching one’s thirties and wondering ‘how did I end up here? And with him?! Is this as good as it gets?’, I was engaged and amused by the ups and downs of Tori’s life.

Tori Bailey published a successful self-help style book, is a popular and engaging speaker, has been with Tom for years and years, has a great group of friends. What more could she want?

Well, her second book, a commitment from Tom, and – perhaps – the patter of tiny feet. Oh, and a sense of what comes next now she’s officially ‘a grown up’.

Tori is engaging, honest, funny and sweary; like your new best friend. This is a very contemporary book (Facebook updates, Instagram likes and preparing for a TED talk feature heavily) so it will be interesting to see how this book ages.

I really enjoyed it. I am immensely grateful for the apparent stability in my own life (married, two kids, part time job, not obsessed with Instagram likes), but know that this will strike a nerve with many twenty-something readers this summer.

(thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the advanced proof)

The Cows – Dawn O’Porter

(ISBN 9780008126063 published paperback March 2018; I BOUGHT a copy!)

Admittedly, I haven’t read Dawn’s YA novels, but I know her ‘off of the telly’. My initial thought was, oh now, not another book about a group of female friends, dealing with ‘issues’. But it’s so much more than that. And VERY good.

The Cows (Paperback)Three modern women, making important decisions about their own lives.Cam is a popular blogger; Tara is a tv documentary maker; Stella is a PA. All are successful; all make a misguided decision with consequences. They’re not friends initially although their lives begin to intertwine. They’re all women upon whom society judges, through their decisions, actions, attitudes. Why does society judge women like this? Why are men not subjected to the same unrelenting scrutiny? Why are there double standards?

This is another book which is a cut above the run-of-the-mill books about women’s relationships. It is about relationships of all types, but also about society’s relationship to women; what society appears to expect and the judgement which comes when an unexpected decision is made.

It’s also funny, touching and heartfelt. I came to like all three central characters, and was invested in their stories. I gasped aloud at one moment! Definitely a book which stands out from the herd – not just because of the excellent cover design. Recommended.

 

And so, I have learnt not to be such a snob. It takes great skill to create characters a reader cares about. And to get them to do things readers find interesting, make decisions which really matter, have conversations which are believable and not just plot devices. These three combine humour with literary skill, good plot development with believable characters. All three are highly recommended in the sunshine with a g’n’t this summer!

 
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Posted by on 07/05/2018 in review

 

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On the future of ‘cosy crime’

I love a good detective novel. The so-called ‘cosy crime’ full of eccentrics, country houses and a puzzle to be solved in a twisty, convoluted way. Not for me the violence and gore of some ‘gritty’ police procedurals.

But they can become a bit ‘samey’, a tired format.

Magpie Murders (Paperback)

Enter Anthony Horowitz and Stu Turton, both of whom have published excellent reinventions of the ‘cosy crime’ novel in the past year.

Anthony Horowitz’ Magpie Murders is a knowing subversion of the genre. Its set up is that an editor receives the latest manuscript of their best-selling and long established author, Atticus Pund. She settles down to read it, and so do we. It’s a standard English village murder, seemingly impossible, with virtually every resident with a motive and opportunity. It’s a good read and I invested in the puzzle. There’s a body, motives, a puzzle, a village full of  interesting characters, and a Poirot-style private detective complete with sidekick to put the puzzle pieces together.

And then the twist: it’s actually a story within a story, the manuscript is incomplete.  This is where Horowitz shows his skill, having pulled off an act of mimicry of John Conway’s Atticus Pund novel, he inserts another complex layer to the mystery.  Why is the manuscript unfinished? What happened to John Conway? Are there clues in the manuscript? Can the editor, Susan, take on the mantle of detective? The book is an excellent satisfying layered mystery told at a good pace. There are plenty of red herrings and unexpected twists – and a body dropped from a great height (so much for not liking gore) – but much to keep a crime fan satisfied.

Stu Turton’s debut, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, is also a subversion of the country house murder mystery, but in a different way.

Image result for seven deaths evelyn hardcastle

The narrator wakes up, having been knocked unconscious, to find himself in the grounds of a country house, covered in blood, desperately searching for ‘Anna’. Who is he? Where is he? Who is Anna? Why is he given a compass? Some of these questions are resolved quickly: he is Sebastian Bell, a young doctor with a dark secret, staying at Ravencroft Hall for the welcome back party for the Hardcastle family’s daughter, Evelyn. But it’s not that simple. The terrifying figure dressed in a plague doctor costume and the knife-wielding Footman are forbidding presences who gradually reveal the cleverness of this story. Sebastian is actually Aiden [sic] Bishop who has to solve the titular murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. The day is to be repeated from the perspective of different members of the household; Aiden inhabits eight different ‘hosts’ in order to solve the murder and be released from the cycle. Add to this complex mix, two rivals and the dawning suspicion that Aiden’s hosts are taking over his own character, and you end up with a very enjoyable, twist-filled mystery.

The publishers, Raven Books who are a new imprint of Bloomsbury, describe this as ‘Quantum Leap meets Agatha Christie’. It’s a classic mystery with a supernatural edge. An excellent, involving read. There are chances to get confused amongst the many twists and turns throughout the 500 or so pages, but it’s a very entertaining, enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

So, the ‘cosy crime’ genre is certainly not dead; Christie’s legacy lives on but with meta-narratives and subversions aplenty. Now, did I leave my bit of lead piping in the Drawing Room or the Library…?

 

Magpie Murders ISBN: 9781409158387 (paperback)

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle ISBN: 9781408889565 (hardback)

 
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Posted by on 03/05/2018 in review

 

Review: The Infinite Lives of Maisy Day

Review: The Infinite Lives of Maisy Day

Like the TARDIS, this book for ‘middle grade’ readers is much larger on the inside than it’s external appearance suggests. It’s a surprisingly affecting story of a girl, her birthday party, quantum physics and sisterly loveThe-Infinite-Lives-of-Maisie-Day-355593-1-456x701.

It’s the morning of Maisie’s tenth birthday. She’s looking forward to a family party in the garden and presents of the constituent parts of a nuclear reactor (if you’re wondering these would be: a backward wave oscillator, a hydrogen generator and fifty tubes of kitchen foil). In many ways, Maisie is an ‘ordinary’ ten year old, with a surly teenage sister, slightly embarrassing parents and the burning desire to be allowed to walk down to the shops by herself.

Maisie’s birthday morning dawns with sunshine and the promise of her dad’s legendary banana pancakes. Maisie narrates her story with humour and a scientific perspective. Although she’s not autistic, Maisie is intellectually gifted and already studying for her BSc in Maths and Physics at the Open University with a tutor.

But there are two parallel narratives; one in which ‘normal’ events happen, the other which unfolds into a nightmare black hole – quite literally!

Will Maisie be sucked into a black hole? Where has everyone gone? Will her father manage to erect the birthday gazebo? What’s sister Lily’s big secret? What, in fact, is reality…?

At only 155 pages long, this novel packs a hefty emotional punch. Although I read it in its entirety in my lunch break, Maisie’s story has stayed with me. I am urging my son to read it over the Easter break, and look forward to displaying it at work on publication. It has also prompted me to try again to pick up Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time… Not many ‘children’s books’ can do that, AND tug at my heart strings.

An excellent read from Christopher Edge, with chapter illustrations by Matt Saunders, produced by the lovely folks at Nosy Crow. Read it!

ISBN 9781788000291 published April 2018

 
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Posted by on 29/03/2018 in review

 

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Review: Truly Devious

This was an unexpectedly enjoyable YA novel.

29589074._UY630_SR1200,630_

It’s not a debut, and it shows. It is confident and engaging. I initially thought it might be a variant on the superhero school or teens-with-powers genre. But it’s not, to my delight.

Ellingham Academy is a private – but free – school unlike any other. It was founded by eccentric tycoon, Albert Ellingham, whose aim was to educate particularly gifted children, to make a place ‘where learning is a game’. It’s an amazing place in the Vermont mountains, in cleared grounds full of statues, its own lake and observatory, experimental labs, a ballroom, and hidden passages.

 

It also holds the secret to a tragic mystery.

Stevie Bell is obsessed with solving crimes; the Ellingham case is her particular obsession. Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter went missing one April night in 1936. They were held to ransom by an villain known only as ‘Truly Devious’; a kidnapper who wrote the ransom note in magazine clippings and an annoying rhyme. The case ended tragically and with a conviction, but Stevie has never found this conclusion satisfactory.

 

Stevie is – unexpectedly – offered a place based on her potential crime-solving abilities. Coming from a boring and slightly embarrassing background, she feels out of place and isolated, but thrilled to be in the actual buildings -and tunnels – where her ‘pet murder’ took place.

 

Can Stevie solve the mystery more than eighty years on? Is Truly Devious still on the case? Will Stevie make friends? Will Stevie survive the first year?

 

I enjoyed this unusual YA read. Stevie was good company and Maureen Johnson has created a believably eccentric school with an intriguing back story. The split-time narrative worked well and hooked this reader into the story. The cast of characters was varied but not confusing. This book is the perfect segeway between Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike and Agatha Christie, but in a contemporary setting.

 

However, the ending was unsatisfying – until I found out there is another part – Truly Devious Two – which I hope will go even further to solving the Ellingham Case. I look foward to meeting Stevie and her friends again  -soon, please!

 

Thanks to Harper Collins for the advanced reading copy. Out now!

 
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Posted by on 25/03/2018 in review

 

Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

mermaid

What a tale! Most definitely a grown up story and all the better for it.

While reading it, I was reminded of Georgette Heyer’s Regency London, but one which shows more of the shaved, itching head under the powdered wig.

Set in London and its environs from 1785, it’s a tale of mermaids and courtesans, fortune and poverty, love and lust.

Jonah Hancock is a shipping merchant; staid, widowed, slightly shabby but just about managing; a middling, average, unremarkable man.  He’s plodding his way through life following the death of his wife and infant son, living in the same house he was born in with his young niece, Sukie.  Everything is transformed when his ship’s captain brings back a mermaid. Wizened and hideous, it’s not the beauty everyone expects,  but it’s still a mysterious bewitching creature. Oh, and it’s dead.

As well as a mermaid, Jonah meets Angelica Neal – one of the most notorious courtesans of the Ton. She posed for Reynolds, entertained the most eligible men, and knew exactly how to please her admirers. But she has been abandoned by her latest lover, left only with her companion, Eliza Frost.

Their paths cross and become entwined to the surprise of Angelica’s erstwhile madam, the ironically named Mrs Chappell. (As an aside, I noticed that all the women in Mrs Chappell’s ‘nunnery’ are referred to as ‘Mrs’; perhaps an honorary title, similar to that of a housekeeper in later decades, but with added services – less housework more ‘whore-work’?! Just a thought…)

Another mermaid is found, and the story becomes a little fantastical. I didn’t mind this element of mystical whimsy as I’d become as invested in the story of Jonah and Angelica as they had with each other; as entangled as a woman’s ribbons might become in her stays if removed too hastily in the heat of passion.

This is an immersive read. At times, it reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in the amount of detail provided for the minutiae of daily life in a long-ago age. The reader can see, taste, hear, smell and feel all the fabrics, interiors, cobbled streets, docklands, whore houses, coffee houses of the London of 1780s. The authors experience working in museums evidently put to good use as she vividly evokes daily life via the things needed to live in a Regency city.

It should be pointed out that there is an eye-raising scene in ‘the nunnery’ as a lavish, sensual show is performed by ‘sailors and mermaids’ for the obvious delight and titillation of society’s gentlemen. It’s not for the faint-hearted but it’s pivotal to the plot and perfectly encapsulates the excess and licentiousness of the age in that part of society.

It struck me while I was reading, that all the characters are questing to improve their lot in life, perhaps by fortune, discovery, a suitable match, or gainful employment.  Everyone wants to be elsewhere.  The presence of the second mermaid – a much more ethereal creature – unsettles the balance. Rather than looking upwards and outwards, those who encounter her start to look inwards and downwards, sinking into miasma. Perhaps the mermaid’s former freedom in the ocean and fluidity of her movements reminds us of our restrictive, gravitised lives in human society.

It also explores women in captivity, in its loosest sense. This novel is full of women but they’re all constrained: in their position in society, in their clothes, in what they can say. The uncaught mermaid is free; perhaps that’s an element of her attraction.

I loved the frequent and delightful use of contemporary expressions and terminology. I neglected to make a note as I went along, but those that stick in my memory are the insistence by one of the madams on the use of ‘cundums’ and a most memorable scene involving the use and emptying of a ‘bordalone’ (to all intents and purposes a Regency ‘she-wee’!).

This is truly sumptuous writing; a sensual delight created by mere words on a page. It’s a truly immersive read and comes highly recommended. Dive in!

 

ISBN 9781911215721 (hardback, February 2018)

 
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Posted by on 01/03/2018 in review

 

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Review: The Peculiars by Kieran Larwood

Fancy reading a story about a Victorian freakshow?

Want a tale of hair-raising adventure, a smattering of steam-punk inventions, a break-in to The Crystal Palace, a quick look at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (in the dark), get your hands on Faraday’s machine and even see the Ko-i-Nor diamond?

Well, you’ll find all that in Kieran Larwood’s debut novel (now republished), with added friendship, escapades and dung pellets.

This is the story of Sheba, a ‘wolf-girl’ who is part of Grunchgirdle’s very small, shabby travelling freakshow.

‘Everyone said she had a lovely head of hair.

And face of hair. And hands of hair.

In fact, she was covered from head to foot.’

Sheba is ‘exceptional’, with excellent olfactory skills, a talent for lock picking, and is literate. But the only qualities people see are her wolf-like appearances.

She is sold by Grunchgirdle to the equally descriptively named Plumpscuttle for his (slightly) larger freakshow. Sheba joins his caravan to London – the sprawling, stinking Metropolis – where they sit each night to be gawped at by paying customers.

Sheba joins the ‘cast’ including Monkeyboy, Gigantus, the ninja warrior Sister Moon and Mama Rat. She is accepted into ‘The Peculiars’ with affection and appreciation,

9781911490210finding a sort of family for the first time in her life. The team might appear terrifying or unusual on the surface, but prove to be big-hearted, sensitive and brave friends.

When ‘Mudlarks’ begin to disappear, The Peculiars investigate. They are pursued by an evil woman and her devious accomplices, leading to the thrilling adventures mentioned above.

You can even read a little of the work of Famous Lady Novelist, Gertrude Lacygusset!

There is genuine peril within. I found myself worrying about the characters, racing through the final chapters as the team solved the mystery and foiled the ‘baddies’.

Another excellent book from Chicken House publishers. Although not actually a new book – it’s a reissue from 2012, originally titled The Freaks – it’s a great read. And the new cover by Karl James Mountford is gorgeous!

Recommended for confident readers from eight upwards. Thrilling!

ISBN 9781911490210

 
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Posted by on 18/02/2018 in review

 

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