Beneath the Rising – Premee Mohamed

There are a lot of things to be frustrated by at the moment. Not being able to see friends and family, being off work, worrying about health (obviously) and finances – it’s a very stressful time. So, the thing that’s annoying me at the minute is, really, just a minor thing – I’m more peeved than annoyed – but it is real. I’m worried for the status of novels set in a good post-apocalypse. When the streets are as deserted as the scene of I Am Legend (well, some of the scenes, there aren’t many zombies in West Yorkshire) do we need fiction to give us chills? For some people the answer is yes but, at the moment, we’re not shouting about it too much. If you are one of those people, you might enjoy Beneath the Rising…

52806923._SX318_SY475_Nick Prasad first met Johnny Chambers (Joanna to her more traditional relatives) when they were very young children. They bonded when they were the only two survivors of a terrible mass shooting but, other than that, they should have little in common. Johnny is from a rich, white family, made even more wealthy by the inventions, cures and patents her brilliant minds can’t seem to help but develop. Nick is from a poor single parent family of South Asian descent and, as well as his school work, has a part-time job to help his mother care for his beloved younger siblings. He’s bright but always feels like a bit of a fool in the face of Johnny’s genius. He’s quietly and secretly in love with her. Sadly, in a slightly alternate reality where Johnny has devised cures for AIDS, cancers and hunger the atrocities of 9/11 have just occurred (making life even harder for Nick).

The main plot begins with Johnny summoning Nick (as usual, after she has been out of touch for months and expecting him to come running) to see her latest invention: a small box which produces clean, virtually cost-free energy. But, by the time Nick reaches her – and she has explained her invention, I didn’t really understand all the science stuff, but it sounded pretty impressive and just plausible enough – it turns out that the power she has released has attracted the interest of Ancient Ones. Dark, evil Ancient Ones who have been trying to subjugate humanity for millennia and will not relent until they do…Nick and Johnny race against time and battle both forces of darkness and the agents of various mysterious organisations in an effort to prevent the end of the world. And, like many teenaged friends, they do it with black humour, in-jokes and the odd burst of temper. As their adventures go on it seems that both are keeping secrets – but is Nick’s unrequited love really such a big deal in the face of what Johnny has been keeping from him?

Yes, the end of the world as we know it looms. But it looms with a breakneck pace and an undercurrent of youthful emotion, with terrifyingly monstrous beings and wise-cracking dialogue. Great fun and it may just take your mind off what’s outside our own doors…

Jane

 

My Dark Vanessa – Kate Elizabeth Russell

Are there subjects which shouldn’t be a matter for fiction? Recently we featured a title as one of our Books of the Month which caused a lot of controversy – although the book was critically acclaimed and had been a word-of-mouth bestseller, with booksellers doing much of the word-of-mouthing, it was felt by many to be a difficult choice because it dealt with familial child abuse, told from the point of view of the child. A good book, well-written, but not an easy read or one that can be recommended to customers without a lot of careful thought. This book, Russell’s first novel, looks to be similar: a fabulous book but one which may be too difficult a read for some.

46186137._SY475_Vanessa Wye is a young woman, in her early 30s, living a chaotic life. She has a job, as a concierge in a decent hotel, a place to live and is getting by – but she has troubled relationships with men, with her mother and with drink and drugs. Getting by isn’t enough. From the very beginning, when Vanessa tells us that her first love, her first sexual experience, was her 40+ year old teacher, we feel pretty sure we know what the problem is. This is, in our minds, abuse and Vanessa has been scarred by this man’s predatory actions – she is even, as we first meet her, on the side of Jacob Strane (the teacher in question) in a current case where he is being accused of historical abuse by another former pupil at the school. The story progresses both in current time and in flashbacks to the original relationship and we begin to see that things aren’t that simple. Vanessa was quite a singular child and, although this could have been what led Strane to believe he could manipulate her (because that is, demonstrably, what happened) it also means that she always felt as if the relationship were her choice. He was persuasive more than coercive and she honestly feels that she made her own choices.

This book is written by a woman with her own experiences of the issues involved so I feel that her viewpoint is one we should listen to. It wasn’t comfortable to read – I feel as if I spent a fair bit of time wanting to shout at Vanessa – but it does give insight into both how abusers choose and groom their victims and the idea of victimhood. Even at the end Vanessa is able to see Strane as a victim himself and herself as a person who made her own decisions about her sexuality – we may not agree with her but it seemed important to me to hear what she is saying.

Jane

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow – Natasha Pulley

I’m an optimist. I think I always have been (an ex used to regularly refer to me as Pollyanna – I took it as a compliment) and it will take a lot to stop me looking for a bright side. At the moment by bright sides are: my garden, which I’m very lucky to have and it may get the attention it deserves this year, my health, which continues to be robust and the glorious weather. I’ve been having my lunch and cups of tea outside in the sunshine and am off for my Government Authorised Walk (GAW, I had a GAR yesterday…) when Rob gets back from Working From Home upstairs – I’d have plenty to be glad about even if I didn’t have lots of books lined up to read. What you may (or may not) be glad about is that I now have plenty of time to get my reviews and blog posts written too. And so, it begins…

35658977Natasha Pulley seems to be making a habit of writing lush, densely plotted books with a blend of history, mystical happenings and complex relationships. Oddly, I haven’t (yet) read The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, the book which first introduced us to Thaniel Steepleton and Keita Mori but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this book. Thaniel works for the Foreign Office as a translator and lives with Six, a child rescued from the workhouse who thinks him as a parent, and, when he isn’t on his mysterious travels, Mori. The three have, to me, a beautiful relationship – tender, protective and loyal – but they also have secrets. When Thaniel accepts a job in Japan he and Six are reunited with Mori – although the relationship is changed by his elevated status in a very hierarchical Japanese society – and, it is to be hoped, he will escape the London smogs which are damaging his health. The job, however, is very odd – the British legation is struggling to keep their local staff because their building is, it seems, haunted and Thaniel also discovers that he has to deal with Takiko Pepperharrow – Mori’s wife…

This is a richly written and complicated novel which, if you forced me, I would categorise as magical realism. With a bit of alternate history thrown in. Fascinating characters and a plot that just keeps getting more and more twisted until it, suddenly, begins to make sense. A perfect piece of escapism. Which seems like a good idea right now.

Jane

A spot of wrong-doing to while away the stuck-at-home blues…

It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that dark nights and terrible weather send readers towards the crime shelves. Not so much for the cosier stuff but for the blood-soaked, slightly warped ones – there is nothing like reading about wicked deeds and twisted minds when the rain is lashing at your windows and you know the storms by name. I’m not immune to this, so while the storms raged I was checking out a couple of recent crime novels. Now the sun is shining but we’re all doing social distancing I’m determined to make time to tell you what I thought of them…

The Guest List – Lucy Foley

9780008297169A twist on the old ‘locked room mystery’ this book features a body found on an island cut off from the mainland during a huge storm. The majority of people on the island, off the coast of Ireland, are there for a rather exclusive, celebrity wedding and we move back and forth – from the discovery of the body back to the arrival of the wedding party. Chapters are told from the point of view of the bride, the best man, the bridesmaid, the wife of the bride’s best friend and the wedding planner. Oh, yes, and the body too…..The bride is the perfectionist editor of a hugely successful online magazine and the groom the star of a Bear Grylls-style tv show called Survival but it seems they are not as loved as they think they are. From bride Jules’ complicated relationship with her oldest and best friend Charlie to the bullying and sense of entitlement of groom Will’s schooldays there are dark undercurrents a-flowing. A great bit of escapism and could be perfect for fans of reality tv and celebrity blogs: how the privileged go wrong…

The Memory Wood – Sam Lloyd

9781787631847More darkness but this time in the form of a psychological thriller with more than an echo of Room. A young girl, Elissa, a bit of a loner and a formidable chess-player, is kidnapped and finds herself in a dark, underground cell. Elijah is twelve and lives a lonely life on the edge of Memory Wood and discovers where Elissa is being held. But instead of letting her go free he befriends her – afraid of the consequences of thwarting her captor, perhaps – and she must use all her tactical skills to convince him that he must help her to escape. But will his loneliness override his urge to do the right thing?

This was a really gripping read and I didn’t see the twist (for twist there is!) coming for ages. I particularly enjoyed the fact that is was a very British setting (for some reason when I started it I assumed it was set in the States so that was a pleasant surprise…). Give this a try if you want something suspenseful but really can’t face anything apocalyptic.

The Lantern Men – Elly Griffiths

Another series I’ve started at the end – this is becoming a bit of a speciality! And this one is twelve books in too…

9781787477537Ruth Galloway, for the previous eleven books, was a police forensic archaeologist but she has now changed her life. She’s moved from Norfolk to Cambridge, has a new partner and is working in academia: things are calmer, safer, maybe even a little boring. This doesn’t last, however, when a man convicted of murdering two women says he will reveal where the bodies of four more victims are – but only if Ruth is in charge of the dig. This brings her back to her old haunts, back into contact with old flame DCI Nelson and into danger. It also brings them both into contact with a local legend, that of the Lantern Men who are said to use lights out on the lonely fens to lure travellers to their deaths. I was on the edge of my seat as I discovered whether Ruth was being led into danger herself, and whether Nelson would be able to keep her safe. If I’m stuck indoors for the next twelve weeks I could do a lot worse than go back and explore Ruth and Nelson’s story from the very beginning…

Jane

One Moment – Linda Green

I promise this is the last one. The last post with a little frisson of politics. Probably. Anyway, this one is a review of a book by another local author, Linda Green, who always seems to manage to combine a great story with something really interesting. The last one I read looked at painful memories and how we protect our children – this time the story has characters who are dealing with mental health problems, loss and the Universal Credit system and yet still manages to tell a moving, realistic and, at times, uplifting story. This woman is good…..

43241094._UY2460_SS2460_The two main characters in this story are Finn, who is ten, likes plants more than most people, idolises Alan Titchmarsh and will only eat in establishments with a five-star hygiene rating and Kaz, fifty-nine, who is outspoken, warm-hearted, and works in a cafe with, well, fewer than five stars… The two meet for the first time when Finn’s Mum takes him into that cafe and both their lives are drastically changed soon after. When they meet for the second time it is in terrible, terrible circumstances but this odd couple somehow form a bond which, you hope, will be the saving of both of them.

I really loved this book. Not just because it is set in Halifax (a town I walk or run to about once a week when it isn’t storm season….) but also because Linda has given us another set of fabulously real characters. Finn is what my Mum would call an old-fashioned boy, chatty and intelligent but also anxious and vulnerable and it is always heart-rending to see such a young child suffer. Kaz, though, is my favourite. We are fairly close in age and, on the surface, we don’t have much else in common – not family background, education or lifestyles – but I could really empathise with her situation. Even through her own struggles (with her brother, who has schizophrenia, and with the Department for Work and Pensions and the seeming impossibility of dealing with Universal Credit claims) she is able to offer support to Finn. I sort of look for her whenever I am on my way into Halifax – she is so realistically drawn, I’m sure I’ll recognise her when I see her. The situation she finds herself in makes me angry and upset – because I know it is drawn from life – but I think that when I meet her she’ll make me smile (and serve up a great cup of tea).

Jane.

 

The Foundling – Stacey Halls

On our recent trip down to That London we saw exhibitions on the ancient city of Troy and on Tutankhamun, wandered around various parks (seeing some Horseguards in training getting told off for muttering and eyerolling, the original site of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and various floral signs of approaching spring) and caught up with friends. What we didn’t get around to doing was to visit the Foundling Museum – even though we usually stay in that particular part of London we’ve not made it there yet – and I am regularly being recommended to go. After reading Stacey Halls’ excellent novel featuring the Foundling Hospital I will certainly make it a priority on our next visit.

9781838770068Bess Bright leaves her new-born baby at the Foundling Hospital – she is heartbroken but knows that she can’t work to help support her family with a baby. She will reveal nothing about the father except the fact that he is dead. Six years later she has saved the money she needs to reclaim her daughter – not easy when you are earning your living selling fish on the streets – but when she returns to the Foundling Hospital she finds that her baby has already been taken. To add to her distress she is told that the child was claimed by her, Bess Bright, only one day after she was originally left and that the correct token (left by mothers in case they come back for their child) was shown. The story then switches to that of a young widow who only leaves her home once a week to attend services at the church attached to the Foundling Hospital – her small daughter’s life is equally restricted until a family friend persuades her to engage a nursemaid.

Although I think the web of relationships is quickly quite clear to the reader – we see both women’s stories where they are only really aware of their own – the way that the plot progresses is gripping. We are mostly concerned with Bess and her determination to find her child but Alexandra, the widow, is a complex character and much of the interest lies in discovering her strange and very unhappy past. I think if Bess had found her daughter living in a warm and happy home she may have acted differently but when faced with such a strange and joyless household – no matter how rich – she is set upon taking her away and giving her the one thing money can’t buy: a mother’s love.

Jane.

For the love of children’s books…

Here’s a catch-up of the children’s books I have been reading in the last few weeks (because the February half term always means a nice bunch of new releases in time for the holidays….)

A Sprinkle of Sorcery – Michelle Harrison

9781471183867Tales of magic and mystery blended with family trials and triumphs are always popular and they are the type of story Michelle Harrison excels at. This is her second book featuring the Widdershins sisters – Fliss, Betty and Charlie – and, since they lifted the family curse in the first they might be expecting to be having an easier life. But Crowstone, the prison island, is rarely an idyll and things have got so hard they are even thinking of selling the Poacher’s Pocket (the run-down inn they live in). Then one night, during another prison escape alarm, a young girl appears at the inn – bedraggled and alone except for an eerie will-o-the-wisp – and they are thrown into a new adventure. Young Charlie is abducted, Granny (a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed delight) is thrown in the cells so Fliss and Betty, with the mysterious Willow, have to set out to rescue her. This venture involves a folktale about a blind witch, a raven and a hidden island, a magical hag-stone, many many more will-o-the-wisps (which are very dangerous despite their lack of substance) and pirates. Great characters, an interesting plot, lots of humour and did I mention the pirates? Everything is better with pirates…

Great for adventurous girls (or boys) from 8 up or anyone who loves magic, folktales and pirates.

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Missing Diamonds – Annabelle Sami

9781788952064No pirates in this story but it is so full of other adventures that doesn’t seem to matter too much. Zaiba and her family are all at a big, posh hotel to celebrate one of her favourite cousin’s pre-wedding Mehndi party. Although she loves her cousin Samirah (much more then she does her other cousin, mean Mariam) she would rather be reading her favourite book – Eden Lockett’s Detective Handbook. She would love to be a real detective like both the fictional Eden Lockett and her Aunt Fouzia but opportunities like that don’t turn up too often. Or do they? Every other good hotel in the area has suffered some kind of disaster so The Grand Royal Star hotel is hosting not only the Mehndi but also an event for a famous pop star – when the star’s little dog (and its diamond-laden collar) goes missing Zaiba leaps into action aided by her best friend Polly and her annoying but brilliantly clever younger brother Ali. Does she have what it takes to solve the mystery?

An excellent book for youngsters who love working out who-dunnit – those who regularly attend Mehndi parties will enjoy seeing themselves in the story and those who don’t will be keen to give one a go.

Planet Omar: Unexpected Super Spy – Zanib Mian

9781444951271Omar and his friends also have a mystery to solve. They have decided to save their pocket money so that they can all get super-duper Nerf Blasters and have an amazing nerf battle – and why wouldn’t they? It sounds like the best fun! But then Omar finds out that the mosque which his family attends needs to raise money or it will have to close so he decides that he will donate his savings instead. His friends, loyal to a man, want to help too so they convince their school to hold a fund-raising talent show (with raffle, cake stall and the rest) – everything goes really well, with loads of money raised, but then the cash goes missing! Now they must find out where the money has gone before it’s too late….

Aimed a little younger than the previous two (7+) this will appeal to boys and girls who appreciate a story with mild amounts of peril but lots of kindness, humour and family support and love.

Where The World Turns Wild – Nicola Penfold

9781788951524Juniper Green and her little brother Bear live in a city which is walled off from nature because of tick-borne disease which has killed off huge portions of the population. For the last five decades people have hidden away from the Wild but you can barely call it ‘living’ – no plants, no animals or birds, bad air, poor food and a regime, under the grip of Portia Steele, which can only be called repressive. When Juniper discovers that she and Bear are destined to be used as guinea pigs – they were born in the Wild, as the world outside the city is known, and are immune to the disease – she realises they have to escape. They decide to try and find their parents – still living in the Wild when last heard of – but soon discover that disease is not the only danger that awaits them.

This is a great dystopian novel for children of ten upwards. Not quite The Hunger Games but a thoughtful and exciting glimpse of the world we may be preparing for the younger generation.

Jane