Is it all in the hair?

Now bear with me here. I recently read two books which seemed, at first glance, to be very different. The first was a collection of short stories by a very famous Canadian novelist and poet: the second was a first novel, set in 15th Century Constantinople, by a tv archaeologist. My subconscious wanted me to do a joint review of the two – but why?

And then it struck me (on a long car journey after a weekend of folk music and wine – this isn’t important but may explain my state of mind) that they were both writing speculative fiction and they both had really interesting hair. hair 1 hair 2 Maybe, just maybe, there is some kind of literary Sampson-like quality going on here…

Anyway, I digress…

master of shadowsLet’s start with Neil Oliver – he has written a number of books in connection with his tv programmes, on various historical and archaeological subjects but Master of Shadows is his first novel. Set in Scotland, Galicia and Constantinople in the 15th Century it is clearly playing to Oliver’s strengths (I’ll admit, I was reading it in his accent in my head…) and he deals with the history as well as I would expect of him. You certainly get the sense of the sounds, smells and sights of the Medieval world and lots of action to boot. My only real quibble with the whole book was that every time the main character, John Grant, was referred to it was by his whole name. I’m sure there was a good reason for this but it was lost on me.

I’m not going to give you the reason why I would class this book as speculative fiction – of the ‘alternate history’ genre – since that would be an enormous spoiler but it is enough of a twist to make this book have appeal beyond the purely historical. The history, however, is well enough researched not to make a historian twitch.

Margaret Atwood, on the other hand, is no stranger to the world of speculative fiction – the worlds of The Handmaid’s Talestone mattress and Oryx and Crake are well-known and, rightly, acclaimed. Atwood herself has been at pains to ensure that these books are not called science fiction (although she has referred to them as social science fiction which seems a fair term to me) and, in fact, one thing that seems to characterise her work is that she doesn’t limit herself to any one genre or style.

The stories in Stone Mattress are like fables or fairy tales – they are very slightly dissociated from what I would define as everyday reality – and yet they are also very real. Many of the stories touch on the experience of aging or, to put it more accurately, on the memories of youth from the perspective of old age. My favourite tale in the whole collection was Torching the Dusties – which was a chillingly dystopic view of what could happen if mob rule demonized the elderly as worthless drains on society – but I would also heartily recommend the rather macabre The Dead Hand Loves You. All the stories are beautifully written, of course, and shot through with all the wit and wisdom you would expect from Atwood.



Dream a Little Dream of Me – Giovanna Fletcher

dream a little dreamDream a Little Dream is the latest by author/actress/wife of TomfromMcFly and it is a bit of froth. And I have decided that I quite like froth…

The plot is reminiscent of One Day – featuring a group of friends who met at Uni and are still part of a tight-knit group years later – and is largely built around Sarah. Her ex is part of the friendship group but, since they mean more to her than he does, she has to see him frequently. Him and the perfect girlfriend he left her for. And it seems her own brain is conspiring to help her forget him by filling her dreams with visions of the delectable Brett ( a bit player in the group’s student days but now no longer in touch). And who gets to meet their dream boyfriend in real life?

I liked this book because I could identify with Sarah – the weekly pub quizzes, the problems with frizzy hair and the close group of friends. Okay, I’ve not stayed in touch with my Uni mates in quite the same way and we were nowhere near as incestuous a group, but the dynamics of the friends makes perfect sense to me. I also enjoyed the parts that were different from my own experiences – Sarah’s career problems, her seemingly unsupportive mother – because they were convincingly written. I am considerably older than Sarah and her friends but I really felt I could see them growing up as the book progressed. Sarah in particular seems to have accepted that her job and her relationship with her mother are her responsibility – therefore both improve – and she ends up gaining enough self-confidence to accept that the real Brett (who shows up part way through the book) could be as much a part of her life as the dream version was.

So, froth. But froth with humour, good characters (who develop and grow) and just enough tension to keep the pages turning. Perfect summer reading…And considering that TomfromMcFly is one half of the team that brings us the marvellous ‘Dinosaur That Pooped…’ series theirs must be a fun-filled household!


Demon Road – Derek Landy

There are some experiences which both adult and child readers have in common – losing yourself in another world, the thrill of finding a new author who you love and, one of the best ones, finding a new book by your favourite writer. However, younger readers do have one problem which tends not to bother older people – realising that you are getting to be a bit too old for that series you loved five years ago. Of course, I realise that I am, at my advanced age, ‘too old’ to be reading Harry Potter but the joy of being a grown-up is you kind of stop caring after a certain point. I’m sure we can all remember, however, the indignity of being thought to be eight years old when you were, in fact, ten….

One of our most popular authors in the 9-12 age group is Derek Landy, whose Skulduggery Pleasant series has been a favourite since 2008 when the first book won the Red House Children’s book award. And here’s the problem – even if you were a precocious eight-year-old in 2008 you are now fifteen and are looking for something a little meatier. Derek Landy, however, seems to have thought of this and his new book is very firmly in the Young Adult camp. And it is really, really good…

demon roadFrom the beginning Demon Road starts ticking all the YA boxes – distant parents, bullying, self-esteem and self-image issues – and it just goes on. But don’t think it is all doom and gloom – I don’t think Landy could write without his trademark dark humour and wit – and it never quite veers into the kind of adult themes which would make it only suitable for older teens. The heroine, Amber, is just sixteen. She has all the normal sixteen-year-olds problems but then she discovers that she is, in fact, a demon and she was born (in fact bred) for her parents and their friends to kill and eat. I’m not sure if teens these days use the phrase ‘major bummer’ but it certainly seems appropriate at this point.

The pace of the story is pretty relentless as Amber criss-crosses the country in the company of the mysterious Milo, his sinister car and a young Irish lad called Glen. There are demons aplenty, strange psychotic children, vampires, malevolent tree-spirits and serial killers. There is quite a lot of blood and gore and, as a final insult, Amber is not allowed to use her phone or any social media. Again, ‘major bummer’…

I really enjoyed this book – I thought all the characters were very well-written and Glen, the young Irish lad, is quite possibly the most realistic and normal person I have ever met in fiction. No, really, he is very, very real – tactless, clueless, afraid and yet endearing – and the best part is that, despite his best (but slightly rubbish) efforts there is absolutely no spark of romance between him and Amber. The book is exciting and funny and all the way through you just know that Derek Landy gets how alienating it feels to be young. Which is probably a good reason for his continuing success


The Old Man’s Birthday & Caroline – Richmal Crompton

Yes, Richmal Crompton. That Richmal Crompton. The one who wrote all those Just William stories. She also wrote novels for adults (in fact more adult novels than Just William books if we’re counting…) and two of them are being reissued by Pan Macmillan (as e-books and print on demand). I have to admit I’ve never been a huge William fan – when I was the right age to read them I was distracted by stories about ponies, gypsies and boarding schools – so I wasn’t sure what to expect from these books.

5 61Q3HHR31HL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I shouldn’t have worried – Miss Crompton really seemed to know what she was doing when she wrote about families. And the stories are surprisingly modern – in The Old Man’s Birthday a 95-year-old man spends his birthday getting one over on his family who think he should be far more biddable (and act as they feel a respectable old man should) and the title character of Caroline is a rather controlling woman who has raised her young siblings and half-siblings, giving up her own youth and career plans on the way. I could see these characters – and their supporting casts – in contemporary novels about family life.

The tone of Caroline, in particular, is rather brittle, in a very 1930s kind of way. The Old Man’s Birthday is more of a romp, although there are still a lot of rather troubled characters in it, and I think I was impressed with the fact that Crompton could write in both styles. The plots have similarities – both involve the kind of convoluted family problems which can seem insoluble until just the right character turns up to show the family how they can solve them. I particularly liked the fact that in The Old Man’s Birthday all the ‘regular’ relationships – father/child, brother/sister, husband/wife – seem to be unhappy and it is those that have the less acceptable aspect – a couple living ‘in sin’, a step-mother – which show the way to happiness.

I looked up Richmal Crompton after reading these two novels. As an author she seems to understand all kinds of human relationships – familial, romantic, sexual – and has a particular sympathy for the young. Her background seems sometimes to help – she trained as a teacher and taught until she lost the use of a leg due to polio – but at other times you have to be impressed at the breadth of experience she wrote about considering she never married or had children. I think I would have liked her very much indeed – her courage in the face of illness and her involvement in the Women’s Suffrage movement just add an extra dimension to her writing.


You, Me and Other People – Fionnuala Kearney

I don’t necessarily read books in the order that I review them (and as I’ve mentioned before I sometimes find I have nothing to say about a book so don’t post anything about it) so although this follows on from the fairly grown-up Time and Time Again in terms of reviews the book I read immediately before You, Me and Other People was Armada – a video-game based interstellar romp. And that is probably why it took me some time to warm to this story of betrayed love and broken, me

The story follows the lives of Adam and Beth as their marriage breaks down – Adam has left to be with his new girlfriend – and, certainly initially, I found it really hard to warm to either of the main characters. Adam seems to be a serial philanderer, this isn’t the first time he has strayed, always seeking to regain his own youth with some other woman but I didn’t find Beth totally sympathetic at first. Adam is shallow – at one point he seems to rate his ‘beloved Lexus’ about as highly as his wife and daughter – but Beth appears as bad. In the early stages of the novel she is worried about feeling guilty about wanting to be more than a mother. Don’t get me wrong – I know that plenty of intelligent and wonderful women have these feelings and that they are valid but it just annoyed me.

However, as the book moves on I realised that Beth is going through the various stages of grief for a lost relationship. She is, at times, angry, maudlin and scared – and I guess these are not things which inspire instant admiration. The way she develops though (without forgetting what Adam has put her through) means that, as you get to know her, you learn to admire the strong woman she becomes. Oddly, it is at this point that her country-pop songwriting career really takes off. It seems you really do need to suffer to be able to write this kind of stuff…

This is a debut novel but actually it is a very assured piece of writing. I wanted to be able to like Beth from the start but, by the end, I realised that I liked her more for seeing her initial weaknesses. How could I see her become strong and independent if she’d already been that at the start? And Adam, well, you don’t totally forget what he has done and the suffering he has caused but you do get to understand some of the things that made him the man he is. You forgive him and wish him well for the future by the end of the story.

Funny and ever so slightly heart-breaking. If you enjoyed reading One Day then this could be a good book for you.


Time and Time Again – Ben Elton

Back when I first started bookselling Ben Elton wrote his first novel, Stark, and it seemed like an odd departure for a massively popular stand-up comedian (well, it did in those days…). However, over 25 years and he is now on his fifteenth novel, a First World War based time-travel-fest called Time and Time Again.

Ben EltonWorld Wars and time-travel are subjects which go together well – if you could go back in time and change things so that Hitler was never born or Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand didn’t visit Sarajevo you’d probably jump at the chance. You could probably save millions of lives and make the world a better place. Probably…

I really enjoyed this book because every time you thought you had it under control it slips out of your grasp. Hugh Stanton, a maverick ex-soldier with nothing and nobody left to live for, is the perfect choice for an assassin to travel back in time and prevent the death of an Austrian Arch-Duke – until you discover why he is all alone in the world. And then, once his mission is complete you suddenly realise that you are only half-way through the book – there is obviously a lot more to this time-travel stuff than first appears. This is a book full of unexpected consequences stretching back to the age of Sir Isaac Newton and onward into an unspecified future. Sometimes confusing, but in a good way…

Ben Elton’s comedy was always an acquired taste and his work outside stand-up – from the sublime Blackadder to the rather less well-received The Wright Way – has met equally mixed reviews. His novels, however, have always hit the spot with me. The early ones were ecologically aware and left-leaning (which suited me then – and probably still would now, to be fair) and they have gone on to become thought-provoking views of modern life.


England in the Age of Richard III

As you may be able to tell from the amount of history related books I review on here it is one of my favourite things (after reading). The best part being, of course, that it is something which I can combine with reading (and one of my other top hobbies, cooking, but more on that later). If I can say as well that I love to learn new things then you will not be surprised to hear that when I saw a free online course called England in the Time of Richard III I signed up straight away. The course is a MOOC (a massive open online course) taught by an academic from the University of Leicester and offered by an organisation called FutureLearn. And, so far, it has been great fun.

The reading and activities set for the course have been fascinating – so far we have covered the Wars of the Roses, peasants & farming, books, literacy & printing and death & commemoration – and, strictly speaking, they haven’t taken more than the three or four hours a week quoted in the course outline. Although I have spent a lot longer than that on the discussion boards – I always was a great talker, even online – and of course on all the extra reading that I have done as a consequence of all that chatting.

Richard III RIII Sunne in splendour

Here is a selection of the books I have either read so far or, in the case of The Sunne in Splendour, hope to read in the near future. So many people on the course have recommended the Sharon Penman that I know I’m going to have to read it but, at over 1200 pages, I think it will have to wait until I don’t have a to-read pile taller than I am! I have been making a spreadsheet of all the books which have cropped up in various conversations throughout the course – for anyone interested in reading more on this fascinating subject I have attached the list (so far) to this post.

REading list