Thursday, 23 March 2017

Book Review - The Escape by C.L. Taylor



Look after your daughter's things. And your daughter

When a stranger asks Jo Blackmore for a lift she says yes, then swiftly wishes she hadn't.

The stranger knows Jo's name, she knows her husband Max and she's got a glove belonging to Jo's two year old daughter Elise.

What begins with a subtle threat swiftly turns into a nightmare as the police, social services and even Jo's own husband turn against her.

No one believes that Elise is in danger. But Jo knows there's only one way to keep her child safe RUN.

The Sunday Times bestseller returns with her biggest and best book yet. The perfect read for fans of Paula Hawkins and Clare Mackintosh.

The idea of a stranger threatening your child would strike fear into any parent, The Escape has a menacing opening when Paula, the woman Jo Blackmore gives a lift to does just that. She says that she's lost something but Jo's husband Max may know where it is, then leaves with her terrifying words lingering behind her, The message to keep an eye on her daughter.
It quickly becomes apparent that Jo lives in constant fear of something happening to her daughter as she suffers from agoraphobia and anxiety, has to force herself to leave the house and isn't even able to take Elise to the park because of her fears. It transpires that she's had a panic attack in the past, believing she was being watched, and when Max says he's never heard of Paula, doubt creeps in. Is Elise really in danger? And if so who is she is danger from? As events spiral out of Jo's control and it seems that everybody is against her, Jo makes the decision to run away. After the ratcheting up of tension on the first part of the book, the story moves to Ireland and gradually we learn more about Jo, Max and the landlady, Mary who Jo and Elise end up staying with.
The story is mostly told from Jo's point of view, she is a character you feel immediate sympathy for although that is tempered occasionally with frustration at the choices she makes and although the storyline suggests her innocence the author has cleverly allowed some doubt to remain. Her husband, Max is far less likeable although there are moments where I did feel sympathetic to the plight of a man facing the loss of his child and the breakdown of his marriage. Paula is almost a peripheral character yet it is her threats that drive the action. Occasionally the story is told from the perspective of Jo's attacker and although these passages are short they add to the growing sense of terror. Having a secondary plot featuring the landlady Mary who lost her own daughter many years previously could have distracted from the story but actually it adds a welcome second layer that eventually explains the actions of a few characters and ends up becoming an important factor in the resolution of the story.
I quickly became immersed in The Escape, it's a gripping thriller that focuses on domesticity. As much as it's an exciting and tense story it's also a searing look at the breakdown of a marriage, at the lies people tell and the words that are left unspoken or should never be said. The story is ultimately about the fear of losing a child and the steps people will go to prevent that happening and it's that sense of dread that persists throughout The Escape and makes it so easy to relate to.
Many thanks to the publishers for my advance copy received through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

The Escape is published in the UK by Avon Books

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Book Review - Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski



1997. Scarclaw Fell. The body of teenager Tom Jeffries is found at an outward bound centre. Verdict? Misadventure. But not everyone is convinced. And the truth of what happened in the beautiful but eerie fell is locked in the memories of the tight-knit group of friends who took that fateful trip, and the flimsy testimony of those living nearby. 2017. Enter elusive investigative journalist Scott King, whose podcast examinations of complicated cases have rivalled the success of Serial, with his concealed identity making him a cult internet figure. In a series of six interviews, King attempts to work out how the dynamics of a group of idle teenagers conspired with the sinister legends surrounding the fell to result in Jeffries’ mysterious death. And who’s to blame… As every interview unveils a new revelation, you’ll be forced to work out for yourself how Tom Jeffries died, and who is telling the truth. A chilling, unpredictable and startling thriller, Six Stories is also a classic murder mystery with a modern twist, and a devastating ending.


Six Stories has a unique premise although the basis for the murder mystery may seem familiar. A group of teenagers staying in a remote outward bound centre in a bleak and unforgiving landscape is the stuff of horror movies. Matt Wesolowski, in his debut novel, has taken this oft repeated plot though and given it a fresh and modern spin. What happened to Tom Jeffries is gradually revealed to the reader through a series of podcasts. If I had any sort of impulse control I may have tried reading one chapter, or podcast daily to emulate the experience of viewing a serialised podcast. I am not that person however, and read the entire book in less than two days! Each podcast is an interview conducted by investigative journalist, Scott King, with various people who were somehow involved in the events leading to the discovery of Tom Jeffries' body, a year after his disappearance. By only allowing us to hear from one point of view at a time we are reminded that there is not always one simple truth and as each person tells of their own memories and chooses what to reveal or conceal we are only drip-fed the whole story. For me there was a definite sense of detachment about Six Stories, although I could empathise with certain aspects - bullying is a constant theme in the books for instance. However, rather than this being a drawback I enjoyed the experience of not feeling so emotionally involved in the lives of the characters and instead being able to just experience the unfolding of the mystery with each revelation. Scarclaw Fell is simultaneously immediately familiar to anyone who has ever been on an outward bound school trip to an isolated location and ominously mysterious. Although mostly set outside there is a constant claustrophobic feeling, this is an environment that seems to want to consume the unwary and the stories of the Belkeld Beast and Nanna Wrack add a creeping sense of foreboding and terror to the proceedings.
I don't want to give anything away about the truth of what happened to Tom Jeffries suffice to say that despite having some of my suspicions proved correct I was still shocked by certain revelations. Six Stories may be about a murder but it is about the commonplace, the universal fears, worries and ordeals that teenagers on the brink of adulthood face. However, it also has an eerie, almost otherworldly sense to it. Despite being about a twenty year old case there is still a creeping feeling of danger and trepidation. To combine the ordinary and the almost mythological and to do so in such a unique style is a real testament to the skill and craft of the author. Six Stories is one of the most memorable books I've read in a long time and I think Matt Wesolowski will be a name to look out for.
Many thanks to Orenda Books for my advance copy in return for this review. Six Stories is available to buy now.



Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Book Review - The Girl Who Beat Isis by Farida Khalaf with Andrea C. Hoffman



The Girl Who Beat Isis is a factual retelling of Farida Khalaf's horrific story based on a series of interviews Andrea Hoffman conducted with her in a refugee camp in Iraq. It is one of the most difficult and upsetting books I have ever read. It is also one of the most important.
The book begins in 2014, Farida lives in a small village in northern Iraq with her parents and four brothers. As Kurdish Yazidis they maintain friendly and commercial relations with neighbouring Muslim Arabs but it's still an uneasy relationship, mostly due to a religious misunderstanding that has meant Yazidis are believed to be devil worshippers. However, life for Farida is good. Although her father has taught her how to use a Kalashnikov in case she ever needs to help defend her family, it seems that as she enters her final year of school, and with a gift for Mathematics, a bright future is assured. She hopes to train to become a Maths teacher but in 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh, or more usually in western countries, Isis) were just beginning their reign of terror. As Isis soldiers pour into Iraq from neighbouring Syria, Farida and her family are at first convinced the Iraqi army and then the Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) will successfully push them back over the border. That swiftly proves to be a false hope and when Isis comes to Farida's village they are ruthlessly and terrifyingly efficient in gaining control. After refusing to convert to Islam, the men in the village are removed from the camp, the gunfire heard moments later an ominous suggestion as to their probable fate. Then all the older girls and young women - including Farida - are taken away from their families too. What follows is a horrific account of the abuse, both sexual and physical endured at the hands of Isis soldiers by young girls like Farida and her friend, Evin who is taken alongside her. They become sex slaves, sold alongside scores of other women and girls at brutal, dehumanising markets. Despite being bought and sold several times, being raped by her successive 'owners' and enduring vicious beatings, Farida continues to resist as best as she can, eventually managing to escape into the Syrian desert with a small group of other Yazidi girls.
The Girl Who Beat Isis is the book that makes the statistics become personal. Only recently human rights lawyer Amal Clooney spoke about the Yazidi genocide. Since 2014 over 5,000 Yazidis have been killed, 5,000-7,000 Yazidi women been abducted, and approximately 500,000 Yazidi civilians are now refugees. Farida's story is a graphic account of what these people are being subjected to, the violence and oppression are starkly described here. Her courage in resisting her captors and surviving despite the worst atrocities is remarkable. It reminds us that despite all the political discourse about refugees, at the heart of this war are ordinary people whose lives have been changed forever and who deserve our every assistance.
This will not be a book you enjoy, it will make you angry, it will make you cry, it will make you sick to your very core. And that is why you need to read it.
Many thanks to the publishers for my copy received through Netgalley in return for this review.

The Girl Who Beat Isis is published in the UK by Square Peg, an imprint of Vintage Publishing.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Candy Wolf - a short story by Maggie, aged 9

Yesterday I posted a picture of the author's bio my 9 year old daughter, Maggie had written to accompany her short story. If any children's authors ever wonder if their 'about the author' is read by their young readers - here's your answer!

A few people said they'd love to read her story. So here it is - I've taken screenshots of her work to retain the font and formatting she chose. Obviously all rights remain with the author, Maggie Cole!



















Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Book Review - Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar


The Life of Pi meets The Martian in dazzling literary debut spanning duplicitous love, political intrigue, a historical riddle and a cloud of spacedust over Venus.

'Spaceman of Bohemia is unforgettable: a work of breathtaking scope and heart, and a reflection of humanity that's raw and strange and profound and true’

Lisa McInerney, Baileys-Prize-winning author of The Glorious Heresies

Set in the near-distant future, Spaceman follows a Czech astronaut as he launches into space to investigate a mysterious dust cloud covering Venus, a suicide mission sponsored by a proud nation. Suddenly a world celebrity, Jakub's marriage starts to fail as the weeks go by, and his sanity comes into question. After his mission is derailed he must make a violent decision that will force him to come to terms with his family's dark political past.

An extraordinary vision of the endless human capacity to persist-and risk everything-in the name of love and home, by a startlingly talented young debut novelist.

I finished Spaceman of Bohemia a few days ago and I'm still struggling to find the right words to describe this extraordinary book. It's science fiction but it's also historical fiction, literary fiction and more simply, a story of a young man trying to come to terms with his past.
The young man in question is Jakub Procházka and the near future of spring 2018 he becomes the Czech Republic's first astronaut when his space shuttle, the JanHusl1 is launched from a state owned potato field. His mission is to capture particles from the mysterious Chopra cloud that has formed between the Earth and Venus, bathing 'Earth’s nights in purple zodiacal light, altering the sky we had known since the birth of man.' after a previously undiscovered comet entered the Milky Way. On the long solo mission Jakub has little else to do but think about his life, his relationship with his father, his grandparents and his wife, Lenka. It soon becomes clear that his relationship with his wife is under strain and the distance between them is more than just the miles. However, it transpires that Jakub isn't as isolated as he thought - he's sharing the JanHusl1 with a giant arachnid alien with thirty-four eyes and rather disturbingly, red human lips and the yellow teeth of a smoker. The spider-alien calls Jakub, 'Skinny human' and becomes the conduit to our finding out more about Jakub's life. This for me is actually the crux of the novel, while I enjoyed the science fiction it's the story behind it, the reasons for Jakub leaving Earth on a potentially fatal mission that makes the book so enjoyable. Kalfař has managed to sublimely blend the often absurd with a riveting social history. As the Velvet Revolution brings about the end of Communism, the teenage Jakub is forced to confront uncomfortable truths about his father's role in the regime. His simple rural life with his grandparents is evocatively told and a striking juxtaposition with his life in deep space. We gradually learn of the events that eventually lead him from a life where slaughtering the pig is a village highlight to conversing with a Nutella loving giant spider aboard the JanHusl1. He's also forced to examine his relationship with his wife and learns that his memories may not tell the whole story.  Ultimately the Spaceman of Bohemia is about the universal truths; love, forgiveness, betrayal, acceptance and understanding. It may be a book set in the future but by also looking back at the past we are reminded of humanity's perpetual ability to persist despite our repeated failings. I suspect some people may be put off by the strangeness of the plot. I can only urge you to put your misgivings aside. This is a book that manages to be both playful and profound, it exposes both the brutal Communist regime and the often ridiculous commodification of daily life, it is satire and it is sentimental. Jaroslav Kalfař's debut is unforgettable; weird, funny, sad, touching and a melting pot of themes that combine to create a truly unique work of fiction.
Many thanks to the author and publishers for my copy received through Netgalley in return for this review.

Spaceman of Bohemia will be published in the UK by Spectre Books on 9th March 2017