Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Seven Year dress by Paulette Mahurin

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

The Seven Year Dress was a moving story that cannot fail to draw the reader into the horrors of the holocaust.

We meet Helen Stein in the 1920s when life was good for her, although the shadow of Hitler’s Nazi Germany was creeping insidiously into her life. At first, these changes are unnoticeable and the disbelief of many of those who will be affected is well depicted. It is this disbelief that prevents many of them escaping while there is still time to do so.

Helen’s father, a well-respected attorney working for the government, loses everything, even his life. Her friend Max joins the Hitler Youth and then the SS, in an attempt to hide his homosexuality. But it is Max who comes to Helen’s rescue by hiding her in the cellar of his family’s farm, and he pays the price for this with his life. Helen and her brother remain in the cellar for 4 years before they are captured and sent to Auschwitz, where Helen, the only survivor of her family remains for the next three years, enduring all sorts of horrors before being rescued by the Russians.

Helen’s life is one of hardship, persecution, and torture, but her will to live ensures she is a survivor. This book is not easy to read, but I’m glad I did. 

Chris Longmuir

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Point of No Return by Diana J Febry

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

Point of No Return was an enjoyable read. It starts off with a fast paced back story to the investigation concerning Digby, a young man contemplating suicide following an accident which kills his friend. He subsequently hangs himself in front of the house of the man, James Palmer, he blames for causing the accident. The suspense during this opening section was almost unbearable and the character of Digby, drew me in.

The main part of the story takes place two years later when James Palmer is being stalked and harassed by ever increasing violent incidents concerning himself and his family. This part settles into a cosy investigation by DI Hatherill and his colleague Fiona. They follow a trail of mystifying clues until the final resolution is reached after life threatening scene involving DI Hatherill.

I enjoyed this book, it was a satisfying read.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Beloved Old Age - and what to do about it, by Julia Jones and Margery Allingham (publ. Golden Duck)

This is a really unusual book which defies genre boundaries, usually a recommendation in itself. Julia Jones is the biographer of Golden Age crime queen Margery Allingham and as such, has been lucky enough to be entrusted with access to her documents. Among them was an oddity, Allingham's very last book, unpublished, and a departure from her popular murder mysteries. 'The Relay' is about ageing, the problems of ageing, and how to deal with them within the family. Julia Jones has prepared this book for publication but added an enriching layer to it, in interweaving her own account of living with her mother's dementia and the changes it dictates to their and their family's lives. How to deal with ageing - now a hot topic with greater longevity, though there were plenty of tough old birds male and female who'd survived childhood infections and went on living a long long time. Margery had a very highly developed sense of responsibility and though a highly successful novelist, she ended up supporting a useless git of a neither use nor ornament husband and various other family members and hangers-on, while writing her heart out to outrun tax demands and keep them all in the style to which they felt entitled to become accustomed. Still, she never seems to have considered ditching the old dears but ended up evolving a system to enable 'the relay' to continue. By this she means, allowing the experience, wisdom, stories and any other accumulated life material to be absorbed into the family before the old depart.

Uniquely in my experience, she writes of looking after one's own family oldies as a privilege, and a vital part of the family, not just a duty or a burden, though she acknowledges the enormous stresses involved. Poor Margery seems to have had a nasty mother who enjoyed putting her down, but even she gets taken in. So Margery and her sister set up a home for their mother, and two aunts, in a cottage over the road. Margery calls this system a 'dower house' system which nowadays makes it all sound very posh and upper class, but she was referring to an old tradition whereby the older generation live out their days in a nearby house, with support from family. What we'd now perhaps call a 'granny annex' which is patronising rather than posh, not much of an improvement vocab-wise. With great honesty, she describes how to set up such a system - it's vital to have someone professional looking after them, a housekeeper/home help, to take some of the personal stress from family. I was much struck with the points she made, back then when almost everyone had servants who wasn't one, that this person's salary should be the largest part of the expenditure by far, and they should have adequate time off covered by family members. So many people now who work caring for elderly people are on minimum wage. We have no respect for carers either family struggling alone or paid carers.

This would be interesting in itself as a book, but Julia Jones has added her own experiences and her personal responses to her own 'relay race' with her mother in journal-like entries which comment on Margery's writing too.  Many many of us have had to cope with forms of dementia and other disabilities in our older loved ones. Julia writes with searing honesty of when she struggles to cope, when she loses patience, and also of the joys and humour and special moments of intimacy they share. Julia has been co-running 'John's Campaign' with Nicci Gerrard, to fight for the rights of those with dementia to have family or carers with them in hospital to preserve their identities and care for them properly. We still have a long way to run in this race, and this book is fascinating, moving, beautifully written by both Margery and Julia, and really thought-provoking. Sadly, Margery died aged just over 60, worn out, and so didn't become the dowager herself, but her writing passes on the baton of her creativity and thoughts to us now that Julia Jones has written this book and edited Margery's part of it.

I kept wanting to carry on the 'relay', reply to Julia's meditations on Margery's chapters sparked memories of how I coped with my mother's dementia and the research I did into neuroscience to write poetry about it. Perhaps the book could be blogged one day with the facilities for people to add their own wisdom and experience of being old, and being the next one down waiting for the baton. Claudia Myatt who designed the beautiful cover wrote a very moving song about Julia's mum, and so we share our voices and our experiences and express them in art.

Valerie Laws

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Graveyard of the Hesperides by Lindsey Davis: reviewed by Karen Bush

Apologies once again for the decidedly dodgy photograph, but I'm too busy to faff around looking for images, cropping, copying, pasting and all that faff - I'm really busy writing, reading and editing at the moment and this is the quickest as well as the laziest way to do it.
      Right, apologies out of the way, and on to the book itself. Like a lot of other Falco fans I was sad when the series came to its inevitable end ... I pounced on the Falco companion, and loved the novella about his adopted son which appeared as an ebook (note to self - review it later) But I was a bit anxious when the first Flavia Albia book came out. Would it be as good as the Falco books? Would I be disappointed?
      I jumped on it when it first arrived, and reckoned that it was not dissimilar to the first Falco book, The Silver Pigs: good enough to make you want to read the next in the series, but not, perhaps, likely to be your favourite one. But you have to start somewhere in introducing a new series and setting the scene: for those familiar with the Falco novels, this is set several years after Flavia Albia fled his house and set up in his old abode at Fountain Court as an informer. 
     This is now Lindsey Davis' fourth Flavia Albia book; each has got better, and now in this latest, she has finally hit the same winning form that she had with Falco. The humour that was always in evidence with Falco has resurfaced fully again: and although we are given more glimpses of Falco's family life than in previous books, it is our heroine and her betrothed that really grabs our interest now - we still love Falco and his bonkers family, but now we love the prickly Flavia too. And yes, in this book, Flavia is to be married - not her idea, but that of her intended, Manlius Faustus. The characters and their interaction are of course, what lifts Lindsey Davis' books above the mere 'crime solving in a different century' genre: they have meticulous research, the crimes all sound feasible as do their solutions, but above all, they are character driven. They feel real, you care about them, and you want to know more about them.
     It's a great read - don't be afraid to jump straight into it even if you haven't read the others, as all is explained sufficiently if you don't know the background - and there is a completely unexpected, totally appropriate and explosive grand finale. Loved it. More, please!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Three Billy Goats Gruff by Susan Price and Andrew Price - review: Karen Bush

Excuse the pants photo which in no way does justice to the lusciousness of this book - another terrific offering from brother-and-sister team of Susan (words) and Andrew (pics) Price.
     The words are perfect, with some great rhymes, and some written  as straightforward text, others in speech bubbles. Plus of course, lots of fun to be had with the 'action' words as the Troll gets his comeuppance ... followed by his comedownance ...
     The pictures are bold, bright, gorgeous and funny and words and illustrations complement each other perfectly. It's a nice size for sitting and reading with your tinies - and it's such good fun that it is one of those books you won't get too tired of reading again and again with them. (In fact, it's proof too, that picture books aren't just for kids. A lot of grown-ups are going to enjoy this just as much)
     AND - when you have finished with reading the story, there is an accompanying colouring in and activity book - colour in the drawings, and fill in the missing letters and words - educational as well as entertaining. What more could you ask for? Apart from a sequel ...

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Frankenstein Inheritance by Simon Cheshire, reviewed by Dennis Hamley

Product DetailsI really am an utter plonker. I wrote this review in May, 2014. I've just been scrolling through the Eclectic Electric archives and found it here still in draft. How could I have forgotten to press 'publish'? Well, as I hope I make clear below, this review is of a book I admire greatly and I'm really quite upset that this review didn't appear, entirely through my own carelessness. When I say 'kept in our minds' in the next paragraph I mean what I say, because it's a book which should last and last. So here is the review at last, exactly three years after the day that it should have appeared.

A few weeks ago (plus two years), Mari Biella blogged on Authors Electric asking for examples of new 'gothic' novels and Chris Longmuir suggested The Frankenstein Inheritance as the sort of book she was looking for. The reference reminded me of that terrific story and how I had reviewed it last year ( or four years ago!)  for Cally Phillips's Independent Ebook Review. Well, I think that Simon Cheshire's remarkable gothic fantasy should be kept in our minds for the super book it is, so I'm recycling and rewriting that original review, hoping it may jog people's memories and lead them to a brilliant reading experience, especially considering that when I looked at the book's Amazon page I saw its truly horrific best-seller ranking.

It is 1879. Professor Marchbanks arrives at Charing Cross station having just travelled from Europe. He is very afraid.  He is accompanied by two children, incongruously named Victoria and Albert.   There is something strange about them.  They have pale, waxy, unnatural-seeming skin, piercing, needle-sharp eyes, strange fissures and what looks like stitching on their heads and necks. They are alarmingly intelligent but remember nothing which happened more than a few days before.  They are also extremely strong: Albert even rescues some children from drowning with extraordinary presence of mind and daring within a few minutes of leaving the train.               

Yes, Victor Frankenstein’s spirit has passed on to his descendants and they are carrying on the good work.  In this parallel universe, they have bought up every extant copy of Mary Shelley’s unfortunate account and had them burnt. Professor Marchbanks has been called out to the Frankenstein castle, remote and terrifying, to give advice about the latest developments in the programme.  He is appalled by what he sees and escapes with the two children.  But their creator Wolfgang von Frankenstein is determined to have them back.

Thus starts a gothic thriller, full of the special darkness which only Victorian London can give, involving horror, some particularly nasty deaths, a chase across the stews and teeming streets of the East End as it once was – Jack the Ripper country.  The pace is breakneck, the tension taut like a bowstring.  A terrific read in its own right.  I devoured it at a sitting.

But there’s more.  Underneath its pastiche (though I don’t like using that word because it seems to cheapen the whole) is a serious debate.  Simon Cheshire is well aware of the literary tradition, the way the central image of Mary Shelley’s novel galvanised a whole genre as well as raising just about the most serious possibility which could ever face the human race.

Many writers and, of course, film directors have revelled in the story’s horror and sensationalism (after all, it  took the gothic and romantic to a new level) and are oblivious to its ethical and societal implications.  Cheshire understands how a later generation could realise what power Victor’s discovery might lead to in an industrial, capitalist society.  Technology and money meet in an unholy alliance which adumbrates the modern age: Wolfgang’s ambitions, which forecast contemporary debates about the ethics of medicine in prolonging and even perfecting life, are suddenly given shape by his realisation of the power of money and the tentacles of Victorian finance.  They have emerged from Romantic fantasy, entered the real world and become inestimably more dangerous.

Simon Cheshire has made his writing reputation through humour.  But there’s not much to laugh about here.  Nevertheless, cheerfulness does keep breaking through.  The climax of the novel, Wolfgang’s demonstration of his discovery to the most select members of Victorian society, takes place on the premises of a rather shady pharmaceutical firm on the brink of bankruptcy and desperate for the one blinding transformative success - Phage and Blight Ltd.  Cheshire has a Dickensian talent for surnames.  These, especially the second, help to suggest that, though the consequences of this occasion are horrific and serious, it is shot through with a thread of black humour.

Perhaps, however, the most impressive feature of the novel is the very one over which Mary Shelley agonised most.  What can the place of Victoria and Albert be in human society?  In Cheshire’s story, they perform wonders.  They are fiercely loyal, especially to Professor Marchbanks. They have special and entirely benign powers. They are instrumental in destroying their maker. It would be easy for them to die in the attempt: we could feel sad for a while and then erase the implications from our minds. But Cheshire's solution is far more subtle. It involves a character with another Dickensian name: Inspector Goodley, who shares with Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff the distinction of being one of the few policemen in the fictional Victorian world who is both intelligent and a force for good.  Once again, the implications of a moral difficulty are not shirked.

So – a page-turner which can be read as merely terrific entertainment and also a narrative which deals seriously with issues still current today. But there’s more. Earlier, I used the word ‘pastiche.’ Well, it is: an imitation, a modern presentation of the language and conventions of a particular sort of nineteenth-century literature.

However, to work at all, pastiche must be done well. Writing it successfully demands a deep literary understanding.  Just to check my instincts about this book, I reread the opening pages of, next to Mary Shelley, the other great peak of nineteenth century gothic writing, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, that bewildering mixture of genius and prejudice.  Jonathan Harker’s account of his journey to and escape from Dracula’s castle, with its peculiar first-person tension between paranoid dread and detached exactitude of observation, is echoed with great force in Professor Marchbanks’s opening account. And more: Stoker’s novel is a complex construction of multiple viewpoints: diaries, letters, articles, newspaper reports, reminiscent accounts, all maintaining the hectic pace without sacrificing his eye for detail.  Cheshire’s method, though on a much smaller scale, is very similar and has the same effect.

So the Victorian horror/crime/supernatural novel lives on.  The Quickening and Pietra, both by Mari Biella,  are good examples, as are Susan Hill’s ghost stories, Eleanor Updale’s Montmorency novels and Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series. These are all very fine writers; in their hands, pastiche is more than imitation, more even than homage. It’s a living tradition with a lot more mileage left in it.  The Frankenstein Inheritance is a great addition to a genre which won't die quietly.

The Frankenstein Inheritance is available on Kindle and also as a paperback published independently by Simon Cheshire:  ISBN 978 095650495            

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Reindeer Moon by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas - reviewed by Karen Bush

This is a great example of just why it's worthwhile reviewing books - to share the ones we've enjoyed ourselves with other people! I'd never have come across this one if it hadn't been for a thumbs-up on it from fellow Authors Electric author and no mean story-teller herself, Susan Price ... and it's terrific, it really is. It's not available as an ebook, but it really should be - but you can still buy it in its paper incarnation. 
I was a little wary of it at first when I saw that my copy had 'For everyone who loved The Clan Of The Cave Bear' emblazoned across the front. For starters I think it's an insult to both authors (for a variety of reasons which I won't go into here, but will save for a future blog post) when publishers resort to this sort of thing ... and in my experience, more often than not I end up being disappointed and inclined to steer clear of other books with similar pronouncements.
I was anything but disappointed in this though: yes, like Clan of the Cave Bear it is set in the Ice Age and tells the story of a young girl and her extended family. At that point the similarity ends - and for my money, I think this is a far superior tale. Nothing really momentous happens - Yanan doesn't invent spear throwers, tame wild animals (although there is a fascinating episode involving wolves and a nod to roots of early domestication), or become a brilliant flint knapper, sling-shotter, and general all-round one-woman survival expert. In fact this book points up just how difficult and tenuous survival was, and how absolutely reliant on group co-operation: yet at the same time, narrator Yanan is still a teenager that every modern teenager will be able to identify with despite a time difference of twenty thousand years.
This may sound as though its a bit dull - but it is anything but. This is one of those rare books that without the need to throw huge events and actions onto every other page, keeps you absolutely riveted to it. It's a terrific book, as I said. And yes, if you liked Clan of the Cave Bear you'll probably like this too. And quite possibly, as I did, like it even more ...