Category Archives: Pan MacMillan

Some Quick Reads…

You may have noticed around the blogosphere on Thursday last week that many a blogger was ignoring Valentine’s Day (and any possible conflicting presents they got) in favour of mentioning the new list of Quick Reads. Today, if a little belatedly, it is my turn to have a natter to you about the initiative, which after speaking to its Project Manager for The Readers I became all the more impassioned about, and also to report back on having read a couple of the books which rather marvellously seems to have cured my reading funk – hoorah to that.

Whilst I was in my ‘reading rut’ did you know that I was joining in with around 12 million other people in the UK alone? No, me neither! The idea behind Quick Reads is to get books into the hands of those who don’t read and to get those who do read to try something new and different, though for me it is the non readers that I think are the most important. The initiative aims itself at people who are worried that books will be boring, make them feel unintelligent, have bad associations with their education and much more. Basically these books are designed to appeal to the sort of person I was not so many moons ago, though before the initiative was founded in 2006, when I had been put off reading and thought it was a dull and self satisfactory kind of pass time – oh how things have changed. Obviously it has a real poignancy for me, especially as I was someone lucky enough to have friends and relatives eager to provide me with lots of reading recommendations, but many people don’t.

Quick Reads distributes these mini novels, all written by a host of well known authors with big back catalogues to quickly take a reader off into a world of escapism, in retail stores around the UK for just £1, on Amazon for even cheaper if you have a K***** (cough) and free in libraries all around, and up and down, the UK. They are also starting reading groups in prisons where it has proven that reading and literacy can curb reoffending, what could be better as an initiative.

The question is though… What are the books actually like? It is this that made me hold off from writing about the initiative until I had read some and so here, in mini review form as I know I am waffling on, are my thoughts on the ones that the non reader of my past would have grabbed if he had had the option.

Wrong Time, Wrong Place – Simon Kernick

*** Arrow Books, paperback, 2013, fiction, 92 pages, kindly sent by Quick Reads

As a group of friends go hiking in the Scottish highlands they come across a naked woman who is running from something or someone. Clearly having been beaten and half starved but unable to speak a word of English they decide to help her and take her to their holiday cottage, their kindness however is their biggest mistake as someone knows that this girl is missing and they will do everything and anything to cover up this girls existence and anyone else’s knowledge of it.

Well, wow! Simon Kernick certainly knows how to grip you from the start of this tale until the very end – which had two or three absolutely brilliant twists in it. Clichéd as it sounds I actually couldn’t put this down and read it in one great greedy gulp. It is quite terrifying, though it does go a little farcical at points and also reminded me of several horror movies, yet that is what may attract non readers to it and keep them reading because it is a pure escapist adrenaline rush. I was chilled and thrilled throughout but especially by the ending, genius. It should come with a warning for anyone who is averse to gore though.

A Dreadful Murder; The Mysterious Death of Caroline Luard – Minette Walters

**** Pan Macmillan Books, paperback, 2013, fiction, 125 pages, kindly sent by Quick Reads

In 1908, in a small town in Kent, Mrs Caroline Luard was found dead outside the Summer House in the large estate that she rented with her husband. She had been attacked and shot twice in broad daylight with no
witnesses and soon her husband became the prime suspect as the last person to see her alive and the first person to find her dead. In this short novel Minette Walters looks at one of England’s unresolved true crimes, one that in its heyday was infamous, and tries to see if she can work out who the killer was.

This was just my sort of book. I love that period in history and how detection was evolving, as it was still a relatively new form of policing, I also love a grand house as a murder setting and all the gossip that evolves below stairs and in the surrounding neighbourhoods and I love true crimes and find the unsolved ones all the more intriguing, even if it is slightly infuriating that we will never know the truth. So I naturally thought that this was brilliant. I could see this making people rush off to read more fictionalised true crimes, books from the era and of course more of Minette Walters books themselves – I know I wanted to do just this when I finished it.

So… hopefully that gives you an idea of what a brilliant initiative this all is. For me, from both the mind of someone who didn’t used to read at all and someone who is now an addicted avid reader, these two reads were just great. One provided utter escapism and took me into a genre I tend to watch in films rather than read, though might read more in the future for escape, the other reignited my desire for narrative nonfiction or a book from the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. Both were from authors I had never tried before and will definitely give another whirl.

If you fancy giving anyone you know who doesn’t read much a good start I would recommend passing them one of these and supporting a brilliant cause, or indeed (as I was last week) you find yourself in a reading funk or you just want to dabble with something new in your reading diet then pick up a couple for yourself. I would definitely recommend them on both counts. You can hear more about the initiative on The Readers this week, and visit the Quick Reads website too. Which of their books have you read and what did you make of them?

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Filed under Arrow Books, Minette Walters, Pan MacMillan, Quick Reads, Review, Simon Kernick

White Heat – M.J. McGrath

If you are looking for something a little bit different in your crime novels then you couldn’t go wrong with ‘White Heat’ by M.J. McGrath. I admit that I don’t think I would have heard of this novel or its author unless it had been recommended by Val McDermid, who also kindly invited M.J. McGrath as her guest for tonight’s Bookmarked. But then again I am not yet a crime buff, even if I am working on it. What is it then that makes Melanie McGrath’s, for that is her full name, crime fiction so different?

Mantle Books, hardback, 2011, fiction, 381 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Crime novels should be chilling shouldn’t they? Well ‘White Heat’ is chilling in more ways than just the murder, or murders, at the heart of it. The setting is the snowy and ice laden landscapes of the Canadian Artic and in every scene there is a sense of the coldness and almost other worldliness of which the characters of this novel inhabit. Our protagonist is hunting guide (which I have to say almost put me off her) and part time teacher Edie Kiglatuk, she might not be a detective but she’s inquisitive an observant, and you might say has a little too much time on her hands.

The book starts on one of Edie’s trips which suddenly goes horribly wrong when one of the men, Feliz Wagner, on the outing gets shot and, being stuck in the middle of the snowy barren land during a slight storm, dies before he can get to hospital despite all the efforts of Edie and her step-son Joe. You would think that a police enquiry would follow, but this is not the case in a place like Autisaq where the elders (seemingly lead by Edie’s ex-brother in law) decide what’s the outcome is and they don’t want trouble or the hunting tourism affected and so the death is labeled accidental. However Edie isn’t happy, in part through guilt as she doesn’t say much at the hearing, with the verdict and so decides more needs to be done and contacts Derek Palliser, a police man from nearby, who she once worked with unofficially before.

“His case illustrated precisely why the elders preffered not to involve police unless they had to. Almost everyone in Autisaq, including Johnnies own parents, thought it would have been more humane to deal with him the Innuit way; take him up to the mountains and, when he was least expecting it, push him off a cliff. No one said this to the then Constable Palliser, of course, but he’d picked it up anyway. His insistence on bringing the case to trial had made him enemies.”

It’s this conflict of modern vs. the old way which adds to the books point of difference (sorry rather a business like word there) alongside the setting of the book and the inclusion of Inuit lifestyles and sets it apart from a lot of the crime fiction I have been reading. It comes as no surprise to know that Melanie McGrath has written several non-fiction books (including ‘The Long Exile’ which I now really want to read) which have focused on the Inuit lifestyle, and her passion/interest in this shines through as you read on. It added a certain something to the proceedings as the novel went on, and I found myself chilled in more ways than one.

Edie is also a great character. It took me a while to get my head around the fact that she hunted, but then she is doing the job so her step-son can do and study nursing – her ex husband isn’t supportive particularly even though he invites himself round at the drop of a hat. I admit when I read that Edie was an ex-drinker I did think ‘oh dear this could be another detective with a drink issue cliché’ but actually it’s more a background to the character and the situation than anything else. Edie has a certain drive too which you just can’t help respecting and liking.

I am certainly glad I was pointed in the direction of ‘White Heat’ and am thrilled to learn that this is the first in what is going to be a series of Edie’s unofficial investigations, she’s a character to watch from an author I hope we will be hearing a lot more about. If you want a crime with a bit of a twist then give this a whirl, I really enjoyed it… if you can enjoy a good crime.

M.J. McGrath will be at tonight’s ‘Bookmarked’ with Val McDermid at Manchester’s Waterstones Deansgate with me hosting, you can find more information here, it would be a crime to miss it.

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Filed under M.J. McGrath, Mantle Books, Pan MacMillan, Review

Apartment 16 – Adam Nevill

Every now and again I like to try something a bit off the beaten track with my reading. One genre I have never really gone for, but always thought I might like, is horror – especially as I used to devour Point Horror’s as a kid/teenager. I think I liked the thrill of feeling scared. So I decided that for my second choice at my book group with ‘The Ladies of Levenshulme and Paul’ I would choose something scary, but not a traditional ghost story, and so ‘Apartment 16’ seemed to fit the bill. I was really getting excited about being scared out of my wits, and also thrilled that several lovely ladies, and Paul, down the road might be in reading in bed scared out of theirs too.

Pan Books, paperback, 2010, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

The basic premise of ‘Apartment 16’ centres on a converted mansion block in London’s Kensington. The tale is told from the perspectives of two people there and how the building they are in starts to slowly take over their lives.

Seth seems to be stuck in life; he wants to paint but has instead ended up making ends meet as a security guard in the mansion block. He has also started to see things such as a hooded child figure that keeps following him, could this be his imagination working overtime as he is bored or could there be something more sinister going on? The second story was that of Apryl (the fact Apryl was spelt such I admitted at book group got on my nerves and off on the wrong foot) who inherits an apartment from her long lost aunt, not apartment number 16 which threw me, in the same block and moves over from America to sort the place out and discover more about her aunt, the discoveries of course being a lot darker than Apryl expects.

It’s very rare for me to be negative about a book, in part because I have stopped making the effort to finish books I don’t like, sadly though ‘Apartment 16’ was a book group choice (mine too, I was mortified) and so I had to finish it, and it just fell completely flat (no pun intended) for me. I think from the cover, which I loved, I expected that there would be chills and spills galore; instead what I got was a book that had some moments of chills, promptly ruined by scenes that in my head were like a very bad and cheaply made horror b-movie. So bad in fact I occasionally laughed, for the wrong reasons. In the books defence it was my imagination that turned them that way, but then I guess the writing led me there.

That makes it sound like Adam Nevill’s writing isn’t any good, and that isn’t true and wouldn’t be fair to say. His descriptions are vivid, sometimes disturbingly so, but I think I am more of the show less let the readers mind scare you more school of reading horror than the out and out gore kind of reader. The problem was when Seth started seeing some of the inhabitants crawling about on their backs like cockroaches I laughed instead of getting freaked out, then when he went into some of their rooms and the scenes of utter horror-gore were described I just started to feel a bit sick. That is where this book and I just didn’t click. I am the same with films, I laughed through all the Saw films because it was just so far fetched, and actually I did read ‘Apartment 16’ as a film, so it shows Nevill’s writing has a certain cinematic quality to it.  It did also feel like it was trying very hard to be American, yet stay British if you know what I mean?

I genuinely wanted to like ‘Apartment 16’, and the story of Apryl and her aunt (who through the diary entries of hers Apryl finds seems to be a bit of a nutter, which I liked a lot) was an interesting strand and one that I would have preferred on its own without Seth’s. But then I guess the book wouldn’t have worked in some ways. There were some rather scary parts with Apryl and also a brilliantly bizarre visit to a very, very weird and dark book group, it’s just a shame the rest of the book and its storyline just left me cold. I am sure for horror buffs, and I have seen several reviews by them, this is a great tale and so if you love your horror and haven’t read this then do. Me, I think I might leave this sort of ‘modern horror’ and go back to my old Victorian-esque ghost stories filled with things that go bump in the night, off stage. I think my book group felt the same.

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Filed under Adam Nevill, Book Group, Pan MacMillan, Review

The Godless Boys – Naomi Wood

Books about religion don’t tend to be ones I rush out and read, and I tell myself I don’t like dystopian fiction (when actually I think I do, which is both odd and silly) so under normal circumstances I don’t know if Naomi Wood’s debut novel ‘The Godless Boys’ would have been on my radar. However she was one of the authors that myself and Novel Insights saw speak at the publisher Picador’s where they were showcasing some of their novelists and two things stood out for me about this book. Firstly the excerpt that Naomi read (which I have now discovered was the opening, see it stuck in my head all those months that I remembered it) was vividly written and secondly, and this may seem like a strange reason, the book was set off the coast of Newcastle. The city I lived in as a young child, indeed me and Novel Insights became friends their aged 3, and a city that never gets written about. So when the opportunity for a copy came up early in the year I snatched it, and I am really glad I did as ‘The Godless Boys’ is really rather good.

Naomi Wood’s England in 1986 is one of some turmoil. The church has taken over the country and atheists have been sent to live on The Island somewhere off the coast of Newcastle. Here a group of boys known as the Malades, and run by Nathaniel, who spy on any possible Gots (those who once believed and might be trying to again) and control them, generally with fear and menace. One such woman under observation, which basically is malicious spying, is Eliza Michalka. One night those on The Island are joined by Sarah Wickes, who smuggles (I assumed she did, she may have just hopped on) herself onto a boat in search of her mother who she has been told ran off with another man and abandoned her. However once Sarah arrives on The Island she begins to learn that what she has been told about her mother is not the truth. She must also get used to the island and its inhabitants who may not be so welcoming to someone from the mainland.

I think to label this book ‘a dystopian novel about religion’ is really rather lazy. Yes the driving force behind the novel, it is after all why Sarah’s mother is on The Island along with all the atheists, is religion and it bubbles away behind every chapter and indeed motivation of the main characters. This is also a book about people and I think the three characters, even if I didn’t like Nathaniel really, were all very well drawn and really gave the book a life and breath on top of the stormy island atmosphere. Its interesting though that while I think we are meant to follow Sarah and her story, which was very good and Sarah is a marvellous gutsy character, I was captivated far more by Eliza and her tale.

In fact I would go as far as to say she could be one of my favourite characters that I have come across recently. I even wondered if maybe Wood had a special place in her heart as she seemed the most vivid and also the most quirky. She is a woman who finds herself combined her days as part time prostitute at The Grand and also as the local undertaker. She is also madly in love with Arthur, who of course she will never tell. All this and her quirks, like writing words on her forehead under her fringe to boost her confidence or say what she really felt, I absolutely loved. In fact I could have read an entire book devoted just to Eliza.

“On her brow that evening, Eliza penned the word Courage, close to her hairline, underneath her fringe, to encourage her to talk to him. She had made a habit of this since starting at the Grand (that June, and so unwillingly!), pulling up her fringe and penning little messages of hope – or self pity – on her brow. One word, or two, like Courage, or maybe Resilience, or maybe Take Heart!, and she’d go round the Island with her blonde lock of hair covering the words, murmuring the message in her head, hoping for inspiration.
But tonight! What a coward she was. Courage! Pathetic. She had no courage. She felt like that fish Arthur had shorn of all its scales; dull, and missing its brilliance.”

I have heard comparisons to Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ being bandied about by people in context with Naomi Wood’s debut. I have to say that the only similarity I can see with them is that they portray a different ‘dystopian’ view of England in the 1980’s. There was something of Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’ about this weirdly, great writing of conflict by the stormy seas maybe? I have also heard comparison to ‘A Clockwork Orange’, but I haven’t read that so I can’t say. Yet I think these comparisons might do a disservice to what is a very good debut novel, as one is the authors sixth or seventh book and the other is a cult classic. It seems unfair then to compare, unless it’s to say that Naomi Woods has written a debut that shows she is going to be an author to watch in the future, that I would fully concur with.

‘The Godless Boys’ is a very good novel, regardless of it being a debut or not, it’s a book with people’s stories at its heart and how the environment they are in affects them. It is a book based on a long literary heritage of which there are shades, without ever being a copy or retelling of these tales. It’s a book that impresses overall as a debut and one which regardless of the ‘religion’ subject surrounding it, which makes for an interesting read, should be read for its characters and its story. Those are the sort of books which say so much and make you want to read one. I look forward to the next novel from Naomi Woods (which is apparently about Ernest Hemingway and his wives) with great interest. To coin that cliché, she is certainly one to watch. 8.5/10

This book was kindly sent from the publishers.

Has anyone else read ‘The Godless Boys’? If not do so, its recommended reading. It’s made me go off and want to read ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess and also ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding (the Malades made me think of that book, again one I haven’t read but have heard lots about),  can you recommend any of those?

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Filed under Naomi Wood, Pan MacMillan, Picador Books, Review

The City & The City – China Mieville

Sometimes I can get cross at myself as a reader (please tell me some of you do this too), as you are reading a really entertaining and interesting book such as ‘The City and the City’ by China Mieville yet because of everything else going on in your life you go into some sort of funk and you can’t read. Its not the books fault, and really its not your fault as the reader its just life, but if you are like me then you get really annoyed with yourself. However the sign of a good book is when you can have a break from it for a week or two rejoin the plot and characters and not only be straight back into the story you are also swept away by it again once more and this was one such book and considering its synopsis I actually thought I would struggle to get into it at all the first time.

The title ‘The City & The City’ really hints at what you might be expecting from this book (I don’t think China Mieville would have been able to get away with calling it ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ which could have been a good option) as the reader is rather quickly drawn into a world we almost know, a dystopian idea of some part of the edge of Europe, we must also accept that two cities can actually reside in the same place. It sounds complicated and like it might be hard work, which I thought it was going to be, but Mieville somehow makes the whole idea seem incredibly easy to imagine.

In the city of Beszel people are aware that there is another city, Ul Qoma, that occupies the same space as them and yet as they grow up they are trained in the art of ‘unseeing’. This comes into jeopardy on occasions when either something like a car crash happens in one city and for a while everyone can see both, possibly to do with the shock or the extremity of the situation. As we find ourselves in Beszel a murder of a young woman that seems unsolvable has occurred, and its not until Inspector Borlu, our protagonist, realises someone could be murdering people in Ul Qoma and leaving them in Bezsel that ‘unseeing’ may have to go out of the window and that ‘Breach’ (which is an all seeing all knowing eye, slightly in the vein of Orwell’s Big Brother in ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’) may have to be consulted and assessed.

To say too much more would be to undo some incredibly clever twists, turns and imagination that Mieville creates and passes onto any reader coming to the book afresh and I wouldn’t want to ruin that. I will say that the murder mystery does take on a further twist or seven as we discover the murdered girl was looking for a third ancient city (yep, one more but fear not by this point you will be open to eight cities being in the one place as Mieville makes them so clearly different) which brings a whole new historical level to the book and that the powers that be may be hiding something creating a taught thriller that will have you furiously reading to its incredible dénouement.

Mieville has officially won me over with this novel, the characters are fully built, no one dimensional inspector in sight as some authors might have gone for in favour of story over substance. I know in the hands of another author most of this novel could have gone over my head and frustrated me to the point of throwing my book across the room. Not so in the case of Mieville, he’s clearly a masterful writer and incredibly inventive and clever but without a hint of smugness ever appearing on the page. ‘The City and the City’ is a book that has to be read to be believed, and for someone who doesn’t normally go for this type of book Mieville has gained a huge new fan! It’s a book to get lost in. 9/10 (I actually wanted it to be longer and unfold a little though what he achieves in only 312 pages is incredible.)

So I have found a new author now who I want to read the entire works of. In fact I was most annoyed that this was from the library and I had to give it back. I think had I not had the rush of that deadline, someone selfishly requested it (ha); I might have started the book over and loved it even more. That’s not the book or authors fault, and not really mine its just sods law. I think Mieville fans it seems were slightly let down by this book, have any of you read it? If this is his poorest as some, not all, of his fans believe which books are his best I wonder? Can any of you could recommend where I should head to next, which Mieville books have you read and been blown away by?

This book I borrowed from the library, and returned rather grumpily as I would have liked to have it on my shelves to read again one day, its one of those books you could get something new from every time you read it.

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Filed under Books of 2010, China Mieville, Pan MacMillan, Review

I Am The Messenger – Markus Zusak

I was really torn with which book I should choose for the latest meeting of The Riverside Readers which took place last night. We have already covered non-fiction, classics, science fiction, modern literature, translations. As I wanted to choose something different I had three options to my mind which were crime, short stories or young adult. As a genre I have the issues with and like to test myself I opted for the latter and chose ‘I Am The Messenger’, or simply ‘The Messenger’ as it’s known in Australia, by Markus Zusak a book he wrote before the cross-over smash ‘The Book Thief’ (which I loved when I read in my pre-blogging days).

I don’t know if I would have bought ‘I Am The Messenger’ of my own volition if I am honest, though I would definitely read the next book by Markus Zusak, in part because it is deemed as ‘young-adult’ fiction a tag that simply puts me off, but I won’t open that can of worms. However a friend picked it up for me in Australia as they knew I had raved to anyone and everyone about ‘The Book Thief’.

Stuck in a city as an underage cab driver who happens to be hopeless at love and rubbish at sex you might not think that nineteen year old Ed Kennedy, the protagonist of ‘I Am The Messenger’, would be someone who could changes the lives of people but neither would he. In fact if you told him that he could he would probably laugh in your face or possibly tell you to ‘f**k off’ and so would his friends. However everything changes after Ed inadvertently foils a rather incompetent bank robbery.

After this event his name and face is plastered across the newspapers and someone sends him a playing card, the Ace of Diamonds, with addresses written on it and Ed soon realises someone has given him the mission of giving people messages, some they may like and some they might not either way Ed is now in charge of changing the lives of strangers, only the cards keep coming and everything starts to get much closer to home.

Some of the stories were genuinely touching like a tale involving Christmas lights and also a relationship that Ed builds with a wonderful old lady called Milla. The later in particular really made me smile throughout the book and I am not ashamed made me feel a little warm inside.  Some are easy such as giving someone an ice-cream which touches them more than anything else could. Some are dangerous and disturbing such as the case of a man who regularly rapes his wife in a drunken stupor and how to stop him.

I liked how Zusak could take you from something quite humorous to something quite hard hitting within a paragraph or two and yet it never jarred and kept the pace the whole way through (in fact towards the end I felt I was reading a thriller to a degree). I found the characters of Ed and his friends a little two dimensional to begin with but as the book went on they were fleshed out as the plot thickened, that’s all I will say for now, you will spot the love story a mile off though!

What won me round with this book in particular, being a bit of a cynic, was that this book never strayed too far into cheesy territory which could have been an easy move, nor did it preach (I did on several occasions think the book might suddenly gain a religious slant) despite the author clearly having a motive and a message of his own. Though not always subtle and slightly saccarine in parts, Zusak has created a book that can be dark, laugh out loud funny and occasionally quite poignant. 6.5/10

Having now read ‘I Am The Messenger’ I don’t think I would call this a cross-over book, maybe I have become a bit of an early old timer but I wouldn’t want my brother or sister (8 and 12) reading this, mind you they read Twilight so what do I know. It did work for me though and I will definitely be reading whatever he comes out next without question and am really rather keen to read more of his already published works.

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (if you haven’t read it you should)
The Other Hand – Chris Cleave (though if you have read it and hated this book – it’s a marmite number – don’t let that put you off)

And no… I haven’t mentioned today’s general election… yet!

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Filed under Book Group, Markus Zusak, Pan MacMillan, Review