Category Archives: Reviews

Who are your Inspirational Authors?

Roald Dahl - inspirational authors

I’ve started a new A-Z of authors who have inspired my writing on my Instagram page, using the hashtag #stevegreads.

I’ve just got to D, which was a tough choice between Helen Dunmore, a fantastic author and poet who died sadly last year, Bob Dylan, whose biography Chronicles lived up to his epic career of songwriting, and Roald Dahl.

In the end I had to choose Roald Dahl, whose irreverent, joyful stories were a high point of my childhood reading. And which are now making me happy for a second time, as I read them with my two boys.

Which authors do you keep going back to? Who has inspired you the most?

Land of Mine: life as a Prisoner of War

I’ve just watched the harrowing Danish / German war film, Land of Mine. It’s about a group of German Prisoners of War who, contrary to the Geneva Convention, are made to find and defuse 45,000 land mines along a short stretch of brilliant white coastline. That’s 45,000 out of the 2.2 million mines that were laid along the Danish coast, more than the rest of Europe altogether. This is where the Fuhrer thought the invasion would come.

The film is heart-wrenching. The soldiers are all in their teens, clearly out of their depth, carrying all the burden of a situation that was not of their making. They are harassed and abused by their guards. It’s understandable, but hard to watch when they are crying and having to loudly deny that they are missing their homes, or their family, or even crying in the first place. This is grim. It is only a matter of time before, starving and sick from eating stolen animal meal, the expected happens.

My grandfather was a German Prisoner of War, which was one of the reasons I watched the film. I wanted to try to get some insight into what he must have experienced, being little more than a boy during this period of seismic upheaval. He died when I was 10, but I still remember sitting at his feet and pestering him for war stories whilst he sat in his favourite armchair in his Eastbourne semi, smoking Golden Virginia rollies. He didn’t like talking about the war, but over the years I got several stories from him.

He told me how he was at the launch of one of the first V2 rockets, which went straight up in the sky and came straight back down on the launch site, leaving the soldiers scrambling for cover. He told me how he was captured at the Battle of Caen, aiming a Panzerfaust at a British tank and being spotted by the tank commander who fired his machine gun at him. My grandfather’s stick grenade was hit and exploded, wounding him from head to foot on one side and blowing to pieces his friend who was loading behind him. My grandfather was saved by the Red Cross, sent to Canada – ‘the bears used to raid the bins every night’ – then to Scotland, and finally to Eastbourne, which is where he met my grandmother.

His experience of growing up is incomparable to mine; that’s why I was interested in seeing Land of Mine. In those young, proud, frightened German boys I was able to imagine some of the barely suppressed, frequently overt hatred he must have experienced from those who saw him as no more than a representative of the evil that had taken away their loved ones in the war.

Being one-quarter German, I am painfully aware that both my great-grandparents and my grandparents effectively tried to kill each other in two of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen. My parents and my generation have been spared – thanks in no small part to the European Union, winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, which has helped forge the longest period of peace in Europe since Roman times. But the lesson of history is never to become complacent. We must do all we can to keep our children’s generation free from such ruin.

German grandfather (former Prisoner of War) and English grandmotherMy German grandfather, Egon Korn, and English grandmother, Pamela (nee Guy)

The Rewards of Writing

Book signing at Barton's bookshop

Book signing at Barton’s bookshop

Let me start by saying it’s not for the sales – although of course they are welcome! I write simply because I enjoy it. I’ve always written, starting with my own New Avengers and James Bond stories when I was eight, and later on casting my school friends as the heroes and villains of action stories and westerns. It was fun – and gratifying – to see them being passed round class.

After focusing on poetry in my twenties and thirties, I am back to writing adventure stories with The Secret of the Tirthas. I enjoy creating stories full of suspense, mystery and intrigue – and it’s always fantastic to get feedback from readers. Obviously, sales are a good, hard measure of how appealing your book is. But reviews, particularly on Amazon and Goodreads, and increasingly direct, face-to-face feedback from readers are both huge reward and encouragement.  I was over the moon when The Guardian newspaper published a positive review of The City of Light by a 14 year-old-reader. And I have been similarly bowled over reading reviews by book bloggers such as Handsfull Mama in America and The Whimsy Bookworm in India.

But of all the direct feedback I’ve had, perhaps the most rewarding to date came yesterday, when an 80 year old lady came with her husband into Barton’s Bookshop, where I was doing a book signing event. This lovely lady had been given my first two books as gifts by her daughter, whom I met two years running at Pippfest in Dorking. I was delighted when she introduced herself with the words ‘I’m a fan of yours’ and we proceeded to have a long conversation about the inspiration for the books, including the real garden of rooms, my trips to India, and the Herefordshire countryside, which she and her husband knew well.

So, if you’ve read one of my books please write a review. And, if you meet me face to face, tell me what you liked (or didn’t) about the story. It means a lot to me.

Best Books: Grown-ups

My last post was a collection of my Goodreads reviews of the best Young Adult and Children’s books that I’ve read over the past couple of years. In the same vein, here’s some of the books for grown-ups that I’ve reviewed in the same time period:

Jack, by A.M. Homes

One of the best coming of age novels. Jack’s initial mortification at his dad’s coming out is soon compounded by everyone at school finding out, and not helped by the anodyne wisdom of the adults around him. But his parents’ separation is just a springboard to greater worries about joining the ‘complicated, boring’ world of society. Jack is sure there’s an alternative, but he’s shooting in the dark. Will he make it? 5 stars

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

A profound portrait of an individual and a community. The vignette-style chapters of characters who are emotionally damaged, close to illness and death, combines with the rough beauty of the Maine landscape to create an oddly affirming account of what it can mean to be alive. Olive Kitteridge is scathing, no-nonsense, pragmatic; and completely invested in her garden, the blooming of her tulips. 5 stars

The Crossing, by Andrew Miller

This book isn’t exactly long, but it takes you on an amazing journey. In the character of Maud, the author has created someone both mysterious and scientific, rooted in the world. When she’s met by tragedy her journey alone across the Atlantic, one moment calm and the next terrifyingly wild, is gripping. I wasn’t so sure about the ending, but this seems to me a resonant book for our times. 5 stars

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

Beautifully written, strong on character and historical detail, but overall lacking in drama and suspense. The book didn’t live up to its fabulous title, with the serpent and related gothic trappings never really coming to life. The relationships were interesting, and I liked the ending, but again they felt devoid of sufficient tension to merit the long story. 3 stars

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

My only criticism of this fantastic book, the first Agatha Christie that I’ve read, is that I would have liked more of it. More detail about the characters, more description of the setting. It almost defines ‘pared down’. But it’s brilliant nevertheless. 5 stars

In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

Nora, or Lee as she was formerly known, has partially resolved a past trauma through her work and the isolated life of a writer. But it all comes back again when she is invited to a hen party, only to find that the her former best friend is marrying the man who broke her heart. The setting, in a remote, glass-walled house in a Northumbrian pine wood, adds to the tension. We know from the start it will end in blood – but is it going to be at the hands of angry locals, or someone in the party? A masterful suspense story. 4 stars

The Wine-Dark Sea, by Robert Aickman

The attention to detail in these stories and the deeply-knit tensions make you think you are heading for a full length novel, something that is going to take you to fantastic, dark places and give you all kinds of revelations. And you get some of that, but Aickman uses the short story to cut you off in mid-flow, to leave early, to depart in a manner that leaves you wanting more. There hangs the doom of foreclosure across all his tales, which I think is exactly what he wants. His glimpses, of the afterlife, of archetypes, of the dark and strange potential behind reality, are perfectly suited to the form. I haven’t read a book as compulsive, as strange, as brilliant as this in a long time. Read it! 5 stars

City of Light, by Lauren Belfer

A complex historical thriller set at the turn of the twentieth century, when the first power stations were being established at Niagara Falls. It was a time of great hope (with promises to roll back the darkness and let poor children read by electric light) and great conflict, between unionists, black people, and nature ‘preservationists’ against the powerful new industrialists. It’s all told from the perspective of the spinster head teacher of the local girl’s school, who bears a major secret of her own that commits her to engaging with the dark and dramatic events. Recommended. 4 stars

You can check out the books I’ve read, see what people say about The Secret of the Tirthas, send me a friend request, and more over on my Goodreads profile page.

Best Books: Young Adult & Children’s

I’ve become quite a fan of the readers’ social media platform, Goodreads. I like it for three reasons:

  1. It’s a great way to get to know readers and writers, and to make friends. You can even compare all the books you’ve ever read with them, and see how similar (or wildly opposed) your tastes are.
  2. As a writer, it’s a great way of seeing what readers think about your books. Most users rate their books as soon as they finish them, and some do written reviews. Because it’s a social media platform, you get more reviews than on Amazon or other retail sites.
  3. It’s a great place to find out about books, as well as to log all the books that you’ve read and want to read. A friend once said that she wished she could write just a few sentences of each book she’d read as she finished it, because it’s so easy to forget books after a while. And it’s the perfect platform for that.

You can check out what people think about The Secret of the Tirthas, compare your books with mine, and send me a friend request all on my profile page.

Anyhow, I thought I’d share some of the best books I’ve read over the last couple of years, which I’ve reviewed on Goodreads. In this first post: Young Adult & Children’s Books.

A Library of Lemons, by Jo Cotterill

A beautiful book about the mistaken routes we take to cope with grief and the long-term harm they do. Lovely, lucid writing – I particularly liked the image of the reclusive father receiving an invitation and looking like a hamster about to be plucked from its cage. Recommended for readers aged 10+, including grown-ups. 5 stars

Charlotte’s Web, by EB White

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I didn’t come across it as a child, but thankfully have had the chance to read it to my own children. The writing is wonderful, rendering the beauty and sadness of nature with almost perfect precision. The ending is, of course, heart breaking, and my wife and I had to take it in turns consoling our six-year-old. But he understood bravely the message that (paraphrasing Dylan Thomas) whilst friends may die, friendship will not. 5 stars

The Last Wild, by Piers Torday

Gripping, harrowing, comical, exciting… and with a very strong message about how much damage we do intentionally and unintentionally if we don’t remain vigilant about our connection to the natural world. This is a fantastic roller coaster of a book, with heroic children and animals, and the animal world’s version of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the form of Captain Skuldiss. 5 stars

Doctor Who: Ghosts of India, by Mark Morris

I really enjoyed this book. India just after the second world war is masterfully depicted, with the hope, mystery and exuberance nicely balanced against the ominous clouds of coming strife with partition. The adventure has a good blend of villains and monsters, from the ghastly white ‘half-dead men’ to crazed Army Majors, giant crocodiles and cobras. The meeting of Gandhi with the Doctor is wonderful, and it’s left to Donna to draw parallels – and the Doctor to highlight the one key difference between them. A fun ride, with a pointed note of sadness at the end. 4 stars

The Chicken Dance, by Jacques Couvillon

I love this book, it’s a fantastic take on the huge capacity for patience and acceptance that children have, and the things they’ll do to ensure that no matter what they’ll find a way to have fun and give their lives meaning. Don is a winning example of one of those kids who end up parenting their parents. His final act of kindness breaks your heart. My only criticism is that the book feels a little drawn out towards the end – but that’s not enough to knock it off the top spot. Surely the best book you’ll ever read about chickens, too. 5 stars


The Misadventure of Bolingbroke Manor: An interactive ghost hunting adventure, by Ellie Firestone

A great, well written interactive book, perfect for the creepy season! I’ve just read this with my son (age 7) and we really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, he came to a sticky end, but we will be playing it again soon. Recommended. 5 stars

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

I loved the concept of this novel, in which the author draws on the fascinating power of old photographs to weave his fantastical story set between Florida and a wet and windy Welsh island. In the back notes Ransom Riggs explains how the creative process worked, with sometimes him hunting through thousands of archives to find the right picture and sometimes the story being pulled in a new direction by a chance find. With a big idea like this I’m sure there was a danger of things not working out. No fear. This is a masterful story full of strong characters, inspirational settings and a plot that keeps you gripped right to the end. 4 stars

Rooftoppers , by Katherine Rundell

Structurally, the book felt a little unbalanced, some bits were overly long – but somehow this added to its sense of originality and poetry. I loved the tangential metaphors, particularly as they illuminate Sophie’s inner life. And the ending leaves you in a perfect spin. 5 stars

We Were Liars, by E Lockhart

A stylish novel that messes around with your expectations. Set on an idyllic island, four privileged teenagers find their lives shadowed by an accident involving the narrator, which she is unable to remember. The story is pervaded by a sense of disturbance – brilliantly reflected by occasional, explosive images – and reproach throughout. Who’s the subject of this reproach – the wealthy patriarch, his money-grabbing daughters, the idealistic, enigmatic Gat? Given the unreliability of her memory, does the narrator even know herself? Well worth a second read, loved it. 4 stars

All Aboard the London Bus, by Patty Toht

Can’t fault this lovely book. Excellent illustrations and poems, and a great introduction to London. 5 stars


Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! , by Mo Willems

This has got to be one of the best picture books ever. The only time you will love hearing your children shouting ‘NO!’ 5 stars

The Dog in the Diamond Collar, by Rebecca Lisle

Read this with my boys aged 6 and 8 at bedtime. It’s a great story, full of laughs, with wonderful illustrations. The youngest couldn’t get over the name the three boys called the dog, Clinky Monkey (‘he’s not a monkey!’). I particularly liked the scene where they put the dog in a babygro and then wheel him around in a pram to get him into the zoo. When we finished, I asked the boys to mark it out of 10. 10 and, to quote, ‘Googol’ (10 to the 100th power) were the answers. 5 stars

Locked in Time, by Lois Duncan

I was drawn to this book by I Know What You Did Last Summer and the atmospheric Louisianan plantation setting. The story is enjoyable, with an engaging heroine who has to deal with the challenge of her father remarrying into an enigmatic southern family. The suspense is there, although perhaps not taut enough by today’s standards. 3 stars

In praise of… independent bookshops

I’ve just delivered a few copies of The City of Light to Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead. This independent bookshop has been fantastic for me as a local writer. The owner, Peter Snell, and his staff (especially Cameron) have been incredibly helpful and supportive. I’ve done two signing sessions there and we’ve now got a third scheduled for Saturday 2nd December. They’ve sold over 60 books, with all four ‘Secret of the Tirthas’ novels on permanent display. And they’ve also put me in contact with the excellent Jane Dixon-Smith who designs my book covers. So if you’re anywhere nearby – go in and buy some books, and keep your local independent bookshop thriving!

The Wine-Dark Sea by Robert Aickman: a short review

The Wine-Dark SeaThe Wine-Dark Sea by Robert Aickman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The attention to detail in these stories and the deeply-knit tensions make you think you are heading for a full length novel, something that is going to take you to fantastic, dark places and give you all kinds of revelations. And you get some of that, but Aickman uses the short story to cut you off in mid-flow, to leave early, to depart in a manner that leaves you wanting more. There hangs the doom of foreclosure across all his tales, which I think is exactly what he wants. His glimpses, of the afterlife, of archetypes, of the dark and strange potential behind reality, are perfectly suited to the form. I haven’t read a book as compulsive, as strange, as brilliant as this in a long time. Read it!

View all my reviews

Guardian Review of The City of Light – from the Archive

“I can’t wait to read the next adventure of Lizzie and Pandu, and I would definitely recommend this book to my friends…”

I’ve just been looking back over some reviews of The City of Light. This one, which appeared in The Guardian, has to be my favourite:

The City of Light: The Secret of the Tirthas

 

My Top 10 Books of 2016

What a year 2016 has been!

Thankfully, there are books to keep us happy. So here’s a round up of my favourite reads from the year:

  1. Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

To think, I wasn’t even going to buy this. I needed a third book in a 3 for 2 at Waterstones, I was in a hurry, and this was being promoted. A piece of good fortune, and proof that we should always challenge our reading habits.

Here’s what I said about it on Goodreads:

A profound portrait of an individual and a community. The vignette-style chapters of characters who are emotionally damaged, close to illness and death, combines with the rough beauty of the Maine landscape to create an oddly affirming account of what it can mean to be alive. Olive Kitteridge is scathing, no-nonsense, pragmatic; and completely invested in her garden, the blooming of her tulips.


2. The Crossing, by Andrew Miller

This book isn’t exactly long, but it takes you on an amazing journey. In the character of Maud, the author has created someone both mysterious and scientific, rooted in the world. When she’s met by tragedy her journey alone across the Atlantic, one moment calm and the next terrifyingly wild, is gripping. I wasn’t so sure about the ending, but this seems to me a resonant book for our times.

3. Serafina and the Black Cloak, by Robert Beatty

A great adventure mystery story for middle grade / young teens, set in the rambling Biltmore estate and the dark woods surrounding it.

4. The Music of Chance, by Paul Auster

I read Moon Palace by Paul Auster many years ago and didn’t get on well with it. Then last year my wife bought a secondhand copy of The Book of Illusion in a lovely little bookshop in Alfriston. I read it and was an immediate convert (even re-reading Moon Palace, which I enjoyed much more this time).

Here’s an excerpt from my Goodreads review of The Music of Chance:

Don’t expect any answers. This story of two unlikely companions being undone through a game of cards with two equally unlikely partners just gets darker and darker…. Nashe, the hero, is a rationalist, but his burning of two wooden figures of the guys who beat him and Pozzi and inflict the ‘punishment’ of building a wall on them opens up all possible explanations, even supernatural. I loved this gripping book, although in the face of so much deftly handled ambiguity, the ending felt like too easy a way out.

5. And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

A lot of my reading is inspired by what I’m going to write next. I’m currently drafting the fourth book of The Secret of the Tirthas, The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask, set in a country house. The novel has a strong mystery element, so I thought it was time to read my first ever Agatha Christie novel.

My only criticism of this fantastic book is that I would have liked more of it. More detail about the characters, more description of the setting. It almost defines ‘pared down’. But it’s brilliant nevertheless.

6. The Magician, by W. Somerset Maugham

Again for inspiration in my current writing, I reread this classic by Somerset Maugham. It’s an absorbing gothic tale of the tragedy that overtakes young lovers when they come across a vain, malicious and darkly ambitious Occultist in 1920s Paris.

7. Rilke’s Book of Hours, tr. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

Reread over the Christmas period. It’s the one period in the year most of us get (at least some) time to reflect on life. I haven’t read any of Rilke’s other poetry, and I normally struggle with poems that are totally abstract – but I was struck by how some of the images in these poems relate to the need for an observer to shape the world. I read The New Scientist magazine and, as the universe gets increasingly weird and less likely the more we discover about it, I like how poetry written a hundred and fifty years ago can still resonate with current theories.

8. Wild Swans, by Jung Chang

I finally got around to reading this amazing book. Here’s my Goodreads review:

This is a whirlwind story, focusing around the tragedy of China throughout much of the last century through three generations of women. The greatest havoc is wrought by Mao Zedong and his wife, particularly through his Cultural Revolution in which young people are pitched against teachers, intellectuals and artists in a highly successful attempt to divide and rule. It’s like Lord of the Flies meets real life. Read this book, especially if you don’t know much about China – it’s an education.

9. The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell

I loved this book about a siege that reflects the physical and metaphysical crumbling of the British Empire in India. As the residents of the compound try to maintain their routines under increasingly desperate circumstances it’s darkly humorous, at times reminiscent of Carry On Up The Khyber.

10. Doctor Who: Ghosts of India, by Mark Morris

I haven’t read a Doctor Who book since I was about 10 years old, but was glad to return to them with this one. Having written my first novel about India, I couldn’t resist this title when I saw it in a secondhand bookshop. Here’s an excerpt from my Goodreads review:

India just after the second world war is masterfully depicted, with the hope, mystery and exuberance nicely balanced against the ominous clouds of coming strife with partition. The adventure has a good blend of villains, from the ghastly white ‘half-dead men’ to crazed Army Majors, crocodiles and cobras. The meeting of Gandhi with the Doctor is wonderful, and it’s left to Donna to draw parallels – and the Doctor to highlight the one key difference between them. A fun ride, with a pointed note of sadness at the end.

That’s my top ten from 2016. Let’s hope 2017 proves a good one – or at least a little bit less tumultuous than 2016.

Happy New Year!

Author Review – Katherine Rundell

Jpeg

Jpeg

I recently finished The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, one of my favourite children’s authors. Like Rooftoppers and The Girl Savage, this book is highly original and poetic, with a very driven heroine. Feo helps her mum re-wild the no-longer-wanted wolves tamed as status symbols by the elite of Tsarist Russia. The story takes a treacherous turn when a wolf kills a farm animal. Wicked General Rakov tells Feo and her mum that all the wolves need to be killed – something they are determined not to let happen.

Relationships between girls and their mothers are key to the set up in all three novels. In Rooftoppers, Sophie is hunting through Paris in the belief that her mother, declared dead after their ship sank when Sophie was a baby, is still alive. In The Wolf Wilder, Feo is similarly on a quest to St Petersburg to free her mother, imprisoned by the loathsome Rakov. The Girl Savage is different in that Will is not seeking her mother, but rather rebounding from the cruel actions of a controlling stepmother, who has sent her away from her carefree life in Zimbabwe to boarding school in a wet and miserable England, where she is bullied by other girls.

All three books laud the spaces outside of civilisation as bastions of freedom and joy, the snowy forests of Russia, the wide open spaces of Zimbabwe, and even the rooftops of Paris. Society, represented by the aristocrats of St Petersburg who treat wild animals as playthings or the oppressive routines of English boarding schools, is seen as crushing to the spirit and innocence of childhood. In The Girl Savage I’m not sure I really buy the message of compromise of the kindly grandmother of Will’s new friend Daniel. It seems a step too far in contrast to the majestic description of Will’s early life in Zimbabwe. It feels rather that British society has failed to make happiness an option for children.

What makes all three novels stand out is not only the characters and fabulous settings, but the awe and beauty in the language. ‘Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl.’ Like Lyra Belacqua in His Dark Materials, Rundell runs the rooftops of Oxford colleges in her spare time. No wonder she’s a favourite of Philip Pullman.

Buy these books: