Book Review| Mary’s the Name by Ross Sayers

Orphaned Mary lives with her granpa, but after he is mixed up in a robbery at the bookies where he works, they flee to the Isle of Skye. Gradually, Mary realises that her granpa is involved. And the robbers are coming after him–and their money.


You might have heard of Ross Sayers, particularly if you follow any Scottish Tweets social media. He’s pretty funny and can always provide a scathing yet relatable tweet about Scotrail. Which at this stage is rather like shooting fish in a barrel. But I digress. He also writes books.

My hopes for Mary’s the Name were high, especially after seeing many people saying they physically wept. “We’ll see about that,” I said. “I am a robot, immune to being moved by literature. I can appreciate it yes, but emotions? Unlikely.”

Well played Mr. Sayers, you got me.

The narrative is simultaneously innocent, because Mary’s only eight, and filled with a lingering sense of unease. The dramatic irony is delicious. The narrative voice is spot on – no easy task when you’re an adult writing from the perspective of an eight year old. It’s funny and poignant and touching and honest and unflinching.

If you want another cracking example of the Scottish literary scene, pick up Mary’s the Name. If you want a genuinely good read, pick up Mary’s the Name. If you want to cry on a rail journey for a reason other than your train has been cancelled due to lack of staff, read Mary’s the Name.

Just read Mary’s the Name.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review | Sight Unseen by Sandra Ireland

1648. Alie Gowdie marries Richard Webster during a turbulent time in Scotland’s history. Charles I is about to lose his head, and little does Alie know that she too will meet a grisly end within the year.

2019. Sarah Sutherland is struggling to cope with the demands of her day job, caring for her elderly father and keeping tabs on her backpacking daughter. She wanted to be an archaeologist, but now in her forties, she is divorced, alone, and there seems to be no respite, no glimmer of excitement on the horizon. However, she does have a special affinity with the Kilgour Witch, Alie Gowdie, who lived in Sarah’s cottage until her execution in 1648, and Sarah likes nothing better than to retreat into a world of sorcery, spells and religious fanaticism.

Her stories delight tourists as she leads them along the cobbled streets of her home town, but what really lies behind the tale of Alie Gowdie, the Kilgour Witch? Can Sarah uncover the truth in order to right a centuries-old wrong? And what else might modern-day Kilgour be hiding, just out of sight?


I started drafting this review while I was on the last wee bit of Sight Unseen. I just finished reading it, at midnight, and I’ve deleted everything I’d written so far and started again.

Let’s begin with the basics. Sandra (one of my uni creative writing cohorts, by the way, let me just name drop a little) calls herself a “purveyor of Fine Tartan Gothic”, which is a pretty accurate description of her books. Sight Unseen is set in the fictional town of Kilgour, which has a past steeped in witchcraft and mysticism.

Sandra is incredible at writing settings that are essentially characters in their own right – they’re evocative and you can feel their presence in every scene, likebackground music. You can tell she absolutely immerses herself in her settings when she writes and it shines through. After a few chapters of Sight Unseen I felt like I’ve grown up in Kilgour, with all its charm and uncomfortable history.

I’ll tell you something else about Sandra: she’s an absolute master of the curveball, of weaving multiple seemingly unrelated threads through a story and suddenly yanking them all together behind you. The twists aren’t outlandish, but you never see them coming until they’re upon you and everything falls into place. She’s got phenomenal talent and Sight Unseen is an absolute joy to read from beginning to end – it’ll chill you and shock you and make you smile.

Sight Unseen ends on a “to be continued”, and I can’t wait for the next one. I have a feeling I know what it’s going to focus on, although knowing Sandra I’m probably miles wrong…

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review | Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming–both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.


I confess immediately that I am shamefully ignorant when it comes to Middle Eastern history. I’d heard of things like the Islamic Revolution in passing, but I had no idea what it was, where it happened and what effects it had on the countries involved.

Subsequently, I went into Persepolis entirely blind. I’d heard a few Booktubers talking about it, so when I spotted it in my local comic book store I snapped it up. (The daughter of the owners also highly recommended it. Bonus!) I had no idea really what to expect – such was my ignorance.

What an education. The complex bits – the introduction to the culture and politics of the region, and the background leading up to the events – are presented through the lens of young Marjane, so they’re simplified without being patronising. As she grows up she shows her struggles with identity – during her education in Europe and her return to Iran – in an unflinchingly honest way, both in terms of the history and her own attitudes. (If you want to pull a selection of awkward faces, by the way, check out the two-star Goodreads reviews describing “the main character” like it’s not a memoir. Brutal.)

If I’ve discovered one thing it’s that a graphic novel is a perfect vehicle for learning. It allows you to present difficult and infomation-heavy topics in a way that’s easy to absorb without having to patronise or dumb it down. Persepolis is definitely for graphic novel and history nerds, but everyone should read it if they have a chance – it’s an insight into a country and culture that was certainly never included in the curriculum when I was in education.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book Spotlight | Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin

knots and crosses

Detective John Rebus: His city is being terrorised by a baffling series of murders…and he’s tied to a maniac by an invisible knot of blood. Once John Rebus served in Britain’s elite SAS. Now he’s an Edinburgh cop who hides from his memories, misses promotions and ignores a series of crank letters. But as the ghoulish killings mount and the tabloid headlines scream, Rebus cannot stop the feverish shrieks from within his own mind. Because he isn’t just one cop trying to catch a killer, he’s the man who’s got all the pieces to the puzzle… 

As someone who’s spent most of her life living in Fife, I’m ashamed that it’s taken me so long to read an Ian Rankin book. In my defence, I’d have done it sooner if I wasn’t a stickler for chronological order and the first book wasn’t the only one that my parents didn’t have in their house.

Never mind. Better late than never, and I LOVED IT.

I loved Rebus. He’s a cynical, divorced Detective Sergeant who drinks and smokes and is generally pretty sardonic. Should be so far, so cliche, but Ian Rankin’s writing of him makes him an absolute revelation.

I loved Rebus’ Edinburgh. It’s not the tourist’s Edinburgh, with the castle and the Mile and the Old Town. It’s Lothian Road and the seedy bars you only go into if you’re local, and the difference between the upper crust and the grotty bits.

I loved the story, which was intense and dark and full of unsavoury characters, but so clever and evocative that it was an absolute joy to read. Rankin’s writing style is gloriously dry and witty and Scottish I actually audibly snorted on the train.

See possibly my favourite line in any book ever:

“If you buzz down to him, I’ll come back up and kick that telephone so far up your arse that you really will be able to make internal calls. Do you get my drift?”

Magnificent stuff. I’ve not read a lot of crime fiction, but this has set the bar pretty high. You could have set it in any city and it would have been great, but the fact that it was set in Edinburgh, on streets that I see on my way to work every day, made it even more fun

Also Ian Rankin was only 25 years old when he wrote this. Man’s a genius. I am suitably intimidated.

Book Spotlight | Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

six of crows

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist.

Yes! Rejoice! I’ve finally read this book after buying it last October. I’m not going to lie, it took me a while to get into, but OH BOY was my initial disappointment blown away.

It’s an edge-of-your-seat story about a heist, about feuding and crime, but that’s not even the best bit. The more I found out about the six characters – criminals, a barbaric hunter, a privileged boy – the more my heart grew and broke at the same time.

 

It had love, it had drama, it had a world so dark and grubby and evocative that I wanted to have a bath at multiple points. The characters shine through it like diamonds.

Basically, I loved it. I’ll be buying the sequel for my holiday.

Oh and also, “I will have you without armour, Kaz Brekker, or I will not have you at all.” Hold me.

Rating: *****

Book Spotlight | Guitar Girl by Sarra Manning

Fame never comes for free, and Molly’s about to find out what it costs.

Guitar Girl

Guitar Girl is one of my all time favourite YA books. An underrated classic.

Molly is a seventeen year old who, along with her friends Jane and Tara wants nothing more than to be noticed for something. Anything. Even if you’re as anxiety-ridden a teen as I was, that’s relatable. So they start a band, pick up a couple of rude and aloof boys on the way, and boom. Fame, success and Molly is suddenly, and increasingly reluctantly in the shoes of her grrrl rock icon, Ruby X. I was fourteen when this book came out and I’m pretty sure I was given a copy not long after it was released. Everyone knew my aesthetic, even then.

If you like YA and you haven’t read this book, I would thoroughly recommend it. Molly is badass and vulnerable in equal measure and her narrative is spiky and relatable and warm. It’s the dream of learning three chords on the guitar and changing the world, and the nightmare of losing control of everything you stand for. Plus there are mysterious terribly-behaved boys, the dangerous side of fame and excess, and a song about Hello Kitty. Every box ticked.

On that note, if you want a cool girl band singing songs about relatable shit, may I recommend “Hey Siri, Open Tinder” by Childbirth. You’re welcome.

Book Spotlight | I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman

For Angel Rahimi, life is only about one thing: The Ark – a pop-rock trio of teenage boys who are currently taking the world by storm. Being part of The Ark’s fandom has given her everything – her friendships, her dreams, her place in the world.

Jimmy Kaga-Ricci owes everything to The Ark too. He’s their frontman – and playing in a band is all he’s ever dreamed of doing. It’s just a shame that recently everything in his life seems to have turned into a bit of a nightmare.

Because that’s the problem with dreaming – eventually, inevitably, real life arrives with a wake-up call. And when Angel and Jimmy are unexpectedly thrust together, they will discover just how strange and surprising facing up to reality can be.

iwbft

I love Alice Oseman. Radio Silence and Solitaire are both books I wish I’d had when I was in high school. Instead of trying to look at them from the perspective of the current young adult audience, these books resonate with Younger Me in a big way, and it’s both heartbreaking and pretty therapeutic.

I Was Born For This is both completely different and exactly the same.

It’s the story of how pervasive and consuming pouring your heart and soul into something can be. A band, a TV show, a book…it’s an authentic look at how how important, and how destructive these things can be when they become everything. It’s also a testament to the friends and communities that build up around things can be to someone who’s lonely or struggling. It can save lives.

So why only four stars?

This didn’t resonate with me in the same way the previous two did, which is not a fault of the book. Most of my fandom adventures were solitary, borne of loneliness in school and mental illness, and I didn’t have anywhere near the experiences of Angel and Juliet. If I’d been more heavily involved? Hell yeah, I can see another version of me in this book.

Overall, not my favourite Alice Oseman book because it didn’t hit my buttons in the specific video-game-puzzle-solving order like the previous two, but still a gr8 book. Alice Oseman is one of the very best YA authors around, and I have absolutely no doubt that pretty much everyone who’s ever used the internet will see themselves in the pages.

Rating: ****

Book Spotlight | The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon

Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?

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Do you ever read a book that you just know you’d have LOVED in high school? The Sun Is Also A Star is one of them. The journey of two teenagers over the course of one day, brought together by fate and rippling their way through New York City, it’s one of my. favourite reads so far this year

Normally the “instalove” trope is one of the things that makes me want to peel off my own face in frustration, but TSIAAS made it work, through science and poetry. It was the epitome of the heady, intense love of teenage years, when the world shrinks to the point of two people. It should have been tacky, but it wasn’t. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.

There were a couple of scenes that I didn’t really enjoy, mainly because they seemed unrealistic to me and kind of pulled me out of it, but the rest of it was pretty spot on. Full of hope and joy and the real tugging sadness of growing up. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Shelve it under “Books I’d Give My Kids To Read”.

Plus Natasha listens to Nirvana and Soundgarden. MY GAL.

Rating: ****

Book Spotlight | The Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman

When Lyra’s friend Roger disappears, she and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, determine to find him. 

The ensuing quest leads them to the bleak splendour of the North, where armoured bears rule the ice and witch-queens fly through the frozen skies – and where a team of scientists is conducting experiments too horrible to be spoken about.

Lyra overcomes these strange terrors, only to find something yet more perilous waiting for her – something with consequences which may even reach beyond the Northern Lights..

northern lights

Confession time: prior to this month I hadn’t read any of this series. I’d picked up bits and pieces of this book, and I’d seen the film (which put me off completely for several years, that shit was BAD), but everyone from Twitter to my mum has been telling me to read it for years so THANKS UKISA BOOK CLUB for giving me the push I needed.

Thus I borrowed my mum’s copy (which I’m pretty sure was mine, once upon a time) and read it, and boy do I have thoughts.

First of all, I want to know exactly what Philip Pullman is.

I like to think I’ve got a vivid imagination. Fantasy authors in general blow me away but this was on another level. Books like this make me feel like a dribbling mess. The worldbuilding so deep and the characters are so deliciously evocative that I’m led to the conclusion that Mr. Pullman either isn’t human or can see some otherworldly shit that mere mortals cannot.

Second of all, this is the darkest effing book. They kidnap kids and rip away their souls so they can make a magic bridge to a hidden world? They keep their souls in a room in little cages?

Damn.

Lyra is a great heroine, not least because she has no superpowers, she’s “The Chosen One” but she’s not allowed to know it, and therefore neither are we. It makes a change from Harry Potter, for example, where we find out bits and pieces of Harry’s fate at the same time he does, but there’s a nice little undercurrent of menace on top of all the other dark stuff because we know something Lyra doesn’t. DELICIOUS.

In conclusion: disgustingly creepy villains, an incredible world, ARMOURED POLAR BEARS and a flawed heroine. I loved it. Now I want a daemon, although god knows I’ve got a cat with separation anxiety so I have some idea what it’s like. I bet Pantalaimon doesn’t rip up carpets or pee in Lyra’s washing basket though.

Final thought: Iorik Byrnison is a BAMF and I love him. Please come back in a later book Iorik.

Rating: ****

Book Spotlight | The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton

A soc has money, can get away with just about anything, and has an attitude longer than a limousine. A greaser, on the other hand, always lives on the outside and needs to watch his back. 

The Outsiders

The Outsiders is widely accepted as the first ever “proper” Young Adult book. It was published at a time when books for young adults were, as author S.E. Hinton says, “Mary Jane wants to go to the prom with the football hero and ends up with the boy next door and has a good time anyway.”. Or horse books.

It’s the story of a gang of “greasers”, who have a long-running rivalry with the “Socials” or “Socs” – who’re essentially the jocks in this scenario. Think Grease, but with fewer cars and lots of drama and bloody fighting instead of pink ladies and singing. Hinton was sixteen years old when she wrote it. Respect to her. When I was sixteen I could barely get out of bed and she wrote a friggin’ classic.

The Outsiders has been banned in a number of schools because it portrays gang violence, underage smoking and drinking and a bunch of other “sensitive stuff”. Ironically, Hinton points out in the edition of the book that I have that “every teenager feels that adults have no idea what’s going on”. GEE.

Banning books is dumb. Books like this can open up discussions and give young people an avenue to feel like they have a voice, instead of feeling adrift. Hinton was a teenager when she wrote The Outsiders, articulating the gritty, grubby, very real issues she was seeing in her school and neighbourhood. More than a few of these are still relevant today.

Stay gold, Ponyboy.

Rating: *****