Hello. My name is Maya Panika. This is where I blather on about reading, writing, my unexciting life and my novel ENTANGLEMENT. Please read my chapters. Good or bad, all comments are welcome.

Ice crunched under my feet. Everywhere was still and dead with the silence of snow. The landscape was shrouded in mist, a thick cobwebby blanket of dirty mothy muslin; Angel’s World by Miss Haversham. I recognised the imagery immediately, the metaphorical mists of time made in black and white by the BBC; a Troughton-era Doctor Who, perhaps? My psyche reaching into TV Heaven for its special effects. I’d like to say I marched in bravely, best foot forward, full of purpose like some square-jawed Rider Haggard hero, but suspect I minced in slowly, cautiously, hands outstretched, eyes, ears, nose and throat on full alert, scared almost witless, waiting for the cold, clammy, disembodied hand of cliché to come out of the fog and grab me.

“I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud.” – C.G.Jung

The Maker of Swans


by Paraic O’Donnell

– an advance review for a book due to be published on 11th February 2016.


SwansThe very strange tale of Mr Crowe, his mute ward Clara, his powerful adversaries and his loyal servant Eustace. Told almost entirely from Eustace’s point of view, The Maker of Swans is Gothic, dark, strange – when is it set? At times it feels like the distant past, at others, very contemporary (and this is explained in the conclusion – a delightful surprise). Mr. Crowe appears to be a very rich man. He lives a peculiar and isolated life in his castle with Clara, Eustace, a few retainers, a girlfriend of sorts. There’s a powerful thread of fantasy woven through, an odd magic centred around the mute girl Clara and her love of writing and Mr. Crowe’s library which she knows intimately.
The language is poetic – sometimes rather densely so, making or a difficult read. Sometimes the words dance on the page with passages like, “we must visit Debussy… You have never heard music, Eustace, until you have heard him. It is made of starlight and of first kisses. It seems scarcely to belong to our world.”
It is extremely slow to get going. I almost gave up on it around page 100; the rich density of language coupled with the oddness of the tale and the fact that the story is exceptionally slow moving made it very hard going for a good third of its length. It does begin to pick up steam around the time that Clara is abducted (I hope that’s not a spoiler. I don’t think so, since she is a prisoner for most of the tale). I enjoyed it very much from this point on, but I suspect the dreadful slowness of the start will put off a good many readers. And so much remains unexplained – frustratingly so. Why the swans – they only appear twice but they are in the title and are obviously significant. And Clara: who is she? What is her point and purpose in the lives of Mr. Crowe and Eustace? I’m clearly missing something – lots of things. I assumed Clara’s story would be the point of the story and all would be revealed and it never was and I found this inexcusable and fantastically annoying! But the book is full of puzzles – the names of the sections, for example, and some anagram – I probably haven’t figured it all out yet. It is complex, slippery, full of uncertainly; a book that I would guess really needs more than one read to really understand quite what is going on.There’s a strong sense of Gormenghast in this novel, and a meddling with time and space that is almost Whovian at times. There’s a delicious twist (in the origins of Mr. Crowe) that I adored – but even this is not brought out on a platter, you have to think; you have to work at it. I’m inclined to think this book may be altogether too much work for some readers but for those willing to make the effort, this book offers huge rewards.

Review: Nelly Dean


by Alison Case

NDA re-telling of the events of Wuthering Heights from the point of view of the family servant, Nelly Dean. Nelly also tells the story in Wuthering Heights, but as the story comes from Lockwood’s sighting of Cathy’s ghost, the original focuses on Cathy and her strange and terrible relationship with Heathcliff. In Nelly Dean, the focus is square and plainly on Nelly herself, and told by means of a letter to Mr Lockwood, which works nicely in its context (which I can’t tell for fear of spoiling). By these means, Alison Case brings an interesting, tangential view of the family and their deeply tangled, dysfunctional relationships. The perspective of the story is entirely different, being centred on Nelly’s obsession with Hindley Earnshaw, pivoting the focus away from Cathy and Heathcliffe, who are ill-focused, peripheral characters for much of the book. It’s a refreshing take and an interesting viewpoint that completely changes the emphasis of the story.
It’s a big book – 474 pages – but extremely readable (much more so than Wuthering Heights) and cleverly done. Anyone who has read the original can see all the points at which the story crosses, but the telling from Nelly’s – far more earthy and practical – perspective gives the well-known story a whole new spectrum of colours and emotions. I found it a surprisingly compelling read considering it branches from the original narrative so much, with tremendous detail about domestic life – dairying, sewing, shopping, cleaning, cooking a stew on an open range, conventional mid-Victorian medicine and the herbs of the wise women, the time it took to travel everywhere and etc. Alison Case has done her research, but it doesn’t show in anything other than these frequent excursions into Nelly’s daily life. There are no info-dumps or long, dreary discourses; most of these side-trips are engagingly told and Alison Case gifts Nelly with a strong, believable voice that makes the thing spin by smoothly. I can’t describe it as a page turner – it wasn’t a novel I rushed to read at the end of the day; this is a re-telling of a very well known story, perhaps one of the best known in English literature, so there are few surprises. It is a quietly good tale, absorbing and engaging, that draws the reader into this lost world of 1850’s Haworth (a place and landscape I know very well as it is my own native landscape; Haworth is just 30 miles from where I live). Considering that the author is American, I found some of the local rhythms of speech well done (though some were awful; two characters ‘sounded’ more like Geordies to me). A few Americanisms creep in here and there and they did leap out at me, but they are fairly minor and few and easy to pass over and some readers won’t notice them at all.
Of course, it is not (and never could be) Wuthering Heights. It’s a comfortable, smooth and easy read; a diverting accompaniment to the original, but it stands alone too. If you haven’t read Emily Bronte’s masterpiece, you can still enjoy Nelly Dean. Who knows, it might even inspire some who haven’t read it yet to give the (rather more daunting) Wuthering Heights a read.

Review: Slade House


by David Mitchell

To be published on 27th October 2015

sladeThis feels like a true stylistic departure for David Mitchell, moving into Gaimanesque territory with this slim volume (by DM’s standards, certainly) – a creepy paranormal horror; 5 stories about a pair of twins locked in time and stealing souls with a dash of a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. I am hard-wired to love everything about this (I wrote a book on very similar themes myself, full of similar imagery, right down to the wind-blown leaves on the chequer-board floor) and I did enjoy it enormously. I can’t say it’s my favourite David Mitchell, nothing like; it is a much more straightforward piece of storytelling than his usual work; it lacks the endless layers, the breathtaking imagery, the thick, chewy, nougatty linguistic density I generally associate with David Mitchell’s writing.
– Which is fair enough, of course, for this is not the new novel I’ve been looking for but a series of short stories based on a tale told on Twitter and set in The Bone Clocks universe (a book which, I’m extremely sorry to say, I still haven’t read. One of the disadvantages of getting so many books to review is, you rarely get the time to read the books you really, really want to read). I’m sure Slade House is a more satisfying experience if you have read TBC; there is only one point in the book (and it’s right at the end) where I felt I would have been a little less confused had I read them in the right order, but it wasn’t a biggie; Slade House stands alone quite comfortably and it is a terrifically compelling and absorbing tale that makes me even more anxious to make time to read The Bone Clocks.

Review: The Dust that Falls From Dreams


by Louis de Bernières

3 and a half stars

LdeBIt is Epic – immensely long and yet uncomplicated; a linear narrative that begins with memories of childhood, takes in the tragic sweep of the Great War and follows the survivors into the aftermath. It is a tale of many characters with interwoven stories and a depth of history that is neatly stitched into the narrative – there are no info-dumps, no research proudly on display. Seamless, it seems like nothing – it had the smooth readability of Philip Hensher: very personable with more dgoing on beneath the surface without ever becoming Literary (in the worst way) or unnecessarily complicated.
The plot is basically, your regular family saga with no great surprises; the story is all about the characters, and every one of them has a reason to be there, each is fairly and equally treated – there are no villains or heroes, everyone is painted in their various shades of grey. I grew to love every one of them, even (especially?) poor, snobbish, war-damaged Mrs McCosh, because even though she isn’t likeable, she is understandable; there are elements of Mrs Cosh in many of the people I know and love.
I enjoyed The Dust That Falls From Dreams but can’t give it 5 stars: there’s something missing in the writing that makes this a good book but not a great one. The writing doesn’t sparkle like Corelli – though I confess greatly preferred it (I didn’t like Corelli) but it’s nothing like as Great a book. TDTFFD is more like Downton than Corelli with its straightforward storytelling and multitude of characters. It would probably have flowed better if LdeB had kept it more tightly pared and concentrated more closely on his key players. I was disappointed that there was so little of the intriguing Madame Valentine and her oddly burgeoning relationship with Fairhead. Hints that she was a genuine psychic were undeveloped, her chapters few and very far between and peppered with tantalising missing scenes (I would love to have read about Rosie’s séances, but they’re dismissed in a single sentence) to the extent that I wondered why she was included at all.
In short, The Dust That Falls From Dreams didn’t grip me by the throat, drag me into the bushes and maul me half to death with its insight and genius but it did keep me reading for the better part of a fortnight and was consistently enjoyable, if never un-putdownable. It is undemanding. It would make a great travel read – though maybe on kindle, if you’re planning to carry to about with you, it is a massive brick of a thing. It’s a light and pleasurable read, but I can see why many hardcore de Bernières fans are so disappointed.

Review: The Seeing


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by Diana Hendry

4 stars

seeShort and far from sweet, ‘The Seeing’ is a sparse, terse tail of how the war has damaged the minds of three children, though two were only babies when it ended and one born years later. Set in a small seaside town in 1956: World War 2 has been over for eleven years but its legacy lingers in returning soldiers -fathers and brothers and boyfriends, and the bomb sites and bombed out buildings found in every town even decades after the war ended. Air raid shelters are still around, ideal dens for kids to play in and the legacy, the memory of the war is everywhere: in comics, at the cinema, in the stories told by parents and older siblings, in the tales told of fathers who did not return.
The war has painted a peculiarly intense mural in Natalie’s head. Her father died at Colditz – she says (but did he? It seems rather romantic; it feels like something made up. I suspect Natalie’s father had used the war to do a runner from his harridan wife). Natalie’s mother is a prostitute (another legacy of the war, perhaps). Natalie’s home-life is squalid, there is never any food or comfort there. Natalie hates the ‘uncles’ who hammer on her door and tell her ‘she’s next’. She wraps herself in a secret fantasy life, draping the room she shares with her brother with blankets and rags like something from an Ali-Baba tale. She hides in the excitement of her mind-damaged brother Philip’s visions and trances. Philip screams when he ‘sees’ left-over Nazis, ‘the swastikas on their hearts’. It gives Natalie’s life purpose – to root the secret Nazi’s out, because ‘how can evil just stop?’.
The tragedy plays out in the voices of the children and Hugo, an artist, friend of Philip and Lizzie, but the main voice is Lizzie’s. Lizzie still feels the war too, but in a very different way from Natalie. Lizzie’s home is comfortably suburban; money and food are abundant, the carpets are deep, the curtains thick velvet, and all cloaked in a stifling bourgeois respectability that Lizzie craves escape from. Lizzie’s mother is Jewish; Lizzie is well aware that if the Germans had won the war, they would have been packed off to the concentration camp but she still hates the peace and yearns for the excitement of wartime. Both girls are looking or escape, for excitement, and when Natalie arrives at Lizzie’s school, ‘like the wild west wind of Shelley’s poem’, Lizzie is thrilled when she is chosen by the glamorous outsider as her special friend, ‘kindred spirits forever’. Together, the girls and Philip embark on a summer of driving out the left-over Nazis – until it all goes inevitably wrong…
And this is where the book begins to show that it is meant as a children’s book (something I didn’t know when I picked it up, fortunately – I would never have read it if I had realised that) because the trajectory of the tale becomes suddenly very predictable; everything is telegraphed in Philip’s visions and Natalie’s musings. I knew exactly where it was going to go and how it was going to end, but the interest is all in the telling. The journey into the heads of these bored child-adolescents is perfectly done. What they do, how they think, how they build excitement from the mesh of reality and fantasy, making their stories real – it was very much like what I and my tight band of friends used to do when we went hunting for ghosts in old buildings and the graves of missing children on half-wooded demolition sites. Though less extreme and far less cruel than what Natalie and Lizzie get up to, the essence of those long, hot childhood summers in those pre-tech and TV days, when children were meant to spend their days outdoors, felt incredibly real, perfectly pitched and told in refreshingly few words.

Review: The Mark and the Void


by Paul Murray

5 stars

Mark‘The very scale of AgroBOT’s impending collapse means that it cannot be allowed to happen. Thanks to his expansions, we are so big now that if we go down, an untold number of trading partners and counterparts will be pulled down with us, bringing the entire global banking system grinding to a halt. In a matter of hours, money will stop coming out of ATMs. In two or three days there will be no food left on the supermarket shelves. By the end of the week, petrol will have run out, followed shortly by electricity. Within a month, the very fabric of civilization will have totally collapsed…’
Who’d have expected a tale about a French banker working at an Irish investment bank to be so brilliantly funny – and so surprising? Clever too: the plot twists and turns like a twisty turny thing; at no point does the story end up where you think it’s going to. Everything surprised – and delighted – in equal measure with interesting, exciting things to say – about banking of course, but also art and literature, the nature of time, the fragility of culture. ‘look down,’ Ariadne says, after showing Paul a beautiful piece of art; emaciated figures, a memorial to the victims of the potato famine.
…although the figures themselves are anonymous, names have been printed on the stylized bronze cobblestones beneath their bare feet – names of companies, names of banks, names of individuals: the corporate and private sponsors who paid for the work. Multinationals, meat processors, politicians, businessmen, a society hostess, a disgraced prime minister… ‘So,’ Ariadne asks, ‘who does this artwork want you to remember?’
Mark and the Void is very long, unexpectedly long – 544 pages – but that’s never a problem because it’s constantly changing, consistently witty and always unpredictable. And amidst all the humour, a series of dismal lessons exactly why certain bankers seem to have got away with murdering the economy and why some banks are too big to be allowed to fail. Outrageous, horrifying and very, very funny.

This is a pre-publication review. Mark and the Void is due out on 30th July 2015

Review: Fates and Furies


by Lauren Groff

5 stars

25124103The story of a marriage told in two halves. Lotto, the husband’s tale comes first; his perspective covers the first half of the story. Then Mathilde, the wife, takes over in the second part – which is when it gets really interesting. Lotto’s story is a smooth, enjoyable read; you think you know exactly what’s happening then Lauren Groff twists it all about and turns it on its head with Mathilde’s story, her side of the tale. From the moment the narrative switches voices, everything changes; everything becomes suddenly warped, complex, ambivalent. For all his early tragedy and artistic bent, Lotto is a straightforward, uncomplicated character – certainly when set beside Mathilde, who keeps herself so contained; there’s no hint of the person she truly is in the telling of his life. From the moment she began to speak, like turning on the light, everything suddenly looks different. Every page turned reveals some new piece of information, a shift in perception that changes everything that came before.

This is masterly story telling. It’s not the most immediately engaging story – it’s not the sort of thing I would regularly pick up to read – and is rather too long, but I’m glad I stepped out of my regular reading box and gave it a go; it completely repaid the time it demands.

Review: The Seed Collectors


by Scarlett Thomas

4 stars

SeedThis is Scarlett Thomas’ best novel yet. The Seed Collectors is compulsively readable, tremendously enjoyable, a more natural read than her previous works. The mystical-physics meshes more naturally with life as we know it than in her previous novels. The quantum, the mystical, the magical is still there, in the forms of a rare, deadly poisonous seed pod that brings instant enlightenment and/or death, even to birds, a strange book that changes to fit the circumstances of whoever is reading it, a little bit of time physics and even a dash of the Law of Attraction – but this time she has woven it all into a tale of dysfunctional families linked by blood and botany, their obsessions and passions and everyday madness. There’s alcoholism, anorexia, all manner of mania with food and plants, sex, shopping, tennis. These are real lives in a believable landscape, populated with pretty horrible people – people for whom an hour’s wait for a ferry with no mobile signal is an insurmountable disaster – but real people, people we all know. The tears of the enlightened made me think a little bit of Vince Noir and the tears of Robert Smith; it made me giggle a bit, but there is a lot of humour here. I especially enjoyed poor overweight Bryony, on being told she needs to eat more carbs, brown rice and wholewheat pasta, to lose weight, rushing out to buy a large bar of milk chocolate, a six-pack of jam doughnuts, a family bag of crisps – and some wholewheat pasta. Scarlett Thomas still has a wonderful descriptive power – if nothing else, read The Seed Collectors for the gorgeous writing.

 ‘The doorway to Fleur’s cottage smells of lapsang souchong, black cardamom and roses, which is a bit how Fleur herself smells, although with Fleur there are layers and layers of scents, each one more rare and strange than the last…’

‘He frightens her, with his slightly cold eyes and the new flashes of silver electrifying his hair and his stubble… they both still go to their hairdresser in Shoreditch who gives them jagged, asymmetrical cuts that somehow emphasise their wisdom , rather than age.’

‘…he finally knows what real love is. He has left his body behind but calls on his lips, or the great lips of the universe, for just this one final kiss. Who with? Time moves so oddly in this barely-there place with its clocks faintly ticking…

Expected publication: July 2nd 2015 by Canongate  

Review: The Followers


by Rebecca Wait

5 stars

indexA compelling and absorbing tale of a woman’s slow absorption into an isolated religious cult and her daughter’s lonely, internal, un-realised rebellion against her mother, the cult, and its charismatic, egoistic leader, the sinister Nathaniel.
The story begins with twenty-two year old Judith’s prison visits to her all-too normal mother. They discuss the films they have seen, birthdays, domestic details. They never talk about why Judith’s mum is in prison, about The Ark and the rapid descent into madness, bloodshed and violence. When her mum says ‘see you next month’, Judith replies ‘of course’. She has been coming for eight years. She might fantasise about never coming again, leaving the past behind – and the alcohol, and the numbing drugs – and making a new life for herself, but somehow never seems able to take that step.
The narrative then takes us back in time. Judith is about thirteen, her single-mother Stephanie is working in a cafe when she first meets Nathaniel. Nathaniel seems to be the object of every woman’s fancy, though Judith can never quite see his allure, how he maintains his hold on others. She never feels the dark charisma that has persuaded a group of intelligent adults to throw up their lives and give everything – including their bodies and wombs in the case of the females – to Nathaniel. There are children too, all born in the cult, none have ever left The Ark’s three wind-battered buildings on the moors. Some of these children are Nathaniel’s and now Nathaniel wants more.
Judith hates The Ark. All she wants to do is leave. Her only friend there is Moses, a boy spurned by the other children because his face is stained with a birthmark: the mark of the devil.
The cult itself is something of a mystery and probably the weakest part of the tale. How does one man exert such glamour he is able to rule a band of intelligent adults so effectively and completely? Nathaniel is a little like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson – men who exert absolute control through force of personality. It’s a difficult concept, hard to understand for anyone who has not experienced it (and so few who have ever live to tell their tale). It’s very hard to convey in a novel – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done entirely convincingly, but this almost works. I almost believed in Nathaniel.
Written in a sparse, dry, gripping style, Rebecca Wait’s story burns slowly but is never less than utterly compelling as it reaches its appalling conclusion and fallout – which surprised me; I thought I had it figured out and I was wrong. Start to finish, I was riveted.

Review: Satin Island



5 stars

SatinThis is one of the hardest books I’ve ever had to review. Almost entirely devoid of plot, this is essentially the episodic navel gazing of a highly academic anthropologist now working for a company. Pretentious, theorising, self-obsessed and absolutely compelling. If you love literary fiction, you must read this and I can’t begin to tell you why.  It is a work of genius – and I don’t know why, it just is. I was riveted from page one. Utterly absorbed. It would make a magnificent film: lots of internal voice, layered storytelling, surreal imagery – are you listening Richard Ayoade…?