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What They Do In The Dark
What They Do In The Dark
by Amanda Coe
Edition: Paperback

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A promising writer but a horrible book, 21 Sept. 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I had high hopes for this book: An intriguing title, a striking cover, publication by Virago.

I had to pick it up, and thought the back cover gave away nothing of the plot it did give a few enticing details, and it did promise to evoke an emotional reaction.

I did react emotionally - though not in a good way - and I found the title and the details a little misleading.

The book opens with a wonderful piece of writing: a press story about Lallie, a rising child story, that cleverly echoes stories of child stars of the past without resembling any one too closely.

There is no doubt that Amanda Coe can write, and write very well.

The story then moves to two schoolgirls. Gemma, who has been spoiled but whose life has been unsettled by the breakdown of her parent's marriage, and Pauline, who has been neglected and raised in squalor.

An unlikely friendship develops between them, in fits and starts.

Meanwhile Lallie is appearing in a film, and her story is told through those around her.

The characters and the situations convinced at first, but as the story advanced things broke down. The story was going to go in a certain direction, and everything else was secondary.

Then a horrible ending came out of nowhere. The cover suggested that I might be haunted, or heartbroken, or angry.

Actually, I was repulsed, and my first inclination was to toss the book away and write nothing about it.

But now, thinking a little more objectively, I can see what the author was trying to do. She made some telling points, she picked up on some interesting details, but her book failed for me because she pushed things too far.

A promising writer, but a disappointing book.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 5, 2012 3:20 PM GMT


The Song of Achilles
The Song of Achilles
by Madeline Miller
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Legend Reborn, 8 Sept. 2011
This review is from: The Song of Achilles (Hardcover)
The Song of Achilles. Such a familiar name. Such a familiar story. I knew the destiny of every character, I knew exactly what would happen, and yet Madeline Miller's retelling had me entranced, from the first word to the very last.

That told me that she was a natural storyteller, in complete command of her material.

The story of Achilles is told by Patroclus.

They met as young men, when Patroclus was exiled from his homeland to the court of King Peleus, father of Achilles. At first the friendship between the two, very different, young men was tentative, but it soon grew. Into the closest, unbreakable bond. A complete understanding.

The perspective was perfect, allowing the flawed hero to be closely observed and understood while still allowing he to withdraw into himself.

There were so many rich colours, so many wonderful details, and I knew that there was much, much more to come.

Helen, Queen of Sparta, was abducted by Paris, Prince of Troy. And promises made in the past compelled both Achilles and Patroclus to join the forces laying siege to the city of Troy.

Many stories have been spun around the long years of the Trojan Wars, and Madeline Miller weaves them all together beautifully until, eventually, both Patroclus and Achilles meet their destinies.

I knew what had to happen, and yet so many times I caught my breath. Because the story had so much drama, so much emotion. Because I cared so much, and because I wanted things to be different...

So many things had to be right to pull me in like that.

There was a great deal to be carefully balanced: a huge cast of characters, gods intervening in the mortal world, so many legends, so many details. They all balanced beautifully. And they didn't just balance. Men and Gods came to life, and I completely believed in them. I was intrigued and I cared - a rare combination.

The author so clearly knew and loved her material. Questions came into my head as I read, and every one was answered. And I felt that I was in safe hands, that she would have the answers to the questions I hadn't thought to ask too.

That security allowed me to get completely lost the story. An old story brought to life once more, with such wonderful clarity.

I have been to Troy, and I am still reeling.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 16, 2011 7:04 PM BST


Girl Reading
Girl Reading
by Katie Ward
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Words and Pictures, 27 July 2011
This review is from: Girl Reading (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I was bedazzled by Girl Reading from the first.

A beautiful cover, and a wonderful concept: seven stories spun around portraits of girls reading, in different styles, in different ages, in different media.

My expectations were so high that I could so easily have been disappointed. But I wasn't.

Each story was distinctive, and each caught its period, its place perfectly.

The writing was always matched to the setting, and it was consistently elegant.

The characters, the storytelling, drew me in every time.

And for all that the stories could have stood alone, they so clearly belonged together.

It takes talent to do so much so well, and clearly Katie Ward has talent in abundance.

Her first book is a gem, and I am intrigued to see what she does next.


Far to Go
Far to Go
by Alison Pick
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Far to Go, 26 July 2011
This review is from: Far to Go (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Czechoslovakia. 1938. War is coming, and invasion by Germany seems inevitable.

Pavel and Anneliese Bauer think that they will be safe. That their young son, Pepik, will be safe. They are affluent, successful, good people.

Yes, they are Jews, but they are secular Jews, not practicing the faith.

But of course they won't be safe. And they will have to make painful decisions about what to do, about how best to protect their son.

Alison Pick tells their story simply and clearly. She picks out details beautifully. Day to day details of an ordinary family that has to carry on, through a terrible period in their country's history.

Telling her story in the third person, through the eyes of Marta, Pepik's gentile nanny was, I think, a wise decision. It pulled me away from the story just a little, and allowed me to see it more clearly.

And it was the most effective way to show so many different emotions and reactions.

At first Pavel wanted to stand his ground, acknowledge his Jewish heritage, believing that right will prevail. Anneliese was more pragmatic, eager to cast off her Jewishness and escape. And Marta worried about her young charge, and about her own future. And she made some bad decisions.

They all made bad decisions. because they were in an impossible, unprecedented situation. Because they had no idea what their futures might hold.

Their characters were so well drawn. They were utterly believable, complex, fallible human beings.

My heart nearly broke when Pepik was sent away to safety on the Kindertransport. He didn't understand, he didn't want to go and, like so many other children, he had to be torn away.

The whole story was painful to watch, because the situation was so impossible. And yet the pages turned quickly. Because, though I feared the worst, I had to know.

There was just one weak link: the contemporary framing story. It lacked the clarity of the main narrative, the different styles felt mismatched, and I really wasn't sure what was going on.

In the end though it made sense, and I understood what the author was doing.

A flaw, but not a fatal flaw.

Far to Go is a moving, human story. A different view of a period that has been written about so much.

Alison Pick has built well on both her own family history and her research.


Herring on the Nile
Herring on the Nile
by L. C. Tyler
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hooray for the return of Ethelred and Elsie!, 23 July 2011
This review is from: Herring on the Nile (Hardcover)
I anticipated a clever mystery and a fine entertainment, and that's just what I got.

Ethelred is a middle-aged crime writer, scraping a living by writing three different series under three different aliases. Or rather he was. Ethelred has received an unexpected inheritance. He has a new lady friend too. And those facts might just be linked...

He books a Nile cruise: a holiday with his new love and a research trip for a new novel. But then he is jilted.

Elsie, his literary agent, is quick to invite herself along for the trip instead. But it is a decision she lives to regret.

There are threats, murder, kidnapping, and terrorism. There are misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and much confusion. And there are twists aplenty.

Yes, there's plenty of plot. And a fine cast of characters to play it out.

And there's more: intelligence, wit and lovely details. Too many wonderful things to pick out, but I must commend Ethelred for continuing to provide answers to the interview questions from local newspapers at Elsie's behest. They reflected his changing circumstances, they reflected his life as a writer, and they were an absolute joy.

The similarity of the title of this book to a certain novel by Agatha Christie is not a coincidence. There are echoes of that story in this book, but there are differences too. it is a fine tribute, but a fine book in its own right too. Not a pastiche, but a modern novel following in a fine tradition.

I had a lovely time travelling with Ethelred and Elsie, and I'm hoping to meet them again in the future.


The Strange Fate Of Kitty Easton
The Strange Fate Of Kitty Easton
by Elizabeth Speller
Edition: Hardcover

13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Second Meeting, 16 July 2011
Last year I was both charmed and moved by Elizabeth Speller's first novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett. I hadn't expected to the man who had led me through that story again, but when I picked up The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton I found that I would.

Six years after the end of the Great War Lawrence Bartram was travelling to the Wiltshire village of Easton Deadall, to help and support an old friend who had been commissioned to create a war memorial.

Because nearly all of the men of the village had joined up together, and they had died together too.

But a shadow had hung over the village, and the Easton family who lived in the manor house, long before the war. Because five year-old Kitty Easton had disappeared from her home years before, leaving no trace.

And then Kitty's father died in the war, leaving his widow holding the family estate in trust, for the missing daughter she could not believe to be dead. She was supported by her sister, by the family's loyal staff, and maybe by her husband's two younger brothers.

For a while the story moves slowly as Elizabeth Speller paints this picture, of places, of lives, of relationships. She writes beautifully, and every detail, every nuance is right.

And, in time, a plot begins to build. A village child slips away from a group on an outing, and the search for year uncovers a woman's body on the estate. And maybe that disappearance, that death, are related to the earlier disappearance of Kitty Easton.

Lawrence, as the outsider, the neutral party, becomes the confidante of many, and he begins to investigate.

Eventually all questions would be answered, and answered well.Those questions, and the facts that emerged, were intriguing, but this book held much more than mysteries. It was a human story, with characters and relationships quite beautifully drawn.

And, though the story was set in England after the Great War, its themes were timeless.
You see, it was a story that said a great deal. About how we deal with grief, and how it changes our futures. About the secrets we keep behind the faces we present to the world. And about how much we will do to protect the people and things we love.

The ending left a lump in my throat. Because the answer to the question of Kitty's disappearance was so unexpected, and yet so right. And because I had seen Lawrence, the man who had been paralysed by the loss of his wife and child when we first met, coming out of himself just a little more, accepting that he had to go on living.

And the hints about what his future might hold were very interesting.I suspect that we will meet again. I do hope so.


The Best of Everything (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Best of Everything (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Rona Jaffe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wednesday 2nd January 1952; 8.45am; New York City, 21 Jun. 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
"You see them every morning at a quarter to nine, rushing out of the maw of the subway tunnel, filing out of Grand Central Station, crossing Lexington and Park and Madison and Fifth avenues, the hundreds and hundreds of girls. Some of them look eager and some look resentful, and some look as if they haven't left their beds yet. Some of them have been up since six-thirty in the morning, the ones who commute from Brooklyn and Yonkers and new Jersey and Statten Island and Connecticut. They carry the morning newspapers and overstuffed handbags. Some of them are wearing pink or chartreuse fuzzy overcoats and five year-old ankle strap shoes and have their hair up in pin curls under kerchiefs. Some of them are wearing chic black suits and kid gloves and carrying their lunches in violet-sprigged Bonwit Teller bags. None of them has enough money."

One of those woman heading out of Grand Central Station, on a cold foggy morning, was Caroline Bender. Her college boyfriend, the man she had expected to marry, had left her, and so her new job was to be more than the economic necessity she had anticipated. It would be the focus of her life until she found her feet again.

Caroline was starting work as a secretary, in the typing pool of Fabian Publications. The Best of Everything is her story, and the story of four other women she meets at work.

Mary Agnes is the woman who knows just what is going on at Fabians, though she doesn't expect to be there for long. She is making detailed wedding plans, and looking forward to the future when she will be a housewife and a mother. April came to the city from a small town with dreams of becoming an actress, but she struggled and so she took a job in the typing pool and dreamed of love and marriage instead. Gregg is an actress too, and she has had some success, but she has to take on office work to tide her over while she looks for more opportunities. And Barbara is a young divorcee, focused on working hard and doing whatever she must to hold on to her job and support her child.

I was pulled into all of their lives, and those women provoked so many responses. Pride in Caroline as she moved up towards an editor's position. Happiness for Mary Agnes as she shone at the wedding she had dreamed of for so long. Worry for April, as she so often saw love and a happy ending that wasn't there. Fear for Gregg as her love became obsession. And such admiration for Barbara as she worked so hard for her child's future.

There's much, much more than that, but I can't set out the whole plot.

Rona Jaffe paints wonderful,richly detailed pictures of these women and their world. I saw so many places, met so many people, and I watched the seasons change and the years pass.

All of the details rang true.

There is a great deal of dialogue, and the conversations are so varied and so real that they are a joy to read.

I can forgive a novel from the 1950s that spoke clearly and honestly about many subjects that weren't generally spoken about then - subjects like sexual harassment, abortion, unequal pay and opportunities - many things. A few under-developed characters among so many. The odd cliché.

But I can't quite forgive the Best of Everything for rather too much emphasis on love and marriage as the ultimate goal, and for having all five leading ladies either sailing into the sunset or undone by love. Or for making its one older career woman a harridan.

I loved the happy endings, I accepted the unhappy endings, but I just would have liked to see one woman stepping towards an independent future, becoming a successful professional, treating her staff and colleagues well ...

But that's not to say that I didn't race through the chapters or that I didn't love it - I did!

It's a wonderful period-piece and a very readable book.


The Somnambulist
The Somnambulist
by Essie Fox
Edition: Hardcover

35 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A lovely piece of Victoriana, 25 May 2011
This review is from: The Somnambulist (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I am so pleased that The Sonambulist caught my eye. It is a lovely piece of Victoriana, and a quite wonderful debut novel.

I fell in love with the heroine. Phoebe Turner was just seventeen years old, and she was warm bright and thoughtful. In some ways she was very mature for her years, but in others she was very innocent, and as I learned more of her background I could understand why.

Phoebe grew up, in the East End of London, with her mother and her aunt. Maud, her mother, was a member of The Hallelujah Army, set upon promoting that society's ideals and protecting her daughter from the many evils of the world. Those evils included the music hall where her sister, Phoebe's Aunt Cissy sang ...

Essie Fox paints Phoebe's world wonderfully. There is a wealth of detail that brings the streets, the homes, and most of all the music hall, to life. She clearly has so much knowledge and love, but she wears it lightly and it brings the story to life quite wonderfully.

And it was clear that there was a story to be told, and secrets to be uncovered.

Phoebe loved her aunt and her aunt's theatrical friends, and she was devastated when Cissy, suddenly, died. Maude was devastated too, at having to cope without the income that Cissy earned for the household, and she struggled. Maybe that was why she accepted an offer from Mr Samuels, a wealthy friend of Cissy's who she had always treated with disdain, for Phoebe to become the companion of his invalid wife ...

And so the story opened up. There were more wonderful pictures of another, very different, aspect of Victorian England. And there were more vivid, complex characters to meet. Phoebe knew that she would miss her home and her loved ones, but she was curious about what lay ahead. I felt just the same.

Phoebe travelled to a grand estate in Hertfordshire. Dinwood Court was a splendid gothic mansion, set in magnificent countryside, but both house and occupants were haunted by the strange death of Esther, the young daughter of the house ...

At Dinwood Court I heard the echoes of other novels of Victorian England. They were lovely to hear, and I realised that Essie Fox had wonderful influences, influences that she had acknowledged and then taken to make something new of her own.

I loved watching Phoebe as she uncovered the secrets of the past, and as she learned and grew up.

The plotting was very clever and, though I worked out some of the things that would happen, others took me by surprise. In particular, the concluding chapters took the story in a direction that I hadn't expected at all, but a direction that was completely right.

That kept the pages turning, and so did the lovely writing, the pitch perfect characters and settings, the wealth of knowledge that underpinned the story, and that very clever theme set in the title that wrapped around everything.

The Sonambulist is a wonderful debut novel, intelligent and so very readable.

I am already looking forward to whatever Essie Fox writes next.


The Return Of Captain John Emmett
The Return Of Captain John Emmett
by Elizabeth Speller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Mystery rooted in the Great War, 23 May 2011
"In years to come, Laurence Bartram would look back and think that the event that really changed his life was not the war or the attack at Rosières, nor even the loss of his wife, but the return of Captain John Emmett ..."

Laurence Bartram is one of many whose lives were changed forever by the Great War. He endured the horrors of the Western Front, but he lost his wife in childbirth.After the war he had no need to work and no purpose. He became reclusive, staying at home, writing a book that he knew he would never finish.

But then he received a letter from somebody that he remembered well, even though he hadn't seen her for years: Mary, the sister of his school-friend, John Emmett. Why, she wonders, did her brother survive the war only to kill himself? Can Lawrence, the only friend her brother ever brought home from school, help her to understand?

Laurence is drawn to Mary and he accepts her commission. It leads him into a complex mystery, and involving - without giving too much away - the nursing home where Emmett was a patient, a group of war poets, and a horrific wartime incident.

The mystery is clever and well structured, but it is rather too reliant on coincidences. And one or two things felt rather contrived. But I could forgive this book those failings. The important things are in it favour.

The story revealed was so powerful, and had so much to say about the strengths and weaknesses of humanity, the burden of knowledge, the horrors of war, and the iniquities of the class system.

Elizabeth Speller's write beautifully and is a fine storyteller. She has clearly done her research and, through the testimony of her characters, time, place and emotions come to life so vividly.

Those characters, lightly sketched, have faded from my mind, but their stories and their emotions have stayed with me. And those stories and emotions speak not just for those characters but for a generation.


The Novel in the Viola. by Natasha Solomons
The Novel in the Viola. by Natasha Solomons
by Unnamed
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I loved The Novel in the Viola, 18 April 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I loved The Novel in the Viola.

It is one of those books in which everything - characters, emotions, settings, writing, period, storylines - is right. And everything works together beautifully to produce a book that is far more than the sum of those parts.

At heart though, The Novel in the Viola is the story of a life. The life of Elise, younger daughter of Anna and Julian Landau. Opera singer and novelist respectively. Elise worries that she is not as talented as her sister, Margot, but that casts just a very small shadow on a wonderful life. Because Elise is loved, and because she loves her family, she is happy and she is secure.

But the year is 1938. The Landaus live in Austria, in Vienna. And they are Jewish.

Anna and Julian realise that their family is at risk and take steps to flee. Margot and her husband secure American visas and they hope that they will be able to do the same. But they know that they will not be able to secure a visa for Elise, and they must look at other options.

A job is secured and Elise is despatched to London. A temporary arrangement, to keep her safe until things change, until the family can be reunited.

Elise, her family, her world were alive for me, and I felt her sorrow as she was separated from them. I admired her character as she coped with the journey, the things she had to do in London. I empathised with her as she worried about making her money last, as she devoured the chocolate her sister tucked into her luggage, as she struggled to cope with the separation from her family and her home.

Or, to put it simply, I grew to love Elise.

She becomes a parlour maid at Tyneford House on the Dorset coast. During her life there she will experience both love and loss. She will make friends, and grow to love the house and the surrounding countryside. But she will also suffer slights and setbacks as she tries to find her place in the world, and reunite her family.

The slights come because Elise doesn't quite fit. She plays the part of a parlour maid but she comes from the world of the family. The butler observes that, after Elise, Tyneford would never be the same again and he is right, for more reasons than he knows.

It would love to write about so many wonderful details, characters and events, but I mustn't. This is a book that needs to unravel slowly, so that you can watch over Elise as her life progresses.

The settings, from Vienna to London to Dorset, are wonderfully painted, and the sense of period and the point in history too are never lost. The characters, and their relationships, are fully and beautifully drawn. I believed in them utterly.

That meant that I was completely involved as Tyneford House and its occupants faced both war, and the end of an era. Things would never be the same again.

I knew that. I had the benefit of hindsight, and that made the story so much more moving.

It was such a wonderful story, so beautifully written, and with such a range of emotions. I think I felt every emotion that a book can inspire before I reached the end.

That end came quickly. Maybe a little too quickly, though it might have been that I just didn't want to leave Elise and her world. It was unexpected and yet completely right, and it was given extra poignancy by the very real events that it mirrored.

A few small things didn't quite work.Maybe a few too many nice, understanding characters. One or two modern idioms slipped in. And the story of the actual novel in the actual viola didn't quite work for me.

But they were small things, and I could happily let them pass by, because the many delights of this novel made them seem unimportant.

And because The Novel in the Viola really is a book that can touch your heart, if you only let it.

And, as I said, I loved it.


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