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Watchmen, International Edition
Watchmen, International Edition
by Alan Moore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.24

3.0 out of 5 stars A Novel Comic Book, 18 April 2016
I'm not a comic book reader so I'm no authority. Naturally this format is going to lack the depth of a full blown novel so perhaps you have to make allowances. Yet Time magazine has it down on their list of 100 Best Novels. I have to question that.

Whilst the plot is rich and pacy and spans two generations of super hero, and the segues from one storyline to another deft and eye-catching, I have to say I found the end results pretty blunt and predictable. Also, there were a few sub-plots/digressions I found rather pointless like the long meandering tribute to Joe Orlando's 'Tale of The Black Freighter', and all the random shenanigans at the news stand.

It certainly has it's merits. The character and backstory of Joseph Kovacs (Rorschach) is intriguing - the same applies to Dr Osterman (Dr Manhatten). Unfortunately they're crowded out by the cast of thousands and ultimately led, in lurid broad brush strokes, to a bog standard, action hero style denouement - one with a neat twist, admittedly. Perhaps they deserved better.

by Samuel Beckett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

4.0 out of 5 stars A Tale of Two Halves, 14 April 2016
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This review is from: Molloy (Paperback)
It's certainly more satisfactory than 'Murphy', Beckett's earlier novel, in my opinion. But it is rather a book of two halves, focusing on two separate protagonists, Molloy, and then, Moran. Both sections are typical Beckett, soaked in vigorous, agile language twisting round a meaning just out of sight. However exasperating at times, Beckett's rigorous and unstinting examinations of mundane thoughts, habits and ideas are always refreshing. There's a strange, unique brand of purity and acuity about his prose.

That said, I did much prefer the Molloy section. I found Molloy a more interesting, more complex character. And he was funnier too. Moran is stiff and unyielding and somehow constrained. Neither are particularly pleasant but with Moran there's a humourless superciliousness that just grated with me. There are a number of echoes between the two stories and one reading might argue that Moran is a younger Molloy, the facts being that slippery. I don't think it's important one way or the other, though it is fun to imagine the metamorphosis.

So You've  Been Publicly Shamed
So You've Been Publicly Shamed
Price: £3.66

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Umble Opinions, 11 April 2016
"So You've Been Publicly Shamed" is a fluent, compelling account of the pillorying plague contaminating social media in recent times. Ronson draws on a number of examples documenting interviews with the victims of public shaming. He goes on to reference a handful of theories regarding mob mentality and investigates the psychology of shame.

I didn't find the theorising and Ronson's ultimate conclusions particularly surprising or insightful, to be honest. Much is common sense really. It was the brutality and scale of the shamings themselves that struck me. And the resultant aftermath of fear and anxiety, the jeopardy of free speech. It clarified my vague reasoning for ditching social media a few years ago, having garnered a collection of acquaintances on Facebook to whom I felt I could hardly address with my odd, provocative humour. That worry of being hastily judged, and then maybe lynched...

So it's certainly a very valid and timely piece of journalism - maybe just a little white handkerchief waving weakly from a distant spot on an ocean of carnage, but a worthy protest all the same... In terms of content, I confess I found the examples somewhat repetitive, without adding new perspective, and each new example increasingly abbreviated as the book raced to its conclusion. The additional chapter updating the reader with the response to the publication of the book sounded to me a little too shrill and defensive. What came across, latent throughout the book itself, was Ronson's underlying imperative to appear justified and in the right.

Sometimes Ronson's incontestable judgement reveals a rather pettish, condescending character. His summation of Justine Sacco's misjudged twitter joke mocking racial prejudice, for instance:

"As it happens I once made a similar - albeit funnier - joke in a column for the Guardian..." He pointlessly goes on to repeat, "My joke was funnier than Justine's joke. It was better worded." Inexplicably he further rules: "So: mine was funnier, better worded, and less unpleasant."

Actually, I took a straw poll on the two 'jokes' amongst friends - Sacco's won unanimously. It's blunter and pithier and more outrageous. That's what makes successful humour. Ronson is not a comedian, his remarks here are egocentric and unnecessarily emphatic. You get whiffs of this compulsion to both judge and appear in the right a number of times throughout the book. Curious for a book with such ostensibly humble motives.

Cider With Rosie (Vintage Classics)
Cider With Rosie (Vintage Classics)
by Laurie Lee
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars Pages From A Scrapbook, 4 April 2016
Truth to tell, I much preferred Lee's "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning", the sequel to "Cider With Rosie" telling of his epic journey on foot from Gloucestershire to London and right across Spain just before the Spanish Civil War. It's a grown up memoir of a young man's adventure.

"Cider With Rosie" is, by contrast, a sketchy, whimsical patchwork of childhood nostalgia. The content neatly packaged into short chapters relating various aspects of this rural, post World War I village idyll, filled out with thin anecdotes, at turns sentimental and proudly brutal.

The prose is burdened with a poetic embellishment reminiscent of Dylan Thomas's "Under Milk Wood", though not quite reaching those heights. It's just a little too pleased with itself for my taste. It's a scrapbook of rose-tinted reminiscences, experiments in prose. Lee did not expect this early work to prove his 'masterpiece', and I'm not sure it is.

On the Beach
On the Beach
by Nevil Shute
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.67

3.0 out of 5 stars With A Whimper, 1 April 2016
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This review is from: On the Beach (Paperback)
It's a quiet, sedate novel set in Melbourne, Australia focusing on just five characters, largely in their domestic setting. A married couple and their young friend, Moira, and her nephew. The men are connected to a naval mission involving American submarine captain Dwight Towers. So we have a couple of uneventful submarine jaunts mixed in with the mild, quotidian stuff. It's actually pretty dull.

The trick is that these characters are living out what remains of a post-apocalyptic world after a global nuclear free-for-all has killed off the planet with radiation poisoning - Melbourne being one of the last refuges from the radiation creeping down the globe. So everyone knows death is on it's way in a matter of months then weeks then days, they just have to live with that.

It's an intriguing premise, and Shute does have a knack of keeping the horror simmering without overplaying it. The reaction does seem quite plausible. He's picked some reasonable-minded, self-possessed types who don't go in for histrionics. It's stiff upper lip stuff really. Yet you do get glimpses of the hysterical, the desperate, only just out of focus, out the corner of the eye. Perhaps the bunch we're left with are, in the end, a little bit too stoic, the emotions a little too muted. But I'm sure there would be a surprising number of people who reacted just this way.

Not many novelists would handle this subject matter with such haunting understatement.

The Dying Earth
The Dying Earth
Price: £4.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dying Dying Dead, 29 Mar. 2016
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This review is from: The Dying Earth (Kindle Edition)
The first couple of stories are diverting enough. Fairytale in style with an element of sci-fi futuristic vision thrown in. Though ultimately this collection is really just old fashioned wizards and goblins stuff. The language full of cod-medieval ponderous phrasing - that's just how people talk in magical times I guess...

The later stories are overlong and drag. Too much surplus description, too much reference to obscure places and people, introduced merely to indulge Vance's colourful naming obsession. The stories are essentially quests of one sort or another, with little care for character or depth. Also rather predictable.

Fool Me Once
Fool Me Once
by Harlan Coben
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Tomfoolery, 28 Mar. 2016
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This review is from: Fool Me Once (Hardcover)
The page-turning thriller is not familiar territory for me, but once in a while... I read Lee Child's "Killing Floor" recently, it was actually well-written: sparse, economical prose, never overambitious - appropriate to the subject matter. The plot development was also well handled. The machismo limited to the scenes of action and violence. (It had to seep in somewhere...)

'Fool Me Once', I'm afraid, doesn't quite cut it. Maybe because the lead protagonist, Maya, is a woman, and a mother, Coben feels he has to inject the requisite machismo into the prose instead, so we have meat-head phrases like, "Maya had thought she was a b@lls-to-the-wall hard-@ss". Or maybe he just writes like that, I don't know.

The prose generally is significantly inferior to Childs', littered with unwieldy, awkward sentences or just plain lazy and cliched:
" Maya hadn't been back to Claire's house - yep, still thinking of it as such-“ (clumsy)
"he was just biding his time to drop the bigger bomb - and yes, the word choice was worthy of a sad ha-ha - on her.” (again clumsy)
"His tone chilled her blood.” (weak and cliched)
"'You trust me right?' 'With my life.’” (A laughable intensity the moment did not deserve or earn - rather hackneyed too)
"Shock alert: money means power and gets you stuff.” (too cool for school, man!)
"Maya found Zen in shooting. There was something about the release of the breath as you pulled the trigger..." (That's not 'Zen', whatever it is)
"I wasn't going to lose another one of ours. Not on my watch." (yes, really)
And, curiously, Coben uses the simile 'like a reaper's scythe' more than once, would you believe, in two completely separate descriptions.

There are numerous more examples, of course, but I won't labour the point.

Coben is also heavy-handed with the portentous overtones, which actually only end up sounding theatrically laughable: " Death follows you, Maya" It almost begs a comic ghostly "whoo-oaaa" after it. That phrase punctuates the whole book, along with "Flex, relax, flex, relax." That's Maya's chill out mantra. She talks to herself a lot throughout you see, in bluff, gutsy soundbites, often addressing herself in the third person:

"Keep moving, Maya..."
"Man, Maya needed to calm the hell down."
"These two had no idea what life had in store for them, but then again, no one does, do they?"

That last one introduces yet another flaw in the writing: Corben's habit of stating the glaringly obvious, which in another writer would simply go without saying:

"Gentleman's Club. Euphemism for a strip club."
"The woman had called her back because she wanted something. Let her say what it was."
"'You don't have to just trust me,' she said. 'Remember?' He saw it now, 'Because I still have something on you.' he said" (This wikileaks kingpin needs his hand explaining?! )

These are just brief and snappy examples but on a larger scale you will find episodes hastily pre-figured with some relevant clunky backstory to make sense of the ensuing action. Everything carefully prepared and explained. Spoon fed.

Having said all of that, if you put aside the cringeworthy tough guy posturing, the plot itself is pretty tight and convincing (for the genre). The twist holds up and the final denouement is both surprising and fitting.

I didn't connect at all with Maya, I have to confess. But perhaps the plot necessarily forced her to arms length. The other characters are paper thin - I guess that’s just the nature of this brand of pulp fiction.

Death in Summer
Death in Summer
by William Trevor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.43

3.0 out of 5 stars Unbalanced, 21 Mar. 2016
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This review is from: Death in Summer (Paperback)
I admired the first couple of chapters, the prose eloquent and understated. Thaddeus's bereavement movingly conveyed in a fittingly stiff and deliberate tone. The emotion locked up in all those carefully composed words.

Unfortunately, the story that unfolds from here did not convince. Particularly the characters of Albert and Pettie; and not least Pettie's outrageous crime, the central event of the novel. These two characters never really came to life for me, a hot-potch of sketchy recollections hint at a difficult, abusive background, but there's too little concrete characterisation or meaningful interaction. Trevor's technique of obliquely referencing past incidents begins to permeate the whole novel - it's an irritating cheap device creating mystery at no cost of investment. Other characters, like Maidment and Zenobia, seem utterly surplus.

The novel meanders on in an unexpected direction. What at first seemed like a thoughtful meditation on loss and responsibility transforms into something from the pages of a lurid, half-baked thriller. The sensitivity and composure of the earlier chapters abandoned for clumsy sensationalism.

The novel, for me, capsizes from the weighty shift. The whole Mrs Ferry sub-plot, for instance, jarringly out of place, and Albert's final appearance at the Davenant residence a ridiculous contrivance, to name just two glaring incongruities.

The True Deceiver
The True Deceiver
by Tove Jansson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Chill, 20 Mar. 2016
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This review is from: The True Deceiver (Paperback)
A couple of sour Nordic ice maidens endure a protracted battle of wills....What the battle is about exactly is perhaps the central mystery of this beguiling, simple little tale of remote village life.

Something to do with survival, and the truth about humanity, and about ourselves. Are we all just inexorably trapped in the elaborate games of our psyche, deceiving ourselves to justify and fulfil our empty, selfish desires?

These two are cold, bitter women, their own worst tormentors. The snow-smothered landscape, spare, unyielding, offering little comfort. The village folk distant and disdainful. The children are cruel here.

They have each other, a meagre, double-edged compensation. An unhappy allegiance passing for a deformed kind of thwarted friendship.

Last Exit to Brooklyn (Penguin Modern Classics)
Last Exit to Brooklyn (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Hubert Selby Jr.
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

3.0 out of 5 stars One Way Traffic, 18 Mar. 2016
To begin with I was pretty gripped, stunned even by the visceral, unflinching violence. Throw in the seedy sex: straight, transexual, you name it. But that’s mostly about violence too, and alcohol of course… And the prose rolls over you in great waves. I admired it all, sort of relished it: this is really how it is out on the wild side. It’s grim.

It’s loosely based round a violent degenerate bunch of s***kicking Brooklyn guys, but most of the stories stand alone. They’re inconsistent in length - the Harry Black union steward one just goes on and on. And by then I’d heard it all - violence, sex, violent sex. Drunkenness. And money, where’s the money at - money by violence. And so on. It actually became monotonous. I was bored of this dog violence this dog sex chasing their tails - drunk. The stories don’t go anywhere much.

Later on there's the screaming kids and deadbeats bashing their wives, or just hollering back and forth about cash and getting out of bed, maybe some sex, any kind of turn on going...

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