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Georgiana89 (London)

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Outlander: Cross Stitch (TV Tie-In)
Outlander: Cross Stitch (TV Tie-In)
Price: £3.95

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A strong setting, interesting characters and beautiful writing - but some major faults too, 1 Sep 2014
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As someone who spends quite a bit of time on Goodreads and various book blogs, this is probably the book that has been recommended to me the most, partly because I like history and time-travel, and partly because all of its many fans seem quite evangelical about the series. I was quite intrigued by the premise - 1940s army nurse finds herself in 1740s Scotland and ends up torn between two husbands in different centuries - but worried that the romance might be cheesy and the history badly researched. I was also rather put-off by the 900 page length, which seemed a bit over-the-top for what I was expecting to be a light, escapist read. On a recent holiday, I wanted something I get really get stuck into, so I finally cracked and gave it a go.

Firstly, if you're going to read it, I strongly suggest that you do the same and save it for a holiday or a time when you're able to spend hours reading. Its sheer length means it takes ages to get through (and I say this as a very fast reader), plus, it's the sort of book where you really need to absorb yourself in the world, not dip in and out.

Secondly, I've seen some debate about the genre of this book, but in my opinion, it's predominantly a romance. It's a well-done romance, and there are certainly also aspects of straight-up historical fiction, of paranormal/fantasy, and of adventure, but frankly, if romance leaves you cold, I really wouldn't recommend this one. Similarly, I struggle to imagine many men enjoying it.

So, with those two points, out of the way, what did I think about it? In short, there were lots of things I loved and some that I hated, but the story sucked me in to the extent that I was able to happily overlook flaws that would have had me throwing a different book across the room.

For me, the best things about the book were the prose - which is much better than you might expect in this sort of genre novel - the main character (Claire) and the setting. Enjoyably tough and mostly unfazed by the increasingly strange things that happen to her, Clare was also just vulnerable enough to be likeable and believable. I also loved that she was sexually confident and happy to induct a virgin husband into the delights of the flesh - a nice change from all the painfully virginal heroines that seem to be the current trend. The other characters were generally interesting too, though some of the clansmen started to blur into one. Jamie, the main love interest, isn't really my literary type. I generally prefer suave, charming and slightly edgy men to the rugged but adorable sorts, but while I wasn't swooning on the floor, he was a strong romantic lead and definitely made me smile. If he could get a response out of me, then if hulking kilted warrior types are your cup of tea, you're going to be in love.

The setting - both in terms of history and geography - was lovingly described and seemed well-researched. I really felt like I was right there in eighteenth century Scotland. The author mostly resisted the urge to over-romanticise the period, giving readers the danger and dirt as well as the excitement. In-between several dramatic episodes, there are enlightening scenes of everyday life: delivering a foal, preparing for a feast, treating minor injuries.

I felt that having Claire time-travel from the 1940s rather than from the present day was a stroke of genius, for several reasons. Firstly, it gives readers who love history two beautifully depicted periods instead of one. Secondly, it helps to stop the book from having dated. Thirdly, I found it slightly more believable that someone who has lived through WW2 could cope with the deprivations of eighteenth century life, compared to someone from today.

Moving onto the bad. Firstly, while I liked the way the book spent time fully immersing the reader in its world rather than dashing from plot point to plot point, I thought it was a bit too long overall, and got repetitive in parts. I think it would have felt a lot sharper with, say, 150 fewer pages.

Secondly, I found the way that Claire was constantly bouncing from one disaster to another - including seemingly endless attempted rapes - to not quite work. It felt oddly episodic. I also felt the time-travel elements were underplayed. I'd loved to have seen more use made of the fact that Clare knew things about the characters and knew things that would happen in the future.

Thirdly, there was a rather odd obsession with beatings of every kind - from parents chastising their children, to the clan punishing a teenager for indecency, to a brutal flogging, to a torture session, and perhaps most oddly, a scene that sat uncomfortably between a kinky spanking and straight-up wife beating, leading straight into a scene that equally uncomfortably blurred the lines between rough sex and marital rape. Along with the scenes of gratuitous Catholicism, while it may have had some basis in period accuracy, it sometimes felt like a not altogether pleasant look into the author's psyche.

Above all, the main villain, Randall, was a bit of a let down. The idea that the sadistic English army captain who is oppressing the highlands is Claire's loving 1940s husband's ancestor was a brilliant one, but ended up being underused. It would have been brilliant if he was charming as well as cruel and if Claire was having to fight an attraction to him and stop herself from linking him with her husband in her mind. One scene almost suggested things were about to go down that route, but no. He ended up being the most horribly one-dimensional villain I've come across in a long time. He literally seemed unable to hold a conversation with someone (male or female, young or old) without attempting to rape and/or beat them, and he didn't appear to have any sort of grand plan beyond finding more people to rape and beat. This irritated me more than it usually would, as it seemed to be at least partly playing up to the "English=evil, Scottish/Irish = good" stereotype so beloved of Hollywood directors. At times, this book made Braveheart look non-partisan - not always a comfortable read as an English woman.

Overall, despite those issues, I'd recommend this, and I haven't been able to resist starting Book Two. I'd suggest you consider whether these are things that would put you off a book completely, or whether, with strong characters, a well-realised setting and a generally interesting plot, you'd be able to overlook them.

The Luminaries
The Luminaries
Price: £3.66

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Far more enjoyable than its daunting reputation might suggest, 31 Aug 2014
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This review is from: The Luminaries (Kindle Edition)
I approached this book with some degree of trepidation. Several reviews from hardened literary critics implied that while its technical merits made it worthy of its Booker Prize win, actually reading it was a bit of a hard slog, thanks to its length and its complex structure. It sat on my Kindle for several months, until, confronted with the prospect of a 27 hour plane journey, I decided that it was now or never.

From the first page, I was astonished by how much I enjoyed it, not in an cold, "appreciating great literature" sort of way, but simply in the sense of getting wrapped up in the plot, speculating about the mysteries and feeling strong emotions towards the characters. It was beautifully written, apeing a late Victorian style perfectly, but the story drew me in and kept me turning the pages as if it were the most salacious, trashy thriller. The plot is complex, featuring at least twenty fairly major characters, but while it requires a fair degree of concentration to keep track of everyone's comings and goings, I never felt lost or overburdened with detail, just fully immersed in a well-developed world.

It's a tricky tale to summarise, but basically, on the same night in a nineteenth-century goldmining town in New Zealand, a hermit dies alone, only for both a stash of gold and a long-lost wife to appear; a prostitute collapses from an apparent opium overdose and is arrested, and the richest man in town disappears. There are mysteries underlying all three of these events (and several others) and endless connections between these three characters and the rest of the sprawling cast. With so many characters, it's perhaps inevitable that some of them were more interesting and memorable than others, and that some of the supporting cast blurred into one slightly. But the best characters were very well done with some interesting nuances - and less nuanced, but just as enjoyable, was a wonderfully villainous sea captain.

I didn't know much more about the plot than the book's setting, and on paper, it wasn't a period or location that really appeared to me. However, the author really brings the town of Hotika to life and really piqued my interest in a piece of history I had no prior knowledge of. While the plot is mostly rooted in the gritty realism of life in a frontier town, there is also a slight touch of the paranormal, which I suspect some people will dislike, but which I quite enjoyed.

I'd heard that this book was heavily based around astronomy, another factor that seems to have daunted some critics and put off some readers. If you have no interest in the subject, then don't worry. The plot and the prose are perfectly enjoyable without this knowledge, and although the strange chapter titles and shortening chapters make you aware that something strange is going on, for the most part, it doesn't get in the way of the story, just leaves you with a vague sense that the author has probably pulled off something quite clever. I'm by no means an expert, but I had some interest in astronomy in my teens, and had just enough remembered knowledge to get something extra from the book. I'm sure that anyone who is genuinely knowledgable about the subject would be fascinated by the way it is handled. As far as I could tell, the idea is that some of the characters represent signs of the zodiac (I had fun guessing who was which, until I noticed there was actually a chart - woops) and some other represent the planets. Mostly, the planetary ones are the ones doing things and moving the plot along, while the stellar ones are caught in the fall out of their actions. I think the latter were acting according to the general attributes of their star sign, and also been affected by the position of the actual planets and stars on any given day. I suspect that a greater knowledge of astronomy would help to explain what sometimes feels like odd behaviour and U-turns on the part of certain characters, as well as some of the stranger coincidences and plot twists. To reiterate though, all this underlying cleverness doesn't get in the way of the story and it isn't necessary to even vaguely understand it in order to follow the plot.

The other noteworthy thing about this book is the structure. It's in twelve parts (presumably another reference to the signs of the zodiac). The first part has twelve chapters, the next eleven, and so on, until part twelve only has one chapter. At the same time, the chapters get notably shorter as the book goes on (part 1 finished 48% of the way through the book, according to my Kindle, part twelve is one page long) and though I didn't bother to count, I'm reliably informed that each is half the length of its predecessor. I didn't feel that this structure added much, but like the astronomy references, neither, for the most part, did it get in the way of the reading experience. My only complaint is that the book reaches its climax at the end of Part Five of twelve- (although to be fair, that is 90% of the way through the book). At that point, most of the mysteries are revealed and loose ends tied up. The following sections then go back in time to fill in some of the gaps. To some extent, this was interesting, but a lot of it felt like rehashing old ground or needlessly spelling out things that had been clearly implied beforehand. I was hoping that these flashbacks would put a new spin on events or characters, but with the exception of the interesting sections explaining how Anna (the prostitute mentioned above) came to be in her current situation, they felt extremely redundant and repetitive, which slightly dulled my love for the book. It felt like the one time the author really put structure over storytelling.

This book is undoubtedly long and clearly very cleverly written. But I'd emphasise once more that it's far more enjoyable, far more of a page-turner and a far easier read than either its length or its reputation would suggest. Marvel at its structure and style, puzzle out its astronomical mysteries or simply enjoy a riveting historical drama - whatever level you choose to read it on, I'd highly recommend this book.

DECAdry Place Cards for Folding 200gsm 6 per A4 Sheet 85x46mm when Folded - Ref OCB3713-3 (Pack 132 Cards)
DECAdry Place Cards for Folding 200gsm 6 per A4 Sheet 85x46mm when Folded - Ref OCB3713-3 (Pack 132 Cards)
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect for weddings. Saved me time and money without sacrificing quality, 31 Aug 2014
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Like nearly everything to do with weddings, pre-printed table name cards cost a small fortune, and with terrible handwriting and limited free time, I didn't want to have to write name cards out by hand. These came to the rescue at a fraction of the pre-made price. They are good quality, sturdy card, easy to perforate and stand up well on the table. You can download a template online to use with Word, though I'd personally advice using the online programme Top Table Planner, which is compatible with this pack and allows you to auto generate a PDF file with all your guests' names on it that is perfectly sized to print onto these sheets. As an added positive, there are loads of cards in this pack, so unless you're having a really huge event, you should have some spare to allow for a trial run or last minute additions. Highly recommend for anyone organising a wedding or other big event that needs name cards and who wants to save money without sacrificing quality.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 10, 2014 8:37 AM BST

Gisela Graham Bride & Groom Beautiful White & Ivory glitter Doves - Wedding decorations
Gisela Graham Bride & Groom Beautiful White & Ivory glitter Doves - Wedding decorations
Offered by Chic Gifts
Price: £4.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect for my birdcage shaped wedding cake and great value, 31 Aug 2014
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I had a wedding cake shaped like a birdcage and really wanted a bird bride and groom to sit on top of it. I found a few online, but they were all quite expensive (around £50). I wasn't sure what the quality would be like at this price, but I thought it was worth the risk, and wasn't disappointed. The birds were a decent size, sturdy and well made, and looked really sweet. They worked really well on my cake, which received loads of complements, and I've kept them since as little wedding mementoes - I'm planning to put them on my Christmas tree in years to come! This is one of the cheapest things I bought for my wedding, and one of the best received. Highly recommend.
If anyone is considering buying these and wants to see a picture of them on my cake to give an idea of size and quality, comment below and I'll happily send you one - or indeed, if you're the manufacturer and you want one for promotional purposes.

We Were Liars
We Were Liars
Price: £2.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Only the promise of a twist kept me going..., 31 Aug 2014
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This review is from: We Were Liars (Kindle Edition)
When I started this book, I knew only two things about it. Firstly, that it focussed on a rich family on a summer holiday. Secondly, that it had a major twist. Beyond this, thanks to what seemed to be a deliberate policy by both publishers and reviewers, its content was a bit of a mystery. I wasn't even entirely sure of the genre or of what age group it was aimed at. Still, that bit of information I had sounded promising. I usually enjoy reading about upper class lives, I was looking for a beach read so the summery theme appealed, and above all, I love a well-executed twist.

While I hate spoilers, I don't think it's necessary to be quite as cautious as some reviewers have been. I think it's fair to say that it's YA, that it's mostly about families and growing up, but that teenage romance plays a large role.

The seventeen year old narrator, Cadence, is one of seven grandchildren of an incredibly rich WASPy-type, who owns a private island off Cape Cod. Every year since she was a child, the whole family has spent the summer on the island, having a seemingly idyllic time. The family are outwardly perfect. Not only rich, but tall, blonde, intelligent, good-looking and sporty. The are also quite obsessed with keeping up appearances, maintaining a stiff upper lip in the face of emotional upheaval and keen to perpetrate their own mythology of gilded perfection. From the first page, however, it becomes clear that, inevitably, there are problems behind the facade.

When she was fifteen, the narrator had the usual summer of spending time with her beloved cousins, as well as starting an intense relationship with Gat, the Asian best friend of one of the cousins, and a frequent visitor to the island since they were all children. Then, she had some sort of swimming accident, which has left her with debilitating migraines, little interest in her old life, and little memory of that summer. Most of the action focusses on the summer when Cadence is seventeen. Back on the island for the first time since the accident and convinced that there are things people aren't telling her, she tries to piece together what happened two years before, while trying to rebuild her relationship with Gat and her friendship with her cousins, and deal with the interesting dynamics of the rest of the family.

Some people don't like to know that a twist is coming, but in this case, I was very glad I did. I started off really enjoying the book, mainly because the brutally honest prose style caught my attention. And throughout, there were passages that were really clever and that caught my imagination. "We believe in outdoor exercise. We believe that time heals. We believe, although we will not say so explicitly, in prescription drugs and the cocktail hour." I also enjoyed the world-building. The island and the family dynamics felt very well-realised and have stuck in my memory. However, I was bored and mildly irritated by the time I made it halfway through the book. At that point, I was only really continuing to read because I wanted to know what the twist was going to be.

It was difficult not to feel irritated by Cadence. Despite some bits of clever writing, at times, listening to her bare her soul felt a bit like reading over a particularly pretentious and over-emotional section of a seventeen-year old's diary (and believe me, if I ever wanted to do that, I've got plenty of my own raw material locked away!). The trouble was, she got so emotional over relatively small things (a boy she likes having a girlfriend, being "forced" to go on a trip to Europe with her father instead of back to the island when she was sixteen) that I found it difficult to feel much sympathy for her when genuinely bad things happened, like the after-effects of her accident. Her response seemed the same whenever anything upsetting happened, regardless of the magnitude - unleash the "shot through the heart" and "bleeding to death" metaphors. And the only thing more irritating than listening to the over-privileged narrator's first world problems was listening to her sanctimonious love interest calling her out on it.

The other problem was that for most of the book, relatively little happened. It was mostly just Cadence and her family spending uneventful days on the beach and in the beachhouses - again, the effect was a bit like reading someone's day-to-day diary. I think part of the problem was that I couldn't get really emotionally invested in the key relationship. As a cynical 28 year old, I can't help but think that a relationship between two fifteen or seventeen year olds is probably not going to last forever. I read a lot of YA/NA, and usually I manage to push these thoughts away and buy into the love story, but for some reason (probably the narrator's whiny tone) I couldn't do it here.

Finally, there were the interludes in which Cadence talks about her family using the language and imagery of fairytales, "once upon a time there was a king who had three beautiful daughters." In part, it was quite clever and fun, but they were a bit overdone and started to add to the general vibe I was getting of pretentious teenager who mythologises her life.

And so to the twist. Firstly, it genuinely caught me by surprise despite my best efforts to guess it in advance, and it made me reconsider everything that had gone before. On the other hand, I found it pretty hard to reconcile with the rest of the plot, and sort of felt that for one "oh my god, are you kidding me?" moment, the author had undermined much of the point of the story.

Overall, this is a well-written novel, but I enjoyed the prose much more than the plot and characters. It's not a bad beach read and it does have a surprising twist, but it ultimately didn't quite work for me. It frustrated me to the extent that I was tempted to give it two stars, but when there are so many awful books out there, that seemed a bit unfair on a book that does have a few flashes of brilliance, so I've gone for a grudging three.

Price: £1.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Basic chick-lit plot made far more interesting by its theme of parallel lives, 14 Aug 2014
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This review is from: Fractured (Kindle Edition)
I picked this book up on a bit of a whim, intrigued by the central premise of a woman who wakes up from an accident only to discover that the last five years of her life seem to have played out in a different way to what she remembers, starting with the moment when her (male) best friend survived the accident that she remembers killing him.

Ideas of memory loss and parallel lives have been played with in countless books and films, but it’s an idea that always captures my imagination and that can potentially make for a great story. For the first few pages of this book, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. The author’s writing style didn’t feel very polished, some of the characters felt a bit two-dimensional, and there were even a few typos (which I can just about go with in a self-published work, but I’m pretty sure this has now been professionally published).

However, I pushed through, and within the space of the first chapter, I was hooked. There was just something about the plot, the narrative and the heroine that swept me in. I liked Rachel and wanted her to be happy, I adored Jimmy and wanted him to truly not be dead, and I was desperate to find out what was really going on.

I don’t usually read contemporary romance, and underneath the temporal weirdness, this is basically a standard “chick-lit” tale of a woman trying to succeed in life and love. The central love story was sweet and touching, as was the main character’s relationships with her friends and family, in both versions of her life. The worst aspect was Matt, Rachel’s fiancé in the “good” life. The author made him needlessly unpleasant, making the sort of love triangle that developed a bit too one-sided.

Clearly, however, the big attraction was the mystery. Rather like in Ashes to Ashes/Life on Mars, you’re constantly left guessing about what’s really going in. Has something magical occurred and allowed the heroine to genuinely swap lives? Is the life where her friend is dead “reality” and she’s just dreaming the other life from a coma? Or is the life where her friend’s alive real, and she has some sort of mental illness that’s leaving her with imaginary memories. There are clues that seem to suggest all three of these possibilities, and right up until the end, I was unsure what to believe and enjoyed the uncertainity.
My one complaint about how this section was handled was the way in which “good life” Rachel was constantly visiting places she remembered from her “bad life.” Each time, the outcome was the same – there was no evidence of her living/working/spending time there, but she knew lots of details about the place. Each time, this was treated as a shocking revelation, when it was quite clear from the start that whatever else was going on, the two lives were clearly not existing in parallel within the same space and time, so these trips felt a bit pointless to me.

I can’t say too much about the ending without spoiling things, but let’s just say it’s emotional, it’s not what I would have predicted, and while it’s not quite the way I’d have liked it to end, I think it was a brave route for the author to go down.
Overall, this is definitely worth a read when you want something basically light and fun, but with a bit more bite and a twistier plot than your average chick-lit.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared
Price: £4.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some humour, some history and some deeper themes underpinning it all - but ultimately a little repetitive, 14 Aug 2014
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Generally, I tend to read books that I’ve already heard quite a lot about. In this case, however, all I knew was that it presumably featured a 100 year old man climbing out of a window and escaping somewhere, and that it’s become hugely popular. It was a lot more surreal and farcical than I’d expected it to be, and all the better for that.

There are two interwoven narratives. The first is set in more or less the present day, and tells the tale of what happens after Allan, the eponymous hundred year old man, flees his nursing home on the day of his hundredth birthday, with no plan in mind. After he takes a suitcase full of cash belonging to a criminal gang, he ends up on the run from both gangsters and the authorities, making a collection of strange friends along the way, and staying one step ahead of trouble through a combination of bizarre coincidences, clever plans and the large fortune he’s now carrying around with him.

The second narrative starts way back in 1905, and tells the story of Allan’s life. Allan has four defining features. One, he’s very good with explosives, and really enjoys making and using them. Two, he has absolutely no interest (to an almost obsessive degree) in religion or politics, and very little in sex. Three, he has an extraordinary capacity for staying relaxed and calmly and happily dealing with whatever life throws at him, whether awful, wonderful, or somewhere in between. And fourthly, while he’s by no means an alcoholic, he really likes to have a drink (ideally vodka) and will go to some quite strange lengths to get one. The backstory starts off ordinarily enough, but it gradually becomes clear that for a variety of bizarre reasons, Allan is on first name terms with practically every major world leader of the twentieth century, and has had quite an involvement in many key historical events (especially those involving actual or threatened explosions).

Allan’s ultra-passiveness made him slightly difficult to really connect or emphasise with, and at times it was hard not to be frustrated by some of the decisions he blithely makes. Nonetheless, he was fundamentally likeable, and in both the flashback and contemporary narratives, I was constantly cheering him on.

Underneath the fundamentally humorous plot, I liked the fact that there seemed to be some serious messages, both about how we sometimes fail to see the very elderly as real people or take an interest in their potentially interesting life stories, and about how much trouble is caused by political and religious ideology. It was also quite educational on the subject of twentieth century history. Obviously, the plot took certain liberties, but most of it felt broadly well-researched.

The main problem in both sections (though it felt particularly pronounced in the historical segments)was the repetitiveness of it all. At the halfway mark, I wondered what could possibly be left to happen, and broadly, the answer was “more of the same.” Some of Allan’s meeting with the great names of modern history started to blur into one, as did his run ins with each successive member of the criminal gang. Clearly, this is the sort of story where you have to suspend your disbelief and go with the flow, but the more astonishing things Allan did, the harder I found this and the less interested I became.
Some reviews seem to suggest that this book is laugh out loud funny. The farcical going-ons certainly raised a smile (especially early on when they felt fresher) but there wasn’t really anything that hugely amused me. At times, I wondered whether some of the humour had been slightly lost in translation or required some Swedish cultural context, as there were some parts felt almost hilarious, but didn’t quite hit the mark.

Overall, this is perfectly fine as an unusual, light read, but I wouldn’t rush to recommend it.

Price: £1.79

3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting concept, but ultimately a pretty standard dystopia, 29 July 2014
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This review is from: Crewel (Kindle Edition)
By far the best thing about this book is its unusual premise. Like some sort of cross between the Fates of classical mythology and the Matrix, the world is made up of invisible threads that can be sewn and altered by the Spinsters, women with magical powers who are selected from amongst the general populace and live a life of both luxury and difficult decisions. The world is run by the Guild, an all-male cabal who use the Spinster’s powers to utterly control everything that goes on in the world, by having them cut out any “undesirable” elements.

Once you get past this interesting set-up, however, you’re basically left with a fairly standard Hunger Games-esque dystopia. All the elements you’ve come to expect – girl with special abilities who is plucked from obscurity, love triangle, glamorous assistant, bitchy rival – are present and correct. They are done competently enough, but nothing here really caught my imagination or seemed particularly new. I liked the heroine, who was a realistic mixture of strong but vulnerable, but neither of the two boys really grabbed me, and with the exception of the delightfully sinister main villain from the Guild, the rest of the supporting cast’s actions often seemed to make little sense.

There were two main redeeming factors for me. Firstly, the interesting treatment of gender (and to a lesser extent, LGBT) politics. The world of the book is a patriarchy in the truest sense, with women officially second class citizens, with very limited choices in life. This was contrasted nicely with the way the Spinsters seemed to have power, but were ultimately just as subservient to the Guild as any other woman.

Secondly, in contrast to many dystopias, where everyone is suffering and the rulers are clearly in the wrong, there was a suggestion that the Guild had come close to creating a utopia. The weaving allowed them to create a world without crime or war or real poverty, and as with many real life dictatorships, seemed to have begun with the best of intentions and then got out of control. While I was still very much rooting against the Guild, this added a subtlety that books in the genre often lack, rather like in one of my favourite novels, Brave New World.

In conclusion, this is a perfectly enjoyable dystopia based around an unusual premise, but it’s nothing really special or unique. Worth a read if you like the genre and are looking for a quick read, but not worth actively seeking out.

Cloud Atlas (Kindle Enhanced Edition)
Cloud Atlas (Kindle Enhanced Edition)
Price: £5.49

5.0 out of 5 stars A perfect blend of clever structure and compelling stories. Not always an easy read but a truly brilliant one, 18 July 2014
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I first read this book when it came out in the early noughties, and was blown away by both the inventive structure and compelling storytelling. I recently saw the film (a great adaptation, incidentally), which inspired me to do a cover to cover reread and it lived up to my memories.

I'm a big believer in not drawing too distinct a line between "genre fiction" (fantasy, paranormal, sci-fi etc) and more high-brow, literary novels. This book is one of the best examples of the idea that it's possible to write a novel that both tells a fantastical story and does amazing things with prose, structure and narrative. The fact that it was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the X prize tells its own story.

The book is almost a collection of seven short stories. With the exception of the one in the middle, which runs straight through, each gets to a halfway point and is then interrupted by the next story, which follows a character who is reading the text the reader has just read. Halfway through the book, it then starts working it's way back through the stories, completing each of them in turn. Throughout, there are hints that all of the stories' main characters may be reincarnations of each other (most obviously, they all have the same comet shaped birthmark, but there seem to be some overlap of memories and fears), but the author doesn't make it simple - the timeline doesn't quite seem to allow it, and some characters seem to be fictional within other character's universes.

It's the intricate way that the stories fit together that I really love about this book, especially the little clues and the self-references, whether its a piece of music composed by one character that has the same structure, a character dreaming about something that happens to another protagonist centuries in the future, or a character wondering whether the journal he is reading (which readers have also just read) is a forgery, on the basis that some of what is said seems to convenient. This is definitely a book that benefits from a re-read and some close scrutiny of the text.

That said, it's not just structure over substance. Each of the individual stories are beautifully plotted and written. The brilliant thing is that they are not only set in wildly different time periods (the earliest is in the 1800s, the latest in a far distant post-apocalyptic future) and geographical locations, they are also very different genres and written in a corresponding style. So the first story is meant to be the journal of a nineteenth lawyer on a sea voyage - it's written in diary format, and in the very mannered, formal language of the time, while a 1970s thriller is written like a pulpy novel, and so on. Mitchell masters all of these styles beautifully and has a bit of fun playing around with them.

Most fundamentally, however, when all the stylistic cleverness and post-modern twistiness is stripped away, there are still seven good, strong stories. Inevitably, in this sort of book, each reader, even if they love the whole thing, is going to find themselves enjoying some sections more than others. For me, a story (told in the form of letters) of a debauched 1930s musician and another focussing on a rebel clone in a futuristic Korea are up their with my favourite stories in their own right. In particular, I found the latter story reminded my of Never Let Me Go, which came out at more or less the same time, but I actually found the Cloud Atlas chapter to be better, even though it was only one small part of a much bigger whole. The seventies thriller and the modern day tale of a hapless literary agent were also genuinely enjoyable reads. Despite my love of the book, I have to admit that I found the sea journal and in particular, the post-apocalyptic tale (told as an oral history, in a made up pseudo-English reminiscent of that in A Clockwork Orange) to be rather heavy-going. In those cases, while I still admired the author's talent and the contribution they made to the whole, I struggled to actively enjoy them. Interestingly, I've seen other people who feel exactly the opposite way about which stories do and don't work - they are all extremely well written and imaginative, beyond that, it's really a matter of personal taste. I would, however, suggest that if the first story doesn't grab you, you still push on and see whether you enjoy the others more.

Finally, not content with both the stories and the metaphysics, the book as a whole has a lot of quite deep things to say about human nature, especially the destructive will to dominate others. As one characters puts it, "the weak are meat, the strong do eat." Various other interesting themes also flow through the book, enriching it without it ever starting to feel like a lecture.

It's by no means the easiest read. You'll have to work a little just to get through it, and to get the most out of it and make all the connections, it's worth going slowly and/or re-reading. There are also likely to be some sections that readers don't enjoy as much as others. Nonetheless, I'd hugely recommend this to anyone who wants to try something different, to have their mind twisted, and ultimately, to enjoy a good story and some seriously impressive writing.

The Year of the Flood
The Year of the Flood
Price: £5.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Great dystopian sequel that shows the world and certain characters from a different angle, 18 July 2014
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As I explained in an earlier review of the first book in this series, Oryx and Crake, this is a fantastic series. Atwood creates a detailed, believable and horrifying future world, of genetic experimentation out of control, morals utterly eroded, and corporations controlling things utterly. None of the technological or political changes are so far-fetched as to be unbelievable. This is dystopia with its routes firmly in the present day rather than an entirely imaginary future.

Like the first book, this has dual timelines, moving back and forth between the time before the "Waterless Flood" that wiped out most of humanity and the months that follow. It is told from the alternating point of view of two survivors, Toby and Ren, both of whom are interesting characters who you can't help but feel a good deal of sympathy for.

Oryx and Crake focussed on the elite, and as such, although the unpleasantness of the world was easy to read between the lines, for much of the time, the centrals characters were having a broadly pleasant time. Here, the focus shifts to the underbelly (which seems to include a large proportion of society) and the true horrors of the world become clear. Above all, the story focuses on an environmentalist cult, the God's Gardeners, who were mentioned briefly in the first book. The author undoubtedly deserves admiration for imagining an entire religion, including huge amounts of detail on their holy days and liturgy. I found them intriguing to read about, but was never quite sure whether we were meant to be rooting for them or laughing at them. They were clearly presented as a better alternative to the rest of the world, but they had some deeply odd qualities. Clearly, an author shouldn't make characters or organisations too black and white, but the extent of the ambiguity here was oddly disconcerting. Furthermore, while I admire the fact that the author had created such a fully fleshed out world that she'd imagined lots of hymns the Gardeners might sing, I wished that most of them had stayed inside her imagination. Reading through services and hymns every few chapters quickly became trying, but that's my only real complaint with the book.

I did, however, have one little niggle. Having had my imagination thoroughly captured by the way Jimmy was portrayed as the last man on earth in Book Two, I found it slightly underwhelming that this book gradually revealed quite a few survivors. Jimmy had been specifically given an antidote, so that's fair enough, but Crake's grand plan to create a new and better race of humans and wipe out humanity seems pretty feeble if people could survive because they were in a deserted spa or even an isolation room. Worse, all the survivors so far seem to know each other, which seems a rather far-fetched coincidence. I was able to put aside this niggle and enjoy the book on its own terms, but it slightly weakened the overall impact of the series for me. Besides, even if it was a little odd, trying to work out how everyone knew each other and matching the fully-fledged characters of this book with passing references in the earlier one (and vice versa) was lots of fun. Taken together, the books also give a fuller view of the world, and help to explain some of the mysteries of the plot.

Finally, the book was very well-written and plotted, but that almost goes without saying with Atwood. Definitely worth a read if you're a fan of either good literature or dystopia.

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