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davidT "Omnivore" (Hildesheim, Germany)

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First Frost: DI Jack Frost series 1
First Frost: DI Jack Frost series 1
Price: £5.22

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A difficult task pulled off pretty well flawlessly, 5 Feb. 2011
I have to say straight off that I'm not a big fan of joint authorship, and still less of continuing an existing series started by a dead writer. It seems it too often degenerates into uninspiring prose written by a committee ticking the necessary boxes to make this one fit into the franchise, while the intellectual efort of creating an imaginary world has already been done by others (see James Bond, Virginia Andrews...).
However, this one for me gets away with it. Partly this is because it's not so much carrying on with the story, as explaining what happened before the series as written by R.D. Wingfield even started - a 'prequel' I believe is the coinage of choice. This means that the writers can't be lazy, as there's a lot of thinking to be done, to avoid inconsistencies with the existing stories.
The other reason lies in the strength of the format used by Wingfield and maintained here - the action takes place in a compressed space of time, with at least two major crimes on the go plus up to half a dozen others of varying severity, all of which DS Frost must juggle himself due to the constraints on manpower dictated by DS Mullett. As in the original series most of these are shown to have some linking factor, which when teased out leads to the crimes being solved in the nick of time.
Except not quite all - another book is in the pipeline for this series, and there is a very obvious lead into the next one in the last sentence of this book. I also suspect that we haven't heard the last of the mysterious DI Patterson, nor of DI Allen who arrives back from holiday in the final chapter. DC Sue Clarke will definitely feature more in Frost's moribund lovelife, and I also didn't think the death asociated with the 'swingers' club was finished up quite tidliy enough. Might that be because there is still some unresolved business there? (A question here - is what they say about pampas grass in the novel true? I'll never go house-hunting with quite the same innocence again, if so!)
OK, so 5 stars for a great read and a fine ahievement at picking up an ongoing narrative without dropping a beat. If I can make a tiny criticism, though it's not worth dropping a star or part of for it, it's that the character of Sandy Lane wouldn't still be the same, or at least working on the same small-town rag in 1981 and whenever the series finished up. He might be an annoying character - though my view of him is naturally coloured by the TV interpretation, in which he comes across more as engagingly persistent - but he's not stupid, and as a determined hack would surely have moved on to better things by now. No, there's a story there as to how he sank down to the level of Denton in the first place.
A minor cavil though, and I'll certainly be lookng for the next instalment as soon as it appears.

The Whisperer
The Whisperer
by Donato Carrisi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Coming Soon To A Playstation Near You, 30 Jan. 2011
This review is from: The Whisperer (Paperback)
It's not uncommon when reading a thriller to get a feeling that it's been written to be filmed - clues are a big car chase leading up to the climax, and the hero(ine) wandering round a dark, empty building at night with no idea what else is hiding in the darkness.
This, though is the first book I've read which felt more like a literary version of a computer game, and I've been trying to work out why.
One reason I think is the non-specific locale. It's definitely not the author's Italy, but not quite America either, so the impression is of a world not quite as we know it. (That might be a useful device for an author come to think of it - at least you don't need to worry about the anoraks writing to you to point out that a deputy in West Virginia isn't entitled to enter a deserted property without previously doing A, B or C).
Add to that the jump to different gothic locations, among them the huge, deserted orphanage and the vast mansion with a dying owner kept secluded from the world. Each of these seems to exist in isolation, as if we're moving from one stage to another, almost entirely separate, one.
Similarly with the villains - without giving too much away, various murders are solved along the way, done and dusted and put behind the team, but none of them is the big one, which remains unresolved up to (and possibly beyond) the big Game Over.
That all said and analysed, it must be admitted that on its own terms this is a terrific book. It's as if the author worked out what readers of this sort of book want, and resolved to give it them in spades. You want a serial killer? How about a series of serial killers? A mole in the investigating team? Yep, let's have two or three of those. A twist in the tail? No problem; plus a couple before that as well. Oh, and I know you didn't ask, but let's have a medium as well; in this case a medium communing with someone who isn't actually dead yet.
The only thing is, I can't really see where the author can go from here - he seems to have poured into this one as much as you'd expect to find in an entire series.
All in all, if you like restraint and realism in your crime fiction, this probably isn't your cup of tea; if on the other hand you enjoy an over-the-top romp with no holds barred and a creepy atmosphere sustained through the entire book, with the likelihood that the ground is going to be cut away from under your feet at any time, then give it a go.
(By the way, to those who say that the central conceit was borrowed from Agatha Christie - maybe it was, but she borrowed it from Shakespeare's Othello anyway. A good idea is always worth rehashing).
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 24, 2013 4:19 PM GMT

A Child's Christmases in Wales [DVD]
A Child's Christmases in Wales [DVD]
Dvd ~ Ruth Jones

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As Christmas as mince pies and needles dropping on the carpet, 9 Jan. 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Christmas brings out the obsessive compulsive in every family - if you do something two years in a row, it's a tradition, and you break it at your peril.
It may be listening to Handel's Messiah at least once; a specific Christmas Carol CD; the first mince pie; watching National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation; tuning in to the service from King's College Chapel; eating a sprout or some Quality Street.
Which just emphasizes the point that Christmas means something different to everyone, and why I've got no time for the sort of person who talks about 'the true meaning of Christmas'.. RUBBISH! For all of us, Christmas goes back so far into our unconscious childhood that it's built up of memories which even our parents would struggle to recollect. Hence it has a different meaning for everyone which is as 'true' for me as it is for you.
Having said that, as soon as I saw A Child's Christmases in Wales on the BBC last year (2009), I knew that viewing it would somehow have to be shoehorned into any Christmas worthy of the name, and so I'm more glad than I can say that the DVD has finally been released.
What to highlight? Nothing; and that's the point. Ruth Jones and her fellow authors have nailed a family Christmas. You do what you do every year; the same people arrive at roughly the same time; the same family squabbles crop up every year, and so they should - air the disagreements and get them out of the way for another twelve months. And in the background, the kids grow up, increasingly bewildered by it all.
Personally, I liked the Cristmas tree shenanigans; the ritual of watching the Christmas film on TV (that dates it!); the business-minded Cadwallader carol-singers; the deadbeat uncle who squats in an aquarium (and can you honestly say you didn't cheer as well when it finally snowed for him?).
All in all, brilliant. If you let loose Caroline Aherne, Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett on a Welsh Christmas, you might get something like this. But there's no need - it's already been done, now.

This Charming Man
This Charming Man
by Marian Keyes
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Hard issues faced in an entertaining read - and not just for women, 23 Dec. 2010
This review is from: This Charming Man (Paperback)
This book is badly served (at least in the UK paperback edition) by its cover. The sparkly stars and pastel colours scream 'chicklit', so that anyone looking for a serious book is likely to pass it over (and thereby miss something well worth reading), while a reader hoping to pass a few hours with undemanding froth is going to find themselves chewing on rather stronger meat than they might have been prepared for.
For myself, I had to go abroad for a week and grabbed the first book in the 'to read' pile which had a lot of pages, so fortunately the cover doesn't really come into it, otherwise I might have missed a good read.
That said, the book does have some of the elements of chicklit, agonizing over relationships, stumbling into unwise ones, plentiful use of Comic Sans font, shopping etc, but there is a much darker core to it.
When reading books where the narration switches between various points of view, my criterion for succcess is that I should be so absorbed in one strand of the narrative that I'm annoyed when it's broken to switch to another one, but then become engrossed enough to be equally annoyed when we leave that one in turn. This book easily fulfilled that requirement.
The characters are different enough to be intersting separately and together, and Marian Keyes uses well her speciality (see also and especially Rachel's Holiday) of presenting one image and then gradually scratching away at it to show the true situation, which is very different. Lola starts off apparently as a bit of an airhead, but she is a strong, successful woman, able to take control of her life, and this she eventually does, despite how she has been treated. The details of this emerge shockingly but gradually, being revealed to us the reader as she herself is forced to confront them.
Grace, the journalist, is again a strong character, slightly different from the others in that she hasn't had a direct relationship with Patrick, but only through her sister. Here again though, some throwaway details come later to have much more significance, such as the theft and torching of her car right at the start, which initially seems to have been a random inconvenience, but later takes on a different aspect. Nor does she escape physically unscathed from her dealings with Patrick.
Marnie's alcoholism is sensitively and empathetically treated (has Marian Keyes had personal experience of this? It seeems to come from the heart). In particular, the gradual slide into drinking earlier in the day, the obliviousness to the way it appears to others, and the genuine shock and sincere resolution to change when something unacceptable happens. Then, too, the inevitable breaking of that resolution and a further slide into the abyss. A neat trick I thought was the way that Marnie's husband Nick was presented initially in such a way that we wise readers think 'Aha! a controlling abusive husband!' only to find out that he's a victim of his wife's problem in his personal and professional life.
Alicia? She doesn't seem to have been physically abused by Patrick yet, but sadly one feels it is only a matter of time, and the denouement is not going to be of any help to her - probably the opposite in fact as Patrick will need to take out his anger on someone. That, though, is the way these things are, and there is no point in trying to twist the story to suggest a neat, all-encompassing solution. Abusers are rarely cured of their compulsion to abuse, and there is no sign here that that is likely to happen.
As an aside to the main story, I thought the little transvestite sorority inadvertently hosted by Lola in Knockavoy was hilarious and yet thought-provoking - funny to picture hulking Irish farmers and policemen dressing up and behaving as women, yet touching when you begin to think about the loneliness of people who have such a need when isolated from any kindred spirits, as so many must be.
So, why not the full five stars? Well, for me the main stumbling block was one identified by others, namely that it is never clear what there is about Patrck that makes women fall for him, let alone stay with him through thin and thin. It's not enough to say he's 'charismatic' and 'good-looking', when nothing in his conversation or chatup technique singles him out as anything remotely special. In particular (and I speak as a bemused bloke here), I couldn't believe that Lola wouldn't have run a mile in the opposite direction when she found out what was on the agenda for her first date with him. OK, it takes all sorts, and I can accept that some women might go for that, but up to that point Lola hasn't come across as that type at all. Maybe his famous charisma persuaded her, but if so, it doesn't make the jump to the reader.
Grace's one moment of weakness is essential to the plot, but again it doesn't ring true - how does this competent, professional woman, knowing all she does abut Patrick, knowingly risk a valued relationship for the possibility of a one-night stand (or not even that?) Sorry, I don't quite buy that.
All in all though, good value for a lengthy read, and as with the others of her books I've read - though less preachily than some - it leaves the reader, whether (s)he wants it or not, with things to think about much later.

Family Album
Family Album
by Penelope Lively
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't do what it says on the tin, 23 Dec. 2010
This review is from: Family Album (Paperback)
Maybe it's not the fault of the author (since presumably she doesn't write the jacket blurb), but this one failed to deliver on its promise. ' particular devastating secret of which no one speaks....' Except it's not much of a secret, and not at all devastating, apparently. In fact, it appeared so early on and is known to so many of the characters that I thought that couldn't be the real secret. Would it turn out that Alison was in reality a schizophrenic tyrant? Would Charles be a child-abuser? No; with both of these, what you see - however odd - is what you get. Even the promising 'Cellar Game' turns out to be nothing more than 'playing houses,' and the bullying of elder siblings doesn't exceed that in any large family.
As an exercise, after reading the book, ask yourself how the lives and relationships of the characters - parents, children, au pair - might have been different had 'the secret' not existed. I couldn't see that they would.
As Gina says, for a child 'the Allersmead world being the only one they knew, they could not conceive of an existence that was otherwise.' This is a universal truth of children, and there are many thousands both in this country and around the world who accept far worse than the Allersmead world as their daily lot.
For the characters: the children are over-achievers, who eventually pair with over-achievers; even the failure of the family fails spectacularly. You don't necessarily have to identify with characters, but there has to be some sort of engagement, and I didn't find any (maybe because I'm not an over-achiever).
Ingrid, the long-stay au pair, is promising but colourless. There is a back story there, but we don't get to see much of it. In the two or three occasions when she sees and silently records an incident of which which no one else is aware, I had a sense that she was being set up to be the centre of the family, holding the power of knowledge, but nothing comes of this.
Both Alison and Charles in their different ways are shaping reality to match what they want from life, and this again is not terribly unusual. Maybe this is why the children (except for the feckless Paul) all leave home and visit only rarely - that's the only way they can get to live their own lives.
Seen like this, the ultimate tragedy is Alison's, in that by devoting herself body and soul to her ideal of the perfect family life, she ensures its collapse. Though 'tragedy' seems a rather grand word for this oddly slight book. Sorry. I would have liked to like it more.

The Other Family
The Other Family
by Joanna Trollope
Edition: Hardcover

27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Could do better, 22 April 2010
This review is from: The Other Family (Hardcover)
I wasn't sure where this book was going while I was reading it, and when I'd finished it I wasn't entirely sure where it had been, or indeed if it had been anywhere. The overwhelming feeling was that it was extended notes for a novel, which when fleshed out and given life might have had something which, as it is, it lacks.
Richie, of course, is dead, in fact this is where the book starts. There is no clear image of him though, other than as a popular musician absorbed in his work and probably a little feckless, yet good company. That's it, though, and I didn't see what there was in the man which would make him take the positive action of leaving his wife and son to be enticed away by another woman. It was a good career move, of course, but we're repeatedly given the impression Richie was too unworldly to be bothered by something like that. It's not a big deal though, because the whole point of the book (I think) is how his two families come to terms with his loss and the aftermath.
And this is where the real problems came for me. None of the characters develops - the girls all have a single characteristic which serves to define them - Tamsin icy professionalism, Dilly anger, Amy trying to mediate, and these single strands are preserved pretty well unmodified right to the end. In fact - here's a thought - you could think of it as a classic fairy-tale pattern - the oldest too cold, the next too emotional, and the youngest daughter just emotional enough, and therefore getting the nearest thing to a prince that the book offers.
Even Chrissie's overwhelming grief is somehow unconvincing. Maybe this is because some of the dialogue sounds like set-piece speeches - this is particularly true almost at the end when Chrissie tells the two daughters still at home that they should move out and stand on their own two feet.
Oh, and while I'm at it, try this: "Chrissie was still looking at the tabletop. She said, 'I'm not sure why Amy wants to be hurtful but as she does seem to want to be, I am, for the moment, ignoring her until she can behave with more senstivity." Amy is her 18-year-old daughter, and is present, but I've not actually heard anyone talk like that since Mrs Highmore at primary school 40 years ago.
Then there is Scott, the older half-brother in Newcastle. 37, unmarried, not gay, not living at home, has some success with women, he ends up as the perfect elder brother. But what makes him tick? How did he get here? There's no handle to him. When he gets the piano, we're asked to believe that this professional man pushing 40 has friends round for musical evenings: "Once a week or so, he'd say casually to Henry or Adrian, 'Fancy a singsong at mine Friday?' and the word would get round, and eight or ten people would gather in his flat and order in pizzas, and sometimes sing." Really? Is this what Joanna Trollope thinks happens in the North of England on a Friday night? In the 21st century?
This sounds like it should be two stars, if that, but I gave it three, if only in recognition of the fact that it held me enough to read it in only two goes, which must say something. Maybe, though, it just says that I kept expecting something to happen, some progress on the next page, but if so, the expectation was disappointed.
A last point - anthropomorphising cats very rarely works, other than in humorous books, and it really, really doesn't here. The embarrassment of Dawson could be removed from the book without harming it at all.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 7, 2011 9:04 PM GMT

The Incomplete Husband
The Incomplete Husband
by Ben Faccini
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

5.0 out of 5 stars An outsider everywhere, even in your own land, 9 April 2010
This review is from: The Incomplete Husband (Paperback)
The outlines of the story are simple enough. Elena hfalls in love with and becomes pregnant by one of her father's employees, Riccardo (though Italian, he is an 'outsider' because he comes from a distant village). He leaves to make a life for his family in Buenos Aires, fails, and while in Paris earning his passage back home is killed in an industrial accident. Elena travels to Paris and out of self-preservation marries Riccardo's younger brother Giacomo, who has spent his life wanting to emulate his older brother. Much of the rest of the book is taken up with Elena's growing dissatisfaction, Giacomo's attempts to build the life he has always wanted, and the life of Marco, Elena and Riccardo's polyglot son, who works in Paris as a translator for various UN projects, falling in love there with an English colleague.
The action moves from Varanelle, as far into the Italian backwoods as it is possible to get, and then between Paris and the small town of Aigues-Mortes, a deliberately barren and colourless location where everyone other than the transient tourists seems to spend their lives waiting for something to happen. Intermittently, and as if to represent something hopelessly inachievable, Buenos Aires and the USA are dangled before the characters. The reality is though, that nowhere is perfect, everywhere falls short of the expected ideal - even when returning to a once well-known place.
A key theme, and one which Ben Faccini does an excellent job of making comprehensible to native English readers who probably never experience it, is the powerlessness that comes when stranded in a country where you do not speak the language, and no one outside your own equally disadvantaged community speaks yours.
Elena for example, although admirable for her tenacity in trying to make a go of a pottery business, cuts an unfairly comical figure as she chases customers round, talking in fragments of broken foreign language in order to try and persuade them to buy something. This affects her deeply, and simply travelling back to her native country is like appropriating a birthright, as on the train: 'She found she was unable to talk, merely point. She couldn't say anything as banal as please or thankyou, not yet. She had to save up for the right moment to enter back into her country.'
Another character who appears in the latter half of the book is the African woman Fatoumata, who also has no chance without assistance. We first meet her trying to fill in forms to allow her to stay in the country. As Laura (Marco's girlfriend) fills in the form for her, the questions become more and more complex, to the point of incomprehensibility. The sense is that French bureaucracy is using ignorance of language as a means of weeding out 'others.'
Marco has by far the best chance of 'fitting in', and it is no coincidence that he has a great facility with language, and can therefore communicate at will. Ironically, he chooses not to - with Laura, he either refuses to talk about his past, or makes up a past that he thinks will be acceptable to her. Laura, of course, herself fleeing from an upbringing and background which now seems alien to her, only wants to know the truth about Marco, whatever it is.
So what's the 'message? Does there have to be one? Well, no, but if there is one, it's that you need to get on with living your life according to where you find yourself, if only for the slightly depressing reason that the promised Eldorado doesn't actually exist.
This point is made repeatedly - 'the man from Tomazzo' who promises well-paid work in France is barely one rung above the other exploited labourers; the cousin in Buenos Aires who was going to set up Riccardo turns out to be a toothless, useless old wreck. And even going home is impossible, first for Riccardo, then Elena - they have changed too much. The final straw for Elena appears to be that her sister and brother-in-law are relying on her to get them to France - even with all the troubles that have befallen her, she is now seem as representing the prospect of a better life.
Ultimately, though, there is a positive outlook, almost entirely due to the characters accepting the hand that life has dealt them. (No details here, I've given nothing important away so far).
The narrative is sometimes a little slow, but this is deliberate - the passages in Aigues-Mortes convey well the dusty hopelessness of a place which can never aspire to be more than a point on the way to somewhere else. A more purely conventional narrative would show Giacomo either making a howling success of, or failing miserably with his pottery there, but life is not like that. It's possible, but a struggle. And much more of a struggle for outsiders.

by Rose Tremain
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written, but for goodness sake cheer up!, 21 Mar. 2010
This review is from: Trespass (Hardcover)
Elderly, gay art dealer Anthony decides he's had enough of London, and wants to move near his sister Veronica who lives in Provence with her would-be artist lover Kitty. At the same time, two locals, a brother and sister, are facing the selling of the ancient family home (he wants to, she doesn't), against a backdrop of family horror decades ago.
Anthony looks at a few houses, but none is quite perfect, and we get the feeling that he is completely out of his element here - he wants to take the Lunel's house, with its tiny windows and thick walls designed to maintain a comfortable temperature throughout the year, and knock big windows into it to flood it with light and use it as a setting for his favourite antiques.
All the main characters have been damaged in some way by their parents (though Aramon Lunel was a willing partner in his own corruption), and the story explores the ways they deal with this - by running away, reinventing the past, destroying what remains, or trying to recreate a happy past that never really was.
So, by the end, who is on the up? Well, no one, really. Not Anthony, certainly, not Kitty, cursed with ambitions which outstrip her talents, just possibly Aramon, who is at least at peace, though there is a hint that a further downward slide into drugs awaits him. Those with the best chance are probably Audrun and Veronica. Significantly, in both cases this is because of a house - for Audrun, the hated old house has been finally completely obliterated, and Veronica has plans to find a house in England, where she can have a traditional garden and return to her childhood love of horses. However, Veronica has lost those dearest to her, and Audrun is still incapable of forming a relationship with the man who has always loved her.
From this summary, it should be a depressing read, but isn't necessarily so - it's not uplifting, not at all, but the sense is that the worst of the damage has been done, so we are limited to seeing whether anything can be salvaged from the wreckage.
So, why not five stars? For one reason, because the few undamaged characters are thinly drawn and unconvincing - the faithful Raoul, the idealistic teacher Jeanne (do any teachers really take isolated children under their wings to such an extent, without realising that they are making it even more unlikely that the child will form relationships with their classmates?). For another, the impression left is that the default human state is unhappiness, and life consists of vain efforts to combat or reverse this. Happiness only exists in retrospect, and even then only because we manipulate the past to make it what we want it to have been. In what eventually can be seen as a key scene in the book, a drunken Anthony confides in a friend the one time he was truly happy, when he made a perfect tea for his adored mother in a tree-house as a child. Almost predictably, we find at the end of the book that in reality the incident ended with Anthony's (in reality not at all adorable) mother being badly injured, a fact which Anthony has blotted from his memory because it conflicts with his desire to have been happy.
So here's the deal, Rose: compromise your srtistic integrity by rewriting the end so that at least one character finishes up unambiguously happier, and I'll give you the extra star, OK?
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 12, 2010 3:16 PM BST

One Day
One Day
by David Nicholls
Edition: Paperback
Price: £2.00

24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A story that grabs and holds you long after you've finished it, 17 Mar. 2010
This review is from: One Day (Paperback)
I enjoyed the first seven-eighths of this book as an above-average rites-of-passage yarn about graduates entering the big world, making mistakes, and then settling down. Some engaging characters, some irritating, all at times infuriating. So far, so comfortable.
Then suddenly, it was like being simultaneously hit between the eyes and in the stomach. What??? I went back and read the two previous pages again - there was no way he could mean literally what he seemed to have said. But he did, and the book was turned inside out.
I had read other reviews, when I was halfway through or less, and some compared it to The Time Traveller's Wife. I couldn't see this at the time, but having finished the book, I begin to get the point - whilst the two novels are different in plot, characters and outcome, there's the same skilful handling by the author, who has to continually keep track of what the reader knows about the characters together with what the characters know about themselves and each other.
The full story only fits together right at the end, but there's no point skipping to the last page to find out what happens - the last few pages are in fact in the nature of a prologue, though they come right at the end. Don't understand? Well, without spoiling it, I can't really be any clearer.
An incredibly assured narration, and one of the rare books (and I get through the thick end of a hundred novels a year) which stays in your mind long after you close it. Human characters, with all that that entails in frailty, inconsistency, humour and occasional toe-curling embarrassment, who are easily believable as inhabiting the same world as the rest of us. And a gut-wrenching sadness which persists, as a tribute to an author who grabs you by the scruff of the neck and leaves you feeling that you've shared their lives with them.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 12, 2011 4:56 PM BST

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