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Dept. of Speculation
Dept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars and recommend to friends, 14 Mar. 2016
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This review is from: Dept. of Speculation (Paperback)
One to read and re-read

Of all the books I read last year, and recommend to friends, this is near the top of my list. It's a tiny novel, but it's packed like a hand-grenade with the thoughts and ideas of a woman whose marriage is in crisis and whose life - initially happy - seems to be unravelling. All this despite the fact it contains some of the elements I find most off-putting about novels written by creative writing teachers: references to students and writing. Added to this is the fact that it is set in New York, a city already obsessed with itself. And yet I was utterly seduced by Offill's needle-sharp observations and the wry hilarity of her style. The protagonist skewers her own self-pity, and in doing so, makes you smile. She is a great comic writer.


The Good House
The Good House
by Ann Leary
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A study in denial I loved this book, 14 Mar. 2016
This review is from: The Good House (Paperback)
A study in denial

I loved this book, which I first listened to on Audible, read brilliantly by Beth Hurt. It tells the story of Hilda (known as Hildy) a Yankee estate agent with an alcohol abuse problem - and an even bigger problem of being in denial about it.
When a new couple come to town and buys a house from her, she is drawn into the life of the young wife Rebecca, whose affair with the local psychiatrist quickly gets out of hand. This story is told through the voice of Hildy who is by turns wise and vicious depending on the level of booze she has consumed. This is funny, painful and so sharply-observed it makes you wince. Her denial becomes increasingly poignant as the novel develops: a woman who can behave like a monster (and very amusingly so, at times) is also battling with the aftermath of childhood pain that she can barely name. There are some fine set-pieces, and you can easily imagine it as a movie. It is also refreshing to read a book in which the central character is a 60-year-old woman. It made me think there aren't enough of those.
An engaging, absorbing mix of pleasure and pain. I will miss Hildy - but I will be sure to revisit her.


Penance
Penance
by Kate O'Riordan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.58

5.0 out of 5 stars Having read and enjoyed Kate O Riordan's other thrillers over the years, 14 Mar. 2016
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This review is from: Penance (Hardcover)
Having read and enjoyed Kate O Riordan's other thrillers over the years, I came to this novel with high expectations. I was right to. This novel is as good as anything she has ever written. The central character, Rosalie, is a very human creation, and although I am not a Catholic, O Riordan skilfully conveys the religious turmoil she suffers as events unfold, in addition to the pain she is in as the book opens. This stems fro the loss of her beloved son Rob, which has put the family, and Rosalie's marriage, under colossal strain. With great skill, O' Riordan orchestrates a dynamic and intriguing drip-feed of events, upping the stakes with every chapter. The depiction of Maddie, Rosalie's disturbed teenage daughter, is eye-wateringly precise, and the conflicted emotions Rosalie feels when Maddie falls for Jed (whose story I won't reveal here as it would be a terrible spoiler) is gut-wrenching. Especially when...oh, I can't go there either. Read it for yourself. It is a terrific psychological thriller - and just the sort of book Richard and Judy should have their eye on. I can also see it as a TV series. No surprise, perhaps, as it turns out O Riordan is also a successful TV writer. A great read.


The Winter Garden (Clara Vine 2)
The Winter Garden (Clara Vine 2)
by Jane Thynne
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Meticulously-researched, devastating spy story, 3 April 2014
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The Winter Garden is every bit as scintillating as the previous Cara Vine story Black Roses, which I devoured at a similar speed and with the same admiration and enjoyment. Thynne has clearly done a huge amount of research but it's worn lightly, and the atmosphere of pre-war Berlin is captured so well I almost believed I was there. Clara, an Anglo-German actress, is recruited as a British spy and her work in the film industry means she mixes with high-ranking Nazis including Goebbels and the Fuhrer himself. The Mitford sisters and Edward and Wallace Simpson make nasty, glittering cameo appearances which remind one of the extent to which Hitler attracted much of the the British upper class - including Clara's own father. Her endeavour - involving untangling a muder at a Nazi Bride School - is hugely risky, and my heart was in my mouth - especially in the moments when Clara lets her heart rule her head, and nearly exposes herself. An excellent, gripping read. I can't wait for the next one.


The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice
The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice
Price: £4.31

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A small masterpiece, 10 May 2013
Like many people I have been to Venice as a tourist on a brief visit - and seen its Greatest Hits.But what kind of life goes on beyond the sumptuous facades, the gondolas and the ice-cream concessions? And what is it like to actually live there, and try to pursue a normal existence when the circus is going on all around? This is the question that Coles' brilliant, meditative memoir answers, in a collection of thoughtful mini-essays. Coles went to Venice with her Italian partner and their four children, and it's through the prism of their domestic life that the small wonders and huge frustrations of the city unfold. Coles' quiet humour and sharp analytical mind take us through floods and festivals, into the medievally punishing school system, and down small back alleys where kids dive for crabs. A real gem of a book - and the perfect antidote to your Venice tourist guide.


A Hologram for the King
A Hologram for the King
by Dave Eggers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking entertainment, 28 April 2013
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I have followed Dave Eggers' writing on and off over the years - I especially enjoyed A Hearbreakig Work - and decided to read this because it's set in Saudi Arabia, a country which I am keen to visit, fictionally. (Reading is a great form of distance tourism: after reading this novel, you won't want to go there in any great hurry). The story's hero is Alan Clay, a struggling American businessman taking a small team to as as-yet-incomplete "new" city in the desert to drum up IT business for his firm. You sense the project is doomed from the start. But you are swiftly drawn into Alan's diminishing, increasingly hopeless world, which is the world of America's loss of prestige in the global business area - brought about by men like Aan, who shipped manufacturing out to China and came to regret it.
Alan's loneliless and lovelessness, his inability to rise to the occasion when two women present themelves on offer, his poignant unposted letters to his daughter Kit, and his friendship with his charming, funny, Westernised driver, all combine to make this story a real page-turner. It's also (no surprise, this being Eggers) wonderfully written.
My only quibble was with the ending, which seemed just a little too abrupt, as though Eggers had lost interest in the project - which is why it's a four-star read for me, and not five. I'd have liked more of a resolution, and a hint of what awaited Alan on his return to the US.


The Blind Man's Garden
The Blind Man's Garden
by Nadeem Aslam
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant and heart-rending read, 28 April 2013
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This review is from: The Blind Man's Garden (Hardcover)
This must be one of the best books I have read all year. It was recommended by a friend who raved about it. However I will admit it took me a little while to get drawn into it, becasause although the writing is poetic and urgent and hugely evocative - particularly on the sensual level - I found that the characters of foster-brothers Jeo and Mikal, and their wider family, were a little sketchily drawn to come fully alive. However, as the story built, that issue was swiftly swept aside, and I became quite haunted by the novel's extraordinary landscapes and world. Set in post 9/11 Pakistan and Afghanistan, it follows the brothers' chilling journey into jihad and (in Mikal's case) back again, via some of the most thrilling set-pieces I have read in a long time.I greatly admired Aslam's ability to conjure beauty amid chaos and horror, and to convey the way womens' lives are so grimly circumscribed by the dictates of a religion which no-one dares to openly defy. Curiously enough it was the few almost silent atheists at the margins to the book who spoke loudest about the tyrrany of contemporary life in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This novel has been described as a masterpiece: in my opinion, it fully deserves that title.


Look at Me
Look at Me
by Jennifer Egan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Pure delight, 28 April 2013
This review is from: Look at Me (Paperback)
I came to this novel having read (twice, because I loved it so much) Egan's brilliant A Visit from the Goon Squad. Look at me is every bit as well-written. It's also as delightful, as sad, as wise and (most importantly of all, for me) as funny. Two Charlottes, one a car accident victim, the other the teenage daughter of her old friend, circle one another in a story that is part detective tale, part intrigue, and part rites-of-passage novel. Its central theme is perception and self-perception, and Egan's decision (prophetic, since the book was written pre-9/11) to include a terrorist posing as a home-grown Amrican haunting the background gives it a sharp urgent twist. I will now read Egan's whole oeuvre: she is an inspired and inspiring writer, and her prose is utterly delicious.


The Future
The Future
Price: £7.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lucid and impoprtant, 25 Feb. 2013
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This review is from: The Future (Kindle Edition)
This is a powerful, educative and readable book about the most important issue of our time: what sort of world we are leaving to our chikdren and grandchildren.
Gore marshals an impressive amount of research and covers the ground with care and a masterful attention to the crucial details, backed up by footnotes that make you want to also read the men and women (mostly scientists) he quotes as sources. His style is fluid and thoughtful. The result can't be anything other than depressing, for the most part. Yet Gore is careful to emphasise the positive where possible, which I guess is a kind of duty, when you are waving a warning flag. He doesn't shy away from issues like population, which have been side-stepped in the past. Interestingly, Obama is barely mentioned - though the book pre-dates his most recent climate statements. All politicians and educators around the world should read this.
And anybody working in the fossil fuel industry. (As if.)
The book also made me very angry. That's a good thing.


May We Be Forgiven
May We Be Forgiven
Price: £1.89

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining but shapeless, 2 Dec. 2012
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I enjoyed the vibrancy and zest of Homes' writing, and the way the story starts with a bang: there's seduction, murder, imprisonment, sudden illness, desperate sex and semi-orphaned children all within the first fifty pages or so. But after a while I kept putting the novel aside, because despite its entertainment value (and this builds well towards the end, with Harry an increasingly engaging narrator) there was an "and then this and then this and then this" feel to it whiuch at times made me think, "and so what?". Other reviewers have compared Homes to Franzen: I would never place her in the same category, but I will read more of her - not least beacuse she doesn't write or think like most female writers. That alone is something to celebrate.


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