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The Last Summer
The Last Summer
by Judith Kinghorn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.81

8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Clarissa Explains It All, 27 Feb 2012
This review is from: The Last Summer (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
We begin at the "golden summer" of 1914, when all England (or, at least, all upper-class England) is commonly supposed to have been bathing unwittingly in the very last moments of their innocent glory days, before the status quo was shattered by a war which turned out not to be "all over by Christmas". The life of Clarissa, the young protagonist, follows this pattern in close-up. She begins as an innocent girl looking forward to "coming out" during her London season; living at dreamy Deyning Park and cosseted by her indolent family and deferential, apple-cheeked servants.

Clarissa's peace is firstly broken by the arrival of Tom Cuthbert, the housekeeper's upwardly mobile son, who has returned from Oxford University. There are echoes of Atonement in this relationship, although Clarissa lacks the sharpness of Ian McEwan's Cecilia. Narrated by an older Clarissa looking back, the young girl's naÔvety is layered on thick. The same can be said for the "golden summer" itself. Clouds gather over too-bright landscapes, the gilded youth lounge about their stately home and rather tempt fate by lazily expecting a life of clichéd contentment. It's a theme which can't help but draw out our sentiments and bittersweet nostalgia, but it's also well-trodden literary ground and can't help but feel somewhat stale and second-hand, lessening its impact.

The second shock is, of course, the war itself. The old world is thrown out and its survivors walk about in shell-shock, navigating an uncertain urban world of hopeless, unromantic decadence. Clarissa is forced to grow up by a series of trials, and becomes a capable but suffering woman, adept at keeping secrets. Tom returns as a hardened, re-invented man, rather Gatsby-esque in his nouveau-riche mystery. Can their relationship ever be what it was; and should it be?

The writing is a bit of a curate's egg. It's let down by clichés; "weak-chinned young men" and flirtatious "gels" serve as contrast to the serious love between Tom and Clarissa. Social conditions and conventions are spelt out in stiff dialogue, in a way that makes it hard to lose oneself in the world of the book (for example: "The union of new money and old titles still seems to be very much in vogue"; and, should the reader be in any doubt of the approach of modernity: "Things have changed... Look at the suffragettes."... "You're right of course. Things are changing, and changing fast. Look at me, the son of a humble servant, at Oxford and bound for a career in the City"); the characters sometimes seem like mouthpieces. A cuckolded husband conveniently turns bad so as not to prevent the reader's sympathies towards an adulterous relationship, as well as turning incredibly dim so as not to hinder the relationship itself, exclaiming long and loud what a bloody nice chap the other man is, and wondering why we don't invite the poor lonely thing around some time?

Then again, there are flashes of writing where the author seems to really capture the right tone. The depiction of wartime London feels fresher; the author's talent is more apparent when she can make a time and place her own, and her historical research shows. There is another detail I like about this book: chapters are interspersed with excerpts from letters left intriguingly unaddressed and unsigned, so the reader is left to interpret each one. Perhaps the author should have more often trusted herself to show and not tell; to let these hints open up an authentic world.


Distinguished Leaves: Poems for Tea Lovers
Distinguished Leaves: Poems for Tea Lovers
by Elizabeth Darcy Jones
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.81

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Poet-twee, 28 Dec 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I like tea. I like poems. This seemed like a nice little book, to keep in the kitchen and flick through while watching a pan, or, I suppose, while waiting for a fine tea to infuse. However, it just didn't do it for me. The author keeps referring to the poems as "poetea", which I found quite grating after a while, and the poems themselves I found similarly twee. It's not that I was expecting great and profound masterpieces, but it just wasn't my bag (no pun intended). I think it was a nice idea to combine two of life's small pleasures; both tea and poetry being perhaps complex and powerful little shots of something to perk up your day. And why not; the book seems to have given plenty of people pleasure, including, I imagine, the author. Unfortunately, I didn't really care for the execution of it and so it will be finding its way to the charity shop rather soon.


Fallen Grace
Fallen Grace
by Mary Hooper
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.43

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dickensian-style page-turner, 10 Oct 2011
This review is from: Fallen Grace (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The story of fifteen-year-old Grace, who begins the story on a train whose only destination is to a suburban graveyard. and her sister Lily who is her elder in years only. The two orphan girls live together in the "rookeries"; the name given to the Victoran slums where the poor lived squashed together like birds in nests. To add to their misfortunes, Grace has just given birth and lost the child. That day in the cemetery, Grace collects two business cards; one from a kind young lawyer's clerk called James, who promises to be there for Grace whenever she needs him, and another from Mrs. Unwin, an unscrupulous undertaker's wife who promises Grace a job. Both these offers will help to change Grace and Lily's lives completely.

I came to this book expecting to enjoy it, having loved some of Mary Hooper's other historical novels (the Sign of the Sugared Plum books especially, and to a lesser extent, the Remarkable Life and Times of Eliza Rose). And I did; the pages kept turning. Grace is a sympathetic heroine; like Hooper's other historical heroines, she seems like she could really have been born in that time period while still being relatable to a modern reader. She is tough enough to keep going through hard times without losing sight of her principles, but also instinctively kind to others, and with a sweet vulnerability; I like the moment where she catches sight of Prince Albert. I like how Hooper's heroines, like real girls throughout history, take responsibility for their lives and live independently. Not that they had much choice, of course, in Victorian times. Fallen Grace shows, without any fuss, just how bleak life was back then when there was no support net but the vagaries of charity which barely made a dent (like the soup kitchen which insisted on a note from your home parish certifying that you were destitute through no fault of your own, before they would give you any soup). The other aspect of Victorian life that Fallen Grace showcases is the heyday of elaborate and expensive funerals and mourning. People were expected to spend as much as they could spare, and then some, on the latest must-have mourning accessories, and the "death trade" fanned the flames by creating ever more complicated rules of mourning; such as different clothes for every stage of bereavement. The rich would pay for children to stand by the coffin and look tragic.

There are a few familiar Mary Hooper elements here; an independent heroine, a hidden birthright, celebrity cameos, teenage pregnancy. There is something about her understated, simple to read prose that I really like. Fallen Grace gets more and more far-fetched and unbelievable, with almost cartoonish villains, and while I believe Hooper is nodding to the sensational serials and gothic style popular in Victorian times, it may be too much for some readers to swallow. It occupied me for a pleasant, cosy evening but I don't think I'll hang onto my copy. Still, I would recommend it for anyone wanting a good, quick read that will plunge you into another time.


Elizabeth Street
Elizabeth Street
by Laurie Fabiano
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.64

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Move over Godfather... The Great-grandmother is here!, 12 April 2011
This review is from: Elizabeth Street (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I did manage to sleep, eat and go to work in the two days that I devoured this book, but the rest of the time I was gobbling up the 423 pages every chance I got.

Elizabeth Street is a novel Laurie Fabiano has written about her ancestors. She has turned her family's story into a deceptively easy-to-read novel; the simple, engaging prose is just the tip of a huge iceberg of research. The story begins around the turn of the 20th century in an Italian fishing village, and moves on to New York City. (More or less the same sort of period as Godfather II; the bustling, industrial years when New York was built up and swollen by an army of immigrants). Every setting springs to life; the glistening blue sea and slow, ancient heartbeat of Scilla; the hard, exhausting, grimy grind of manual labour in New York, the misery of the journey over the Atlantic and the confusing whirl of arrival on Ellis Island. We inhabit the Italian-American immigrant experience; the pangs of loss, the importance of family, feast days and telegrams from Italy, the small tenement buildings, widespread illiteracy, distrust between Northern Italians, Calabrians and Sicilians, working children, political corruption, fear of the Black Hand gangsters... And amidst everyday life, extraordinary events. Tragedy strikes Giovanna, our protagonist and Laurie's great-grandmother, more than once.

The events of the novel might stretch belief if it wasn't for the fact that they really happened. Laurie Fabiano seems keen to use her sources as much as possible; a century-old newspaper article about one character can be read on archives online, with a couple of names changed, and a photograph of her grandmother as a child is printed at the beginning of the book and later poignantly brought to life. Apparently the author went to the library and read every single New York newspaper from 1909; I wouldn't be surprised if other headlines quoted in the book are authentic too.

But it's not just the evocation of 1900s New York and Italy which made me love this novel; it's the characters, lovingly brought to life. This book must really have been a labour of love and I'm sure the author's family are delighted that she has written it; what an honour.

I must admit I have an interest in this period of history, so it was always a good bet that I would like this book. Still, I think many people who are keen to read about different times and places and like a good read would enjoy Elizabeth Street.

If I had to make a criticism, it slightly bugged me that the character of Angelina at 3 was far more eloquent than even the brightest toddlers I know, but I suppose the author needed to flesh out her character to lay the ground for subsequent events. Some readers might also think the narrative quite crowded, but then again this is a true story and I think it has been well-shaped into the novel form. I did think that there was not quite enough 'catharsis' at the end, after over a hundred very tense pages. I would have liked a more drawn-out ending to really wind things down a bit more, reinforcing the feeling that love survived fear.


Orchards in the Oasis: Recipes, Travels & Memories
Orchards in the Oasis: Recipes, Travels & Memories
by Josceline Dimbleby
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not for me, 24 Mar 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
To be fair to the author, I understand that she was one of the first cookery writers to us a biographical, wordy, picture-heavy style. It's just that so many cookbooks and food writing in general are like this nowadays, and unfortunately I read them first, so I can't really appreciate her style as a point of distinction. By now, the novelty has worn off and I almost resent the book-shelf space taken up by this kind of block-buster memoir-cum-cookbook-cum-photo album. This wouldn't have mattered so much if I had found it to be a rich source of recipes, but I have yet to cook anything out of it; really, nothing grabbed me at all and it has a very low recipe : page ratio. It covers several countries that she has lived in or travelled through, which I think made it lack focus somewhat and feel a bit self-indulgent; I would have preferred to read a book like this that was all about one particular country or region. Obviously it's hardly her fault that she's moved around a lot, but I didn't find it a very satisfying concept for a recipe book. I don't intend to keep it, but I'm glad that other people enjoyed it.


Fast Fabric Gifts: Scrap Fabric Style, Small Scale Sewing, Thrifty Chic: 30 Irresistible Fabric Gifts
Fast Fabric Gifts: Scrap Fabric Style, Small Scale Sewing, Thrifty Chic: 30 Irresistible Fabric Gifts
by Sally Southern
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good for total beginners, 1 Sep 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I'd looked forward to receiving this book, but was a bit disappointed. As another reviewer mentioned, most of the projects in this book are to do with covering things in fabric, and the results often look a bit twee and rough around the edges (and often half stuck together with Bondaweb). Probably the best thing in it is the stuffed fabric heart which appears on the cover, and that's such a well-known and simple project that it's not worth buying a book for. It is a book suitable for beginners, even children, and the instructions are pretty clear and well laid out, but if you are more than a total novice I'd skip this one and get a book with some more inspiring ideas.


The Boy Who Grew Flowers
The Boy Who Grew Flowers
by Jen Wojtowicz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Undecided... 3.5 stars but I'll round it up., 22 July 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
What beautiful illustrations, and the setting (which seems to be the rustic, southern US)catches the imagination and gives it a tangy flavour - even the names, such as 'Rink Bowagon' are fun to say, in a pleasingly exotic way. Kind of 'Southern Gothic' for kids! I do agree, however, with the reviewers who found the theme a bit heavy-handed and the story unmemorable and a bit bland, in contrast to the illustrations. It's in keeping with (as I see it) an increasingly moralistic "all play nicely together" tone in children's books.


Connected: Amazing Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives
Connected: Amazing Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives
by Nicholas Christakis
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I agree with the majority of reviewers..., 22 July 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Like quite a few reviewers, I found this book superficially interesting but not a life-changing bombshell. It is pitched at the growing market for popular social science books like Freakonomics, but where Freakonomics presents counter-intuitive theories, Connected is more likely to confirm things you already vaguely assumed but hadn't given a lot of thought to. It did contain some interesting tidbits of information, but I must admit I didn't read every page front to back - it could perhaps have done with being more concise. I enjoyed it but it wasn't too hard to put down, and has ended up in the charity shop.


Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade (Penguin Modern Classics)
Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Patrick Dennis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mame... what a dame., 22 July 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I wasn't sure I was going to like Auntie Mame. When, following the story of ten-year-old orphan Patrick, I first met his famous aunt, she seemed like a bit of a tiresome old luvvie. I feared our young hero might be left in the charge of a one-dimensional character - a sort of ageing Sally Bowles whose charm had worn off with her youth. But Mame has a heart. She is admirably principled - while still being girlish, vulnerable and very often naively foolish. Though Patrick is quite a self-contained little boy and Mame of course is splashy and extroverted, though they rub each other up the wrong way a lot of the time, the bond between them is undeniable, borne out of great affection and a shared disregard for convention. The book follows Patrick into adulthood. It's a funny read - something entertaining to take on holiday, but not just a sugary junk-food book to consume. Think of it as a nourishing but light and fresh meal out on the balcony!


The Reluctant Bride: One Woman's Journey (Kicking and Screaming) Down the Aisle
The Reluctant Bride: One Woman's Journey (Kicking and Screaming) Down the Aisle
by Lucy Mangan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.36

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A funny time-filler, 16 July 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I love Lucy Mangan's columns at the Guardian. She has a very witty way with words and mental images. I wish I could give this book a better review... but it just didn't quite hit the spot. A whole book of witty observations on her wedding preparations was spreading the material too thin. She published an article recently in the Guardian about it, and that article made me laugh out loud. It was this book, condensed. It's not a bad book. It's not unfunny. I got it free via the Amazon Vine program, but I wouldn't have paid the cover price for it. That said, it's worth borrowing to lighten up a train journey. She's a clever lady with a very sharp eye.


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