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Cassandra (London UK)

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by David Szalay
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The most uninspiring characters ever, 19 July 2013
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This review is from: Spring (Paperback)
I really didn't like this.

Here's why: D. Szalay's 'Spring' is (trying to be) a modern-day love story set in London, the story of has-been James and not-sure-where-she's-going-in-life Katherine. It's (trying to be) realistic, true to life, clever in observing details, unsentimental. It's (trying to be) wry, darkly humorous, and creative in using different perspectives in a dizzying speed. [As far as the different perspectives are concerned--including all sorts of bizarre characters who seem to come out of nowhere and add little to the plot--, I'm less in the camp of them resembling a kaleidoscope as another reviewer suggested and more in the camp of them being a muddled patchwork where the poor reader feels like he/she is watching a quick ping-pong game, not sure where to turn their head, having to shift perspectives every few moments].

While reading 'Spring' I kept wondering a few things:
--what on earth does James see in Katherine? She is surely one of the most uninspiring, flat, bland, unimaginative, uninteresting characters I've ever discovered in a book.
--why do people say this is 'true to life'?! Do people really talk like this? Really?? If so, I feel sorry for them. A typical example:
James: Why won't you kiss me?
Katherine: I just won't.
James: What do you mean you just won't? (repeated twice). I don't understand. What is it?
Katherine: Why don't you ask me some questions?
James: What sort of questions?
Katherine (no answer, a sigh)
James: What? What is it? Tell me.
Katherine: I'm going to get ready for bed.
James: OK. I'll watch you
Katherine: If you want
James: I do. infinitum! James and Katherine, infuriatingly, keep asking each other things like 'shall we go to such and such pub'? only for the other to respond 'if you want' and then the first one to say 'but do you want to?'. Again: ad infinitum. I couldn't find the dialogue in this book more tedious and infuriating; maybe it's me: but I couldn't see the point of the whole thing. The only bits where the book comes alive are the sex scenes, and it was only then that I could sense a spark between J & K.

Anyway. Enough said. Not recommended.

Real Events Revisited: Fantasy, Memory, Psychoanalysis
Real Events Revisited: Fantasy, Memory, Psychoanalysis
by Ann Scott
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent ideas, not always so well written, 15 April 2013
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This book follows from a paper that Ann Scott wrote in 1988, in 'Feminist Review' called 'Feminism and the seductiveness of the real event'. That paper was written in the context of the then very intense recovered memory debate that was taking place in America and the UK, a debate related to the discussion around recovered memories of child sexual abuse, but not focused only on that. Scott's position was (back in 1988), as it is in this book, refreshingly thoughtful, providing a much needed complex, nuanced middle ground, far away from the heated, black and white extremes that have tended to dominate the debate.

Scott carefully examines the concept of memory from a psychoanalytic standpoint. The particular psychoanalytic standpoint she adopts is much removed from a heavy insistence on traumatizing moments directly following from a 'real' event. Indeed, her whole point in the book centers around these questions: what constitutes a real event? Is fantasy and thought any less real than a 'flesh and blood' abusive moment? Do fantasy and thought not have psychic (and very 'material') consequences, too? She argues against Jeffrey Masson's position, a position which shows a clear misunderstanding of Freudian theory, of the interweaving of fantasy and reality which is at the core of psychoanalysis. Unfortunately Masson's position has proved to be highly influential in certain feminist circles, and his very problematic legacy still lives on, leading to ludicrous arguments about how Freud 'betrayed' women by covering up child abuse. If anything, psychoanalysis has been at the forefront of an interest in the subjective experience of the victim during and after abuse, taking into account not only what actually happened, judged from an outsider's point of view, but what the event or events signified and meant (and still mean) for the victim in question.

Scott closely explores all these difficult and complex issues, and her book is thought-provoking and interesting. My only complaint is her frequent use of other writers' contributions- her book tends to be, at times, too reference-heavy for my own taste. But still, I generally liked it & highly recommend it.

How To Be A Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking
How To Be A Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking
by Nigella Lawson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £26.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gives you a good feeling, 15 April 2013
I have to admit, I'm a great fan of Nigella Lawson's writing & generally of her style. I've dragged "How to eat" from room to room, read it before falling asleep, in bed, used it (& stained it!) for countless dinners with friends & solitary meals, even read it in the bathroom!!

"How to be a domestic goddess" is a kind of follow-up, with the added bonus of wonderful photographs of the desserts. "How to eat" probably took a longer time to write, & in my opinion, it's a difficult book to follow-up on. So it was a smart choice for Nigella Lawosn to go on to something different, to write a whole book just about desserts.

Even though the lay-out of the book may seem a little intimidating at first (& that's probably why other readers have commented that the recipes are difficult & time-consuming)in truth they're so well-described (step by step) that they end up being very easy to make. There are some harder recipes, but even these are presented in such an enthusiastic manner by N.Lawson that you just feel you've GOT to tackle them.

The title of the book is mainly meant as a joke, but I think it also has to do with the pleasure we take from cooking (regardless of being a man or a woman, a person with a family or not). If you see cooking & baking as a hobby, a wonderfully creative activity that can lift the spirits, then this book is meant for you (the same goes for "How to eat" & indeed "Nigella Bites"). It's a little bit like cooking side-by-side with a friend that knows more about these things than you do & makes you feel very comfortable & enthusiastic along the way.

Sputnik Sweetheart (Panther)
Sputnik Sweetheart (Panther)
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Love & lust, in a different way, 15 April 2013
The love-triange (if you can call it that) that forms the basic story of this novel is probably known by all readers, so I won't bother mentioning it. It's enough to say that "Sputnik Sweetheart" is about unrequited love. It's also about sexual desire, & Murakami does a beautiful job of describing what it feels like to want someone so badly that it almost hurts. What made Murakami's writing even more enjoyable for me, was the way feelings had to be discovered behind words, between the lines. Maybe it has to do with the minimalist japanese tradition. But I find it so rewarding reading something where every word has its meaning, & not just its obvious meaning but a hidden meaning underneath, & a connection to the rest of the story...I'll certainly be returning to Murakami's work. It has been so refreshing to read a novel so sparse & minimal, & yet so full of emotion. In the end, words can be extremely powerful if they're just used with care & without wasting them or overdoing it with description. Murakami is clearly a talented author & also seems to be a thoughtful & unique person.

Accidents In The Home
Accidents In The Home
by Tessa Hadley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Tries to do too much in 200 pages, 3 April 2013
This review is from: Accidents In The Home (Paperback)
Can't say I liked this. At 200+ pages this is too short for what it's trying to be--a family saga, including the stories and viewpoints of a large number of characters--so none of the stories is satisfying; the reader is left not really getting to grips with any of the characters. No wonder Tessa Hadley included a complicated diagram of the whole family at the start; this surprised me when I saw it as you usually find family trees like that in long, complex novels such as Wolf Hall. So it felt out of place, but it does in fact make sense as Hadley has included too many characters in this slim tome and the reader could easily lose track if not for the diagram.

In `Accidents in the home', each chapter stands alone in telling the story of one family member; each bit of the book has a short-story feel to it. In an irritating, `happy-endish' and clunky way (as often large chunks of the story are fast-forwarded or skipped), towards the end of the book most loose ends appear to be tied up: but still the reader is left with questions despite Hadley's attempt to provide closure. [More generally, I think novels that follow this `constructed' approach, presenting mixed up bits & pieces & then linking them all in a tidy, whole ending are hard to get right].

The writing is relatively simple & straightforward, so this doesn't make for hard reading (if you exclude the large number of characters and the confusion that causes). Most characters are a stereotype: we have the bohemian potter and wife-collector Graham who has more children with different wives than he can cope with; the reliable, boring, handsome father Bram; the stern, unsociable, bitter, elderly academic father who says he has accepted the ravages of old age but makes the life of those around him hell.

The women are worse: we have the settled, bored, married mother of three Clare who is about to burst at the seams within (what seems) a joyless existence; we get the serial victim, hippyish Naomi , who manages to get involved with abusers regardless of whether they're men or women; we get the young, `dark', delinquent self-harmer Tamsin, who is stuck on a past trauma; we have the hard-as-nails, unreliable professional woman who even if not particularly attractive seems slightly addicted to seducing men and, while doing so, breaks her husband's heart. And finally we have the mid-30s unmarried single and childless beauty, Helly, who envies from afar her friend Clare's settled lifestyle with husband and children (why?!).

Unfortunately the author spends too much time offering all these details and building up these caricaturish figures, which takes away from what could be a good story, if Hadley had concentrated on one aspect. For example, Clare and Bram's marriage and its dissolution could stand alone as a good novel, offering more depth & detail as to what is going on between them. What we get now is a series of `he did this' `she did that' without understanding what on earth is happening and why.

All in all, this novel left me unmoved and frustrated; I won't however give up on Tessa Hadley as a writer (I'll try some of her other books) as this was her first novel and there's some aspects in her writing that I enjoyed which perhaps she's developed more in later books. I think is she had just tried to do less in this book she would have been far more successful.

Therapeutic Consultations in Child Psychiatry
Therapeutic Consultations in Child Psychiatry
by D W Winnicott
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Quite an extraordinary book, 3 April 2013
A wonderfully inspiring book for anyone interested in therapeutic work with children / adolescents (but more widely, for anyone interested in seeing first hand the work Winnicott was able to do with just one or two consultations).

D. W. Winnicott was a well known paediatrician and psychoanalyst; this book, written towards the end of his career (=so building on long experience) presents a large number of consultations with children and young people; Winnicott offers them his own very particular way of listening and communicating, and a way of playing together, in order to reach, by the end of the session, a shared understanding of what's the main difficulty facing the child (or the family as a whole) at that particular point in time. It's quite extraordinary how Winnicott manages to reach these young people at the very heart of their worries / anxieties / fears, within such a short time, showing clearly how psychoanalytic ideas can be applied in various settings and for various lengths of time.

Among other things, this book offers many many examples of Winnicott's well known 'squiggle' game, a way of drawing freely & playfully, together with children, to encourage imagination and creativity and to open up channels of communication.

Winnicott's main idea, which I took from this book, is that with the right sort of listening and attending to detail (and provided there's enough experience), a clinician can really do quite a lot within one or two hours, helping the families in a way that's much more applied and (sometimes) more doable than a more traditional psychoanalytic treatment.

Highly recommended.

Calmer, Easier, Happier Homework: The Revolutionary Programme That Transforms Homework
Calmer, Easier, Happier Homework: The Revolutionary Programme That Transforms Homework
by Noel Janis-Norton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Transforming homework, 2 April 2013
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I really enjoyed this book & found it very useful, as I have all other N. Janis-Norton's books. Generally, I'm not one for 'parenting' books, but her work is an exception as whatever tips of her I've followed over the years, I've found extremely helpful. The main idea is that parents are in charge of creating clear routines & rules in their home (Janis-Norton has various specific tips as to what this means), and providing an environment within which children / teens feel safe, have predictable boundaries, and know always what to expect.

This particular book provides a useful framework for thinking (as a parent) about homework & how to support your child (or teen) in doing their best with the least resistance. Again, the main idea that I found immensely useful is creating a predictable structure- say, 1 hour a day at a particular time that suits the family- where homework is done, even from an early age. This includes holidays and weekends (except perhaps Sundays) and becomes part of the normal, expectable routine for the family.

Janis-Norton then goes through specific areas that have to do with learning (spelling, handwriting, reading, reading comprehension, listening, thinking and many others) & offers many useful tips as to how to help children with each area. Given her education background, she really knows her stuff & I found her way of thinking so helpful in understanding how best I can help my child, what techniques to adopt, what not to do etc. Since we started using her methods for homework each day, we've seen great results in terms of cooperation & motivation- and also, in terms of our son's ability to learn and to enjoy the process. So this book is highly recommended if you want to help your child or children create a doable, realistic, commonsensical structure for homework.

One more thing to add: there were a couple of ideas I appreciated a lot. One had to do with Janis-Norton's emphasis on homework as part of the overall routine in a child's life. Screen time, outdoors time, mealtimes, bedtimes, play time / socializing----all these aspects need to be taken into account when structuring a doable routine, otherwise children won't have enough energy or time for homework. Another idea I liked had to do with how having a standard homework time each day, supervised by a parent, helps not only in educational attainment; it also helps in improving self-discipline, patience, and fighting habits such as procrastination etc.

All in all, an excellent resource for parents (and for teachers/ tutors too I would imagine).

Me Before You
Me Before You
by Jojo Moyes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars Good example of 'thematic' romance, 22 Mar. 2013
This review is from: Me Before You (Paperback)
Most of the 5-star reviews on this book are exaggerated, in my view; it's certainly not great literature. But I'll try to be fair & judge `Me before you' within the realm of what it is it's trying to achieve. This is a read-in-one-day romance, a book that's meant to be enjoyed on a long aeroplane trip or lazily on the beach. And for what it tries to do, it's successful, hence my 4 stars. But there are some things I didn't like too.

This is the story of Louisa & Will; they're both believable, well written characters. Louisa, an ordinary, rather plain 26 year old with a lack of direction in life, is employed as a carer for quadriplegic Will- but it's unclear when she gets the job what exactly it entails. Will Traynor is a confident, bright, successful, handsome man who, tragically, has been left immobile after a motorcycle accident and is confined to a wheelchair. He is grumpy and difficult, finding it incredibly hard (understandably) to accept his terrible fate. Louisa's role soon becomes clear: she is there not to be involved in any of Will's (many) medical needs; but rather, to try gradually to help him find a reason for living.

The book follows the growing relationship between Will and Louisa, and in that it's at its most successful. The characters are truly well described, realistic and likeable. Their developing relationship- neither exactly a friendship nor exactly a romance- rings true and makes for good reading of the kind I described above.

As background to Will and Louisa's story, there is a supporting cast- mainly Louisa's family but also some of Will's family members- who come through as less interesting and just generally less well described. They don't jump out of the page in the same way Lou & Will do.

The vast topics of quadriplegia and assisted suicide and all the issues and debates around them provide the framework for this love story and will leave the reader with numerous thoughts and questions. In this, Me before you reminded me a bit of Jodi Picoult's or Chris Bohjalian's novels which also build their stories around a `big issue'. This way of writing in not everyone's cup of tea, but Me before you offers a good, enjoyable, emotionally and confidently written example of the genre.

The Magic Toyshop (VMC)
The Magic Toyshop (VMC)
by Angela Carter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A fairy-tale like coming of age story, 19 Mar. 2013
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This exquisite novel (which is refreshingly short so can be read in one sitting, on a rainy afternoon) starts with a wild, dark, memorable, night-time scene: Melanie, the adolescent heroine, discovers & wears her mother's old wedding dress. She walks into the garden, at night, wearing it, but manages to lock herself out of the house. So she ends up having to climb up the apple tree naked, holding the dress, in order to get into her room from the window. On the way up, the wedding dress gets torn and is now bloodied, in pieces, beyond repair. Melanie frantically hides it back in its original place, where she had found it. This first chapter can be read in many different ways: for example, what came to my mind is the adolescent discovery of sexuality tightly linked to the inevitable turning away from parents. But the symbol of this turning away, the mother's torn wedding dress, turns macabre the next day.

Fast-forward a day: Melanie, Jonathon and Victoria's parents get tragically killed while on a lecture tour in America; the children are left orphaned & have to move to the home of their uncle Philip, unknown to them. This theme of orphaned children, leaving the Eden of an idyllic, loving childhood for an unknown, unwelcoming home of faraway relatives is a classic in children's fiction (The little Princess came to mind, among other books). Philip is a violent, authoritarian, brutal toymaker, his home in an unnamed area of suburban South London. He lives with his wife, the selectively mute Aunt Margaret and her two brothers, red haired, dirty but weirdly attractive Finn and quiet, brooding Francie.

There is a striking paradox: on the one hand, Philip's unique ability to create magnificent toys. On the other hand, his grotesque personality- one imagines a toymaker to be a gentle person, with an interest in and passion for childhood and its delights, but Philip couldn't be further away from that. His toys, magnificent as they are, reminded me of props in horror movies: odd, life-size puppets or terrifying swans with biting beaks.

This book (like other novels by Angela Carter) has been described as belonging to the magic realist genre. In a way, it's true: the magic toyshop has a foggy, fairy-tale like, horror-movie feel to it, and the reader is often left to wonder about the relationship between fantasy and reality (not least, the fantasy and reality in Melanie's mind). But in another way, the Magic Toyshop can be read, equally viably, as a straightforward realistic story with an intriguing coming-of-age plot.

For me, this was an introduction to Angela Carter's superb, dream-like writing, so it was a treat. She's such a unique writer; it feels I can't really describe how she writes: you have to discover her writing for yourselves and please do. I will be going back for more.

A couple of minor notes: the ending and everything that leads up to it (which many reviewers have commented on) left me underwhelmed as it felt rushed, abrupt, uncertain and `added on'. I suppose Carter leaves it for the reader to decide what really happens at the end. No more on the ending as it would be a spoiler. But despite my doubts, it didn't really spoil the book's pleasure for me. I also agree with those who say that some of the characters- mainly Jonathon, Francie and Victoria- are rather underdeveloped and unclear, compared to Melanie, Finn and Philip.

I Don't Know How She Does It
I Don't Know How She Does It
by Allison Pearson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Bitter taste in my mouth after reading this., 15 Mar. 2013
This book left a really bitter taste in my mouth. I was expecting a light, easy-going, funny read (something like chic-lit for mothers that you can finish in a couple of hours) but instead got a book that managed to be both an anti-feminist AND an anti-motherhood rant at the same time, disguised as a fun read.

The protagonist is Kate Reddy, City hedge fund manager and mother of two kids under-5. The book's main topic is Kate's complete lack of time, not just 'quality time' for her kids or herself but any time at all to even do basic things in her everyday life. Basically, she runs around like an (unhappy) headless chicken which was unbelievable given that a) she has a top-paying job that supposedly she loves, b) she has a great full time nanny, c) she has a husband who is able to work flexible hours and d) she has a cleaner. Despite all this, she just can't manage anything really and constantly beats herself up both about her work life and her parenthood. Every single other person in the book is a caricature: all men at Kate's city job are described as absolutely sexist and unsympathetic to a degree that doesn't ring true. Her husband is supposedly `useless' (as she's constantly portrayed as the one having to remember everything) but that too doesn't ring true to me, as surely a husband with flexi hours who has made the choice to marry such a high flying woman would usually (in real life) be much more capable of keeping things going at home. Kate's in laws are also caricaturish and anti-working mothers and even her children are not clearly portrayed and only appear to be the personification of `mummy we need to see more of you' rather than anything more complex & real to life.

This book is supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny, but personally I didn't find anything funny in this mono-dimensional depiction of a woman unable to make realistic choices that work for herself & her family, when in fact she has the brains & money to do so. Surely there could be a better, more doable balance for herself, that she could enjoy more, but somehow in this book the message is- either you become a never-see-your-children-work-all-day-and-all-night-freak or you basically throw in the towel altogether and stay at home full time. Judging from my own experience as a working mum and judging also from what I've seen over the years around me, Pearson's bottom line is just a disguised way of saying `women can't have it all'. But the reality is, nobody said anybody can `have it all' anyway, it's not about `having it all' (never was), it's more about families working together in creative ways so that both parents are happy both in their working life and their parenting life.

There's also the extremely annoying fact that the heroine is a super-wealthy City worker who supposedly represents working mothers as a whole, and their dilemmas and difficulties. The mere fact that Kate Reddy does have a choice about whether to work & how much to work makes her part of a tiny minority of working mothers. Most parents who work full time and long hours are forced to by circumstances, not by choice. Those who find themselves in such a stuck place as she does do so mostly due to financial restrictions, so that's another failure of this novel, particularly when reading it now, in the middle of a recession.

To be fair, the author does have a good eye for observation and some of her descriptions of the everyday life of a working mother do ring true (mostly some of the details she notes). But the underlying messages- working mothers are bound to be guilty / they're bound to not be seeing their kids enough / they're harming their kids / they're completely unable to work out a liveable balance- was so irritating that any good points of the book were lost to me.

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