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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
by Jeanette Winterson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £2.69

5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary and profound, 24 Feb. 2013
This book affected me so much I felt compelled to read it again a couple of weeks later. The writing is so dense with meaning and implication, it seemed like a new book.

At first the narrative is like a diamond, dazzlingly polished and multi-faceted. Paragraphs are ruthlessly concise, and shift abruptly between horror, humour and heartbreak. Proceeding mosaic-fashion, and following association rather than chronology, the author creates brilliantly detailed and sharply focused scenes which constitute the only version of her early life which her memory can accept. They are the memories from which she constructed her first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

There is a gap of 25 years. Then the story continues in real time, almost a diary, relating what she goes through when the memories that were repressed in the "accepted version" take form almost like another Jeanette, a younger, agonised Jeanette demanding recognition, explanation and acceptance. After much pain and struggle, the two Jeanettes are reconciled. There is no happy ending as she tracks down and then meets her birth mother, but she becomes reconciled to the person she is. The past has to be accepted and forgiven, because the past made you who you are, and you must accept it or live a divided self.

The book is full of a lifetime's reflection on the past and what she has learnt through confronting all of it. Some of her conclusions may be familiar, but they carry fresh and renewed conviction to the reader because of the context from which they are hewn; others are entirely her own.

The book does not end, it stops. Jeanette lives; there will be more.

This is a profoundly affecting book that becomes part of the reader's own experience.

Talking to the Dead
Talking to the Dead
by Helen Dunmore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting, sensuous, enigmatic..., 15 Jan. 2013
This review is from: Talking to the Dead (Paperback)
This was the first Dunmore I read, many years ago, and I have re-read it with increasing pleasure and admiration twice since then. The atmosphere and events are so sensuously evoked, the characters are so vividly realised, and the mystery at the heart of events is so intriguing and horrible, that you are compelled to read it all once you have started. Few books maintain such an impetus, create such an impending sense of disaster under the lush surface of things, and end with such a mind-wrenching jolt.

It is a first-person narrative, in this case by Nina, the younger of two sisters, and as always the question is: how much can you trust the narrator? And this is key to the next question: which of the sisters killed baby Colin their brother? Or was it truly an accidental cot-death?

The relationship of the two sisters is slowly revealed. Nina is three years younger than Isabel, who was almost a surrogate mother to her in childhood. The adult Nina veers between deep love and trust when she remembers her childhood, and a rival's desire to thwart and break free from someone who so dominated and controlled her. Isabel is still a ruthless and manipulative person, especially in controlling Nina. She relishes power. But she has problems with food, and with sex, and with going outside her house, and with meeting strangers. Her feelings towards her new baby are ambiguous.

The reader feels like a guest in the house party, trying to piece together the truth from Nina's fragmented memories, Isabel's version, the official family version, meanwhile trying to assess the nature and veracity and motives of all concerned.

Oscar Wilde's words come to mind: The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.

A Change of Climate
A Change of Climate
by Hilary Mantel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Is the ending really depressing/ inconclusive? I disagree., 2 Mar. 2012
This review is from: A Change of Climate (Paperback)
I think this novel is about the omnipresence of cruelty in human relationships, how it is engendered, and how we deal with its consequences. The story pivots on an act of hideous and deliberate cruelty towards a child, which eats like acid into the parent's relationship for years afterwards. But there is also more familiar, sometimes unintentional, cruelty in this book: Ralph is emotionally blackmailed mercilessly by his father Matthew into abandoning his cherished vocation, and Matthew also bullies and terrifies his own wife throughout their marriage. Emma and Felix are casually, unintentionally cruel to Ginny, Felix's wife, for decades. Ralph, who spends his life in charitable works, thoughtlessly exploits Amy Glasse when he is desperate for comfort, and breaks her heart.

People are shown to shy away from the damage cruelty causes to its victims, who endure their wounds mostly in silence. The response of religion, and the welfare state, is non-judgmental and non-emotional, a relentless and demanding support for those in recognised categories of need. "Good souls" help "sad cases". The difficulties and inadequacies of this approach are explored throughout the novel, climaxing in the arrival of the damaged Melanie. She is a child who was sent away for temporary fostering, only to find when she returned home that her personal possessions and clothes had been got rid of and her room used for other purposes - she had been excised from the family by her parents as if she had never existed. Ravaged by drugs, solvent abuse and suicide attempts, she is cared for by Ralph, Anna and Kit with their well-practised professional kindness, although they become increasingly and irritably aware of the futility of such an approach.

Many readers have been baffled or even annoyed by the apparent inconclusiveness of the ending, or have found it depressing. Does the Eldred family break up? Do Ralph and Anna divorce? Surely the clue to future events lies in the account of the dramatic finding of Melanie at the end of the book. They recognise her crawling desperately towards them in her hospital gown, having managed to escape. Anna and Ralph move towards her - significantly, together. Then there is an extraordinary description of Melanie's behaviour:

"As they approached the child, she stopped trying to crawl. She shrank into herself, her head shrank between her shoulder-blades like some dying animal. But then, as they reached out towards her, Melanie began to breathe - painfully, slowly, deeply, sucking in the air - as if breathing were something she were learning, as if she had taken a class in it, and been taught how to get it right."

This recalls the harrowing description of when the lost infant Kit has been found by the distraught Anna, apparently dead in a Botswana ditch:

"They saw her approach...One child in her arms, but only one...blood-caked, rigid, frozen...But then the child began to utter: not to cry, but to make a jarring, convulsive, sucking sound, louder and louder with each breath, as if her tiny ribcage were an uncoiling spring."

In each case the extraordinary breathing is a bid for life, a plea for life, an acceptance of life. And life not only for the child, but for Anna and Ralph. The first time, they are too damaged to grasp it. They nurse their loss, and do not see what they have saved. Amy Glasse says so wisely and magnificently to Ralph in the scene where he abandons her: "You lost a child. And every day you think about it. But think of the children you didn't lose." Perhaps just as their terrible loss drove them apart, so will the offering of love to the lost child Melanie heal the wound. There are details in the last section of the book that indicate Melanie loses her hostility to the Eldred family, and makes real contact with Anna; that Anna's perception of Melanie changes from her being a "sad case" to being a real child. And that Ralph has at last accepted the forced loss of his vocation as a geologist, and will now put his heart as well as his moral principles into his charity work. (Thoughtfully, he throws his prize childhood fossil away.)

There is yet a third memorable passage which focuses on extreme behaviour, especially the desperate quality of the breathing. It happens when Anna is at her lowest ebb and breaks down before a horrified Kit - who has just confirmed unwittingly that Ralph is being unfaithful.

" Anna...covered her mouth with her hand, and a little, bitter bleat came from her; laughter? Kit tried to pull her hand from her mouth, to claw it away, as if her mother were a baby that had eaten something it shouldn't...On and on it went, the little noise: the heave of the narrow ribs, the out-breath like a moan, the breath sucked in as if air were poison...for a moment she was frozen...Then she let out her breath...with a muffled scream heaved up from her stomach. she sucked in the air. "I knew I should lose everything," she said. "

Does this indicate that Anna has reached a point where her only hope is to seize life, and that she will if given the chance? It is repeatedly clear that, no matter what they say, neither Ralph nor Anna really wants to end their partnership - each waits for a signal from the other. And then they see Melanie come crawling desperately towards them....
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 15, 2012 5:11 PM BST

Buffalo Ministation 500GB USB 2.0 Portable Hard Disk Drive
Buffalo Ministation 500GB USB 2.0 Portable Hard Disk Drive

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars OK so far!, 7 July 2011
Amazon delivered this free within 48 hours - impressive. It comes with preinstalled comprehensive instructions about reformatting, which I managed to wipe off while carefully preparing to reformat from FAT32 to NTFS as I wanted to use it to back up my entire hard drive. No worries - I downloaded the instructions afresh from Buffalo's website and carried on. The process was simple enough, but once the reformatting started, it went on for hours. And hours. Finally finished with no problems, and now makes reular complete backups as scheduled, thanks to Nanny Windows 7, an excellent OS which does everything for you and explains everything so well that Buffalo's instructions are probably superflous. If it lasts, it will have been an excellent buy.

Lenovo IdeaCentre B305 21.5 inch All-in-One PC (AMD Athlon II X3 400e 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 640GB HDD, DVDRW, Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit)
Lenovo IdeaCentre B305 21.5 inch All-in-One PC (AMD Athlon II X3 400e 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 640GB HDD, DVDRW, Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit)

4.0 out of 5 stars Modestly successful all-rounder., 7 July 2011
This all-in-one does everything quite well but nothing brilliantly. The processor is better than many, but an i3 chip would have been more future-proof. However, it's fast enough, and it's a pleasant machine to watch i-player on, and DVDs, and quiet when running. The sound from the built-in speakers is only average but still better than many laptops. It's quite portable compared with a traditional desktop, somewhat spoiled by not having a wireless keyboard and mouse. If you are used to a laptop the flat design of the keyboard will not worry you, but a touch-typist will want to replace it. The mouse is fine. Not worth the original price, but a good buy if you can get it cheap.

The Leopard: Revised and with new material (Vintage Classics)
The Leopard: Revised and with new material (Vintage Classics)
by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not for the young, 16 Mar. 2011
I first read The Leopard in 1967, at the age of 24. It was a publishing sensation, and had reached its 9th UK paperback impression since 1963. It came trailing clouds of hype.
I was disappointed. It was not a *good read*. It was sombre, ironic and reflective in mood. My friends and I liked best the chapter "Love at Donnafugata" but even that seemed overly muted and rueful. Nevertheless, I felt it was a book I would re-read one day, and my copy accompanied me through life.
In due course I experienced Visconti's dazzling film version, arguably the most successful and faithful film re-creation of a great novel ever achieved. Over the years I saw the film three or four times, and at last, in my sixties, I got round to reading my copy again.
Now it all made sense. As a reflection on life, by someone who had fully lived, it was profound, compassionate and fearsomely clear-sighted. On finishing it, I wanted to read it yet again - it is not a book that is exhausted by one reading. So I have bought a new copy, with a clearer typeface. It is a detail that Lampedusa would have appreciated!

This Life +10 [2007] [DVD]
This Life +10 [2007] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Jack Davenport
Offered by Decider
Price: £22.99

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Grow up and think again?, 23 Oct. 2010
This review is from: This Life +10 [2007] [DVD] (DVD)
I was slightly disappointed the first time I watched this and I asked myself why. I realised it was because the characters had all got older, lost the magic of youth and promise (especially Anna), and yet were still having problems navigating their way throgh life. Just like me! Was it the truth hurting?
I have now watched the series three times on DVD, each time followed by this additional episode. I have always thought this follow-up a complex, clever and interesting piece of writing by series creator Amy Jenkins, and I increasingly think it is psychologically accurate too.
Miles has finally got away from his father and become more confident and relaxed and mature. The marriage with Francesca didn't last - no surprises there. Egg has written a bestseller based on his own life, and was given the motivation to finally write something by his pain at Milly's betrayal. Many people who have gone through a traumatic experience find they have a vivid story to tell - but only one, as Egg finds. Milly's stormy relationship with best friend Anna during her time as O'Donnel's mistress, followed by their friendship reasserting itself, was convincingly reprised in this episode. (Another neat echo of the original series was the use of the documentary film-making of the reunion. This enabled the kind of private confessions from the characters that were such a memorable feature of the original.) Miles and Anna have both sorted themselves out enough to be able to have a truthful relationship and achieve closure. I loved the scene where Warren and Anna plan parental happiness together. ("Turkey-baster?" "Of course!") The more you ponder, the more you see how the developments in the characters' lives are rooted in their pasts.
Of course, we would love to know what happened to Kira and Joe and all the others, but they were never part of the core group, and their presence would have been implausible in a reunion of close friends ten years on.
I think many reviews are being unfair to writer Amy Jenkins. Let's face it, when you meet friends again after a ten year break, it always involves some disillusionment and reappraisal. And you've changed too!
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 22, 2012 2:55 PM BST

Fortunes Of War (Three Discs) [DVD] [1987]
Fortunes Of War (Three Discs) [DVD] [1987]
Dvd ~ Emma Thompson
Price: £9.60

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Top quality BBC drama, 7 Oct. 2010
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Anyone personally involved in WW2 will have an inevitably limited (but unique) perspective of that vast event, based on their personal experience of it. Fortunes of War is WW2 portrayed through the limited but unique experiences of Harriet Pringle (Emma Thompson).
Harriet is a highly intelligent and articulate young woman with very limited experience of life and men hitherto, who embarks on a marriage that places her first on the periphery, and then in the centre, of the War. Despite her efforts to be useful, she is relegated firmly to ancillary and minor roles in the war effort. Britain was still a very patriarchal society, and war was a man's business. Harriet is a detached and perceptive observer of the extraordinary behaviour of men involved in war (not least, her own husband), and we are invited to share her bemusement, amazement, horror, compassion - and maturing understanding of men and of her own marriage.
It's hard to remember now that this is the role that made the world take Emma Thompson seriously as an actress. She gives a magnificent performance, ably supported by Kenneth Branagh and an excellent cast.
The drama has an unhurried sweep and spacious mise-en-scene that will be startling to viewers accustomed to a more financially straitened and ratings-driven BBC. The acting is first-class and there is much subtle detail. My partner and I found our first viewing absorbing, and after much discussion of characters and themes, we are looking forward to a repeat viewing in which to clarify some of the issues and notice some of the fine detail that we missed.

The Little Stranger
The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.79

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A ghost story - really?, 7 Jun. 2010
This review is from: The Little Stranger (Paperback)
For the first 300 pages I just enjoyed the deft storytelling, the characterisation (not least, of the narrator himself) and the recreation of the past. Then I started to wonder why an author so skilful and experimental would be content with a classic ghost story. Faraday's conversation with Seeley around page 380 gave me a jolt, and I remembered Affinity. In that novel, the main narrator is driven by her emotional needs to gradually accept a supernatural explanation of events. When her disillionment comes, it is brutal. (As was mine! I was empathising so much with the narrator I had stopped using my judgment; and I was further humiliated when I realised Sarah Waters had put all the facts necessary for a true understanding of events, squarely and plainly into the narrative. I had chosen to ignore them because the supernatural explanation was so tempting and easy.)
I wondered whether the same thing was happening here. Had I lazily been seeing everything through the narrator's eyes and with his judgment? I checked back over the key events.and realised that no supernatural explanation was needed, and that there was indeed a prime suspect, amply indicated by our author! Furthermore, I had noted as I read that some of the Doctor's narrative was actually hearsay, but I had not appreciated the significance of this until now.
I continued to read, bracing myself for the brutal disillusionment that was surely coming. I anticipated a broken heart, and a bit later I even foresaw a mistaken conviction and even an ironic committal to a lunatic asylum. But I was neatly outmanoevred.
However, I was not satisfied with the plot-twist at the end. It didn't ring true psychologically. What was our author up to? I thought again about her ingenious use of the possibilities of the narrator in the construction of a plot, how trusting readers are, and how they tend to assume that narrators always tell the truth.....I looked again at the facts, and at possible motives.
Well, you work it out! Sorry if this is opaque - I have tried not to spoil this wonderful book for those who haven't yet read it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 7, 2010 11:43 PM BST

Time Out Film Guide 2010
Time Out Film Guide 2010
by Time Out Guides Ltd
Edition: Paperback

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Witty, incisive, perceptive..., 9 Jan. 2010
Now Halliwell's guide is no more, I set out to find an adequate replacement. After compiling a list of 20 films spanning eight decades, numerous nationalities and every genre I could think of, I visited Time Out's website and read their reviews of my listed films. Then I visited Waterstone's to check out what the other available guides said about them, evaluating the reviews for insight, comprehensiveness, and entertainment value.

The Time Out guide was the most comprehensive, covering every film except one. It also dealt most thoroughly with each film, but in a concise and witty way. When I agreed with a review, I enjoyed the incisive way the opinions were expressed. When I disagreed, I was given food for thought.

There is really no substitute for going through this process of comparison yourself, if you are to end up with a guide you are happy with. I liked my choice so much, I bought extra copies as Xmas presents. Time well spent!

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