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P. G. Harris
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The Village
The Village
by Nikita Lalwani
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.44

3.0 out of 5 stars Alienation - 3.5 stars, 18 Oct 2014
This review is from: The Village (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Ray is a BBC programme maker of Indian descent who travels to the sub-continent to make a film about a radical open prison. The prison is one where the inmates, all of whom are killers, are free to work in the outside world, and can have their families living with them. It is the Village of the title. On her journey she is accompanied by fellow film maker Serena, and by the planned programme's presenter, ex-convict Nathan.

Through the story , and as the documentary is put together, we learn the histories of some of the inmates, the strong, principled Nandini, the tragic Daulath, the entrepreneurial Ratrap. However, this is not really the story of the prison, of its inmates, or indeed of its Indian setting.

Its is a story about the relationship between the three documentary makers, their in fighting and petty jealousies. It is a claustrophobic environment, with the three westerners forced together into a world where every word or action seems to be overloaded with meaning.

It is an account of a culture clash and massive cultural insensitivity. While the inmates of the prison are all murderers, they are also very conventional, and are shocked by the drug taking and sexual liberality of the journalists. Lalwani unfavourably compares the arguably irresponsibly taken freedoms of the film crew with the strict morality of the supposed criminals, many of whom, it emerges, are really victims of their society. The blurb describes the book as a morality tale. If it is, on this level it is a pretty conservative one.

It is an uncomplimentary portrait of documentary film making. Serena and to a lesser extent Ray are deeply manipulative, working to generate confrontation, trauma and artificial drama with the sole aim of generating voyeuristic entertainment. Nathan is a selfish chancer with no empathy for the subjects of the drama.

So this is a highly intelligent and thought provoking piece of writing, and yet I never really engaged with it. There are probably two reasons for that. Firstly I found the three central characters pretty unattractive. Serena is an ambitious bully, Nathan is a cocky, testosterone fuelled Chancer, and Ray comes across as rather a self obsessed, self pitying whiner. Even when she reaches her Damascene at the end, her response seems weak and cowardly.

Secondly, there comes a point where good writing is in danger of becoming self consciously literary. I'm afraid Lalwani rather crosses this line and breaks the fourth wall to the extent that the writing ceases to be inclusive and evocative, and starts to become intrusive, shouting for attention. "her pony tail bobbed with crazy asymmetry", "the English spoken a zig zag of local accent and quick rhythm". It also manifests itself in playing with tenses. At one point, one of the characters refers to a documentary having more impact when it is told in the present tense. From then on the reader becomes all to aware of the author switching between tenses for effect.

So, overall,this is a three and a half star book. It is better than just OK, but I found the characters and writing style too alienating for me to describe it as good.


Hotpoint Hand Blenders 3 in 1, 700 Watt, Silver
Hotpoint Hand Blenders 3 in 1, 700 Watt, Silver
Price: £49.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Leave the bulky food processor in the cupboard, 7 Oct 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a really good piece of kitchen equipment. The core is a stick blender, which in and of itself would be excellent. It's a good powerful example of its type, it has variable speeds and it blasts through the chunkiest soup I've made.

So, I would recommend it just for that, but it is the additional attachments which really lift this product. They are extremely useful for those times when would get the food processor out of the cupboard, but it feels like a bit of overkill for the size of job you are doing.

First up there is whisk, which used in conjunction with the measuring goblet can whip up, for example, a yorkshire pudding or an omelette mix in no time at all.

Secondly, there is the chopping bowl. To try it out I put in all of the ingredients for a hummus with virtually no chopping. Put the lid on, fit the motor unit into the top, press the button and , shazzam, instant chick pea dip.

Definitely recommended


Greenpan Venice 24 cm Ceramic Non-Stick Open Frypan, Grey Aluminium
Greenpan Venice 24 cm Ceramic Non-Stick Open Frypan, Grey Aluminium
Price: £25.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent sturdy small- medium frying pan, 30 Sep 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a nice sturdy small to medium sized frying pan. Admittedly it can take over a year to truly judge a pan, does the non stick remain non stick, does the handle stay firmly attached etc etc, but first signs are excellent.

The build quality feels excellent, and the ceramic non stick is very very non stick. The handle though metal doesn't get hit on the hob, and the whole thing feels nicely balanced.

It's not big enough to cook a full breakfast in, but for general frying, omelletes for example, for one person, its spot on.


The Paying Guests
The Paying Guests
Price: £6.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, 27 Sep 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Paying Guests (Kindle Edition)
Frances Wray and her mother live in a large house in South London. Solidly middle class, they have been left in poverty by the death of her father whose reckless investments frittered away the family fortune. Financially troubled, they have also been left emotionally bereft by the death of Frances' brothers in the Great War. Into this world of sad and shabby gentility burst the Barbers, the Paying Guests, the "clerk class" lodgers to whom Frances and her mother are forced to rent part of the house in order to bolster their income. Len works in insurance, Lil,Lily, Lillian has a delicious desperation to be something more than her mundane working class roots.

The first part of the novel is a wonderful study of claustrophobia, as Frances' (the choice of name is surely deliberate) house is invaded, in what seems to be an echo of the previous conflict and a prediction of the next, by the brash outsiders. Frances and her mother are trapped in their own rooms by the words, laughter, footsteps, bumps and scrapings of the interlopers.

From there Waters moves the story on to a familiar theme, and one she handles extremely skilfully, as the house is once more taken over, this time by an exquisite and almost unbearable sexual tension. It did strike me that this element of the tale was moving on too fast to be whole story, anD indeed that is the case. A repeated motif throughout the book is Anna Karenina. While Waters may not show any happy families being similar, she does show unhappy families being unhappy in their own and wildly different ways. However, as the book reaches its centre the reason for the rapid development is revealed as there is a sudden and shocking switch and what we are confronted with is not Tolstoy, but Crime and Punishment. For most of the rest of the way, it is not a highly charged love story, but a tale of guilt, deception and pursuit by an apparently remorseless detective.

Comparing this to other work by the same author, in tone it seemed to have more in common with her sexually powered victorian melodramas than with the gentle loss and longing of the Little Stranger, and it doesn't reach the quality of Waters', to date, greatest work, the Night Watch.

The strengths of the book are what one would expect. Waters is terrific at creating a sense of place, in this case both in the dim claustrophobia of Frances's house, and in portraying the sight sound and feel of early 20th century London. She is also a writer of great intensity, the claustrophobia of the start, the eroticism of the central section, the guilt , paranoia and eventual exhaustion of the end. After a fairly low key start, she quickly turns all of the dials up to 11 and keeps them there most of the way.

Her female characters are thoroughly convincing, I was completely swept up with Frances and Lillian, and there is a delightful section fairly early on where Frances and her mother have their middle class sensibilities exposed to Lillian's chattering, squabbling, gregarious extended working class family. The male characters are perhaps less successful, Len is much more of a stereotype, a caricature, as is Spencer Ward, character who emerges later.

This is also an excellently plotted novel, as seemingly minor events come to have a much greater significance later on. It almost feels like Waters puts up the screen of the love story in the first half while behind it she is building the architecture of the second half which she reveals with a flourish as she shocks the reader with the significant event at the centre of the book. The strength of the plotting is also evident in the way she keeps the reader guessing right to the end. In fact the end itself, while fully conclusive from one angle, leaves things intriguingly open as to the eventual fate of the central characters.

This is a morally ambivalent, or at least non-judgemental book. There are certainly victims an perpetrators, but who the real villains are, and who their genuine victims are is not clear. Perhaps Waters is saying that it is all relative and depends on the perspective from which events are viewed. Maybe that it the meaning of the end as she gives the reader the opportunity to judge the characters and determine their ultimate fate.

So, in summary, this is an intelligent and gripping read. I'm not sure it is a book to read if you are looking for relaxation , it's far too tense for that. Finally, while not quite up with her best work, It is too melodramatic for that, this is definitely worth the investment of your time and money.


Hama Dispersion Headset, Blue
Hama Dispersion Headset, Blue
Price: £14.64

3.0 out of 5 stars For computer use, not smartphone or tablet, 27 Sep 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a set of headphones suitable for computer use. The blurb refers to using them with an ipod, and indeed they can be plugged in and used to listen to music. What they are not really suitable for is use with iphone or ipad. This is because the headset includes two jack plugs, one for the headphones, one for the microphone. If you use them as remote headphones on a smartphone or tablet, you are relying on the microphone in the device, not the one in the headset.

That aside, the appearance is fairly cheap and nasty, and the sound quality is probably what you'd expect from a pair of headphones at this price.

So, it really comes down to what you are looking for, if you want a headset to use with a computer, and aren't too worried about high quality sound, this may well be for you.


Ring RCT5 Compact First Aid Kit
Ring RCT5 Compact First Aid Kit
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Good basic first aid kit, 1 Sep 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a good basic first aid kit containing most of what you need to deal with minor accidents, cuts and grazes. Of course you could do the same, possibly more cheaply with a clip top box and a visit to Boots (other high st chemists are available), but if you just want something you can pick up quickly for the boot of the car, a kitchen drawer or a rucksack, its perfectly fine. The semi rigid green box is probably the most useful part, as if you don't like these particular contents, you can always refill it differently.


All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Yarn spinning in primary colours, 1 Sep 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
August 1944, the allies drop leaflets over St Malo warning the residents to leave in advance of bombing raids intended to end the siege of the city. Amongst those unable to heed the warning are Marie-Laure, a blind French teenager, trapped in her great uncle's house, and Werner Pfennig, a young Wehrmacht radio-operator.

From this point, the story jumps backwards and forwards in time to tell the tale of what brought these two young people from different backgrounds and countries to be in this single place at this particular time.

Marie-Laure's childhood is, despite her blindness, an idyllic one, cared for by her father who is a locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History. He builds intricate models of Paris (and later St Malo) so that she can find her way around, every year her birthday brings an intricate puzzle hiding a treat, and a new Braille book, most notably, over two years, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Werner is an orphan, brought up by a nun in a children's home, whose destiny is to be sent down the mines of his home town, until his genius for repairing, and eventually making, radios is recognised and he is sent away to a school educating the elite of the Third Reich in an atmosphere of barely controlled brutality.

As their stories develop Marie-Laure lives through the deprivations of occupied France, while Werner witnesses at second hand the horrors of Nazi Germany, while also experiencing the less than glorious life of the ordinary soldier, particularly as the Red Army, and then the Allies roll back Hitler's empire.

Entwined with these two teenage narratives is the melodrama of the hunt for a diamond, a mythical stone rumoured to bestow eternal life on its owner but to bring tragedy to those around them. Before the war, this was kept in the Paris museum, before three copies were made ahead of the German invasion and scattered across France. One was carried by Marie-Laure's father. In pursuit of the stones is the sinister Von Rumpel, a refined sociopath.

Within these narratives, the author, Anthony Doerr, plays with a number of repeating themes. With Marie Laure, deprived of sight, he writes in a strongly sensory manner, with her heightened awareness of sound, smell , touch and taste, from the delights of her childhood to the horrors and tensions of St Malo. Werner's story is about the magic of radio, both the practical, electronics, and the emotional impact as Werner and his sister, Jutta, listen to mysterious, inspiring broadcasts from the coast of France. The title of the book ties Marie-Laure's blindness to the invisible wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum explored by Werner, but in the end perhaps the light we cannot see is compassion and goodness in ordinary people in even the most difficult circumstances.

It is also a book of imprisonment, of small spaces, and of claustrophobia, Marie-Laure in her blindness, in a tiny flat in Paris, in an attic in St Malo hiding from the invaders. Werner has his presumed fate in the mine closing his future, virtual entrapment in the elite school, actual confinement in an army radio truck and in a cellar in St Malo. For both of them, escape is offered by radio broadcasts and by the sea, the real sea at St Malo and Jules Verne's fictional sea.

Fundamentally, the main strength of the book is that it is a damn good yarn, peopled by some entertaining and engaging characters. Doerr takes the threads of Marie, Werner and Von Rumpel, and weaves them across Europe before binding them tightly together in St Malo. On the way we meet Werner's doting sister, his delicate friend Frederick and his gigantic protector Volkheimer; Marie-Laure is surrounded by her father, her great uncle Etienne, emotionally scarred by the great war and resourceful housekeeper Madame Manec.

Though the supporting cast is entertaining, the core characterisation is weaker. Early on Werner and Marie-Laure feel broadly painted in primary colours, the perfect little blind girl and the boy genius. As they develop, there is no feeling of them developing as real teenagers. They simply react to the world around them, without developing any believable inner life. Also poor Werner is sacrificed to the needs of the plot, on two occasions a complete non sequiteur pops up which simply seems to be driven by the author's need to move him on for plot purposes. Maybe both these criticisms are realistic portrayals of how war stunts inner growth and generates random, uncontrollable events, but for me they just didn't ring true.

One final note of warning, not a criticism, but the book is definitely written in American English. That is fine, the author is perfectly entitled to translate from French and German into American, but it does grate a little to the English ear.

In summary, this is worth reading, but it is a yarn-spinners book, being plot rather than character driven.


Descent
Descent
by Ken MacLeod
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Just great fun, 19 Aug 2014
This review is from: Descent (Hardcover)
I find Ken Macleod to be something of an inconsistent writer. When I first read the Fall Revolution novels they blew me away, with their mixture of hard science fiction and a very Scottish combination of politics and wry cynical humour. The Engines of Light series, on the other hand, did nothing for me, I just found it a bit dull. The Night Sessions I found to be a curate's egg in the true meaning of the phrase, basically bad, but with some good bits.

The good news is that descent is definitely at the Fall Revolution end of the range. It is set in Scotland (where else) in the very near future, and tells the story of a young man, Ryan, between his late teenage, and becoming a father in his late twenties.

Bunking off from exam revision, Ryan, and friend Callum walk up a nearby hill where they have a close encounter with a mysterious flying object which leaves them unconscious for several hours. This is the cue for Macleod and the reader to have tremendous fun as conspiracy theories, apparent alien abductions , and X-files plot lines twist around each other in what is basically a political and economic thriller. Add in neanderthal bloodlines, the ongoing evolution if the human race, and mysterious bibles which seem to describe extraterrestrial life and you get some idea of the intricacy of the plot.

Of course his sadly departed fellow scot is a clear reference point, but while this is a science fiction novel, it is probably closer to the works of Iain Banks, without the "M", being as it is a very male coming of age story. Indeed, Macleod could be accused of lifting the Prentice/Ash love story from the Crow Road. That isn't a problem as Banks himself stole it from David Copperfield.

Overall, this is just great fun. It is one of those novels where it is easy to believe one can sense the novelist enjoying himself, and that sense of enjoyment was certainly passed on to this reader.


Everland
Everland
Price: £5.03

4.0 out of 5 stars Plus ca change...., 16 Aug 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Everland (Kindle Edition)
Everland is a book about Antarctic exploration. It takes the story of two expeditions to the fictional titular island, each comprising three people. The first expedition takes place in 1913, the second is set in 2012, to celebrate the centenary of the first disastrous landing. Author Rebecca Hunt appears to draw on her experiences with the Arctic Circle residency to present a highly convincing picture of both a frozen landscape and of its effect on the vulnerable human body. This makes Everland a somewhat pungent book. I had recently read Hannah Kent's Burial Rites which, with an Icelandic setting, gives a similar feel of the odour generated by people huddled together in a freezing environment.

Secondly it is a book about the passage of time. There are frequent references to the lichen on the island, which lives for thousands of years, barely changing over the 100 year timescale of the book. At the other end of the spectrum is technology. The 20th century explorers are isolated for months at a time with rudimentary, barely adequate equipment. Their 21st century successors on the other hand have constant contact via radio, and the extent of their isolation is limited to being two hours away by sea plane. What doesn't change is their vulnerability in the face of the sheer unforgiving hostility of the environment. Hunt's main theme, however, is the constancy of human nature. She seemingly creates a basket of character traits which she shares between the earlier Dinners, Millet-Bass and Napps, and then redistributes them between the later Blix, Jess and Decker. Each party has a weak link who joined the party as a result of outside influence. Each has a no-nonense expert. Each has a leader struggling with the responsibility. Everland thus becomes a sort of dark and twisted Never-neverland in which human nature never grows up.

Thirdly it is a book about relationships under pressure. As the story of the two expeditions move along similar arcs, with clear parallels between the difficulties each faces, so the development of the relationships between the three main characters follow corresponding paths at either end of the century. In both there is an initial hostile divide between naivety and competence, with a seemingly more mature character keeping the peace. As time passes hostility turns to acceptance and diplomacy deteriorates into vindictiveness. A critical exploration of the effects of stress comes near the end of the 21st century thread when one of the characters takes an uncharacteristically selfish decision. Is this a piece of poor, unrealistic writing or is it a totally credible account of something having to give in a man squeezed by competing demands in an unbearably stressful situation?

Fourthly it is a book about how history is written by the victors. Early on the 2012 expedition watch a film based on the story of their predecessors, during which the supposed villain of the piece is roundly booed. Through the book we learn of the very different reality of the situation, and of why, to protect vested interests, the name of a noble if uncompromising man was blackened. This is repeated in both eras as characters reach sordid little compromises to obscure the truth of their own misdeeds.

The strengths of Everland are the apparent authenticity of the environment (I don't have the personal experience to judge this definitively) and in the complex characterisations of and relationships between the historical protagonists. The more modern characters are less successful. While they show some development, they start off as very crudely drawn stereotypes. I wasn't always convinced by the number of parallels between the two stories. The author at times seemed to be trying too hard, for example there is an incident involving the burying of meat in both timelines which seems almost peripheral to the plot, and only in there to create a temporal echo. It is also only vaguely explained (although one can guess at what happened).

Overall, Everland is a well researched, engrossing book with a narrative which both moves at a reasonable pace and keeps some of its secrets right up to the final denouement.

Recommended.


Burial Rites
Burial Rites
Price: £3.14

5.0 out of 5 stars Pungent excellence, 3 Aug 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Burial Rites (Kindle Edition)
Burial rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir (or Jonsdottir) who was sentenced to beheading for her part, with two others, in the murder of shaman Natan Ketilsson and another man.

Awaiting execution she is sent to live in the home of minor official Jon Jonsson and his wife Margret. Initially they are horrified by their charge, but as time passes, a relationship grows between Agnes, her hosts, and their daughters, Lauga and Steina.

One of the joys of Burial Rites is that has a number of intermingled facets to it. It could be viewed as a whodunnit. As the relationship between Margret, Agnes and her callow spiritual adviser, Toti, grows, we gradually learn about what really happened on the night of the murder and subsequent fire.

It is a extremely well researched picture of peasant life in 19th century Iceland. A modern view of Iceland may be of the wide open landscapes, but this book is painted on a small, claustrophobic canvas as the people huddle together in their austere homes. The outdoors is limited to the small fields which must be rapidly cultivated in the brief weeks of summer, before winter returns and the landscape returns to being something which must be crossed between the tiny, barely flickering islands of warmth.

It is a delightful character study. The two daughters, one soft hearted and ready to be drawn to Agnes, the other frightened and suspicious. The District Commissioner who could be a pantomime villain, but is in fact a highly convincing portrait of arrogant moral certainty. A particular favourite was the neighbour, Roslin a highly amusing village busy-body.

It is a story of relationships, of relationships between women and between men and women. There is the exploitative relationship between Agnes and her lover, the unsatisfying relationship between Agnes and the ineffectual Toti, and above all the ultimately crucial relationship between Agnes and Margret.

There are also interesting elements to the structure of the book. All through there are changing viewpoints, but crucially all except Agnes are told in the third person. Agnes alone speaks with her own voice, and this is really effective in emphasising her loneliness, in setting her apart, in making her unique and different.

Secondly the pace is beuatifully judged. It starts slowly, but gradually builds and builds to its twin climaxes of learning what happened on the night of the murder, and of determining Agnes's eventual fate.

A final thing to say is that it is a supremely smelly book. In the cramped Icelandic croft, the badstofa, in the animal sheds, in Agnes's prison, it is a book of sweat, urine, excrement and every conceivable bodily fluid.

So, in summary this is a really good, engaging read, and despite the fact that it is at times quite harrowing, it never wallows in misery, it handles the painful experiences of its characters in a way which is realistic, affecting, but never exploitative.


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