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The Blackwater Lightship
The Blackwater Lightship
by Colm Toibin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars Not much fun to read, 12 Aug 2014
Sometimes I ask myself what constitutes a good book. In analysing a book, I look at some of the things that are traditionally frowned upon at creative writing courses, for example, too many adverbs, and often quoted over and over again, as with the adage, show don’t tell. Certainly, this book falls down on the latter. As with Brooklyn, Colm Toibin does ‘tell’ a story in a rather old-fashioned way, though I wouldn’t necessarily hold that against him.

The author has chosen to show how three women of the same family have to - to a certain extent - end a feud of many years, to support their mutual relation dying of AIDs. So there is a lot of emphasis on this latter story, as well as the relationships between the women.

However, to me a book is artificial; it is a given that a story will be told in a way that makes it readable, and so to describe everything that is happening minute by minute, as is done in the latter few chapters of this book does not make for an interesting narrative. Toibin is obviously trying to get a message to us about the nature of AIDs, about the nature of death through AIDs, but just as in The Jamrach Menagerie (which I reviewed last year) to me, his description of this becomes self-indulgent, and far from moving, becomestedious. Less is more, as they say.

On another tack, there is an unlikely conversation between the unlikeable Helen and, I think, Brian, where each talks at length, without any interruption from the other.

There is also the problem of inconsistency in Helen’s relationship with her mother and grandmother, but at one time Mum is the villain with Grandma being a refuge; then she changes and becomes a baddie. I had difficulty knowing who I was to like or dislike.

Actually, I didn’t really like or feel much warmth towards any of these people, and in the end, my judgement had to be based on the ‘good read gut feeling’ - and the decision - no, it wasn’t.


Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition
Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition
by Joseph Heller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars The title that entered the language, 12 Aug 2014
Catch 22 is a mammoth book of 518 pages of often dense prose.

At first sight, it has echoes of MASH and perhaps even Oh What a Lovely War, but of course it is they which are echoing it. They came later and may have taken their inspiration from it.

Catch 22 is a book about many crazy people, most of them participating in a war in which they have no interest. It's totally individual and probably doesn't fit into any genre. By the time I had reached the end of the book, I had forgotten who most of the characters were - but did it matter? Catch 22 makes you laugh at the craziness, but underlying it is a streak of bitterness about young lives sent to war by elderly generals.

While Catch 22 breaks most rules on plot and structure, even apart from genre, Heller writes meticulous grammar, sometimes with long descriptive sentences, which require you to stop and admire them.

There were times when I needed a break, and I doubt if I could have read it if I hadn't been on holiday with the time available to read for long periods. It is too long and could have done with some more ruthless editing, for at times, you hear the same sort of anecdotes repeated, which is wearing. Somewhere around half way through the book, I thought I had had enough; but then I moved on to a piece that was lyrical and beautifully written, and a very dark part with no humour, which demonstrated Heller's hatred of what was happening during the war. The last part seemed to come alive again, and moved me.

Some people in my reading group criticised it as being dated. I think it's a bit unfair to judge a book which is not as relevant now, as when it was written. The author, Joseph Heller, was a bombardier in WWII and went on numerous missions, as did his main protagonist, Yossarian, so though it is wildly exaggerated for effect, it is certain to have been based on what Heller witnessed, and I think it should be read with that knowledge.


The Man In The Wooden Hat (Old Filth Trilogy 2)
The Man In The Wooden Hat (Old Filth Trilogy 2)
by Jane Gardam
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.00

3.0 out of 5 stars An obsession with querky names?, 2 May 2014
I don’t remember enjoying Old Filth very much, and so at the start of The Man in the Wooden Hat, I was already put off by the thought of having to go back to the same characters and hear their stories all over again from a different perspective. Isn’t this a cop-out? What Jeffrey Archer did with The Prodigal Daughter? Get paid for writing the same book twice?

I was irritated by the silly nicknames - the judge who was known as ‘Pastry Willie’ and Old Filth itself. Does this pass for wit?

I also felt that I didn’t get to know some of the characters; they flitted in and out, and were to a great extent, unmemorable. We are to assume they are eccentrics, though it’s not always demonstrated. The cad, Veneering, doesn’t on the whole, seem to me to be much of a cad. It’s simply that we’re told he is. The fact that he slept with Betty doesn’t make him so; it takes two to tango. He’s obviously fallen in love with her - and that love seems to last.

My main problem, however, is I think that I can’t empathise or identify with these Colonial types. Neither can I believe in them. On page 39, there’s an unbelievable conversation with a nine year old, although with hindsight I see this was setting up the relationship with the boy, Harry? I liked the relationship between the two of them, but on the whole, I didn’t care for this book. Perhaps the fault is with me.


Omron HJ-112 Premium Digital Pedometer
Omron HJ-112 Premium Digital Pedometer
Offered by AMARANCE
Price: £32.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Neat little pedometer, 16 Feb 2014
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It does exactly what I wanted and what I expected. It's neat and I think the safety strap is a clever idea.


A Perfectly Good Family
A Perfectly Good Family
by Lionel Shriver
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars A perfectly dysfunctional family, 16 Feb 2014
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When I suggested A Perfectly Good Family to my reading circle, it was because I had admired the writing of Lionel Shriver in We Need to Talk about Kevin. Looking through her titles, I thought inheritance would be a safer option than that notorious book, and, because despite being riveted by We need to talk …’, I doubt if I could read it a second time.

The book tells the story of two brothers - macho slob, Mordecai and wimpish perfectionist, Truman - and a sister, Corlis, or Corrie Lou, who together with a worthy charity, inherit their parents’ home. Each of the brothers wants to own the house and buy out the other one, but they can only do this with the help of their sister.

A Perfectly Good Family was written before We need to talk …,’ and, at first sight, the prose did not seem to me so sparkling; in fact occasionally the sentences seemed a bit rambling and incomprehensible. Also, there were too many Americanisms for me. These were observations I made at about the half way point, but my main problem was not the above, but the fact that the story had not moved very far at that stage, even though we had learned quite a lot about the main protagonists.

In an article, Lionel Shriver describes the similarities to her own family, for example, the action takes place in North Carolina, where she was raised, and like the protagonists, she is the only girl sandwiched between two brothers. Her parents, though alive, have similarities to the fictional dead parents in their liberal politics and other attributes.

So although this is a piece of fiction, the relationships are based on truth and as result of that, I think there is a problem with having a great deal of information on the subject matter. Like any sort of research or pot of knowledge, it’s tempting to include too much of it. So I am wondering if Lionel Shriver got carried away, when describing her own family and was so busy setting the scene that she forgot about the plot.

There were characteristics which were horribly familiar to me - the obsessive recycling of sheets of aluminium foil, for example, which I’m sure were drawn from life - and they were amusing, but perhaps, a bit too much of them.

At first sight, the brothers, although very different, are both unappealing in different ways, and the narrator has also some unpleasant ways. Only when the brothers are reconciled and Corri Lou is honest with them, did I get to like them all more.

This is a story of family dynamics and not only describes sibling rivalry, but also a kind of emotional incestuousness, with both brothers vying for attention and affection from their sister, while she both welcomes and is put into a state of divided loyalty by that affection.

The story takes off once the siblings start battling over their inherited house, and the real action begins about half way through with the Christmas dinner from hell. The various events that follow keep the interest from flagging.

I found the book interesting, but I think my next Shriver will probably be post Kevin. I would probably give it 3.5 stars.


Staying On
Staying On
by Paul Scott
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Staying Power, 16 Feb 2014
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This review is from: Staying On (Paperback)
Staying On is ostensibly a novel about India after 1947, when many of the English people who were running things, before India gained independence, have returned home. But actually, to a great extent, it’s simply about people and the way they behave towards one another, including the way the various ethnic groups look upon each other.

Paul Scott’s characters are both comic and tragic - he has the horrendous and tyrannical Mrs Bhoolaboy and her meek husband, exaggerated caricatures, who could almost have been extracted from a saucy sea-side postcard the fifties. Then he has Tusker and Lucy Smalley - and Lucy has certainly ‘stayed on’ as far as their marriage is concerned. The book describes the disappointments and disillusionments of a couple who have spent forty years together and who are now aware of the lack of success of their lives. Lucy has elaborate strategies to deal with her husband’s eccentricities, and though eventually, they seem to love one another, for the most part, they seem to be living in a state of war, a situation which may be familiar to long married couples.

It is on balance, a sad book, but with some laugh out loud scenes - and one which causes you to care about some of the main characters, while thoroughly disliking others.


Five Quarters Of The Orange
Five Quarters Of The Orange
by Joanne Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars The scent of orange, 30 Dec 2013
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Five Quarters of the Orange

Five Quarters of the Orange is certainly one of those books you don't want to put down. It's a time-slip novel set in the late 90s and war-time, with the main protagonist, Framboise, narrating her own story and that of the mystery of a German soldier, Tomas. He comes into the lives of Framboise, and the other children of a French widow, for his own purposes, and this affects the people of the village where they live.

Coincidentally, the last book I read was Irene Nemirovsky's novel about Occupied France, and here we are again, in the same territory, but with a very different type of book.

Framboise (Raspberry) and her siblings all have fruit names, and she continues the practice giving her own children nutty names - Pistache and Noisette. (A bit overkill, I thought.) Framboise is a determined little girl who wants to win a battle with a pike; she's certainly feisty and clever and also has many battles with her mother, a hard, cold woman, damaged by the death of her husband. She also makes the mistake of falling for Tomas. The consequences of many of her actions are quite unforeseen.

Five Quarters is intricately plotted with little clues and signposts planted periodically along the route. I was propelled along, although I actually began to feel the tension pall as I started nearing the end. There were perhaps too many signposts, and some of the revelations came to me as a bit of an anti-climax.

In addition, I think that one problem for me was that I didn't care much for heroine, Framboise, who narrates her own story and takes you back to when she was nine years old - I certainly didn't like her as a child, and not really as the adult narrator either. As a child, she behaved cruelly to her mother, who suffered from regular, crippling migraines, and whose attacks were usually preceded by her scenting an orange smell. Framboise's cruelty - in obtaining an orange and putting the peel under her mother's pillow - seemed to me to be more sophisticated than I would have imagined a child of her age could behave; rather premature too was her crush on Tomas; at the same time, she was often naïve. So I didn't quite believe in her, nor could I believe that she was her mother's favourite. They were not, on the whole, a likeable family.

It sounds as if I am doing nothing but criticise, and I have to say that despite all the above, it was a good read, though maybe not a feel good book. I'm giving it 4 stars, but from a readability point of view, might increase it by a half.


Suite Francaise
Suite Francaise
by Irène Némirovsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars An unfinished opus, 8 Dec 2013
This review is from: Suite Francaise (Paperback)
I'm often critical of books where too many characters are introduced, and at first sight it seems that writer Irene Nemirovsky has been guilty of that. However, it might be appropriate to read the Appendices before making a judgment about Suite Francaise, and that gives an insight into the whole book.

Appendix 1 might be of interest to any writer, for here you see the cold-blooded thoughts of the author - all authors are supposed to have a splinter of ice in their hearts - as she decides, well shall I kill this one, or this one - and this person will have a love affair with this other person.

The Second Appendix shows Irene increasingly worried and threatened by the anti-Semitic laws brought in, in France, causing her difficulties in getting her work published and difficulties in getting any income.

Eventually, she is imprisoned and we see her husband's increasingly frantic attempts to get her released. To those who wondered how Jews could be rounded up for the gas chambers, it might be a revelation that Michel Epstein was naïve enough to think that if he could show that his wife was not in sympathy with the Bolsheviks, she would be released. There is no sign that be believed she was being sent to her death. He wanted to send her food parcels and more clothes.

Soon after his unsuccessful battle to get her released, he was imprisoned and murdered himself by the Nazi regime.

From Appendix 1, one understands that Suite Francaise was to be a book of five parts and that Nemirovsky was writing a book to encompass the whole period of the war, as it affected Paris. So, many of the large cast of characters were to be brought back in the latter three books, which, in the event, were not written.

To summarise, the first book, Storm in June, covers the experiences of many Parisians, as the city falls. Bombs had been dropped and people were fleeing the city. Some were hungry and thirsty, some worried about money and others more trivial problems; some altruistic, some selfish. Husbands, wives, lovers and betrayers - Nemirovsky is trying to give a broad picture of a society, warts and all.

The second part, Douce, which takes place during the Occupation, brings back some of the earlier characters, but also brings in Lucille, a woman in a bad marriage, and her relationship with a correct and courteous German. Nemirovsky is surprisingly detached and unprejudiced against him and the other German soldiers. If anything she is more likely to show the bad side of the French. There is more focus on the plot in this book, and one can empathise with Lucille.

In the end, one has to regard this as a work in progress and judge it on that basis.


Jamrach's Menagerie
Jamrach's Menagerie
by Carol Birch
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An animal and human menagerie, 13 Oct 2013
This review is from: Jamrach's Menagerie (Paperback)
Jamrach's Menagerie
by Carol Birch

Only 100 pages in Jamrach's Menagerie, I had decided that the author had succeeded in writing the perfect book. The language was rich and colourful and everything she said painted a brilliant picture of the scene, whether it was the slums, the docks or the ship on which our hero has set out to sea. I subsequently used some extracts to illustrate colour in books at a writers' workshop.

I liked the author's gradual introduction of the characters, so that we readers could get to know them, not just mentioning them once, but reinforcing with additional descriptions of behaviour and appearance. Also there was a mix of names, some unusual and some ordinary; the characters themselves - some oddities and some straightforward.

I had never heard of Carol Birch before, but having been disappointed by my last book by Beryl Bainbridge, I saw a marked difference. Here were people I was already in sympathy with - people I cared about. To me that is a great skill, and Ms Birch had won hands down over Ms Bainbridge.

I didn't know, at that stage, whether there was going to be a happy ending because there was already a feeling of a sad nostalgia, possibly for things and times lost, but irrespective of that, I though I was going to enjoy the rest of the book.

In the end, though, I could not give it full marks. To me, the character of the book changed. I thought it was going to be about Jaffy Brown's relationship with animals, including the `dragon' he and the others in the ship had set off to find. It turned out to be about a shipwreck. Carol Birch set out to document that shipwreck and the awful events that arose from it in forensic detail. By the time I had read nearly 100 pages of this, I had had enough. To be honest, I came to the conclusion that the author had been a bit self indulgent. This part of the book should have been cut by a third. The end of the book was not unexpected but somewhat quiet and sad. I would have liked it to have had a little more joy in it.

Nevertheless, I still think that Carol Birch is a great writer, and will be interested to see more of her work. I would give it 4.5 if I could.


Every Man For Himself
Every Man For Himself
by Beryl Bainbridge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

3.0 out of 5 stars Bright young things on the Titanic, 13 Oct 2013
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This review is from: Every Man For Himself (Paperback)
I finished this, my third historical novel - one which received much praise from the critics - in quite a short period.

This is a story of mainly upper crust young people - passengers on the ill-fated Titanic, and the atmosphere on board put me in mind of the bright young things at a party thrown by the Great Gatsby, or possibly even some pals of Bertie Wooster. It took me a while to get to know some of these people, and some of them were still only shadowy characters by the end of the story.

There are anecdotes - events happening to some of the characters, and some of the hang-ups experienced by the main protagonist, in love with a girl who herself is entranced by someone else.

So Beryl Bainbridge has created an atmosphere and it's a very readable story, and yet for me it wasn't strong enough. We all know what the end of the story is, and there was not enough suspense for me to feel strongly that I must find out the fate of the cast of characters. When I did get to the end, I considered going back to the beginning, in the hope that I might relate more strongly to them, but I simply couldn't feel motivated to do so.

The story of the Titanic is a dramatic one, and one that may inspire younger people to want to know more about it, but I have read and seen enough about it, including the very poor treatment of those in the `below stairs' category. If you are going to tell an old story again, it seems to me that the characters must make an impact to draw you in, and I, on the whole, could not empathise or feel greatly interested in this group of people


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