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The Lifeboat
The Lifeboat
by Charlotte Rogan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 12.06

21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sinking feeling..., 13 April 2012
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This review is from: The Lifeboat (Hardcover)
I was pretty disappointed with this novel. There was plenty of hype - I heard the author on a radio show and bought it even though I resented the cynical Titanic-centenary marketing ploy.

Grace Winter finds herself in a lifeboat with almost 40 other passengers after their ship sinks in 1914 (there's that handily-timed Titanic link). Unlike the Titanic survivors, however, the passengers aren't rescued for a good while and the story is about the inevitable power, sustenance and companionship struggles in the tiny boat.

I found Grace to be an unattractive character - the author obviously loved the trendy idea of using an unreliable narrator for her story but you have to be very, very clever to get away with it (I recently read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, which just about gets away with it, and a Pale View of Hills and Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, who is awe-inspiring in this field). I think Grace's rather manipulative past is supposed to make us think of her as a gritty survivor, to be grudgingly admired, but since she never seemed to feel any real fear, sympathy, hunger, depression, illness, lack of faith or finding any, maternal feelings, deep love for her husband, homesickness, or any of the countless things a normal person would feel in these circumstances, I couldn't feel anything in return for her.

The other characters didn't shine at all - I never really understood any of them - and I found the lack of fear among many of the passengers very strange. Grace's motive for the action which landed her in prison (this is not a spoiler - the novel commences with Grace in custody) is never really explored, nor is her relationship with the powerful Mrs Grant and the strange Hannah, and her feelings towards Hardie are just confusing. To this end, I didn't really care about the outcome of the trial.

Perhaps the entire premise for the story is just too claustrophobic, with not enough places to go (literally and metaphorically). There was no beauty or real menace in the novel to hold my attention (I'm thinking of Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea, which is a very different concept but is rich in beatiful prose and corrosive fear; Lord of the Flies, which is a land-based version of this novel and far superior; or even A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh which ends with a bitter tale of survival in the Amazon and really does make you feel sympathy for the main character). I think it would take a much more accomplished author to achieve success with this idea, and not one just cashing in on the Titanic legend.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 18, 2013 7:41 PM GMT

The Sense of an Ending
The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 8.86

46 of 50 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Didn't completely get it, 30 Nov 2011
This review is from: The Sense of an Ending (Hardcover)
This is one of those self-consciously over-wrought, I'm-trying-very-hard-to-bag-The-Prize, literary efforts which I usually avoid like the plague. It reeked of something like Donna Tartt's The Secret History to begin with, which almost put me off completely. However, it has its plus points; the character of Tony is easy to slip into, because of his dullness, even if those around him are infuriatingly enigmatic. I did 'get it' regarding the time/water parallel, and I certainly got it regarding the fragments of history we choose to suppress, or keep, or throw away according to whether we feel guilt, or remorse, or nostalgia. How many of us would actually recall a letter, word for word, written 40 years ago? No, we would remember a sentiment behind it and a few choice phrases. The rest we would have to re-write in our memory as time went on. I have certainly 'reconstructed' a few moments in my own history, to suit my conscience, and this novella did highlight the nature of memory and time very effectively. Although I wish he had not used the words 'history' and 'time' and especially 'memory' in every other sentence - I was suffering from memory lapses myself in the end.
Now to the bits I don't get. The book seemed to hinge not on a theme, or a pivotal moment, or a character, but simply the fact that Tony didn't know something; and that the other characters wouldn't tell him. This was hardly Tony's fault; he was in America at the time. If no-one told him why, how was he supposed to know? And yet we are supposed to feel some sort of sympathy for those who chose not to tell him - just to keep saying, 'you don't get it, do you?' Tony might leave a lot to be desired, but it wasn't his fault he didn't get it.
This 'mystery' drove me mad because it was so contrived, so unexplainable, such a literary cliche. There wouldn't, of course, be any Sense of an Ending, or even a beginning, if Veronica had just said, 40 years before (or indeed at any point), 'Look Tony love, this is how it is.'
Maybe I'm just too Northern and transparent. Maybe I'm a Margaret, not a Veronica. But I found that the loose and slightly ridiculous plot spoiled whatever deeper meaning this novel tried to convey. I read somewhere that Julian Barnes has criticised Ishiguro's writing, but he could learn from that writer's sparse, beautiful style and the deeply poignant 'sense of an ending' that 'Never Let Me Go' managed to describe. I am slightly peeved that this one bagged the Man Booker Prize.
And one more thing - can anyone tell me what the significance of Veronica's mother's strange, 'horizontal' hand gesture was as Tony left Chislehurst? This is also driving me mad.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 15, 2013 10:45 AM GMT

One Day
One Day
by David Nicholls
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 18.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Better than I expected, 11 Aug 2011
This review is from: One Day (Hardcover)
If this is the sort of novel you normally give a wide berth to - suspiciously rom-com, following a couple of graduates in various trendy cities not quite getting it together for 400 pages, etc - don't be fooled by its dire premise. I wouldn't normally touch this kind of stuff because I hate trendy people and cities and don't care if they fall in love or not.
However, I think the point is, you're meant to hate them a little bit - well, Dexter anyway. There are some superbly drawn characters in this novel who might not make you feel warm and mushy (I don't quite buy into the `loved them so much I couldn't leave them' thing other reviewers have mentioned) but they do make you laugh, and if you lived through the nineties, cringe in recognition. I worked in media in this very era (on a smaller scale) and recognised Dexter in several people I know!
There are some smort-out-loud-on-the-bus set pieces that feel a little gimmicky and unnecessary - as if they were created, Richard Curtis-style, with a view to filming at some point - but are so funny you don't care. Emma's date in an Italian restaurant with Ian (what a guy), the scene in Marsha the publisher's office, and especially the `Are You There, Moriarty?' chapter (pure genius, and the point where I actually started to like Dexter) - they might make you howl. This novel didn't make me cry, for which I was grateful, as I don't like over-sentimentality - but the scene where Dexter comes home in a state to see his mother is very poignant.
The technique of using one day - the 15 July for twenty years - to tell the story does work, however contrived it may appear. That's because some years, dramatic things happen on that day; other years the day sorts of drifts along as usual. Very realistic, and a much better insight into two lives that picking all the `important' scenes - weddings, birthdays, etc.
I read this in two sittings (finished last night at 2am) and I'm still thinking over it today, so I'd say it was a resounding success, as someone who usually hates this type of thing. Still wish he'd left Paris out of it though -too obvious and unlikely.
And I sincerely thank God that the nineties are over. What were we thinking?

The Woodcutter
The Woodcutter
by Reginald Hill
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All the mysteries of Mosedale, 5 Aug 2011
This review is from: The Woodcutter (Hardcover)
I've never read a Reginald Hill novel, as usual picking this up in desperation as the second choice in a Buy One, Get One Half Price thing. To say I was delighted is an understatement.
No understatement in this novel, however - Hill's greatest skill seems to be in his fantastic characterisation, which drives the novel along. No stone is left unturned as regards to motive, passion, relationships, emotion. You'll need to keep a dictionary handy - Hill's vocabulary is awe-inspiring - but never once did I think, 'Oh, just get on with it.'
If you love the wilder side of the Lakes - Wasdale and Mosedale in particular - you'll be able to picture exactly where the action is, such is Hill's talent for painting a picture in text. I've trodden that path up to Black Sail dozens of times so this novel felt like I'd written it myself! The mythical, mystical fairy-tale aspect of the novel, with its Nordic overtones, fits in with this wild part of the world perfectly.
I loved the deeply flawed character of Wolf, as I can't stand 'perfect' heroes, of which there are far too many in this genre. Alva is a spirited and unusual heroine, and the pyschology didn't feel or sound like mumbo-jumbo; the mysterious JC is another well-developed character, and the Reverend Luke Hollins is great (as is Sneck!)
Only a couple of flaws in this novel; the over-enthusiastic use of the exclamation mark (Peter James does this too - maybe they both attended the same Writing Course) - which does not always inject humour as intended, but does tend to annoy the reader. Also, the character of Lady Kira drove me up the wall. She's far too one-dimensional and cliched - surely not all aristocrats are ice-queens? I get the impression Hill isn't too impressed with the upper classes, but I've met a few, and while they may well snigger behind my back for all I know, I've never met anyone with such publicly bad manners as Lady Kira. You wouldn't get away with that in Cumbria - she'd have ended up being socked in the nose. I didn't believe for one moment that the final scenario would have affected her in the way it did - there was just not enough light and shade in her character.
All in all, a fantastic book which kept me hooked for three days.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 21, 2011 9:27 AM BST

Mr Rosenblum's List
Mr Rosenblum's List
by Natasha Solomons
Edition: Audio Cassette

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unusual and touching, 28 July 2011
I loved Natasha Solomons' 'Novel in the Viola' - one of the best books I've read for years - and was surprised that this is completely different in tone and direction. It's the unusual, subtly clever story of Jack and Sadie, Jews who move to England from Germany and try VERY hard (or at least, Jack does) to fit in in rural Dorset.
Jack's obsession with 'fitting in' leads him to another compulsion, which drives the novel along - his all-consuming desire to build his own golf course, as he can't get admission into any all-English ones.
Jack's oft-thwarted journey to the final hole is both funny and heart-breaking. I have to say, I have never wanted a character to succeed so badly. I haven't read many novels recently where the main character was a man who isn't typically heroic and doesn't solve exciting crimes, so Jack was a bretah of fresh air. Sadie's loneliness and isolation contrasted perfectly with his never-say-die, optimistic attitude and their middle-aged love story is really sweet (and another breath of fresh air - I'm sick of good-looking professionals in their 20s who pervade everything in book-form at the moment).
You don't have to love golf to enjoy this weird and wonderful novel. You don't have to be Jewish. And you don't have to be typically English. But if you are fed up with the same-old crime, romance and daddy-beat-me-up-when-I-was-little novels, give this a try.

The Unseen
The Unseen
by Katherine Webb
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.64

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written, but lacking something..., 10 April 2011
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This review is from: The Unseen (Paperback)
I loved The Legacy, mostly because of the gritty and painful story of the Oklahoma Territory in the late 19th century. While that storyline felt vivid and real, the characters in this one - an unusual 'fairy story' set among repressed Edwardian society - didn't ring as true. I felt the characters were crafted in a rather one-dimensional way for dramatic effect - Hester was a little too naive, Cat too feisty and educated, the vicar too repressed (for what reason? We don't find out) and the villain too... well, panto-villainish.
Having said all this, I rattled through this in two evenings and found the fairy theme quite intriguing - people really did believe in these things at that time. Perhaps it was a sort of 'enlightenment' period for middle-class types after the costraints of Victorian era. If so, it contrasted nicely with Cat's very real urge to change the world, with or without the help of fairies.
There were some great themes here, and it was well-written and enjoyable, but the lacklustre and flimsy modern story combined with 'stagey' characters in the old one left me lightly underwhelmed.
I know the current trend is for a dual timeframe, but I honestly think that with this premise, which is an intriguing one, this talented author could have pulled off a much more ethereal, single timeframe story in the style of Margaret Attwood, rather than compromising on characters and making it a sort of easy holiday read.
Perhaps her next offering will break the mould a little bit more.

Hothouse Flower
Hothouse Flower
by Lucinda Riley
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly gripping, 6 Feb 2011
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This review is from: Hothouse Flower (Paperback)
I admit I wasn't expecting much from this novel as it seemed a bit 'same old, same old' when I read the blurb. I thought I'd had my fill of this kind of 'big house, hidden secrets' thing. But I found myself enjoying it, mostly because of the Harry-Olivia-Lidia story in the mid-section. This part was well-researched, evocative, and offered some nice insights into the harsh world of duty and obligation that the 'privileged' classes had to to endure, as well as an interesting Far-Eastern war story. It did well in suggesting that often, there wasn't a lot of privilege in a life like that - so many people spent their lives unhappy, just to fulfill a sense of duty. I liked the little insight into what could have been, had Olivia continued to live life with the fast set. Or if Harry had not returned home. Or if several other characters had made countless different choices.
So far, so enjoyable, but there are flaws, and one of those is the rather annoying glibness that pervades the novel. Much of this is caused by the over-use of the word 'love' (every other sentence, it seems) so that it starts to feel just a little tacky. The characters keep saying they don't like to use cliches, but then do. A lot. It isn't written in a clever style, and the language isn't particularly memorable, which makes for a rip-roaring yarn flowing at a good pace, but it's never going to win any literary prizes. And there are some irritating anomalies - why does Julia feel she has to give up half her fortune to a man she could conceivably accuse of manslaughter? Surely she had the whip-hand? And why did Lidia never feel more bitter about a man who treated her appallingly, and without explanation? Why did she never try to track down the 'gift' she gave to Bill - she travelled all over the world? And the Dallas Shower Scene in France just beggars belief, and jarred horribly. Where had this character been, for heaven's sake, and why did Julia feel so obliged to carry on the farce? She had every good reason not to. Some parts of this novel felt highly suspect, but I was prepared to go with the flow, probably because the 'older' characters gripped me, rather than the newer ones.
I would read another novel by this author - I think she has a good way with a story and develops her characters well, but needs to tone down the unbelievable shocks - they simply weren't necessary in this well-crafted, multi-layered story.

Never Let Me Go
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unsettling, strange, wonderful, 23 Jan 2011
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This review is from: Never Let Me Go (Paperback)
It's difficult to write a review of this novel without unravelling all the intricate threads and spoiling it. But I do have to comment on all the previous reviewers who gave this fewer stars than I did. Their gripes seem to be with all the unanswered questions - why so much was left unsaid. They are missing, I think, Ishiguro's point. That's not to say the inevitable questions surrounding 'donations', 'rebellions' (or lack of them) etc aren't reasonable, but the set-up of the story - the science fiction bit - isn't the author's point. It's just a veil for deeper thoughts on love, loyalty, childhood, a sense of place and belonging in the world (or the yearning for it), our own mortality, and the futility of the whole thing. It's a pretty big topic really, and I think not getting wrapped up in the ethics and nitty-gritty of the subject matter is to the author's credit (and what he does best).
I think it's fairly obvious why no-one 'escaped.' Why would they? Even when they left Hailsham, the characters had formed bonds with 'their own' and probably, I believe, knew that their life spans were naturally short anyway, much shorter than 'normal' people. They didn't have life skills or qualifications, so couldn't get a decent job anyway (I think Ruth knew this even while dreaming about her 'office'). Sex with an outsider was risky and pointless. Why run to this cold, loveless world when they had made their own world, with all its friendships and certainties, from scratch?
This is the beauty of the novel, which some people may not 'get'. I saw the parallels between 'our' society - in which we live for maybe seventy years and are expected to fulfill certain tasks, like getting examinations, then a job, then procreating, then retiring, then expiring - and theirs. The characters in this novel do exactly the same within their own parameters. Kathy narrates, at the age of 31, with a sort of 'twilight' feel to her voice. There is much talk of sunsets, and autumn, and slowing down. We feel the weariness, the loneliness after losing companionship, the natural ending of her life having done her 'tasks', just as we might in old age. I found this profoundly moving.
If you read this novel, don't get caught up in the smaller picture. The real issues here explore what it is to be naturally human, not the science behind it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 3, 2011 2:30 PM GMT

The Distant Hours
The Distant Hours
by Kate Morton
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not quite a Gothic masterpiece, 11 Nov 2010
This review is from: The Distant Hours (Hardcover)
Hmmmm... I'm Kate's biggest fan, but something went a bit awry with this one. For a start, it's far, far too long - all the brevity and succinct phrasing of The House of Riverton jumped out of the window in this novel (probably into the moat), and long, rambling passages sadly took its place. This was particularly evident in the middle section, which seemed to go on for days (indeed it did - it took me four days to complete reading this part}. There was no need for half the words used in this book, and I'm disappointed Kate got so carried away with her own excitement. It didn't flow - it dragged and then galloped, limped a bit and then crashed to the floor, exhausted.
It's not all doom and gloom - well, actually, a lot of it is, because Kate really went overboard with the whole Victorian Gothic novel thing. I could see glimpses of The Woman in White, Jane Eyre, Northanger Abbey, and of course Miss Haversham; but I wish she hadn't alluded to them in the book itself. It made her seem like a sort of Gothic wannabe, a sort of 'X-factor' for writers who like lots of cobwebs and staircases and thunderstorms.
I did warm to the sisters as time plodded on, and I liked the fact that it was all so unglamorous; I'm glad it wasn't another 'rich toffs in a country house' saga. It was different, if hopelessly contrived. The sense of decay and lost lives was real enough; overbearing, almost. The character of Edie livened things up a bit, but not much. Like Kate, she got too carried away with the story - perhaps a child might hear whispers and singing in the walls, but a career woman in her thirties? I devour books too, but I'm not away with the fairies, seeing ghosts of the past round every corner.
In all, it's a decent enough read and some of the writing is beautiful, as always. It just didn't come together quite well enough. I think Kate's editor should have thinned it down a bit, cut out some of the unnecessary bluster and hype, and injected some pace. It creaks as loudly as the castle itself. I think Kate should move on to something a bit different next time - please, Kate, no more lost letters, English castles/stately homes and whispered family secrets! Why not set the next one in a lap-dancing club in Birmingham?!
Because then it wouldn't be a Kate Morton, I suppose. But this did feel a bit like I'd read it all before - only better. Katherine Webb's 'The Legacy' gives this one a run for its money - more unusual, less cliched, more realistic characters.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 12, 2010 5:56 PM GMT

The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid
The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars The best Bryson yet, 31 Oct 2010
This is the best Bryson so far, possibly because it's the warmest in tone, but also because he dispenses with his travels and concentrates on character. Bill Bryson has a real gift for creating [probably highly exaggerated] characters, and writing set-pieces about amusing events. Here we discover his larger-than-life family, rogueish or easily manipulated friends, local shopkeepers, awful teachers. They are all brilliant.
I found the historical side to this novel poignant, fascinating and occasionally sad. It was one of the most interesting periods of American history and I love how Bryson doesn't pretend to have made it, just sort of wondered dreamily through it with his nose in a comic book.
Don't read several sections on a train or bus because you will snort out loud in public - the description of Mr Milton's dive into the lake, Grandma's liquorice babies, any chapter with Uncle Dee in it, the end-of-term celebratory 'bomb', the description of Riverview theme park, or an ill-fated trip to Harlem. Genius.
And at last we understand why Bryson hates dogs so much... I've been wondering that for fifteen years!

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