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Shy Feet: Short Stories Inspired by Travel
Shy Feet: Short Stories Inspired by Travel
by Frances M Thompson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

4.0 out of 5 stars A cracking collection, 17 Jun. 2014
Shy Feet is a great collection of short stories.The stories are ostensibly linked by the theme of travel, but using that as her starting point she takes the reader in all sorts of unexpected. She uses the unlimited opportunities afforded to her by travel to explore the limits that as people we sometimes create and impose for ourselves, a theme that runs through a number of stories including Oh Henry and Katie's Maps.

Thompson has a nice writing style that is gently humorous without overpowering the stories that she is trying to create. It's also worth pointing out that despite being self-published, it is professionally laid out and produced.

Sometimes collections of stories can appear a bit diffuse, but using travel as a theme has allowed Thompson to create a collection whose contents can be enjoyed individually or taken together.


Nicholas Nickleby (Wordsworth Classics)
Nicholas Nickleby (Wordsworth Classics)
by Charles Dickens
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A classic, 10 Dec. 2012
Nicholas Nickleby is a hugely enjoying read. The eponymous hero finds himself destitute following the death of his father. Along with his sister and mother, he hopes that his Uncle, Ralph Nickleby, will show some largesse and help them create a new comfortable life for themselves. Instead Ralph, a miserable usurer, finds positions that are demeaning and low paid for the siblings, with Nicholas sent to a school in Yorkshire run by the uncaring and brutal Wackford Squeers.

It is true to say that this book that contains features that are found in many of Dickens novels: coincidences abound; characters in search of fortune act at the margins of the law; heroes triumph because of charity shown to them by strangers; and there is the usual parade of grotesque and memorable characters with highly unusual names. But Dickens' strengths as a writer means that this is still a first class novel. He covers a lot of ground and settings in the book, from the terrifying school at Dombey Hall to the delights of the Crummles' theatrical company; and from the dissolute lives of Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Frederick Verisopht to the Nickleby's mentally disturbed next door neighbour. Wackford Squeers and Smike may be two of the most memorable characters, but for me it was Mrs Nickleby who was the stand out character - her monologues, fantasies and trivial stories were a comic delight and to my mind are some of Dickens' funniest pieces of writing.

Like many of his books, Dickens uses the novel to highlight areas of social concern, in this case the mistreatment of pupils at "Yorkshire schools" in the 1830s, but he also highlights the deficiencies of copyright law and comments of the work of MPs, which many people may find still rings true. Sure, the book is very neatly tied up at the end and some may find it a little too saccharine, but this remains is a brilliant read nearly two hundred years after its first publication.


The Forgotten Stars (Havensea Book 1)
The Forgotten Stars (Havensea Book 1)
Price: £1.31

4.0 out of 5 stars A cracking read, 14 Nov. 2012
The Forgotten Stars is set on the Island of Havensea, situated just off the coast of Kent. Academic Jim Glass goes there on a year's sabbatical to escape a professional and personal scandal. Far from providing a relaxing environment to recharge his batteries and start work on his next academic project, he instead soon finds himself on the frontline defence of the island's entire way of life.

This book starts out as a classic outsider-in-a-close-knit-community story, as Jim tries to find his place within the island and unlock various mysteries, not least the constitutional position of the island. The book slowly broadens out into a pacey political thriller, as Glass is drawn into an establishment intrigue he cannot extricate himself from thanks to his previous personal difficulties. The islanders draw him into their confidence, relying on him to help them steer a way through the external threats that buffer islanders traditional way of life.

It is the characters and the sense of humour that sets this book apart. None of the inhabitants of the book are as conventional as they first seem and they are all well drawn, with the result that Havensea not only feels like a real place but somewhere I want to visit. The book is well constructed and Stone's writing if frequently very funny. Ultimately this is a quirky, off beat thriller that is definitely worth reading.


Freedom
Freedom
by Jonathan Franzen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant follow-up to The Corrections, 26 Oct. 2012
This review is from: Freedom (Paperback)
In many ways Freedom follows the same formula as Franzen's previous novel, The Corrections. So, we follow the travails of the Berglund family, led by Patty and Walter, as they attempt to navigate their way through life, living their lives in the wake of grievances held against their parents, as indeed happens in turn to their own offspring. The book opens with former neighbours of the Berglund's providing a commentary about their behaviour when they lived on their road, focussing on Patty's overbearing nature and their disappointment upon discovering that their son is having sex with the girl next door. After noting that Walter has been caught up in some kind of scandal, the book moves on to Patty's memoir (an exercise given to her by her therapist) and we are finally allowed into the family proper, witnessing how Walter and Patty first met and where the frailties in their relationship lay.

However, this is no mere re-tread of The Corrections. Franzen introduces to his novel a vague political narrative - how people vote (or how characters think each other vote) is often used as a way to frame the characters and the book is in part set against backdrop of the American invasion of Iraq. Franzen touches on a wide range of issues, including Iraqi defence contractors and the work of mining companies and environmental charities, to provide more a commentary on contemporary society than he had done in his previous novel.

Freedom is a supremely confident book - Franzens handles a lot of plot within the book, but does so expertly and the book never feels dense or dull. As the book builds up to the inevitable crash at the end of the book he really humanises the characters as they all realise the consequence their actions have had on their family members. The characters are well drawn and feel like real people driven by authentic desires. The plot, which at times feels disparate knits together really well as the novel reaches its conclusion. My one criticism of the book would be the frequent use of the word Freedom, the use of which can sometimes feels like a Belisha beacon. Otherwise, this ambitious book definitely meets its aim of being a great American novel.


The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl
The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl
by Roald Dahl
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars An entertainingly dark collection of short stories, 12 Oct. 2012
This volume collects together the five collections of short stories that Dahl published, plus a handful of other pieces previously published elsewhere, making this a near-complete collection of the stories that he wrote for adults. As with his children's fiction, Dahl's stories are usually inhabited by grotesque figures, especially Uncle Oswald in Bitch. The stories frequently feature dodgy goings-on, with characters often motivated by jealousy, revenge, or just because they've been done down one too many times. They frequently try to get one over other people, sometimes their betters, sometimes people that have done them down, and Dahl frequently keeps us hanging on to the end of the story to find out whether his characters get away with it or get their comeuppance. These are morally ambiguous stories that are by turns funny and outrageous.

Like Somerset Maugham, his stories frequently begin in the first person, which serves to add a dash of authenticity to many of the stories. Dahl creates a wide variety of set-ups, and the best stories here include Beware of the Dog, in which a man in a military hospital ward begins to wonder which country he's in, The Great Automatic Grammatizor, about a man who invents a computer that creates novels, and Neck about someone who has a nasty run in with a Henry Moore sculpture.

Dahl's stories frequently rely on a twist at the end, which can sometimes get a little tiring, and also overshadows the storytelling. This is perhaps best typified by Genesis and Catastrophe, which just feels gratuitous, and I sometimes found his wartime stories a little uninspiring. His writing style can occasionally be a little workmanlike, but there are many treasures to be found here and his work has stood the test of time well.


Naming the Bones
Naming the Bones
by Louise Welsh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A good read, 27 Sept. 2012
This review is from: Naming the Bones (Paperback)
I'm a bit hazy as to how Louise Welsh's Naming the Bones came to be in the pile of books-yet-to-be-read that sits by my bedside, but I am glad that it landed there as it was a most entertaining read.

The plot is based around research that academic Dr Murray Watson is undertaking about one of his favourite poets, Archie Lunan, who died in an accident after only publishing one volume of verse. There is scant information about Lunan, and Watson pulls at the slender threads of his subject's life, starting to uncover a much darker truth as he earnestly seeks to interview those who remember the troubled poet, in particular his girlfriend at the time he died.

A book based on obscure poets and the world of academia could have been a bit dry but Welsh successfully brings the plot alive with some great writing. The characters are tightly drawn and complex human beings that are never clichéd, and really serve to make this book much more than the sum of its parts. She successfully creates a sense of claustrophobia when the action shifts to the Isle of Lismore. Welsh keeps the reader guessing until the end precisely what it is that Watson is going to uncover, as the book slowly builds to its thrilling conclusion.


The House of the Mosque
The House of the Mosque
by Kader Abdolah
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't quite live up to its' promise, 11 Sept. 2012
The House in the Mosque is set in the Iranian city of Senejan, and follows the lives of an extended family from 1969, through the fall of the Shah to the repression many people suffered following the 1979 Revolution. Kador Abdolah has chosen a compelling backdrop for his characters, and clearly details the impact recent Iranian history has on the residents of the Mosque. For someone whose details on the Revolution are a little sketchy, I found the unfolding narrative fascinating. As well as telling the broad sweep of history, the book includes a number of entertaining small stories about life in the Mosque that helps to bring the book alive, and he has a real ability to create a sense of place.

Unfortunately the book is let down by the rather one-dimensional characters, whose lives are defined only by their reaction to and role in the Revolution, and appear to possess no depth other than the minimum needed to allow the author to explore differing aspects of the Revolution. Aqa Jaan aside, it was difficult to identify any real character development that occurred throughout the novel. There was also too much "tell" instead of "show" for my tastes, as Abdolah seems keen to leave no room for subtlety in any of the events or motives of his protagonists. The writing is occasionally a little clumsy, though it is not clear how much of this is down to difficulties in translation from the original Dutch.

Sadly this is a book that could have been brilliant - Abdolah is writing about something he is familiar with and is clearly passionate about Iran and all this shows through. Instead, the poor characterisation means that this book fails to rise above the average.


A Tale of Two Cities (Wordsworth Classics)
A Tale of Two Cities (Wordsworth Classics)
by Charles Dickens
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A thrilling read, 20 Aug. 2012
A Tale of Two Cities is one of two historical novels penned by Charles Dickens penned, and is told against the backdrop of the French Revolution, which had taken place about seventy years prior to the writing of the book. The novel moves through three sections, opening with a dramatic journey to pre-revolutionary Paris to rescue Doctor Manette, who had been presumed dead but has instead been driven mad by his imprisonment. The middle section of the book sees him restored to health in London, and in the final part we are plunged right into the height of the Terror as he returns to Paris to save his son-in-law.

Despite being a historical novel, Dickens still manages to weave in his characteristic judgement on society, as he explores how the tyranny of crowds can develop, and the sacrifices that others may demand in the name of revolution. He does not go easy on the English either, and in both of the two cities it is the "ordinary man" who is constantly trampled on.

A Tale of Two Cities is not as witty as some of Dickens' other books, and his characters are not larger than life like some of his more iconic creations. The characters are a little more low-key (with the possible exception of the always knitting Madam Defarge), and the portrayal of Doctor Manette and his poor mental health is at times touching. Neither is this as complex as some of Dickens' work - it is more straightforward with fewer sub-plots than his other novels. However, the plot has an over-reliance on coincidence, and he nearly crushes the novel under their weight when Jerry Cruncher and Sidney Carton intervene in the final third of the book.

The momentum in this book is carried through some typically brilliant writing by Dickens, who frequently thunders about the impact of the revolution upon the lives of ordinary people. The over-reliance on coincidence leaves the plot slightly wanting, but the depiction of the storming of the Bastille is genuinely thrilling, and it is worth reading if only for the brilliant final thirty pages as a final attempt to save Darney is launched.


The Sense of an Ending
The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.84

5.0 out of 5 stars Expores our sense of our own pasts, 7 Aug. 2012
This review is from: The Sense of an Ending (Paperback)
Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending is a brief book, clocking in at just 150 pages, but is a beautifully conceived and compelling story that looks at the infallibility of memory and how we write our own personal history. The book opens with the protagonist Tony remembering how he became friends with a new boy at school, Adrian, and how that friendship developed and changed. The first part of the novel sees Tony reflecting on his time in the sixth form and at university, then giving us a brief rundown of events since until we reach the present day.

In the second part of the book, a series of revelations and realisations force Tony to revaluate his life and his relationship with Adrian. As the story is told in the first person the reader must navigate their way through the plot without full access to the facts - just like Tony. Barnes plays on this partiality by constantly throwing the narrative into confusion with the provision as he fleshes out events, a series of small but significant revelations successfully playing into the major reveal that occurs within the last five pages. By constantly forcing Tony to reconsider his own memory of events, Barnes seeks to explore the role that our infallible memories play in determining our relationships with other people but also how we view ourselves. Tony considers himself to be an essentially good person, but has to confront his own mis-remembered actions and the impact that they may have had on other people. Tony is a well-rounded, likeable and ultimately very human character, though he occasionally shows a little too much self-awareness.

To say this is an interesting book is not intended to damn with faint praise. The Sense of an Ending is a delicately constructed book, whose length doesn't reflect the impact it will have on readers. It is a book which ultimately forces us all to look again at our memories and how we use them to shape our personalities and personal circumstances.


Like The Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell
Like The Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell
by Simon Heffer
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive but not definitive, 27 July 2012
To many people, Enoch Powell is principally known for his River of Blood speech (or the Birmingham Speech, as he referred to it) and remains a controversial figure as a result. However, the underplays the wide range of policy issues that he engaged in and he surely ranks as one of the most influential figures in twentieth century British politics, despite only spending fifteen months in the Cabinet. Following his resignation from Harold Macmillan's government in 1957, frustrated over the failure of his colleagues to embrace spending cuts he felt were needed to bring government spending under control, Powell spent the next twenty years trying to alter the Conservative approach towards the economy. Many of the policies that he recommended would eventually be enacted by Margaret Thatcher over twenty years later.

For a man that believed in political parties as an essential unit of democracy, he was frequently out of step with his Conservative colleagues and in 1974 left the party, eventually becoming an Ulster Unionist MP. He was anti-American and virulently eurosceptic, at a time when the Tories were more pro-European that Labour. He believed that the UK's place in the world was greatly diminished after the war and wanted to reduce defence commitments and abandon the nuclear deterrent; he was against capital punishment and in favour of legalising homosexuality and did not believe in the concept of the Commonwealth. He also sought to undermine Edward Heath at almost every key juncture of his premiership, who he thought had betrayed the Tories 1970 manifesto with the u-turn in 1972.

Heffer sets out Powell's developing and thinking and activity in great detail in this book. Powell was remorselessly logical but in this book there is also an attempt to tease out Powell's human side. Heffer has properly chronicled every stage of Powell's life, looking at his army career, poetry and religious writings alongside the political life he pursued. Powell refused to write a autobiography, comparing the process to a dog returning to its own vomit, but assented to being interviewed by Heffer for this book, and allowed him access to his considerable archives.

This isn't a perfect book. Heffer sticks to a stringent chronological telling of Powell's story, meaning that the book sometimes jumps around between Powell's different preoccupations, and a little reordering would result in a book that reads a lot better. He is also keen to mark out differing areas of prophesy where Powell's conclusions came true or where his remedies were enacted. Too often Heffer intrudes in the narrative, through repeated phrases like "it would be twenty years before Margaret Thatcher's government enacted these reforms". This could have probably been resolved by the inclusion of an introduction in which Heffer could have set out the large impact Powellism would have on British politics. This is a fascinating book that scrupulously details his contribution to British politics - it is comprehensive but fall just short of being definitive.


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