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Tamara L (North West England)

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Life Drawing
Life Drawing
Price: 5.39

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece, 20 May 2014
This review is from: Life Drawing (Kindle Edition)
The opening sentence pulls you in: `In the days leading up to my husband Owen's death, he visited Alison's house every afternoon.'
Augusta, the narrator, is an artist and Owen is a writer. They have buried themselves in the countryside to work without distractions and to attempt to recover their equilibrium after Augusta's affair. When their peace is disturbed by the arrival of a new neighbour we guess that she is going to impact on their relationship, but the story that unfolds is not predictable. Nor does it depend on twists and turns of the plot, it is perfectly paced and the writing is a joy.
By the time I finished this book I was drained and exhausted. I felt that I had lived Augusta's life, experienced her emotional roller-coaster, plumbed the depths of her grief. I was actually furious with some of the characters and the bad choices they had made (a bit like when you put down a Thomas Hardy novel). It took me a while to come back to the real world and put it in perspective.
It's ages since I wrote an Amazon review, but I had to share my thoughts on this one and encourage people to read Robin Black. She ought to be universally lauded and well-known, but then this is her first novel so I suppose it will take time for the word to get out. If I can play a part in spreading it I will consider it an honour. And no, I'm not on her payroll or connected in any way whatsoever, just bowled over by the clarity and quality of her writing. Her voice gets into your head.
Her short story collection, If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, was moving and beautifully crafted and I enthused over that to the point of sycophancy. How could I do otherwise? This woman is the real deal and up there with the greatest contemporary American writers. I love Anne Tyler, Curtis Sittenfeld, Valerie Martin and A.M. Homes. Black compares with the best of them. Elaine Showalter, get onto it and put her in your next book. Sublime.


Liverpool, an Alternative Guide
Liverpool, an Alternative Guide
by Bel Shaw
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars The Definitive Guide, 15 April 2014
It should be called The Definitive Guide - maybe that was already taken? What a nifty, handbag sized little book. Tourist information should have commissioned this and I hope they have it on sale in their outlets in Liverpool. Full of places of interest, things to see, and the history behind it all. I thought I knew Liverpool pretty well but I have learnt more from this. Easy-to -read print, Well-written, accessible format, clear prose, good photos. Seems to be an amateur effort but looks very professional apart from a couple of very minor typos. Also the margins should have been a bit wider, you have to bend it right back to read the bits near the centre, but it is very sturdy and well-bound so I think it will withstand that without any damage. Ignore my quibbles, I am picky and a recovering pedant. Don't visit Liverpool without it.


Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
by John Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

146 of 162 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Desperate Lives, 6 Nov 2012
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Am I the only reader who wanted to give William Stoner a resounding slap?

He becomes infatuated with, and pursues, a woman who appears to be clinically depressed, with possibly a range of additional mental health problems. She subsequently makes his life a misery. And he lets her. He is bullied at work and fails to achieve his full potential. He falls in love, but of course the mad wife proves a bit of an obstacle (among other things). I wish someone would do for Edith what Jean Rhys did for Bertha Mason in Wide Sargosso Sea. John McGahern writes tellingly in the introduction, 'Stoner's wife is a type that can be glimpsed in much American writing, through such different sensibilities as O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald - beautiful, unstable, educated to observe the surfaces of a privileged and protected society - but never can that type of wife have been revealed as remorselessly as here.'

Hmm, common thread here. Cold-hearted shallow women all written by men. No slight on the brilliant McGahern who created memorable and very moving three-dimensional female characters. No wonder he seems to see these 'types' as an alien species from across the Atlantic.

Stoner's stoicism (passivity?) is sometimes irritating but it goes beyond that when he lets his beloved daughter go to the wall, Philip Larkin style. He is too weak to intervene in Edith's systematic campaign to ruin Grace's life, seeing himself powerless to act in the face of his wife's manipulative behaviour. Powerless? Man up, Stoner. Get with the Patriarchy! Read the Women's Room, The Yellow Wallpaper. You have power in this marriage. Wield some of it to salvage your daughter's future.

Stoner isn't always such a victim. He has enough initiative to choose a different life than the one he was born into, even though this is bewildering and upsetting for his parents. He fights a few battles with his nemesis at university and has some victories. He even wins the odd skirmish with Edith. But to stand by and watch his only child disintegrate over a sustained period and do nothing was unforgivable: an abdication of moral and parental responsibility.

I have turned this into a dissection of Stoner's character, but that is essentially what the book is about, a candidate perhaps for one of George Eliot's 'those who lived faithfully a hidden life.' John Williams himself describes Stoner as a 'hero.' Not in my book. Ok, I get it: well written; forgotten classic; quiet beauty about the prose etc. I don't feel I can give it less than three stars, but its central premise for me is flawed. I thought the description of the two disabled characters was slightly creepy as well, both twisted in mind as well as body. Sorry to spoil the consensus and most likely upset a few people but I didn't like this book very much at all.
Comment Comments (39) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 29, 2014 8:37 PM BST


The Newlyweds
The Newlyweds
by Nell Freudenberger
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.07

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Portrait of a Marriage, 25 Sep 2012
This review is from: The Newlyweds (Paperback)
The Newlyweds is a cross-cultural love affair but not a romantic novel by any stretch of the imagination. It's more about misconceptions, misunderstandings and accommodations that come with relationships, compounded many times over when people come together from different backgrounds and with conflicting expectations. Amina emigrates to America to marry George, who she met on an online dating forum. Her plan is to bring her parents over as soon as she gains citizenship and becomes legally eligible and she can hardly envisage a life without them. Of course George, as a modern American husband, doesn't relish the idea of living with his in-laws and is reluctant to make the financial and other sacrifices it will take to bring it about. Further complications ensue when she discovers that George hasn't been entirely honest with her, and their relationship is tested by a number of setbacks, not least Amina's difficulty in conceiving.

It takes a brave writer to take on the persona of someone from another culture, ethnicity and religion and claim authenticity for their voice. I think Nell Freudenberger has pulled it off. No doubt there will be commentators with closer knowledge of Bangladesh who might pick holes in some of the details but her portrayal of Amina is convincing. This is a real flesh and blood character with heart and soul and the background is well-researched and avoids stereotypes.

I was surprised to see (at the time of writing) only one other five star review. For me this is first class writing and full of warmth and compassion for human frailty. Her tone reminds me a little of Anne Tyler, and the caught between two cultures - and two alternate futures - aspect of it was a little reminiscent of Colm Tobin's wonderful Brooklyn where Eilis faces a similar dilemma. Some reviewers have noted that the character of George isn't sufficiently rounded. I didn't have a problem with this at all. We don't get much of his interior life but then we see him through the eyes of Amina and she's just figuring him out for herself; disentangling the real George from his online persona and the generic American male with different values and habits from the people she is familiar with.

So definitely five stars from me. Reading it was pure pleasure and I am a little bereft now I have finished it.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 9, 2013 8:25 AM BST


Days of the Bagnold Summer
Days of the Bagnold Summer
by Joff Winterhart
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thank You For The Days., 23 Sep 2012
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At last, a graphic novel for middle-aged women. Don't worry, It's just as relevant for a younger readership. The book offers a poignant, hilarious, and subtle observation of the relationship between a mother and son. A day-by-day account of a long summer holiday during the uncommunicative teenage years. It will strike a particular chord for any parent of a heavy metal-loving non-sporty child, but the emotions are universal. It reminded me of one of my own sons at that age (also a Metallica fan) and I will definitely be sending him his own copy. My partner has read it and he loved it too. On the surface it's a quick and easy read, but there's a wealth of detail that is richly rewarding if you pay close attention. I have left it on the coffee table so I can keep picking it up and revisiting it. The characters are well drawn - in every sense. Daniel's hunched figure and his long lank hair that doubles as a defence to hide behind, Sue's large glasses and wistful expression as she catches occasional reminders of the warm and easy relationship she once had with her beautiful boy, now turned into a black-clad remote and sarcastic stranger who is embarassed to be seen in public with her. You hardly know whether to laugh or cry at some of the dialogue:
Sue, 'You know, we did once used to have quite a nice time together...'
Daniel, 'Yeah, but that was before you got really annoying.'
Sue, silently watches Daniel, contemplating some resemblance to her absent father.
Daniel, not even looking up, 'Okay, stop looking at me now.'
At times he is merciless, and Sue, who has her own baggage, is often reduced to tears, but there are flashes of warmth between them that let you know that Daniel is no monster, just a boy finding his way through a difficult time, and slowly moving towards the maturity to relate to his mother as a fellow human being. The other main characters, Ky and his New Age mother are also familiar and well-depicted.
So five stars from me and many more if I'd had them to bestow. Warm, funny, sly, moving, authentic and sharply observed. Wonderful. Can't praise it enough.
Ps. Update: I did buy one for my son and he reported back that he caused a bit of a stir by laughing out loud on the bus while reading it. He said it was the funniest thing he had read in ages, so that's a recommendation from two generations of this family.


The Dinner
The Dinner
by Herman Koch
Edition: Paperback

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't quite stomach it, 27 Aug 2012
This review is from: The Dinner (Paperback)
This is a difficult book to review without giving too much away, but the blurb on the back already gives a few clues. Two couples are having dinner together in a fashionable restaurant in Amsterdam. Both couples have a fifteen year old son. `Together the boys have committed a horrifying act, caught on camera and their grainy images have been beamed into living rooms across the nation.' The boys are as yet unidentified, and it poses the question on the front cover, `how far would you go to protect the ones you love?'
I had expected some complex moral dilemma, like Jimmy McGovern's outstanding episode of the The Accused last week, where a mother is torn apart trying to protect her son who is a gang member and has murdered the child of her best friend. This isn't quite the same territory. You soon discover you have an unreliable narrator in the father of one of the boys, and while it's undoubtedly a page turner it feels empty at its moral centre. I don't think I have ever encountered so many sociopaths in one novel and Koch's attempt to medicalise some of it in the later part of the book is unconvincing. What is this mysterious unidentified condition with a German name? I think this was where he did try to introduce some moral complexity, throwing around ideas about genetics and amniocentesis but it was all a bit lame and unsatisfactory. In terms of taking responsibility for your actions it was no Crime and Punishment. The conceit of setting it in a restaurant worked up to a point but I was starting to tire of the Head Waiter and his pinkie.
Overall, a compelling and very disturbing book. I can see why it has created such a buzz, but not in the five-star category for me.


Wonder Girls
Wonder Girls
by Catherine Jones
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Swimming against the tide, 5 Aug 2012
This review is from: Wonder Girls (Hardcover)
The book follows a chain of female relationships from 1928 to the present day.

Ida and Freda
Freda and Enid
Freda and Ceci and their parenting of Nancy
And finally, Ceci's developing friendship in later life with Sarah, a young woman who gradually coaxes her life's secrets from her.

These women achieve things in unpromising circumstances. Ida swims the Bristol Channel and becomes a successful reporter, moving on to work in advertising; the less glamorous Freda takes up nursing and forges a meaningful career. Ceci emerges from the poorest of backgrounds but manages to educate and make something of herself.

Living in a community and a period where emotions and sexuality are repressed, the women know what they feel for each other but don't have a context to put it in or the vocabulary to talk about it. They are brave enough to flout convention and live their own lives but mostly things remain unsaid and the joy and love of life they had as young women seems to ebb away. Ceci patiently devotes herself to a woman who is volatile, uncommunicative and acerbic, occasionally showing flashes of the amazing woman that she is and was. Relationships falter and break down. Bitterness and misunderstandings last for years. Pollyanna it isn't. I am not generally a fan of therapy but a trip to a psychologist might be recommended for some of these characters. Of course they would sit out the session with pursed lips. Miscommunication, silence, sulks and the occasional tantrum underpin Ceci and Freda's love affair. Misery and quiet desperation are Catherine Jones's forte.

The early sections of the book are full of excitement and energy and the end is very touching but I felt it became a little laborious in parts. There was some repetition when it came to the gulf developing between Ida and Freda and perhaps room for a bit of pruning and editing. Still, the writing is never forced and I am hesitant about being overly critical of such a promising first novel. Jones knows how to tell you things without actually saying them which is quite a skill. Her voice is understated but authoritative. A very rewarding read. I would certainly recommend it and look forward to her next one.


But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You
But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You
by Sue Hepworth
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.52

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mid Life Crisis, 2 April 2012
The terrain of this book is thoroughly middle aged and middle class. It reminded me of a radio 4 afternoon play. I could just imagine Penelope Keith making an appearance. I expected to thoroughly dislike it on those grounds but I found myself charmed against my will. It's very good on the dissection of long-term relationships and surprisingly you find your heart strings a little pulled. When Fran asserts her independence it causes a major rift with her husband, the infuriating Sol. She is absolutely bereft when their relationship starts to fall apart and the reader feels her pain. Not a very feminist message. Putting a label on Sol lets him off the hook on all counts, but it's funny and the dialogue is fresh and realistic.


The Translation of the Bones
The Translation of the Bones
by Francesca Kay
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mea Culpa, 1 April 2012
I feel really churlish giving this three stars (I would prefer three and a half). I can see that it's well written and the characters are generally convincing. My main complaint is about how depressing it is. I found it heavy going, even more so because I could see where it was heading and there was just no light at the end of the tunnel. The claustrophobic life of Mary Margaret and her mother was well depicted but I just couldn't find any pleasure here. I was looking forward to the Catholic theme, familiar territory for me, but it didn't deliver. Sorry. I see that her previous novel got amazing reviews. For my penance I will read it and try to make reparation with a more positive review.


Gillespie and I
Gillespie and I
by Jane Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Addictive, 22 Mar 2012
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This review is from: Gillespie and I (Paperback)
Fresh coriander lies rotting in the bottom of my fridge. Salad has turned slimy in the bag. Ready meals rule. The vacuum cleaner stands idle in the hall with the lead forming a trip hazard across the carpet. The washing in the machine has developed that wet dog smell. E mails go unanswered. Work is on hold. I am guilty and ashamed but I was out of control, turning the pages as if my life depended on it.

I'm back in the 21st Century now, but 19th-Century Glasgow was a lot more enthralling.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 26, 2013 12:25 PM BST


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