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Joanne Sheppard (England)
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Sisterland
Sisterland
Price: £3.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld, 15 Sep 2014
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This review is from: Sisterland (Kindle Edition)
A few years ago I read Sittenfeld's excruciatingly well-observed, frustrating coming-of-age novel Prep, about a girl who begs her parents to send her to a New England boarding school only to realise that she can never fit in - or admit that she has made a terrible mistake.

Sisterland revisits some of these themes, and like Prep, it has a narrator painfully ill at ease with herself - so much so that she has even changed her name from Daisy to Kate to distance herself from her childhood and from Violet, her twin sister. Daisy and Violet are, to a degree, misfits purely by virtue of being twins, but to make matters worse they are also psychic, prone to 'senses' about people, places and future events.

Whereas Violet is apparently happy to play the role of eccentric oddball, Daisy only reveals her talent when it seems it can help her make friends with the popular set - and needless to say, this backfires on her. As an adult, having reinvented herself as a housewife and mother to two pre-school children, Kate is every bit as embarrassed by Violet as she ever was - yet equally, also as inextricably linked to her despite their frequent rows. When Violet goes on public record as having predicted a major earthquake in the twins' home city of St Louis, Kate's past becomes not just an awkward shame but a threat to her family life, friendships and marriage.

In Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld gave us a narrator who was frequently selfish, hard to like and frustratingly poor at making decisions, and this carries through to Sisterland. There are times when Kate's feelings towards her chaotic, free-spirited sister seem painfully judgemental, particularly with regards to her weight and sexuality, and yet there are also times when Violet is such an infuriatingly selfish and disruptive influence that we can easily see why Kate would want to distance herself from her. It's also hard to sympathise with Kate when she jeopardises her marriage in the most of foolish of ways, but she at least partially redeems herself when she deals with the fallout from this in a steadfastly determined and courageous way.
poor at making decisions - yet still somehow made the reader sympathise with her. She pulls off a similar feat in

While the twins' psychic abilities are central to Sisterland's plot, this isn't really a book about ESP. It's a domestic drama of families, relationships, guilt and coming to terms with the past. The relationship between Kate and Violet is fascinating - are they really such very different people, or have they consciously chosen to push different aspects of their personalities to the fore? Also interesting - so much so that I'd have liked to have seen more of it - is Kate's relationship with her emotionally inept father, who despite being the sort of parent who buys his daughters low-value Starbucks gift cards for Christmas, is still responsible for some low-key, off-hand revelations that suggest there is more to him than meets the eye, if only his daughters had looked beyond the surface.

This is more a novel of character than of plot; the latter, it has to be said, is not really the focal point of the book and is occasionally disappointing. Overall, though, the small-scale events of Sisterland set against the looming threat of a possible large-scale catastrophe make for a fascinating family drama.


Little Friends Rabbit Cage, 60 cm
Little Friends Rabbit Cage, 60 cm
Price: £28.89

1.0 out of 5 stars This cage is totally unsuitable for any rabbit. It's ..., 19 Aug 2014
This cage is totally unsuitable for any rabbit. It's FAR too small even the smallest of rabbit breeds and it doesn't have a covered area where the rabbit can go for privacy.


The Magus of Hay (MERRILY WATKINS SERIES Book 9)
The Magus of Hay (MERRILY WATKINS SERIES Book 9)
Price: £2.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A decent read, but doesn't measure up to the rest of the series, 10 Aug 2014
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I've read all eleven of the previous books in this series over the past fifteen or so years, which is an obvious indication of how much I've enjoyed them. They feature an ever-expanding cast of recurring characters, including Merrily daughter Jane, local musician Lol Robinson, West Mercia Police officer DI Francis Bliss, and many more. Rickman has a gift for cliffhanger chapter endings and also for capturing a strong sense of place - the books are as much about the psychogeography of the English-Welsh border country as anything else. The supernatural elements are cleverly woven into the crime plots, and are chilling without pulling the novels into actual horror or fantasy territory. All in all, a great series if you're looking for easy but involving page-turners with plenty of atmosphere. I often save the latest Merrily Watkins for my summer holiday - they're very much that kind of book for me.

Now I've said all that, I'm going to be honest and say that this latest instalment in the series disappointed me. Two of the major characters from the previous books are almost entirely absent, and although Merrily is obviously heavily featured, she doesn't play an awfully central role in the plot. She's part of the story, but rarely, if ever, the driver for it. Instead, that task falls to DI Bliss (who seems to have more pages to himself in each new book) and to Betty and Robin Thorogood, a pagan couple who also first came to our attention in A Crown of Lights.

While I find Frannie Bliss an engaging lead, there is something lacking for me in Robin and Betty - particularly Robin, an American artist best known for designing fantasy book covers who has decided to rebuild his life with Betty by opening a pagan bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. I don't find him to be a sufficiently well-rounded character to carry a novel to this extent, and his combination of outward brash bluster and inward anxious angst quickly becomes tiresome.

I enjoyed Hay-on-Wye, a town I know relatively well, being the primary setting for the action, and as always, Rickman captures every location perfectly. The book even comes complete with 'off-camera' appearances by Richard Booth, the self-styled King of Hay who played a major role in reinventing the town as a haven for book-lovers and an isolated hub of independence from corporate developers and chain stores. The uniqueness of Hay and the question of whether or not it can continue to sustain itself is discussed intelligently throughout, and plays an important part in the story.

However, the actual nuts and bolts of the main plot didn't seem particularly fulfilling to me. I didn't get the usual chilling fascination from the supernatural or occult elements in Rickman's other works, and nor did the progress of the investigation really gel. I found the lengthy conversations about the particular type of occultism that features in this book a little dull, if anything - this is a reaction I've never experienced when reading the previous Merrily Watkins books.

It's certainly fair to say that my expectations were high, so I may be judging it more harshly than some would, but this was the only Merrily Watkins book I had to remind myself to keep reading so that I could finish it. There were great elements to it, and I still got plenty of enjoyment from it, but there just seemed to be a lot missing.

There is a minor sub-plot involving a prim headmistress apparently haunted by the ghost of her partner, and the gay vicar who covers Merrily's parish responsibilities during her week's holiday: I actually found this far more interesting than the main mystery, and would happily have read a whole novel devoted to it.

I got the feeling from The Magus of Hay and its predecessor The Secrets of Pain that Phil Rickman might be trying to change the direction of the series to make it less Merrily-centric and focus less on her and her relationships. I may have this completely wrong, of course - I hope I do, because it's not just Merrily but also the people around her (including Jane and Lol) who form the glue that holds these books together.


The Thirteenth Tale
The Thirteenth Tale
Price: £1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The Thirteenth Tale, 3 Aug 2014
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You may have seen the BBC2 adaptation of The Thirteenth Tale that was shown shortly after Christmas, starring Olivia Colman and Vanessa Redgrave. If you did, you'll know it was excellent, but if you didn't, read the book instead because, as usual, the book is even better.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is, as the title suggests, a story about stories. It's also a story about twins, and loss, and loneliness, and the gradual decline of the upper classes in the early 20th century, and all manner of other things. It's not so much a mystery as a seemingly limitless number of mysteries: the plot, and indeed the characters, are packed with intrigue.

The book begins with Margaret Lea, a bookseller who has written a few obscure biographies of lesser-known Victorian authors, being commissioned to write the life story of Vida Winter, an immensely successful but notoriously private author known for telling capricious fibs to anyone who interviews her. Miss Winter is a prickly character - and not an easy one for either the reader or Margaret to like from the outset - but is prepared to reveal that she was born Adeline March, twin sister of Emmeline March, into a frighteningly dysfunctional family, all of whom appear to suffer from varying degrees of mental illness. Left almost entirely to their own devices with only the occasional intervention of the family's last remaining servants, housekeeper The Missus and gardener John-the-dig, the twins are entirely isolated from other children, speaking their own secret language and distinguishable from one another only by their differing personalities: Adeline is prone to violent outbursts, while Emmeline is gentle and good-natured.

All Margaret knows at the start of Miss Winter's story is that Angelfield, the house in which the twins grew up, was destroyed in a fire when they were 17, and Miss Winter's narrative almost immediately begins to raise more questions than it answers. Who is the twins' father? Why did their uncle disappear one day and never return? Why does the twins' otherwise ultra-rational governess imagine that Angelfield is haunted?

There are all manner of clues littered throughout this rambling, modern-gothic narrative, but this is much more than just a clever mystery with elements of psychological thriller. The Thirteenth Tale also explores loss, identity and the desperate need we all have to tell stories, as if the very act of storytelling in itself can be cathartic and reconciling.

Margaret, struggling with her own unresolved guilt and repressed bereavement after a tragedy that occurred shortly after her birth, seems able to relate to others only through the medium of books - and she admits that she prefers the novels of the 18th and 19th centuries to contemporary fiction because she prefers 'proper endings'. Her determination to find such endings for the characters in Miss Winter's story - and Margaret's own - means that The Thirteenth Tale does have, in some ways, the atmosphere of a 19th century novel, and there are recurring references throughout to Jane Eyre. However, it was really Wuthering Heights that kept springing to mind as I read this book, with its lonely, crumbling house, destructive, obsessive relationships and the recurring repercussions of each generation's actions for the next.

This is a novel that's far from concise, and like its Victorian predecessors, it doesn't always maintain a speedy pace. Despite this I never felt I was reading wasted words. Every detail contributes something, whether a practical clue to the mysteries of the plot or a psychological insight. Yes, it's convoluted and yes, a couple of the twists require some suspension of disbelief, but it's remarkably sensitively written, with a genuine sympathy for even the most unhinged of characters - almost all of them have experienced a loss of one kind or another that has left them feeling less than whole, and Diane Setterfield evokes this sense of incompleteness with considerable skill. The Thirteenth Tale could easily have become an overblown, sensationalist potboiler in the hands of a lesser author, but Setterfield has managed to strike the perfect balance between a gripping plot full of surprises and an astute, sometimes heartbreaking analysis of what it means to live with what feels like a part of oneself missing.

Oh, and yes, it does have very much what Margaret would call a 'proper ending'.


Life After Life
Life After Life
Price: £3.49

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life After Life, 3 Aug 2014
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This review is from: Life After Life (Kindle Edition)
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is set during one of my favourite periods for fiction, the early 20th century. Beginning with the birth of its protagonist, Ursula Todd, in 1910, it follows the fortunes of Ursula and her large, frequently eccentric family through two world wars. However, what makes Life After Life different is that we don't just see one version of Ursula's life, but many.

Ursula lives and dies countless times throughout the novel, her fate - and often those of her friends and family - turning on the smallest of decisions and chance occurrences. At times, Ursula seems to be subconsciously aware of her multiple lives - she's referred to a psychiatrist as a child for her 'deja-vu' and her compulsion to intervene when has a strong feeling that things are about to go wrong. Are her lives entirely separate from one another, or is one set of experiences being layered on to her previous pasts, like an oil painting on a pre-used canvas? Certainly her psychiatrist suggests that life is 'a palimpsest', constantly wiped and overwritten.

Much has been said about the intriguing structure of Life After Life, and of course, there is a degree to which it dominates the novel - a lot of the narrative tension comes, of course, from wondering how long Ursula will survive after each rebirth. However, the book is much more than a single concept. It's a powerful chronicle of the first half of the last century, encompassing the First and Second World Wars and the unsettled years in between. The Todd family, who have a large country house but apparently ever-decreasing funds, are in themselves a portrait of post-Edwardian social and economic developments that changed the face of Britain (in particular, gradual shifts in the class and gender divides) and brought to mind elements of Sadie Jones' The Uninvited Guests and AS Byatt's The Children's Book, both of which are also great favourites of mine.

Ursula's family are entertaining and infuriating by turns, and are shown in different lights in each of Ursula's lives - her mother Sylvie, for instance, comes across as a loveably eccentric maternal figure at certain times, but is cold and even spiteful at others. Flighty, scandalous Aunt Izzie - naturally the first of the family to cut her hair into a bob in the 1920s - is often capricious and selfish, but is also Ursula's saviour on more than one occasion. By the end of the book, I felt well acquainted with every one of them; Kate Atkinson is a master craftsperson when it comes to character.

The more I read of Life After Life, the more I found myself trying to decide which of Ursula's lives, if any, was the 'right' one. Her stints as an ARP warden during the Blitz are particularly harrowing, and so it seems fitting that in another life she has the chance to stop the war from happening at all - yet her final act is one of self-sacrifice, and it appears that this life isn't her 'last' one, either. Is there a reason for Ursula's constant reincarnation into the same body, or will she simply go on forever, living an infinite number of times?

Life After Life is often incredibly sad (I cried at least once) but Kate Atkinson remains an exceptionally witty writer who excels at sharp, observant humour, so much so that there are genuine laugh-out-loud moments. I can't say I didn't find this book slightly exhausting at times - its structure makes it something of a rollercoaster ride - but I'd certainly put it with the very best books I've read this year.


The Outcast Dead: A Ruth Galloway Investigation
The Outcast Dead: A Ruth Galloway Investigation
Price: £3.03

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Outcast Dead, 3 Aug 2014
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The Outcast Dead, like the previous instalments in the series, has a somewhat crazy plot, and the familiar cast of characters we've been introduced to in previous novels - notably Ruth herself, who despite an ever-expanding group of friends acquired in the other books is still fundamentally a loner, and Harry Nelson, gruff policeman and father to Ruth's toddler daughter despite his happy marriage to Michelle.

The core of the plot of The Outcast Dead involves an archaeological mystery, this time the discovery of a skeleton that may or may not be that of a notorious Victorian 'baby-farmer' with a hook for a hand, but as usual, this becomes inextricably linked with a present-day crime, also involving small children. It's a great page-turner, as you would expect, and the historical plot absolutely fascinated me in its own right. Furthermore, there's a subplot involving the personal lives of some of the supporting characters which pleased me no end, as I was never happy with its lack of resolution in the previous book.

The Outcast Dead is really a case of 'more of the same' - but I absolutely don't mean that to be a bad thing. This is the sort of series where each book feels like time spent with old friends, and that's one of the reasons I enjoy them. Overall, this a fun, hard-to-put-down instalment in a great, light crime series full of well-rounded, memorable characters and Griffiths' entertaining brand of dry, observant humour.


The Innocents [1961] [DVD]
The Innocents [1961] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Deborah Kerr
Offered by A2Z Entertains
Price: £9.14

5.0 out of 5 stars The Innocents, 3 Aug 2014
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This review is from: The Innocents [1961] [DVD] (DVD)
So far ahead of its time, this relatively faithful adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw still has the power to chill the blood even today. The pace is slower than you'd expect from a similar film today, but this is entirely in keeping with the gradual, claustophobically oppressive nature of the mounting horror of the book. Nothing in this film is a certainty, and Deborah Kerr puts in a fine performance as the governess sent to look after two seemingly angelic children in a lonely house, who becomes increasingly uneasy to the point of a breakdown as she begins to suspect that not only are there some unwanted, supernatural guests in the house, but that the children are aware of their presence too. A great ghost story full of psychological twists.


The Grand Budapest Hotel [DVD]
The Grand Budapest Hotel [DVD]
Dvd ~ Ralph Fiennes
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Far and away my favourite film of the last five years, 3 Aug 2014
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Far and away my favourite film of the last five years, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a perfectly constructed, early 20th century fairytale set in an unspecified Middle European country, peopled by an eccentric cast of characters, some immensely loveable, some positively grotesque. It's incredibly beautiful to look out, almost like a live action version of a really beautiful, distinctive piece of animation (it reminds me in some ways of Belleville Rendezvous) and every performance is absolutely pitch-perfect. It's extremely funny, but also very touching, with a bittersweetness of tone that just gives it exactly the edge it needs. I could never tire of watching it.


The Glencairn Official Whisky Water Jug
The Glencairn Official Whisky Water Jug
Offered by Wineware
Price: £16.75

5.0 out of 5 stars Really nice item, 3 Aug 2014
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Lovely little whisky water jug that I bought for my partner, who was really pleased with it. It's just the right size, has a nice, stylish design and is of a very high quality, particularly given the excellent price. It's got a nicely weighty feel to it and is much more pleasing to look at than most whisky jugs, which are often ugly ceramic affairs given away with particular whisky brands.


Real Techniques Starter Kit
Real Techniques Starter Kit
Price: £13.25

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars by far the best value for money of any makeup brushes out there, 3 Aug 2014
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Real Techniques brushes are, in my opinion, by far the best value for money of any makeup brushes out there. They would be great quality for any price, but within this price range they are incredibly impressive and wouldn't be out of place in any professional makeup kit. They're also very versatile, and can often be used for numerous different makeup tasks beyond the ones they're meant for.

This particular set has all you need for most eye looks, and the deluxe crease brush is also fantastic for applying concealer when you really want to buff it into the skin for a natural finish. Excellent all round.


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