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Joanne Sheppard (England)
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A Dance With Dragons: Part 1 Dreams and Dust (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5)
A Dance With Dragons: Part 1 Dreams and Dust (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5)
Price: £3.66

4.0 out of 5 stars Better than its predecessor, and the tension is building, 30 Mar. 2015
As with the previous instalment, A Feast For Crows, this first volume of the fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series could do with an edit: there is plenty here that would have benefited from being struck out with a red pen. However, I still rattled through it at a fair old pace and I do think it's a better book than its predecessor. Whereas Feast for Crows focused on Kings Landing and the south, A Dance With Dragons Part 1 is centred largely around the north and on Daenerys' fortunes in Essos, where she is currently queen of Mereen and under constant threat from disgruntled slave-owners in the cities sacked by her as she builds her own army. We also catch up, finally, with Tyrion Lannister, as well as Jon Snow, the wildlings and perhaps most importantly, Stannis Baratheon - plus, there is the repulsive Ramsay Bolton and his captive, Theon Greyjoy. Whereas the previous volume seemed to focus on a gradual regaining of stability, this book gives us much more of a sense of trouble brewing - and that can only be a good thing for readers, as building conflict always makes for the strongest story arcs in this series. Most of the events take place concurrently with those of A Feast for Crows, although the next book then brings both narratives back together once again to move forward beyond them.


A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4)
A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4)
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars A great read, but more editorial discipline required!, 30 Mar. 2015
It's at this point in the Song of Ice and Fire series that I think George RR Martin could have done with a more stringent editor. At this point in what is already a remarkably rambling epic, there are so many point-of-view characters that Martin apparently felt unable to deal with them all in one volume, and has therefore all but postponed the narrative threads of some of them entirely - yet at the same time, has introduced new characters to whom it's a little difficult to get attached at this late stage. The events in Dorne and the Iron Islands are fascinating, yet it's hard to focus on them when characters we've been loyal too for many thousands of pages previously are entirely ignored.

All that said, the Kings Landing chapters are absolutely outstanding and the new characters certainly do give us a richer understanding of Westeros and its ever-complex history, and the nuances of its many alliances, grudges and political scheming. I can't say I was especially convinced by Arya's storyline - as a character, she is more interesting when she has more to do, and I can't quite get to grips with her being as obviously out place as she is once she leaves Westeros. On the other hand, her sister Sansa has developed into a young woman of far more strength and cunning than I would ever have expected, and Cersei Lannister appears to be descending - remarkably convincingly - into a complex spiral of Macbeth-style paranoia that will surely be her downfall. Fantastic stuff.


A Storm of Swords, Part 2: Blood and Gold (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3)
A Storm of Swords, Part 2: Blood and Gold (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3)
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

5.0 out of 5 stars Strongest instalment yet?, 30 Mar. 2015
Despite the immense length of this book (this is only the second half) I found that I raced through it with remarkable speed, which is a testament to George RR Martin's skill as a storyteller. If anything, this is the strongest instalment yet in the increasingly unwieldy, uncompromising saga that is A Song of Ice and Fire. There are some jaw-dropping chapters here in which the fortunes not just of characters but of entire families and alliances, are reversed in the blink of an eye.


A Storm of Swords: Part 1 Steel and Snow (Reissue) (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3)
A Storm of Swords: Part 1 Steel and Snow (Reissue) (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3)
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, gritty epic, 30 Mar. 2015
The third volume in the Song of Ice and Fire series, this is hard to review as a single entity because it is really only half a book - A Storm of Swords is split into two halves, and this half, Steel and Snow, is therefore spent partly on setting up what happens in the second half, Blood and Gold. However, the two halves together make up an immensely gripping, and occasionally shocking, instalment in the series as a whole. George RR Martin is never afraid to have his characters make terrible mistakes, and to pay the price for them - there are no real heroes and villains in this world. Like its predecessors, this has chapters from the viewpoints of almost every main character, including Jaime Lannister, who is fleshed out considerably as a result and revealed to be much more complex than the dashing amoral knight we might previously have believed him to be.


A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2)
A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2)
Price: £3.66

5.0 out of 5 stars Multi-layered and absorbing, 30 Mar. 2015
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The second book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Clash of Kings is every bit as dark, absorbing and intense as its predecessor A Game Of Thrones. The main characters established in A Game of Thrones (at least, the ones that survived) continue to be developed here, and often in fascinating directions. These books really do benefit from Martin's decision to tell the story from multiple points of view, as the different characters' perspectives on the same events and issues really do add to the multi-layered nature of the story and the world in which it takes place.

It's fair to say that none of the books in this series work as standalone stories - you really do need to read A Game of Thrones before you read this one, and you probably shouldn't bother with this one unless you're prepared to move on to A Storm Of Swords afterwards.


A Game of Thrones (Reissue) (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)
A Game of Thrones (Reissue) (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

5.0 out of 5 stars Gritty, intense, immersive and complex, 30 Mar. 2015
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I very rarely read 'high' fantasy of the sword-and-sorcery type - I'm not a fan of Tolkien or any other epic fantasy authors. But I was very surprised to find that this book really gripped me. Gritty, intense, complex, and hugely immersive, it's a huge, rambling, uncompromising novel that pulls you into its treacherous, often brutal world and keeps you there. Less about magic, quests and mythical beasts and more about political scheming, revenge and ever-shifting family alliances and cultural conflicts, it almost feels more like a historical novel than a fantasy one at times.

The cast of characters is vast and confusing - even characters who only appear for a few pages are named and even given back-stories - but I soon found that, provided you know who the main players are (and they're all vivid and three-dimensional, so this isn't difficult) you don't need to worry too much about the many extras and bit-parters; they simply add to the colour and atmosphere of the novel and help to build the world in which it's set. What's particularly appealing is that very few of the characters are wholly good or wholly evil - every one of them can be problematic at times. Furthermore, George RR Martin is never afraid to take their fortunes in hitherto unexpected directions. Heartily recommended.


Station Eleven
Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

5.0 out of 5 stars Moving, thoughtful, terrifying, life-affirming, 27 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: Station Eleven (Paperback)
Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven begins with a renowned actor, Arthur Leander, dying from a heart attack while playing King Lear at a Toronto theatre. Within hours of his death, it transpires that hospitals worldwide are besieged with cases of the deadly Georgia Flu, and once the pandemic takes hold, it's clear that nothing will ever be the same again. Twenty years later, a mismatched group of travelling players travels North America performing Shakespeare to the few survivors - including a community that has sprung from the passengers and airline staff stranded at a quarantined airport on the day civilisation effectively came to end.

Station Eleven isn't a dystopian adventure story: although it's very much about survival, the daily mechanics of this are secondary to the much more interesting psychological elements of living after, and through, what is essentially a form of apocalypse. Kirsten, a former child actor who was on stage with Arthur Leander the day he died and now wandering with the Travelling Symphony, can't bear to part with a glass paperweight and a mysterious science fiction comic that gives Station Eleven its title and has odd, distorted parallels with the post-pandemic world. Clark, in his airport home, collects once commonplace but now entirely useless items for a Museum of Civilisation - credit cards, mobile phones, stiletto shoes. Others choose to follow a charismatic prophet who seems to help them make a twisted sense of the horrors of the pandemic and its aftermath.

Station Eleven is also set apart from most dystopian novels by focusing equally on the lives of selected characters before the flu pandemic, some of whom will survive it, and some who won't - but all of whom are, like Kirsten and Clark, linked to the late Arthur Leander. It explores the ways that one person's life can, even after the civilisation of which they were part has effectively been wiped out, influence the lives and beliefs of many, many others - positively and negatively. All the characters are portrayed with remarkable sensitivity and largely without judgement, and this is a gripping novel despite its unhurried pace.

Moving, thoughtful, sad and often quietly terrifying, Station Eleven is also oddly life-affirming in a low-key, non-showy sort of way. There is a sense of weariness about it, a sense of life slipping away, but also a hint of a world gradually starting to be reborn. As Miranda, creator of the Station Eleven comics, lives her last hours one night on a Malaysian beach, the lights of huge, stationary ships full of the dying are symbolic of the world ending - yet decades later, distant lights on the horizon are a sign of some form, at least, of recovery.


The Buried Giant
The Buried Giant
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, fascinating, touching, 18 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: The Buried Giant (Hardcover)
It’s already been widely publicised that Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant is a fantasy novel, with the words ‘Tolkien’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ being casually bandied about. However, it has about as much in common with Tolkien or Game of Thrones as Nineteen Eighty-Four has with The Hunger Games or a Raymond Chandler novel has with Alexander McCall Smith – they’re superficially part of the same broad genre but that’s more or less where the similarity ends. In any case, whether this is or isn’t a fantasy novel is frankly neither here nor there; it shouldn’t make any difference whatsoever to the way it’s read or understood.

The Buried Giant is set in a version of post-Arthurian Britain peopled by Britons and Saxons and yes, there is a dragon, there are ogres, there is a quest of sorts, but its language feels more like that of a traditional fairy-tale, and its episodic plot gives an impression more of an allegorical epic. There is little sense of the characters’ inner thoughts or feelings, and their reactions to and interactions with one another are matter-of-factly expressed, most often through dialogue.

This is heightened by the omniscient narrator, whose viewpoint takes in not only the characters’ actions but also the full scope of history. At times, we’re addressed as modern readers, at other times, as readers who might conceivably have lived in Saxon roundhouses. These sorts of inconsistencies are jarring, but clearly deliberate; we’re expected to take notice of them. When the omniscient narrator is revealed to have an identity, these oddities begin to make a sort of sense, and this is one of the more powerful moments in the book – although much is still left unexplained, and I’m not sure there is quite enough effort made to bring the narrative together.

The book begins with an ageing Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice living almost communally in a subterranean village, deciding to set out to find their adult son. They can’t remember his name, are not entirely sure where he is, and indeed have gone for long periods without remembering that he ever existed at all: the Britain of The Buried Giant is shrouded in an oppressive mist that refuses to lift and is affecting the memories of its inhabitants. When people leave the village, they are fast forgotten. Axl and Beatrice, despite their touching devotion to one another, have few memories of their own pasts; while their relationship has clearly lasted for decades and seems to be a loving one, they can’t be completely certain that their happy marriage has always been so.

Shortly after their departure, they stop at a Saxon village, and it’s really here that we (and they) begin to acquire vague, intangible wisps of the past. How did the Britons and Saxons pass from what once a state of violent conflict into an uneasy peace? Why does Saxon warrior Wistan think he has met Axl before? Why does Beatrice see the bones of children where her travelling companions see none?

The novel as the whole, rather like Ishiguro’s earlier book Never Let Me Go, is about the way societies face up to – or don’t face up to – terrible things. Forgetting has its own consequences, but remembering can be devastating too. Do Axl and Beatrice owe it to those wronged in the past to lift the mist that clouds their memories, or in doing so, will they unleash another wave of atrocities?

In reality, Britain was ravaged by battles between Britons, Romans, Saxons and Vikings for centuries – and King Arthur himself, constantly evoked throughout the novel and represented by an elderly Sir Gawain, is at least in a part a ‘memory’ collectively constructed to create a false, romanticised British past. There are obvious parallels to contemporary situations too – how do Bosnian Muslims relate to their Serbian neighbours after Srebenica? How can Spain forget the Civil War when the bodies of those murdered by Franco’s forces are still being uncovered?

The Buried Giant is also, however, about love and loyalty. There are small-scale wrongs to be remembered, too – betrayals on a personal, but painful, level that might also be revealed when the amnesia-inducing fog is lifted. A mysterious boatman tells Beatrice and Axl of an island where people walk in eternal isolation from everyone - including their spouse, unless they are truly in love. Could any couple feel confident in making that journey? And conversely, could any relationship survive the implications of the decision not to do so?

There are elements of The Buried Giant that are gripping, fascinating and deeply touching (the ending moved me to tears). Equally, I did feel that the detached, matter-of-fact style employed throughout, particularly in the dialogue, detracted somewhat from the characters and the depth of their experiences. I am certain this was a deliberate technique on Ishiguro’s part, and it’s one that we see elsewhere in his work, but I didn’t feel it worked here as well as it works in Never Let Me Go, when the truth of the characters’ fate seems all the more affecting as a result.


Curtain Call
Curtain Call
by Anthony Quinn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.09

5.0 out of 5 stars Evocative, charming and gripping with a fabulous cast of characters, 14 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: Curtain Call (Hardcover)
Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn (no, not that Anthony Quinn) has widely been billed as a murder mystery, in which a serial murderer known as the Tie-Pin Killer stalks the streets of 1930s London.

However, if you actually pick up this book looking for detective fiction you will probably be disappointed, as while it's the actions of the killer that tie the main characters together through a series of meetings, coincidences and misunderstandings, the mystery element of the plot occupies by far the fewest pages of the interlocking story arcs and is subject to almost no analysis whatsoever. There is no detective work involved and no exploration of motive; in fact, you are unlikely to give a toss who the murderer is at all.

For me, though, this didn't matter in the slightest. I enjoyed this book so much and became so invested in its characters and their relationships that I was perfectly happy for the murder plot to - as, I suspect, was the author's intention - play second fiddle.

The main characters in Curtain Call are a joy. Actress Nina Land is a modern, independent woman, but fears for her future as both her career and her small inheritance appear to be dwindling. Stephen Wyley, a renowned society portrait painter, is fast falling in love with her but is painfully aware that by doing so he is betraying his blameless wife and children. There's also larger-than-life theatre critic Jimmy Erskine, a monstrously conceited coward who is, at the same time, somehow saved by Quinn's skill from being completely insufferable. Like all the characters, Jimmy has something to hide: he's gay at a time when this could not only end his career but put him in prison. His long-suffering secretary Tom Tunner, despite being straight, is trapped in an amusingly marriage-like relationship with Jimmy, while at the same time concealing from him that he suffers from epilepsy. Finally, there's the fabulously named Madeleine Farewell, a kind, sensitive middle-class girl whose apparent impoverished gentility becomes a cover for her profession, which as you can probably guess, is the one commonly known as the oldest.

Each of them has a multitude of faults, yet you can't help thinking you'd happily sit down to dinner with any one of them, and Jimmy - the most flawed of them all - is possibly the most entertaining of the lot. There is a sense of genuine tragedy about Nina and Stephen, and the relationship between Madeleine and Tom is utterly charming from the very moment they meet.

Moreover, in the huge cast of supporting characters, there isn't a single one I couldn't immediately believe in; Quinn really does create portraits with words with all the skill of Stephen's paintbrush. Nina's theatrical dresser Dolly, Stephen's daughter Freya, Madeleine's pimp Roddy, Jimmy's Hungarian Jewish friend Laszlo - every one of them is as memorable as the major players.

Equally vivid is the setting. The London of the 1930s, with its theatres, nightclubs, semi-respectable boarding houses and Lyons Corner House cafes, is almost a character in itself. The clandestine gay scene, and the appalling injustice of the anti-gay laws of the time, are brilliantly evoked. The looming threat of World War II is already present - Madeleine's strange dream about a London ravaged by fire and its houses turned to matchsticks is surely no coincidence - and there's home-grown fascism to contend with too, including a guest appearance from William Joyce, latterly better known as Lord Haw-Haw.

The style of Quinn's prose is perfectly suited to the period setting. It's witty, occasionally brittle, and never overblown; precise, yet stylish - the dialogue, in particular, is close to perfect. There are aspects of a comedy of manners in the language at times, and yet also of Brief Encounter, and of Golden Age detective fiction, and, fittingly for a book that seems to cross genre boundaries, all the elements combine into a deeply satisfying whole.


Cross Bailey Medium Nib Lacquer Fountain Pen - Black
Cross Bailey Medium Nib Lacquer Fountain Pen - Black
Price: £32.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful pen that looks and feels far more expensive, 14 Mar. 2015
This is a fantastic pen that looks and feels like something three times the price. The ink flows with beautiful smoothness and the nib glides across the paper - writing with this pen is an absolute pleasure.

It has a pleasing weight to it and sits well in the hand. I notice that other reviewers have criticised the fit of the pen's cap - I didn't find this to be a problem with mine at all, however; the cap sits snugly on the pen I bought.

Absolutely fantastic value.


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