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Catherine Murphy "drcath" (Norway)

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by Marilynne Robinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rothko in writing, 10 July 2010
This review is from: Gilead (Paperback)
Well it's had praise heaped upon it. Like a Rothko painting, this book has the power to induce religious experience in the susceptible. Like a Rothko painting, in the non-susceptible it has the power to induce a feeling of mild bemusement. A sense of what's the point?

And if I had to pick a side, I'd go for the religious experience, hardened atheist that I am. Robinson's prose is as deceptively simple as Rothko's composition, but like Rothko, it's the gaps between the shapes that create the emotional impact.

The story's simple: John Ames, elderly preacher for the small town of Gilead looks back upon his life, his reminiscences sparked by watching his son and much younger wife go about their daily lives. Small stuff, simply told, but it's the gaps that tell the story. Ames' excursions into the past, his thoughts about the members of his congregation, his occasional commentary on the Bible and the messages he believes are contained therein complement each other, but never overlap. We as readers are allowed to assemble Ames' story through what he doesn't tell us, as much as what he does. We're allowed to form a picture of his faults, his transgressions, his strengths, his beliefs through the flow of his narrative, through the things he chooses to pass along to his son. In this respect, Gilead deserves the accolades it has received. Reading it engenders a sense of peace and refreshment very similar to the effect of spending an hour or two in the company of Rothko or Pollock and in today's busy world, that's rare enough.

No Time For Goodbye
No Time For Goodbye
by Linwood Barclay
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Runs like clockwork, 10 July 2010
This review is from: No Time For Goodbye (Paperback)
When Cynthia is fourteen, her parents and brother disappear. Twenty five years later and Cynthia is married with a daughter, but still haunted by the loss of her family. She agrees to take part in a television re-enactment of the night they vanished from the house, while Cynthia slept and this sets in chain a series of events which will eventually explain why they left without even saying goodbye.

It's a good premise, if a bit farfetched, depending like most of these stories, on a police force who are inept to the point of finding the tying of shoelaces a challenge. That said, Linwood Barclay knows how to spin the yarn - hints and red herrings are placed at the correct intervals along the trail, the writing is unfussy if uninspired and cliff hangers are built into every chapter ending, to keep the pages turning.

I liked it in the way I like watching an ingenious mechanical device - for the sheer enjoyment of seeing how the parts fit together. This is more a piece of clockwork than a work of fiction with the result that at no point did I believe in Cynthia, her husband, her cutely precocious daughter or the story behind her family's disappearance. They moved around the stage and I pretended I couldn't see the strings. If that's how you like your fiction, you will enjoy this too.

The Tin Roof Blowdown
The Tin Roof Blowdown
by James Lee Burke
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Blowing hot and cold, 13 Jan. 2010
This review is from: The Tin Roof Blowdown (Paperback)
I fell in love with the writing of James Lee Burke when I came across "Cimarron Rose". At last, I thought, a crime writer who dares to use an adjective here and there, even, gasp, adverbs. Burke has an expressive flow to his prose which carries you along, effortlessly, as though transported on a current of warm air. This makes his work ideally suited to settings in the southern states - the fictional town of Cimarron Rose is located in Texas - where the heat, dust and occasional hurricane provide the ideal backdrop for his laid back style.

For those paying attention the word "hurricanes" was a clue. "The Tin Roof Blowdown" is set in New Orleans at the time of That hurricane. Dave Robicheaux, hero of many previous Burke novels, witnesses the destruction of his city. Then he sees it destroyed a second time, by another blow down. Then a third, by government inaction and the profiteers who descend like vultures on the corpse. Robicheaux's city dies three times, just like his comrades during a fire fight in Vietnam long ago. And there are other deaths too. Two looters are shot in a wealthy suburb and Robicheaux must find the killer, his investigation bringing his own family under threat as powerful men seek to conceal exactly what the looters had stolen.

It's a lot simpler than it sounds. Burke isn't a fan of tight plotting and is quite capable of shamelessly introducing a new suspect two thirds of the way into the tale if he feels the action is starting to flag. He's not averse to the occasional bout of improbability too - how many rapists are stupid enough to leave the stuffed toy carried by their last victim in the back of their van, along with the rope used to bind the victim? How likely is it that a PI pal of Robicheaux's would happen to take a look inside the van and put evidence, crime and perp together?

Not very likely. But Burke's prose allows him to skim over these rough spots. A more serious weakness is the spiritual note he attempts to strike. Mysterious lights appear under the flood waters when a saintly priest is attacked. One of the rapists seeks redemption and is last seen sailing a boat towards nothing so commonplace as land. And the devil is found lurking too of course, setting the scene for a final showdown and fairly predictable conclusion. This element mixes uneasily with the rest and I can't help feeling Burke uses it as a short cut explanation for his characters' motivations. But I'll still be back for more.

The Last Breath (Paddy Meehan 3)
The Last Breath (Paddy Meehan 3)
by Denise Mina
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.65

13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The last straw, 13 Jan. 2010
I read the first two Paddy Meehan stories with enjoyment and looked forward to this, the third and last installment of the young Glaswegian journalist's encounters with crime. It was a disappointment. The right elements seem to be there: couthy Scots characters, a murder in chapter one, a subplot involving Paddy's ex-fiance, humour on the right side of dark - all present and correct. Somehow it doesn't hang together this time.

Let's start with Paddy herself. The character has developed from a young girl at the beginning of her career and hungry for success, to an established hack with a regular column in a substantial daily newspaper. There's the first problem. Paddy Meehan has turned into someone I would cross the street to avoid: a journalist paid for her scathing opinions and turn of phrase - a Caledonian Julie Burchill if you like. And success for Meehan means much of the tension drains away. True she has a young son to support and her love life is still far from ideal, but now she's well paid and respected, it's hard to root for her in the same way as before. And it means that her sharp tongue and wrong headedness become irritating instead of refreshing.

Then there's the plot. An old boyfriend of Paddy's is murdered. He leaves her the contents of his flat. Of course, the reason for the murder forms part of those contents, but instead of torching the place, like any sensible criminal would, the killer decides to go after Paddy. I'm tired of plots which make people do daft things for the convenience of the story. Worse still is the subplot about a young cousin of Meehan's ex, convicted of murdering a child (think James Bulger here) and about to be released into the care of said ex. What? Pardon? This guy would last two minutes on the outside before the lynch mob came calling and yet the authorities make no attempt to hide his identity or whereabouts. Again, it's a case of twisting reality to fit the plot and like a shoe that doesn't fit, there's a limit to how long I can wear this stuff.

I put it aside half finished and can only hope the next Mina is better.

The Lake Of Dead Languages
The Lake Of Dead Languages
by Carol Goodman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars haunting and expressive, 13 Jan. 2010
I read "The Ghost Orchid" before this and wish I had discovered Goodman's books in the order she wrote them. This is far superior to "Orchid" which isn't a criticism, as I loved that book too. It's just that Goodman's third book seems rushed and perfunctory compared to this, a sign of an author's imagination starting to run dry under the pressure of publisher's deadlines.

"The Lake of Dead Languages" concerns Jane Hudson, a newly qualified Latin teacher who is taking up a post at her old school, Heart Lake. Early on we learn that her time there was marked by a terrible tragedy and it seems someone at the school knows about her past and worse, is determined to reenact those dark events. Goodman deals with the inevitable questions (why on earth would Jane go back to the school after what happened? for example) with deftness, deflecting me from my often felt impulse to chuck a book at the wall when an author expects me to accept completely irrational behavior as normal human impulse. But even if Goodman does allow some loose ends to escape, the quality of her prose is such that I would forgive her anyway. She has the gift of flow and allusiveness and the book is a pleasure to read just for that.

It's satisfying at a deeper level too. Goodman is herself a Latin scholar and the old motifs of revenge, incest and unmarried motherhood all make an appearance. The old Roman religion had strong elements of animism in it and Goodman uses this too, making the lake itself almost a character in the drama as if it were inhabited by ancient spirits who won't rest until old wrongs are righted. Bruno Bettelheim theorized in "The Uses of Enchantment" that fairy stories work at the level of the unconscious, allowing safe expression for unsafe urges. The Greek and Roman legends have elements of that too; using the behavior of the Gods as a primer to the best and worst aspects of human nature. "The Lake of Dead Languages" taps into that mythical undercurrent and that is at least part of why it works so well.

Pig Island
Pig Island
by Mo Hayder
Edition: Paperback

14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A dose of swine flu, 13 Jan. 2010
This review is from: Pig Island (Paperback)
One of the nice things about my copy of this book is that the usual excerpts of fawning praise are absent. True, the inside cover contains blurbs to Hayder's four other books and we are treated to a potted CV designed to pique the reader's interest, but apart from that and some gush from Karin Slaughter on the front (who is mentioned by Hayder in the acknowledgements which seems a bit circular), we're left to make up our own minds about what's inside.

The premise is good: a journalist who makes his money exposing supernatural hoaxes visits an island where footage has been taken of a very strange creature. The footage appears genuine and the island is the property of a secretive cult, the leader of which is a sworn enemy of said journalist. Can't tell you more without spoiling the read, but that should get you started.

Hang on though. A man who makes his living exposing supernatural hoaxes? Who pays for that? Who wants to read about that? My disbelief clattered to the floor by page one. Still, I quashed my natural skepticism and read on.

Hayder is of the efficient, unfussy school of writing and that's fine if you have a really good plot to carry the reader through. The first half does the job nicely: Oakes visits the island, has a confrontation with the beast, must recover from a serious attack and then returns to find really horrible things have been going on in his absence. So far, so good. Then it all falls apart. We find out who the monster is and the whole story loses momentum. Hayder tries to keep the tension going by playing on the cult leader's threat to pay Oakes back for a previous expose, but without the island and the beast, the creepiness evaporates and becomes more of a soap opera about Oakes' disintegrating marriage.

This sort of stuff I can read about in the tabloids and I put the book down, half finished, having satisfied myself that I was right about the final twist. Perhaps that explains why the usual accolades were missing from the inside pages.

The Sheltering Sky (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Sheltering Sky (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Paul Bowles
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars music of the sands, 22 Oct. 2009
Paul Bowles was originally a composer and his ear for the cadence and rhythms of language is evident in this, the best known of his four novels.

In the first part of the book, an American couple, Kit and Port Moresby, drift through North Africa, dabbling in new experiences. Port in particular, relishes the opportunity to fulfil his sexual fantasies, while Kit seeks reconnection with the world and with her husband. On their journey, they encounter other travellers and locals, some benign, some not. Eventually, they reach the desert, the place where the only shelter is the sky itself. Here tragedy strikes and Kit is left to find her way out alone.

In an interview, Bowles said he originally planned to end the book when the tragedy occurs, but that he decided to continue, using "automatic writing" and a surrealist approach as inspiration. His first instinct was correct. The final third of the book is a mess, a kind of hallucinatory soft-porn which almost negates the tough, crisp observation of the earlier section. It's definitely worth reading, but perhaps abandoning before the end.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 14, 2010 6:41 PM GMT

Death Duty
Death Duty
by Clare Littleford
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tension factor set to zero, 22 Oct. 2009
This review is from: Death Duty (Paperback)
Death Duty is set in Nottingham and begins with an attack on a social worker. Not the most exciting premise for a novel in terms of location and event and from there it's downhill all the way. Any tension set up by the initial attack is soon squandered as pages are devoted to describing the life of the book's main character: Jo Elliot. She has no hobbies, no boyfriend, not even an interesting pet. She's a social worker. That's about it. No one dies. No one even gets arrested, not even Jo when she inadvertently lifts a bottle or wine from the local Asda. When we reach the grand denoument (and someone does eventually die) it turns out that the terrible act on which all this hinges was that Jo had two boys taken into care and was "really nasty" about it.

Oh dear. With material like this, it's hard to get engrossed. Also, it's poorly edited - one character is in possession of a "larva" lamp. Eurgh.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 16, 2012 7:42 AM GMT

by Alan Kaufman
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Why did I buy this?, 22 Oct. 2009
This review is from: Matches (Paperback)
I can't remember when or why I bought this book, but found it on my shelf and decided I ought to read it. Bad idea.

"Matches" follows a group of IDF (Israeli Defence Force) soldiers. The hero - Nathan Falk - is an American who has emigrated to Israel because he feels non-Jews never let him forget he's Jewish, that however nice they are to his face, secretly behind his back, they mutter about Jewish domination of the media and other anti-semitic poison of this kind. Sound familiar? So does a lot of the rest. Nathan's unit patrols the Gaza strip, their job to arrest terrorists and keep the peace. Occasionally, they might shoot people, but not very often. They are civilised guys, a little rough round the edges, but then think of what they have to deal with. Those Arabs for example, who cut the throats of horses and camels, beat donkeys to death, slice the ears off dogs and defecate in the streets. Oh, and murder their own sisters for having a boyfriend.

I gave up before reaching the half way point, depressed at this tired rehearsal of all the old prejudices and paranoia. If this book was intended to widen the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, it fails.

Black Dogs
Black Dogs
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Facile and unpleasant, 22 Oct. 2009
This review is from: Black Dogs (Paperback)
As ever, in "Black Dogs" McEwan turns out readable prose, a balance of description and plot points which draw the reader in. The cover hype leads us to believe this is a work of weight, which grapples with the issue of whether metaphysical concepts such as good and evil have continued relevance in a world where the idea of God is becoming old fashioned. It's an interesting issue and one which McEwan's protagonists, Bernard and June, disagree fundamentally. This is a shame, as they are married and end up spending their lives apart, though still connected as a result of this difference of opinion. McEwan leads us to the central event of the book: the occurence which June interprets as a demonstration that evil objectively exists. I was waiting for something truly significant here, but what I received was unpleasant, far fetched and oddly adolescent - the kind of nasty story usually reserved for Pan Horror compilations. I used to like McEwan, but since "Atonement" my interest has waned to vanishing point.

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