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The Stars in the Bright Sky
The Stars in the Bright Sky
by Alan Warner
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Alan Warner's very brightest, 23 July 2014
This is outstanding, a joy whether or not you've read The Sopranos, to which it's a sort of follow-up.

The girls have gathered at Gatwick, booked into an airport hotel, and their goal is to pick up at the last minute the holiday of their dreams. They're no longer the teenagers we met before, and are more edgy, and more aware of their differences. What's glorious are the conversations between them, sometimes tense, sometimes silly, sometimes hilarious, always absorbing. The question behind it all is simple: which counts most, travel or arrival?

Part of the brilliance is in tracking how a group melds, and fragments, and then bonds together again. Underlying it all is Alan Warner's ear for the voices, tones and nuances, of a generation of young Scottish girls adrift near London.


Caron Pour Un Homme Scented Soap 150g
Caron Pour Un Homme Scented Soap 150g
Offered by NVS PHARMACY
Price: 16.00

5.0 out of 5 stars You too can be like Cary Grant, 22 May 2014
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This was Cary Grant's fragrance. It begins with half an hour of lavender that then mutates down into a wonderful woody leather that stays with you all day. The soap is great, and will give depth to the fragrance so that it lasts all day. Wow!


The Facts of Life and Death
The Facts of Life and Death
by Belinda Bauer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.49

5.0 out of 5 stars More brilliance from Belinda Bauer, 22 May 2014
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Two stories told in tandem. The killings develop as the humiliation of young women is broadcast to their mothers on the girls' phones, first of all with the balaclava clad killer as the focus, and then with the police, who include a dozy young cop, Calvin Bridge, more preoccupied with his unease at the wedding plans his fiancee is foisting on him than with solving the case. And then there's Ruby, Ruby Trick, aged ten, living in a damp cottage on the edge of the cliffs, and her parents, her father jobless since shipbuilding came to an end in Devon, her mother doggedly working as a chef. You know these two stories will intersect, sooner or later, but it's not till more than 200 pages in that you start to grasp just how they can cross-connect.

Belinda Bauer has brought us here before, to the shocking entanglement of a young child and a killer, but in this novel she has a little girl in the role of the inquisitive child, and Ruby is a brilliant creation, on a par with the Carson McCullers' girls who are in transition between tomboy-ishness and early womanhood. Till this novel, she'd mostly exercised her great skills on presenting young boys on the trajectory to encountering a killer, only exploring the imaginations of girls in some of the side-characters of Finders Keepers. Ruby is stout, red-haired, and gets bullied by her peers, but she's got her own truths, and is reaching out for happiness more than some of the boys from the previous novels. Her story is gripping and told with a clear-eyed tenderness.

The killer is just one among the vividly observed eccentrics that inhabit a forlorn corner of England where the economy has left the people behind. And is less exceptional than most of the killers in the novels she's written so far, understandable even while dangerous. The crimes are ferocious and terrible, but seem to belong in the world of neglected small villages and paltry pleasures where they take place. Marriages that are bleak are brought alive in the nervy routines and conversations. Uneasy bonding is prevalent as much among the children as among their fathers meeting up in the pub to play and pretend they're cowboys. Like the great Ruth Rendell at the start of her career, Belinda Bauer holds the gaze of her readers on life below the apparent bonds of community, on people and impulses television and the media have agreed to neglect.

The writing is outstanding, not a wasted word, and nuance in plenty, with a feel for poetry and imagination flashing out in an image or in a brisk comment on a satirically observed event, such as the appalling annual Lepers' Parade which attracts around an old disused hospital more villagers keen to march about in grotesque fancy dress than it does any actual spectators. Rice Krispies as sores. The pace and plotting never let go, and the ending is chillingly Gothic. There's lately been chatter as to whether the English novel is over and done with, but with this novel Belinda Bauer yet again has me believing the novel is still with us and illuminating the world we live in with unexpected clarities. For definite it's a book not to miss out on.


Touching Distance (Jimmy Suttle 2)
Touching Distance (Jimmy Suttle 2)
by Graham Hurley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.63

2.0 out of 5 stars Not a return to form, 18 April 2014
Graham Hurley wrote a series of Portsmouth novels that gave focus to a city during the years of New Labour and their aftermath. Full of vivid life across the social spectrum, the changes to life in the city were caught through bright and edgy characters, crooks, cops and citizens. He dissolved the series and began again by moving a minor figure, Jimmy Suttle, to a placement in Exmoor. The first outing was a disaster, and the question is whether this brings the experiment on track?

In my view it doesn't, and is all a bit weary. The main plot is unexciting, and the subplot, involving Suttle's estranged wife, does little more than open a few windows on the effects of Britain's participation in the Afghan and Iraq wars, a topic that's been handled with much more flair by previous detective story writers such as Minette Waters. I found it had to swallow that a supposedly ace reporter could be so dim and unaware as we're asked to believe in this novel.

There's an afterword which tells us the material came to the author through gossip at his local sculling club. It's a pity he can't find his way back to the levels of observation, analysis and imagination that gave such verve to the Portsmouth novels with Faraday and Winter. There's also a lot of plodding sex scenes in this one which aren't in the slightest bit erotic and seem little more than idle padding. This writer used to be strong on tense exchanges, but now the wit is gone.


You Will Never Find Me
You Will Never Find Me
by Robert Wilson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.29

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not the best he can do, 31 Mar 2014
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This review is from: You Will Never Find Me (Hardcover)
Robert Wilson has an output so varied that he's yet to hit a distinctive winning streak. His early books were short and set in parts of Africa that were tumbling into capitalism and corruption, all of them short, brilliant, and a touch too witty to catch on widely. Much more meditative were those set in Seville, but none of the series equalled the very first, The Blind Man of Seville. He won awards for A Small Death in Lisbon, which drew on how Portugal's murky wartime past impacts on later times. Best of all, Company of Strangers had a wide historical span, a min-history of spying in Europe from Germany to Portugal from the late 30s to the last years of the c20th, working out how people's feelings change across cultures and across time.
This new novel is the second to be set mainly in London, and featuring a couple who solve kidnaps here suffering the loss of their own child. Despite some lively tours of Madrid night-clubs, it's set in a less edgy London than Capital Punishment, and it seems more turned in on itself than his other novels. Passages do light up from time to time, but then plod along. Interesting observations turn up on the margins, such as the cocaine-dealing hardware shops that have invested heavily in buying up Council Estates that are partly developed to house upmarket drug users, and partly kept affordable to crack heads. Observations that however remain peripheral to the plot.
The plotting is lively, and with plenty of surprises, but nothing memorable enough to linger on in the way of his Spain and Portugal books. This one keeps you going while you're reading it, mostly anyhow, but the neat ending left me flat and quite ready to forget it all


A Song for the Dying
A Song for the Dying
by Stuart MacBride
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 9.00

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfully wild and excessive, 18 Feb 2014
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This review is from: A Song for the Dying (Hardcover)
From time to time Scottish writers have the boldness to throw caution to the winds and sheer zest for writing takes over from mundane preoccupations, from staying inside the comfort zone of what's neat and tidy and plausible. Examples include Alasdair Gray in Poor Things, Alan Warner with Stars in the Bright Sky, and much of James Kelman and Muriel Spark. That's the direction Stuart MacBride has taken in his Logan McRae series, which began with fairly orthodox police procedurals, then moved into wit and wildness as the series progressed. This second novel centred on (former) DI Ash Henderson also moves onwards from the studied grimness of the first in the series and the pace is relentlessly fast, the action far from predictable, and the writing (like the violence) quite unafraid of going over the top at every turn.

The settings of this series are an imaginary Scottish town or city called Oldfield, and this in itself is a liberation from the pull to a measure of documentary realism that Aberdeen exercises in the Logan McRae series. Poverty and delapidation in plenty are features of Oldfield, and there's a tension between the frequnet grimness of the milieu and the exuberance of the dialogue and the action. There's a constant play of satiric intelligence, very notable in the mockery of pomposity, whether the pomposity of media folk or of authoritarian burocrats. The bohemian aspects of Logan are given fuller rein with Ash Henderson, who lost his family in the first novel and now has more or less nothing to lose, other than his feeling for people with integrity of feeling, whether they be villains or friends.

The monsters are as crisp as any of MacBride's other monsters, the thuggish Mrs Kerrigan as vile as previously, and Wee Free the drunken bible-thumpering junk-dealer no less dangerous as she can be, though less chillingly so, maybe. Wee Free does care passionately for his abducted daughter, however much he disapproves of her. Eccentricity and a shanty-town mentality win out over and against over-protected suburbia.

The outcome is to leave most current thriller writers looking flat and safe. This won't be to everyone's taste - if you want safe and predictable, try elsewhere. But if you can go for energy - in the words as well as in the plot twists - energy that comes out of grief and loss, as a kind of refusal of sorrow that nonetheless lets you know sorrow is constantly there - this is uplifting and exhilarating. And utterly original, like no one else writing now.


Stewart Parker: A Life
Stewart Parker: A Life
by Marilynn Richtarik
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 30.05

4.0 out of 5 stars definitive (so far), 14 Feb 2014
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This review is from: Stewart Parker: A Life (Hardcover)
Very thoroughly researched biography of this sparky playwright. Probably not a book for those not familiar with his plays or with the arts in Ireland in his era, and as a biography of a playwright begs a lot of questions about the wider culture and the perspectives it could afford. Well written, and plenty to be discerned between the lines.


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Price: 2.60

3.0 out of 5 stars Fiddly, 14 Feb 2014
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Good well made switches, but only for use with very fine cable, and if you have accrue deft fingers. Unlikely to hold a weighty cable, so thick first where it's going to be placed.


Meeting the English
Meeting the English
by Kate Clanchy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 13.59

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars more grim than comic, 12 Dec 2013
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This review is from: Meeting the English (Hardcover)
This is an apparently old-fashioned novel, switching among the characters so each in turn becomes the focus from which the others are observed. Apparently, because most of their takes on the reality around them are shudderingly flawed, and often downright nasty. Then the penny drops - this is more Christina Stead than Virginia Woolf, and is largely satire on human horribleness.

What's very brilliant is the account of a group of self-absorbed people gathered because the one with the money is ill and probably dying, and is no saint. This predictably brings out the worst. His first wife - grasping Myfanwy - is the most hellishly creepy, and the fact that there's satire doesn't diminish her vileness, which is shudderingly horrible. Her teenage children aren't very much better. It's the mix of greed with triviality and self-aggrandisement that gave me the shudders.

The dialogue is super, the decency of the Scottish boy is convincing and well-sustained, and you're left to wonder is the picture of the few Hampstead characters that he encounters for a long hot summer truly is representative of "the English". That it's even possible to wonder is in itself chilling.

There's some sweetness to the ending, but it doesn't even attempt to counter the sheer horribleness that's been the bedrock all of the way to it. Wittiness in the dialogue and nastiness in the relationships. Quite a cocktail. Expect to feel more nervous about the world when you've finished it.


Rubbernecker
Rubbernecker
by Belinda Bauer
Edition: Hardcover

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gothic brilliance in the modern city, 17 Feb 2013
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This review is from: Rubbernecker (Hardcover)
Her first three novels were set in Exmoor, and opened onto dark events nestling in its wild and desolate spaces. This tight and gripping piece is mostly set in Cardiff, and puts two of the most gruesome locations a city can offer as the key poles where the action is brewing.

Much of it is spent in the dissecting rooms of the university, where medical students spend a year learning to cut up corpses that have been left for science. Among the students is Patrick, and he is a student specialising in anatomy, and concerned only to understand death, not healing. The second main site of action is the neurological coma ward of the main hospital, seen through the eyes of a coma patient who's just witnessed a murder in the bed next to his, and who is slowly but dangerously recovering his capacity to speak. The ward is viewed too through the eyes of some of the nurses, briefly from the viewpoint of the oldest, kindest and most dedicated of the nurses, but more frequently through the eyes of the most silly and negligent, a lost girl who pays little attention to the patients since her prime aim is to net herself a wealthy husband from among the visitors to the most comatose women patients in the ward. As these locations become more and more vivid, so too - but gradually - do cross connections and cross-currents begin to emerge; and as we become more accustomed to the dissecting room and the coma ward, more shockingly gothic plot strands begin to emerge in their inter-connections.

Even more. As we become accustomed to moving from one to the other, further spaces and places start to fill in: the student house that Patrick shares with two students from the Art School, his mother's cottage in nearby countryside; an up-market apartment in revamped Tiger Bay; city streets, car parks, and the distinctive world around the railway station. It's a gradual portrait of a city, the distances shifting as the dots begin to be joined up. Subtly and slowly, taking us unawares, there builds up a portrait of urban life today, as we shuttle between the lives of young people who are not at first especially appealing.

Maybe because these unexpected locations - the dissecting room, the coma ward - are in themselves so full of gruesome and painful extremes, the actual plotting is by contrast much more low key and less violent than in her earlier novels. There's space to allow for apparently different strands to cross-talk among themselves. There are parallels: Sam, the coma patient is the casualty of a downbeat car crash that was the opening of the novel. The student Patrick is traumatised since the age of five from having witnessed the death of his father in a car crash. As connections between Sam and Patrick emerge slowly, very slowly, there's ample opportunity to explore these different responses an accident can bring about. The difference is that Sam is a directly bewildered victim, whereas Patrick is a victim of rubber-necking, bewildered for being an onlooker, a voyeur.

Meantime, there's ample black comedy, in the lives of the students and in the lives of the nurses - and, later on, in the lives of the policemen. The gothic is not sombre, and can be devastatingly and improperly funny. Belinda Bauer's earlier novels had each centred on the expansion of a world, and the stretching of its horizons. This new novel works differently, and instead follows through on the knitting together of seemingly diverse strands, thereby bringing into focus the more tentative and attenuated inter-connections and link-ups that now are the tissue of city life in the early years of the twenty-first century; and it demonstrates how these spaces can and do become liveable, gradually.

This is a truly wonderful thriller, a compelling slow burn. It's also evidence that in the hands of a writer as brilliant as Belinda Bauer, it may well be it's the crime brigade who are looking after the future of the contemporary novel, with feeling, with elegance, and with fearlessly inquiring curiosity.


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