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The Bell Witch Hauntings (An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: A True Story)
The Bell Witch Hauntings (An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: A True Story)
Price: 0.77

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Bell Witch Hauntings, 21 April 2013
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I bought this knowing next to nothing about the book or the events it is based on, which was my mistake. I love American history and folklore and I'm fond of ghost stories, so I had hoped this would be a suspenseful, Shirley Jackson-esque read (again, I hadn't realised that this book was written in 1894). Unfortunately, I found this very dry and lacking in substance (a lot of the stories about the Bell Witch are rehashed over and over again as we read the various testimonies from people who once knew the family this happened to). Ingram's writing style is plagued by the worst sort of late nineteenth-century American literary tics: it's eye-rollingly sentimental and very hard to take seriously. The depiction of black people is also uncomfortably of its time.

Other than a few amusing anecdotes and the surprisingly well-written final few pages, this ended up being a bit of a chore to read. Perhaps a literary historian might find it useful, but I found its uneven style not worth the bother. Although I suppose, if nothing else, it was a lesson for me in reading up on what I'm about to buy.

I will also add that the formatting didn't endear itself to me. I'm not sure if these problems are a relic of the original publication, but there are many moments where a paragraph break would have been much appreciated and a number of typos that demonstrate that if any proof-reading occurred, it wasn't undertaken seriously.


A Great and Terrible Beauty
A Great and Terrible Beauty
by Libba Bray
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.24

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable read, 14 May 2008
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An enthralling novel, head and shoulders above its contemporaries, Gossip Girl and the abysmal Twilight series. Bray's narrative is fresh and very rarely loses tone. While I am unsure about some of the subplots discussed (cutting and lesbianism, both of which are handled in a way that feels more contemporary than Victorian), they are refreshing to read about in a YA novel. The basic storyline is reminiscent of a Frances Burnett novel - awkward girl is sent from India to a boarding school in England - but it has been reworked with an entertaining supernatural twist.

I note in passing that in terms of historical accuracy it is not especially remarkable: the novel claims to be set in 1895, but it doesn't really 'feel' like 1895 - a year of decadence, the trial of Oscar Wilde, the New Woman - more than any other Victorian year Bray could have chosen to set the novel in. In fact, the constant references to Tennyson would imply a more mid-century setting. However, I wasn't especially reading this for the historical details, and, to be fair, the glaring anachronisms are very few.

While the heroine, Gemma, is given much good dialogue - her snide, often self-deprecating asides are both funny and feel realistic for a teenage girl - it is Felicity, the charismatic antagonist/friend who really captivates the reader, and it is she whose character is best-crafted. Although the revelation about her family is quite predictable, it is built up to in such a way that it feels very believable.

All in all, a real page-turner of the book, which works well both as a solo novel and the first book in the series.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 25, 2008 4:15 PM BST


Fanny Kemble: Leading lady of the nineteenth-century stage
Fanny Kemble: Leading lady of the nineteenth-century stage
by Joseph Chamberlain Furnas
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Passionate but poorly-written, 14 May 2008
Furnas' account of the life of Fanny Kemble is, ultimately, a disappointment, and I think that the problem stems from Furnas being too much in love with the lady herself. While obviously adulating their subject is no unusual thing for a biographer, unfortunately in this case, he has been blinded to any of Fanny's faults. Furnas presents Fanny as the paragon of perfection, and sadly this had the effect of making me rather bored of her!

At one point, for example, Furnas recounts an anecdote where Fanny successfully puts down Augustus Fitzclarence, the illegitimate son of the king, after he expressed a unfavourable opinion of his father. Fitzclarence was perhaps quite justified in this opinion: his mother, the king's mistress, lived with the king and supported him financially for twenty years and bore ten of his children, before the king abandoned her in favour of a younger woman. Can Augustus Fitzclarence be blamed for having a poor opinion of the man who treated his mother in this way? Fanny perhaps can be forgiven for not realising this; Furnas, who has the benefit of hindsight, cannot, and instead presents Fitzclarence as a toadying buffoon who needed to be taught a lesson by Fanny.

The biography also reveals little sense of time passing. Furnas rarely mentions dates, even at the beginning of chapters, making it hard to place the events of Fanny's life in a wider scale of history. This is complicated even further by the fact that Furnas constantly skips forwards and backwards in terms of chronological events: it was frustrating trying to follow what happened and when.

By the end, I didn't dislike Fanny but I didn't care for her much either. This is a shame, as from her own writing (which Furnas quotes at great length), Fanny reveals herself to be an intelligent, gifted writer (if somewhat precious in a stereotypically Victorian way), certainly worthy of a great biography - which this, unfortunately, does not provide.


How I Paid for College: A Tale of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theatre
How I Paid for College: A Tale of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theatre
by Marc Acito
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable, 21 Sep 2007
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Genuinely witty, "How I Paid For College" is a book I enjoyed reading a great deal. Edward, the protagonist, is charming, bitchy, and earnest - often all at once! Acito's attention to detail is also delightful - for example, when Edward mentions "My Fair Lady", he name-checks Julie Andrews rather than Audrey Hepburn (who of course made the role her own in the famous film). This is of course spot-on for a musical theatre fan like Edward, for it was Andrews who first had the role in the Broadway production. Little things like this were woven throughout the novel and as such it was more enjoyable to read.

There were a few bumps along the way. The number of bisexual students at Edward's school surprised me - as did the lack of homophobia, especially considering that the story is set in 1983. The adult characters are mostly little more than stick figures and the end is unfortunately too obvious. Moreover, the plot itself was severely lacking - there was one there, but it was very weak. More rigorous editing could have tied things together more neatly.

What it lacks in terms of plot it makes up for by sheer amusement value. While there were no real "laugh out loud" moments throughout, it was a real pleasure to read, and while I can't imagine being very inclined to reread it, I have no hesitation in recommending it, especially to fans of films such as "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". Great fun indeed.


Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination
Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination
by Helen Fielding
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.43

2.0 out of 5 stars Cigarettes - 35, Thwarted terrorist attacks - 3, 21 Sep 2007
While it does not live up to the standards set by the Bridget Jones series, "Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination" was for the most part breezy and enjoyable. While Fielding falls into the odd cliché here and there, Olivia's world is filled with vibrant, glamorous characters, and I found myself wondering along with her which of them could be a spy. The writing is sharp as usual, so there's nothing to complain about there.

Sadly, the book really falls down when it reaches its dramatic climax. Fielding is not skilled at writing action sequences (the weakest sections of the Bridget Jones books are the crisis points in Bridget's year where the police and foreign governments get dragged in), and in "Olivia Joules" she is as unsuccessful as ever. The book is about forty pages too long - a ridiculous and highly unnecessary adventure is tacked onto the end - and it rendered me bored. The romance, which only really comes in during the last hundred pages, was also hard to care about.

Too self-conscious to be an unabashed spy story yet not funny enough to be a satisfactory parody, the end result is a bit of a mess. What prevents "Olivia Joules" from being completely unenjoyable is Olivia herself. She's a more complicated character than Bridget Jones. While she has her own moments of ridiculousness - the "overactive imagination" of the title, for example - she's generally pricklier, more reserved, and, if she was a real person, harder to like. And yet, Olivia still manages to be sympathetic enough for me to care about and to want the best for her, even though I disliked the plot.

It's decent enough to read on a Tube journey, but honestly I do not feel inclined to reread it, or recommend it to another.


The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (Evadne Mount Trilogy)
The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (Evadne Mount Trilogy)
by Gilbert Adair
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.06

31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Really great fun, 21 Sep 2007
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Adair has written a detective story that I think almost any writer from the Golden Age would have been proud to put their name to. Filled with numerous in-jokes and references to classic detective stories, "The Act of Roger Murgatroyd" nevertheless is not just for established fans of the genre. It's exactly what I was hoping it to be: a real brainbender of a whodunnit, with red herrings everywhere and every character looking like a legitimate suspect, and it's written in an easy, comical style. While Adair fills his novel with clichés, there is a self-awareness about his writing that forgives this. It's both parody and art, if that's possible.

The heroine, Evadne Mount, "Dowager Duchess of Crime", was hard to like at first, but I found that once the story got going she grew on me enormously. For all her flaws - vanity, roughness and a reluctance to hand the centre stage over to someone else - she was a character who I ended up finding incredibly easy to root for.

All in all, it's a charming, tongue-in-cheek novel - perhaps its one failing is that at 286 pages it's a little too short! It really is the most enjoyable book - the sort that makes you stay in bed all morning reading it! I'd highly recommend it to anyone, and I'm very much looking forward to reading the sequels.


Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America - A Memoir
Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America - A Memoir
by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Edition: Paperback

13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not what I had hoped, 11 Sep 2007
While I struggled to enjoy this book - I found it very hard to sympathise with Wurtzel, unfortunately - it should probably be of some interest to anyone interested in depression or psychology, or even just growing up in America in the 1970s and '80s.

Wurtzel is obviously well-read, as evidenced by her numerous references to classic works of fiction. This isn't something you find too often in modern literature, so I did find that bit gratifying. There were a couple of quite interesting passages which spoke to me - although given the length of the book, that doesn't really say much in its favour.

Like other people who have reviewed this, I've suffered from depression - but this doesn't mean that I identified with Wurtzel, and consequently I'd warn people off if they picked it up hoping to find an author who would commiserate with their problems. While it's not my thing at all, it very obviously speaks volumes to some people - so I'm giving it two stars.


Tarzan of the Apes (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)
Tarzan of the Apes (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Edition: Paperback

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly enjoyable, 11 Sep 2007
I bought "Tarzan of the Apes" while I was on an adventure novel kick and, like the other reviewers, I was amazed by how good it was. The storyline is quite clever and very interesting - even though I knew many of the things that were going to happen (Tarzan and Jane meeting, for example), I was still intrigued by every plot twist Burroughs threw at me.

What I found most surprising was how much I liked the character of Tarzan himself. Obviously he has been represented and parodied so many times in so many different ways over the years that he has become almost a stock character - certainly, like Sherlock Holmes and Superman he is one of those fictional characters that everyone recognises, even if people haven't read the source material. Tarzan also has the fact that he is handsome, intelligent, strong, and innately "good" working against him. Who likes perfect characters? Surprisingly, however, I found myself rooting for him throughout the novel.

The first half of the book, where Tarzan has no human company, is more enjoyable, although I may feel that way because one tends to picture Tarzan in the jungle rather than in civilisation. Still, Burroughs writes superb fights and there are simply more of them in the first half - the second half is more concerned with Tarzan mooning over Jane and driving across America. It's far less compelling. However, the ending picks up considerably; while Burroughs clearly wrote it with a sequel in mind, he contrives the events in such a way that the reader's heart breaks for Tarzan.

"Tarzan of the Apes" can be quite easily criticised for its racist and sexist elements, and obviously I'm not about to defend them. However, if you are considering reading it, I'd recommend that you bear in mind that it *was* written in 1913 when such views were (regrettably) endorsed. There's a wonderful adventure story here, and it's well worth giving a go.


A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
by Xiaolu Guo
Edition: Hardcover

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking and witty, 28 May 2007
I was a little put off by the premise of "A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers", as the fact its claim to be written in "deliberately bad English" sounded suspiciously gimmicky to me. I over-rode my apprehensions and bought the book, however - and I'm very glad that I did. This book is well-deserving of its shortlisting for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize, and while I still think the concept is something of a marketing ploy, it is all the same an integral part of the book, and one which became less noticeable the more of it I read.

Xialou's characterisation of a Chinese girl setting foot out of her country for the first time is pitch-perfect. Zhuang is comic, naive, and eager to learn, and in spite of her lack of academic qualifications, she is a true philosopher. It is so very rare to feel as though one is next to a character, experiencing everything she experiences and watching the London streets through her eyes. I honestly can't remember the last time I've felt so close to a fictional character, as though she were sharing all her secrets with me.

There are moments when I thought that Xiaolu could have afforded to have honed her subtlety a little - for example, a reference to "Walt Whiteman" late in the novel made me wince. There were also times when I felt that Zhuang was becoming a little repetitive. That being said, it wasn't all miss. There are some really beautiful moments of honesty, where Zhuang speaks plainly, breaking back into Mandarin and saying: "I am sick of speaking English like this. I am sick of writing English like this. I feel as if I am being tied up, as if I am living in a prison...the English culture surrounding me becomes enormous. It swallows me, and it rapes me. I am dominated by it." It is simply put and without flourishes - and expresses what she is feeling so well.

Everything considered, it's a beautiful book which manages to be socially relevant without becoming "soap boxy". The language is quietly passionate, the characters are well-crafted, and the story is uncomplicated and thoroughly believable. The comedic touches are expertly placed: Xiaolu often writes with one eyebrow arched ironically in the reader's direction. Certainly pick it up if you ever have the opportunity.


Crocodile on the Sandbank (Amelia Peabody Murder Mystery)
Crocodile on the Sandbank (Amelia Peabody Murder Mystery)
by Elizabeth Peters
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, easy fun, 28 May 2007
I bought "Crocodile on the Sandbank" almost on a whim after a friend recommended it to me. I then promptly left it to gather dust on my bookshelf for six months, before picking it up again recently to finally sit down and read it.

I am quite furious with myself for those six months I spent ignoring it. "Crocodile on the Sandbank" is a wonderful story, filled with vibrant, likable characters. Amelia Peabody, the protagonist, is strong-minded, outspoken, and something of a Victorian superheroine: she rescues forlorn waifs from the streets of Rome, she speaks four languages, and she can archeologise just as well as any man! Surprisingly, the presence of a character so obviously written to be liked by readers does not become tiresome, largely, I suspect, because Amelia isn't just talk: she is tremendously loyal to her friends, as well as being brave, compassionate, and genuinely unafraid to put herself in danger to help those in need.

Admittedly the novel is a little too "nice" and inoffensive: the heroes are as clearly-defined as if they were wearing white hats throughout, and the villains practically twirl black moustaches in the most dastardly manner imaginable. I found myself at certain points in the novel raising a cynical eyebrow at the characters' (especially Amelia's) attitude to premarital sex. However, I admit that this can be put down both to a need to keep the story moving forward (I believe I would have killed myself in despair had every character Evelyn encountered reached for his or her smelling salts upon the discovery that she was not a virgin), as well as the fact that it is made quite clear from the start that Amelia is a little unusual for a Victorian lady.

If I have one major complaint with the novel as a whole, it's that the mystery wasn't quite mysterious enough for my liking, taking a backseat to the development of the relationships between the characters. While character development (obviously!) is no bad thing, I prefer mysteries to focus on the mystery at hand.

Actually, I lie; I have one final complaint. I'm not sure whether Peters or the publisher is to blame, but I disliked the insertion of a mini "biography" of Amelia at the beginning of the book, mainly because it gave away a key plot development! Admittedly this particular development hardly required a Mensa-level of intelligence to predict, but I still felt a little put out.

That being said, it is a wonderful first book in a series, and I look forward to reading its many sequels. Highly recommended to fans of Egypt, mysteries, archeology, the Victorians, or just good, old-fashioned adventure stories!


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