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Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting
Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting
by Catherine Lampert
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.57

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Frank Auerbach - Speaking and Painting, 29 Jun. 2015
Catherine Lampert, an independent curator and art historian, begins her portrait of artist, Frank Auerbach, by informing the reader that in writing about her subject (who, she tells us, famously resists any invasion of his private life) a biographical approach is not really appropriate. Instead the author has arranged her book by topic and theme, with the chronology of the sections sometimes overlapping, her emphasis being on Auerbach's professional life, his working methods and views, as conveyed by his own words. Ms Lampert, who became one of Auerbach's sitters in the late seventies, continues by informing the reader that in addition to drawing on her own notes and unpublished recordings of her conversations with the artist, she has also used a rich assortment of published and archival interviews to augment her text. Therefore, although not a biography in the fullest sense, there is still much here to inform and interest both the casual and the serious reader.

So, within the thick, glossy pages of this lavishly illustrated book, the reader learns of Auerbach's birth in 1931 to Jewish parents in Berlin, and of how he was sent to England to a Quaker school in 1939, and has stayed in England - and mostly in London - for almost the whole of his life; we read of how learning later that his parents had been murdered in Auschwitz, Auerbach says he thinks he "...did this thing which psychiatrists frown on: I am in total denial. It's worked very well for me." We learn of Auerbach's time at the Borough Polytechnic, at St Martin's School of Art and at the Royal College of Art; we read of his early years when he was forging a reputation; of his friendships with Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon; of his relationships with women and his sitters; we read of his unusual working methods, and of how some of his pictures can take years to make as he places layer upon layer of paint onto his canvases, only to scrape it off and then repeat the process over and over again, and we listen to Auerbach's philosophy on art and his belief that: "The aim of painting is this: To capture a raw experience for art." All of which makes this portrait of Frank Auerbach an enjoyable, interesting and informative read.

4 Stars.


Tender
Tender
by Belinda McKeon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An Intense and Involving Read, 26 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Tender (Hardcover)
Catherine Reilly, an attractive, but self-conscious and rather immature eighteen-year-old studying English and art history at Trinity College, Dublin, meets James Flynn, a gregarious, confident and very appealing young photographer, who immediately charms his way into Catherine's affections: "He was funnier than anyone she'd ever met. Everything about him was so lit up by this brilliant comedy...and he had this gift for getting right to the truth about people with a single seemingly casual line." Before long the pair are almost inseparable and when James leaves Dublin to work in Berlin as an assistant to a well-known photographer, the two of them keep in constant touch, both admitting how much they miss one another's company. However, a revelation made to Catherine by James, means that their relationship cannot ever really be more than an intimate friendship, yet when James returns from Berlin, Catherine finds her feelings for him develop into an intense and all-consuming obsession, the results of which have a lasting effect on not just James and Catherine, but on others around them - however, to reveal more would spoil the story for those who have yet to read this novel.

Set mostly in the late 1990s, Belinda McKeon's beautifully written and deftly-composed second novel makes for compelling reading. The author captures those early years of adulthood, and of living and studying away from home, particularly well and her descriptions of Catherine's emotional insecurities, her inhibitions and her controlling neediness are very believable. In fact, in this perceptively-observed story, both of the main characters' personalities and predicaments are so convincingly portrayed that it is easy to become caught up in their lives and to wish for a happy ending for them. But do Catherine and James get their happy ending? Obviously I have to leave that for prospective readers to discover for themselves.

4 Stars.

Also recommended by this author: Solace - another intense and involving read.


First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill
First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill
Price: £6.17

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill, 23 Jun. 2015
Sonia Purnell begins her very interesting biography of Clementine Churchill with an introduction which emphasises that although Winston Churchill and both World Wars naturally feature strongly in her book, this biography is very much a portrait of Clementine, and of how a reserved and emotionally insecure young woman, who never went to university and could not vote until she was in her thirties, became the wife of one of the most famous men in the world and played a pivotal role in his government. Beautiful, intelligent, practical and clear-sighted, Clementine was very focused on helping Winston to achieve his aim of becoming Prime Minister and she supported her husband through thick and thin, often to the detriment of her own health and the emotional and physical welfare of their five children, one of whom tragically died as a toddler whilst in the care of an inexperienced young nanny. Through the pages of this very readable biography we learn of the early years of the Churchills' marriage; of the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign during the First World War, the catastrophic failure for which Churchill took the blame; of Churchill's brief time spent in the trenches where, although Clementine was afraid he would be killed, she encouraged him to stay in order to restore his reputation; and we read of the time between the wars and of the 'wilderness years' where Churchill was out of office and where his extravagances and his insistence on keeping up appearances meant that, at times, the Churchills were in danger of financial ruin. We also learn of the years building up to the Second World War and of Churchill's warnings to the government of the perils of Hitler and the Nazi party and, most importantly, we read of Winston's and Clementine's finest hours during the war, when after the resignation of Chamberlain in 1940, Churchill became Prime Minister.

However, as stated earlier, this is Clementine's story and Sonia Purnell shows how Winston relied heavily on Clementine and of how she was able to exert her influence over her husband by carefully offering sensible and sound advice, advising on and sometimes even re-writing his speeches; of how she helped to prevent Winston acting impetuously and making political mistakes and of how Clementine was involved in some of the most crucial decisions of the Second World War. And whilst she explains all of this to the reader, Sonia Purnell is careful to show the detrimental effect Clementine's dedication to her husband and his career had on her and, especially, on their children. Ms Purnell is also careful to reveal not just Winston's faults, but also Clementine's, not least her shortcomings as a mother, informing the reader how Clementine could be rigid and unforgiving and could fly into terrible rages; however, the author adds: "[Clementine] was the lodestar for one of the greatest men of the twentieth century and he loved her without question for nearly sixty years. He claimed marrying her had been his most brilliant achievement." All of which makes this an interesting and insightful study of an intriguing and rather remarkable woman and one I would recommend for those who would like to learn more about the woman behind Winston Churchill.

4 Stars.


Ten White Geese
Ten White Geese
by Gerbrand Bakker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.53

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Same Book as 'The Detour', 19 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Ten White Geese (Paperback)
Please Note: This is the same book as 'The Detour'

A Dutch woman arrives in North Wales and rents a remote cottage near to Mount Snowdon; she says her name is Emily and that she is a college lecturer working on a thesis of the poet Emily Dickinson. She wastes no time in changing things in the cottage to make it more homely and appealing, firing up the AGA, lighting the wood burning stoves, moving furniture and setting up a cosy study in one of the bedrooms. She even has plans to alter the garden, by planting roses and starting work on a slate garden path. Whilst working in the garden, Emily notices there are ten fat, white geese in the field next to her drive which, worryingly, begin to decrease in number as the following days pass.

As the story develops, we learn that Emily is trying to escape from someone, or something; we know that she is married and we know that she recently had an affair with one of her students; we also know that she is suffering from a physical, but unnamed ailment. In Holland, her husband, alarmed by her disappearance visits her parents in order to discover if they have any knowledge as to where she might be and, when this is unsuccessful, he begins a friendship with a local police detective and together they make plans to trace Emily. Meanwhile, back in Wales, Emily, who initially relished the solitude in her cottage, starts to feel rather unsettled and when a young man literally stumbles into her life, she rather surprisingly invites him into her home and, at first, seems happy for him to stay there. Yet something is not quite right - but will the young man be perceptive enough to realize just what the problem is?

This is a beautifully written, moving and rather unusual story of longing, loneliness, inner turmoil and a certain kind of grief. Bakker's prose is simple and crisp; in brief, controlled sentences he describes a setting, a situation or an emotion with a marvellous clarity. 'The Ten White Geese' is an impressive second novel and one which intrigued me throughout its entire length (to appreciate the feeling of underlying disquiet, I would recommend reading this novel in one or two sittings if possible); however I will just add that this book, like Bakker's previous novel 'The Twin' is not the book to read if you like your fiction light-hearted and uplifting - but if you want something intriguing and unusual, then this novel is one to choose.

4 Stars.


Great Fire
Great Fire
by Shirley Hazzard
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars An Exquisitely Written Literary Love Story, 19 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Great Fire (Hardcover)
Shirley Hazzard's beautifully written novel 'The Great Fire' centres on Aldred Leith, a thirty-two-year-old English officer who, having fought, been wounded and decorated during the Second World War, arrives in Japan in 1947 to report on the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, and to write about his travels through China. Posted to the town of Kure, Aldred meets beautiful seventeen-year-old Helen Driscoll, and her terminally ill brother, Benedict, but his friendship with Helen and Ben is not looked kindly upon by their deeply unpleasant parents, especially Mrs Driscoll, a loud and insensitive woman, disliked by both her children. Aldred is captivated by the lovely Helen and, touched by her devotion to her brother, he spends as much time with them as he is able, sharing his love of literature with the two of them. Before long, Aldred and Helen fall in love and become deeply attached to one another, but the future of their relationship is impeded by Helen's parents who are determinedly opposed to their being together. Running alongside the story of Aldred's and Helen's love affair, is the story of a military friend of Aldred's, Peter Exley, who has been posted to Hong Kong, where he is involved in the questioning of Japanese war criminals.

Moving effortlessly between Japan, China, New Zealand and England, and where no one remains unscathed by the awfulness of war, this is an exquisitely written and deftly composed novel where the author's descriptive powers and her almost faultless use of the English language make this book a pleasure to read. Like Kate Hopkins in her review here, I will just mention that I found the Peter Exley parts of the story less involving as those focusing on Aldred and Helen, but this was a minor quibble which in no way spoilt my enjoyment of this sensitively and superbly written novel. I have read and very much enjoyed Shirley Hazzard's: The Bay Of Noon and I also have the author's: The Evening of the Holiday buried somewhere on one of my bookcases which I am looking forward to reading and reviewing in the near future.

5 Stars.


The Day Before the Fire
The Day Before the Fire
by Miranda France
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.39

4.0 out of 5 stars The Day Before the Fire, 16 Jun. 2015
Miranda France's attractively presented second novel is first-person narrated by Ros Freeman, a conservator of paper and rare documents, who is living and working in London. Ros is in her mid-thirties and has recently separated from her husband, Chris, who is keen for them to get back together and try for a family - but Ros, who has fertility problems, is not so sure. Her own father died when she was small and her mother has always held her, literally, at arm's length and Ros begins to wonder whether the fact that she wasn't happy as a child, makes it difficult for her to imagine making a child of her own happy: "Perhaps" she tells us looking back over her marriage "I just didn't see there was anything in my own experience worth repeating." Now returned to her grandmother's home and sleeping in the same attic bedroom she slept in as a child, Ros spends her days working in a studio in east London with her business partner, Frieda, restoring documents, manuscripts and antique wallpapers. Her job is not well paid, but she enjoys the exacting nature of her work and knows that her country's love affair with the past means that there will always be a ready source of work for her.

When a fire breaks out in Turney House, London's finest stately home, which is owned by the aristocratic Marchant family, Ros and Frieda are hired to restore and re-create the hand-made wall coverings, work which brings Ros into close contact with the domineering and snobbish Lady Alexandra, who insists that everything be restored to exactly how it was the day before the fire, and Alexandra's rather attractive and charming brother, Sebastian. As Ros peels away the layers of the past, she discovers lying beneath the Victorian floral paper in the Rose Room, a 'ghost' layer of vivid green paper, a rare piece of wall covering that could have been made by Gabriel Huysman, a printer working during the eighteenth century. And as Ros searches for more information about the origins of the hidden wall covering, she also finds herself probing into a mystery from her own family's past.

Inspired by the story of Uppark, a National Trust property in Sussex that was gutted by fire in 1989, Miranda France's understated and deftly rendered story is full of visual imagery and - whether the author is writing about exquisite and valuable handmade artefacts, or of the old rooftops Ros can see from her attic bedroom and where she likens the layout of the neighbourhood to the streets Wee Willie Winkie might have run through in his nightgown - her descriptions are a pleasure to read. Alongside Ros's personal doubts and dilemmas, the author also carefully discusses the rationale for the restoration of old buildings and their contents, and of how to recreate authenticity conservators have to be careful to avoid over-restoration. She also poses the question that in straightened times should millions of pounds of public funds be spent trying to attain authenticity? And ultimately is it restoration or fabrication? All of which makes this an entertaining and interesting read, and although there were aspects to this story that I would have liked to have seen developed a little further (for example, I would have been interested in reading more about Ros's partner, Frieda, a German-born widow who had been married to an artist and I would have liked the family 'secret' to have been covered in a little more depth) on the whole I enjoyed this readable novel which worked well for down-time and bedtime reading.

3.5 / 4 Stars.


Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf & the Bloomsbury Group
Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf & the Bloomsbury Group
by Amy Licence
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.59

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Accessible Introduction to the Bloomsbury Group, 14 Jun. 2015
Amy Licence has taken the famous Dorothy Parker quote as the title for her latest book:'Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles', which focuses on the lives and loves of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. As Ms Licence states in her introduction, this is certainly not the first book about Virginia Woolf, nor will it be the last, and the author adds that she stands in the long shadow cast by the impressive work of her predecessors; and that is certainly true - Hermione Lee's superb biography:Virginia Woolf is unlikely to be bettered, and of course there are other very good biographies about some of the characters who appear within the pages of this book - so do we need another? The author has most probably asked herself this question as she tells us in her preface that her intention in writing this book was to give the reader an introduction to the life and work of Virginia Woolf and to the key figures of the Bloomsbury Group, notably Virginia Woolf's sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes and Leonard Woolf, and the people around them; therefore, in addition to the main players, the reader also meets briefly: E.M Forster, T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Ralph and Frances Partridge, Vita Sackville-West, Ottoline Morrell et al.

The difficulty with taking on such a significant cast of characters in a book of less than 300 pages, is that the author provides little more than an overview, which means that some of the interesting and more involving aspects of the characters' lives and personalities are only very briefly covered. Also as Virginia Woolf is the main subject of this book and the author needed to spend some time discussing the periods of depression and mental instability she experienced, it felt as if there was a little too much written about Virginia being ill and not enough about her being well. As any of us who have read about Virginia Woolf will know, when Virginia was not ill (and she was well more often than is generally thought) she was witty, amusing, playful, animated and sociable, and I felt this book did not reveal enough of that side of her personality. I also felt that, although mentioned, the significance of the deep and complex relationship between Virginia and her sister, Vanessa, could have been focused on more.

All of that said, a more positive aspect to this book is that Amy Licence takes time out from the main chronological passages of her text to summarise and discuss significant factors of Virginia Woolf's life which have been explored in more detail in other biographies, without attempting to over-analyse certain key events such as the sexual abuse Virginia underwent as a small child and later as a young adult; Ms Licence also carefully and briefly discusses Virginia's sexuality and I was pleased to see her comment that to label Virginia Woolf as a lesbian is too simplistic (Lyndall Gordon in her Preface to Leonard Woolf's:The Wise Virgins writes very interestingly about this). In addition, the author clearly and succinctly explains the often triangular relationships which existed between the members of Bloomsbury and she looks at Virginia Woolf's relationship with her husband, Leonard, and briefly discusses how their marriage appeared to work. Ms Licence also very briefly examines Woolf's 'stream of consciousness' style of writing and comments how Virginia was not the first writer to employ this method, and I was pleased to see a mention of Dorothy Richardson and her 'Pilgrimage' novels. So, although there is little in this book that has not been written about before and the reader becomes only transiently acquainted with many of the characters appearing on its pages, if you approach this book as an accessible introduction to the Bloomsbury Group and, possibly, as a springboard to learn more, then Amy Licence's attractively presented 'Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles' could work well for you.

3 Stars.

Please Note: If you wish to learn more about the characters mentioned above, then in addition to Hermione Lee's:Virginia Woolf I can recommend Frances Spalding's:Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and also Jane Dunn's: Virginia Woolf And Vanessa Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy.


The Shell House
The Shell House
by Jane Thynne
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars The Shell House, 9 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: The Shell House (Paperback)
Jessica Leigh is an attractive, bright and ambitious young woman who works in public affairs, one of her clients being an important biotechnology company researching in molecular genetics. When her long day at the office ends, she returns home to her immaculate flat in London, where she mostly lives alone. Her long-term lover, Steve, is an English lecturer, who spends his weekdays in Cambridge, and who over the course of the summer is giving a series of lectures at Fallings, a charming manor house which was the country home of the late Sir Lewis Appleby, a pioneering geneticist. Having invited Jessica to spend the summer at Fallings, Steve is far too pre-occupied with his lectures to pay her much attention, and when his journalist brother, Alex (who Jessica has never really got along with) arrives at Fallings too, Jessica finds herself spending more time with the attractive Alex than she feels comfortable with.

Exploring the picturesque grounds of the manor house, Alex and Jessica discover an exquisite, but dilapidated shell house which, they learn, Sir Lewis had been restoring for his wife, Katherine, who vanished before the renovation was finally completed. Alex, who tells Jessica that he is planning to write a story about Lewis Appleby, is curious about Katherine's disappearance, but as time passes his interest in quite a different story is aroused, and it might well be that Jessica is the person to (unwittingly) provide him with the information he needs for his article. But will Alex, despite his growing attraction to Jessica, use his burgeoning relationship with her to further his own career at the expense of hers?

Moving back in time to the 1930s, the reader is introduced to Katherine Appleby before she marries Sir Lewis, and we learn how she meets Lewis and how their relationship progresses. We also meet Katharine's old schoolfriend, the lovely, but cool Meredith, who travels to Berlin to stay for a while with a German family as Hitler and the Nazi party rise to power. In Berlin Meredith becomes acquainted with Dr Reichmann, a Jew who has sent his two sons to safety in England, and she also becomes involved with Ralph, a friend of her brother's, despite his dismissive attitude towards her, and they continue to see one another after they return home. And it is to Ralph that Katherine Appleby later turns to when she discovers something very worrying about her husband's work in genetics, which not only shocks her but also reveals his lack of ethical and moral responsibility.

Well-researched and well-described, Jane Thynne's 'The Shell House' was very easy to dip into and, for late evenings and bedtimes, this novel made for fairly entertaining reading. However, I do have to say that I found the plot in some ways rather formulaic and, in other ways, not entirely convincing - but I cannot explain further without revealing too much of the story. I also found the characters a little underdeveloped and I felt that the author, having introduced the interesting topic of eugenics and genetic screening, didn't examine this subject sufficiently and rather rushed the ending of her story. That said, I did feel that there was a bigger story waiting in the wings and although it didn't quite make it onto centre stage, parts of this novel were interesting and enjoyable to read. In addition, as commented at the beginning of this paragraph, this was a very accessible story and one that was very easy to dip in and out of, and if you are looking for an undemanding holiday or bedtime read, then this might well work for you.

3 Stars.


Spies
Spies
by Michael Frayn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Quietly Compelling, 7 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Spies (Paperback)
Set mostly during the Second World War, Michael Frayn's 'Spies' centres on schoolboy Stephen Wheatley, who lives with his mother, father and older brother in the Close, a quiet cul-de-sac, where most of the houses sit in their tidy front gardens, behind neatly trimmed hedges. Stephen's family, we soon learn, is not considered entirely 'acceptable' to the more affluent and respectable residents of the Close, and Stephen, with his scruffy school uniform, his baggy socks and old tennis shoes, is surprised when Keith Hayward, with his smart private school uniform and polished tan sandals, seems keen for Stephen to be his friend. During the summer holidays, Stephen and Keith play together at Keith's immaculate home, watched over by Keith's elegant and attractive mother who, freed from housework by her cleaning lady, spends her days reading books, resting in her room and visiting her younger sister who lives a few doors down the street. However, although Stephen may be in awe of Mr and Mrs Hayward, often wondering why they allow Keith to be friendly with him, deep down he instinctively knows that the reason Keith's parents tolerate him is because Keith is an only child who doesn't make friends easily - and he also knows that the reason Keith wants Stephen as a friend is because he is happy to let Keith take the lead in all their games together and never challenges him. And this arrangement works well, until the day that Keith makes the shocking announcement that the Germans have infiltrated his family and his mother is actually a German agent, and Stephen makes the decision to help Keith to spy on his mother's movements in and around the Close. At first, their surveillance of Mrs Hayward is exciting and great fun, but when the boys, and Stephen in particular, stumble across things they do not understand, things gradually begin to spiral out of control.

This is a tenderly written and mostly leisurely-paced story (although it does have its more exciting moments) but it's also a deftly controlled and quietly compelling one. Richly evocative of childhood days, but not overly-sentimental, this part coming-of-age story and part mystery story is warm, funny and, in places, rather poignant to read. I picked this novel up from the bookshelf of an elderly male relative who thoroughly enjoyed it and recommended it wholeheartedly - I wasn't sure (his brief synopsis made it sound a bit 'boys' own') but I took it away with me to be polite and surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it. Recommended.

4 Stars.


First Aid
First Aid
by Janet Davey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars (3.5 Stars) First Aid, 5 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: First Aid (Hardcover)
First published in 2004, Janet Davey's second novel 'First Aid' begins with a wonderfully descriptive piece of writing set in a train station on the East Kent line, which draws the reader immediately into the story of Jo, a single mother, and her three children as they hastily board a train to London, after Jo's live-in lover, Felpo, has slashed her face with a knife, leaving her shocked and bleeding. No sooner has the journey begun, than Jo's teenage daughter, Ella, jumps out of the train as it pauses between stations, and Jo and her son and her toddler daughter continue on their journey to London without Ella. When Jo arrives at her grandparents' terraced London home, where she grew up after her mother died, and she begins to settle back into her grandparents' ordered existence, we read of how Jo's marriage split up when her husband left her for another woman; we learn of Jo's part-time job in an antiques/bric-a-brac shop; we find out little snippets of information about the life of Jo's employer, Trevor; we discover what happens to Ella after she jumps from the train; and we finally learn about the events that led up to Felpo's attack on Jo and why she felt it necessary to flee back to her childhood home.

This is a brief and understated, but very well-written novel, where the settings and scenarios are convincingly and realistically portrayed and where the opening scene immediately pulls the reader into the story. However, although drawn quickly into Jo's troubled life, I found once there I wasn't able to discover as much as I would have liked to about what was really going on under the surface. Janet Davey tells the reader enough to entice us in, but her heroine's dislocation from situations that she doesn't want to examine too closely herself, means that the reader (or this one, anyhow) doesn't have the opportunity to get close enough to Jo to understand or empathize with her - why does Jo not seem to be concerned when Ella jumps off the train? What does she really feel about her ex-husband? What about Felpo - is it love, sexual attraction or is she just relieved to find someone she can be with? How concerned is Jo about the damaging effect Felpo's attack might have on her children? And is Jo's sense of dislocation a result of shock, or is there a more complex reason for her behaviour? There are other aspects to the story that are insufficiently explored, but that said, the parts of the novel where the author does allow the reader to glimpse into the interior of her characters' lives are beautifully accomplished and rewarding to read. So although I do have to admit that I did not find this novel as enjoyable as the author's fourth book: By Battersea Bridge (which I can certainly recommend) 'First Aid' is still a stylish, interesting and well-written novel, and as it's a book that I have had on one of my bookshelves for simply ages, I'm very glad to have finally got around to reading it.

3.5 Stars.


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