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Stern Men
Stern Men
by Elizabeth Gilbert
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stern Men, 12 Oct. 2011
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This review is from: Stern Men (Paperback)
I bought this book because I so loved Eat Pray Love, also written by Elizabeth Gilbert. They are, of course, completely different genres, one being an autobiography, and the other being a work of fiction. But I thought Gilbert's narrative voice in Eat Pray Love was so stunningly beautiful that I hoped it would be the same in Stern Men.

I was not disappointed. This is a unique story of two rivalling islands in the battlefield that is lobster fishing. It is about the small communities and the strange personalities born out of the isolation, the hardship, the weather and, of course, the lobster.

And in the midst of this is Ruth Thomas, the main character in the shape of an 18 year old girl. She virtually jumps off the page, caustic and cocky at the same time as being vulnerable and lost, which immediately endeared her to me. Her delightfully dirty language and her complete disregard for the norms of island society make her the perfect heroine - someone with gumption and edge and grit.

As we follow her through her young adulthood we meet her family and friends. All are characters perfectly drawn with such subtlety and clarity that each is an absolute pleasure to get to know. The stern men of the title are the hardened island residents, like Ruth's emotionally inadequate father, Stan Thomas, his hot-tempered friend Angus Addams, the lobstering demi-god Babe Wishnell, the out-of-town granite magnate Mr. Ellis, drunk and passionate Ira Pommeroy, creepy Cal Cooley. To complete the picture, all these men are surrounded by women, strong and beautiful in every way their men are not. And all the way through you can follow a red tread of delightfully outrageous inbreeding.

We watch as Ruth tries to find herself as an adult, and as she battles against the sinister hold the Ellis family has over her own.

This book is hilarious, charming, sweet and touching. It is thorough and slow, in all the good ways.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 4, 2012 10:43 PM GMT


Play it as it Lays
Play it as it Lays
by Joan Didion
Edition: Paperback

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Play it as it lays?, 23 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Play it as it Lays (Paperback)
Set in Beverly Hills in what I think is the late 60's, early 70's, we meet Maria, an actress out of work, just as her marriage is ending and she is going through a nervous breakdown.

If I'm honest there was very little substance to make Maria a convincing central character - She comes across mostly as a beautiful but empty vessel being buffeted by the many masculine egos in her life. The back cover suggests that Maria is about to do things her own way for a change but I saw more eating disorders and addictions than independence - She is constantly 'trying' to eat something, popping pills and being sick.

I feel like Didion has attempted to create a novel about inner female strength and resignation set in glamorous Hollywood, but the result is superficial and depressing. It's not all bad though - I found the rhythm hypnotic and surprisingly addictive. Its short chapters provide brief snapshots which are almost cinematic in quality, but the quality of these are quickly lost in the longer chapters. A bit of a depressing and pointless little book, but not the worst read I've been subjected to.


Song of Solomon
Song of Solomon
by Toni Morrison
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slow but worth it, 23 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Song of Solomon (Paperback)
This book is part fable, part social commentary, and part family saga. But perhaps most of all it is the story of Milkman Dead growing up, becoming a man and trying to become something - Which is not an easy thing to do as a black man in Michigan. And Milkman has the added handicap of the Dead family - who are even more eccentric than they sound.

I found this book mysterious and slow, steeped in atmosphere and symbolism. Milkman can sometimes be an infuriating main character - He is spoilt and restless and selfish, but Morrison has still managed to create a character the reader cares about despite his flaws. Surrounding Milkman is a cast of utterly unique, brilliantly colourful characters: His bitter sister Corinthians, his mysterious aunt Pilate, his listless mother Ruth who earned him his unfortunate nickname, his desperate lover Hagar, his domineering and ambitious father Macon, his dissatisfied friend Guitar.

The only thing I'd say is that at times it is perhaps a little too slow, where passages are spent describing situations which I found hard to relate to the rest of the story. But to balance it out, every now and then there were passages of absolute brilliancy - devastatingly accurate descriptions of human habits distilled into a couple of sentences. Such razor sharp observation and clarity is rare and valuable, proof of Morrison's skill as a writer and utterly worth trudging through a few slow pages to get to.


Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry
Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry
by Leanne Shapton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ever wanted to rifle through someone else's drawers?, 19 Aug. 2011
In this unusual novel (Graphic novel? Auction catalogue?), we follow the relationship of Leonore Dooland and Harold Morris, from first meeting through lovers tiffs and milestone moments, as well as getting to the heart of the problems they face as a couple - All illustrated through black and white pictures of the everyday items collected as they move through life together. We see books, clothes, party invitations, photographs, ornaments, and handwritten notes, all with a separate meaning of their own. Together they paint a surprisingly intimate and romantic picture of this modern couple. It is both funny (a Christmas card from Leonore's parents addressed to Leonore and HOWARD!), sad (the note from Leonore to Harold on his birthday and achingly lonely unsent letters), and weird (the sex t-shirt!?!), but all the time natural, real and sensitive.

Indeed, it feels so authentic that it is hard to believe it's a work of fiction, but it is. The one thing which is not entirely fictional is the social picture it paints; How we function as human beings in western society, the importance we attach to material things and how we relate to each other. All in all this pictorial social commentary is a really clever snapshot of adulthood and relationships in the 21st century.


The Devil's Garden
The Devil's Garden
by Edward Docx
Edition: Paperback

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Instant disconnect, 13 July 2011
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This review is from: The Devil's Garden (Paperback)
We join Dr Forle and his colleagues at a remote research station tucked away in the virgin tropical jungle. Following a bereavement, he throws himself in to the study of ants and the 'Devil's Gardens' they create, hoping to unlock secrets which will challenge the very principle of human existence, the theory of evolution. However, the life of Dr Forle and his crew is turned upside down when the sinister Colonel and the eccentric Judge take up residence at their station, using the cover story of registering the indigenous population for the vote. He soon finds himself drawn into the murky criminal underworld where it is never clear where government policy ends and organised crime begins.

One of the main obstacles getting in the way of me enjoying this book is Dr Forle - He is a one-dimensional and colourless character who inspires no loyalty or empathy in the reader at all. He even comes across as a coward at times, hiding in the shadows when bullies pick on weaker individuals. Where he could seem mysterious and haunted he comes across as introspective and gloomy, making me tire quickly of his narrative voice.

In fact, all the characters suffer from the same lack of personality, making it hard to tell them apart and even harder to care what happens to them. To make matters worse, most of the dialogue is clunky, contrived and unnatural. I get the impression that Docx uses dialogue between the characters to air his anthropological musings, but people simply don't talk like that. All he succeeded in producing was constant artificial and synthetic dialogue which made me disconnect at once.

I also found the plot messy and strange - Who the Colonel and the Judge work for and what they are trying to achieve is never really cleared up, which made the whole thing seem rather pointless. I still don't know if the conflict was created by organised crime from cocaine barons, a corrupt government trying to clear away local tribes so they can move loggers in, or if it has something to do with oil or if it's simply just the tribes fighting amongst themselves. Either way, we are treated to some graphic scenes of grotesque violence which seem gratuitous and unnecessary.

Despite all of this, the one thing I loved was the jungle. Without a doubt the jungle is the main character - a huge, hot, living, breathing thing constantly humming in the background. Every paragraph dedicated to the jungle is intensely atmospheric, it practically buzzes and simmers with strength and ruthlessness. And it is filled to the brim with insects which I could practically feel creeping on my skin.

What an amazing book this would have been if Docx had applied the same talent throughout! But unfortunately he has not, and the result is boring and disappointing.


Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space
by Mary Roach
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Hillarious!, 1 July 2011
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Packing for Mars is an easily digestible, quirky and entertaining look at the strange paths science has to take to send human beings in to space. Rather than a techy information-overload of rocket-science, it is a lightweight look at stuff we can understand and relate to. It does not get more complicated than a brief, but interesting, description of what gravity is.

However, the light-heartedness does not detract from the book at all. In fact, it adds to it by constantly contrasting with NASA's complete lack of humour and self-irony. Roach has a delightful down-to-earth tone that easily pokes fun at stuffy space scientists and their self-important acronyms, at the same time as maintaining the required dose of respect for the brave astronauts and their families.

Special highlights are the transcripts of dialogue between the space stations and ground control, the numerous footnotes providing interesting asides, as well as Roach's great sense of humour throughout.

Entire chapters are devoted to issues such as how to you eat, have sex, go to the toilet and wash in zero gravity. This book is an unconventional and unfailingly entertaining look at basically everything that makes us human and why these things makes sending us to Mars such a difficult mission. And I guess the discussion can start at the last chapter, a question that has been begging to get asked since the very first page - Is Mars Worth It?


Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant
Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant
by Anne Tyler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Slow and melancholy, 20 Jun. 2011
This is the story of a family growing up in Baltimore, centred around the matriarch, Pearl Tull. Pearl is a complicated, angry woman, possessive of her three children at the same time as being fiercely independent. We watch as Pearl lies dying and the family secrets start spilling into the light.

Cody, Ezra and Jenny grow up under the prickly gaze of their mother after their father suddenly decides to leave and never come back. Pearl buries the abandonment with stoic denial, and the kids slowly grow up in to adults - whether they are blessed or cursed by their luck in parents is open to discussion.

This is a melancholy story of family dynamics, abandonment, resentment, disappointment, sibling rivalry and unanswered questions. I really enjoyed it, finding its subtle, slow narrative both emotionally sophisticated and sharp. It's the story of an average family, and as such it is easy to identify with - There is an instant empathy with the touchingly scattered, drifting members of the Tull clan.

The intricacies of family relationships are impossibly complicated, but Taylor's book hits the mark repeatedly, somehow translating something vague and nuanced into something readable and interesting. Don't expect whirlwinds and rollercoasters - in fact, don't even expect neat endings to most of the loose threads - but expect a privileged and sensitive look into the home of a turbulent family, and expect to find many things which produce an eery feeling of familiarity.


Dracula (Vintage Classics)
Dracula (Vintage Classics)
by Bram Stoker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Has not weathered well...., 8 Jun. 2011
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The story of Dracula, his evil doings and the men who hunt him is told entirely through diary entires, letters and newspaper clippings. The story starts as the good and innocent Jonathan Harker on his way from England to meet a client in Transylvania. But it soon becomes clear that the sinister Count is no ordinary client, and a bloodythirsty tale of hunter and hunted ensues.

I found it fascinating that this is the very story all the other stories of Count Dracula and Van Helsing were borne from. It is iconic in its gothic darkness, and the horrors presented by the Count are chilling and spooky, all the more so for being utterly original. It snared me immediately and I was sucked in to the wild Transylvanian forests with surprising ease.

But that's where my praise ends. The first 100 pages were by far the best, which made the last 250 pages a hard slog. The reasons for this are several - perhaps the most obvious of which being that this book is a posterchild for masculine supremacy. I get that this was written well over a hundred years ago, and I know that some dated opinions are hard to avoid. But this is a whole new level. There are only two female characters, not counting a couple of hysterical maids. That in itself is perfectly fine, but these women are almost always referred to as 'poor, dear Lucy' or 'poor darling Mina'. The character of Mina is heavily involved in the plot, but her journal is peppered with reminders to herself to be a good wife and not to worry her husband. She constantly tries to seem well and content for her husbands sake. At one point the men decide that the truth of Count Dracula is too much for her feminine sensitivity and decide to tell her she needs to be kept in the dark. No surprise, she obeys meekly. Her role in the group seems basically to be a typist, and the few times they praise her intelligence they say it's because her 'great brain has been trained like a man's'. When she's not typing, she does a lot of swooning and worrying for her men, writing page up and page down about how noble and brave they are. Besides this, the story is sprinkled with so many references to manhoods and masculine qualities that you don't have to be a militant feminist to lose patience.

Combined with am inexplicable slowing of pace (it's a thriller, after all) mid-way through the book and Van Helsing's fondness for long, dry monologues, I closed the book feeling disappointed and relieved it was over.

If you are a fan of gothic and vampire fiction , this is of course a must. But I think the strength and popularity of this book today is the original idea itself, rather than it containing any literary value which speaks across generations.


An Ice Cold Grave
An Ice Cold Grave
by Charlaine Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't hold a candle to Sookie, 24 May 2011
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This review is from: An Ice Cold Grave (Paperback)
This is a series of books about Harper Conolly, who was a normal girl before she got hit by lightening. After the lightening strike she found she had the ability to feel dead people. Now she makes her living travelling around the country with her step-brother Tolliver, using her ability to find missing loved ones. Each book is a self-contained story of their adventures, though there are recurring characters and continuation, which means these are not stand-alone books.

I decided to try this series as I enjoyed the True Blood series so much. It provides the same kind of easy read and silly escapism as True Blood, but that's where the similarity ends. I'm sorry to say that this series is a lightweight in comparison. All the books feel rushed, the attempts at mystery, intrigue and drama are sometimes predictable and dull, other times laughable. Harper is nowhere near as charming and spunky as Sookie, and the rest of the cast is narrower, less colourful, less interesting.

Having said this, the concept is original, there is a tantalising theme of forbidden love, and it doesn't pretend to be anything it's not - a cheap and cheerful fantasy. Despite all my negative comments I read the whole series without any difficulty. It might be an unfair to compare the Harper series to a hum-dinger like True Blood but it felt unavoidable. And therefore disappointment was inevitable.


Mister Pip
Mister Pip
by Lloyd Jones
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Never delivers, 19 May 2011
This review is from: Mister Pip (Paperback)
This story is narrated by Matilda, looking back on her life as a 14-year old girl living in Papua New Guinea during the civil war in the early 90's. As the white residents of the island are shipped out, the locals are left behind in the increasingly volatile political situation. The only white who remains is the eccentric Mr. Watts, or Pop Eye as they call him. He is married to a local woman, who he is normally seen pulling around the village on a trolley.

The mass exodus of white people included the teachers at Matilda's local school, so in the absence of anyone else, Mr. Watts steps in as a teacher. He reads Dicken's Great Expectations to the children, and so the connection with Pip is made. But the rebels are approaching, and soon their tranquil island life is in danger.

This book starts promisingly but never delivers. For the first couple of pages it seemed atmospheric, slow and sensitive. Great mysteries and intrigues are hinted at, and Matilda has a charming voice. However, I soon found myself thirsting for something, anything, to happen. Fair enough, one should not rush when creating an atmosphere, but in a mere 200-page book there are limits to how slow the pace can be before substance is sacrificed in the attempt at creating an atmosphere. It soon becomes clear that none of the interesting plots will develop as we get over half-way through and Matilda is still explaining her feelings for Pip in great detail. The interesting rivalry between Matilda's mum and Mr. Watts never really comes to anything. Mr. Watts' mysterious wife is never developed. The mystery of why the book was stolen is never explained, neither is why Matilda's father abandoned them.

There are some stabs at poetic descriptions and symbolism and atmosphere, but when shocking tragedy finally does strike, it is graphic, unemotional and factual, leaving me cold and feeling a little sick. I felt it was handled gracelessly and with little skill as this is a scene with massive potential to shock, move and make us empathise with Matilda's hurt. As it was, all it did was put me off my dinner. As we join Matilda as an adult the story speeds up a little, bit this is no heart-warming story of human survival despite the atrocities others deliver upon them. It felt gloomy and rushed, and with very little wisdom to offer.

I felt that this was book that still could be saved by a really good ending, but I closed the it still wondering what the point was.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 7, 2014 6:57 PM BST


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